Friday, December 14, 2007

Blood on the Tracks

I saw a movie the other day called I'm Not There in which six actors portray different incarnations of Bob Dylan representing various stages in his life. By far, the best of the bunch was Cate Blanchett who plays Bob circa 1966 when he toured England with The Band -- outraging his old die hard fans with loud electric performances and confounding journalists with cryptic interviews.

Cate is one of those actors who seems to be able to absorb another soul and render the truth of a character in brilliant detail. There is a moment in the movie when she is onstage (as Bob) playing the piano and singing Ballad of a Thin Man -- her left hand goes flying up in an almost palsied manner as she sings a particular phrase, then lands back on the keys rhythmically hammering out the bass line. It is weird and quirky and beautiful. And it is pure Dylan.

After the movie I came home and pulled out my copy of No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese documentary that follows Dylan from his youth in Hibbing, Minnesota through his formative years in Greenwich Village and culminates with his transformation from folk messiah into enigmatic rock star. Footage from the 1966 tour is interspersed throughout as a kind of backdrop to the creation myth. I watched the '66 clips to compare Cate's performance to the original. And it wasn't just that she nailed it so completely -- she actually managed to do Dylan better than Dylan. If that's possible.

The idea of using six actors to portray Dylan makes sense. Throughout his career, Dylan has continually reinvented himself, often to the point of alienating his audience. Yet somehow he has endured, always somewhere on the scene -- sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the shadows. And his influence is so pervasive and indelible that it has become an intrinsic element of the culture. Certainly it has become part of my own DNA. Dylan has always been part of my life, even before I knew who he was.

It ain't me, Babe...

When I was a kid, my parents were leaders of our church's 'Youth Group', which meant that my sisters and I got to spend a lot of time hanging around with a bunch of teenagers. And it was the sixties, so teenagers, even in Louisville, Kentucky, were very cool. We used to go on weekend 'retreats' at a rustic campground where my parents would engage the teens in discussions about the world, their lives and their faith. Music was often a big part of the program. I think the first time I heard Blowin' in the Wind was sitting in a circle in front of a huge stone fireplace while a few members of the group played acoustic guitars and sang harmony.

Dylan's music was already legendary, but Dylan himself was conspicuously absent. He had reportedly gone into hiding after a motorcycle accident. Or so the story went. In fact, Dylan was still writing and recording, but typically he had rejected the role that had been ascribed to him. He had no interest in being the 'spokesman of a generation' or the leader of a musical revolution. He was spending most of his time raising his family and trying to avoid stalkers and parasites.

Of course we did have Dylan's 'Greatest Hits' collections to keep us going during these fallow times. But where was Bob? Finally, I got my first glimpse of him at a midnight showing of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh film. Towards the end of the concert, George steps up to the mike and says "I'd like to bring out a friend of us all... Bob Dylan." And this gangly little dude ambles up to the mike, his frizzed-out 'jew-fro' haloed in the bright lights. He was indeed Saint Bob, a friend to us all. He sang the classics, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Blowin' in the Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, Just Like a Woman. And then he was gone.

But his influence remained. I noted with particular interest that while most of the other performers wore the traditional faded blue jeans (except for George, who wore a white suit) Bob sported what appeared to be beige corduroys. Even in that odd detail, Dylan seemed to be making a statement (probably unintentionally) of his individuality. From that point on, the beige corduroy became my pant of choice. I, too, would distinguish myself from the hordes of jocks and stoners in their flared Levis and the cliquish preppies with their khaki chinos.

Years later, I saw an outtake from the Bangladesh film showing Bob at a sound check the afternoon before the concert. He was wearing faded blue jeans. Oh well.

'Twas in another lifetime...

Perhaps the most influential event in my history with Dylan came with the release of his album Blood on the Tracks. From the moment I first dropped the needle onto the opening grooves of Tangled up in Blue to the final notes of Buckets of Rain, the album became a blueprint for my life. Dylan had reappeared in full force, conjuring imagery that crossed the boundaries of time and experience. The past was entwined with the present, the real with the imagined, the mythic with the mundane. He had seen it all and done it all and come back to tell the tales. Heartbreak and desire. Redemption and regret. Adoration and contempt.

At first, these songs were like movies to me. I lived them, lived through them. I saw what he saw and felt what he felt. Most of the things he sang about were unknown to me, but a door had been opened that would lead me to a larger world, painted in rich textures and deep hues and filled with romance, adventure, mystery and pain. I knew now what I would be -- a vagabond in the landscape of experience, a poet of the soul, a storyteller.

The ultimate expression of this vision was the song Shelter from the Storm. That song, which speaks so desperately of lost love and inescapable destiny, things I could only dimly comprehend at the time, got deep inside my blood and infected me with an icy fever that I have never been able to shake. I felt like Dylan was showing me the history of my future. And in a way, he was -- far more accurately than I possibly could have imagined.

It was about a year later that Bob Dylan came to my house. He had followed up Blood on the Tracks with another album called Desire and then went out on the road with a kind of traveling carnival called the Rolling Thunder Revue. A live album was recorded at one of the Rolling Thunder shows as well as a television special. The special aired on NBC to coincide with the release of the live album.

I can still remember my excitement as I sat in front of the TV set in our family room. The show began with no introduction whatsoever, the camera simply focused on a microphone. Then Bob leaned into frame singing the opening lines to A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. I was glued to the set for the entire hour. In those days we had no VCRs and there would be no rebroadcasts on cable later in the week. You got one shot and that was it. I have never seen it again, but the impression was indelible. Despite whatever misery he had suffered during his divorce which led to the creation of Blood on the Tracks, he was moving forward, transforming once again. In fact he was soon to make one of his most extreme transformations of all.

You gotta serve somebody...

When I was in college, Dylan was practically part of the curriculum. I lived on a hall with several accomplished musicians and one thing we all seemed to share was a knowledge of Dylan's music. Likewise in my English classes, amid the references to Ovid, Wordsworth or Eliot, it was not surprising for someone to toss in a Dylan quote here and there. Actually it was quite common.

Once again, however, Bob had left us all behind. While we were looking to him for inspiration, he was looking somewhere else altogether. Somewhere we never would have expected. Somewhere many of us thought was completely uncool. Bob was looking to Jesus.

I'll never forget the night we were all sitting around the dorm when one of our hallmates, George, returned from New Haven having just seen Dylan in concert. George was one of the original, dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore Dylan fans. He had been with Dylan from the get-go. He was a true believer. But when he walked into the room that night, George was a broken man. His faith had been shattered, his loyalty betrayed. He had gone to the show having heard the rumors, but he just couldn't believe what he had witnessed. Dylan had gone GOSPEL! It was an unforgivable sin. A travesty. An outrage. George was inconsolable.

Personally I thought it was pretty funny. And it made sense. Gospel was always a huge influence on rock music, not to mention folk music. And Dylan was always searching for new sources of inspiration, why not turn to gospel music? Besides, I knew it wouldn't last. By the time everyone got all up in arms about Dylan going gospel he would probably be off doing something else. Years later I heard a bootleg tape of one of those infamous gospel shows and the truth is, I thought it was pretty damn good. Dylan is a great songwriter no matter what he is writing about. Some of those songs stand up among his best. And the band was tight and funky.

To live outside the law you must be honest...

In the 80's, Dylan seemed to drop out of sight again, but he never really drops out of sight. He is almost constantly touring and recording, putting out new material on a regular basis. I saw him live for the first time with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Washington D.C. It was a good show, the Heartbreakers being especially impressive. It also served as my introduction to the inner sanctum of "unofficial" Dylan recordings.

I attended the show with one of my housemates, Dave, who was a big fan of the Grateful Dead and an avid "taper". Through Dave I met Doug, who was also a taper but of a different ilk: Doug was a Dylan taper. The difference between being a Dylan taper and a Dead taper is that the Dead don't mind people taping their shows -- they encourage it. But at a Dylan show, taping is expressly forbidden. So we had to smuggle in a pair of 18-inch-long shotgun microphones, plus stands, plus a state-of-the-art (at the time) DAT tape recorder. My complicity in these shenanigans gained me entry into the world of Dylan bootlegs, which are never sold, only traded. And since I now had a first generation copy of the Dylan-Petty show, I had something to trade with.

One of my early acquisitions was a tape of the legendary '65 Newport Folk concert where Dylan "went electric." I had heard about this event, read about it, imagined it -- but to finally hear it was like being handed a tape of the Sermon on the Mount. First of all I was surprised how short it was -- only three songs in the electric set, plus two more with Dylan playing solo. I was also surprised at how completely un-radical it sounded. It was just some good old blues-based rockin'. I couldn't understand why people had gotten so upset. I had a recording of Muddy Waters from the very same festival and he was playing electric. Nobody tried to boo Muddy off the stage. But for Bob to do it was a sacrilege. Just like going gospel was in '78. I guess there's always going to be somebody bothered about something.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me...

It was about this same time that the band I was in, called The Charismatics, decided to break up. The Charismatics was a decent little rock band that never really got off the ground. But we had an excellent lead singer named Jay who was also a very good songwriter. I learned a lot from Jay about writing songs. The Charismatics played one of my very first compositions, called Baby Never Cries. After we broke up, I wanted to keep on writing and playing. I had just read the Robert Shelton biography of Dylan and learned that Dylan's life had been changed forever when he read Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie. I got a copy of Woody's book and read it in one sitting. Then I read it again.

Bound For Glory is part autobiography, part mythology, part parable and part how-to book. Once again a door had opened and I was introduced to a world of folk musicians, ramblers, gamblers, prophets, peddlers, thieves, beggars, saints and sinners. I began seeking out recordings of Woody's music and learning his songs. Then I found the music of his contemporaries and learned that too. I became an amateur folk musicologist, putting together my own little archive of folk, blues, country and gospel.

I started writing more songs, many of them directly influenced by Woody's words and imagery. I played at open mike nights three or four times a week, introducing at least one new song each week. I even had a semi-paid gig at a vegetarian restaurant called Food For Thought where I played my original songs along with Woody's and Bob's. Between sets I'd pass the basket for tips. Just like Bob used to do. Just like Woody used to do.

At one point I was so immersed in the folk music scene I was offered a job at the Smithsonian Institute overseeing the digital conversion of the entire catalog of Folkways Records -- perhaps the greatest archive of folk music ever collected. I interviewed for the job with Tony Seeger, nephew of Pete Seeger -- who was a good friend of Woody and Bob. I felt like I was very nearly in touch with my mentors. I would have loved that job. I would have done it for free. But the Republican Administration slashed the Smithsonian's budget and the job was cut.

Perhaps the culmination of this period was when I played onstage at The Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village. The very stage where Bob had played at the beginning of his career. I stood where he stood playing the songs I had written which he had inspired. It was overwhelming. The fact that it was only an open mike, very late on a Sunday night, and there was hardly anybody in the audience made little difference to me. I was in heaven.

It's all over now, Baby Blue...

I decided to leave Washington after the Smithsonian job failed to pan out. But not just because of that. I was also heartbroken. My girlfriend of the past four years had left me and I couldn't stand being in the city that reminded me so much of her.

It was during this very low point that the songs of Blood on the Tracks came back to me. I had been playing and singing them for several years, but now when I sang them, the voice came from a much deeper place than before. The pain was real to me now -- the sadness, the longing and the emptiness were tangible. But singing these songs also helped me weather the storm of my emotions. They gave me an outlet. They helped me to distinguish between the many conflicting feelings that were threatening to steal my sanity. I learned that buried within my despair, there was redemption. Beneath my anger was forgiveness. Beyond my death was rebirth.

I had gotten hold of a copy of the so-called 'New York Acetates' -- a recording of the original sessions for Blood on the Tracks. According to the story, Bob recorded the entire album over the course of two days with studio musicians in New York. In those days, artists were sometimes given demo versions of the records called 'acetates' to take home and listen to on their own. Supposedly Bob brought the acetates back to Minnesota and played them for his brother who apparently made a few suggestions. As a result Bob re-recorded half the songs in Minnesota with a completely different band.

Hearing those original recordings was fascinating. The whole record has a subdued, plaintive tone. It's almost like one long song with ten movements. Like a sonata with lyrics. In the state I was in, this more somber, moody recording seemed fitting. It was as if Bob were speaking to me from the past to remind me of where we had been and how he had warned me of what was to come. Not in a chiding way. Just as a matter of fact. We knew this would happen, and now it has, so let's just keep moving forward.

It took a while, but I did manage to move forward. And for my progress, I was rewarded. In November of '94 I was sitting front row center for the taping of Bob Dylan's MTV Unplugged concert in New York City. For this best of all birthday presents I have the lovely Lauren Lazin to thank. The concert was incredible, Bob was at his very best, and to be sitting so near to my longtime idol was like a dream come true.

If you look very closely at the DVD, you can catch a glimpse of me sitting in the front row in a state of pure euphoria. I'm easy to locate, just look for the woman in the front row with the long shapely legs (that's Lauren) -- I'm the lucky guy sitting next to her. I can't prove this, but I'm pretty sure that you can catch Dylan stealing glances at Lauren's legs during the concert. Quite a distraction to be sure, but somehow he kept his cool. It's just another testament to his masterful powers of concentration.

But me I'm still on the road...

A few years later, I saw another Dylan show at the Beacon Theater. I went with my sister Susan who has been a Dylan fan even longer than I have. The show started off a little shaky -- it didn't seem like Bob was all that interested in being there. He was just kind of punching the clock. 'Here's a song. Here's another.' Then about midway through the first set, something odd happened. Bob started out one of his old chestnuts, but he wasn't doing it the same way we'd all heard it on the record. This is not unusual, Bob often rearranges old songs, sometimes changing the tempo, the chords, even the lyrics. But this time it felt like even Bob wasn't sure where he was going. The tempo was slow, he may have changed the key, and he seemed to be singing the melody inside out. He struggled his way through the first verse and plowed on.

Then, in the middle of the second verse, something sparked. It was like Bob had been searching for another melody that was hidden inside the original one and all of a sudden he'd grabbed hold of it. His voice filled with confidence and the rhythm started to flow. The band picked up on it and got into the groove. The song took off in a totally new direction, fresh and alive like it had never sounded before. Bob was into it. The band was into it. The crowd was into it. The rest of the show really cooked. By infusing that one song with new blood, Bob had rediscovered his purpose for being onstage. It was inspiring.

After the third encore, as the band played a coda, Dylan stepped off the front of the stage and walked up the aisle, right past the cheering audience, and out the front doors. I later found out that he walked out onto Broadway, hailed cab and went home. I guess he figured he'd done his job that night and there was nothing further to be said.

Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again...

Ever since I saw I'm Not There, I've been revisiting a lot of Dylan's music. Especially Blood on the Tracks. I don't have my bootleg tape of the New York Acetates, but that's OK, because I love the 'official' version just as much.

I did a little research on the acetates and found out exactly what happened between September and December in 1974 -- musically that is. There is a very good reason that the acetates sound the way they do. They are in fact ten songs all written in the same key and played, on Dylan's guitar at least, in the same 'open E' tuning. Supposedly, Dylan was influenced by Joni Mitchell's use of open tunings and decided to try one out. He ended up composing ten masterpieces in a row, then went into the studio and laid them down. Upon hearing them later, he may have concluded that ten songs in a row using the same tuning and the same four or five chords might get a little tiresome to the ear. So he re-recorded some of them using different keys, different tunings, and different musicians. And in most cases, I happen to think he improved on the originals.

I think it's interesting that Joni comes into the picture at this point. Something she said once in an interview has always struck me as one of the wisest comments I have ever heard concerning interpersonal relationships. At least the wisest comment I ever read in a magazine. What she said was something like 'As soon as you think you know the other person, that's when you stop knowing them.' I have found this to be true time and time again and yet I keep falling into the same trap.

I believe the same thing applies to knowing yourself. As soon as you think you know yourself, that's when you stop knowing yourself. I think of Dylan, constantly reinventing himself, even right there onstage in front of my eyes. He's playing a song everybody knows, but he's hearing something different in it. And he wrestles a new song out of the old one, allowing us all to witness the rebirth. And when the miracle is complete, he hops in a cab and goes home.

Dylan has never traveled the well-paved road. His career is full of hits and misses. But he is always on the lookout for the 'next' Dylan. Who is that guy gonna be? Who am I going to be next? Never standing still. Always moving forward.

So I'm sitting here with my guitar tuned to 'open E' trying to go back and relearn those ten amazing songs from Blood on the Tracks the way they were originally written. To see how that felt. To hear new things in familiar places. To rediscover my future in my past. To pay tribute to a songwriter and a storyteller. Bob and I have come a long way together.

I wonder who we are going to be next?