Monday, February 22, 1999

Remote Control

"It will lead you into some strange pursuits, lead you to the land of forbidden fruits. It will scramble up your head and drag your brain about. Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out."

In 1990, Columbia opened up its vaults and released 58 previously unreleased or alternate takes of Bob Dylan songs. Because Dylan is the most widely bootlegged artist in history the set was appropriately named The Bootleg Series. What was stunning about the set was that if these 58 songs were the only Dylan songs ever heard, an argument could still be made that he would deserve our respect as one of the finest songwriters and performers ever. Songs like Blind Willie McTell, Mama You've Been on My Mind, Foot of Pride, and Series of Dreams, are among Dylan's greatest songs, and thus some of rock's all time greats.

For Dylan collectors the boxset was appreciated but there was also a sense of disappointment knowing all that wasn't included. Soon after, some entrepreneurial fans compiled an entirely different collection of songs and called it The Genuine Bootleg Series. Again, what's startling is the quality of material Dylan has determined wasn't good enough for official release. Songs like Trouble In Mind (one of the most effective songs from his Born Again phase), and Hero Blues, are vital pieces to the Dylan catalog.

A second set of alternative and unreleased songs was "unofficially" released a couple years back and now a third set, The Genuine Bootleg Series Vol. 3 has found its way onto the market. Again, the quality of songs included is quite impressive, none more so than an alternative take of TV Talkin' Song a song that was originally included on 1990'sunderrated and under appreciated CD, Under the Red Sky (I know one person who believes every line on the CD has a direct Biblical reference- to which I point: Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup...).

"TV judges and TV clerks, TV repairman to fix it so it works. TV daddies and TV moms, and on the TV cities under bombs."

TV Talkin' Song is a rant against the pervasive influence television has on our society. The officially released take of the song doesn't make a dent as far as the impact compared to other Dylan sermons. But this glorious and previously unheard take is among Dylan's spookiest efforts. The song uses a skillful pullback narration technique where in the end the point of view spans out, and the events the narrator is so vividly describing turns out to be happening on TV.

TV Talkin Song is a song that Don Was, the producer of the sessions, has been quoted as saying was lost somewhere in the attempts to rewrite and rerecord it. Initially the most striking difference between the released take and the unreleased version is the quality of Dylan's vocals. In the Under the Red Sky version, Dylan's voice is raspy and hoarse and adds little to the performance. In the Genuine Bootleg version, Dylan sings the song in his lowest register, and the growl of his voice delivers the lyrics in a haunting and frightening way. The other notable difference is Randy Jackson's rambling bass which is insignificant in the official take and invaluable in the unreleased version. The melodic bassline counters Dylan's rumble through an angry tirade against how TV robs people's desire to think and feel.

"The news of the day is on all the time, All the latest gossip, all the latest rhyme, Puts your brain inside your eye and penetrates your skull, lays an egg inside your head and makes you dull."

The structure of the song is such that we don't know if the narrator is a believer in the sermon he is hearing. We do know however, mostly from the conviction of the vocals, how the songwriter feels about the issue. Unlike other high haunt Dylan songs like Ballad of Hollis Brown (political poverty), or Man in the Long Black Coat (personal poverty), TV Talkin Song is the type of doomsday rap that makes you question whether or not the writer has gone off the deep end. But just as you are about to make that judgment, events like from the past few weeks happen and you realize the paranoia of the song might be more grounded in reality than you originally thought. How far is it from the preacher in Hyde Park's sermon to the news of Jerry Falwell outing one of the Teletubbies? Maybe all those dollars spent in therapy talking about bunnies does have something to do with the many hours of Captain Kangaroo my mom let me watch as a child.

One wonders if Dylan truly believes the message of the song, why he rerecorded a version of Chimes of Freedom (with Joan Osborne) for the awful four hour NBC TV movie, The 60's, that recently aired. Having endured the entire dreadful scrubbed up summary of a decade just to hear the new version of a wonderful song, I must admit it was almost worth it to be able to hear the by-play between a voice joyfully singing a song he rarely sings anymore, and the familiar swirling organ sound from Al Kooper. In the end I figure the egg laid was more on the screen than in my mind.

Monday, February 8, 1999


It's cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere, I'm all alone, more or less. Let me fly, far away from here, fun, fun, fun, in the sun, sun, sun... I want to lie shipwrecked and comatose, drinking fresh mango juice. Goldfish shoals, nibbling at my toes, fun, fun, fun, in the sun, sun, sun...

OK I'll admit my recent schedule has meant I have neglected my TV viewing obligations. I feel bad about not having the time to do my cultural duties but I figure my four to five hours of sleep a night can't be sacrificed. The two shows I will not miss under any circumstance these days are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Red Dwarf (Channel 2 Sundays 10:30 - 11:30 p.m.)

I think most of you know about Buffy but for those of you unfamiliar with Red Dwarf, let me advise you to check it out. No bigger an expert on TV than our very own Al Brown, got me hooked on the show. Al, of course, is the finest connoisseur of British comedies I've ever come across. Perhaps the thing I miss most about working in the stores is having the chance to have Al point out another British show I should check out. I'll be forever in his debt for my many hours of being entertained by such fare as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Black Adder, Allo Allo!, and Yes, Prime Minister.

Red Dwarf is the story of a northern English working class man, Dave Lister, who was caught for three million years in suspended animation on a giant space ship, the Red Dwarf. The human race no longer exists and this spaceage version of "Everyman" is joined on the ship by an doting android, Kryton; an intelligent but vain and shallow descendent of the cats that remained on the Red Dwarf after the human crew died; a hologram of a dead crew member, the prudish officer wannabe, Rimmer; and a less than intelligent computer, Holly.

What makes the show special is that it isn't so much a parody of the genre as it is a true science fiction show. The show's creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, obviously have a fondness for sci fi. There also is a certain poignancy in the characters plight. They are forever stuck on this giant spaceship annoyed with each other's company at the same time as needing one and other to endure the doldrums of every day existence. Isn't it the universal truth that the ones we often have to spend the most time with are the ones that annoy us most? Lister is the perpetual underachieving slob; Rimmer the insipid egoist; Cat the self absorbed superficialist; Kryton the robotic dichotomy- forever just wanting to be what he knows is the inferior being.

Red Dwarf is one of those rare situation comedies that the more you watch the more you really come to appreciate the writing and the unusually well developed characters. You come to like the characters not despite of their shortcomings and faults, but because of them. Because they are so well developed, you just know how each character will react to the situation the plot puts them in, and while you appreciate that consistency, you also are moved as each grows just a little bit in each episode.

Last Sunday I saw my all time favorite episode (so far). In Back to Reality, the crew (or so it thinks) finds out that all that has come before is some elaborate hologram game in which they were merely playing the roles of the characters we have gotten to know so well. In reality (or so we think) they are the opposite of what they have thought they were. Lister is a rich businessman; Rimmer is a down and out bum; Kryton is an unsuccessful detective; and Cat is a dorky, uncool, unfashionable geek (with obscenely large buck teeth). As each tries to deal with this reality, there is a certain sadness in seeing that what they thought they were, and thought they wanted to be, is far different than what they have to be and are trying to escape.

Not to suggest that the show is too esoteric to enjoy (beware after viewing it you may never be able to go back to other science fiction shows). Nope the opposite is true. It is fun and funny and so well done that you find a thing or two in each episode to relate to despite the usual limitations of the medium. It can be as sophomoric as it is clever, relying less on slapstick than it does on the comical nature of human behavior when put in unique situations. In other words it has all the elements of the finest British comedies.

Monday, February 1, 1999

Picture This

My mother once told me that she always knew I'd go into journalism because it was in my blood. Her brothers were in the newspaper business. For me the lure was in the writing. I began keeping a journal when I was in third grade. I fell in love putting into words what was going on inside. To use and play with words, to write something another connects with, to get a smile or a tear from somebody just by something jotted on a piece of paper, that is a drug I've been addicted to ever since.

The big step came when I began writing for my junior high school's newspaper. To see my words printed out and distributed to so many- to see my classmates reading something I wrote- made me realize this was something I not only wanted to do- I needed to do it. It indeed was in my blood.

Not that sharing yourself is ever easy in any manner. I used to get queasy the days I knew the newspaper was going to come out. What if they didn't like what I wrote? Worse, what if no one read what I wrote? Over the years, on my high school's newspaper, on my college's newspaper, on the local newspapers I interned with, and now with the newsletter and another job where my writing actually goes worldwide on the Internet, that anxious feeling still remains. It may not be as intense but it still hits me with every issue of this publication and every article that I write.

A few years back I reached a dark and desolate place where even the words disappeared. It was then, more than ever, that I knew to get my balance back I needed to write. And it was then, I learned that my writing as important as it was to me, couldn't mean as much to others. That was a heartbreaking realization, yet at the same time it was a liberating one. I always wanted to write something that would change the world- just like a J.D. Salinger or F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, or Bob Dylan song did for my world. To accept that writing was an important part of me- to be able at times to write something where I had no idea where it came from- to at times accurately capture something inside- that in itself was world changing.

My mom has saved just about every article I've ever had published. So although at times it has felt like such a solitary endeavor, I know there are a few out there I've reached a time or two. It always feels good when someone tells me they liked something I wrote. It's great when that person is a complete stranger- it's heartwarming when it comes from the voice of a proud parent.

A few weeks back my mom pulled out the family pictures so that each of us kids could go through and take with us our favorite photographs. There was a period of my life when I began a project to prevent any further photographs of myself. I'm now glad I didn't succeed with that project. The premise was that the only evidence I wanted to leave behind were my words not images from a camera. I figured my words could leave an accurate picture of what was inside where photographs merely captured an outside shell which could be all too inaccurate of what was really going on at the time. But the problem with relying on the pictures inside your head is that they can became fuzzy real quick. The heart tends to influence their color. So the objectivity of the camera lens has its benefits.

It was fun going through the pictures of my family. It was fascinating sorting through the many images of myself- some which I remember being taken, some I stare at and wonder what became of the kid pictured. At the same time I was able for the first time to look through my parent's wedding album and pictures of them growing up. The youthful enthusiasm, the look of dreams in their eyes, was quite touching. It is hard to imagine that your parents were at one time your age, and were once facing some of the same things you now are trying to deal with. Being a self inflicted history major, I must admit sometimes I even can convince myself to believe I somehow managed to stumble across my destiny in college.

To sort through the years worth of black and white photos was to remember how it once felt to feel so secure; to feel that all of life held so much promise and the mere impatience of wanting to get to where you thought you were destined to go. There are pictures of me standing out in my parents' front yard. The trees which now tower over everything are just beginning to grow. The landscape looks entirely different than it does now- both inside and out. It is staggering to think of the many memories of days long gone, days never to return, and yet which forever remain a part of the person I now am. My mom and I over the last few weeks have been remembering little moments from the past- like in kindergarten how I had to decide what I wanted to be called, David or Dave- and how that was the first major decision I had to make. That my Mom asked me to make the choice says plenty about how I was raised. I'm never sure when I set pen to paper if I'll get it right. But sometimes it's more important just to get it out. The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes your heart needs both.