Monday, November 28, 2005

Very Twee, Very Me

I went to London with one desired mission in mind. I wanted to be walking the streets and spot Madonna. If not that I wanted to fido Judas. Biblical canine humour can't get enough!

On my eight and a half hour flight overseas I sat next to a kid (probably around three years old) and his Dad. The kid seemed quite perceptive with his comments about the airplane and runway we were on. As we were taking off the kid went "whee" as if we were on some kind of safe but scary amusement ride. His Dad chuckled. Mid-flight his Dad gave the kid a plastic sketching pad and markers and the kid drew the best Sponge Bob I've ever seen only he labeled it, "Sketch Bob."

I wanted to lean over and say, "I'm flying to see "Song Bob" but I didn't figuring I should mind my own business.

At the very beginning of Gulf (and the gap is getting BIG) War One the Grammy Awards were scheduled to air. Some thought the ceremony would be canceled given the gravity of what was unleashed, but somebody somewhere decided the show must go on. So it did.

A night after I watched what looked like a fancy video game with the sky of Baghdad being lit up by missiles and bombs, I tuned in to CBS specifically to watch Bob Dylan get a lifetime achievement award. When the moment finally arrived, Jack Nicholson read a gushing introduction and then Bob appeared with his bandit band. Bob, never once opening his eyes, sang "Masters of War" in one very long sentence hardly ever coming up for a breath of air. His band accompanied him with a sound reminiscent of a mosquito, and as they broke away for reactions from the audience there were what seemed to be nervous smiles intermixed with looks of stunned confusion.

As Bob was handed his award, he turned from the podium and looked as if he was going to leave without speaking a word. Jack and the statue babes grabbed him and turned him around. As the orchestral backing music died down, Bob stood fidgety, looking at the award. He finally tipped his hat and said, ""Well, my daddy, he didn't leave me much, you know he was a very simple man... What he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said… He said, you know it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways. Thank you." It was the greatest acceptance speech ever.


I was supposed to meet my friend Jennifer at Gatwick Airport in London. She flew on another flight. Her last words to me on a phone call before we left the United States were, "I won't leave the airport without you." So when I got to the spot we agreed to meet and didn't see her anywhere in sight, my heart sunk right into my stomach. Having never been to London and knowing I was more than a half an hour away by train from our hostel, my anxiety in finding where we were staying without her was about as wide as the ocean I had just flown over.
The trip was Jennifer's idea when she heard that Bob was going to play a series of shows in Brixton. She emailed me the day before the terrorist attack on the London transit system so when I read the message I thought about the odd and dangerous timing of her offer. But I knew if I turned her down I'd always regret it so I quickly emailed back and said I thought she had a splendid idea.

Months passed and I barely heard another word from her even though I knew she had gotten the tickets. I kinda put the whole trip in the back of my mind figuring if I thought about it much I would wring all possible and potential enjoyment right out of it.

I didn't do much planning, didn't think about packing or any of the details I would normally think about in preparing for a trip. It almost felt like I was in a state of denial. About the only thing in my life that indicated the trip was on my mind was when I began letting my hair grow back after my annual shaved head summer look. I didn't want my hair to be too long when I was overseas since it is much easier to care for when it's short. I figured if I stopped shaving my head in September, two months growth wouldn't be too long. The night before I was to leave I finally grabbed my suitcase (freaking out the kitties) and threw some clothes into the bag.

The only thing scarier than going to a foreign land where I knew nobody, knew little about what I was to face, was the notion of landing at a busy airport and not being able to find Jennifer.

I waited for three hours, called the hostel to see if she was there (she wasn't) before I grabbed a train schedule, hopped on to what I thought was the right one and headed off into the unknown.

Dylan's second appearance at the Grammys came the year Time Out of Mind was nominated for a "Best Album" award. As the time came for him to perform a track from the CD, the camera panned to him behind a big old microphone that looked like it was dug up from an old radio show. The band began the harsh chord guitar intro to "Love Sick" and Bob gave a pretty straightforward (for Bob) vocal performance. Behind the band were a bunch of young people bobbing up and down as if transported from an episode of Shindig. Out of nowhere a guy with no shirt bounced on to the stage and took his place next to Bob. Painted on the wiggily dancer's chest was the word "Soybomb." Given the venue I thought this was all part of the bizarre presentation but quickly a couple of burly security guards grabbed the dancer and whisked him away. Bob looked at his bassist, Tony Garnier, smiled and then ripped into a wonderful guitar solo.


Navigating the London tube system is daunting because of the many lines, but it is logically organized. Like subway systems I have ridden in other cities, the tube's different lines are color coded. After leaving Jennifer a message back at the hostel telling her I wasn't going to wait at the airport any longer, I was on my way. After a half hour ride from Gatwick Airport to the Victoria station through the London countryside, I arrived at the station with map in hand looking for the District Line, or the green line. While waiting in line to buy a ticket I heard a message over the P.A. system saying that the green line was closed and riders had to take alternate routes.

So I asked the nice chap at the ticket window what my options were and he listed a litany of routes, train changes, and stations I should look for. I nodded hopped on what I remembered was the first train he mentioned, dug out my map and hoped I didn't end up in downtown Dublin. I dug out my street directions to the hostel printed off from their website. The directions told me I had three tube stop options. After a train change or two, I hopped on the line that I thought would get me to one of the three stops. It was a longer than the other rides, and it eventually took me above ground. I got off at my stop, was approached by another nice chap with a flyer boldly displaying the word "Erotica" and found a bench to sit on. I looked at the street directions that said, "10 minute walk. Hammersmith." Those directions didn't exactly point me in the direction I needed to go. I was happy to find one of the stops and was sorta sick of riding the trains, but I thought if I strolled around the area I could become hopelessly lost. So I mapped out an alternative.

When I finally found another stop, I read the directions and felt somewhat confident that I was finally headed in the right direction. It was supposed to be a five minute walk and there were only two turns I needed to make (a left from the station and a right down Gunterstone Road). I walked a suspiciously long distance and my suitcase was starting to feel extremely heavy. Once I hit a major street I decided I'd better ask someone for better directions. I stopped in a coffee shop and the owner had never heard of the street but when I showed him my printed off directions he sent me back in the direction I had just come from.

Feeling lost was bad enough- feeling scared of the traffic whizzing by added to the permanent knots in my stomach. I felt like I imagine my cats must feel like when I take them for walks and we have to cross a road. No matter how many times I looked to make sure no cars were nearby, the only thought in my mind was I was going to end up a splotch on somebody's hood. It was hard getting used to looking right first. I thought that if I just looked right, then left, then right again I would be fine. But somehow during my entire stay in London I felt like I was in imminent danger of being hit by a car. I also never figured out if slow walkers are supposed to stay on the right like we do in the United States, or if the faster walkers were supposed to pass you on the right. There seemed to be some inconsistency from the people walking. I guess there is in the United States as well.

Out on the street I asked a young couple if they knew where "Gunterstone Road" was and the young chap said it was the next block down. Al had told me before I left that the streets of London were highly confusing. The street signs are on the sides of buildings and it's not always clear what street the sign is meant for. I walked down Gunterstone Road looking for the address of 16-22. When I got to "24" I noticed that the name of the street changed. Hmmm. So I wandered back down the other way thinking maybe it started over at the other end of the street. No such luck. I finally found another nice chap and asked him if he knew where the Ace Hotel was. He said he did because he was staying there. He said that the numbering system could be confusing because when a building comes down and others go in its place they simply keep the same number. I was just happy to finally find my room.

I wasn't making a whole lot of money in 1992. But when it was announced that Bob was playing five shows at the Orpheum I decided I needed to go to all five. His popularity at the time wasn't at an all time high having taken hits from critics and fans alike so getting tickets to all the shows wasn't particularly a challenge.

By this time Bob was well into his "Never Ending Tour" having established the ability to pull just about any song out of his vast catalog and make it new again. By the third show I was so into the music that I wanted it all to go on forever. The second show he sang this goofy and eccentric version of "Idiot Wind" and it dawned on me that the Cheapo newsletter that had just started up was a perfect vehicle for me to do what Bob was doing. The editor corner column was my opportunity to produce something new every week by reaching back and casting something old from my life in a new light. It didn't so much matter if it was brilliant. Just writing every week, doing the keep on keeping on thing, was exactly what my writing (and by extension- my life) needed at the time.

After the last show was over I looked at my notes and was astounded that Bob had done 50 different songs in the five shows. The only three that were played at every show were a cover of the traditional "Little Moses," the closing "It Ain't Me Babe"- the last encore where Bob came on stage alone and played a heartfelt acoustic version, and my all time favorite Dylan song, "Boots of Spanish Leather."

"Boots of Spanish Leather" is as autobiographical song as Dylan has ever recorded. From all accounts it accounts the break-up with his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo blow by blow. She was off to Spain with her mother and her sister who were trying to keep Suze away from Bob. The song describes feelings of betrayal that the object of the singer's love would so easily leave him behind. Whenever I hear the song, and whenever Bob gets to the punchline- it never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

"I got a letter on a lonesome day/It was from her ship a-sailin'/Saying I don't know when I'll be comin' back again/It depends on how I'm a-feelin'/Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way/I'm sure your mind is roamin'/I'm sure your heart is not with me/But with the country to where you're goin'/So take heed, take heed of the western wind/Take heed of the stormy weather/And yes, there's something you can send back to me/Spanish boots of Spanish leather."


For those of you who have never been to a Bob Dylan show the ritual now goes something like this: The doors open well before he'll hit the stage. Whether standing in line outside or waiting for things to begin inside- there's a great anticipation of what songs he might do a particular evening with the off chance that he might pull out some unexpected nugget making the wait quite worthwhile. The stage is arranged with Bob's keyboard left of center. His people come out to tune the instruments and soon the smell of incense waifs from the stage. Around twenty minutes before Bob hits the stage the rumble of the crowd is briefly interrupted by classical music playing from the speakers on stage. When Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" begins to play those who have been to a Dylan show before know the time is near and they begin cheering. All the lights then go down and the roar of the crowd goes up as the darken figures of the band take their place on stage. A deep booming voice fills the air with an intro written by a journalist recapping his version of Bob's career- including his period as a "has been" and his alleged drug abuse and subsequent finding of Jesus... and then comes the words that really set the audience off... "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan" just as the band hits the first notes of the first song.

I was on a new anti-depressant medicine that was suppose to help me sleep better. It couldn't help me sleep any worse since I hadn't been sleeping at all. And it did do the trick. I spent days at a time in bed. I remember waking up groggy one Friday evening and turning on the TV. PBS had a special on celebrating George and Ira Gershwin's music. I was having a hard time staying awake.

A lone figure strode on to the stage. Dressed in a tuxedo and carrying his guitar with his harmonica rack sticking out from his chest, Bob began to strum some notes as the narrator announced him. It was a Gershwin song I had never heard before but it soon became my all time favorite Gershwin song. Bob's vocals were full of passion and sincerity. In a show wrought with pomposity and way too much polish Bob's performance stood out with it's authenticity. He looked so out of place and lost but that isn't something that seems to bother him at all. As he is wont to do he made the song his own by changing the lyrics just a smidgen.

"I've found the happiness I've waited for/the only girl that I was fated for/Oh soon, a little cottage will find us safe with all our cares far behind us/The day you're mine this world will be in tune,/let's make that day come soon, let's make that day come soon..."


To get to London's Carling Academy in Brixton from our hostel required us to hop on the Piccadilly line to the Green Park station. From there we boarded the Victoria train to the end of the line. Brixton isn't exactly the nicest part of London. One wouldn't want to flash his or her bling very loudly there. The venue holds around 5,000 and for the first show we were in the balcony overlooking the elegant stage that juts out on to the main floor. The British publication Time Out describes it thusly: "Bridging the gap between London's intimate venues and soulless arenas, the Grade 2 listed building is one of the capital's best live venues. Its sloping floor gives a decent view from almost anywhere and the slightly surreal interior (based on the Rialto Bridge in Venice) lends each show here a true sense of occasion."

The opening chords of the opening song were unfamiliar. Turns out it was a cover of "Rumble" from the recently departed Link Wray, the man who invented the power chord. Without a pause the band broke into a ragged version of "Drifter's Escape." Next came a favorite Dylan song, "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)." Whenever Bob sings the last line, "This place don't make sense to me no more, can you tell me what they're waiting for Senor?" like in many of his songs I know exactly what he means even if I'm not sure what he was thinking about when he wrote the song.

There were three high points to this show for me. The always glad to hear it "Queen Jane Approximately" with its mournful, pleading, and tenuous chorus, "Won't you come see me Queen Jane?" was sung with clarity and precision. Likewise the way Bob sang "Desolation Row" was spellbinding and particular. Each verse was sung differently and by the end of the long song Bob left us wanting it to go on and on. "New Morning" emphasized what is the strength of the current band's lineup- its rhythm section. Drummer George Recile bashed his two snare drums in sync with Bob's odd keyboard chords in a bluesy version of the hopeful song- and Tony Garnier's bass held it all together. I loved hearing this song live for the first time. Yes indeed just as the song says I did feel lucky to just be alive.

I was in the hospital for my depression. I had brought with me just one tape to listen to during my indefinite stay- it was a bootleg recording of a recent Bob concert in Australia. He was touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and this show's opener was a cover of Dizzy Gillespie's "Lucky Old Sun."

"Out in the morning, out on a job. Work like the devil for my pay, But that lucky old sun got nothing to do but roll around heaven all day."

I loved the sound of Bob's voice. I loved the Heartbreaker's keyboardist Benmont Tench's piano playing. There's something about this performance that just made sense as all my world was crumbling around me. I remember listening to it when a nurse came in to check up on me. When she heard what I was listening to she seemed impressed and asked who was singing. I said Bob Dylan. She had never heard of him. It was then I knew they couldn't help me there. They didn't stand a chance.


We had to retrieve our tickets for the second show from a guy in England that neither Jennifer or I had ever met. Jennifer had ordered tickets through a service that would not deliver to a United States address. So with the help of a Dylan friend she had found this guy in England who agreed to holding our tickets for us.

She called him and he was having lunch at an Italian restaurant near his hotel. We took the train over to that part of town. The restaurant was small but had a nice atmosphere. Tim, the guy holding our tickets was seated at a table with a group of people that included the owner of the restaurant, Rob DeMartino. Rob's grandfather was a gangster, a local legend. During a great meal full of splendid food and adult beverage was one of the threads to our conversation- trying to identify the son or daughter of a famous parent who had managed to become even more famous than his or her parent. The topic of discussion had of course started with talking about Jakob Dylan.

We were having a hard time finding even one example of an instance where the child had outdone the parent. Liza Minnelli? Close but no cigar. Julian Lennon? Frank Sinatra Jr.? Angelina Jolie? Arlo Guthrie? Martha Wainwright? Gimme a break. I did mention Barry Bonds but I was seated with a group of British so the name didn't mean much. I also identified Bonnie Raitt and Whitney Houston but by that time the topic had kinda died.

Rob told us a great story about attending a Green Day concert where some youth approached him and scornfully said, "corporate." He knew what they meant and tried to explain to them that Green Day wasn't exactly authentic punk so their comment was somewhat ironic.
Ironically the first song in the encore to Bob's show that evening was a cover of the Clash's "London Calling." Talk about a smile inducing moment. It was an abbreviated performance- just one verse and chorus. But Bob spit out the lyric, "Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust/London calling see we ain't got no swing/'cept for the reign of that Truncheon thing..." was such venom and conviction that it would have made Joe Strummer blush.

That performance would have been enough to push the show over the edge but how about the live debut of "Million Dollar Bash?" "Well, I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/Punched myself in the face/With my fist/I took my potatoes/Down to be mashed/Then I made it over/To that million dollar bash" indeed. There was also a lilting version of "Boots of Spanish Leather" that melted my heart. We also got a note perfect version of "Visions of Johanna" ("Madonna still has not showed...") The band also pounded out a heart stopping "Highway 61" that demonstrated as rudimentary as Bob's keyboard skills are- as he pounded out a three note riff that was echoed by guitarist Stu Kimball- and as the whole band soon hit the same riff- that this was spine-tingling stuff. A great great performance.

I had read nothing about the Traveling Wilburys so when their CD came out it was a complete surprise that there were some new Bob songs available. During a decade long slide into near oblivion it was frustrating that one of Bob's greatest strengths- his sense of humor- was nowhere to be found. That's why his contributions to the Traveling Wilburys were so greatly appreciated. Somebody was finally letting his curly hair down and having some fun again.

Fellow Wilburys Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison weren't exactly slouches but it was Dylan's participation that made the collaboration historical and hysterical.
I played the first CD over and over. Couldn't get enough. On a novel writing trip out west I was playing the tape somewhere in Kansas and singing my heart out along with Bob on "Congratulations" "Congratulations for breaking my heart/Congratulations for tearing it all apart" with so much conviction that my soulmate and traveling partner Stephanie Jane told me to cut it out.


It used to be that the only element to my Dylan concert going experience that I did not like was the presence of so many Deadheads. I've never understood the connection between the artists- how fans of the noodling, doodling, hemphead band saw any relation to Bob's music. Over time I just got used to the distraction of the swirling dancing of the tie-dyed t-shirted crowd- put up with them to hear Bob play one more time.

I now think I'm starting to get it. Bob's fans tend to be fanatical- eating up every scrap he throws our way. Those newest over the top fans aren't unique- obsession has been part of the game long before A.J. Weberman started digging through Bob's trash to find clues to Lord knows what. Going to a Dylan concert now days I tend to see some familiar faces that I always see at every show. There's Francesca, the woman who strolls up and down the line of fans waiting to get into the show- carrying a sign pleading for someone to give her a free ticket to get in (and weirdly she always does), to the scary looking people whose eyes appear translucent and depraved. There's also a group of Dylan fans who want to be in the first row and will stand in line for many hours in order to do so. These fans have replaced the Deadheads. Their erratic spastic dancing at the show shows they have no concern about those around them. It's all about making a spectacle, how every Dylan concert is meant strictly as a mechanism for them to get closer to the Almighty Bob. A couple of Jennifer's friends fell into this group. They were willing to forgo any sightseeing in the terrific European city to sit on the hard concrete next to the venue all day long.

So the third show Jennifer went to see these friends and I ended up involuntarily holding our place in line having not eaten a bit of food all day long. (Back home I get paid plenty by the hour.) This might have clouded my vision of the third show- a show I thought lacked any trace of inspiration at all.

There were two highlights of the show for me. Bob's version of the ravages of war song, "John Brown" was note perfect. I loved how when he sang the line, "he stood so straight and tall" Bob stretched out his legs at his keyboard just as tall as he could. I also loved hearing the terrific "Mississippi" live for the first time. Every time he got to the chorus of the many wonderful lyrics of the song, how the only thing the singer admits to doing wrong was staying in Mississippi a day too long, my memory of standing in line to see the show made a humorless situation seem downright funny.

Bob's 1995 show at the Target Center was just another arena show except for one stellar moment. It came during a performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man" a song I've heard so many times it has ceased to mean anything to me at all. After a nothing special run through of the song Bob began a harmonica solo that seemed like more this is what we are doing every night dreck. But he kept blowing, kept trying to make this something memorable. And he did. As he blew note after note the whole thing crescendoed and built upon itself. I've never much liked Bob's harmonica playing but as his solo ebbed and flowed I couldn't believe my own ears. By the time it was finished I felt like the top of my head had been removed the insides had replaced by a brand new brain. It was like Bob had started lost and not knowing where he was headed and by the time he reached his final destination the journey had come to mean the meaning. It didn't matter where he ended up it was how he ended there that was the brilliance.


I was on my own to find my own way. And I was thankful for the chance. It was my fourth day in London and I finally had the chance to see things through my own eyes. Jennifer had joined her friends in trying to secure a spot that would ensure the "rail position" right in front. So I went to explore the government side of town. Buckingham Palace and the House of Parliament and Scotland Yard, I suddenly felt at home in a foreign land, suddenly felt like I found my voice at the same time that I hardly said a word to anyone all day long.

It was this day that I found the things in London that I absolutely loved. I loved the sign that declared "Humps in the Road- Next 250 yards." I loved passing a shady looking group of youths on my way to a train station that reeked of reefer- reminding me of a scene from To Sir with Love. I loved passing places with rows and rows of scooters. I loved passing geeky guys that all sounded like Rufus Wainwright or Giles from Buffy. I just walked and walked realizing that I couldn't be lost if I didn't know where I was going.

I got to Brixton around five and saw Jennifer with her friends a bit back in the line. On this night the venue's security did something different from the nights before. They opened the outside doors and let the crowd flow in, but at the inside doors they stopped people and let people go forth one by one. This method meant that those standing in line all day had no advantage over those that showed up much later. And this meant that I ended up with a better place to view the show than those who had been there all day long. It was as if Bob was telling the kids that life is too short to waste your time standing in line in such a historic city. You just never know, just can't know, when your time is up so you might as well discover everything new that you possibly can during this impossibly short journey.

The fourth show was as good as the third show was as bad. The only overlap between the two was the performance of the waltz "Waiting for You" from the Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood soundtrack that features the all too true lyric- "Happiness is just a state of mind/Any time you want to you can cross the state line..." The show's setlist was tremendous featuring carefully sung versions of "Shelter from the Storm" and "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." The more recent songs like "Million Miles" and "High Water (for Charlie Patton) were equally as sterling. There was also a one off cover of Fats Domino's "Blue Monday" that made me smile ear to ear.

What really made the show for me however was "Positively Fourth Street" that demonstrated what a brilliant live performer Bob is. His night before performance of one of my favorite kiss off songs was nothing special. His gruff vocals expressed a weariness and remorse that isn't as present in the recorded version. His effort this night however was entirely different. Bob sang the first two words of every verse with a sneer and emphasis that turned the song inside out. "YOU'VE GOT," "I KNOW," "DO YOU" were sung with such contempt that I couldn't help but severely grin. I even chortled outloud something that I rarely do.

In the late 80's Bob inexplicably took the role in a never to be released in theaters movie Hearts of Fire. He appropriately and convincingly played the part of Billy Parker a washed up rock and roller. The highlight of the movie was the scene where Billy skinny-dipped with the lead actress, singer Fiona.

The one redeeming thing that came out of that project was a BBC documentary called "Getting to Dylan." The documentary ends with a long interview with Bob that has him sketching his interviewer the entire time. The questions are blatantly insipid but watching the whole thing is a great opportunity to watch how Bob thinks. It was the most intimate opportunity to do so until last year when he released his entertaining memoir, that was likely equal parts fiction as non-fiction.

I bought a book a long time ago that was all about trying to figure out the meaning of Bob's song "Jokerman." The author writes about the Biblical references of the song and tries to pass it all off as some great yearning to discover the meaning of life. Reading it though, I saw through the ruse. I believe Bob when he said he is just a song and dance man. Everything he does is done with a cynical dose of skepticism and humor. He knows his fans dissect his every word, his every move, with sickening religious fervor. So he tends to throw us all a bone. But it all goes back to the beginning of his career. He isn't really Bob Dylan after all- it's all an act of some brilliant sort.


The final show fell on Thanksgiving not that the British would recognize that. As I woke up and strolled into a light rain I said to myself that Bob Dylan isn't much of a meteorologist. The show the night before featured the best version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" that I've ever heard. But what was falling from above wasn't a hard rain so much as it was just a nuisance, an excuse to spend all day inside a museum where infinity goes up on trial.

The British Museum is a place you must visit. Just like many museums its artifacts are a reminder that where we are now is nothing more than where those that walked before us were at a long time ago. But there is just so much stuff, so much to see that a one time visit can't be enough.

I was dying of hunger throughout my visit so I decided to cut my tour of the museum short in order to get a bite to eat. I wasn't hoping to find my traditional turkey and dressing meal so I thought about what I could do to replace those staples. Cowboys and Indians, England is known for its Indian population- how about some fancy curry delight? Sounded quite appropriate.

I saw an Indian restaurant on my walk to the museum. But to get there I had to cross a busy street, maneuvering myself past the many crosswalks and I needed a restroom badly so I made the fateful decision to go back first to our hostel and hope there was a good Indian restaurant nearby. I hopped on a train at a station that wasn't where I had gotten off in the morning. The train was empty- a weird sight- and when in the middle of the ride it came to a complete stop in the darkened tunnels and just sat there for ten minutes I wondered if I hadn't made a huge mistake. The wheels began to roll again just as my stomach barked out how unhappy it was.

At my hostel I asked the front desk person if he knew of any good Indian restaurants within walking distance. He gave me directions that I knew I couldn't follow but was more than eager to try. The rain was still falling and as I somehow managed to once again find my way to a place someone else mapped out for me I found that the restaurant was closed. I continued walking on hoping that curry food was somewhere close.

My stomach was unforgiving though so I ended up at an Iranian restaurant. The host coolly greeted me in the nearly empty place. I ordered a chicken and rice meal and waited for it to arrive. I waited some more and thought that my street view with a crosswalk signal telling people to "wait" was all too ironic for my present situation. People came and went with their orders long before my food was served. When I finally got it however, it turned out the best meal of my trip. On the restaurant's tinny speakers I swore I heard the Iranian version of Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." It almost made me yearn for the disco era.

I again arrived at the venue with a line already queued up. I went to the end of the line and the lady that arrived after me didn't stand behind me but next to the guy in front of me. It was apparent she wasn't with the guy as they never said a word to each other. I would have said something about her decision to not honor my place in line but I thought it bold that she would so blatantly ignore me. As she talked to other late arriving people I deduced she was Swedish and began to wonder if her method of lining up was the way things are done in Sweden.

Once the doors opened I somehow found myself in the first row clinging to the rail. I stood next to Barbara, a German woman, who told me a couple of interesting things about her life. She told me that when she was learning English in her German elementary school her music teacher made her class sing Bob's "With God on Our Side" that features the lyrics, "Though they murdered six million/In the ovens they fried/The Germans now too/Have God on their side." I told Barbara that was intriguing although I'm not sure she understood my mumbling English. She also told me all about her living day to day running a flea market and how all the money she doesn't spend on paying of food and her living accommodations she spends feeding her dog Achilles and going to see Bob.

The final show was a fitting end to the trip. The setlist was disappointingly similar to the previous show but the two step bluesy version of "Sugar Baby" lessened the disappointment considerably. The song makes great sense to my world back home- another lament of a world gone wrong. "You always got to be prepared but you never know for what/There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring/Love is pleasing, love is teasing, love's not an evil thing..."

At the end of every show, at the end of the encore finale of the Hendrix like "All Along the Watchtower" Bob and his band lined up mid-stage to take their bows amongst the wild cheers. During night three's performance the band looked toward the balcony where the Pogues' Shane MacGowan stood and wobbled, but the rest of the night they didn't seem to be looking anywhere at all, all standing with probably ordered blank looks on their faces. The most movement came from Bob himself who held two harmonicas chest high, one between his forefinger and his middle finger, the other held in the same hand between his ring finger and pinky. He seemed to gesture this handful toward someone in the audience but the movement was subtle just like all the notes played before.

These days Bob looks all the world like a mirror image of Vincent Price especially with the pencil thin mustache yet he moves like a combination of Charlie Chaplin and a cat. He's the type of person you just can't take your eyes off of and yet all the time you're watching him you're not quite sure you really see him. And that juxtaposition just makes you want to see him another time all the while realizing the next time may very well be your last chance because it can't go on forever.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Wiggle Wiggle

A few weeks beyond the day I turned 41 I'm about to embark on a journey of a different kind. I'm off to see four Bob Dylan shows at Brixton Academy in London, England.

I've never been to England though I've been accused of butchering the language a time or two in my life. Call me crazy, others have certainly done so, but when my friend Jennifer emailed me last summer and asked if I was interested in going to London to see Bob, I couldn't exactly say no even though Jennifer and I don't really know each other that well.

It's been Bob that has brought us together. We're both fans of the extreme nature. Dylan's music has spoken volumes to me and given what I know about Jennifer he seems to have reached her as well.

I can't speak for Jennifer though I know she speaks English more goodly than I do. For me though there's a reason that Bob Dylan's words have reached me like no other. This evening I turned on the shuffle option on my iPod and I spun the dial to the folder of all the nearly 500 Dylan songs I've loaded on to my mystery device. Songs from all periods of his career have randomly been playing and as I sit here typing away it has dawned on me just about nearly every one has changed me in some significant way. Dylan alone has hit upon that spot within where chaos turns to confusion, where confusion continually gives a chaotic life some type of meaning.

There's the unreleased bootleg version of "TV Talkin Song" from 1991's Under the Red Sky that Dylan's voice bottoms out at the bottom of his vocal register on words that are as scary as they are enlightening. He's playing the role of a crazy man railing against the evils of television although from the sincerity in the performance one can't be sure if he's playing at all. "The news of the day is on all the time/All the latest gossip, all the latest rhyme/Your mind is your temple keep it beautiful and free/Don't let an egg get laid in it by something you can't see..."

Will Dylan pull out "TV Talkin' Song" out of his bag of tricks during his five night stay in London? Doubt it. Wouldn't count on it. If there are two songs I sure wish he'd sing I'd have to say "Dirt Road Blues" and "Temporary Like Achilles" although I know neither one is likely to happen (don't think either has been performed live before).

I'm not sure where I'm at these days but if I could figure it out and put it down on paper obliterating all the morass of discord it might be something like the former... "Goin' walk on down that dirt road 'til I'm right beside the sun/Goin' walk on down until I'm right beside the sun/I'm gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone."

Of course the latter has just as much to say about how I feel these days. "Achilles is in your alleyway/He don't want me here/He does brag/He's pointing to the sky/And he's hungry, like a man in drag/How come you get someone like him to be your guard?/You know I want your lovin'/Honey, but you're so hard..." Like many of Dylan's lyrics it's hard to decipher what he might have been feeling and thinking about when he wrote all those universally cryptic words but when listening to him singing the song one knows exactly what he is singing about. That's one great slight of hand to be able to pull off.

Perhaps what I deep down wish Bob would do is exactly the opposite of what he did during a tour of Britain many years ago as captured in the documentary No Direction Home. Instead of pissing off his fans by plugging in and playing loud and electric, maybe now is the time to disappoint again and play everything in an unexpected fashion- all acoustic or all accordion.

Yes I'm going down that dirt road to some far off place. Yes it's temporary like achilles that part of me is as hardened as it is weakened and sensitive in trying to find new adventures that will help me forget about the old. What I'm more likely to hear those nights across the sea is what it feels like to be own my own with no direction home like a complete unknown, and how there must be somewhere out of here.

I've always felt like a stranger in a strange land but I have a feeling that being in the U.K. will reinforce that feeling greater than normal. That my reason for going is to hear the familiar voice of one that has made this place a bit more comfortable at the same time as he jars me with every word he sings, surely isn't lost on me.

Herr Schneider

It was almost a decade ago(!?) that my ex-friend Jennie Haire and I went down to Mankato to see Bob Dylan. I remember two things from that evening- 1) Bob did this goofy harmonica solo during "Tangled Up in Blue" that was as mesmerizing as it was eccentric and 2) that Jennie and I got lost somewhere in Eden Prairie as both of us needed a restroom BADLY.

It was Jennie's first Dylan show and I would love to know if she remembers that evening at all. Unfortunately I guess I'll never know that.

The plan was Jennie was going to move in and we were going to expand my house by fixing up the attic into an upper wing of my house. She wasn't much of a cat person but she had met Mr. Max and she liked him well enough, and just importantly he seemed to like her too.

The day we were hammering out the details we were walking near the fairgrounds and Como Park and Jennie was worried about meeting my best friend at the time, my favorite mother of two, the three of us had tickets to see Dylan play a show at nearby Midway Stadium- but for whatever reason Jennie walked right on out of my life never to utter another word to me.

Hurt? Um yes. This time beyond repair. Bitter? Nope, I made a conscious effort I wouldn't let that be the case.

A year or so later as I was reading the latest rantings of all those on the Internet Dylan newsgroup I was subscribed to another Jennifer (who had a University of Minnesota email address) posted a message saying she was a new Dylan fan and she was looking for help in starting her collection of live recordings.

I emailed this Jennifer and ended up sending her some shows I had. I didn't mention that if her first name had been different I probably would have ignored her posting and gone my merry way just like a little rabbit hopping away.

So do I find it at all ironic that as most of you are reading this that I'm walking around London with the second Jennifer as I'm wearing the first Jennifer's sneakers- with each and every step a reminder of all that has gone wrong since that fateful day? And of course the very reason I'm in this whole other place is to once again see Bob Dylan?

It's been a lifelong affliction that I have a tendency to connect the dots that otherwise have no other connection than the little that goes on inside my noggin but if there is one thing I won't forget, one thing I can't overcome it's that within days of when Jennie Haire walked away Dylan's brilliant Time Out of Mind came out, with all its depressing imagery of walking and walking away and more than any other music I've ever known or experienced, the songs spoke volumes to me.

Just like the time my best friend at the time, former Cheapo employee John Baynes and I were shopping at the Golden Valley Down in the Valley when the record store clerks selected Dylan's not yet released Down in the Groove for the in-store play and it was the CD I was holding out for before I did whatever I decided to do next and then Bob's voice was singing "When you sad and your lonely and you haven't got a friend, just remember that death is not the end..." Johnny B. turned to me and told me to stop listening.

But I haven't been to do that. No matter what else has gone haywire in my life I still find myself listening to others, and for better or worse, listening to Bob Dylan. Yes I still wonder what Jennie Haire, now Jennie Johnson, is up to, long after the expiration date of our friendship came and went, and yes I'm now probably wandering around some distance street with another Jennifer as we bide time between Bob Dylan shows, but if I know one thing I know this: that voices, steps, walking and walking away, time, and confusion will some day cease to confuse me. And then sadly it will be too late.

Monday, November 7, 2005

The Girl Next Door

If you want to make a lot of money consider inventing some software that automatically synchronizes your passwords for you. At my work I have a network password, an email password, a password into the voter registration system, a password into the payroll system. Each of these passwords expires but none of them expire at the same time so it's difficult to keep track of them. What I end up doing, like many others, is writing my passwords on a sheet of paper that I keep near my computer. Kind of defeats the point of having them in the first place.

There are rules for passwords- they have to be a certain length, many make you include a combination of letters and numbers, and you're not supposed to pick anything obvious like the name of your three-legged cat.

If a hacker were trying to bust into my computer they'd likely have a difficult time guessing my password since I interchangeably use the first and last name of a person that no one (besides the blue-eyed editor) knows was even on my radar. Back in the day I had a huge crush on her that even had its own theme music- Frank Sinatra's "The Girl Next Door."

"The moment I saw her smile I knew she was just my style/My only regret is we never met/for I dream of her all the while.../But she doesn't know I exist/No matter how much I persist/So it's clear to see there's no hope for me/Though I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue and she lives at 5133/How can I ignore the girl next door?/I love her more than I can say/Doesn't try to please me/Doesn't even tease me/And she never sees me glance her way..."

I went to a party this weekend. I was chatting with a group of friends when she walked in. Our eyes immediately connected and I think she was as surprised as I was seeing each other again. She immediately came over near where I was standing and stood quietly looking for someone to talk with. Smooth as I am I of course turned in another direction. She looked good. A little bit heavier than before, her hair slightly longer but she looked even better than I remembered.

Later on as she was talking to a couple of people I tried to listen in to the conversation. She was telling them that she doesn't own a cell phone- that she is holding out because she doesn't see the need. Her words proved that I was attracted to something other than her good looks. I was attracted because she seemed somewhat socially awkward, yet perceptive. I was attracted because she has a great smile and laugh and she was always too shy or too snobby to say anything to me and I could relate to all that.

She of course has a big hunk of diamond on her married finger but still I thought about going over and talking about my new favorite song, Fiona Apple's "Red Red Red" that has the great lyrics, "I don't understand about diamonds/And why men buy them/What's so impressive about a diamond?/Except the mining..."

The whole scene reminded me of pushing the shuffle option on my iPod and having a song come up that I hadn't heard for a long time and remembering how much I used to love that song and how it used to be a part of my every day experience. There are different songs now, songs that give meaning to all I currently experience and feel but somehow none of them capture the same thing as that old song once did. A great song can remind you of all that has passed, all that has changed and in a brief moment force you to think about the roads you decided to take and what alternatives might have existed had you chosen another route.

Our eyes met a couple more times but she eventually walked over to another part of the room and then out the door meaning the only role she'll continue playing in my life is that of my password into a whole other world.