Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I’m a convert (sort of)

Of all of Dylan’s phases, his Christian period has always baffled me. As a non-practising Jew, a fervent atheist, and an evolutionary biologist, religion is antithetic to my entire being. And yet, here is my #1 role model shouting the praises of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the earth. My only possible consolation lay in the possibility of separating the message from the music, and appreciating based on song-crafting and/or performance alone. From the album versions this is quite difficult, because the performances are just not great. As it happens I have learned to appreciate how good some of these songs are from cover versions, like this incredible version of “Covenant Woman”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jL6Nqk7oT10; Or this version of “I Believe in You”, by Cat Power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOgonNheAck. This phenomenon is similar (in some ways) to the story of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”, which languished in obscurity as an understated recording, on an underappreciated album from the mid 80’s, for many years before it was discovered and exhumed famously by Jeff Buckley.

In anticipation of the Bootleg volume 13, I really hoped that it would be enough to convince me of the value of this material, that it would be good. I can honestly say it comes through on its promise and then some. The review on NPR is correct in the following:

             “Those who've only done a cursory dip into the studio recordings and found them staid and at times sanctimonious are in for a revisionist history jolt”

In short, the release is a revelation. The live versions of these songs are incredible. Pretty much every song on Bob’s Christian trilogy is represented here by at least one live version that is way better than the studio versions. Even songs that I thought were just terrible, like “in the Summertime” off shot of love, are beautifully resurrected here (track 13 on disc 2). The version of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” with Santana playing Mike Bloomfield-style blues riffs is sublime. Many of the live versions are completely different arrangements from the album versions, with these road-worn versions invariably a huge improvement, for example the soundcheck of “Do Right To Me Baby” on disc 3. His vocals are strong, and at moments his voice sounds like it did at earlier stages of his career, a pleasant surprise. For example, the song “Help Me Understand” sounds like something off the Basement Tapes. Also, his vocal on the cover of “Rise Again” sounds Desire-era Dylan.

The important issue of religiosity remains. To gain some insight on this I refer to the review on NPR, as follows:

“He recognized what the masters of gospel and blues all understood: That the chapters and the verses are not nearly as important as the conviction underneath. If you want people to appreciate and maybe even resonate with your truths, it helps to frame them within an urgent, intense musical context. To put people in touch with the consuming fury of the conversion moment, you need the sound of fire and brimstone.”

What this implies, and which I tend to agree, is that his Christian period is essentially an act, an artistic statement, and that Dylan the man must be considered separately from Dylan the performer. This raises questions of authenticity, and reminds me of a conversation about gangster rappers, whose authenticity is dependent on the verity of their rapping personas. Of course, the members of The Wu-Tang clan, who are all millionaires living in mansions, are not running around chopping people’s heads off. Concerning Dylan’s authenticity, I don’t doubt that he was experimenting with a certain mindset, a certain religiosity, which he is totally free to do. We may never completely understand the true nature of Dylan’s spiritual conversion and continuing spiritual evolution. It is something over which we could forever speculate, however that remains his personal matter, and as one listens to the recordings on Bootlegs vol. 13 it becomes less and less important, as the simple fact that these are great songs and performances comes into focus. Dylan dove deep into his gospel persona with great courage and conviction, and created something truly unique and fascinating.

Having been converted to Dylan’s Christian material, primarily due to the quality of the live versions, the next step for me is to accept the message, at least on some level. Of course there is a wide range of material here, it is not all deeply religious, and most of the messages or aspects of the messages can be assimilated easily. Despite my aversion to religious cults of any kind, I am compelled to give the not so easily digested messages their due course. Although still early, it has already had a transformative effect on me, and brought me to a deeper understanding of a phenomenon that I find completely baffling. Although it is VERY unlikely that I will come to a true conversion moment, I have gone through a simulation of this moment in my mind. This has helped me to gain a deeper understanding, and a feeling of acceptance and forgiveness.

The timing of this release seems to make sense, since we are currently living in Donald Trump’s world, which doesn’t make sense. My feelings about religion have come to a head in this climate, and I blame right wing religiosity for the rock solid support behind this buffoon. When the amount of people in the world who insist that 2 plus 2 equals 5 is significant enough, in moments of weakness I almost start to think that I’m the one that is crazy. Listening to these songs and their message is helping me to cope and to understand what it is that I might be missing. Despite being non-religious, I acknowledge that I am a spiritual being. The need for things to NOT add up, for there to be deep mystery in life, for questions to remain open ended, unanswered and unanswerable can be a frustrating part of what it means to be human. From another perspective it can be what allows us to develop and maintain a sense of wonder and excitement about the world. Equally strong is the human need to have certainty when there is none.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why Bob deserves his Nobel

The arguments against Dylan getting the Nobel Prize in literature seem to go something like this:

1)     He doesn’t deserve it because he’s really just not very good
2)     He doesn’t deserve it because he doesn’t write literature
3)     He doesn’t deserve it because he’s not a poet, he’s a songwriter
4)     Having the lyrics in song format gives Dylan an unfair advantage because the music can further elevate the lyrics.

I feel that alot has been said about the first three and people can make their own evaluations based on the arguments that are out there. I would like to dwell on the fourth point for a moment.
             To illustrate a point, consider the poem “If”, by Rudyard Kipling, a British Nobel laureate from 1895:


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

A nice little nutshell of wisdom. A challenge to rise up to your full potential as a human being. For the sake of this little experiment, go through it again and make up a bouncy melody to go along. If you can’t think of anything try the melody from “Forever Young”. To me reading it with the melody didn’t greatly enhance the message or power of the poem. Even this reading by Dennis Hopper didn’t really do it for me:

Now read the lyrics to the Dylan song “Highlands”. Try to just read it without invoking the melody of the song or hearing Dylan’s distinctive voice in your head.


Well my heart's in The Highlands, gentle and fair
Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air
Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow
My heart's in The Highlands
I'm gonna go there when I feel good enough to go

Windows were shaking all night in my dreams
Everything was exactly the way that it seems
Woke up this mornin' and I looked at the same old page
Same old rat race, life in the same old cage

I don't want nothin' from anyone, ain't that much to take
Wouldn't know the difference between a real blonde and a fake
Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery
I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me

Well my heart's in The Highlands wherever I roam
That's where I'll be when I get called home
The wind it whispers to the buckeye trees of rhyme
Well, my heart's in The Highlands
I can only get there one step at a time

I'm listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
Someone's always yellin' "Turn it down"
Feel like I'm driftin', driftin' from scene to scene
I'm wonderin' what in the devil could it all possibly mean

Insanity is smashin' up against my soul
You could say I was on anything but a roll
If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top
What would I do with it anyway, maybe take it to the pawn shop?

My heart's in The Highlands at the break of dawn
By the beautiful lake of the Black Swan
Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low
Well my heart's in The Highlands, only place left to go

I'm in Boston town in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Or maybe I do but I'm just really not sure
Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her

Well it must be a holiday, there's nobody around
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
I said "Tell me what I want"
She say "You probably want hard boiled eggs"

I said "That's right, bring me some"
She says "We ain't got any, you picked the wrong time to come"
Then she says "I know you're an artist, draw a picture of me"
I said "I would if I could but
I don't do sketches from memory"

Well she's there, she says "I'm right here in front of you
Or haven't you looked?"
I say "All right, I know but I don't have my drawin' book"
She gives me a napkin, she say "You can do it on that"
I say "Yes I could but I don't know where my pencil is at"

She pulls one out from behind her ear
She says "Alright now go ahead draw me I'm stayin' right here"
I make a few lines and I show it for her to see
Well she takes the napkin and throws it back and says
"That don't look a thing like me"

I said "Oh kind miss, it most certainly does"
She say "You must be joking", I said "I wish I was"
She says "You don't read women authors do ya?"
At least that's what I think I hear her say
Well I say "How would you know, and what would it matter anyway?"

Well she says "Ya just don't seem like ya do"
I said "You're way wrong"
She says "Which ones have you read then?", I say "I’ve read Erica Jong"
She goes away for a minute, and I slide on out of my chair
I step outside back to the busy street, but nobody's goin' anywhere

Well my heart's in The Highlands with the horses and hounds
Way up in the border country far from the towns
With the twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow
My heart's in The Highlands, can't see any other way to go

Every day is the same thing, out the door
Feel further away than ever before
Some things in life it just gets too late to learn
Well I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns

I see people in the park, forgettin' their troubles and woes
They're drinkin' and dancin', wearin' bright colored clothes
All the young men with the young women lookin' so good
Well, I'd trade places with any of 'em, in a minute if I could

I'm crossin' the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talkin' to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat
Somebody just asked me if I've registered to vote

The sun is beginnin' to shine on me
But it's not like the sun that used to be
The party's over and there's less and less to say
I got new eyes, everything looks far away

Well my heart's in The Highlands at the break of day
Over the hills and far away
There's a way to get there, and I'll figure it out somehow
Well I'm already there in my mind and that's good enough for now

The poem is a bleak and melancholic vision of loss and alienation. The brave and honest confession of a man who is so worn out by the pettiness of others that he yearns for escape to the Scottish Highlands (Where he owns a mansion), to live out the rest of his days communing with nature.
I must admit I found it difficult to read this without hearing all the other elements that are present on the recording. Those aspects are inseparable from the poem in my mind. However, what really added to the power of the song is not primarily the music, but rather Dylan’s intonation, which helps to illustrate the intention of the lyrics. For example, the way that he says “Somebody just asked me if I've registered to vote”; eyes rolling back into his head.
This made me realise, the complainers are right on this point! Maybe Dylan does have an unfair advantage. His medium allows him to write poetry and then recite it himself to the listener with a backing band and a catchy tune, to perform the songs live on tour and reach a huge audience on the internet and radio. What Dylan really has, that the typical writer of conventional literature does not have, is a more powerful mechanism to disseminate and promote his songs. The same could perhaps be said for Shakespeare. Through the performance of his plays, which toured across the English countryside, laypeople (most of whom could not even read), had access to these great works of literature. However, when it really comes down to it, it is the creative output of the artist that should be judged and not their popularity.

Although Dylan’s popularity is what has kept him relevant for all these years and allowed him to have a long enough career to accomplish what he has, his popularity has also worked against him in many ways. One can only assume that that amount of touring, drugs and booze, material success and crazed fans might have a detrimental effect on one’s sanity. In truth, it is a testament to Dylan’s accomplishment that he was able to maintain the quality of his output and his vision and artistic integrity despite his popular success. He stayed true to the songs and used them to raise himself to a higher plateau. He dreamt but did not make dreams his master. He thought—but did not make thoughts his aim. Dylan persevered, he eschewed material wealth, he treated both his triumphs and his disasters as the impostors that they were. Even the Nobel prize win he has treated as an impostor. 

I saw this mural the other day and it struck me. Although certainly stupidies are often sung (beebopaloobop), Bob taught us that literature can also be sung, and indeed elevated to even greater heights. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Dylan tabulature PDF

Dear Dylan fans,

I have been playing Dylan songs on guitar for a number of years, and have learned a very good many of them. I have found that the best way to enjoy Dylan's catalogue is to sing it. For any new or old Dylan fans that have embarked on this same path, I have decided to share here, a finely curated collection of Dylan guitar TABs that I have culled from various sources on the internet (many come from here http://dylanchords.info/) and re-organised into one (far from comprehensive) PDF file, which can be easily loaded onto an iPad. There is a table of contents so you can skip to any song of interest. Wherever possible I have tried to fit all the lyrics and the whole song on one or two pages for convenience, while keeping the font size as big as possible. Also, for many songs I have used BOLD and highlights to accentuate certain features of the songs, such as choruses or first lines of each verse. Also, for many songs I include where I place the CAPO on my guitar, and the key of harmonica that I play, however I have no idea if this is the same as the "official" key of the song. The collection is rather random and reflects my interest in learning as many Dylan songs as possible, especially the less mainstream ones, including many songs that he covers. Some songs are not here because I already know them by heart, while others are missing because I had no desire to learn them. They are mostly in alphabetical order, with the exceptions that, songs that I play in DADFAD tuning are grouped at the beginning, and many songs from the album "Love and Theft" (many of which have some unusual jazzy chords) are grouped together at the end.