Sylvia got the call from a neighbor. “Come over here and see this new puppy,” the neighbor said. Obligingly, she grabbed a sweater, shoved her phone into a pocket and headed for the front door. On her way out she called to me asking, “Do you wanna walk over to Ollie’s and see the new puppy?” I thought for a second. “Probably not,” I replied, “but call me once you’re there and let me know what you think.”
We occasionally discussed getting a dog. The sticking point always wound up to be my allergies. What would happen if we took one home and then had to return it. “It wouldn’t be fair to the dog, ” I’d say. Typically, that was the extent of our discussion. We kept open minds, though. There were plenty of hypoallergenic dogs out there.
No more than five minutes passed. My phone rang. It was Sylvia. “You HAVE to come over and see this puppy,” she cooed. “Alright, I’ll be right there,” I sighed.
Before I even made it to the doorstep, a pint-sized, black and white, hairy little creature came running across the front yard to greet me, tail wagging, tongue protruding through smiling, black lips. When it reached my feet, it sniffed and immediately rolled over, belly up, whereupon it began urinating on my pant leg. It was love at first sight.
We adopted him on the spot. A six month old Shih Tzu named Bandit who, even at such a young age, had been shuffled through two different households before winding up in ours.
Bandit’s been with us a few years now. Somewhere during that time Sylvia and I went to hear an all-female, alternative folk band named Roxie Watson. During their set of original songs, they performed one called I Got a Dog. Now, every morning when Bandit greets me, I sing the first couple of lines almost like a daily prayer. We have a symbiotic relationship. Bandit no longer pees on my leg. In return, I don’t sneeze on him.
It was hailed as a landmark album. Rock music critics variously ranked it among the greatest albums of all time, with some placing it at the top of that all-too-fickle list. Released fifty-one years ago this month, though the exact date is debatable, it’s still considered one of the finest recordings in the history of rock music. To many, including me, it remains at the top of that list.
Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde capped a trilogy of albums that began with Bringing It All Back Home, followed by Highway 61 Revisited, both released the previous year. In the history of rock music, Blonde on Blonde was among the first double albums with a gatefold cover and one song, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” that spanned the entire fourth side of that two-LP set. Initially I thought Highway 61 Revisited, containing the timeless anthem, “Like a Rolling Stone,” could never be surpassed. Man, was I was wrong! At first listen, Blonde on Blonde blew me away.
For a budding teenage guitar player just beginning to get the hang of playing and singing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from the Bob Dylan Song Book I’d purchased months before, the songs from Blonde on Blonde offered a new challenge. I desperately wanted a leg up on learning them. Desperation turned into exultation when I spied the Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde “Deluxe Edition” song book in a local music store where I’d get guitar strings and picks.
Regretfully, I never convinced my garage bandmates at that time to include a Dylan song or two in our repertoire. Instead, I learned a few of them for practice and to entertain myself. Eventually, I learned enough of them to entertain my college housemates and an occasional campus coffeehouse audience. Over time, I’ve entertained some of those same housemates, their spouses and friends whenever we’ve gotten a chance to reunite for special occasions. Long ago, I’d allegedly perform for about anyone at the drop of a hat. Those days are becoming fewer and further apart. When it does happen, you can be sure I include a hefty portion of Dylan songs, some by request. If you find yourself in the audience on one of those rare occasions, please don’t request “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” unless I have my Blonde on Blonde “Deluxe Edition” song book handy and you’re ready to settle in for the night.
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims Into your eyes where the moonlight swims And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns Who among them would try to impress you?
Bob Dylan – “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
I took saxophone lessons in grade school. At the slightest provocation, I’d perform for family and friends. It was a character-building experience. Perhaps not so much for me, but certainly for the adults feigning interest in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. It’s a pleasant instrumental piece I learned to play well enough for people to recognize by its more popular adaptation, Stranger in Paradise from the musical Kismet.
I taught myself to play guitar. Like many boys my age, I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star. My first acoustic guitar had twelve strings which, if nothing else, made it twice as difficult to keep tuned. Fortunately, it made a very sweet sound on those occasions when it was in tune. I practiced on it more often than on the sax. Recognizing their son was not destined to become the next Boots Randolph, my folks traded in the sax for a piano. I got to keep the guitar.
My parents wanted to visit Boston one summer. They’d received an invitation from some old friends with whom they once socialized in our hometown. The friends had moved to the northeast in search of greener pastures. My parents took them up on the invitation and didn’t think twice about piling themselves and four kids into a big old Pontiac sedan to drive there. Surprisingly, they allowed me to bring along my guitar. Cars were larger then.
The friends had two kids of their own, a girl two years my junior and a boy the same age as my younger sister. I confess to having had a crush on the girl that began before she moved away. Bringing along my guitar was partly a ploy to woo her despite already having a girlfriend back home.
We arrived on a warm summer day and made ourselves at home thanks to the gracious hospitality of our hosts. We might have resembled the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation. One rainy evening, while sitting around with little to do, I was included in a conversation with the adults that somehow wound up on the subject of folk music. Someone asked me to play a song. Perhaps they expected 500 Miles or Lemon Tree. I probably should have selected something other than the one I played. Instead, I performed Lay Down Your Weary Tune by Bob Dylan. I played and sang all the verses, very dirge-like, each preceded by the chorus, “Lay down your weary tune, lay down. Lay down the song you strum. And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings, no voice can hope to hum.” I was not asked to play another song for the adults. I did, however, manage to play a Beatles song privately for their daughter after she proudly showed me her new Rubber Soul album. That was the last time I ever saw her.
A couple years later in college, I brought the old twelve-string to a girlfriend’s home for a weekend. One morning her father invited me to the local country club to complete a foursome for a round of golf. I tried to beg off, claiming I didn’t golf and had no clubs with me. I jokingly offered to bring a guitar instead. He thought that was brilliant and the next thing I knew, my guitar and I were tooling around on a golf cart. It was about the same time I was entering my “protest years.” Naturally, I played a couple of Dylan songs for them. One in particular was The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. It’s s serious song with many verses of depressing lyrics. Not your typical upbeat entertainment for a golf outing.. Later that evening, while gathered in the family room watching TV, her dad tried to poison me by repeatedly pouring Scotch whiskey into my often half-full glass.
Today, if I were forced to choose between drinking Scotch or singing Lemon Tree, I’d happily choose the latter. I learned a lesson about trying to entertain adults back then. If truth be told, I’m still learning.
Lay Down Your Weary Tune by Bob Dylan, covered by the Byrds. (It’s still among my favorites.)
I was listening to the radio last night. It wasn’t how I used to listen to the radio when I was a teenager. I’d be in my bed, ear pressed to the tinny speaker with the dial tuned to WLS, “the Big 89” from Chicago.
That was then. This is now. I was streaming a classic rock station through a smart television equipped with a radio app and connected to an audio system. The end result was the same. Music from the sixties.
A strong male voice was singing passionately about a girl. I recognized that familiar voice, but not the song. Singing in a full, rich baritone and ultimately reaching crescendos layered with full orchestration, while repeating the name “An-ge-LI-ca,” it was compelling enough for me to uncover more about the song. I located the station web site where a slowly scrolling playlist noted the title currently streaming was Angelica by Scott Walker:
You know, it’s been a while since the sixties. For one split second, upon seeing the name “Scott Walker” scroll past, I envisioned a notorious politician crooning from behind a podium, and it wasn’t Scott Walker the singer.
A group named the Walker Brothers had a hit song in 1965 titled The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, the refrain of which I often sing aloud while shuffling around the house on gloomy, winter days. It was that song in which I’d first heard the Scott Walker I was hearing now, the one my mind’s eye initially offered up as a politician from Wisconsin.
Most of what I know about Scott Walker the singer, I learned on Wikipedia just a few minutes ago. Most of what I know about Scott Walker the politician has come from newspaper articles and social media over a number of years.
The Wikipedia article about Scott Walker the singer is surprisingly good and rather extensive. It captured my interest for quite some time as I sought out YouTube videos of him as a solo artist and singing with his brothers. I don’t spend that kind of time on politicians. Unless, of course, they’re singing.
For better or worse, Scott Walker the politician isn’t among them in the above mashup video. But depending on whether it’s Scott Walker the singer accompanied by his brothers, or Scott Walker the politician accompanied by his environmental policies, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore can carry two distinct messages. Sad as it is, I prefer the singer’s. The other is unthinkable.
Letting go of the past can be a challenge. We’d like to think the music we grew up with was the very best and most innovative. To some extent it can be argued that certain songs and musical works set a standard that might never again be achieved. Mozart’s innovative symphonies and operas are held up as examples of classical innovation. At least that’s what I learned in a “Classical Masters” course many years ago. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were innovators and giants of jazz. Their music is still regarded among the best in that genre.
When modern orchestras and opera companies perform Mozart’s works, they may tweak portions here and there, but the result is still the same breathtaking music that we can only assume sounds the way it did in its original form, perhaps taken to new sonic levels through vastly improved acoustics or recording technology. When contemporary jazz ensembles perform the music of Ellington or Davis, we anticipate new, uncharted improvisation, for that is the very essence of jazz.
In popular music, we cling to the past more than ever. Who can top Sinatra’s interpretation of the American songbook? Tony Bennett perhaps? Who can surpass Elvis and his Jailhouse Rock? No one else has ever done it justice, though I must confess I’ve enjoyed the Jeff Beck Group’s cover of it on their 1969 Beck-Ola album. Or how about any originals by the Beatles or Dylan? There are some “prettier” covers of Dylan tunes that have been released, but the originals still endure.
A music video has been circulating on Facebook recently, linked from within a “Society of Rock” online music zine article. The video is Simon & Garfunkel performing Sound of Silence in a 2009 reunion performance at Madison Square Garden, fifty-two years after they first introduced the song. It’s usually accompanied by comments like, “Nothing beats the original,” or something similar. The zine article that many ignore is about this year’s Grammy-nominated, live cover of Sound of Silence performed by the metal band “Disturbed” on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show.
While the band’s name and heavy metal music may be disturbing to some, Disturbed’s live performance of Sound of Silence was one of those “Oh, my!” moments that made me wonder why I don’t listen to more metal music. Granted, nothing can approach the seamless, soaring harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel in their 2009 performance. But for me, the orchestral crescendo backing the unique vocals of Disturbed’s singer, David Draiman, snatched away any preconceived notion that there are no other ear-worthy versions of that song. I’m only sorry it didn’t win the Grammy for Best Rock Performance. It might have led to a greater appreciation for the original artists by Disturbed fans too young to remember them.
Here are both performances, snatched from YouTube, so you can watch as well as listen. Simply click on each of the links below to enjoy. If there’s a favorite cover version of a song you like, feel free to share it in a comment.
When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you, pull your beard and flick your face to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor. – John Lennon, 1969
I was scanning the course catalog for something to satisfy both a philosophy requirement and a serious desire to avoid picking a snoozer. My final semester at the university was otherwise unremarkable so I registered for “Seminar on Non-Violence.” Seminars were generally less structured classes with fewer students. The syllabus offered a mix of readings, contemporary and historical, all covering in varying degrees the philosophy of nonviolence and its role in the global struggle for human rights. Current events provided immediate relevance and inspired more pointed discussion about the importance of peaceful protest in the expanding anti-war movement. Of the dozen or so students in the seminar, I recognized some faces from campus demonstrations in which we participated.
As spring approached and the weather warmed, class would sometimes meet outdoors on the south quad. There we’d spread out on the lawn to take on a discussion and take in some sunshine. Lively discourse, earnest conversation and occasional debate were de rigueur. There were no written exams. The violence of trying to distill such profound thought to mere multiple choice questions was unacceptable. Frequently, we’d reflect on an event or an opinion and write a brief essay about it. Toward semester’s end, we were each to synthesize our final thoughts into an informal presentation to the class.
With some hesitation, I suggested playing guitar and singing a couple of protest songs for my presentation, after which we’d discuss the impact of music. The TA’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed as she thought a few seconds.. “Yes,” she finally responded, “Topical songs have been an important form of nonviolent protest.” I even sensed a bit of enthusiasm in her voice.
After class I strutted over to the campus library where I finished my shift shelving books on the seventh floor. Ironically, that’s where the philosophy books were housed. The lavatory wall on that floor displayed some of the most creative graffiti on campus. But that’s another story I “Kant” get into right now.
Returning to the apartment later, I removed my six-string from its case and began rehearsing. I settled on two songs, Universal Soldier by Buffy St. Marie and The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan. The first one I’d been performing around campus for a while. It was a straight up anti-war song. I’d learned the Dylan tune many years before and played it often for friends. It was decidedly an anti-establishment song.
The day of my presentation was sunny and warm. We checked into class and immediately moved out to the grassy quad. I opened my guitar case, sat down on the lawn and tuned up during some perfunctory discussion. When the TA invited me to begin, I strummed a couple of chords and started singing, He’s five foot two and he’s six feet four. He fights with missiles and with spears… Finishing to light applause, I was asked to play another. So I continued with The Times They Are A-Changin’, followed by more applause. The TA asked if I knew Me & Bobby McGee. I did and she encouraged me to keep playing for the remainder of the class. Gleefully, I continued. Me & Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson and Working Class Hero by John Lennon are the only two others I recall playing. I’m certain there were more.
You might wonder how Me & Bobby McGee fit into a “Seminar on Non-Violence” presentation about protest songs. I wondered the same thing. But when you think about it, I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for one single yesterday, to be holding Bobby’s body next to mine, is as beautifully non-violent as can be imagined. Then and now, we could all use a little more beauty and a lot less violence.
Me & Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson (Covered by Janis Joplin):
I entered a Facebook challenge today, something I’m generally not inclined to do. The idea is to occupy Facebook with art. The concept is simple. A friend posted an image of a painting to his timeline. It was a painting by a 17th century master. The simple challenge goes like this. Whoever “likes” the post is assigned an artist chosen by the poster and is asked to share a painting by that artist on their own timeline. I was asked to share Degas.
Edgar Degas was a 19th century Parisian Impressionist who grew up with a deep appreciation for music fostered by his parents, both of whom were accomplished musicians. The Degas painting I chose to share is titled L’Étoile (The Star). In it we see a lone ballerina on the stage, footlights shining brilliantly on her as she performs. She maintains a graceful, majestic pose “en pointe,” balancing on one leg.
The hauntingly beautiful visual impressionism of Degas’ dancer immediately prompted my recollection of a song to accompany it. Musical impressionism, if you will.
Following up on the success of their 1966 hit song, Walk Away Renée, the Left Banke, a baroque-rock band from New York, released Pretty Ballerina later that same year. Both songs were inspired by the girlfriend of a band member whose name was Renée. Pretty Ballerina features an oboe during the instrumental portion of the song, joining a string quartet before the music pauses then returns to the refrain of the song. Listen for yourself while gazing at the Degas and you might very well catch a glimpse of Renée pirouetting to the music.
The Left Banke – Pretty Ballerina
I had a date with a pretty ballerina, Her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes.
I asked her for this dance and then she obliged me.
Was I surprised, yeah, was I surprised, no not at all…
Just close your eyes and she’ll be there.”
— The Left Banke, Pretty Ballerina