Monday, October 29, 2001

The Meanest Tunafish Sandwich in North America

It's one of those circumstances in life where the line between being lucky and being blessed is rather a blur. Who knows the exact number, the frequency that we should expect to experience one of those perfect musical moments in life that we all sometimes have? One of those rare instances where what you are listening to perfectly echoes what you are currently going through?

I was on my way to St. Cloud the other evening to cover a legislative hearing. I left my house around five o'clock figuring two hours would give me plenty of time. But it took me forty minutes to make my way to Maple Grove in the bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. The drive, which I had been dreading to begin with, was now beginning to cause more than a slight bit of anxiety. Then in a moment of perfect harmony and synchronicity the CD mix I had gurgling out of my car stereo speakers came to Brian Wilson singing "Sloop John B." "Let me go home, I wanna go home. This is the worst trip I've ever been on," Wilson's wavering voice sweetly sang. The timing was perfect, the calming effect was even better.

It did occur to me that many of those people so spooked about receiving anthrax in the mail had no qualms, no second thoughts about driving their large metallic deathtraps 90 miles per hour in and out of heavy traffic so they could arrive at their destination ten minutes before the rest of us. But I digress...

Of course the purveyor of many of my life's most memorable musical moments was back in town Thursday night playing at the Xcel Energy Center in our state's finest city.

Over the past fifteen years I've been fortunate to see Bob Dylan in concert twenty times. I've been even more fortunate to attend those concerts in the company of many of the people I've considered the most important friends of my life. The names and faces may have been rearranged and different but often the reaction was the same: the concert (and Dylan) wasn't what the person expected going in. Beforehand all those involved had some appreciation for Dylan's music and an equal amount of curiosity as to why that music has had such a major impact on my life. Somewhat ironically (or is it sadly?) none of those people ever went to a second concert with me and many have disappeared from the beaten path meaning I've actually seen Bob more often over the past few years than some I thought would be around for a long time. Maybe they heard (or saw something) that I'm still missing.

I was particularly looking forward to taking a new friend to see my friend Bob. This friend's insight, intellect and inherent electric artistic soul have been truly appreciated over the past year. Upon meeting and conversing uncomfortably at a book reading party I asked her if she was a fan of Dylan's music (kind of a standard question) and she had a most perfect response. "I'm the more enthusiastic than educated kind of Bob Dylan fan." (She quite likes Tom Waits.) Any apprehension I had that she may not enjoy the concert disappeared a few days beforehand when she revealed she had never seen a concert in an ice arena before. She wondered if she should dress more warmly and if the band was going to be on skates (now that I would pay big money to see!). If those were her preconceived notions going in, than the quirkiness of Bob's performance was sure to entertain her.

I'm a little sheepish and not exactly proud that I've shelled out my hard earned (and I do mean hard earned) cash to see the same performer over twenty times. If I think of all the money spent on the concerts and the CDs that could have been invested in a high yielding mutual fund I most certainly could have had a house in the suburbs and three kids by now. I'm not sure there's another artist out there I'd want to see more than a handful of times (with the possible exception of Sandra Bullock reading Shakespeare soliloquies). But each Dylan concert is different in mood and shape. I've heard at least a couple different songs at each show (who can possibly forget the five concert 1992 Orpheum run where over 50! different songs were performed). On the off night there always is a turn of a phrase, a new twist of an old lyric that gives an entirely different perspective on a familiar song. As a live performer Dylan is at his best when things seem close to coming a part, where the band is struggling to keep the song together and Bob somehow pulls the rabbit out of the hat and brings home the bacon. He accepts chaos and chaos smiles upon him.

If Dylan were a meal he'd be a fine sushi dinner. Most people I know when asked if they would like to try sushi either squish up their faces and shake their heads in an emphatic no, or they coolly decline as if eating raw fish falls far below their hipster level. Yet the few people I've introduced the delicacy to, or those who admirably have discovered it all on their own, inevitably list sushi as one of their all time favorite meals and always seem enthusiastic in joining me for a meal. The variety of fish flavored with just the right amount of wasabi and soy sauce always leaves diners feeling refreshed and full of anticipation for the next time they can enjoy the meal.

Likewise most of my friends mostly unfamiliar with Dylan's work can't quite get around his unconventional voice to appreciate the quality of his music. I've made tapes and CDs for people of some of his more accessible and popular songs and still they don't seem to think he is all that special. Those that do count themselves as Dylan fans tend to list him as one of their all time favorite artists.

His new CD Love and Theft would be mandatory listening for any rock fan if only for the dazzling different musical styles it employs. It's an impressive stroll through American music history. Add to that some of his most playful lyrics in many years and it becomes something truly truly magical. His touring band provides the proper musical embellishments as effectively as the mixture of our favorite green horseradish and black sodium liquid.

Ever since the events of September 11 people have sought comfort, solace and some insight to try and make sense of things. We've been told countless times that the world is now such a different place. Even the President of the United States said so. Much (or at least some) has been made that Dylan's CD came out on the day of the attack and many of the lyrics seem so appropriate and true to the aftershocks. "I'm on the fringes of the night fighting back my tears I can't control /Some people they ain't human, they ain't got no heart or soul/But I'm a-cryin' to the Lord, tryin' to be meek and mild/Yes, I cried for you, now it's your turn, you can cry awhile." Yet Dylan ain't no Nostradamus, a seer of the future. Rather he is proof positive that the world didn't change so much as we became more aware of the ugliness that has always been out there. It's a world where people kill others for a cause they think is just and the only seemingly appropriate response is to do the same.

The band strolled on to the stage first, dressed in burgundy suits. Dylan followed in a white suit that made him look like he would be the perfect owner of a fast food fried chicken chain. They quickly went into the bluegrass based Fred Rose song, "Wait for the Light to Shine." It's the same opening song of every show since the new CD came out, the same opener since the first words Bob uttered would be examined for some connection to September 11. And it's the perfect opener. It's Dylan singing what he has been singing all along. "Pull yourself together and keep lookin' for the sign/Wait for the light to shine..." He also sang "Masters of War," (which he has been quick to point out isn't an anti-war song as much as it is an anti-military establishment song) "Blowin' in the Wind" ("how many times must a cannonball fly before they are forever banned?") and "Searchin for a Soldier's Grave."

I was sitting there quite enjoying the show when he played "I Don't Believe You" back to back with "Positively Fourth Street." I remembered the first time I really listened to either of the songs was back in my freshman year of college when the boxset Biograph came out and my parents gave it to me as a Christmas gift and I became one who was interested in Dylan to one who was fascinated with him. There wasn't a bad song on the five records in the set and several of the songs blew me away. Though I've heard the aforementioned songs hundreds of times since then I found myself sitting there in the arena thinking how much I really really liked both songs. Favorite lyric of all time? Try "I Don't Believe You"'s "From darkness dreams are deserted/Am I still dreamin' yet?/I wish she'd unlock/Her voice once and talk/instead of acting like we never have met." The lyrics of "Positively Fourth Street" are as bitter as they are sad and on this particular night Dylan sang them perfectly. "I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

He sang five songs from Love and Theft and each of them crackled with energy and urgency. "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" was rollicking; "Summer Days" swung and swung hard (it was amusing listening to a skilled singer get in all the words in a rather wordy song); "High Water (for Charlie Patton)" was menacing and intense; "Honest With Me" rocked hard. The highlight of the entire set was a quiet and reflective "Sugar Baby" which had a tremendous singer singing his heart out; a vocal full of mesmerizing power and fluidity getting to the heart of a complex song about regret and loss. It was as moving as it was stunning. In a recent interview Dylan has said this CD is his most autobiographical, that every line has something to do with who he is. The way he sang "Sugar Baby" shows he wasn't exactly joking. "Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one/You got a way of tearin' the world apart, love, see what you've done/Just as sure as we're livin', just as sure as you're born/Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn ." Twenty one shows and this was the single most moving moment of all. Right place, right time, with the right person at the right moment.

Monday, October 22, 2001

Dra Dria

"When suddenly, at midnight, you hear/an invisible procession going by/with exquisite music, voices/don't mourn your luck that's failing now/work gone wrong, your plans/all proving deceptive- don't mourn them uselessly"
-Constantine P. Cavafy

Regular readers of the newsletter (all three of you) and people who stay up really really late probably already know that if you were ever to describe me you would wanna use an awful lot of words that end with the suffix "niac." Part of that is a lifelong affliction that has grown worse over the past few weeks. Let's just say that there's a whole lotta sheep being counted these days and we haven't even begun to worry about all these mysterious piles of powdery white substances (remember the days when it used to be fun to receive a letter?) piling up and the hysteria that surrounds them.

One lesson learned after countless sleepless nights in the past is that I usually don't listen to music while lying in bed. This is especially true for music with words since I usually end up staring at the ceiling pondering (and often times envying) the meaning of it all. I broke the rule last week after purchasing Leonard Cohen's new CD, Ten New Songs, at our friendly reopened neighborhood Cheapo. Actually I discovered that Cohen was coming out with new music by accident. I've been on a poetry reading kick of late, God knows why, and I knew one of my friends had a book of Cohen poems (a definite plus on her side) and I asked to borrow it. She loaned it to me mere days after I had an 11 year old cloud lifted from inside my noggin and she appropriately bent back the page of a very special Cohen poem titled, "True Love Leaves No Traces" with references that literally brought tears to my eyes. If she only knew...

"As the mist leaves no scar/On the dark green hill/So my body leaves no scar/On you and never will"

I was looking up information on the poem when I read the news that a new CD had recently been released. I bought the disc along with two others so I didn't have the chance to listen to it before bedtime. I was anxious to hear it however since Cohen is an artist that usually has some pretty intriguing stuff to say and this is certainly a time where that is even more appreciated than ever. So I put it on before settling in under the layers of covers. Understand when I buy the CD of a gifted lyricist the routine has always been to look closely at the packaging, from the cover art to the lyrics and liner notes, not wanting to miss a clue as to what the whole thing is about. This time around I didn't do that however; I was just too damn tired. So I didn't know quite what to expect.

My first impression was one of slight disappointment. Cohen's music has always been a tad dour and downbeat (he once joked his CDs were the only ones sold along with razor blades) but it usually has this ethereal spookiness to it that is hard to ignore. The first few new songs while masterfully crafted all kinda of blended together into an amalgamated collage of goo. Not only did nothing jump out upon first listen nothing even stood out.

I was actually beginning to doze off when track number seven started to play. I thought I was dreaming or at least wasn't listening straight because I kept hearing the words, "Alexandra leaving... Alexandra lost..." The name itself has personal implications but that wasn't what got me paying attention. The song spins a hypnotic if not a bit cryptic tale that is Cohen at his mystical best.

"Alexandra Leaving" I later learned is a song based on the great Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy's rather disturbing death poem, "The God abandons Antony." Cavafy who was born and died in Alexandria, Egypt casts a stark look into the blackness of night. The poem almost has a religious comforting tone to it but the title gives it away. This isn't about being reassured about what comes next it is about facing the moment with clear vision and appreciating the place you now are.

"As one long prepared, and graced with courage/say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving/Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say/it was a dream, your ears deceived you/don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these"

Cohen's song isn't so much about the death of a life as it is the death of a love. "Even though she sleeps upon your satin/Even though she wakes you with a kiss/Do not say the moment was imagined/Do not stoop to strategies like this"

And while there is nothing specific about the song that I can directly relate to my (current) life the song really touched me deeply. After comparing it to Cavafy's wonderful poem I was inspired by how Cohen was able to take a tautly spun tale and turn it not only into something of his own, but something near but completely different from the original words. It's a connection with a writer but it extends beyond that to what truly seems to matter, that wondrous once in a while connection with another.

Monday, October 15, 2001

Owed to My Cat (Part 412)

I could make a list at least three parsnips long detailing my many anxieties as a youth revolving around the beginning of a new school year. At the top of that list would be the annual pre-school doctor checkup. We used to go to a place (this was before they called them clinics or before HMO's were involved), a round building in Edina near the nation's first indoor shopping mall, Southdale.

It sucked that the building was circular because as they took you on that dreaded walk to the examination room it was hard to get your bearings and the walk that seemed to go on forever never quite lasted long enough. The only parts of the experience at all bearable were that the pre-check up area (commonly referred to as the "waiting room") was full of neat toys, and after we were done being poked and prodded our parents would take us over to the mall for hot pretzels.

My brother and I used to prepare for the examination weeks in advance by pinching our fingers to simulate the horrid pain of having our fingers pricked for the blood test. Now days it strikes me that we weren't at all concerned about the results of the test, we just didn't like the pain of the prick (which coincidentally is the title of my new autobiographical novel). One year my brother was so afraid of the pain that just before the nurse put needle to skin he yanked his hand back. If she had begun the prick, he of course would have ripped his finger wide open. I guess I was a bit braver than that having resigned myself to accepting that life sometimes is about enduring a little bit of pain.

I was reminded of all this the other day when I took Mr. Max into the University of Minnesota's veterinary hospital for his annual physical. The last time Max and I had been there was after he had consumed some Azalea leaves and we were told he had a 50 percent chance of surviving. That episode left its mark on both of us as it served as a reminder that there will be a day when a relationship so appreciated and now ten years running will inevitably be over. I guess the price of love is that some day there will be inconsolable loss.

As part of the checkup a veterinary student does the preliminary examination. This year's student put her stethoscope to Max's teenaged chest and asked me if I had noticed any difficulty in his breathing because she heard what she thought might be some congestion in his lungs. I said no, his breathing, unlike his growing uncertainty in his jumping ability, or his noticeable need for more attention, wasn't one of the increasingly visible signs of aging.

Later the doctor came in to finish up the exam. The student asked her if she too heard the congested lungs and the doctor said no, that the breathing difficulty was coming from Max hyperventilating. The strange surroundings (with painfully memorable connotations) were causing the little guy with eyes fully dilated to shake like a bunny.

I've given some thought over the last few years of getting a little kitty to join Mr. Max and myself. I figured since I haven't been around as much he might enjoy some company. I also figured when the time comes that it would be nice to have some continued feline companionship nearby to plow my way through the heartache and tears. But we haven't taken on another roommate because Max ain't too fond of other cats and the sure to be noticeable stress involved has scared me away. I've also realized that I'm fooling myself if I think bringing in another cat is somehow more for Max's sake than my own. One of the student vet's questions to me was if Max had been through anything traumatic this past year (other than the Azalea incident). I responded, "Besides living with me, um no..." We all had a good laugh as Max's breathing remained heavy and present.

Still I can't help but feel a tinge of melancholy that the current life situation isn't a little like lil' Jackie Paper and that rascal Puff. I always used to look down upon those who spoke about their pets as if they were children. And granted I've come to relate to those people more and more (if not actually becoming a tried and true practitioner of such dialogue- complete with pictures!). Still the relationship between Max and I has taken on partnership proportions more than any thing else. I've learned at least as much through him as he has picked up from me. In the realm of relationships there are those that end up taking a lot out of you, leave you searching for some kind of consolation, conciliation and meaning. There are others that ultimately make you a better, more thoughtful person. There'll never be a doubt which category my relationship with Max falls under. If only the deepest pain in life was still that of a little finger prick.

Monday, October 8, 2001

She'll Save the World Some More

"You can always come back but you can't come back all the way..."
-R. Zimmerman

Through all the words, all the blinding images of the past year the one that I can't seem to get out of my mind was a quiet lunch with a friend when she told me that she used to like watching scary movies until she realized that life itself is scary enough. The startling sad events of the past month have somehow changed all that existed before. Pieces of art, works of music, and even old friendships have all been recast in a different hue in the light of the day that some of us were woken up.

One of the issues I've been struggling with is the proper role of art in a healthy life (and thank you Liz for the reassuring note last week). There are times when I just have to hear some music, not as entertainment, not as a distraction but because I need to feel connected. Maybe that's what friends are for. Maybe that's what happens when the rock runs out of luck, but there are times when music, movies, and literature centers me amongst the swirling chaos. Good art does that. Great art teaches as it inspires.

Yes the world has changed since last we saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The best show on TV had a brilliant season last year ending with Buffy's death and fans have been anxiously awaiting the resolution- how they will bring the slayer back to life. It now feels a tad silly to say but the superb writing and acting of the show made me not merely cry twice but (and still in a most manly manner mind you) uncontrollably bawl my eyes out. First was the stunning episode in which Buffy's mom unexpectedly died (probably the best hour of episodic TV I've ever seen) and then the season finale when Buffy sacrificed her own life so that her sister and the rest of the world could live.

The show has always been metaphorical about surviving in the world with vampires and demons and scary beasts that coexist alongside the normal demons, like being a teenager, being unpopular, just wanting to be normal, having your heart broken ("What's worse than being in love with someone that used to love you?" Darla asks Angel in the first season) etc. But now that we have seen how pure evil can truly exist in reality, how there really are beings out there that want to kill the faceless out of undiluted hatred, the show seems both sillier and more profound.

On a selfish note the good news is that the show switched networks (locally from WB23 to UPN9). I live in a house where I have to manipulate my antenna, stand on my head, hook up electrodes to Mr. Max's whiskers in order to get the WB's signal halfway decently. So I've become accustomed to watching Buffy through a haze (different than the one normally in my head) with clicks, buzzing and an occasional fade out and blue screen at the most inopportune times.

Ironically my friend and I recently made a swap. Part of what I received was a TV to place in my office. She hadn't used it since living "way out there" (Hopkins she thought) and so none of the channels was properly tuned to receive the local stations' signals. I spent all of an afternoon trying to get the TV to work but about the only channel I could get clearly was channel 23. Figures.

With the big finale last year on the WB and the switch of networks and Buffy dying and all this year's season premiere promised to be something special. So special in fact that the pressure to be a satisfactory resolution to the state of things seemed a daunting if not impossible task. The show, like most network series has episodes that serve merely as a transition to get the overall storyline to another place. For awhile it appeared as if Buffy's season premiere was just such a show. The episode had plenty of gore and campy humor (though Zander had a nice line about being a "manwich" and Anya was pretty funny with her persistent wish to reveal some exciting personal news even though the world was quite literally on fire around her).

A gang of demons overtook Sunnydale because they found out the slayer was dead and turned the town into a hellish inferno with no moral structure. Just as it appeared the episode would be mostly devoted to fight scenes, scary moments (Leave it to your friends to cast a resurrection spell but then leave you stranded inside your coffin. DOH!) and the mysticism that those who don't follow the show think it's all about, the final scene showed why the show shines.

It wasn't the cast of a witch's spell that brought Buffy back to life. Rather it was the sisterly voice of love and fear and connection that restored Buffy's heart. The show is at its best when it subtlety raises questions about life- what is the soul, the spirit, the essence of another? Both Willow and Dawn in separate scenes had to grapple with being expected to be courageous and strong while grieving the death of a loved one. Does that mean getting back to "normal," to the way things used to be? Does it mean assuming responsibilities of the dead? Does it mean honoring the spirit by pressing on even through the fear and loss? Let's see any other show deal so intelligently and sensitively with such a basic but complex emotion. This is a remarkable show and it's good to have Buffy back and kickin' some serious butt.

Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Harshin' My Buzz

If September 11 had not happened, had not gone down the way it did, I probably would have spent many hours of the following days and weeks listening to Bob Dylan's new CD. Yet I haven't really felt much like listening to any music. As it is Love and Theft is the only CD I've been in the mood to play of late. Music tends to connect me with things both inside and out. I'll be the first to admit to being guilty of what Carl Frie's heartbreaking article chastised last week- being numb to the tragedy of it all. The most prevalent feelings I've noticed through the numb people around me are fear and anger and helplessness rather than compassion.

Maybe it was the distance, not knowing anyone directly killed or injured in the attack, maybe it was all too big to comprehend, but I don't think it all sunk in until I watched David Letterman's first show back when Dave gave such a moving account of the mood of New York City, the town he has had so much fun making fun of the past 20 years. To see him so saddened, so stunned by it all made me cry for the first time. Then there was the celebrity telethon held last week with a wealth of good music performed- it really touched a place inside reserved for the expressions of art.

So kinda lost in the mix was the fact that one of my other all time favorite artists also released a new CD on September 11. I finally got around to buying it last week and unfortunately it is a major disappointment.

I admire John Hiatt as a writer because he has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry- all in the same sentence. I admire his performing ability because despite being an artist whose songs have been covered by a myriad of artists, none of the covers quite express the mixture of family, love, inner demons and fears, cynicism and pure joy as effectively as Hiatt himself. His work over the years has been consistently rewarding yet his new CD, The Tiki Bar is Open fails to ignite much of a spark or connection inside.

It's not as if the music is bad, indeed Hiatt is working with his old band, the Goners, for the first time in a dozen years and the sound is impressive (particularly the playing of guitarist Sonny Landreth). But none of the songs linger, resonate and remain like Hiatt's best work. The weakness of the new material is demonstrated by the fact that probably the most memorable song of the set, "I'll Never Get Over You" was written eight years ago and has been performed live on occasion since then.

Hiatt is a master craftsman who has a stunning number of great songs in his catalog. Yet the new CD sounds totally crafted and by the numbers and it lacks any palatable inspiration. We do get a glimpse into his songwriting prowess with the song "All the Lilacs in Ohio." Hiatt said the song's motivation came from one of his favorite movies, Ray Milland's Lost Weekend. That movie of course is a dark look at an alcoholic self-destructive writer but it's a joyful line that caught Hiatt's artistic eye. He recalls the sweet scene in which Milland's character is talking with Sam the bartender about his true inspiration:

"You take her home. She goes up to her apartment and opens her window and waves goodbye. You notice the way the light hits the gray of the drainpipe on the side of the building. Or she's supposed to meet you the next day for lunch but she can't come and she sends you a little note. You open it up and it smells like all the lilacs in Ohio."

In Hiatt's hands the scene is translated- "You pin her handkerchief to clean white linen sheets/And you unmake the bed and crawl in/You imagine her there and you're tangled in her hair/And she smells like flowers again/And it's springtime and you are just a boy..."

I was listening to the song in a cubicle with a broken chair outside of the office of a person who I had forgotten I had gone with to see a Hiatt concert a few years back. I so wanted to like the CD, I so wanted the music to be memorable so I could remember that exact wondrous moment of where I found myself and who I was with but it wasn't to be. She came out of her office for a moment and grabbed a handful of caramel covered popcorn from a bag in my cube, and I had to admit to her that the CD was nothing special.

Perhaps the most sterling song of the set is the title track which shows Hiatt's cutting wit along side some expressive playing by Landreth. It's a somber song that is a nice reflection of the times we are living in. "I was driving by his majesty's court hotel/Where the sign said praise his name/I was tired and alone, I couldn't see too well/But I don't think that he was to blame..."

The workmanlike Tiki Bar is Open is a reminder of just how great Hiatt's last CD, Crossing Muddy Waters was. That CD's smoky acoustic blues was a powerful personal statement from an artist who specializes in those. The disappointing follow up lacks not only the intimacy but the power of Crossing Muddy Waters and the customary mastery of much of Hiatt's other work.