The year was 1992 and I was recovering from a crash. I was very very lost when Alex appeared in my life. We struck up a friendship and spent some time together the best of which were the evenings she would pick me up in front of my tiny little efficiency down the street from her apartment and just outside downtown St. Paul. She'd arrive in her sporty gray MR-2 and I'd get in and bring with me Mr. Max's hair and she'd scold me for messing up her otherwise spotless car interior.
We'd drive down to the downtown St. Paul library for a "library night." She'd read and study and I'd do a bit of writing. Afterward we'd grab a cup of coffee at the Bad Habit and do a crossword puzzle together. We didn't always come up with all the words but the ones we did agree upon seemed OK with me.
These days I sometimes think about what will be on my mind as I lie on my death bed and I gotta say those evenings with Alex are sure to make the short list.
Eventually the friendship crashed. And I was lost again. Alex got an internship at the White House (I'm serious) and on her last night in town she had to work a shift at the downtown Daytons. I came down with her and told her I would shop until she was done and give her a lift home. I was done shopping in about five minutes of course (I bought a blanket) so I meandered around the empty downtown "mall" aimlessly but I needed to spend another moment, perhaps the last, with Alex not for any particular reason but just because I had to.
During our drive home I asked her the question that was there, that I almost didn't want to hear the answer to but needed to ask nonetheless. I asked Alex if she planned on staying in touch with me. She told me she really hadn't thought about it. I tried to tell her how sorry I felt for the way our friendship had fizzled due entirely to my issues and how much she had meant to me. But I knew she didn't want to hear any of that. She, true to form, was already was thinking about what lie ahead for her.
If there was one other thing getting through to me at that point and was consoling me for a loss of friendship it was Bob Dylan's music. In a world that increasingly (and frighteningly) seemed more and more black and white- with a bit of taupe mixed in- Bob's music definitely seemed multi-colored. This wasn't exactly fertile times in Bob's career- most of the media coverage of him seemed to portray him as a washed up has been that slurred his singing into unrecognizable gibberish. A mere shadow of the legend he created. But who cares what the popular opinion was? Certainly not Bob. And certainly not one who could see the wisdom in a line like "Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt." Sheer brilliance.
I admired the way Bob persevered and just kept doing what he had always been doing even if no one was paying much attention. His art wasn't so much to win over approval as it was to validate for himself what he thought someone needed to say.
That said, how can one not stop and pay attention to a song like "Blind Willie McTell"? Its melody won't let go and the lyrics paint a picture of our times that no one else even wants to jot down for whatever reason. "God is in his heaven/And we all want what's his/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all that there is..." And the way Bob sings a song about how no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell proves what an incessantly effective albeit idiosyncratic singer he has always been.
So here it is a dozen years after 1992 and I'm remembering how on the last ride home I was telling Alex about this new job I was about to start- editing the Cheapo Newsletter. She thought it was a great opportunity but questioned whether anyone would get much out of my writing. She told me my writing was so personal that anybody reading would have to know me to appreciate any of it. I didn't necessarily disagree but still felt a tad discouraged. I knew she was right but I was going to prove her wrong nonetheless.
Wednesday nights I'm taking a creative non-fiction writing class at the Loft. One of the reasons I'm taking the class is after twelve years of writing a weekly newsletter column I kinda feel like I've battered the principle rule of writing to death: write about what you know. To fill up this column I've written all I know and many things I don't know. And everything I'm writing now seems like I've written before. I hoped taking a class would breathe some fresh air into my writing.
In the class we all have to read a couple of pieces for the others to critique. My first reading was last week. What I wrote was essentially an elongated Cheapo Newsletter column. And what I discovered is that weekly I don't so much write creative non-fiction but more like non-creative fiction. For my reading I wrote about a meeting I was at and the thoughts that were going through my mind the entire time. I wasn't so much daydreaming as getting stuck in the mundane events of the past week that made up my life as it is. The only thread holding it all together was me, and I wasn't doing such a good job at it.
When I admitted to the class that I had no idea what the piece was about one of the women mentioned the narrator seemed to be in a place of despair. That didn't even occur to me. Re-reading the piece I think I copped Dylan's wonderful rambling song "Highlands" that has the singer meandering throughout some seemingly disjointed scenes only to emerge bemused that none of it makes any sense but the place he's headed to is bound to be different if only because of some form of blind hope.
The Loft is located just a few blocks from my current workplace/wonderland. Yet on this particular Wednesday it took me forever to move my car that few blocks because traffic was proceeding one car at time through the change of stop lights. I raced into class in the drizzling rain/snow knowing that I needed to leave on time in order to head on over to the other Twin City to see Dylan perform at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium.
It was to be the 26th time I've seen Dylan perform live and yet it was full of firsts. First of all I parked quite a ways a way and had to wander past the places Alex and I spent together. Also I had an extra ticket with me so for the first time in my life I had to play the part of ticket scalper. Let me say I don't think I'm ever gonna make a living at it. I took the first offer that was made to me only to have another guy quickly come up to me and ask how much I was asking for the ticket. The first guy had offered me less than face value and I was happy to get anything I could. That the second guy probably would have give me more couldn't sway me from sticking to some code of agreeing to terms with the original offer.
My seat was quite a ways from the stage but the venue was small enough that it really didn't matter. I asked the guy that eventually sat in the seat next to mine what he paid for the ticket. Turns out he paid over twice as much as I sold it for. Oh well, he was an interesting guy. We talked about music- he was a jazz fan and I mentioned my admiration of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and he seemed OK with that and gave me a piece of gum.
The opening chords of the opening song "Tombstone Blues" rang inside my skull revealing another first. It was the first Bob concert I attended suffering the numbing affects of a bit of Bell's Palsy. My face drooped and my eye watered yet all the rest didn't much matter. Highlights of the show? A heart-wrenching "Love Sick" with Bob caressing the minimalist lyrics with so much care that it hurt. A new arrangement of "Girl From the North Country" with guitarist Larry Campbell strumming some lovely chords in an arrangement that made it sound like an Irish lullaby (which it probably was at one time). A great version of "Floater"- the song Bob apparently plagiarized lines from an obscure Japanese novel- even though there isn't anyone on the planet that could write or sing the song with so much precision and ingenuity.
The band sounded good although it probably still misses the impeccable virtuosity of Charlie Sexton's guitar playing. The newest addition is a second drummer, Richie Hayward who plays a mean tambourine- Mr. Tambourine finally clear and present. Freddy Koella's lead guitar led the way throughout although Bob managed to keep him in line with a few quirky keyboard moments.
The setlist also included two of my all time favorite Dylan songs- "Blind Willie McTell," and "Shooting Star." The latter always reminds me of my friend Alex. "Guess it's too late to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say/Seen a shooting star tonight pass away..." His voice was both gruff and understanding and the arrangement jolting and soothing. "Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you/You were trying to break into another world/A world I never knew./I always kind of wondered/If you ever made it through./Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you."