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Sunday, May 6, 2018

Master Blueprints # 17: “I’d Just Be Curious to Know If You Can See Yourself as Clear, As Someone Who Has Had You on His Mind”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Mama, You Been On My Mind”
Album: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
Release Date: March, 1991 (recorded 1964 for the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions)

Several week’s back I received a few thought-provoking critical replies to Master Blueprint # 15, which discussed “Like a Rolling Stone” and the 1965 album it first appeared on, Highway 61 Revisited.  In that entry I praised the record - and its successor Blonde on Blonde - for reigning in the era of concept albums, without recognizing them as a singular concepts in their own right, thereby admitting to my own lack of insight in this regard with these aficionados (although they did generally like my assessment that virtually every song on these albums comes across as its own fully fleshed out concept).  The feedback was fairly similar in argumentative points; the gist message being that ‘you had to be there’, seeing as in each case it appeared the responder was truly there.

Ok, well despite not being there, I’m hoping to clear those mental hurdles one day if indeed there are hurdles to clear. It has happened to me on a number of occasions, most notably when I was writing the Stepping Stones series six years ago (inspired by the music of the Rolling Stones) and became enlightened with the Stones greatest album, Exile on Main Street (see the entry “Tapping Into My Inner Grasshopper”:  http://pete-gemsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2012/04/17th-in-series-of-stepping-stones.html ).  At times the effects that come from listening, reflecting and then writing these blog series can be oh-so satisfactory.

Anyhow, the comments from those insightful Dylan contemporaries spurred other thoughts in me as well.  Whether of that 60’s era or not, most of us Bob Dylan enthusiasts are pretty certain that he’s earned himself one helluva long-term legacy; that his music will thrive the test of time.  But just what is it that will become long lasting vs. something that may begin to sound a bit dated over time?  I mean, if ‘you had to be there’ than maybe Highway 61 Revisited as an album won’t thrive that test because it spoke to a very unique (albeit fascinating) period in American history, versus something like Oh Mercy, or Love and Theft, which at least for now have the feel of transcending any given timeframe. 

Many have argued that Bob Dylan was at his most voluminously gifted in the 60s.  If this be the case than I am representative of the first wave of age groups (I was born in 1962) that did not experience Dylan’s genius firsthand while he was at his supposed peak.  With that said, a fan like me may very likely be a good case study – a barometer if you will - as to what it is that will propel his legacy forward.  In other words, us latter-day Bob Dylan fans should be taken seriously, because each successive wave of us will have less and less direct identity with the times he was a part of. 

I’ve been reflecting this week on what it was that initially stimulated my interest in Bob Dylan’s music and more importantly how that initial spark spread like wildfire.  What follows is a quick synopsis of a 5 year period (~ 1986 -91) where I went from simply admiring Dylan’s music to really feeling it.  I think it speaks to the fact that you can come at Bob Dylan from any number of angles and then build on that foundation in many ways.

‘The spark’ itself was covered in Master Blueprints # 1; a car parking moment in the mid-80s, when I heard the live Rolling Thunder Review version of “Shelter From the Storm” on the radio (from the “Hard Rain” album).  After that it was an avalanche of connections that ultimately cemented the deal.  There were my early back-catalog purchases: Blood on the Tracks, Freewheelin’, The Basement Tapes, and Slow Train Coming, all of which came upon recommendation from those more in the know than I, particularly Jeff Strause.  Soon after, there was the Travelling WIlbury’s first album in 1988 (I think it was George Harrison who stated at the time that his own writing contributions were self-curtailed because this super band included the best songwriter of  them all, so why bother).  Then, the release of Oh Mercy in 1989, which was a quantum leap into my immersion: The first great Dylan album I could celebrate at the time of its public germination. 

Around that time I watched “Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid”; Dylan playing the bit-role as the quirky character “Alias”, and of course setting the mood with the soundtrack (the scene with the Slim Pickens character dying from a gunshot wound, his woman by his side, while “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” plays in the background still sends shivers).  Then came the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary (with Atlantic Records) Celebration, which I watched live simulcast (see Master Blueprints # 7 and # 8).  There was the Joan Baez Any Day Now album of Dylan covers, a gift from a good friend (again, Jeff), which I would eventually wear out (note to self….get a new copy).  There were several Rolling Stone Magazine interviews, always inspiring.  There was the Roy Orbison tribute show in Los Angeles (1990), which included a surprise reunion of the Byrds with Bob Dylan joining them on stage (my wife and I with 2nd row seats and backstage passes…this also covered in Blueprint #  1).  There were 3 other concerts as well. 

On top of all this were all the accolades.  For example, I attended many other concerts during this period, from big venues to small clubs, and invariably the given act would cover a Bob Dylan song; several of whom would also speak glowingly of him in the process.  It seemed as if praise was coming from every angle in Dylan’s direction.  Recognition of such came to a crescendo for me on Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday, May 24, 1991, when I headed into ‘Boston Town’ for an evening of live music with my good friend Mac. 

Before I proceed, I have to say this qualifier upfront:  I’m a big fan of many musicians, but not to the degree that I celebrate (or even know) their birth dates.  Iconic musicians like those I’ve been musing on these past six years are a big part of my life, yes, but in no way do they define my life.  Professional lives are one thing, personal lives are another.  If the personal adds something to the songwriter’s song story, then I’m interested.  Otherwise, I’m content to leave well enough alone.  The key to loving the music of any given act is to relate to it and grow your own life from what you hear and feel.

For the most part, this qualifier includes Bob Dylan (heck, I even had to look up his birthday just now, though a sixth sense was telling me it was getting close).  But here’s the thing; something has transpired with Dylan’s birthday over the years that is quite unique and astonishing.  It is celebrated by musicians like no other I’ve seen.  I’m not sure when it started, but for me it was that 50th birthday of his, when Mac and I bellied up at the bar of a small club and watched as at least 10 local musicians came and went; each setting up, playing a small suite of Dylan songs, breaking down, and moving on to other clubs.  I’d bounced from bar to bar to catch multiple acts in tight-knit downtown music hubs like Music Row in Nashville, Sixth Street in Austin, and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  But in this case it was the musicians doing the bouncing around.  It was a communal, organic and eclectic experience on many levels and the celebratory mood of it all caught me quite by surprise. 

I’ve not experienced it in quite the same fashion since, but as Bob Dylan’s most significant decadal birthdays have inevitably played out in subsequent years (to date, his 60th and 70th) I’ve kept my ears open for events here in the Boston region, and I’ve never been disappointed. More recently it’s turned into a half decade thing (75th).  In each case, the celebration was of multiple musicians playing at one event (in these cases though, the musicians stuck around to watch each other rather than move on).  What you get to hear and feel is just how many wonderful ways Bob Dylan’s music can be interpreted and honored.  This is the core to why Dylan will have a long term legacy.

One thing that very much helped that first Bob Dylan birthday-bash experience for me back in ’91 was an interview I taped just prior.  Dylan sat with Rock DJ Tony Pigg on New York City radio station WPLJ (simulcast to other stations including Boston’s WBCN) to discuss and play highlights from the first 3 volumes of his phenomenal Bootleg Series. Dylan’s 50th birthday was brought up at several points in the interview.  Whether it was the landmark birth date or Pigg’s very effective and reverential tone (reverential to the music, not the man), or both, I am not sure, but the interview found Dylan in an unusually open and reflective mood.  One of the cuts that was played was last week’s Blueprint “She’s Your Lover Now”.  Others included; a magnificent homemade version of “Every Grain of Sand”, family dog barking at times in the background; a hypothetical canvas scene playing out masterfully in the song that is “Wallflower”; and the head-shaking beauty that is “Angelina” (after it’s played in the radio interview, Dylan is asked by the clearly blown-away Pigg why he never released this or so many other songs on the albums they were intended for, and Dylan replies something to the effect of “well, you can’t release them all, can you?”   Yeah, as if we all have that problem!).  It was all so profound because again, many of these were deep cuts that would be scratched from albums of yesteryear.  I know of no other musician who has such a gift.  How was this all helpful with that Boston 50th experience? Several songs from the Bootleg Series were played that evening, which gave me a sense that others related to the notion that this treasure chest of Bob Dylan’s was much deeper than any of us imagined.

Another cut from the Pigg interview is this week’s Master Blueprint, “Mama, You Been on My Mind” ( https://vimeo.com/161261103 ).  This one is a bit of a makeup for last week’s borderline caustic entry “She’s Your Lover Now” (although I must say, I defend it as a Blueprint focus because it is so well performed).  “Mama, You Been on My Mind” is the flip side of that emotion.  It’s one of Bob Dylan’s finest love songs, and one he sat on, unreleased for 27 years.  It’s reflecting on lost love, and since I’m not going there, I’m going to broaden the meaning here.  I believe that loosely interpreted, “Mama You Been on My Mind” can be about anyone close to you who you’ve seen at one time or another in a state of grace (think Lieutenant Dan, in the near-end wedding scene of Forrest Gump, or maybe even Dylan singing this song).  It’s those moments that you always want to remember when you are at odds with that person, or your relationship is strained.  You’ve seen that person at their God-given best.  Thankfully, these types of memories are indelible, always there for you to capture in time of need.

Pete

4 comments:

  1. Nicely put. And I'm glad you mentioned Angelina, perhaps his most undervalued song. Test of time? Hmmm. My thoughts are that eventually Dylan will, like Yeats and Keats and ee cummins and other poets, by read by those who appreciate beauty and that he'll be listened to by those same kind of people who now listen to people like Paul Robeson.

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    1. you have me intrigued by Paul Robeson. thank you

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  2. I think this is a common question: do things have universality? Will they stand the test of time? Books often have the same questions. I think Dylan will stand the test of time. As always, context is important for deeper understanding of the nuances, but I think they stand on their own.

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    1. The Kitty? .... lovely comments. Thank you!

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