Monday, February 16, 1998

Album of the Year- She Rhymes with Grammy

There is plenty of mediocre music being sold in our stores but every once in a great while a CD will come along that manages to strike the right chord inside and makes one stop and marvel and remind us of the magic of an inspired artist. We're not talking just a CD of well thought out and heartfelt music, we're talking the rare mixture of intimate lyrics that speak to the many while expressing the heart and soul of a sole individual or group; and of music that mixes seamlessly with the words to bring out all possible emotion.

The last time this occurred for me was with Paul Simon's Graceland which was a combination of a talented artist at the top of his craft somehow creating something that expressed my particular place in life better than I ever could. "And I could say oo oo oo and everybody would know what I was talking about, everybody would know exactly what I was talking about." Last September with the release of Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind that experience happened once again. Whether it wins the Grammy for best album or not, Time Out of Mind for me will forever mark the events of 1997 in a poetic way- like the difference between a photograph and a painting.

Blonde on Blonde perhaps captures Dylan's manic genius and unmatched wordplay better, while Blood on the Tracks will forever remain more popular and accessible, and Street Legal will remain the closest account of a recorded nervous breakdown, but Time Out of Mind is for me Dylan's most personal work while being both his most heartbreaking and heartstopping CD.

"Gonna walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed, 'til there's nothing left to see, 'til the chains have been shattered and I've been freed." The overriding confusion is trying to figure out whether one wants to work things out or whether one wants to walk away. "Lookin at my shadow, looking at the colors up above. Rolling through the rain and hail, looking for the sunny side of love." For all the pain the singer expresses, he realizes that to be inspired through the love of another is hard to walk away from.

My current favorite song is the third track, Standing in the Doorway which initially struck me as too trite to consider one of Dylan's major efforts. But there are several vocal moments on this track that make the listener smile and cringe at the same moment and isn't that what the best art does? "I see nothing to be gained by any explanation, there's no words that need to be said. You left me standin' in the doorway cryin' blues wrapped around my head." I originally thought the line, "Don't know if I saw you if I would kiss you or kill you, it probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow" seemed somewhat inappropriate in the post-OJ world, but it is one of many where the singer questions whether he misses her or whether he wishes he never had met her. There are several "Dylan" trademark moments in the performance. "The light in this place is so bad, making me sick in the head. All the laughter is just making me sad.""I would be crazy if I took you back, it would go up against every rule. You left me standin' in the doorway cryin' suffering' like a fooool." The lyrics seem simple in the best blues tradition but the way he sings "fool" and "head" prove what a great and totally original singer he still is.

"You took a part of me that I really miss." The next track Million Miles is one I haven't yet come to fully understand and appreciate. The performance isn't quite as intense as the previous track and doesn't match the accessibility of the following track. It portrays the crux of the problem of the relationship gone bad, "Did so many things I never did intend to do. Well, I've tried to get closer but I'm still a million miles away from you." This being Dylan's 41st official release it amazes me that after all that time he can still write in a way that is in a totally different language than he has used before. Gone are the cryptic, clever expressions of the soul; the lyrics on Time Out of Mind are unabashedly straightforward. To reveal one's heart is the single most difficult thing any one of us can do, that Dylan does it so clearly and willingly here is remarkable.

Bob Dylan doesn't exactly need much of a shelf to hold his Grammy awards. During his thirty seven year recording career he has won three Grammys: one in 1979 for his vocal performance on Gotta Serve Somebody; one in 1991 (when during the show he sang a buzzing and much talked about version of Masters of War as the Gulf War was just beginning) for life time achievement; and one in 1993 for Best Contemporary Folk Album on World Gone Wrong. For his Time Out of Mind to win the Best Album of the Year award he faces the difficult task of somehow beating the more popular Babyface and Paula Cole not to mention fellow icon Paul McCartney.

Nonetheless Time Out of Mind is an impressive work from an artist whose catalog of work remains vital and inspiring. TOOM with its old time blues backdrop underneath a contemporary Daniel Lanois production is one of Dylan's better sounding CDs. The overall texture is simple with a variety of instruments (most notably Augie Meyer's spooky organ) complimenting Dylan's bluesy vocals. The CD is thematically linked through all eleven songs which share some common themes in Dylan's work. The notion of time being a concept as concrete and elusive as a place is one Dylan has contemplated throughout his career. While a song like Tangled Up in Blue takes place in the past present and future, songs on TOOM all have the singer stuck with his present which has been forever colored by relationships and events in the past, while he sees a bleak future which is as inevitable as his present and past.

The song on TOOM which sounds most like a "traditional" Dylan song is Tryin To Get to Heaven (Before they Close the Door). The countryish melody and sometimes nonsensical lyrics sound straight from the Basement Tapes. The motif suggests similarities to Knockin on Heaven's Door. But the theme of a drifting and scarred soul link it ever so tightly with the other ten songs on the CD. "Every day your memory grows dimmer, it doesn't haunt me like it did before. I've been walking through the middle of nowhere, tryin to get to heaven before they close the door." The next verse dredges up images of Americana, placing the singer in Missouri on his way to New Orleans thinking about a woman, Miss Mary Jane, in Baltimore. "People on the platforms, waitin' for the trains. I can hear their hearts a-beatin' like pendulums swinging on their chains."

Despite his claims, whatever (or whoever) the singer is trying to forget and leave behind remains with him. "You broke the heart that loved you. Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore.""When you think that you've lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more." He longs for heaven not for any redemption but for release from his feelings and memories. "Gonna sleep down in the parlor and relive my dreams. I close my eyes and I wonder, if everything is as hollow as it seems."

The next song, 'Til I fell in Love With You sounds like a long lost blues classic. "My nerves are exploding and my body's tense, I feel like the whole world got me pinned up against the fence." The answer this singer is seeking isn't so much of a release but an explanation as to his loss. "I've been hit too hard, I've seen too much. Nothing can heal me now but your touch. I just don't know what I'm gonna do, I was all right ''til I fell in love with you." The singer not only regrets losing her, he regrets ever knowing her.

The aftermath of those feelings continue in Not Dark Yet, the type of song that only Dylan seems capable of writing. It isn't so much the loss of a woman that saddens the singer. "She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind. She put down in writin' what was in her mind" so much as a world that increasingly makes little sense. Dylan's religious views have been a mjaor area of speculation from his fans ever since his conversion to born again Christianity in 1979. Thus the line "I was born here and I'll die here against my will. I feel like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still" suggest a person still seeking eternal answers while lines like "Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer" and "Feel like my soul has turned into steel. I've still got the scars that the sun/son didn't heal" makes one wonder if the answers from the past still hold any comfort. Not Dark Yet seems like a pessimistic song with its tagline- "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there" yet there is something almost reassuring and redeeming in the darkness that the singer sings about.

The other Grammy nomination Dylan received for TOOM was for his vocal performance on Cold Irons Bound that does indeed have some of the most intense singing on the CD. The song opens with a mesmerizing bass riff from Tony Garnier quickly embellished by the cry of the line "I'm beginning to hear voices and there's no one around." As the title of ths song suggests, the singer feels trapped by his past, his feelings and the world around him. "I went to church on Sunday and she passed by. My love for her has taken such a long time to die." What makes the vocals on this song different from the others is a harshness, an anger (at her? at himself?) that is rooted not so much in regret but in disappointment and confusion. The pinnacle line from the entire set is: "It's such a sad thing to see beauty decay. It's sadder still to feel your heart turn away" summing up the overriding feeling of the writer who isn't so much heartbroken as broken spirited. The feeling of loss goes beyond the loss of a relationship ("I'm going to remember forever the joy we've shared. Looking at you on my bended knee. You've no idea what you did to me."); it's a loss of connection with himself ("I'm out of control like the universe has swallowed me whole"), and the world around him ("There's too many people too many to make calls. I thought some of them were friends of mine, I was wrong about 'em all.") It's the loss of his past, and feeling so lost in the present that the longing for the future isn't so much a hope for anything better, it's just that the future is a different time and thus place than the current world. To get there is to continue down the road trying not to be distracted by keeping the concept of time out of mind.

Even the CD's "love song" has an edge of darkness to it. Make You Feel My Love is a simple ballad with simple lyrics. Unlike any of the other songs, the singer is actually singing to another individual. Yet it clearly is in the ashes of all that has come before and the person the song is about isn't the same person as before. "When the evening shatters and the stars appear and there is no one there to dry your tears. I could hold you for a million years, to make you feel my love." Simple in its straightforward language, the edge comes from the words "make you feel" as if the singer is past trying to impress, inspire, and court his love. This is a proposal resigned to its black and white nature. "Though storms are raging on the rolling sea and on the highway of regrets. Though winds of change are blowing wild and free, you ain't seen nothing like me yet."

But by the next song the singer is back to thinking of the way things were in the past. A sense of impatience gives way to desperation. "You understand that my heart can't go on beatin' without you. Well your loveliness has wounded me, I'm reeling from the blow. I wish I knew what it was that keeps me loving you so." Unlike the other songs, this singer seems to almost be looking at things with an ironic eye. "It's mighty funny, the end of time has just begun. I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate. I don't know how much longer I can wait." Coming to terms with his own vulnerability, he places the blame squarely on her shoulders. "If I ever saw you comin' I don't know what I might do. I'd like to think I could control myself but it isn't true. That's how it is when things disintegrate."

The CD appropriately concludes with the sprawling Highlands a sixteen minute opus full of dry wit and mundane scenes of daily events. "Windows were shaking all night in my dreams. Everything was exactly the way that it seems. Woke up this morning and I looked at the same old page, same old rat race, life in the same old cage." The singer plays a Neil Young song only to have someone tell him to turn it down. He ends up in an empty Boston restaurant where he flirts with the waitress. "I said, 'Tell me what I want' she says 'You probably want hard boiled eggs.' I say, '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.'" He escapes the restaurant only to end up in a park where he watches "young men with the young women lookin so good" and admits he wishes he could turn back the clock and be like them again. Highlands completes the journey from the one who was walking through streets that were dead and now ends up with his heart on a higher plain. The journey has confused him and will continue to confuse him but through the journey he has accepted that in his heart. "The sun is beginning 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." The dark brooding of all the interconnected lines from the songs gives way to the expression of those feelings. He longs to be in the highlands, and he still has a ways to go before he figures out how to get there, but the vision of what that means will get him through his current state of feelings.


Back when I was on my secret government mission I only brought one tape with me, a bootleg concert of Dylan in Australia. I listened to that tape over and over and there was something extremely reassuring in the voice of one who was as confused about his feelings as I was about my own yet found redemption in sharing that with his audience. On Time Out of Mind it is the heartfelt urgency and conviction that powers each song. The writer /singer needs to express himself through these songs. There is not a forced or unconvincing moment on the entire CD. Though the songs are full of the blues, of feelings of loss not only from someone near to the heart but with a connection to the world at large, it's the resiliency of spirit one is left with after listening to the CD. That it has connected with the public more than any other Dylan CD in a long time suggests expressing the heart may have been emotionally difficult but artistically cathartic.


Monday, February 9, 1998

Welcome to the Jungle

Four of the announced candidates for the office of Minnesota Secretary of State spoke at the Metropolitan Association of County Officers' Conference in St. Louis Park last Tuesday evening. DFLers Edwina Garcia, Dee Long, Ann Rest, and Republican Judy Schotzko spoke to a group of about 300 county auditors, treasurers, recorders, and election administrators.

The four candidates focused on the election duties of the position agreeing that increased voter participation was a key goal of the office which has attracted interest since Joan Growe, the current Secretary of State, announced that her 24th year in office would be her last.

The candidates said they are in favor of limited mail ballot elections and less stringent qualifications for absentee voting to increase voter turnout. "When I'm elected I plan to go out before elections and knock on doors, rile people up, Garcia said. "Our job is to promote good citizenship, convince people to be involved, to care to do something." Garcia a state representative for the past eight years said that her desire to be Secretary of State is based on "making Minnesota work better."

While favoring efforts to increase voter turnout all four also said that safeguards against voter fraud and going out to the polls where people get together as a community on election day remain important. "I like the tradition of the polling place of people gathering together to vote with the flag outside," Schotzko said.

Rest who currently is a state representative from the Crystal and New Hope area said being a member of her community's school board convinced her how important voter participation is. "Voters are stakeholders who do make a difference," she said.

Schotzko said though this is her first try for an elected office, her husband said that she had been "preparing twenty five years for this." She currently is an attorney in the city of Blue Earth after having served eleven years on the State Ethical Practices Board.

Long said that when people ask her why she is leaving the House of Representatives for a run at the Secretary of State she replies, "I think it's better to have people ask 'why are you leaving?' rather than 'why don't you leave?'"

All the candidates also said that a non binding Presidential Primary like Minnesota had in 1992 was a failed effort. "It's time to get rid of it unless we can get the state to pay the entire cost," Long said. The candidates also agreed that a change in the State's Primary Election to an earlier date would improve the electoral process. "There's not enough time between the primary which is on September 15th and the general which will be on November 3rd, for DFLer's to get their message across," Rest said. The candidates acknowledged their audience by saying that the teamwork between the county personnel and the Secretary of State's office was what made the election processes successful.


One member of the audience prepared for the evening by cranking a Guns and Roses tape and doing some serious head banging on his drive into the conference. It was the perfect buffer for one who constantly struggles with the mixture, and lack thereof, of the different spheres in his life. So successful has he been in separating the spheres that seldom do they ever intersect. Thus the mixture of GNR with this evening was deliberately startling. To remain detached is to strive to be the perpetual outsider looking in. To witness politics first hand and to be equally fascinated and repulsed by the political world is quite a contrast with being inspired by Axl Rose's gritty vocals. Which one is more important isn't the question so much as which one ultimately means more in this particular life.

While the conviction of all four candidates came across quite clearly this one particular audience member wondered what exactly separates those whose riskiest statement was to be in favor of increased voter participation. To seek any office is to say one can make improvements. Playing the campaign game means appealing to as many as possible and trying to say what the people want to hear. So where has the system broken down? Is it in the politics of cynicism where people run for an office because it is there and not because they offer any new ideas or is it with a group like Guns and Rose whose music appeals to the masses by not only recognizing that cynicism but wallowing in it and offering no viable alternative? And ultimately who is worse off- those that long ago stopped believing in the system's ability to bring about positive change or those that still play the game with an inevitable end?

"And when your fears subside and shadows still remain, I know that you can love me when there's no one left to blame. So never mind the darkness we still can find a way. 'Cause nothin' lasts forever, even cold November rain."

Monday, February 2, 1998

Whoa! That's Good Squishy

Raise the roof girlfriend, I've got game. Regular readers of the newsletter may recall that four years ago I declared my unconditional love for Tonya Harding in these very pages. The combination of athletic figure skating grace, cigarette smoking, auto mechanic rough around the edges toughness melted my heart. To top it off it looked like Ms. Harding was the type who could enjoy a Jack Daniels now and again. Perfection? Close enough. But since Tonya never responded to my public expression of affection I sort of lost interest. Until last Thursday night.

I was lucky enough to see FOX's face to face special interview with Harding and Nancy Kerrigan witnessing one of those few spellbinding moments on TV where the emotion on one side of the camera is palpable on the other side. Kerrigan's feelings of anger, discomfort, and fear left her with even less to say than she has aptly demonstrated throughout her public life. Indeed if she had been more demonstrative it could have made a gripping episode of Jerry Springer. Instead her icy and blank glare made Tonya the weepy one. Tonya's attempts at apologizing and congratulating Nancy on her marriage and the birth of her son fell upon stone silence.

As close as it came to voyeurism, the interview did give both participants a chance most of us never will get. To face one's accuser had to be as gratifying as being able to face one's attacker. Tonya proved she doesn't quite possess presidential sized performance skills when it comes to trying to put a scandal behind her. Her soft words contradicted the hard piercing stare of her watery blue eyes. While it is difficult to believe her side of the story she didn't seem to be lying. She either had nothing to do with the infamous clubbing of Kerrigan's knee, or she has convinced herself she had nothing to do with the attack. She said she would let the Lord decide.

She's working hard to pick up the pieces, putting the husband formerly known as Gillooey behind her. Does all this mean that my love for Tonya has been rekindled? Well it may not be a fire so much anymore as a small spark. It is after all better off beginning a relationship knowing how dishonest your partner is than to find out the extent of their lies when it is too late. It's easier to accept the flaws now rather than further down the road. I'm willing to try again if she is too.


I'm not the kind who generally likes comedy CDs and it has nothing to do with the rumor I've lost my sense of humor. I'd like to think I have at least been able to maintain some appreciation for humor. Rather, there is something about the format that renders most comedy CDs unfunny. And it's not the notion of repeated listening that bothers me. After all, I can still chuckle at the seventieth viewing of a good M*A*S*H episode.

So I am happy to report that I am greatly enjoying the Simpsons' Songs in the Key of Springfield, the CD of music from the TV show. I was listening to it at work in my cubicle last week and was actually laughing aloud at some of the songs. That this behavior meant my co-workers had their fingers closer to the speed dial button for the funny farm on their phones didn't bother me in the least. The CD captures some fine moments from one of our finest TV shows. The wit is downright inspiring.

Favorite moments? Apu's falsetto wobble on Who Loves the Kwik E-Mart which concludes with Homer saying, "He lied to us through song. I HATE when people do that..." The Street Car Named Desire musical numbers. "Stella can't you hear me yell-a? You put me through hell-a.""Will this bewitching floozy seduce this humble lose-y?" And when Marge utters those famous words, "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers," how the troupe breaks out into a cheerful chorus of, "A stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet." The Cheers theme spoof, "Where liquor in a mug warms you like a hug." Also Troy McClure's musical adaptation of Planet of the Apes. "I hate every ape I see from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z. You'll never make a monkey out of me..."

Thus when Bart and Milhouse go on a Kwik E- Mart all syrup super squishy induced romp through Springfield and Barney mutters, "I don't know where you pixie's came from but I sure do like your magic pixie drink," the spirit of the show comes shining through. The Simpsons has poked fun at many of popular culture's more pompous excesses with a gentleness that is clever yet never mean spirited. To appreciate the effort you have to be able to laugh at a show that spends time having an out of work actor do a musical number on Dr. Zaius or a slick salesman who tries to sell the townsfolk a monorail that has the chief of police singing "The ring came off my pudding can" for no particular reason. The family may be the focus but that isn't what makes the show so special. It's the many bits of rapid satire that fly by so quickly you really have to be paying attention to get it. This CD may not get into my regular rotation but it sure will never be far from the top of the stack of all the rest.

My Sensitive Manatee

I was driving around the Scandia, May Township, Marine on St. Croix area last week a bit lost but with plenty of time to think. It occured to me that as beneficial as our use of the elements can sometimes be, often times they can cause more than a few problems. Isn't it just like the night that the things we need to survive are also the very things that can destroy us? In the news was a story that Northern States Power Company had its wrist slapped because it was using estimated readings to charge some of its customers. Also NSP was punished for delaying billing to some customers and presenting these poor people with an accumulated bill from several months.

I was one of those afflicted by the power company's haphazard billing practices. After moving into my house I got one bill and then for the next few months, nothing. I called NSP to make sure my power wasn't about to be shutoff and they promised to take care of the billing problem. Another few months went by and I still didn't receive a bill. Now I wasn't exactly complaining at this point- I had just put down a major portion of my savings toward my down payment and not receiving one more bill gave me a chance to accumulate some spending money again. It was a bit of a heart stopper however when that $700 electricity bill did finally arrive.

And until this past week that was my little power company story. Not quite as exciting as my phone company story but one for the files nonetheless. Last week I was shoveling my walk when my little Kubo nose picked up the kind of scent you really don't want to smell- gas. Having just consumed a few of the hot peppers my sister had given me there were plenty of suspects not the least being my senses were rather heightened. These peppers were the kind you don't really eat, you just sort of inhale and feel them burn all the way through your body. They're the mouth and eye watering, soprano voice raising variety. So the smell of gas was a bit of a concern because I knew sparks might be flying from my nose or mouth at any moment and I didn't want it to be an episode that is covered in the next morning's paper, the kind of story that ends with the line, "there were no survivors."

I wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed to do. Was I suppose to immediately evacuate the area? Was I to ignore the smell and hope that it was nothing? Was I to light a match to see how bad the leak was? I decided I would call up NSP. They told me they would send someone out immediately. The service woman brought with her a bunch of tools and a meter she used to check for gas in the area from which the smell was emanating (I was hoping she wouldn't point that thing at me).

Indeed my house's gas meter had a slight leak and with a few turns from an impressive looking wrench she said the problem was corrected. After checking my house inside and out for more leaks, she thanked me for calling telling me most people don't call when they smell gas. "Really," I said with a note of sheepish surprise in my voice. "I was ready to spend the night in a motel." Somehow a gas leak is a concern I figured most people would naturally take seriously.

So with another problem fixed I went to bed with a tad more peace of mind. As I went out to start my car the next morning, walking through a misty fog to get to my garage, I turned on the headlights and just like that Wallflowers' song, only one was illuminated. Thus I drove the lengthy drive to Stillwater with one headlight on the foggiest morning of the year. I was a bit paranoid keeping an eye out for anyone who might blindside me. Still I felt a certain sense of kinship with the other folk who were driving with one burnt out bulb. If I could have talked to them I would have said that I certainly knew how they felt and together the two of us made up one good car. Luckily just a few days later my father and I figured out how to replace the burnt out halogen light.

But there is always something else lurking just around the corner. For example, I only hope that as those rather ominous looking ice dams on my house melt, the moisture doesn't join gas and light as something I have to figure out how to deal with. Granted none of these are exactly presidential sized problems but believe me I am quite aware my attention needs to be focused in other areas.