Monday, November 25, 1996

The Pretender

Your name is Jarod and when you were a child you were deemed a genius and trained by a quasi-governmental agency known as the "Corporation." They've taken your remarkable mental abilities to train you to perform whatever tasks needed to obtain their own ends to their own political agenda. After a while you have begun to question your assistance to this organization and determine you need to spend the rest of your life rectifying the wrongs you have helped perpetuate. Problem is the Corporation has taken away your life, the life you knew before, your parents- and all that gives others their identity. So part of your search is the search for who you really are.

Your training and your remarkable mental skills give you the ability to become whatever you need to become to place yourself into the middle of any situation that helps you achieve your own goal: to right the many wrongs in this world. If the situation requires you to be a doctor, a policeman, a Vegas blackjack dealer, a scientist trained to handle highly infectious viruses, a jet pilot, you have the ability to use your skills to succeed. You are the pretender- the eternal misfit, who can pretend to fit into any situation yet never belong; perpetually peripheral, on the outside looking in.

Your name is Lyle Lovett and you are a fairly well known, and fairly well respected entertainer. You are best known for your music, a mixture of country, blues, swing and jazz. You are also known for your failed marriage to Julia Roberts, as well as your own acting career (with a notable performance in Robert Altman's excellent The Player). You performed a solid concert last Sunday night at Northrop Auditorium. Billed as Lyle Lovett with a Large Band (no, it's not a band of pumped up steroid filled ex-football players, but rather a band with numerous musicians), you showcase a wall of sound complete with gospel backing singers on some numbers, and local musician hero, Leo Kottke on a couple of others. Your songs are full of wit and humor, but often come across as a bit too clever, tender without revealing all that much about the man who wrote them. "I don't love you any less, but now I can't love you anymore..."

Because your songs are so eclectic, it is hard to categorize you and thus you probably will never get the notice and acclaim that you probably should in an industry full of predictability and blandness, where every song starts to sound like the one before, and every singer indistinguishable from whoever was hot two or three years ago.

You are the editor of a small, weekly newsletter. During the past week you fulfill a life long dream of sorts, by getting an article published in several local newspapers (one even being a daily). This sudden success is surprising, in that you didn't see it coming. The article that was published wasn't exactly one of your best, not even one you feel all that proud of; it was written quickly to fill up space, one of the many you have written recently that you threw together in an hour and away forever.

Thus you have mixed feelings. Part of you sees this latest triumph as another in a growing line of signs that suggest you might be doing all right for yourself. And any of which would have seemed highly improbable just a few years back. Another part begins to see something off track, that if someone somewhere thought that article was good, there were many others already written, and a few still left to write, and maybe what you once thought might be, still might be ahead somewhere. You are a bit disappointed that the people who saw the article tend to comment more on your picture rather than the words, and are disappointed you didn't mention "them in the article." But that was to be expected. You've seen that before. After all these years you still don't know, or at the very least still don't understand how your writing does and does not effect people.

There may be a connection between these three separate stories, as much as there ever is a connection between anything. All three of you are actors, playing roles of what is expected of you while at the same time somehow playing off of what is expected of you. Some somewhere out there might even suggest an overall theme many of us share, a commentary on today's society where there are many who are pretenders, searching for their roles, trying to understand past wrongs, hiding at times behind their own words, and constantly searching for that elusive comfort of the place others call home. Oh and one more thread ties together the three of you: you alls gots goofy hair.

Monday, November 18, 1996

The 14th Time Around

My favorite series of stories when I was a child were a group of books called "The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree." The books were about a boy who while sitting in an apple orchard witnesses a spaceship crash and befriends the little alien chap who emerges from the ship.

The premise of the stories was the alien, Marty's, attempts at trying to get back home while trying to fit in with the strange routines of the young earth boy (because Marty was so small in stature, earthlings assumed that he was a boy although he was in reality an elderly alien- something any young Japanese American kid growing up in the suburbs could relate to). This of course was "ET" before "ET" came out. There was a sadness to Marty's plight, being unable to get back home because he lacked a certain space element (XYZCHROMIUM) to repair his ship, and a certain poignancy in his attempts to fit into a life of a young earth boy. He inevitably would go so far then get frustrated and pull out some space gadget like the time he tried playing baseball only to pull out some space shoes to greatly add to his foot speed.

The stories appealed because they were about being lost among friends, about trying to fit in while keeping an eye affixed on the horizon, forever looking for a place to call home. Marty was critical and skeptical about earth customs and proud of his own homeland yet the stories always contained a message about the benefits of our human existence. Marty would inevitably reveal that his own home had problems of its own and that our world was a pretty good world to live in. The grass is always greener even in outer space.

"I'm standing in the rain in line to see a movie starring Gregory Peck. You know it's not even the one I had in mind. He's got a new one out now, I don't know what it's about but I'll see him in anything so I'll stand in line." This was the fourteenth time I've seen Bob Dylan in concert. On our way down to Mankato last Sunday evening, my companion asked me why I admired Dylan so much. Not really having an appropriate answer, I mumbled something about him having it right about women and liking the way he has consistently during his career questioned why we are here.

The self proclaimed and later denied "Never Ending Tour" has now reached its ninth year. The traveling troubadour is still trying to connect with an audience. "Me I'm still on the road, heading for another joint. We always did feel the same we just saw it from a different point of view, tangled up in blue." The shows are starting to show some wear and tear. The core of the backing band, J.J. Jackson, Tony Garnier, and Bucky Baxter has been with Dylan for the past five years. This fall's shows feature a new drummer, David Kemper who replaced Winston Watson. The band is increasingly more slick, more professional, and more predictable, the very things you would expect from other performers but qualities Dylan has shied away from throughout his career. The striving for chaos, varied setlists and constantly changing arrangements are things of the past as the shows are beginning to become more and more repetitive.

The Mankato show opened with the now somewhat regular "Down in the Flood" which remains a strong first song. The taut bluesy rock and growling Dylan vocal lack some of the drive and punch that was present when Dylan began playing this song as the opener a little over a year and a half ago, but it still remains superb night after night with the superlative lyrics, "Sugar for sugar, salt for salt, when you go down in the flood it's going to be your fault..;" Bob looked downright dapper in a white straw cowboy hat and matching cowboy shirt.

The second song, a country lilt version of "Lay Lady Lay" was Dylan and the band just going through the motions. When the standard third song, "All Along the Watchtower" and the next song, "Just Like a Woman" lacked any sign of energy, I was a bit worried it was going to be an entirely forgettable show.

Maybe it was a feeling that Bob wasn't really into the evening, or more likely I wasn't quite into the evening yet, my mind began to wander. As I thought about the past few weeks, the joy at looking forward to another Dylan concern accompanied by a friend who had never seen the man but was curious to see him; about the drive down past her grandparents' home in LeSueur, and our tasty roast beef sandwich dinner at the Hardees in St. Peter (WARNING: if you are ever in Mankato, they don't have an Arby's!); I pondered her question to me about my enthusiasm toward Dylan. A brief moment of clarity came into view, how so many of his songs are about being the perpetual outsider- like Marty the alien- looking for some kind of home- about traveling, seeking and searching for some kind of inner and outer peace. Making sense out of nonsense. Unforgettable lyrics from an unforgettable voice.

"You're going to lose your best friend now. You're going to have to find yourself another best friend somehow." "There are many there among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I have been through that and this is not our fate. Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late." "Ain't it clear that I just don't fit. Yes I believe it's time for us to quit." "One of these days and it won't be long, going down to the valley to sing my song. Gonna sing it loud, sing it strong, let the echo decide if I was right or wrong." "Every time you leave and go off someplace, things fall to pieces, in my face." "How does it feel to be without a home? With no direction home? Like a complete unknown?"

The next two song performances provided a solid answer to my friend's question. The countryish "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" was beautiful, with Dylan occupying all the lyrics from the great opening line, "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter time too. And gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through..." all the way through to the witty Dylanesque conclusion, "I started off on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff. Everybody said they'd stand behind me when the game got rough. But the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to call my bluff. I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough..." Like he had just pulled the words down out of the air and was singing them personally to all six thousand that were in the room, it was a spine tingling moment.

The acoustic "Tangled Up in Blue" was equally as impressive. I've heard this song live many times over the years and it remains one of the few Dylan songs that I feel he hasn't improved upon from the recorded version. But the current arrangement, stripped down acoustic with a soft and sad reading was truly moving. I among many was hanging on every familiar word. Bob's guitar solos tend to rely heavily on two note riffs, but when he is into the performance, as he was during this night's playing of "Tangled" the solo was effective and added an important piece in understanding the whole.

The other highlights from the rest of the evening were a weary and penetrating "One Too Many Mornings," an inspired, wistful "I'll Remember You," a rollicking "Like a Rolling Stone" and a bitter "It Ain't Me Babe." And the moment Bob allowed J.J. to take a guitar solo in "Highway 61" and J.J. gave a searing performance that would have made Robbie Robertson proud. Just when you think you may have seen one too many shows in one too many towns, with one too many familiar readings of a song, Dylan twists a vocal, adds a guitar lick, plays around with a line in a way that makes you feel something new about the song and think something different about your own life. Not only is there no other performer with quite that ability, no other performer can come close in choosing his repertoire from such a vast catalog of brilliant original songs.

And there was another lesson learned this evening. I greatly appreciated my friend's company at the concert. Many of the prior thirteen concerts had been attended alone but as I have learned its often better to share in the moment. You only have to be as alone as you think you are. Rejuvenation through redemption. On the long drive home we got a little lost but sharing in the entire experience together was one of those rare moments in life where the journey becomes as meaningful as the search. It meant a lot to me that she enjoyed the evening.

I was a bit perplexed however at the behavior of other audience members. It felt like everybody knew each other and we were two strangers in a strange land. Why would you pay to see a concert and spend the entire evening gabbing inattentively with friends? Or how 'bout them two lovebirds that sat in front of us, who kept the beat by playfully tapping each other on their rears? Or the guy behind us who kept screeching his loudest "WOOOO!!!" throughout the songs. Or the guy who kept shouting, "DYLAN!" as if to identify the performer for anyone who was unsure. What was the deal with those people?

Thus the main difference of the shows these days isn't with the musicians themselves but with the people listening. One might explain the other. This Sunday night show featured enough of the "greatest hits" in an accessible manner to keep happy the FM trained, cigarette lighter flicking, people more interested in touching the man than being touched by the man. At the end of the show several audience members ran up on stage and hugged a bemused Bob. During the final encore number, "Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35" the stage was full of satisfied dancing customers. But the show also contained enough moments of inspired genius to keep the newly initiated and even the hardened among us coming back for more.