Monday, September 17, 2001

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

"There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring"
-Bob Dylan's "Sugar Baby"

I should have known what kind of day it would be by the ominous beginning. After waking up at 4:30 in the blessed a.m., casting a more clingy than usual Mr. Max aside, scuffling to get my things together, downing two homemade lattes I headed off to the Catholic church in the most Jewish part of town to be a head election judge. Just a block or so from my house in the pitch black darkness a white and black cat flew in front of my car in pursuit of a bunny. The bunny easily cleared my wheels but the cat froze for a brief instant as I swerved and just barely avoided him. Had I run over him I don't think I could have handled the rest of the day.

Back up a few months if you will and know that the thing that has kept me plunging forward after a particularly difficult professional period and equally numbing personal life was the knowledge that on September 11 (911 to an alarmist) I'd be able to hear 12 new Bob Dylan songs. Maybe connecting with art more than reality is some kind of disturbing symptom of a larger disease but it's been this way for me since I became a Dylan fan all those years ago in college. Besides if you ain't looking forward you gotta be looking back and I'm a tad weary of doing any more of that. I did my best to resist the temptation of downloading most of the new songs from the new CD Love and Theft off the Internet as was possible to do. To hear all the talk amongst online Dylan fans of the new songs was as painful as it was Christmas Eve exciting since those that had heard the new music were ecstatic (Rolling Stone magazine gave the CD its first five star rating since REM's 1992 Automatic for the People).

But I wanted the experience of consuming the whole CD at once much as I memorably did with Dylan's last CD, Time Out of Mind. Back in 1997 I was going to wait until the day of release for that CD but as it closed in on midnight before the official release, knowing that our friendly neighborhood Cheapo stays open past it's usual hour to be the first in town to make available Tuesday new releases I meandered down to the store and bought Time Out of Mind. This was days after having a relationship shatter after a silent walk and then hearing Bob sing the first words of the CD, "I'm walking through streets that are dead. Walking with you in my head..." The appropriately eerie words haunted me and I ended up listening completely mesmerized to the entire CD even though I knew I had to wake up early just a few hours later.

Alas for Love and Theft I knew I couldn't duplicate the after midnight run knowing the extraordinary hour I had to be up and about. Fortunately a kind soul called me and offered to pick up lunch and deliver it out to the precinct for me and on the way she even was willing to stop at Cheapo to buy the new Dylan disc for me. Her offer of kindness almost restored my faith in the goodness of people if only for a moment.

After the initial rush of pre-work voters had passed we got the first word that something was amiss in the world. "The World Trade Center has exploded," someone said. "Hijacked planes," another reported. "Someone just crashed a plane into the Pentagon," we heard moments later. What the hell was going on?

Being in a precinct I couldn't allow a radio because we wouldn't want any election discussion, or candidate advertising to influence anyone. But to just get bits in pieces in scraps and spurts was remindful of one of my biggest fears in life.

Growing up my health was such that I missed just a handful of days of school. The days I did miss I must now admit were mostly days of hooky when I felt I deserved time away from school as mental vacations. So guilty did I feel from skipping a day every ten years or so that I became fully convinced that one of the few days I did miss was the ONE day that the teacher finally tied it all up and explained what everything meant. I figured it was my luck to miss out on something that everyone else now knew.

So the forever wannabe journalist inside of me was screaming to know the story of what was transpiring as deeply entrenched as I was in an isolated polling place. I felt like I was missing out on the biggest "story" since last year's Gore/Bush debacle that I also happened to miss because I was doing my civic duty as an election official. To add to the seeping dark feelings was my lunch delivery with the news that Cheapo had sold out of the new Dylan disc and that I would have to wait a whilebefore I could hear it.

Turns out sometimes it's just better off not knowing. As I drove home late that night still not quite knowing, or at the very least not willing to comprehend the day's events, I became quite spooked as I drove past gas station after gas station with lines of cars wrapped around the solitary pumps. Figures that just as I re-found my long lost soul mate the world would come to an end.

When I got home I was too tired to watch much of the news. And since I had for whatever reason (and feel free to criticize me- you'll just have to stand in line) made the decision to take my lone isolated vacation this year in beautiful downtown Minneapolis in the heart of Hennepin County I wasn't able to read much of the morning news. So I still to this point don't think it all has quite seeped into my actual consciousness.

The stuff I did allow myself to see and hear made me terminally sad. As much as I've seen how cruelly the people you love most can end up treating you there is something very jarring, very unraveling about living in the world where there is so much hatred and disregard for life and others. Having to listen to something you need not hear, having to emotionally deal with the rubble, one wonders about people who can seemingly revel in the cruelty they can inflict.

The only consolation (and it was sadly a very small consolation) was finally being able to pick up the new Dylan disc. (Bob even expresses the terrible pain of losing his mother last year.) All the hype for the CD is well warranted. This is our greatest living artist creating at his highest level, an inspired and truly great piece of work. The world may crumble but as long as there are those voices out there who can express deeply rooted emotions one can't ever quite entirely throw in the towel.

The music on Love and Theft is the kind that no one besides Dylan could possibly come up with yet it's unlike any music he has ever delivered before. It all sounds brand new, but it's as if it has always existed. What's truly inspiring is the amount of wit present. He hasn't come close to conveying his acerbic sense of humor so effectively since the Traveling Wilburys or arguably since 1966's Blonde on Blonde. The CD features a leisurely stroll through several of America's most deeply rooted musical styles. From bluegrass to country shuffle to blues to rockabilly to straightforward rock to 40's like crooners, the music is the most diverse of Dylan's career. And the lyrics live up to all the attitude- quoting everyone from Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Shakespeare (leave it to Bob to have Romeo and Juliette trading barbs).

The CD opens with the wondrously rollicking "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" (pronounced in Dylanese as "Tweedely dee and Tweedully DUMM). The next song, "Mississippi" was left off Time Out of Mind but later covered by Sheryl Crow. The song contains some of the best lyrics of a song cycle that contains some staggering brilliant words. "Walking through the leaves/ falling from the trees/Feeling like a stranger nobody sees/So many things that we never will undo/I know you're sorry/I'm sorry too." The ONLY thing the narrator did wrong was stay in Mississippi a day too long.

"Summer Days" features another intriguing song story. I love the line, "Well, I got eight carburators and boys I'm usin' 'em all/I'm short on gas, my motor's startin' to stall." My favorite song upon intial impressions is the bluesy "High Water (for Charley Patton)." A tribute of sorts to the great jazz musician, this is loving music from a heart that continues to feel things a bit deeper than most.

But with all the great new songs it is the final track, "Sugar Baby" that somehow manages to tie it all up and is Dylan at his most disturbing and his most beautiful. This is a song that is beyond belief, transcendent in the mood it conveys. It's a song about heartbreak about above the ground and in the heart observation; about being connected and disconnected all at once: "Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick/Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick/Any minute of the day, the bubble can burst/Try to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up makin' it thousand times worse.
Having to involuntarily be forced to buy the disc at the downtown Sam Goody (ewww) and experiencing the first listening outside the door of one who has surely inspired many a song and will probably inspire (right or wrong) more than a few more I came upon the realization that things will never quite be the same again. Sharing what we all shared and still feeling the shivers of the devastation, crying deep within I can't possibly begin to fathom a world without these 12 wondrous, timely and perceptive songs. Listen closely and with careful consideration y'all.

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