Bob Dylan and me

NOTE:  I began writing this story several months ago, but put it aside.  It’s published now in honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I first heard about Bob Dylan in 1963 when a radio disc jockey played Peter, Paul and Mary’s record, Blowin’ in the Wind.  I didn’t know what a cover version was in grade school.  But I recall the DJ talking about a young protest singer named Bobby Dylan who wrote the song, a name I initially misheard as Bobby Darin.  Dylan’s name came up some time later when the station played another Peter, Paul and Mary record, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.  Though I still hadn’t heard Bob Dylan, I did begin to appreciate folk music thanks to Peter, Paul and Mary.

The March on Washington was all over the news later that summer and while Martin Luther King had a dream, Bob Dylan had a song.  I finally saw him in a television news piece singing a few lines of Only a Pawn in Their Game.  It began, “A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood…”  Whoa!  Who the heck is Medgar Evers?  I knew about the the man who shot Liberty Valence, but I’d never heard of this guy Evers or the guy who shot him.  It would be a few more years before I understood the awful truth behind that song, long after Dylan penned his more topical works.

That fall I entered eighth grade and had other things on my mind like girls, cars, and anything California.  Thank you, Beach Boys.  All those things important to a young teenager came crashing down in November with the assassination of a beloved U.S. president.  The accompanying void was filled by homework and more thoughts of girls, cars and anything California.  Until February 1964 when the Beatles changed my world.  I wanted an electric guitar.  I wanted not only to listen to music, I wanted to play it.

Top forty radio — Motown, the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion bands — filled my musical world through freshman year in high school and starting a band became my new pursuit.  The summer of 1965, out of a tinny radio speaker, a new song captured my attention.  If any description of “mind blowing” could be more apt, Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds was a perfect fit.  The jangling electric guitar, steady beat and obscure lyrics painted enough vivid pictures in my head, to compel me to get their debut album.

I’m a reader.  So naturally I read the liner notes on the back of the album sleeve.  Bob Dylan’s name was mentioned several times as he’d written four of the album’s twelve songs, including Mr. Tambourine Man.   I liked the album, but was especially knocked out by those four Dylan songs that also included Spanish Harlem Incident, All I Really Want To Do and Chimes of Freedom.  Thus began my pursuit of more Dylan.

The first Bob Dylan album I bought was his newest release at the time, Bringing It All Back Home.  It contained eleven songs, four of them longer than five minutes, including the original Mr. Tambourine Man with more verses than I ever imagined possible.  It got even better when I finally heard Dylan on the radio that summer singing a new one, Like a Rolling Stone.  I was hooked and Dylan was my drug.

Since that time, I’ve never lost my appreciation for Dylan and his music, even though some of his albums garnered few, if any, critical accolades.  I’ve added nearly all of them to my collection, whether in vinyl, compact disc or digital download.  In browsing through my  Dylan vinyl, I even found two different copies of Great White Wonder, the first authentic bootleg album that I still believe might be worth a few bucks someday.  As for Dylan concerts, I’ve only been to three.  They were in 1978, 1986 and in 2008.  I haven’t attended another for a variety of reasons but I listen to enough music any given day to hear a bundle of Bob quite regularly.

His songs remain a part of my acoustic repertoire, a repertoire I performed in campus coffee houses long ago.  Now, I play them for my own enjoyment and to entertain a few friends on occasion.  When you read great literature, you can sometimes quote specific lines or even entire passages from memory. When it comes to Dylan, I once was able to recite all the lyrics to most of his pre-1970 catalog.  Those memories have faded a bit, but I’ll always recall these, among the first I ever learned and, in my admittedly biased view, of Nobel quality…

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves.  Let me forget about today until tomorrow.  Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.  I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to.  Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.  In that jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.”

I Love Hearing Songs About (Your State’s Name Here)

An anonymous friend of ours — let’s call her, um… Lynn — sent me a recent Washington Post article titled “The states that Americans sing about most,” a subject that naturally piques my interest.

It describes the work of a data scientist who set out to answer the question of which states are more or less frequently mentioned in contemporary music.  Her results are summarized in the article and also are presented in map-like images called cartograms.  Not surprisingly, California and New York stand out as winners, with Georgia and Texas not far behind.  I shared the article with Sylvia and we discussed the results, concluding that it wasn’t especially surprising to see California in the top spot.  California is likely to retain that honor with many tribute songs in memoriam long after it falls into the ocean.

Offering no specific song titles in the article as examples, I was moved to view the study from a different angle.  I asked myself what three songs in which a state name is mentioned come to mind first.  So, I’m guilty of reducing a well-conceived and very interesting scientific study into something like a column heading on Jeopardy.

In the spirit of quasi-scientific inquiry, I asked Sylvia which songs mentioning states were the first three that popped into her head.  Sure enough, her first response was Hotel California by the Eagles, further support for having no reason to think California shouldn’t claim the top honor.

Interestingly, Sylvia named Georgia on My Mind, a Hoagy Carmichael song, as number two.  Georgia is among the top states mentioned in song.  Of course the definitive version of Georgia on My Mind performed by Ray Charles also happens to be Georgia’s actual state song, qualifying it as a sort of Daily Double.  John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High came in third with its lilting reference to Colorado.  It was surprising to learn from the study that Colorado isn’t mentioned more often.

Then it was my turn to respond and three song titles immediately came to mind.  The first one was California Girls by the Beach Boys.  Again, easy to see why California comes out on top.  Depending on your age or your taste in music, you might have named Dani California by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  It’s a catchy tune and even mentions two or three states in addition to California!

At first glance, Montana doesn’t appear to be among the top states mentioned in song until you look more closely at the data.  For its size and population, Montana is mentioned rather frequently in song lyrics.  That in mind, the second tune popping into my head was Frank Zappa’s Montana.  I wondered if anyone else counted “Going to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon…among their top three memorable song lyrics.  Even now it’s the only song about Montana I can recall, though I’m almost sure the Sons of the Pioneers sing about it.

By the looks of the data, our home state of Wisconsin is woefully under-represented.  Not counting the official state song, On Wisconsin, one might be hard-pressed to think of anything outside of a beer ad jingle that mentions Wisconsin.  For example, “I’m from Wisconsin, and I oughtta know…”  But the challenge was answered when I thought of an obscure tune by Midwest folk duo Lou and Peter Berryman, whose song Up In Wisconsin earned a place in the musical nostalgia folds of my brain.  With a chorus that goes, “Up in Wisconsin… the weather isn’t very nice.  Up in Wisconsin… they gotta fish right through the ice,” it doesn’t paint the rosiest picture of our home state.  On the other hand, it isn’t far from the truth.

On a final note (pun intended), Lou and Peter cover all the bases in another of their songs, aptly titled Your State’s Name Here.  It should make folks from states like Connecticut, who register a low number of mentions on the cartogram, feel much better about themselves.

With a keen interest in further research, and with no requirement to answer in the form of a question, what three songs that mention states do you recall first?

(For the curious, here are links to YouTube videos of Lou and Peter Berryman singing Up In Wisconsin and Your State’s Name Here. Just click on the song titles.)

 

My Mother Should Know: A Beatles Moment

We weren’t all that innocent. Not like the media would have you believe.  We already had rock ‘n’ roll, the very name of which implies a loss of innocence. We had Elvis, though he wasn’t someone who excited me.  I was a little too young to fully appreciate what an older sibling Elvis fan might have liked about him.

Instead, I counted Del Shannon’s Runaway among my favorite songs.  Having memorized the lyrics, I’d sing it aloud bicycling around the neighborhood.  Over time, Gene Pitney’s Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa took over the top spot in my “bicycling aloud” repertoire.  The lyrics to both songs were emblazoned on my brain.  To this day, I still play and sing them whenever the urge to pull out my guitar creeps over me.  Only rarely do I sing either of them aloud anymore while bicycling.

That internal playlist changed on the day I accompanied Mom to the Bonnie Bee Supermarket.  I always enjoyed going to the grocery store with her because I’d get to hang out in the magazine aisle and leaf through the latest issue of Song Hits magazine.  Occasionally I’d make a halfhearted attempt to scan Hot Rod magazine.  What captured my attention on this day, however, was a nearby record rack that housed the week’s top ten hits on 45s.

I’d seen picture sleeves on records before.  Some singles by the Beach Boys had them.  There were other groups with picture sleeves as well.  On this day the one that attracted me had on it a black and white photo of four guys in collarless jackets, the guy on the left sporting a lit cigarette in his fingers.  These were the Beatles I’d been seeing on television news and was hearing on the radio.  That sleeve containing their record, I Want To Hold Your Hand, called out to me.


I walked down one aisle after another, record in hand, to find Mom.  If I could just sneak it into the cart unnoticed, I’d nonchalantly slip it on to the conveyor belt at the checkout as I helped unload groceries.  I chickened out and simply asked her if she’d buy it for me.  My reasoning must have been sound.  In 1963, Mom bought me the first Beatles record I ever owned.

Tonight we saw the Ron Howard film, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.  The first few minutes of the movie stirred up such a visceral response that I almost pulled out a handkerchief.  My thoughts were drawn back to that day in the Bonnie Bee Supermarket and how Mom gave in to my begging.  Little did she know I’d eventually be asking for an electric guitar.  (I got that too.  Man, I must have been good.)

See the film.  If you’re so moved, post a comment about your first memorable Beatles moment.  And by the way, thanks Mom!

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years official UK trailer

Put me in, Coach!

September ushers in the end of the regular baseball season.  As the boys of summer begin wrapping it up and the ivy on the outfield walls goes from green to red, we anxiously anticipate playoff games, Pennant winners and the World Series.

I never impressed the girls by playing Little League or high school baseball so I never could place myself in the protagonist role of Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days, a 1984 song in which the Boss used baseball as the basis for reminiscing and recapturing the spirit of his youth.  In high school I’d chosen instead to play guitar and sing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, like Bruce, but without the baseball connection and with only a fraction of the talent.

  Bruce Springsteen – Glory Days (1984)

It just might have been Glory Days that inspired me to buy a new baseball glove, oil it up and try out for the City of Janesville’s adult softball league.  It was April 1985, a year after the release of the song and long past high school.  I was director of the Janesville Public Library and had been invited to join the Tramps, a ragtag team comprising journalists from the local newspaper, some who covered the library beat, and a couple of city employees.  It turned out to be the most fun I’d had in years.

rookie0001That first season with the Tramps, I did well enough to earn a 1985 Rookie of the Year title and receive the coveted pasteup of a mock newspaper article written by the sports editor himself.

softball0001Exhilarated by my successful debut on the diamond, I spent the winter months working out, even taking up jogging during the noon hour instead of eating sandwiches and potato chips.  (I saved those for after jogging.)  By the following spring, I was itching for softball to begin.  Tuesday, April 1, 1986 marked the first scheduled day of softball practice beginning promptly at 4:30 p.m. in the open field between the library and Marshall Junior High School.

I was running late, finishing up a report for the library board.  Closing the office door, I quickly changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, grabbed my glove, donned my cap and headed out the door.  I slipped my cleats on before stepping out on to the soft, wet turf.  The weather had been cloudy and misty all day.  There was a chill in the air which made me grateful to have that sweatshirt.

The guys were already shagging fly balls as I trotted out to center field.  Ironically, I was singing John Fogerty’s 1985 song Centerfield to myself on the way there.  I turned to face the batter who was peppering the outfield with lines drives and grounders.  Then came a fly ball heading just to my right.  I took a few paces toward the spot, planted my right foot in the soft grass and turned.

A loud snap echoed off the building as I crumpled to the ground, shooting stars projected on the inside of my closed eyelids, pain coursing through my leg.  When I finally opened my eyes, faces hovered over mine telling me to “just lie still,” and “the paramedics are on their way.”  The medical crew asked permission to cut open my pant leg so they could examine me.  I could barely speak, so I simply nodded.

injuredI’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) inside my right knee along with the miniscus.  Surgery, recovery and rehabilitation replaced softball that summer.  I was, however, able to attend one last game in late July.  It felt good just to sit on the bench with my teammates, even though my leg was immobilized and I still had crutches with me in case I needed them.

On the field, an argument with the home plate umpire resulted in one Tramp being ejected from the game.  Down to a skeleton crew already, the roster now showed only eight Tramps for the bottom of the final inning.  With the Tramps behind by only one run, the game would be forfeited if a ninth player wasn’t named.  I was the only other guy on the bench.  Coach Mike asked if I could just stand at the plate and swing at the ball.  I said, “What the hell?  OK.”

I was on deck when the batter ahead of me popped out.  Hobbling to the batters box, I held a bat and stood there awkwardly for a minute, while the entire defense moved in closer, ready for the easy out.  The pitcher must have felt sorry for me though.  He tossed me a perfect pitch.  Even as I swung gingerly to avoid twisting my knee, aluminum connected with leather in a line drive to the gap in right-center field.  I took off hobbling toward first base where to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I was safe!

Now what do I do?  The guy after me also hit a line drive.  I hobbled toward second base, but before I’d taken five steps he was gaining fast and shouting, “Run!  Run!”  Well, I couldn’t run and he finally realized my predicament when the shortstop tagged second base and then tossed the ball to first where he was declared out.  That was game.  The Tramps lost by a run.  I, on the other hand, recorded a single for my only at-bat that season.

At the fall team dinner, I was awarded a batting trophy, the only team member to have achieved a perfect season hitting record.  “Oh, put me in, Coach.  I’m ready to play, today…”

softball0002 John Fogerty – Centerfield (1985)

Elusive Butterfly

“Across my dreams with nets of wonder, I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love.”  —Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind.  1965.

Butterfly Mountain

Quite often, while I’m deeply engrossed in a news article or a gripping novel, I’m confronted with a word that derails my train of thought and causes it to sidetrack into that great stockyard of song titles from my past.  It happened twice with the same word today.  First, reading a New York Times article about the “elusive” goals of a certain political party.  Within minutes, a “one-word prompt” message shows up in my email, devised to inspire writers to create a story around today’s word, “elusive.”

I took that as a sign.  Both times the word appeared, my wandering mind sped like an out-of-control locomotive to the song Elusive Butterfly by folk singer Bob Lind.  I was in high school.  It wasn’t one of the “cool” songs I was supposed to like.  But I remember seeing Bob Lind perform it on Shindig or Hullabaloo, one of those 60s television teen shows, and pictured myself sitting on a stool, guitar in hand and stage lights all around as I watched Lind play and sing.

I still do that.  I did it again today.  And all it took was one word.  “Elusive.”  An apt description of my thoughts and how they’ve been shaped by music.   Now, back to my regularly scheduled thinking.

(This could have been the performance I watched so long ago:  Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind.)

 

Drive

1984.  My marriage had broken down.
Who’s gonna tell you when it’s too late?

We’d just bought a big old house in an historic neighborhood.
Who’s gonna tell you things aren’t so great?

It was only two blocks from where I worked.
You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong.

Was there anyone in whom I could find comfort?
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Divorce papers were signed on the auspicious date of March Fo(u)rth.
Who’s gonna pick you up when you fall?

Friends were conflicted by just who’s friend they should remain.
Who’s gonna hang it up when you call?

I only needed a shoulder to lean on.
Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams?

Just someone who could listen for a moment.
And who’s gonna plug their ears when you scream?

I struggled to find meaning in my work.
You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong.

I brought home an old wooden desk and office chair that my dad once used.
But who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Work was a burden.
Who’s gonna hold you down when you shake?

I desperately needed a friend.
Who’s gonna come around when you break?

I longed for a new companion.
You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong.

It was then she danced into my life.
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

She drove me home.  And stayed.

(Drive by the Cars.  Released July 23, 1984.  Words and music by Ric Ocasek.)
Listen to Drive by the Cars here:

Buy it here

Darkness, Darkness

Last night I was playing my guitar, plucking out and singing the old Youngbloods song, Get Together. You know how it goes.

“C’mon people now,
Smile on your brother.
Everybody get together,
Try to love one another right now.”

And this morning?  While those lyrics still represent a deep desire, they’ve been displaced temporarily by others from the same songwriter.

Darkness, darkness,
Long and lonesome,
Ease the day that brings me pain.
I have felt the edge of sadness,
I have known the depth of fear.
Darkness, darkness, be my blanket,
Cover me with the endless night.
Take away, take away the pain of knowing,
Fill the emptiness of right now…”
–Jesse Colin Young, Darkness, Darkness

 

Layers

Layers.  Stacks.  Platters.  Records.  Music.  It’s a word association game played in my head that invariably ends up leading to music.  To a classically trained musician, layers comprise the texture of music and determine whether the piece is monophonic, polyphonic or homophonic.  I’m not a classically trained musician, so my image of music layers is mainly limited to a stack of vinyl records sitting on a phonograph spindle waiting for their chance  on a spinning turntable to impress a pair of ears.

A surrealistic interpretation of a record stack was created for the cover of a Rolling Stones album, Let It Bleed.

If you examine all the layers stacked on that record-changer spindle you’ll likely see a cake plate, an open reel tape canister labeled “Stones – Let It Bleed,” a clock face, a pizza, a small tire and an elaborately decorated cake, complete with miniature figures of the band members.  Now those are some layers!

As for the music inside that cover?  Definitely melody-dominated homophonic layers of voices, guitars, drums, piano and more.  I’d love to write more, but I’m lying in bed under a layer of sheets, drifting off to sleep.  Sometimes there are just too many layers to think about and besides, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Clouds

Clouds

Ok.  I’m late.  I signed up for this WordPress thing called “The Daily Post,” the main purpose of which is to present blog writers with an inspiring word each day.  From there, authors are expected to become inspired enough by that word to write a captivating blog entry, preferably 250 words or less.  The word that inspired me, “clouds,” came up on the day we were preparing to travel 750 miles by car to another state.  Since then, a couple more days have passed.  I’ve had to ignore newer Daily Posts so I could think more about clouds.

Clouds was the first Joni Mitchell album I ever heard, but not the first time I’d heard her song from that collection, Both Sides Now, in which she mentions having “looked at clouds from both sides now.”  If you’ve flown, you’ve likely shared that exhilarating experience.  Judy Collins scored a hit with Both Sides Now in 1967, two years before Joni Mitchell released it herself on the Clouds album.

Looking at “both sides now” appears to be a major problem with a lot of people these days.  It’s especially an issue among those of us who’ve climbed aboard a political or religious bandwagon, parading around wearing blinders to avoid looking at different positions or beliefs held by others.  As the song goes on, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”  More folks might consider owning up to that… and then doing something to rectify it.

img_1814

Up Your Nose

Here’s a safety tip for the workshop.  The other day I was in the garage tossing some junk into a box marked “electrical components for disposal.”  These are the kind of small electronic items — computer gadgets, chargers, an old beard trimmer and the like — that we’re not supposed to be dumping in landfills.  They’re also not supposed to be mixed into the household recycling tote.  At the county courthouse parking lot, there is a regularly scheduled pickup for electronic component recycling.  Being a conscientious tree-hugger, I try to deep six this stuff where it belongs; mainly in someone else’s possession so I no longer have to deal with it.

One item, an old external computer hard drive, gave me pause.  What if there’s sensitive data stored on it just waiting to be lifted by some unscrupulous recycler?  So I set about disassembling it to reach the internal hard drive platters and destroy them.  The brushed aluminum housing and stand came off easily enough by removing a few screws.  I tossed those metal pieces into the regular recycling tote.  The hard drive itself was sealed in its own metal and hard plastic case.  Its metal cover was fastened with eight tiny screws, the heads not more than 1/16 inch across.  These were special “torx” head screws, characterized by a star pattern, instead of the more standard phillips or slotted type.

Not having a torx fitting small enough for such a tiny screw head, I chose to simply pry off the cover and break the screws.  I put on my safety goggles, picked up a tool and began prying up a corner.  The first screw head broke off easily and fell to the workbench.  Moving the pry bar to the next corner, I gave it a quick twist.  In a split second, the screw head snapped and took off like a missile.  Its trajectory, as if guided by nose hair technology, landed it deep inside my right nostril.  My first reaction was “don’t breathe!”  Thinking on my feet, the next breath taken was through my mouth, which was gaping open in disbelief.

Sparing you the unsavory details, I eventually was able to dislodge the pesky little missile which made a soft landing in a Kleenex tissue.  No blood or obvious damage was done.   Even this incident, traversing six degrees of separation at the speed of light, reminded me of a song.   If I hadn’t been able to remove the screw head myself, a medic wearing latex gloves might have had to retrieve it from my nostril with a surgical tool.  Vinny Barbarino’s classic “Up your nose with a rubber hose” from the 1970s TV show, Welcome Back, Kotter came to mind.  The opening theme song, Welcome Back, was written and performed by John Sebastian who, hopefully, never had either a rubber hose up his nose or a tiny screw head.

The happy ending of this story is accompanied by an equally happy song that you can hear by clicking on Welcome Back by John Sebastian.  Oh, wait.  I almost forgot the safety tip.  Here it is.  In addition to wearing safety glasses while at your workbench, you may also want to consider a surgical mask to protect nose and mouth orifices from rocketing debris.  A pair of earbuds connected to your mp3 player loaded with John Sebastian songs might help protect those ear canals too.

torx
Don’t screw around with your nostrils!