Category Archives: Bob Dylan

Friday finds

WokingTripod

All you need to celebrate Halloween the H.G. Wells way. (And the George Pal way, and the Oson Welles way, and the Hugo Gernsback way. . .) The image above, incidentally, shows Michael Condron’s sculpture of a Martian tripod in Woking, Surrey, where all hell breaks loose in the original novel. Check here for the New Jersey location used in the radio broadcast.

How about some literary costume ideas for trick-or-tweeding?

Halloween, B’more style.

Continuing our Halloween theme, it turns out that Dan Aykroyd based the Ghostbusters storyline on the psychic exploits of his own dad.

Novelists nominate books they think have been unfairly neglected.

A medievalist tries his hand at the Dante’s Inferno board game.

Taking on Knut Hamsun.

No need to be skeptical about Martin Gardner.

Patricia Cornwell’s latest mystery tale is playing out in court.

Gore Vidal’s sunset years.

How Paul Shaffer was crucified and resurrected by Bob Dylan.

There’s nothing more pathetic than a whining contrarian.

Maurice Sendak has three words for parents who think Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for their kids.

The Guardian harkens back to its coverage of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature. A writer retraces the journey described in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s first big hit as a filmmaker, but his son ended up making more money off it than he did.

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The Bob Dylan-Perry Como Christmas special

Apologies to anyone who has nightmares tonight because of that headline, but I think that’s the organizing principle behind Bob Dylan’s new one, Christmas in the Heart. It’s been almost forty years since His Bobness released an album as conceptually brilliant, artistically confident, and virtually unlistenable as Self Portrait, and now that Dylan has done the trick — and I’ve done my bit for charity by buying it — I want to mark the occasion with a few words before shelving the thing.

Greil Marcus, the eminence grise of deep-dish Dylanology, pre-empted any thoughts of doing a one-liner review of Christmas in the Heart by by opening his review of Self Portrait with “What is this shit?” But the concept behind Self Portrait was very astute: if we build our identities from the things we like, then why shouldn’t Bob Dylan reveal himself through the songs he liked?

And if Christmas is the most nostalgic of holidays, a time for family get-togethers and the observance of traditions, then why shouldn’t Dylan style the musical settings for his Christmas album after the crooners of his childhood, and those Yuletide television specials featuring blanded-out whitebread singers on overlit sets, dazzling the TV camera with wide, preternaturally bright smiles? In other words, why shouldn’t Bob Dylan put out a Perry Como holiday record?

I realize you can instantly think of a thousand reasons why you wouldn’t want to hear Dylan wheezing along with King Family-style backup singers,  but that’s the kind of stuff television sets beamed into households during Dylan’s youth, and Christmas brings out the child in all of us, right? The title alone revives the memories of all those Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials that time and post-traumatic stress disorder had buried somewhere back behind my medulla oblongata. As one whose childhood occurred on the tail end of that era, I could recognize all the nostalgia zones Dylan was working in, and I acknowledge the intent even as I shake my head at the result.

Though by no stretch of the imagination is Christmas in the Heart a good album, portions are weirdly listenable in a Christmas-with-Dr.-Demento kind of way. Future generations who want to know how Dylan pronounced Latin will be thrilled to have “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or the first verse of it, anyway. The uptempo numbers tend to work best. When things slow down, Dylan sounds like a man trying to compete in a shot-put match by flinging his own larynx.

From all accounts, Dylan’s real Christmas gift to the world has been rehiring guitarist Charlie Sexton for his touring band. The recent shows are supposed to be vastly better than anything Dylan’s given the world of late. I’ll want to hear one of those sometime soon. I can’t imagine ever wanting to hear Christmas in the Heart again.

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Bob Dylan and the art of the kiss-off

Wolfgang’s Vault has dumped a load of catnip at the feet of Bobcats by posting tracks from Bob Dylan’s 1974 stadium tour with The Band. That’s the same “comeback” tour recorded and released as Before the Flood, which over the decades has gone from being one of my most-played Dylan albums to a third-tier dust collector. And yet it remains a sentimental favorite, because one of the songs opened the way to my first Dylan album purchase, Blood on the Tracks, which in turn started me on what turned out to be a lifelong passion for the man’s music.

The song in question is “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” a kiss-off song from Blonde on Blonde that gets its definitive treatment on Before the Flood. Dylan’s bellowed delivery meshes perfectly with Levon Helm’s martial drumming and Robbie Robertson’s guitar, which snarls and twangs at the same time. As a young music freak going coming out of a pretty intense Sorrows of Young Werther period in the closing months of 1974, I was ready to hear that song, which played one fall afternoon on WPLJ, and for good measure the deejay (either Pat St. John or Tony Pigg, I don’t recall which) quoted part of the chorus:

I’m gonna let you pass
And I’ll go last
Then time will tell just who fell
And who’s been left behind

What a tonic those lines provided! What a morale booster! All of a sudden I realized that I needed to come to grips with this guy Dylan whose name was invoked so religiously in the pages of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. I was still trying to decide what album to start with when the January 1975 release of Blood on the Tracks and the ensuing uproar among critics made the choice pretty obvious. It proved to be a happy choice, needless to say.

I picked up Before the Flood not long after getting Blood on the Tracks, and I came to appreciate that Bob Dylan is the master of the kiss-off song. Along with “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” the album features “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,”  with its lethal closer:

I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

Add in “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and you’ve got a primer in how to write articulate, smart breakup songs. Instead of sobbing about broken hearts and tormented souls, Dylan backhands the past and moves on. Considering the nostalgia and comeback trappings of the 1974 tour — Dylan’s critical and commercial fortunes had taken a nosedive after the disastrous Self Portrait in 1970 — it’s interesting to see so many songs that all but spit on the idea of nostalgia or regret. The old songs get pretty aggressive makeovers, often to their detriment: the seduction song “Lay Lady Lay” becomes what Clinton Heylin aptly termed “a whorehouse holler,” and the version of “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35” is yet another reminder that some Dylan tunes need to be left alone for good. By contrast, The Band is content to shuffle through its deck of oldies yet again: the playing is as tight and professional as ever, but there’s no mistaking the lack of inspiration that set in after Stage Fright, and these days it’s deeply sad to hear Richard Manuel’s ravaged voice on “I Shall Be Released,” knowing what lay ahead for him.

An audience interested mainly in the past, a singer determined to grow beyond it, and a backup band unable to escape it. Before the Flood is one curious album, all right.

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Friday finds

Prince Valiant

Prince Valiant rides again, through the good offices of Fantagraphics Books. Over at Open Letters, Steve Donoghue  sings the praises of illustrator Hal Foster, one of the few comic strip creators who could really, really draw well.

Is it “goo goo goo joob,” or “goo goo ga joob,” or “goo goo g’joob”? More to the point, where did it come from?

Alexander Portnoy — still sexed up after all these years.

So the Iron Lady wanted to preserve the Iron Curtain. Why am I less than surprised, though considerably disturbed, by this news? What a relief this creep’s viewpoint did not prevail.

A snarky letter to the editor led to a gig writing a  weekly humorous political column for my local paper. After a couple of years, my editor said “you know, you’re a pretty good writer, why don’t you try a novel?” I looked at some of the dreck that was on the market and thought, “Hey, how hard can it be.” Isn’t naïveté a wonderful thing?

What the world needs now is — a collection of Bob Dylan songs done Kraftwerk style.

It may be the best J.G. Ballard adaptation ever filmed. Too bad it doesn’t get shown much outside the festival circuit.

If memory serves, I’ve already bought the white album six times: twice on vinyl, twice on cassette tape, twice on CD. So thanks but no thanks. On the other hand, if I watch every installment of this broadcast, I might end up changing my mind.

Life and art shared with PKD.

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Another turn in the South

Hand Me My

At the start of his book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, Michael Gray name-checks V.S. Naipaul’s cultural travelogue A Turn in the South, and the association is more than apt. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is not a conventional biography of Georgia’s preeminent bluesman; indeed, one of the book’s themes is the near-impossibility of writing such a book, given the nearly medieval standards of record-keeping that prevailed for American blacks in McTell’s time. The book is loaded with hard-won information and useful spadework, but Gray’s narrative is as much about the search as it is about the object. Time and again I was reminded of Naipaul’s accounts of his journeys through India and the Islamic world, and if Gray’s eye is more forgiving than Sir Vidia’s, it is no less piercing for that fact.

If McTell has a reputation outside hardcore blues circles, most of the credit goes to the Allman Brothers Band, which used McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” as a showcase for muscular musicianship, and Bob Dylan, whose song “Blind Willie McTell” — recorded in 1983 but inexplicably shelved for eight years — reminded everyone that there was more to the music than the dark, heavy blues of the Mississippi Delta.

“Blind Willie McTell” was the focus of one of the most passionate and probing chapters in Gray’s magisterial book Song and Dance Man, so it seemed only appropriate when word got around that Gray was writing a book about McTell. In a way, Gray’s method echoes what Dylan did in his song. Read the lyrics:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Note the absence of quotations, or song titles, or even references to McTell himself beyond the simple declaration “I know no one can sing the blues/ Like Blind Willie McTell.” The song uses evocative imagery to create an outline of McTell and leaves you, the newly interested listener, the happy task of filling in the center. Which is what Gray sets out to do in Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, and it’s hard to imagine anyone adding any more details to the picture.

Dylan’s song is so dramatic that listeners going from there to McTell’s recording work might feel some initial letdown. There are no hellhounds on McTell’s trail, no claptrap about meeting the devil at the crossroads or dying young and vanishing into a cloud of brimstone. As Gray notes, McTell

. . . explodes every archetype about blues musicians. He is no roaring primitive, no Robert Johnsonesque devil-dealing womanizer. He didn’t lose his sight in a jook-joint brawl, or hopping a freight train. He didn’t escape into music from behind a mule plow in the Delta. He didn’t die violently or young. Instead, blind from birth but never behaving as if blindness handicapped him, this resourceful, articulate man became an adept professional musician who traveled widely and talked his way into an array of recording sessions.

He never achieved a hit record, but he became one of the most widely known and well-loved figures in Georgia. Working clubs and parking lots, playing to blacks and whites, tobacco workers and college kids, Blind Willie McTell, human jukebox and local hero, enjoyed a modest career and an independent life.

It was McTell’s added misfortune to die just as folk and blues revivalists were gearing up to track down and “rediscover” their favorite bluesmen, at least one of whom hadn’t held a guitar in decades and needed to be retaught his own style before he could perform in front of audiences eager to hear “authentic” music. No such rehab work would have been needed for McTell, and one can only dream of the effect his supple wit and agile guitar technique would have had on the festival circuit.

Gray takes great pains to establish clear lines for McTell’s parentage, and weave them through the fraught history of the South. This makes the opening chapters of Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes somewhat dry, but the context pays off later as we see the culture that produced the man and the music he enriched with his talent.

For anyone involved in a long, difficult research project, the two most important rules are (1) spend a lot of time, and (2), spend a lot of money. In Gray’s case we add (3) burn up a lot of shoe leather. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is a fit title for both subject and author. This book is an odyssey in which the worst monster is not one-eyed Polyphemus but the dull-eyed bureaucrat or bottom-tier functionary whose darkest fear is that he’ll be asked to put out a little extra effort. For example, the  “pudgy and rather dense young black guy” who repulses Gray’s attempts to learn about McTell’s days with the Metropolitan Association for the Blind in Atlanta:

He told me that they “probably” don’t have any archives “on site” because they’ve moved buildings several times and that, anyway, people in the old days knew no better than to throw stuff away — but that, even if they did have any old documents, they certainly wouldn’t tell me. They wouldn’t tell me whether McTell had ever been helped by them, let alone anything else, because of patient confidentiality. “This man would have had to have signed a form to indicate that you were blessed with his permission.” He was unmoved by the snag that Mr. McTell had died some forty-three years beforehand.

Obtuseness is the last refuge of the incompetent. In this passage, Gray gives us a perfect example of what I call the Policy Punt — “It’s against our policy to tell you that” — to which add the Vacation Evasion (“There’s only one person who can tell anything about that, and he/she is on vacation”) and that reliable evergreen, the Fictional Flood (“We used to have those records, but there was a flood in the basement”). As someone who has heard multiple variations of these songs, I appreciate Gray’s criticism of the tunes.

At times, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes threatens to veer into dyspeptic Paul Theroux territory, with passages in which Gray finds himself marooned at strip-mall eateries, decrying “this vast acreage of plastic banquettes and paper cups and fried food and smiling servers paid virtually nothing but their tips . . . and no one seems to care that the food is so gross or that you can’t be a grown-up and have a drink.” Late in the book, however, is a description of a blood-freezing encounter with Georgia state prison guards that leaves you happy for Gray’s escape, and thinking about how it must have been for a black man in McTell’s time, when an encounter with whites could have sudden, life-changing consequences.

At such moments, one forgets the grumping about fast food and the unavailability of good wine, and Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes recovers its appeal as an engrossing, unique book — one that, like the music of its subject, pulls unlikely influences into a unified, distinctive whole.

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Friday finds

Persepolis

Two young Iranians have reworked Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her girlhood in revolutionary Iran, to tell the story of the bloody aftermath of the recent Iranian election. The literary remix, Persepolis 2.0, was done with Satrapi’s blessing.

A town built around books and publishing? I may just have to learn Korean.

A reminiscence about Ted Kennedy that shows his quality as a progressive senator, and why it will be next to impossible to find anyone to fill his shoes. Joyce Carol Oates talks about Kennedy’s unpunished crime and search for reinvention and redemption.

As a big fan of comedian Patton Oswalt, I can only applaud the imminent release of Big Fan, the movie about a big fan of the New York Giants.

Follow David Gill as he negotiates A Maze of Death.

A good reason to pre-order that upcoming Bob Dylan Christmas record.

Reading poetry (and teaching it) in Uzbekistan.

Now I have to put Sunshine Cleaning on my Netflix queue.

Ralph Nader has written a novel? Who knew? As J.D. Rhoades notes, the book sounds like a parody of Atlas Shrugged, which places two big burdens on the work. First, Ayn Rand novels come with self-parody already installed, and second, Nader ain’t exactly the life of the party. (Quite the opposite, in fact, as we saw in 2000.)

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Heylin tombstone blues

It’s a great comfort to know that should Bob Dylan scholars yet unborn leap from their beds in the middle of the night, tear at their hair and cry, “I can’t go on another minute until I know what Clinton Heylin thought of ‘Bonnie, Why’d You Cut My Hair?'” they need only turn to page 32 of Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973 and thereby find peace.

I’ve long admired Heylin’s diligence as a researcher and asperity as a critic, his willingness to deflate the fannish hagiography that typifies so much writing about Bob Dylan, and his readiness to come out and deplore substandard work even as others are singing hosannas for the arrival of another “masterpiece.” Heylin’s chronicle of Dylan’s life, Behind the Shades, remains the one Bob-bio to read if you’re only reading one, and Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960-1994 is a valuable adjunct to any deep-dish research into the career of His Bobness.

There is arguably a purpose to be served by compiling a song-by-song critical survey of Dylan’s known catalogue, from juvenilia to Planet Waves, from “Song to Brigit” to “Wedding Song.” (There is a second volume in the works covering songs up to 2006 .) Dylan collectors are in a class by themselves when it comes to seeking out every available scrap of the man’s material, and a completist compilation like this can only help them in their explorations.

But even allowing the need for a book like Revolution in the Air, there remains the question of whether Heylin is the man for the job. Songwriting analysis has never been his strong suit: long stretches of Revolution in the Air deal with songs that have already been thoroughly pawed-over, and Heylin has little that’s new to say about them. When he does venture to provide some fresh critical insight, he comes up with a howler like the supposed relationship between Dylan’s achingly personal “Forever Young” and “Heart of Gold,” Neil Young’s hit single:

At a time when every label was searching for a “new Dylan,” Young seemed to be assimilating the sound of the old Dylan. And though they may not seem obvious twins, it is clear . . . that “Forever Young” was [Dylan’s] retort. He was doing Young doing Dylan. And yes, that is a pun in the title. Though it has passed most folk by, he was doing a Dylanesque Young, forever.

To borrow a line from one of Heylin’s rival Dylanologists: What is this shit?

But if Heylin’s analytical skills seem pale and wan, his penchant for starting pissing matches with other Dylan critics and researchers remains as robust as ever. Howard Sounes and Michael Gray, in particular, take their lumps from Heylin; even poor Suze Rotolo, who actually lived through the events he writes about, gets the back of Heylin’s hand. I know many Dylan fans who have complained about this tendency in  Heylin’s work, but Revolution in the Air marks the first time I’ve shared the sentiment. It really does get tiresome this time out.

Given the amount of space Heylin devotes to patting himself on the back while slapping around his rivals, I thought it appropriate that on the dust jacket of Revolution in the Air, the author’s name is noticeably larger than that of his subject. In this case, topography mirrors psychology.

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Unmasked and anonymous

So a police officer in Long Branch, N.J., gets a call about an old guy acting strangely last month and orders him into her cruiser, never once realizing that the old guy was Bob Dylan.

I guess you can’t knock her too badly. It’s a generational thing, to a certain extent. I wouldn’t recognize Justin Timberlake if he bought a book at my yard sale today.

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Friday finds

GW shark

Poems for Shark Week.

Is self-publishing a good route to landing a book contract? Check the numbers for yourself.

With publishing contracts, as with so many other deals, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away.

The Crooked Timber seminar on George Scialabba, all in one place for some quality reading time.

Harry Potter and the cheesy narrative lapses.

Which Hugo nominees would make good movies?

When Bob Dylan met Michael Jackson.

When Bat Segundo met China Mieville.

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Blue Monday

Driving home from a family occasion last night, I heard a truly awful cover version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” on the radio. This is a gospel song I had previously considered virtually impossible to do badly. With so many good cover versions out there, it takes almost superhuman diligence to find one that makes you glad you don’t spend a lot of time in cocktail lounges.

You can hear Mayfield himself sing the tune up top. Here’s a typically soulful version from the Blind Boys of Alabama:

Strat cat Jeff Beck has a run at an instrumental version:

How about a reggae version from Ziggy Marley . . .

. . . and a concert version from U2, with a little help from some Jersey guy.

And since on this blog, all roads ultimately lead to Bob Dylan, here is a lo-fi but high-commitment version that is one of the buried treasures of the “Basement Tapes” sessions from 1967. 

Moments like this are the reason hardcore Bobcats won’t be satisfied until the bowdlerized official release of The Basement Tapes — larded with outtakes from The Band that were recorded without Dylan, and in some cases much later — is supplanted by a longer, well engineered true-life version that gives a more accurate picture of what happened in that big pink house. After the sustained madness of the 1965-1966 period, Dylan set out to reconnect with his muse — and Curtis Mayfield was one of the songwriters who showed him the way back home.

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