Miscellaneous Musings and Holiday Cheer

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Hello my friends!  December is here in New York City.  Lots of people are frantically getting into the season, partaking in the hallowed old American tradition / religion of buying lots of stuff. I spent a good part of the week wandering around Manhattan watching them. I bought a few used books on St. Mark’s place, some music stand lights for my band mates and some warm socks for my relatives. That’s about as much American consumer team spirit as I’ve got in me. It was freezing cold and clear tonight. I had the very distinct pleasure of driving across the Williamsburg Bridge and up along the FDR drive. The skyline was extra glorious. My whole life I’ve been a huge fan of the giant Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, seen clearly from the East side of Manhattan.   That sign shone with particular glory tonight. I guess my love for that giant neon commercial is similar to what a secular art collector feels for a piece old religious art from his/her country. I’m critical of the religion, but awed by the beauty of the relic.

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Normally on this blog I essay on one particular topic that’s on my mind. Often I write about one artist’s work or one particular record that I’m digging. This time I think I’ll just write short little pieces about various musings that have come up in my recent wanderings.

In the blues there’s a punch line

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“Some people say the green river blues ain’t bad

Some people say the green river blues ain’t bad

Then it must not be the green river blues I had”

-Charley Patton, “Green River Blues”

Did you ever notice how much humor there is in the blues? Too many people think of the blues as music about sadness. I know. Colloquially speaking, we’re sad when we “have the blues”. But to think of the blues as just sad music is really a very silly oversimplification. Like any other really good meaningful form of music or narrative, blues songs are just songs about the predicament of being a human being. “Songs about the predicament of being a human being” however, would be a truly awful name for a genre of music. “The blues” is way cooler. Listen to some classic blues songs by Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf or Robert Johnson and pay attention to the lyrics. They’re singing about all kinds of moments, happy, sad, sexy, angry, lonesome. Very often there’s a lot of joking going on. Even when the subject matter is something sad or serious, the lyrics often lead up to wise-ass rhyme.

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I’ve got “I Sit Up All Night” by a guy called St. Louis Jimmy spinning right now. Jimmy sings about a lady friend with a drinking problem…

Pint of whiskey was one shot, chaser was a fifth of wine

Doctors tapped her for water, alcohol was all they could find

If you get to know the blues, you will learn that there are all kinds of variations and intricacies and different sub-styles within what we think of as the blues. But there is one particular blues structure that’s most familiar to most listeners. It’s often referred to as the I-IV-V blues structure, because of chords of the scale that you use to play it. So much of the most fundamental blues music from all periods and early rock and roll music is based around those three chords. So here’s how the most basic I-IV-V blues structure works:

1.You sing a line while playing the dominant I chord of any key of the major scale.

2.You repeat the same line while playing the dominant IV chord of the same scale.

3.You sing a different line that somehow answers the first line while playing the dominant V chord, followed by the dominat IV chord and you resolve on the I chord where you started .

Example:

“The Back Door Man” by Willie Dixon

 

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I am the back door man

C

I am the back door man

D                                           C                          G

The men don’t know but the little girls understand.

…Can you see how the third line is the punch line?

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Willie Dixon was a master at these kind of dark jokes.

Another Willie Dixon favorite of mine, also from “Back Door Man”:

“I was accused of murder in the first degree

The Judge’s wife cried ‘Let the man go free!’”

Way before Dixon’s time, the very first of the pre-war bluesmen were cracking their hard luck  jokes.  In “Matchbox Blues” Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote…

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“I’m sitting here wondering, would a matchbox hold my clothes

I ain’t got no matches but I sure got a long way to go.”

There’s humor in there. Times are tough, tough, tough and yet the lyric is playful. The guy is joking around. Just like Furry Lewis’s “I Will Turn Your Money Green” in which Lewis sings “I been down so long that it looks like up to me” or Albert King’s famous “Born Under a Bad Sign” (Written by Williams Bell & Booker T Jones)…

Born under a bad sign

Been Down since I could crawl

If it wasn’t for bad luck

I wouldn’t have no luck at all

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Dark humor has helped so many people get through this life and it’s many ups and downs and downs and downs. Tragicomedy as an intellectual concept was strange and abstract to people when Samuel Beckett called his “Waiting For Godot” a tragicomedy in 1953. Bluesmen were hip to the concept a long time before then even if they didn’t know they were. I could go on quoting blues lyrics but I invite you to just listen to some blues record you like and dig the comedy.

You can trust Randy Newman because his first album is weird

I was opening a bunch of shows for Chris Smither last month. In addition to being a great songwriter and a formidable blues guitarist, Chris is also a great guy to talk music with. Somehow Randy Newman’s first album came up. When I was a kid (pre-internet) that album was long out of print and I had to look all over for it. I eventually tracked down a copy of the lp in a classical music record store in a Midtown Manhattan that I had read about in the paper. It sure was a weird record. It wasn’t like any of the other light rock of Newman’s 70’s contemporaries.

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Randy’s debut includes some wonderfully weird compositions. The only really well known one is a song called “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today” that went on to became a hit for a bunch of different artists. The album features the composer’s own lush orchestrations, idiosyncratic vocals and intentionally odd harmonies. The subject matter of the lyrics is often intentionally circus-freakish and oddball as well.   So many of Newman’s songs come off like show tunes from a bizarre show that never actually existed. I’m very impressed with that kid for how he chose to introduce himself to the world musically. I love how ambitious and unsteady his first record is. He doesn’t pull everything off exactly, but at least you know you can trust the guy. He goes for difficult-to-achieve things artistically and he’s obviously not afraid of the non-commerciality of his endeavors. It’s not that he wouldn’t be happy with a hit. He’d love one. But he can’t help but be weird and smart and have his own personality and sense of humor. The young Newman would follow his debut a year or two later with 12 Songs, a much more earthy, rootsy kind of affair (with plenty of screwy characters of it’s own). I recommend listening to all of Randy Newman’s albums. They haven’t let me down. The very early stuff is definitely worth it.

Folk singer is a cool job

 A lot of the gigs I’ve played over the past 10 years have been in venues (theaters, clubs, concert series veneus and coffee houses) that make up part of the fading American “folk circuit”. The folk circuit was a big deal in the 50’s and 60’s. Many huge pop stars and perennial rock favorites came out of the folk scene (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, to name a few). Even back in the 60’s, the actual connection between the “folk” circuit and the passage of folklore was starting to come apart.

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There aren’t many people that spend their lives learning old stories and songs and relaying them to the people for a living.   It’s never been a particularly dependable way to make a buck, but I think being a folk singer would be a very nice way to spend one’s life. Folklore is a force of nature, of human history. People tell little stories to each other and pass them on. We always have. Folk tales are getting told all around us every day. They’re not necessarily being told by dudes with acoustic guitars and turtlenecks in coffee houses. But they’re out there if you want to hear them and learn them. We pass on our little stories around the campfire, in the pub, or in hit songs, blockbuster movies or youtube clips. It’s just something we do. We can’t help it.

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I’d love to be a folk singer some day or a folk tale re-teller. Rather than trying to write something about my own daily experience or some hot topic of the moment, as a folk singer I’d learn stories that have existed for a while, stories about fictional characters. And each time I told someone else’s stories, I’d leave this week’s details behind. I’d find my way into moments outside of time, happenings that never really occurred and never really will and yet they’re somehow more real than any attempt we could make to capture the moment we’re living in. And if I was a folk singer, every time I’d deliver some story about a riverboat gambler or a Scottish lass or an Indian chief, I’d do something even more personal than telling my own story. I’d tell the human story. It’s a big deal, folk singing.   Many of us laugh it and call it names…That’s because we’re silly.

Some more thoughts on performance, fame and rejection

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Fame is but a fruit tree

So very unsound

Nick Drake

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I perform songs in public for a living. In many ways it’s a very strange way to go about interacting with the world. Rejection is a huge part of your life when you put your act out there. It’s an odd thing to sign up for, but I still like it better than any other job I could have. This morning I was listening to an old Terry Gross interview from the late 90’s with the aforementioned Randy Newman. At one point, Randy began to sing Terry one of his songs and he had to stop. He laughed at how embarrassed he felt to sing his song to someone who could see his eyes while he sang. He admitted that he was used to being blinded by the lights of a theater. I’m definitely thankful every time I get a chance to sing my songs blinded by theater lights. More often I’m able to see everyone around me in the room, reacting to my songs or not, eating their dinner, talking to each other or doing whatever they’re doing. In order to perform regularly in that circumstance, you have to learn to not take personally people’s reactions, their inattention or even their occasional disdain for what you do. But here’s the catch: In order to sing meaningful songs the best you can, you have to actually put your heart and your emotions into your performance every time you sing. So the balancing act of caring and yet not caring can be kinda tricky. I spend a fair amount of my time imagining that if I was famous and had millions of fans, this problem would vanish into thin air. I can’t really tell you how much truth there is in that as I’ve never been famous. I’m pretty sure that my fantasies are just the same old “grass is greener” bs we all engage in. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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…That’s another thing I try to not take personally. If I compare my own life to many of my heroes (which I do a lot more frequently than I’d like to), so many songwriters I admire were and are a million times more famous than I’ve ever been. When I got started writing songs and performing them, I don’t know if I expected to become famous, but I sure hoped I would. Now many years, songs, records and concerts later, I’m still largely unknown. There may be a few thousand people who have heard my songs. There maybe a few hundred that really like them. I don’t even know. I’m very grateful to all of the people that have listened to my songs, bought my recordings and come to my shows. When you’re trying to be an entertainer, it feels great to know that you’ve entertained. I wish millions of people knew my stuff and bought my records. But whether they have or not isn’t as meaningful as everyone (myself included) always tries to make it. When it’s time to make a good song, your reputation, your public stature and your life story won’t make it happen. Songs are wonderfully indifferent in that way.

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A friend of mine recently sent me a book that offers some good perspective on the whole scenario. It’s called Finite and Infinite Games. The author, James P. Carse, divides up all of human endeavor into the two categories in the title. The pursuit of fame and fortune would be a perfect example of a finite game. It’s a game we either win or lose. We may be famous for a year or for a thousand years but fame and fortune have boundaries and limitations. The pursuit of art is rather an infinite game. We neither win nor lose and the goal is the game itself. I figure it like this: Win or lose we’re headed to the same place. What games we decide to engage ourselves in during this lifetime (when we don’t have to focus on mere survival) will be up to us.

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Go if you’re able

and come if you can

Life’s very unstable

It’s built upon sand

Donovan

The Song IS the Act: Irving Berlin

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If you’ve read this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I write largely about records from 50-60 years ago, way before I was born. I’m completely out of step with what’s cool or what’s been cool for decades. Hopefully, I will remedy all of that now when I write about a songwriter born in 1888.

I’m always hoping to hear a great song. My whole world lights up when I hear a great song. I love a great act, whatever it is. A great singer, a great dancer, a comedian that makes me crack up. I love ‘em all. When a songwriter is truly great, the compositions themselves can be the act that entertains the audience. A good tune and some well-crafted lyrics are among the most wonderful things I know in this life. I’m not talking about heavy abstraction either. Just as comedy is often way harder to achieve than deep, dark drama, a good little tune with catchy, memorable lyrics is often the hardest kind of music to make. A great little ditty takes brains and heart and soul and taste and rhythm. I’m hoping I’ll hear a new song like that today.  And I don’t care who wrote it or when they were born.

Irving Berlin was born in Russia in 1888 and grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, pretty close to penniless. He had very limited formal education. He didn’t read music and first entered show business as a singing waiter in a downtown saloon. He eventually wrote and published over 1,000 songs, words and music, just banging out tunes that he made up in his head on a few keys of a piano. Sit and listen to any versions of any of his songs sometime.   There are thousands of readily available recordings of Irving Berlin songs by scads of super famous singers. You will hear simple songs, brilliant songs, funny and heartbreaking songs with catchy little melodies and immediately understandable yet never predictable rhyming lyrics. I don’t know where to start with the guy.   He was a poet with the gift of song and a way with words like just about no one else. He was the granddaddy of them all in 20th Century popular song.   Nearly all of those that followed in his footsteps did so as part of a collaborative team with a music or lyrics partner.  Irving Berlin was a one man song machine.  I don’t have to tell you why his songs are good. Just listen to them. A few of my favorites by the master:

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All Alone

Always

Blue Skies

Change Partners

Cheek to Cheek

Easter Parade

He Ain’t Got Rhythm

How Deep is the Ocean

Lady of the Evening

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

Let Yourself Go

A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody

Say It Isn’t So

There’s No Business Like Showbusiness

They Say It’s Wonderful

This Year’s Kisses

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails

What’ll I do

White Christmas

RIP The great Ian McLagan

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Just before Thanksgiving I got a call about opening up for Ian McLagan, famed British keyboardist at a club that I love in New Haven, CT. I believe my answer was “Hell Yes”. Ian McLagan was most famously a member of the band the Small Faces, which later morphed into the Faces with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. The Small or otherwise Faces were 60’s and 70’s rock and roll animals that made many wonderful pop records and kicked a lot of butt. McLagan himself was a super groovy, ass kicking player. I love those Faces records and his playing on them. I spin them all the time. McLagan ended up playing with all kinds of people, the Rolling Stones among others. That night in New Haven I was glad to shake his hand and see him cheerily playing to a full house. He was a rock star, getting on towards 70 years old, a veteran of stadiums and theaters, playing in a small pub for 40 or 50 people. Still, he gave everyone in that room all he had. I was impressed. McLagan was all set to go on tour with my hero Nick Lowe’s holiday review this month. Unfortunately, he had a stroke and died on the first day of the Nick Lowe tour. I didn’t really know the guy, but I was glad to have met him. I loved his playing and his “show must go on” spirit. They don’t make many like him these days.

 

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I am a Rock …who happens to be like a Rolling Stone

Do me a favor and play Bob Dylan’s original recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited when you can. Immediately after you’re done listening to that, put on Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock”. The Simon & Garfunkel record came out a year after the Dylan record and has remarkably similar instrumentation (organ, electric guitar, drum sound).  It was produced by Bob Johnston, the same guy who produced the Highway 61 Album (though not the “Like a Rolling Stone” single). Paul Simon first released “I Am a Rock” on a solo record that came out in England a month after the Dylan single came out. Even if he wasn’t consciously trying to, I think it’s very possible that the young songwriter was caught up in the ‘rolling stone’ vibe when he came up with “I Am a Rock”.  The songs aren’t melodically similar.   But just the angry lyrical use of someone being a rock or a stone sounds connected. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Bob Johnston just heard the potential similarity himself or someone involved in the session just thought it would be hip to get a band track like Dylan’s going for that song. I don’t know. I just love when stuff like that happens.   In the early 70’s, an American group called King Harvest had a hit with a Van Morrison-esque song called “Dancing in the Moonlight”. Morrison’s “Moondance” had of course been a big FM hit a couple of years earlier. “King Harvest” was itself the title of a song by the Band, who were at their peak of popularity at that time.

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…This is the kind of stuff I think about a lot.

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Happy Holidays, my friends!

Hang around with people you love.

Be nice to people.

…And when January comes around…

…keep doing the same.

Milty’s Holiday Listening Picks:

John Fahey’s Christmas Album – always a super classic, shown to me first by the great Julia Joseph circa 2010.  Thanks Julia!

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Mozart Bassoon Concerto in Bb

Jean Francaix Concerto for Bassoon and 11 strings

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I don’t know why, but a good bassoon goes a long way at Holiday time.

The Faces First Step

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A lesser known but no less wonderful Faces record in honor of the late great Ian McLagan

Bobby Womack The Facts of Life

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Purchased while hanging with my man Dan Nachimson and having one of our semi-annual Brooklyn record spins.  Muscle Schoals cats backing Bobby.  Sweet 70’s Soul grooves.

Nick Lowe’s Quality Street

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A nice, cheeky listen with masterful singing and playing.  The cover looks like a movie poster for a Wes Anderson film.

George Harrison All Things Must Pass (preferably on lp on a cheap stereo)

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One of the best cozy winter’s day spins of them all.

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A convenient time to talk about inconvenient things.

All of these people are much brighter than I

In any fair system they would flourish and thrive

But they barely survive

They eek out a living

They barely survive

Randy Newman

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Memphis Garbage Workers’ Strike of 1968

I’ve got old records spinning and I’m sitting at my beloved writing desk on an early autumn evening. The crickets are making plenty of great noise outside.

I’ve spent most of the year (and the past several years) making my living leading a band called the Loyales that plays covers at weddings, parties, bars and restaurants.  I’ve also played my own material in a whole bunch of shows in listening rooms, concert series venues, small theaters and festivals in different cities around the U.S., mostly as an opening act.  In order to make sure that the rent and bills are always paid, I’ve maintained a view of my gig playing duty like that of a fireman. If the phone rings, I slide down the pole and play the gig. It doesn’t matter what time it is, what the weather is like or if it’s a holiday.  If I’m lucky enough to make my living playing music, the answer to the question of “are you available to play…?” is almost always “yes”.  I spend a lot of hours at the wheel of my van.  I’ll be back on the road in just a few days.

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On nights like tonight with no gigs and no rehearsals, I often work on my band homework, learning new material, practicing parts, making set lists, planning travel logistics, ordering replacement gear for stuff that broke, changing guitar strings.  I spend hours upon hours corresponding with venue managers, booking agents and wedding and party clients.  I also spend a good deal of my free time reproaching myself for not being more productive (I don’t recommend this as a worthwhile expenditure of anyone’s time). It’s been a long time since I wrote a piece for my blog and I’ve really been missing it.  As far as I know, only a few people have ever read this blog.  I am supremely thankful to you all.  A handful of people have gotten in touch with me over the last couple of years to respond to blog posts.  They’ve all warmed my heart in doing so.  I really enjoy writing this blog and deep down I know that it doesn’t really matter if a million people read what I have to say or if ten do.  If I really feel I’ve got something to say, I’d better say it.

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I just finished reading a book about the last year of Martin Luther King Jr’s life called “Death of a King” by Tavis Smiley, with David Ritz, author of many of my favorite music biographies. I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough.  It’s a proud, though often painful look at a world leader, a firm believer and a practitioner of a faith in his darkest hour. People all over the planet are familiar with the name and image of Mr. Luther King Jr. History has left most of us with the picture of an African American minister leading well-dressed protestors in non-violent marches for civil rights. We see and hear King in black and white film, making his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial before a huge crowd in 1963. We think of him as a man of peace, a hero to the black community and to the American people. We know that he was murdered a few years later, shot by a bad man, but loved by us all.

 The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Oscar Wilde

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Tavis Smiley’s book shows us a portrait of a leader of a movement that is running out of money and has divided into factions vying for power, a citizen of a country whose government considers him one of it’s most dangerous public enemies, a once widely beloved public figure whose popularity has dropped dramatically in a very short period of time, and a practitioner of a philosophy that has been largely declared passé and ineffective by the majority of the people that once supported him. This is not the part of the MLK story that we Americans like. It’s not the part of the story that we choose to teach our children. The part where the humble, respectable minister sticks to his ideals, turns the other cheek to hateful aggression, gets a whole country marching in the streets and overturns old legislation in the name of freedom is fine by us.  But we’re not very keen on the part where the same minister wakes up each day after the legislation is passed to face a country whose race problems haven’t gone away.  We don’t sing songs about the public figure returning to Memphis to continue working on a very unpopular garbage workers’ strike after violence has erupted at his last attempted peaceful protest there.  We’re not proud of the American activist who wants us to face the fact that the American dream of freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being actively denied to millions of people by the policies of the country that introduced the very dream.  We don’t celebrate a Christian pacifist who reminds us all that our country leads the world in acts of violent aggression. We’re not comfortable with the humanitarian who reminds us that a nation in which money buys human dignity is not a just nation.

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…you’ll find out when you reach the top

you’re on the bottom

Bob Dylan

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By the time he died, MLK had “seen the mountain top” as he said in his last public speech in Memphis.  He had seen the mountain top of triumph for his struggle when civil rights legislation was passed in 1963.  He had seen the mountain top of popularity when he addressed enthusiastic throngs in Washington DC, when he was celebrated by the president of his country and when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in Sweden.  But King was not a man who chose his causes by their popularity.  He dedicated his life to his faith in the power and value of human kindness and compassion, based firmly in the scripture of his religion. By the time King was shot in 1968, pacifism was no longer the most popular form of protest among black activists in the US. King’s style of non-violent protest was seen by many as out of date, out of touch and weak. But faith is not a style or a trend.  Martin Luther King didn’t believe that non-violence was the expedient way to achieve a specific political goal.  He believed it was the right way for humans to interact with other humans at all times.  He saw no reason to change his belief in something that had never proven harmful to anyone.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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A few nights ago I was riding across the State of Ohio with my bass player and pal Joe Plowman.   We were listening to Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles on an audio book. It was such a pleasure to see the Bohemian Greenwich Village that existed before my time come alive before my eyes, with the help of Dylan’s formidable prose writing and Penn’s apt audio acting.  What a story!  The precocious young kid from Minnesota comes to the big city and navigates his way around the folk music scene, the Village counterculture and the major label record business, staking out a territory all his own and rising to legendary status.  The rough outline of Dylan’s life story, along with that of the Beatles and their career in music has served most of my life as one of the central mythologies in whatever you might call my own religion.  Dylan is just about the same age as my parents.  He sprang into notoriety rapidly within the American folk music scene at exactly the same time that MLK was making his “I Have A Dream Speech”.  He was even there that day at the Lincoln memorial, singing his songs with Joan Baez. Like King, Dylan would see a large number of his original supporters turn on him just a few years later when they became unhappy with the music he was making. Unlike King, Dylan was not killed, nor made the target of FBI harassment (to my knowledge). And though he may have lost some of his original fan-base and received plenty of hatred from those opposed to him, his world-wide popularity and commercial success grew over the many years that followed, with some dips and disturbances along the way.  Still, there is similarity to be seen between the artist and the activist in the artist’s choice to make works not based on their potential popularity but rather based on the genuine nature of the expression that lies at their core.  When Dylan made a series of songs praising Jesus in the early 1980’s, many people were not interested in hearing them.  I wasn’t crazy about those records myself. Many people voiced their bewilderment and annoyance with Dylan’s choices loudly.  He still made the records.   I’m glad he did.  Dylan’s kind of bravery was not the kind that makes a public speech with death threats coming in by phone.  But an artist’s ability to follow his own artistic vision regardless of it’s affect on his reputation and financial success is still genuine bravery.

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The adherence to a greater calling than the maximization of personal gain seems more and more rare in American society and talking about that fact is less popular than ever. For Americans, a success story is almost always the story of someone becoming rich.   Think if you can of a very famous American, who’s broke or even one who’s moderately well-to-do.  Name a very successful American in any field, who isn’t the ally or the employee of a large, for-profit corporation. …Come up with anyone?

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Don’t get me wrong.  Wanting to be rich makes perfect sense to me. From a very young age it looked really great to me to be rich and famous and I wanted to be rich and famous too.  My heroes were the Beatles and Dylan and boy weren’t they rich and famous?  They flew all over the world all the time in jet planes. They rode in limousines and lived in mansions with swimming pools. Their outfits were always unique and fabulous.  They could have whatever they wanted for dinner and own all of the records and guitars they wanted.  Interviewers were fascinated by their opinion on everything, their writings and sayings were quoted all the time and big crowds of people showed their approval wildly any time they so much as walked into a room.  That all looked wonderful to me.  But the gift that the Beatles and Bob Dylan gave me was infinitely greater than the luxuries the world has thrown upon them.  I started listening to their records on loan from the library for free when I was about 6 years old.  Anytime I wanted to for my whole life, I could listen to their beautiful, joyous, masterful and inspiring music.  I still can and it only gets better each time I listen to it.  What was and is great about their music and all of the famous songs that I love so much by anyone is not that how famous they are but how good they are.  And there are plenty of artists whose work I’m crazy about who lived and died without owning much more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

Henry James

Reading Tavis Smiley’s book about Martin Luther King reminded of some truths that are often lost in the day to day struggle to get by and the day to day struggle to find peace with oneself.  Whatever you’re trying to achieve, there may be big loud powerful voices all around you, telling you that you’re wrong, that you’re irrelevant, that you’re goals are useless.  You don’t owe it to the world to agree with them.  The agreement you’d do best to find is within yourself.  Martin Luther King knew that creating an industry of war machines for profit was evil.  He knew that using military might on civilians to achieve a political aim was also evil.  He knew that the poorest people in the world were at their core the same as the wealthiest people in the world and deserved as much human kindness, respect and dignity as anyone else.  He knew that people still organized themselves in unequal casts based on racial and ethnic identities.  He knew that a society that oppressed its poor masses would eventually self-destruct.  He wasn’t willing to pretend that he didn’t know any of those things.   …And none of the truths he lived, worked and died for seem irrelevant at all today.

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Rather than irrelevant, MLK’s truths were and are “inconvenient”, to borrow the title of Al Gore’s book on climate change from a few years back.   It’s painful to face the hypocrisy of your own country.  It’s unpleasant to face the un-improving condition of the down-trodden.  It may be unpopular to sing songs about decidedly unpopular subjects.  However inconvenient, however unpleasant, however strange and unpopular these truths were, MLK was brave enough to speak those truths until the very end.   I hope that I can find that kind of bravery within myself and that we all can.  It doesn’t matter if the truth we must speak is that our country is perpetrating acts of violence on innocent people or whether that truth is simply that “looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired”*.  If we’ve really got something to say, we’d better say it.

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Old records Listened to while writing:
Stephen Stills – Mansassas

Manassasss

Les Paul Now

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Josh Graves w/Bobby Smith & the Boys from Shiloh

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Creaciones Inolvidables de Ariel Ramirez

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Sly & The Family Stone – Small Talk

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The John Lewis Piano

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Bob Dylan (self-titled)

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The Best Of Etta James

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Heifitz, Primrose and Piatigorsky – Beethoven Trios

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Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Tell It All Brother

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Harry Belafonte, Mark Twain and other folk favorites

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Most of these records were purchased at

Clockwork Records in Hastings on Hudson, NY

Everybody’s Records in Cincinnati, OH

Mystic Disc in Mystic, CT

* from “Natural Woman”  lyrics by Gerry Goffin.

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Love Letters Straight from the Heart

Ketty Lester  Unknown

I’m listening to a song on repeat called “Love Letters” by a singer named Ketty Lester.  Have you ever listened to it?  Please do.  I heard it for the first time the other night.  It was playing over the closing credits of a documentary I was watching.  I was taken with the recording, the playing, the singer’s performance and the song.  “Love Letters” came out in 1962 and it’s the kind of song often referred to as a “torch song”.

According to my dictionary a torch song is: a sad or sentimental song, typically about unrequited love.

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The name “torch songs” probably comes from the expression “to carry a torch for someone” i.e. to have strong feelings for someone.  Historically, women more than men have been placed in the category of “torch” singers.  The classic torch singers sang their siren songs over elegant band arrangements, dressed in elegant clothing and fine jewels.  The heyday of the great torch singers and their recordings came between the early 50’s and the early 60’s.

A few of the more famous ones:

Sarah Vaughan
Rosemary Clooney
Julie London
Dinah Washington
Judy Garland
Nina Simone
Peggy Lee
Dinah Shore
Nancy Wilson

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I’m a huge fan of a good torch song and a good torch singer.  Nothing gets me through my darkest hours quite like a good torch song.

I’m not alone in the night

when I can have all the love

you write[1]

 Many of the recordings that I would consider my favorite torch songs feature male vocalists and come from other periods in time.  And though I love the visual elegance of the famous chanteuses, I don’t really care so much about their get-up when I’m listening.  What’s more important to me is the way the song is written and the way the song is played and sung.  Torch singing is not to be confused with the vocal acrobatics that we celebrate on all of our favorite reality/game shows today.  It’s not about how a voice gets contorted or the size of a singer’s range; it’s about what you can feel when you listen to the track.

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We should also not confuse torch songs with the “confessional” material of many singer/songwriters.  A great torch song is extremely personal and yet not personal at all.   The song might hit you in a very personal place, but one of the great things about the torch song is the fact that it’s bound to no one person.  A torch song works because it’s not about what some schmo like me did today.  It’s not a song about how I was going to go to see the new Wes Anderson movie with you at the movie theater on Route 119 but we were late at the Italian restaurant and we got in a fight about our plans next weekend.[2]  Rather it’s a song about people feeling things that people have felt and will feel as long as there are people.

Most often, the torch singer is not the person who wrote the song.  You may never have heard of the person who wrote the song.  But whoever the writer is, somebody has written a song that’s good enough for the singer (and many singers) and the listener (and many listeners) to relate to.  Hoagy Carmichael might have been thinking about the summer he spent at the lake with a girl named Mildred when he wrote “Stardust”[3], but that’s not what a singer would need to know to feel the song.  And when that singer goes to sing that song, he or she reaches deep down into that inner chamber where the torch is burning.  That torch is burning in all of us.  The torch singer and the torch song take us to where the embers glow.

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All good songs are really torch songs at their core.  Song is really just the voice of the human soul.  Whoever or whatever we carry a torch for in the depths of our soul will live and move in a good song.  Those who have really mastered the craft of singing and writing songs did so by working and working at it, and putting the song first in their choices.  All great writers and singers must be honest, and their honesty must include the ability to leave what doesn’t work on the cutting room floor.  They must be good listeners, especially good at listening to their own hearts.  Deep down they are carrying a torch and they have very good access to it.  They strengthen that inner connection through the pursuit of their craft.  The craft in turn becomes seamless to the listener.  Someone we don’t know who doesn’t know us has worked very hard honing phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, breath and tone to give us what we will perceive as a “love letter straight from the heart”.

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If you think a torch song is corny, trite or easy, sit down and try to write one some time.  After you’ve tried, go back and listen to “Love Letters” again.  Let me know what you think.

Here are a  few torch songs I love.  I’m pretty sure all of them are up on youtube if you’d like to listen to them:

“Love Letters”  by Ketty Lester
written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman

“Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics
written by Bob Halliard and Mort Garson

“If I Had You” by Nat King Cole
written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Ted Shapiro

“Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall
written by Alan Robinson & Toussaint McCall

“Again” by Dinah Washington
written by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman

“Stardust” by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey
written by Hoagy Carmichael & Mitchel Parish

“Do What You Gotta Do” by Roberta Flack
written by Jimmy Webb

“I Cry Alone” by Ruby and The Romantics
written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

“Standing In The Doorway” by Bob Dylan
written by Bob Dylan

“A Cottage For Sale” by Les Paul & Mary Ford
written by Willard Robison and Larry Conley

“Forever” by Marvin Gaye
written by Brian Holland, Freddie Gorman & Lamont Dozier

“That’s All” by Sam Cooke
written by Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes

“All I Could Do Is Cry” by Etta James
written by Billy Davis, Bill, G Fuqua, and Berry Gordy Jr

“What’ll I Do” by Nat King Cole
written by Irving Berlin

“Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Jackson 5
written by Smokey Robinson

…Do you have any favorites?  I’d love to know.

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[1] From “Love Letters”

[2] That’s not what I did today, but I guess you’d know that because that’s not what you did today either.

[3] I have absolutely no reason to believe that’s what inspired him to write that song.

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February 25, 2014

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It’s easier to tell a lie than it is to tell the truth
It’s easier to kill a fly than it is to turn it loose
It’s easier to criticize somebody else
Than to see yourself

It’s easier to give a sigh and be like all the rest
Who stand around and crucify you while you do your best
It’s easier to see the books upon the shelf
Than to see yourself

It’s easier to hurt someone and make them cry
Than it is to dry their eyes
I got tired of fooling around with other people’s lies
Rather I’d find someone that’s true

It’s easier to say you won’t than it is to feel you can
It’s easier to drag your feet than it is to be a man
It’s easier to look at someone eles’s wealth
Than to see yourself

-George Harrison

February 25, 1943 – November 29 2001

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If Not For Lou

10-28-13

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Some years back I wrote a song called “In the City”.  I was walking across Greenwich Village to the subway after a rehearsal on the Lower East Side and I felt gushy with love for my hometown and the stomping ground of my youth.  Towards the end of the song there’s a long chain of rhymes about people and things that I encounter on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Included in that list are “The Warhols and the Lou Reeds”.  Lou Reed died yesterday and I feel moved to write something about him. His work has meant so much to me.  I’m not sure I ever realized just how much.

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Like most suburban rock fans my age, I first heard and enjoyed Lou’s most famous anthem “Walk On The Wild Side” on classic rock radio as a kid in the 80’s when it was already an oldie. His album New York came out when I was in high school and I was way into it.  I lost myself in the tough street scenes and bohemian daydreams that his songs evoked.  In the lore and artistic romance of Manhattan that I acquired and carried around with me as a kid, Lou Reed’s influence was right up there with that of Woody Allen and Bob Dylan.  In college, I discovered Lou’s earlier work with the Velvet Underground and completely flipped out over their records.  I’ve spent hours upon hours of my life listening to the VU over the years, thinking about their music and reading about their career and their influence.  I even played the part of Lou Reed and performed the VU’s songs with my band in an interactive theatrical show about Andy Warhol’s Factory a few years ago. I’m listening to “Venus in Furs” from The Velvet Underground and Nico right now as I write and it sounds as exciting to me as always.  The immediacy of the thing is just so inspiring.  A young English major has written some intentionally dark and rather well crafted poetry based on an S&M book he read.  He’s delivering his narrative as dramatically as he can with his own Long Island accent.  A make-shift orchestra of his friends playing a viola, a kick drum with a mallet and a loud electric guitar are accompanying him with smart, sleek arrangement, raw energy and complete dedication. So much started for me and for so many others, digging the vibe of this DIY band of twenty-somethings, full of attitude and love of art and literature.

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Lou Reed grew up in suburban Freeport, NY, studied English at Syracuse University and then moved into Manhattan after college.  He was working as a staff writer for a cheap knock-off record label when he met avant-garde classical musician John Cale and they formed the Velvet Underground with a college buddy of Reed’s and his Long Island pal’s little sister.   At the time the VU were forming, The Beatles, British pop and Motown dominated the American pop radio.  Bob Dylan and folk music were huge in Greenwich Village.  Reed & Cale chose to make something else.  They were pop music fans who were too weird and too smart to make main stream pop music themselves.  And just at the moment of their formation they were introduced to Andy Warhol, the king of the outsider artist’s take on insider’s pop culture.  Under Warhol’s patronage they made their first album and began appearing as part of the pop artist’s traveling multi-media shows.  They went on to make 4 inspired studio albums to limited commercial success before breaking up in 1970.  Lou Reed went on to a long solo career with a devoted cult following and a radio hit or two.  To this day, the Velvet Underground are well known to be the inspiration for countless famous bands and artists that came after them from all over the place.  “The Lou Reeds” that I sing about in my song are every such aspiring rocker whoever dreamed of coming to the big city, re-defining himself with an air of intimidating New York cool and making some uncompromising yet ultimately successful work.

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I myself came to live in the city from suburban New York. By the time I was a teen, I wanted to live in downtown Manhattan and spend my life making art.  I wanted to read every great piece of literature I could read and write my own narratives.  I wanted to be surrounded by invigorating art & culture, wild goings on and extreme personalities.  I wanted to feel the collective groove of sexy, catchy pop rhythms and sing my own weird song over that groove back into the collective.  I wanted to feel the sonic wash of loud music all around me.  I wanted real, no bullshit personality, craft and human experience to shine through the songs I made and listened to. I wanted everyone I worked with to share that excitement and that addiction to the miracle of music and language and art, the mystery of life and the joy of rock and roll…

…I wanted to be the Velvet Underground. I wanted to be Lou Reed.

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Recommended listening:

The Velvet Underground:

The Velvet Underground and Nico 1967

White Light/White Heat 1968

The Velvet Underground 1969

Loaded 1970

VU released 1985

Another View released 1986

Lou Reed:

Transformer 1972

Berlin 1973

New York 1989

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The Words

During the recording sessions for my album Grand Hotel a few years ago, I had lyric sheets sitting out on the console in the control room.  One of the musicians playing on the album picked up the sheets and started reading the lyrics while I was out of the room.   When I came back, he told me he’d just read the lyrics and was happily surprised to find out how cool the words to the songs were.  This guy had probably already played those very songs 50 times or more with me in concert.  He just hadn’t ever paid any attention to what I was singing.  It’s not really that rare.  I’ve met a lot of people claim to not really care at all what the words to a song are.

Personally, I’ve always cared about the words to songs.  There’s an incredible feeling I get when I hear a well-crafted line sung or read.  I got hooked on that feeling at a very young age and I’ve never been able to kick the habit.  Have you ever seen a well-turned double play in a baseball game?  A well-turned lyric gives me a similar feeling, but on many more levels.  Maybe it’s like the taste of a fine wine for a wine connoisseur or a rich Columbian coffee for a coffee freak.  When I hear or read a great line, I feel a heightened sense of wonder and a deep gratitude for being able to be here to experience the delight.   When a great lyric sits upon a delightful tune, the pleasure is even more exquisite.  Give an Irving Berlin song a shot sometime, or a Bob Marley song.  You might feel it.

People have found delight in rhyme and they’ve written and sung verse of some kind or another for centuries.  Truly gifted poets have always been rare.  It seems like they get more and more rare.  In recent years what’s most often called “poetry” is some kind of faux intellectual exercise, usually the opposite of well-crafted lyric expression.  It’s a shame.  I heard Joni Mitchell talking on the radio the other day.  She was saying all kinds of nasty things about poets, quoting put-downs about poets from Nietzsche[1].   When I was in high school, Joni came out with a record called Night Ride Home.  I can still remember the lyrics from several of the album’s tracks.

Is this just vulgar electricity?

Is this the edifying fire?

Does your smile’s covert complicity

Debase as it admires

Are you just checking out your mojo

Or am I just fighting off growing old?

All I ever wanted was just to come in from the cold…[2]

…Sounds kind of like poetry to me, Joni…really good poetry.

Lyrics can lift you up; they can knock you over; they can blow your mind.  And they don’t have to be lofty or intellectual or academic in any way.  Willie Dixon didn’t study verse at a university, but his great lines get me every time I hear them…

I was accused of murder in the first degree

The judge’s wife cried “Let the man go free”[3]

I feel an equal lift from the lyrics of an old folk song “Shady Grove”

Peaches in the summertime

Apples in the fall

If I can’t have the girl I love

I don’t want none at all

A truly poetic moment of lyric craft is an arrangement of words or word images that moves us, that speaks to us in a way more profound than conversational words might.  Well-crafted lyrics have a rhythmic sense and an aesthetic sense and they lead us to a truth or truths we may have trouble articulating otherwise.

For all we know this may only be dream

We come and go like a ripple on a stream…

 

A great deal has been conveyed in two pretty little lines.  The last two lines of that same song hold a lot of weight too:

…Tomorrow was made for some

But tomorrow may never come for all we know.[4]

Simple, yet expressive and beautiful lyrics are extremely hard to craft.  Writing really good lyrics requires clearing away all of our own personal bullshit and tapping into a kind of collective dream so we might speak on a broader level to a host of people outside the particulars of our own experience.  That’s always been a fairly tall order and it’s only getting taller in the individualist consumer societies we’ve set up.

You can have the best there is but it’s going to cost you all your love

You won’t get it for money.[5]

Most people aren’t up for giving anything all of their love, or even beginning to find out how much love they have to give.  But ol’ Bob was right, the best of anything real can’t be bought, however well the illusion of store-bought experience is woven into our imagination by generations of our own lore and advertising.   So maybe all of the lame “poets” that abound today and have annoyed Joni & Nietzsche so much historically are people who aren’t willing to give “all their love” to their lines.  Poetry, the really good stuff, is a serious dedication for sure.   Words can be a whole lot more than just babble, but it’s going to take some work.  Getting at what Van Morrison aptly called the “inarticulate speech of the heart” takes a kind of digging and searching few will be up for.

When I cannot sing my heart

I can only speak my mind[6]

That’s very true.  We may dedicate our lives to attempting to sing our hearts and end up just speaking our minds over and over again.  Just speaking our minds all the time won’t be enough to make anything as meaningful and durable as a beautiful Beatles song.  And while we’re talking away, we might miss something really great being spoken in our midst.  In 1963, Bob Dylan heard “10,000 whispering and nobody listening.”[7]  Imagine how many whispering non-listeners he’s heard by today.   If we talk without really listening, we will only ever be able to whisper and never be able to speak with any kind of voice that carries.  The words and the songs are everywhere if we can find them, but we won’t find them talking.  If we ever hope to have something to say, it’s going to take some serious listening…

Up above my head I hear music in the air

And I really do believe there’s a heaven somewhere[8]

 It’s up there for us to hear, if we can remember to turn off the talk radios that are inside us and all around us sometimes.  The more we listen, the more we’ll hear and the better messengers we can be of what we hear.  The more we listen, the more we’ll be able to make out what our own words sound like.   If we listen with sharp ears, open minds and open hearts, we will find a vast expanse of garbage that stretches beyond the horizons all around us.   We’ll also find a vast wealth of wonderful things to listen to.  “There are heroes in the seaweed”[9] if we can find them.   I’m pretty sure all of the answers are still “blowing in the wind” to this day[10].  But who among us will ever cultivate the kind of listening ability it will take to make out anything the wind is saying?


[1] In a June 4, 2013 interview on CBC radio with Jian Ghomeshi, Joni Mitchell attributed two quotes on poets to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Sarathustra:

1.”The poet is the vainest of the vain.  Even before the ugliest of water buffalo doth he fan his tail…I’ve looked among him for an honest man and all I’ve dredged up are old gods’ heads.”

2.”He muddies his waters that he might appear deep.”

[2] From the song “Come in from the Cold” by Joni Mitchell

[3] From the song “The Back Door Man”

[4] From the song “For All We Know”, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis

[5] From the song “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan

[6] From the song “Julia” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney

[7] From the song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan

[8] From the song “Up Above My Head” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, crica 1945

[9] from the song “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen

[10] from the song “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan’s Writing

Bob-Dylan_l

When it comes to writing song lyrics in English, for me there’s Bob Dylan and then there’s everyone else.  Many, many songwriters and many, many, many songs have fascinated me and inspired me and continue to fascinate me and inspire me in my life.  None have inspired me or fascinated me quite so much as the songs of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest poets I’ve ever come across in the English language. He’s one of those guys like Shakespeare.  A million fools will tell you he’s brilliant but they’re actually right.  And that’s not to take away from his music writing either.  Dylan’s words flow brilliantly over his music.  His melodies aren’t often complicated but they’re made with a catchy, seamless simplicity that’s incredibly hard to achieve even once, let alone hundreds and hundreds of times.

I got a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits when I was fourteen.  As soon as I heard those songs I just wanted to learn and recite every line.  They opened up all kinds of feelings I had but couldn’t express; they stimulated my mind.  The words and the voice of the singer had so much anger, alienation, playfulness, love and sensitivity all at once.   It was overwhelming.  I hadn’t been so excited since I had first heard the Beatles as a small child.  I walked all around my little suburban town in the cold that winter singing those songs to myself.  At times I would bust out laughing with joy from just how great the writing was.  Pretty soon thereafter, I taped my brother’s copy of Bringing It All Back Home.  It was hard to believe that so many images and stories and lovely rhymes were poured into one album.  Dylan’s poetry became the gold standard for me, the great challenge.  I figured if lyrics could be this good, evoke such a vivid picture and tell such a moving story, why try for less?  I might never get close to as poetic myself but I could try.

Many years later, I was in Philadelphia on a winter’s night to open a show for a master singer/songwriter/guitarist named Chris Smither.  We had some time backstage before the show and we just started talking about Dylan songs and Dylan records. Eventually, we pulled out our guitars played each other some of our favorites.  Smither played a great version of “Visions of Johanna” in ¾ time.  I had fallen in love with “Visions” when someone had given me Blonde on Blonde as a holiday gift nearly 20 years ago.  Smither himself had been digging the song since it came out in ’66 and he was still as delighted with it as I was, going on 50 years later.  He had been there in the 60’s when everyone was freaking out on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  A whole generation of artists had and tried to create their own continuation of the American folk tradition.  Bob Dylan was able to seamlessly incorporate so much of the wealth of that history, tradition and lore better than anyone else, and he did it with a narrative voice more individual, more evocative and more innovative than anyone from that time or since then.  His writing went far beyond that folk revival of the 60’s, in album after album that followed his first few.  And though he wrote all different types of narratives in a number of styles he managed never to lose a profound connection to his roots.  To my ear, no one has come near him.

I don’t really have anything to say about Bob Dylan as a person.  I don’t know Bob Dylan or anyone who does.  I’ve read some stories and seen some movies like everyone else.  I’ve been to a bunch of his concerts, but I was pretty late to that party.  I do recall a summer evening show at an Amphitheater outside of Chicago in the later 90’s that was pretty darn impressive.  As much as I’ve enjoyed catching him in concert and  learning about his life, I think the records and the songs are inspirational enough by themselves.  If you’re looking for where to start with Bob Dylan’s catalog, it’s daunting.  There’s just so much.   I’ll give you 10 albums filled with what are for me the most “Holy Sh_t!” moments of Dylan poetry.  Please note:  Some of my favorite individual Dylan songs aren’t even on these albums.  These are just a more than adequate starting point.

1.The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963

2.The Times They Are A’ Changin’ 1964

3.Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964

4.Bringing it All Back Home 1965

5.Highway 61 Revisted 1965

6.Blonde on Blonde 1966

7.John Wesley Harding 1967

8.Blood On The Tracks 1975

9.Oh Mercy 1989

10.Time Out Of Mind 1997

Appendix:

Here a few other English language lyric writers whose work I love:

Paul Simon

Chuck Berry

Leonard Cohen

Hank Williams

Willie Dixon

Irving Berlin

Randy Newman

David Byrne

Hal David

Joni Mitchell

Cole Porter

Lennon/McCartney

George Harrison

Hoagie Carmichael

Donovan

David Bowie

Robert Hunter

Mark Knopfler

…I think Bob Dylan is better than all of them.

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