Tuesday, July 28, 1998

Born in Time

Not too long ago I resolved not to write about Mr. Dylan in these pages for awhile. My admiration for the man and his work was even starting to annoy me. But after hearing two more must hear performances that are breathtaking I feel not to share would be shirking my duties.

The first is a live performance of the song One of Us Most Know (Sooner or Later) from an August 12, 1997 concert in Scranton PA. This is the one and only live performance of this classic Blonde on Blonde song since 1977's Street Legal tour. And what a performance it is. Dylan flubs the opening line, "I didn't know... to hurt you so bad" instead of "I didn't mean to hurt you so bad." But all the lines are sung with passion and regret. "I didn't know you were saying good-bye for good." "Sooner or later one of us most know that I really did try to get close to you." The lilting version (which reminds me of this band's arrangement of Simple Twist of Fate) featuring Bucky Baxter's tender country slide guitar fills fits the mood of the song perfectly. It is a moving and rare performance in what unfortunately was a one off effort. The song fizzles out in the end as the band struggles to finish an unfamiliar song. But Dylan's vocals occupy the lyrics in such an effectively wistful way that what is said is as important as is what is left unsaid. "I didn't mean to make you so sad, you just happened to be there that's all... I didn't know how you could know me, but you said you knew me and I believed you did..."

The other inspiring performance is an outtake from the Oh Mercy sessions of Born in Time (which was later released on 1990's Under the Red Sky and more recently covered on Eric Clapton's new CD). The Red Sky version is a song captured beyond its prime. Dylan reworked the song and the rewritten lines without exception serve to conceal the heart of the lyrics. ( "You came and saw, just like the law..." indeed.) The earlier unreleased version showcases a perfect Dylan vocal with a writer who has much to say but is struggling to find the right words. "Just when I knew you were gone you came back... You were high, you were low. You were so easy to know" sounds a bit trite on paper but the soft sad expression of his voice in this take captures the very essence of some very important relationships in my own life.

"Just when I knew who to thank, you went blank." The words don't convey what the voice does. This version makes it ambiguous as to what the state of the relationship is. Does it still exist? Did it ever exist? Will it exist in the future? The singer is singing directly to his heart's inspiration who may or may not still be around. In the Red Sky version it's clear the person the song is directed at is long gone. In that version the way Dylan sings, "It's too revealing..." and "In the hills of mystery, you can have what's left of me," is chilling. It's as if he realizes the person he has lost has taken an irreplaceable part of him with her. It's difficult to survive when what is causing so much sadness is the same thing bringing relief from that sadness.

The hesitancy of his vocals in the unreleased outtake is an example of Dylan's finest singing. The timbre of the voice is so expressive and the seeking of just the way to express the sentiment is perfect. In the earlier version he sings, "In the hills of mystery, in the foggy ruins of destiny, I think of you from deep inside of me..." and the mood of the moment conveys the title of the song in absolute honesty and unique perfection.

These two lost relationship songs written over twenty years apart are examples of why Dylan is such a vital and important artist. It's difficult to think of any other artist in any other medium who could so eloquently express such universal feelings so effectively. Both songs are about a singer struggling with his place in time. His ability to write in a way that seems to exist outside of time and to share his heart (too late) with his audience in such a universally felt way- in these two examples is absolutely stunning.

Monday, July 20, 1998

One Time One Night

For any of you who receive the Washington County edition of the Pioneer Press, last week you may have noticed a couple of quotes from your favorite local high ranking government official. By the end of the week that same high ranking government official was feeling that if the next time his name appeared in the newspaper was his own obituary, that would be plenty soon enough. Come Friday he was snapping at just about anyone within ear's range.

What exactly happened to this once normal young man? He seems to recall a time in grade school when his political skills, and his popularity rating was at an all time high where he could do just about no wrong. He seems to remember a day in fourth grade when his teacher pulled him aside for a conference. Never having ever been in trouble this young boy was a bit worried. But his fears were assuaged and his ego further stroked when his teacher told him what the secret meeting was about. Seems there was a new student, one Norman Luchsinger, who was having a bit of a difficult time trying to fit into his new surroundings. Upon some initial counseling the school administration asked young Norman what they could do to make his life run more smoothly. Norman mentioned that of all the kids around he wished he could be friends with the future high ranking government official. Thus the teacher asked this all too popular young quote giver if he would be willing to take young Norman under his wing and try to be a friend. "Sure, why not..." the young much too popular kid said. "I'll be his friend..."

It surely was a defining moment for this young man. It was the first time that he was willing to acknowledge the power of his own popularity. Yet at that very moment he was also pursuing his initial interests in that fifty percent of the class that he among with the other boys had been thus far ignoring. He was keeping an eye out on another new student, one Wendy Burowska. Up until this moment the young man had previously shown interest in only one other of the opposite gender, one Tracy Siegfried who by all accounts was the type one might suspect the young man might become attracted to if such things could occur as early as the fourth grade. Young Ms. Siegfried much like the young man was a very good student, a favorite of all the teachers for her immaculate classroom behavior. Young Ms. Burowska on the other hand, at times found herself at odds with those trying to school her. Her attitude sometimes showed a bit of defiance which was what attracted the young man to her though he wouldn't or couldn't admit to it yet (it was to become a bit of a reoccurring theme in his life however).

So come some twenty years later imagine this now rapidly aging young man's surprise that after his weekly softball experience his surprise to run across the same Wendy B. (now Wendy K. following a marriage and subsequent divorce) in a bar that the young man and his softball teammates frequented after their games. At first (despite his usual talent at remembering faces and names) he didn't recognize her. But as they talked and discovered mutual ages and school histories he soon discovered who she was. A bit of a shock ensued as he looked deep into her eyes and saw something from his own past. Those days forever gone still remain a part no matter how far he has come.

They parted with thoughts of getting together to share thoughts about all that had transpired in the passing years. Yet it was doubtful whether or not that would transpire because that which connected them was but a very thin thread, one which he for one, had shredded long ago. Still the experience left him wondering in the wee small hours of the morning, how exactly he had ended up where he now was. He never before had especially wanted to go back, but now he knew that to start over, over and over again had been that which had made things difficult to begin with.

Monday, July 13, 1998

Sweet Insanity

"We said good-bye last September your words I still can hear. Keep an eye on summer this year. Those things I say in my letters, you'll find them most sincere. Keep an eye on summer this year. Soon we'll be graduating and we'll be so far apart. And though you could be dating I'm waiting and waiting. And as we look at the future, though it be through a tear, keep an eye on summer this year..."

People tend to squirm when they see you are walking that thin line bordering insanity. You can tell by that dreadful dead giveaway look in their eyes that they have no clue as to how to act around you. They desperately try to act as if nothing is wrong but at the same time they don't seem to want to validate your thoughts and behavior lest they are the ones to push you over the edge. That very awkwardness is what is so appealing about Brian Wilson's best music.

Wilson's new CD Imagination sounds like very typical Wilson music and very like very wistful Beach Boy music. It's almost amazing how out of touch he sounds to the rest of the music world. Unfortunately to the detriment of the music this time around he doesn't sound so out of touch with reality. On Imagination Wilson as he most often does mixes dark and desperate lyrics with sunny melodies and harmonies. Yet the eccentric edge isn't there and without it the corresponding craziness is lacking and the music sounds merely like inconsequential light summer music. Still it's almost like a new Beach Boys album and with the hot days of summer upon us, that somehow is comforting and appropriate.

Imagination is Wilson's second solo album. Like the first (which opened with the wonderful Love and Mercy) it starts off well with a great opening song. Your Imagination is full of regret and sorrow as the singer remembers a friend who no longer is there. "Another bucket of sand, another wave at the pier. I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here." Wilson sings the song so sweetly and so sadly and it comes across as a wistful cry from a survivor, one who has lost his two brothers and now is left to somehow carry on. "Smile and say you don't understand. To look in your eyes and see what you feel and then realize that nothing's for real, 'cause you know it's just your imagination running wild..."

The CD aptly demonstrates Brian's unmatchable ear for detail. His skill in layering vocals with intricate musical flourishes is what makes his music special. What is missing here is that troubling and disturbing car wreck can't look away element to the music. Wilson is one of the few rock musicians who truly is a genius and he has proven that not only with his musical skills but also with his rather close proximity to insanity. One of my favorite Beach Boys records is Love You which coming from any other writer one would dismiss as sophomoric and silly. But with Brian you just never know. "Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat her on her butt, butt. She's going to sleep, be quiet..." I remember playing that in the store once and having all the customers look up with either a bemused smile or a slight look of terror. A sadomasochistic lullaby?

Imagination covers all the many angles of sadness. She Says That She Needs Me is bitter. Lay Down Burden is bittersweet. Cry is heartbreaking. "A silly quarrel, that's what we had. Then I heard you cryin'. You broke my heart, broke it in two. How could I have left you alone like that to cry?" His childlike innocence and his sincerity is always moving. The way he reveals his heart so openly is both uncomfortable and touching. That he still is so capable of exorcising his pain through his music and that his music is still so appealing makes him a writer that has guaranteed his unique place in music history. He has the special gift of being able to write music that speaks directly to the heart. Imagination may be "safe" Brian Wilson music but it thankfully adds clarity to our understanding of a unique soul.

Monday, July 6, 1998

Freedom Just Around the Corner

Last week I learned that the power company earns its name in every sense of the word. Living without electricity at first is a mere nuisance but quickly becomes a major life shifting event. Those responsible for providing the power that runs the appliances now necessary to get through the day to day routine are also the ones that get to decide the best way to restore power after an emergency. Northern States Power tells their customers who lose power that their crews are assigned first to areas where they can restore electricity to the most homes quickly.

Yet it is awfully frustrating to be waiting patiently in your darkened house and look across the street to see your neighbors have power a full day before you do. It is doubly frustrating because you aren't quite sure when your power will return, you only know exactly when your neighbor's did. You don't want to call to complain because NSP is ultimately the power company and you don't want to end up last on their list of customers to assist.

At first it is kind of quaint to read by candlelight, and to listen to the silence normally occupied by the sound of either the TV or the stereo. But in a busy schedule the loss of the nighttime hours means less and less gets done. Being in bed by nine sounds like nirvana to a tired and weary soul but for this fella it merely meant another couple of hours of staring up at the dark ceiling. And until you see it you can't believe how dark it actually can get.

So you would naturally think the best news of the past week would have been the restoration of power Monday afternoon. While greatly appreciated, that didn't even come close. Rather there was a conversation held late in the week, a two hour treasure, a mind altering trading of words that blew me away. It will go down in my mind as one of the best talks I've ever had, and will be etched in my memory forever whether this relationship ends quickly or builds to the something special this particular conversation somehow seemed to promise. It was proof positive there is more than one kind of electricity and the most effective way to fight a monopoly is with ideas.

Now I admittedly will never ever be mistaken for one of the great poetic and philosophical conversationalists of our time, more often being accused of being a chronic mumbler, but I have in my day, had a few exchanges that have left both parties appreciating the meaning of their lives a little more. The occasions that I have been a participant in such discourse haven't necessarily been filled with deep ideas or profound and intricate sentences. There are just times when you connect, when you get to know another in a way you haven't known them before. These are moments where you want to share as much as they are sharing with you which is a significant amount.

And what did I learn? I learned the difference between creativity and inspiration. I learned that two people can be at the same place from different sides and the ability to see from the other's point of view can clarify as much as it gives one something to think about. For one who has taken his share of criticism for being too reliant on the written over the verbal word, I learned that given the opportunity I do have something to say once in a while. I also learned I have met someone very special and though I felt a twinge of sadness when we had to hang up and discontinue the conversation because of the late hour, just thinking about the areas the conversation took us made me feel a warm happiness that I hope the other felt too.

The next day I shared another special moment with another friend. We went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to look at the Monet exhibit and also the Japanese Netsuke exhibit (miniature carvings). The art was inspiring and I was even more receptive with the words from the previous night still playing in my mind. It was a good combination, the colors of Monet, the precision of the carvings and the company of someone who appreciated both. We then went fishing off the docks of Lake Como, in the drizzling rain. She caught a small pike and noted that there was something calming about water. And thus a week that began with a lack of power ended appropriately with the sharing of simple words and the swishing sound of the waves.