Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

I’m reading five or six books at the moment, picking one up and reading for awhile and laying it down to pick up another. The restless spirit of winter, with ice spitting down from a cold gray sky, and nothing can hold my attention.

The book I am most caught up in is Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America, which was published in 2010, just before the sad-eyed poet-troubadour turned 70. Hard to believe that the blue-eyed son who wrote that A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall could be old enough to collect social security. But he hasn’t retired yet. He is probably out on the road tonight, wrapping his (maybe) arthritic hands around the neck of a guitar and singing to a crowd of aging hipsters who think of him as the voice of their generation. At one time he was.

In high school, most of my friends and many at the periphery of our circle and at the middle of their own circles were big fans of Dylan. I knew all the lyrics to 30 or 40 of my favorite songs, songs like Desolation Row, which Wilentz informs me was based on the great Beat writer, Jack Kerouac’s, Mexico City Blues, and Mr. Tambourine Man, with all the verses that the Byrds left out of their famous version.

I would sit at the little desk my father had built into the alcove in my attic room and listen to songs about midnight’s broken toll on the record player and write poems that I would pin to the wall behind me when they were finished. Over on one of the twin beds, my best friend, Richard, would be reading a science fiction paperback or working on a poem of his own.

It seems remarkable to me now that Dylan, at the height of his fame and genius, was still almost a kid, just 23 or 24 years old, less than a decade our elder. He was changing from the folk singer he had started off as into something harder and wilder. He dressed in a black motorcycle jacket, with dark shades and his hair seemed electrified like his guitar.

For me the climax of the book comes at the top of page 118. Dylan is on his way to Nashville, in the midst of recording his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, with Robbie Robertson on guitar and Al Kooper on keyboards, with the backup of the best studio musicians in Nashville. You can hear the results in the layers of improvisations that achieve that “thin, wild mercury sound” that Dylan was after in those days.

Kris Kristofferson is there, working as a janitor while trying to become a songwriter. The sessions are going late into the night with Dylan struggling to write lyrics sitting alone at his piano wearing his dark shades. When he gets the words right, the band will come together, everyone serious and professional, and at four in the morning they will record the incredible eleven minute and twenty-three second Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands in a single perfect take.

On page 118, Wilentz writes that “Dylan came to Nashville after playing a show in Norfolk, having resumed his touring with the Hawks…” The Hawks later renamed themselves The Band, and went on to their own kind of fame. The night of that show I was 15 and in the audience, high up in the balcony of the Norfolk Arena.

I have loved many songs, and many poets, read a thousand books I cared deeply about, seen movies that I wept over, but nothing since has given me that thin, wild mercury feeling like Bob Dylan and the Hawks on their way to Nashville to record the greatest rock and roll album of all time, in late January 1966.

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I was listening to the Folk Show on the radio the other morning on the way into town.  The songs sounded good, one tune after another telling stories about our life and times – stories about working down in the coal mine or walking the picket line; sad tales and heroic tales; the bitterness of class and poverty; standing up and standing together. I guess you could dance to a few of the tunes if you wanted, but for the most part you just listen and nod your head.

When I was a senior in high school and for a couple of years afterward, there was a café  downtown, in Norfolk, Va., that we would go to on weekends to listen to live music. The Folk Ghetto was down an alleyway, a smoky, crowded room with a couple of dozen round tables and a small stage.  You could see the light spilling out of the open door and hear the music pouring out as you walked up the street and turned down the alley. It was like Bob Dylan sang in “Tangled Up in Blue” – “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air.”

And there was revolution in the air: The free speech movement out at Berkeley; Mark Rudd and company occupying the administration building at Columbia; sit-ins and be-ins; Martin Luther King and the March on Washington. It had not yet all turned ugly, though the tide of optimism was beginning to falter. Within two or three years the revolution would beach itself like a broken whale on the low tide.

But we were still in that state of innocence where we could go to a place like the Folk Ghetto, drink coffee for hours, and get lost in an acoustic guitar and a pure voice.  One of the singers who made the rounds of East Cost folk clubs was Emmylou Harris, the singer/songwriter whose career is still going strong. But most of the other singers who never went on to fame were just as talented. They were a few years older than my friends and I, and seemed infinitely cooler and smarter. But we were really not that far apart. Folk singers remain close to the realities that they write and sing about. There are more lonesome whistles than limousines in the folk world.

It was the times, but it was also our time. Being seventeen made everything seem sharp-edged and flooded with meaning.  Every lyric was a tool to pry into the problems of our teenage being and the chaos of events around us. We were chiseling ourselves out of rough stone until the figure could emerge that would carry us into the future. It hurt to be seventeen, but music transmuted the pain into something like ecstasy.

So we would go on a Friday or a Saturday night to listen to Gove Scrivener or Paul Decker play guitar and try out the new songs they had written or picked up from somebody’s obscure album. We fell in love with the female singers with their long dark hair, and envied the musicians in blue jeans and denim shirts who could chat them up so easily.

Everything was new and music made it richer, more unforgettable. We remember where we were when some tragic event took place, but we also know where we were when we heard that great tune for the first time. We were in our car or at the beach when that crashing chord came down. Or at a table in a smoky club when revolution was in the air.

It’s a never ending project, chipping away at that rough stone of our lives to make the person we ought to be. Songs drift out of the radio or the IPod in our pocket, telling stories of other lives, other times. We take the lyrics that cut us deepest and, young or old, chip away the stone.

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