Friday, November 1, 2013

What I Really Wrote: 600 Words on Woody Guthrie's AMERICAN RADICAL PATRIOT (Rounder)

WORLD magazine recently published a bowdlerized version of this article.  And I think I understand my editor's reasons.  But I also think that my original piece deserves a slot in the blogosphere.  So here it is....

Paula Deen, come home.  All is forgiven.

At the risk of trivializing a fascinating and culturally important project, it behooves those troubled by the witch hunt currently targeting anyone who’s ever uttered a certain racial epithet (hint: it starts with n) to investigate American Radical Patriot (Rounder), a six-CD, one-DVD, one-78-RPM record, and one-256-page-biography box set that sheds essential light on America’s most important folk singer, Woody Guthrie.

Discs One through Four present interviews and illustrative song performances that Guthrie granted the folklorists Alan and Elizabeth Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1940, mainly on the subject of Dust Bowl refugees.  Guthrie, a riveting storyteller at 27, sounds 50 at least. 

Disc Five presents songs Guthrie recorded in 1941 in support of the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. involvement in World War II.  (He joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 and served in the Army shortly before the war ended.)  

Disc Six’s highlight is a Guthrie-narrated radio drama called “The Lonesome Traveler” that, along with 10 demos referred to as “V.D. songs,” warns of the evils of syphilis.  (The 78-RPM vinyl presents the 20-year-old Bob Dylan singing a Guthrie V.D. song as well.)  Compared to attitudes prevalent in 2013, Guthrie’s frankly cautionary tone sounds almost moralistic, even naive.   

Naivety, in fact, is what emerges as Guthrie’s defining characteristic.  While never a Communist, Guthrie was Communist friendly enough to provide the enemy succor.  While the Common Man he championed was often indistinguishable from a Rugged Individualist, he also believed Big Government capable of more good than harm, and he provided that enemy succor too.     

Yet it’s not “naive” but another “N-word” that would be American Radical Patriot’s big revelation were Guthrie not a leftist icon.

“Until he was called on it,” writes Bill Nowlin in the box set’s book, “he used the word ‘nigger’ when referring to a well-known fiddle tune of the day--but once a radio listener wrote in and explained how hurtful that word was, from that time in 1937 on, he never used it again....” 

Fair enough.  Except that it’s unfair, and not only to Paula Deen but to Elvis Presley too.

In the early 1990s, rumors circulated that a tape would soon surface in which the King of Rock and Roll would be heard committing the Unforgivable Sin.  Rock critics panicked.  Elvis would have to be dethroned.  But the tape never surfaced, and Elvis survived. 

Guthrie may too--he utters nothing verboten on American Radical Patriot.  But he does say “negro,” and for some that will be blacklist worthy enough.  The worst Elvis has ever been proved to have said is “colored guys.”   

An equally captivating folk-box-with-book is Live at Caffè Lena: Music From America's Legendary Coffeehouse,1967-2013 (Tompkins Square).  The titular dates are misleading: Folkies began performing at the Saratoga Springs, NY, haunt in 1960.  But so far anthologists have not unearthed tapes dating back that far, hence the three-disc set’s 1967 starting point.

Fellow-traveler politics surely played--and play--a role in the Caffè Lena story, but they’re given short shrift in the box set’s three CDs and the 31-page libretto.  The all-acoustic music gets the spotlight.  And, uneven though the 47 performances are (in terms of both audio and aesthetic quality), sparks do fly.

Recommended: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott doing Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and Aztec Two Step doing “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty,” which are every bit as compelling as they are historically revisionist and-or wrong headed.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hair Apparent: The Rest of the Sean Michel 'Electric Delta' Story

On September 3, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing the 34-year-old gospel-blues warrior musician Sean Michel (pronounced Michelle) at length for WORLD Magazine.  The occasion was the recent release of his fire-breathing gospel-blues album Electric Delta.  Much of what he had to say landed on the cutting-room floor.  The partially edited portions of the transcript below pick up some of the pieces.

Electric Delta, according to your website, “was recorded completely analog to two-inch tape.”  What are the advantages of using such a process to record loud, electric, gospel-blues?  

There’s a lot of different advantages.  What we were trying to accomplish as a three-piece band--one, we wanted it to be live.  You can do that digitally.  But there’s something about the fact that all music recording, especially blues or gospel or early rock-and-roll, was all done live to two-inch tape.  We wanted our project to sound real, like it did back in the day.  For the album we did before Electric Delta--Back to the Delta--we stripped everything down in an old church in a Mississippi town called Rolling Fork, where Muddy Waters was born, and we did everything live to tape.  There was no post-production work or anything.  We wanted it to feel like a ’30s or ’40s blues record, and [Electric Delta] was the natural progression of that into electric, early rock-and-roll.

What inspired you to try this approach?
We were trying to get back to our roots, to what had been inspiring us musically for so long because we’d kind of lost our way, and we were getting real scatterbrained as far as what direction, musically, we were going.  This brought us back to the foundation.  We just wanted to give back to the people what we had been learning.

Is it your intention to record your next album in the same way?
Well, I hope it’s just a further progression of “Hey, this is what we’re doing musically.  This is what we’re learning.”  But sometimes that can be dangerous.

Because an artist is constantly evolving.  You hope your listeners can join you in that and be cool with it.  But sometimes, if you find your niche and your wheelhouse--you know, artists tend to want to stay there so that people will buy records.  We still want to do that.  There’s part of that too.  It’s just sometimes it’s difficult because it’s difficult to find that wheelhouse.  I think we found a good chunk of the wheelhouse with Electric Delta.    

What is your next project?
The next project we’re working on is going to be a short EP, maybe six or seven songs.  And we’re planning on doing that in a studio of our friend’s, and he does all-digital stuff.  So, you know, it’s not going to be to tape, but we’re still wanting to do it live and have the bulk of the instrumentation done with the three of us at the same time.

Any plans to keep the word delta in the title? 

(Laughs) It’s going to be called Raise the Dead, after a song that we did for a friend of ours who wrote a book for Thomas Nelson.  He basically had a soundtrack for the book, and he chose us to do one of the songs.  We wanted to write songs in that vein as far as rock-and-roll’s concerned--a little bit more aggressive--and toy with that.  It’s kind of just for fun.  So we’re hoping some good songs come out of that too and that it doesn’t confuse people too much as far as what our sound really is (laughs).

You mentioned having lost your musical way.  How did it happen, and how did you know that you had?
In 2003, my manager at the time helped me form a band, and we toured for about four years.  It was a completely different style of music, which I didn’t feel was completely me but which was all I really knew.  Then, after a dramatic turn of events, my whole band, after four years, quit on me.  That was pretty heartbreaking in itself.  And that’s kind of how the whole blues thing started, with me anyway, or gospel-blues at least.  I was starting brand new with this different style and learning how to play it.  I was always influenced by that kind of music anyway, so singing it wasn’t that hard of a transition, but the playing was.  Anyway, in the midst of that, I never had a full band again.  I think that was a big reason for being so all over the map, because I never had these set guys that I always worked with.  It was, like, several people from different backgrounds, different influences, and we were doing covers and doing this and doing that.  I was so scattered because I didn’t really know where or who I was yet with the music.  My manager could see that too, and I guess he had the vision to see that the best thing for me was to get back to those original artists I was listening to after my band quit and I went into, like, a huge depression.  I was listening to all this gospel blues from the ’30s and the ’40s, and it’s real stripped down.

Was one of those gospel-blues artists Blind Willie Johnson?
Yeah, he’s a huge player in that--and Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Massive.  He didn’t do a whole lot of gospel stuff, but he has this one album called Amazing Grace that he did with a choir of people from Como, Mississippi, and that album is basically almost the full foundation of Back to the Delta.  I listened to that record a hundred million times.  It’s just Fred McDowell’s slide guitar and four vocalists and him.  And that’s what we did.  I had four vocalists and me.  I had a guitar.  We added harmonica, and we also had foot stomping and stuff like that.  But [Amazing Grace] was pretty much the album that guided me through Back to the Delta.

Who is most responsible for the prominence of the glam-rocking drums in Electric Delta’s final mix?  I’m thinking mainly of “While I Run This Race” and “Unbelievable.”
As far as “Unbelievable,” that was our idea.  A lot of people said, “You sound like the Black Keys on that song.”  I was like, “Well, yeah.”  But the Black Keys are basically just ripping off Gary Glitter, you know, with the Jock Jams kind of tune.  And that’s the same feel we wanted to have.  “Unbelievable,” at first, like a lot of songs, was just a jam.  We were messing around one day in the practice room, and that was the beat that we were fooling around with.  And then we built on that.  So, as far as that song in particular, the foundation of it had always been that (orally mimics Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” drum beat).  But it’s funny that you mention “While I Run This Race.”  We had several different options.  We could track drums live in the main tracking room, or we could track them upstairs in this reverb hallway, which we did on a couple of songs.  And “While I Run This Race” is the only song for which we tracked the drums in this enclosed, super-dead room to give you the kind of dead drums that they had in the ’60s and ’70s.  But in the mix it ended up being a little more prominent than maybe I would’ve liked.  But it still sounds cool.  

It sounds good to me.
That’s cool.  And the thing with us with the drums--and I told our engineer this, Chris Mara--he had done some early-on mixes, and this was two weeks after we had tracked everything.  He gave us a CD of mixes straight from the board.  They were basically just premixes.  So I’d been listening to that for two weeks.  And they had a lot of energy.  It was basically what you hear on the album.  And the reason we chose to mix with him and not just record with him was that he told us, “I’m going to mix straight from the two-inch tape through this analog board, no whistles, no bells.”  And we were like, “O.K., cool.  That’s what we want.”  And the the rough mixes from the board were awesome.  Then he sent us these preliminary mixes that he’d worked on one day, and they sounded horrible.  They sounded like radio-station--“Let me take a wet blanket and throw it over these big huge drums we’d just recorded and loud guitars and crazy vocals.”  And I was really heartbroken and kind of losing my mind.  It sounded like demos I had made in previous years, and I wanted to break away from that and make a legitimate record to where when I handed it to people I could say, “This is as close as we could get to what you experience live right now.”  That was a big problem with our recordings before.  They could never stand up to what people were experiencing live.  

So what happened?
We went back into the studio, and he was like, “What’d you think of those preliminary mixes?”  And I didn’t say anything.  I just stayed silent.  And he was like, “Crap!”  He was really distraught.  And I was like, “Look, man, I just want to get back to those rough mixes you had on the board.”  So then he tells me, “Well, I dumped the songs down into Pro-Tools.”  And I was like, “Why did you do that?  The whole reason we’re staying with you is that you said you were going to mix straight from the board and were not going to do anything digitally, just analog.”  And he was like, “All right.  Well, I can do that.”  And I was like, “I know you can.  That’s why we frickin’ chose you and we’re staying with you.”  So he said, “Let’s do it.  Let’s give ourselves only 45 minutes to an hour for each song to mix,” which is kind of unheard of.  A lot of studios--they’ll spend a few days or hours upon hours on mixing.  Anyway, we kept ourselves to that limit.  We never spent longer than an hour mixing a song.  And we kept it essentially to the rough mixes.  I feel like we captured so many great tones on the front end that we didn’t need any compression or anything on the back end.  We just basically needed to set the levels right and roll with it.

Good job of standing up to Pro Tools.
Yeah.  But I’m not saying this to say I’m on this personal journey of trying to destroy Pro Tools.  I think there’s a lot of good that can come from that.  And, like I said--hopefully in January or February--we’re going to be making an EP on Pro Tools.  There’s a lot of convenience to it.  It’s just not what Electric Delta needed or wanted.  If we knew in our hearts that we put out a record that was a follow-up to Back to the Delta, which was all mixed live to tape, and then we recorded Electric Delta live to tape but then we mixed it in a digital format, that would’ve been compromising the original intent of that project.  And I feel like it would’ve been cheapening that when we gave it to people.  We had to stay true to what the format was, which was all analog.

You released Back to the Delta on vinyl and cassette only as a protest of sorts against our increasingly impatient music-listening habits.  Did you at any point consider releasing Electric Delta the same way?
Uh, well, we were kind of over tape (laughs).  I mean, cassette tapes are cool and everything, but they’re not a great seller (laughs).  I mean, all the tapes came with digital-download cards, and that’s the only reason we sell those.  But we did release [Electric Delta] on vinyl.  Honestly, we had to pay a lot more than we were wanting to because we had it mastered twice.  We mastered all the songs so that it would be better formatted to CD, and then a guy named Tommy Riggins mastered it another time for vinyl.  So if you sit down with the vinyl and you sit down with the CD, they sound a little bit different.  It’s not drastic or anything like that.  But you can definitely tell.  It’s almost like the difference between two really good coffees and just the way that they’re brewed.  They’re both really good.  It’s just that they’re different.

What does the term Delta mean to you?  
Man, it conjures up a lot of things.  The first thing, I think, is just life and death.  There’s so much that happened in the Delta that produced life, I mean as far as soil, the crops, which offered life to so many people, growing essential things that the country needed back in the day, whether it was cotton or food that was shipped wherever in the country, feeding families that worked there.  But it also brought a lot of death and destruction.  I mean, you think about the Mississippi River and the power behind it-- the power to offer life, the power to offer death.  And there was so much flooding that went on in that region, things that human beings could never control and still can’t today.  We just had a flood recently, a couple of years ago, to where most of the traffic along the Mississippi River on the interstates had to be completely re-routed.  And even living in a technologically advanced society, you can’t control those things.  So, in a lot of ways, the river is great symbolism for who God is.  He brings life and--not to say that God’s bringing death.  I don’t believe that.  But there are factors that come in to where humans can’t control God.  So when I think about the Delta, I think about those things.  I think about the kind of people--it’s usually the poor, especially the sharecroppers, where a lot of the music came from originally.  It was coming from these slaves that were shipped over and from generations of slaves that were chained down to poverty and--just hard work, man.  I mean, every single day at work that I will never probably ever experience, the intensity of being out in the fields thirteen hours a day--crippled hands, crippled backs from having to bend over picking cotton, and bruised hands from trying to pick cotton bolls and getting stabbed, no air conditioning, no electricity.  Yet that suffering produced art that, as far as these songs that they sang out there.  All the songs they sang were basically to help bring some relief to the suffering that they were having to endure with the work and the bondage.  And from that suffering and from that art sprang, I think, the greatest music ever, which has influenced so many styles of American music, which has influenced the world, whether it’s blues or country or rock-and-roll.  It all came from those Delta boys.   

Talk about “Hosea Blues.”
I don’t really venture into the Old Testament a lot, but I sat down one day and started reading Hosea.  And I started blushing. I mean, that is a dirty book, man.  It was a scandalous book.  It was meant to be a scandalous book when the prophets wrote it.  It was meant to be scandalous to wake the people of Israel up to the horrible things they were doing--to other people, to their own people, in their disobedience to the Lord.  So I started writing it originally as if it was God talking to Israel, specifically mentioning Israel.  But it sounded kind of dumb like that.  So my manager, Jay--he helps me with songwriting as far as lyrically and the content and the concepts--he was like, “Man, you just need to change it to a woman, like you’re a man talking to a woman.”  So we rearranged the wording, and it worked.  It was what the song needed.  I just chose Hosea because that happened to be the book that I got it from.  I wanted to let people know “This is where we got this imagery from” because if you look at the lyrics, they’re pretty scandalous as far as gospel music.  But, honestly, I was just taking some of those lines almost straight out of Hosea.  So I wanted people not to blame me.  I wanted them to see, like, “Oh, the Bible really did this, not Sean Michel.”  I didn’t want to get in trouble (laughs).   

How does the song go over live?
Sometimes churches don’t want us to play it.  And it’s kind of ridiculous to me that the people who get it the most are the people in the bars--which is not really that surprising, I guess, because it was the same way with Christ a lot of times when he preached.  It always seems like the “sinners” got his message a lot more than the priests did.  But sometimes churches don’t want us to play that song because it’s offensive to them.  And I’m like, “It’s straight from the book of Hosea!  Go read it!”  But, when we play that song, a lot of times I have a little story that I tell at the beginning to set the song up, and it’s basically just the imagery of Hosea itself, uh, marryin’ a ho and, you know, the ho never leaving except leaving the house to skip out on her man and all this stuff.  And then when she’s being auctioned off, the only one who’ll buy her back is Hosea, the man she’d been skipping out on the whole time.  It resonates with people from the get-go because we tell that story and then we start playing it.  I think it helps people get it better.  It’s a special song to me, man.

So you play both sacred and secular venues.
Yeah, we do both.  We play a lot of bars.  We play a lot of churches.  We play clubs, theaters--you know, we go around the world.  We just got back from Senegal in West Africa in December-January.  We did mission work through the music.  We’ve been to Chile.  We’ve been to India, Nepal--anywhere the Lord opens up a door for us to play some gospel rock-and-roll, we’re going to try to step through that door for sure.

Do these opportunities result from your being contacted one gig at a time, or do you work through some sort of organization?
The stuff overseas has been missionaries that contact us and have this vision to use a rock-and-roll concert to bring people in the community together and to start to share the gospel with them.  We just fly over there to facilitate that.  

Talk about your religious background--churches attended and the like.  How did you become this gospel-shouting, preaching guy?
My religious background is a bit schizophrenic.  My father was an atheist for the longest time.  He didn’t come to Christ ’til I was a senior in high school.  So my mother was my hugest influence spiritually.  She came to Christ when I was about five, through Jimmy Swaggart’s ministry down in Baton Rouge a long time ago.  So I grew up with, like, this heavy Pentecostalism influence--you know, watching a demon exorcism when I was six years old at a Bible study.  That’s  never a good thing for a kid to experience (chuckles).  But I also grew up with grandparents in New Orleans who were strict, old-school Roman Catholic.  So I attended Mass a lot.  I had a blend of high church and, you know, sometimes-crazy church.  Then my mother ended up going to this non-denominational church.  The pastor lived next door to us.  It was still very Charismatic, but they were really sound doctrinally, and that was a big influence on my life.  That’s when I first really started getting serious about who Jesus was.  

How old were you?
I was probably thirteen, fourteen.  I “said this prayer,” and I guess that’s what started my journey with the Lord.  Then, when my family moved up to Arkansas to Little Rock, when I was, like, fourteen, the Lord led me to a Southern Baptist church mainly through one of the only guys at the school who would befriend me at the time.  I got involved in their youth group, and they had an amazing student ministry.  That’s when the Lord really started rockin’ my world.  I got involved with Bible studies with guys my age and a little bit older as these dudes were mentoring me through the Scriptures.  That’s when things started really getting serious between me and the Lord.  

Are you still Southern Baptist?
I’m still Southern Baptist.  So, yeah, I guess something stuck.

At what point did you stop shaving?
Uh, I think I was 10 (laughs).  No, I stopped shaving in college.  In my junior year in college through a movie that I’d seen at that time--

Which movie?
Girl Interrupted, with Wynona Rider and Angelina Jolie.  Anyway, Jared Leto was in that movie.  And I was like, “Man, that dude looks good with a beard.  I’m going to try that.”  So I started growing one.  I grew it for two or three weeks, and come to find out I could grow a pretty sweet beard.  But it really freaked me out, so I shaved it all off.  Then I was like, “Why did I do that?”  So then I grew it out again, and it freaked me out again, so I shaved it all off again.  Then, after that, I was like, “Forget this.  I’m just going to grow it out.”  So I grew it out for about a year-and-a-half, and it was pretty nice looking.  Then I had to shave it for graduation because my mom was embarrassed of me and didn’t want me to get my diploma “looking like a homeless bum.”  So I shaved it.  I had a two-tone face (laughs).  I looked like a freak of nature getting my diploma instead of a homeless bum--or as if I’d had a mishap at the tanning bed.

What was your degree?
Biblical Studies.  Studio Art was my minor--painting and drawing and stuff like that.  So I guess my beard fit my degree perfectly.  I’m not sure why my mom made me shave it off (laughs).  But that’s how things are in the South and Western culture.  Everything’s about outer appearance.  Anyway, that was in, like, 2001.  I’d shaved my face for graduation, but I still had long hair.  Then I went to a prayer meeting shortly after that and just felt like the Lord completely wanted me to shave my head bald.  So then I looked like a skinhead.  The sad thing was is that that was in January, and it was really cold.  And I was like, “Why did I do this?”  But it was almost like getting rid of everything before new growth was going to come out.  So in February 2002 I started growing everything back again, and I haven’t had a clean-shaven face since.  

Well, you look like the guy that I hear when I listen to Electric Delta.
(Laughs) Yeah, my drummer, he always jokes--well, I don’t think he’s joking honestly--but he’s like, “Man, if you ever cut your beard, I’m quittin’ the band.”  

In retrospect, what do you make of your American Idol experience in 2006?
It was real awkward.  I’d never watched the show, and I didn’t like it at all.  I only went to the tryout because I had some friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time who were going to try out.  I’d just found out about the tryout the night before.  So we really just drove to Memphis, which is a couple of hours from where I live, to hang out with some friends and eat really good barbecue.  I got cut just before the live show, and I’d forgotten all about it because the show didn’t air for another three months.  Then they ended up showing my clip, and then things got really crazy publicity wise.  

In what way?
I was basically on the phone for two weeks, non-stop almost, doing interviews.  And I got super depressed and super tired.  I couldn’t leave my house because I was getting bombarded by people.  A lot of people that do music do it for the fame, and I struggled with a lot of that when I was younger.  The Lord used certain books and certain influences to get me away from that, from the fame aspect.  But when a little taste of fame did come, it was really hard for me to deal with.  I went into a bit of depression.  But the Lord used all that to teach me a lot about myself and how he interacted with the crowds when he was preaching.  He was kind of a big deal, you know.  He was a rock star, basically, before people changed their minds and wanted to murder him, which is what a lot of what “Unbelievable”--the song, the lyrical content--is about.  Anyway, the Lord taught me a lot through that experience, about how to love people and take the time to talk with them and get to know them even though they were strictly like, “Oh!  You’re on a TV show!  I want to be your best friend!”

(Photos by Tyler Andrews, courtesy of Sean Michel's website.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "W"

1. “What Can I Do for You?” (1980).  If, as Keats wrote, beauty is truth and truth beauty, this song from Saved contains all that anyone need know about Dylan’s having thrown in with the Vineyard Fellowship in the late-’70s.  The melody and the chord progression it glides in on, the voice sighing in the wilderness, the expressive simplicity of the heartfelt first-person lyrics whether original or paraphrasing Scripture--each is without parallel in Dylan’s vast body of work.  Taken together, they could relieve even Mona Lisa of the highway blues.  And then there’s the harmonica.  What was once an instrument for playing skeleton keys in the rain has become a rusty hinge blowing in the wind, setting the chimes of freedom to flashing. 

2. “When the Deal Goes Down” (2006).  More love, more theft--this time for and from both Henry Timrod and Bing Crosby.  Getting old and pledging his love have never suited Dylan better.  “Love is all there is,” he implies in a voice more frailer than the rose poking through his clothes.  “It makes the world go ’round.”  And even though “we live and we die” and “know not why,” love’s enough to see us through when, to quote Larry Elder, the fit hits the shan.  It is not, however, enough to keep Dylan from being haunted by words he “never meant nor wished to say.”  And therein lies the tragedy of this song’s many spoken and unspoken universal truths: Not only is everything broken, but we ourselves have broken or at least participated in the breaking of a lot more of it than we’d like to admit.  So Dylan admits it for us.  Catharsis longa, vita brevisAnd the video is still my favorite Scarlett Johansson film.

3. “What Good Am I” (1989).  Unlike so many of his s-album gospel songs, this deeply spiritual exercise in tonal breath control finds Dylan extracting the log in his own eye rather than going after the speck in his neighbor’s.  It’s a painful operation, as anyone who has ever tried it will attest.  But once it’s over and the eye has had a chance to heal, its capacity for being seen through rather than seen with is immeasurably greater than it ever was before.  It’s almost as if Dylan wishes he’d been a doctor.  Maybe then he’d have saved some life that’d been lost--or at least discovered a cure for the disease of conceit. 

4. “We Better Talk This Over” (1978).  If this song’s rimes didn’t fire so rapidly past on a country shuffle worthy of the Marshall Tucker Band auditioning for Billy Swan, the couplet that goes “The vows that we kept are now broken and swept / ’neath the bed where we slept” might have achieved by now the classic status of a George Jones lyric if not the classic status of these lines from an unpublished, posthumously discovered poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky: “The love boat has crashed against the everyday.  You and I, we are quits, and there is no point to listing animal pains, sorrows, and hurts.”  But the rimes do fire rapidly past.  “Don’t look back,” Dylan seems to be saying as he himself fails--and seems to know that he’s failing--to practice what he preaches.  The hypocrisy weighs on him.  He can’t let go, and he won’t let go unless she does so first because unless she does, letting go doesn’t seem right or possible.  They’ve done nothing to each other that time will not erase, but time passes slowly when you’re lost in the dream of being a magician who wishes he could tie back the bond that both of you have gone beyond because beyond there lies nothin’.   

5. “The Wicked Messenger” (1967).  The instrumentation is largely if not entirely unplugged, but the blues run through this underrated John Wesley Harding gem as surefootedly as they do through anything on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, or Blonde on Blonde.  Question: Is the “Eli” mentioned in Verse One a person or a place?  If a person, that person is most likely the biblical priest and judge to whom Hannah turned over her son Samuel.  “God said to Hannah, ‘Give me your son.’ / Hannah said, ‘O.K.’” lacks a certain something, but, given the reference to the parting of the seas in the last verse, the possibility cannot be ruled out.  Neither, however, can the possibility that Eli is Eli “Cotton Gin” Whitney.  Dylan does, after all, consider America’s participation in the slave trade to be her Original Sin.  Or does he?  So much of his career, after all, based as it is on the music that displaced Africans made to stop their suffering and ease their pain, is a tree with Roots.  And what if Eli is a place?  Is it the ancient Irish kingdom Éli (not likely unless Dylan was tossing Van Morrison a prescient bone), the modern-day Israeli West Bank settlement Eli, Mateh Binyamin (not likely since it wasn’t established until 1984--on September 11 by the way), the Iranian village Eli (not likely, cf. “Neighborhood Bully”), or the unincorporated community of Eli, Kentucky?  At a mere two minutes and one second, it’s almost over before it begins.  But it isn’t really over ’til it’s over, and it’s not over ’til the wicked messenger’s audience tells him not to bring any news unless it’s good.  Interesting: When Dylan himself finally began bringing the Good News, he discovered that his audience only wanted the other kind.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "V"

1. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): Perhaps the greatest five-verse song ever recorded, certainly the closest Dylan’s lyrics ever came to stand-alone poetry, impeccably enunciated in the voice of a freewheelingly rebellious generation for whom drugs and sex were only pawns in its game.  Who cares whom it was about?  When I interviewed Chris Smither in 2006, he was psyched that he had just recorded a waltz-time version.  He had to excise a word or two to make the scansion work, but he ended up with a truly fine rendition, retaining and savoring such amazing lines as “See the primitive wallflower freeze / when the jelly-faced women all sneeze, / hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeeze I can’t find my knees.’”  Steve “New Dylan” Forbert was Smither’s co-billed act during that year’s tour.  But each time Smither performed “Visions,” it was clear that the “old Dylan” would always suffice.

2. “A Voice from on High” (2002): I’ve typed it before, and I’ll type it again: So much for our hero’s “Christian period”’s having ended with Shot of Love.  Dylan opened seven of his 2002 shows with this Bill Monroe gospel chestnut, which goes like this: “I hear a voice calling.  It must be our Lord. /  He's calling from heaven on high. /  I hear a voice calling, I've gained the reward /  in the land where we never shall die. / He died, and he paid a dear price for me. /  He died on the hill so that I should go free, / and I'll follow his footsteps up the narrow way / and be ready to meet him when he calls on that day.  [...] /  He died on the cross, that old rugged cross / so we would be saved from our sins and not lost....”   This, in other words, is what salvation really must be like after awhile.  Even curiouser: The similarity of Monroe’s opening lines to those from Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” that go “I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling, / must be the mother of our Lord.”  I know, I know, more plagiarism (yawn).

3. “Visions of Johanna” (2013 Live at Adroscoggin Bank Colisée [Lewiston, Maine, 10 Apr. 2013]): A friend of mine (whose sister-in-law leads the Brooklyn, NY, band Wide Right for what it’s worth) heard this recently bootlegged version and said that Dylan sounded “like a ghost whispering into the night.”  And why not?  After all, that’s what Dylan will someday be to everyone of us unfortunate enough to outlive him.  I might’ve described the overall effect somewhat differently--“like the ghost of eccentricity whispering in the bones of our faces” maybe--especially if I’d heard it with my own ears when I caught the Americanarama Tour three months later in Cincinnati.  But by then the song had gone the way of Duke Robillard.

4. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Biograph): In his 1985 Creem review of Biograph, John “Eleganza” Mendelsohn criticized the inclusion of a 1966 live version of this track because it sounded, he said, as if Dylan were performing “from the bottom of a well.”  What Mendelsohn failed to mention: that the well had not run dry, that Dylan might not have been waving but drowning, and that drowning men have exploding consciences too.  Just ask Arlo Guthrie, who recorded “Drowning Man” the same year that Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming, or Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Bierce exactly one hundred years before Dylan recorded “Band of the Hand” with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the last verse of which went “And for you, pretty baby, / I know your story’s too painful to share. / One day though you’ll be talking in your sleep, / And when you do, I wanna be there.”  Johanna would’ve known exactly what he meant.

5.Visions of Johanna” (1966, Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966): Robert Christgau duly noted that Dylan sounded bored with this song and every other composition performed on this album’s acoustic first disc.  I agree.  By the time he performed this version to a European crowd more than happy to prove that the “everybody” who “must get stoned” included the then-twenty-five-year-old singer-songwriter they’d paid good money to see, Dylan’s up-past-the-dawn sleeplessness had clearly ceased to amaze him.  But the stark clarity of this unplugged arrangement captures the durability of the words better than any other so-far-released rendition.  And the fact that Dylan was complaining about Madonna’s not showing up seventeen full years before she actually did just shows how far ahead of the times--and of the times’ audiences--he couldn’t help being.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "U"

1. “Unbelievable” (1990).  When Under the Red Sky came out in the fall of 1990, critics (with the exception of the ever perspicacious Robert Christgau) rushed to outdo each other in heaping invectives upon it.  Ironically, it was with “Unbelievable,” an apocalyptically rumblin’, explosive blues rocker, that someone at NPR’s All Things Considered chose to conclude Ken Tucker’s unequivocally negative Red Sky review, thus making Tucker’s assessment--and by extension those of his fellow travelers as well--seem almost, well, unbelievable.  In retrospect, the only explanation for Under the Red Sky’s instant unpopularity is that it followed Oh Mercy, which just one year earlier had been hailed as proof that Dylan could not only come back but also come back all the way.  Understandably, folks wanted more where that came from.  Instead, they got its opposite.  Replacing the atmospherically skeletal spookiness provided by Daniel Lanois was a hard, Wilbury-Twisting gloss provided by Don and David Was.  Replacing Oh Mercy’s brooding lyrics awash in familiar Dylanesque archetypes were warped nursery rhymes like “Cat’s in the Well” and “Wiggle Wiggle.”  A vaguely Judeo-Christian religiosity persisted courtesy of the rollickingly rambunctious “God Knows,” but compared to the downright prayerful nature of Oh Mercy’s “Ring Them Bells,” “What Good Am I?,” and “Shooting Star,” Dylan seemed to be taking even that by-now-to-be-expected strand of his post-conversion music with a grain of sand.  Dylan himself has disparaged the album, saying in essence that he felt he wasn’t giving the album his all because he was simultaneously involved with making the Traveling Wilburys’ Volume Three.  Yet, at the time, the Was Bros. had nothing but praise for his work ethic.  And certainly their decision to bring an ever-rotating cast of characters to the sessions no doubt fanned the flame of spontaneity toward which the moth of Dylan’s productivity had often been drawn.  But back to “Unbelievable”: You can see the writing on the wall inviting trouble.  And although the lyrics essentially comprise a compressed catalogue of every negative judgment that Dylan has ever made about our gone-wrong world, his critique of pseudo-psychiatry stands out.  “Every brain is civilized,” he growls.  “Every nerve is analyzed.”  That’s “is civilized,” by the way, as in made to submit to simplification, classification, categorization, and finalization.  It’s as certain that such a collective brain will inevitably explode as it is that Dylan should hope the pieces wouldn’t fall on him.  

2. “Ugliest Girl in the World” (1988).  Not counting most of his contributions to The Basement Tapes, this song is one of the few sheer laugh riots in Dylan’s oeuvre.  As for who wrote what in this uproarious Dylan/Robert Hunter co-composition, this much can be sure: Dylan wrote “I don't mean to say that she got nothing goin'. / She got a weird sense of humor that's all her own.”  He had, after all, told Rolling Stone a few years earlier--speaking on the topic of why there aren’t more women rock-and-rollers--that Joni Mitchell “has a weird sense of rhythm that’s all her own.”  Of all the “ugly” songs that threatened to merit an entire genre of their own in the years leading up to the new millennium (e.g., Gillette’s “Mr. Personality,” Fleming & John’s “Ugly Girl”), this one was hands-down the least beholden to the finger-wagging legalism of the burgeoning sensitivity police--and entirely in character given Dylan’s Biograph-interview insistence that a woman could be in a wheelchair for all he cared as long as her voice breathed soul.   

3. “Union Sundown” (1983).  Lest we forget, only one verse of this smoldering ahead-of-its-time anti-NAFTA Infidels cut is about “unions.”  The rest is about the “Union,” i.e., what came to be known as the United States of America after the Northern gods and generals secured a surrender from Robert E. Lee after the War Between the States had run its course.  Of course, in Dylan’s mind, the two are connected.  One can almost see him walking into a Walmart, turning an ashtray over, seeing a sticker that says “Made in China” and thinking that mankind has invented his doom.  Yet something in the furiously forward motion of this indignantly rocking track says he knows that doom is not the end, not as long as one can laugh at the roll call of sweat-shop countries that Dylan trots out herein at his black-humor best.  But back to China (full disclosure: where I currently live and where just last week I bought a bootleg DVD of No Direction Home for $1.50): Dylan doesn’t mention it at all.  Maybe, somewhere deep in his bones, he knew he’d perform there someday and encore with the most impassioned “Forever Young”s of his career.  Seriously, track down and listen to the Beijing 2011 bootlegs.  They’ll make you cry.

4. “Up to Me” (1974).  It’s just as well that this song was left off the official Blood on the Tracks.  Stellar though it is, its qualities (multi-perspective description, characters out the wazoo, flashes of fortune-cookie wisdom) would’ve most likely seemed redundant or like too much of a good thing considering that they already existed in abundance in “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”  Its sharply etched verbal and musical delineation sure lit up the third disc of Biograph though, coming as it did between the on-the-waters-bread-casting “Caribbean Wind” and the hornier-than thou “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You.”  The Sermon on the Mount, of course, would in five years’ time amount to a lot more than what the broken glass reflects, but for now Dylan was content to remain on the other side of that as-yet-unshattered mirror and rummage through a bag of tricks that stretched all the way back to “Girl from the North Country” (cf. “Up to Me”’s last verse).  Someday--maybe--he’d remember to forget.  

5. “The Usual” (1987).  This isn’t a Bob Dylan song; it’s a John Hiatt song that Dylan recorded for the soundtrack of perhaps the most disastrous film in which he ever starred.  But the lyrics are unmistakably Dylanesque: “Sixty cigarettes a day because I’m nervous” (eighty according to Don’t Look Back but close enough); “I give her everything, but she refused it” (he gave her his heart, but she wanted his soul); “Look at the shape I’m in” (Lord, you don’t know it); “Fifty thousand kisses later, she was a housewife” (been there done Sara, with Carolyn Dennis well on her way); “I used to be a good boy, / livin’ the good life” (he was a clean-cut kid, but they made a killer out of him).  No wonder he gravitated toward Hiatt’s sentiments.  As for the line that asks “Where’s my pearls, where’s my swine?,” it could almost pass for the property of Jesus.