Tag Archives: folk music

Visions of Johanna

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial. – Bob Dylan from 1966’s “Visions of Johanna”

Cutting Edge 5

Fourteen Months

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It took Bob Dylan, his lyrics, his voice, his imagination, and his various ensembles 14 months to create some of the most unbelievable music and three of the all-time greatest albums in history.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Bob Dylan 1965-66 The Very Best of the Cutting Edge is one of three versions of the recording sessions that changed the music world and redefined art in the 20th Century. Those of you who do not have children in college might opt for the more deluxe versions and spend over $100 for the bells and whistles – and more power to you – but, for most of us, this two-disc version is plenty sufficient to remind us why we originally fell in love with this sound and these songs and why they turned the music world topsy-turvy.

Included here are 36 out-takes, alternate versions, and works in progress that morphed into the second holy trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (“…one of those albums that, quite simply, changed everything.” Rolling Stone), and Blonde on Blonde.

The original working titles, that were at times jokes, are a part of the story, as is the experimentation of enormous talent in the room, as they aimed for the precision of sound and style that was floating around in Bob’s head.

Along the lines of “You had me with hello,” one of the most underrated love songs of all time, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” kicks it off and there is no looking back. The rest is an endless stream of fun. “She Belongs to Me” is a keeper, and it is interesting that, 5 decades later, this is the second song of the most recent set live set lists, and current drummer, George Recile, employs mallets to move the band along, almost as if it is a march. There is so much texture to this music that the sound continues to evolve, seemingly without end.

Cutting Edge back

Back to 1965.

Some of the drum work of Bobby Gregg, particularly on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is quite interesting, as is some of the guitar work of Robbie Robertson, although The Hawk’s (soon to be The Band) studio work did not mesh with Bob’s perspective for these albums, and none of these takes made it to vinyl.

But one could go on and on. Favorites will be in the eye – or, rather, the ears – of the beholder, and there are many, many to be had. It is all most interesting, and the gems included here are too numerous to mention in a track by track format.

The liner notes are also intriguing. While for the diehard Bob-Heads much of it is familiar territory, the take and telling of the stories is absorbing. Longtime Dylan chronicler Sean Wilentz adds his take, and it goes without saying that Al Kooper must again remind us that he snuck on the Highway 61 album after recognizing his inferiority to guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Kooper was informed that he was not an adequate organ player yet, despite all of this, Dylan instructed producer Tom Wilson to turn that famous organ mix up on the timeless “Like A Rolling Stone.” Listening to the evolution of this song alone, from waltz to classic is probably enough to justify a purchase.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

The reviewer received a copy of this release from Santa Claus.

Mr. Moyer is a public school district superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel. He remains employed and married despite having seen Bob Dylan perform live 36 times.

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After The Rain

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald (DaCapo, $15.99, 272 pages)

“And so we’ll drink the final toast/That can never be spoken:/Here’s to the heart that’s wise enough/To know when it’s been broken.” Dave Van Ronk, “Last Call”

Mayor-of-MacDougal-Street-A-Memoir

Largely Unheralded Van Ronk Puts Interesting Life and Career on Paper with Ease and Authority

When a book begins like this, it’s a pretty good sign the reader is in for one helluva ride:

Back at Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo, where I went to school, along with the rack, thumbscrew, and bastinado, they had a curious custom of announcing grades in the final exams and then making everybody hang around for an extra week before turning us loose for summer vacation. Presumably they did this to reinforce our belief in Purgatory.

And so begins The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk’s outstanding first-person memoir (finished after his death by Elijah Wald).

While there are the tales of the boozing and other types of mildly unseemly behavior that one might expect, the book is first and foremost about the musician and the music. Van Ronk tells of his complete disinterest in school; how he started out as a jazz guitarist; was coaxed into singing; became a ringleader of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the late 50s and early 60s; his migration out West because that’s where there were more, higher paying gigs; a short-lived attempt at a rock band in the late 60s; and his continued singing and song writing career that slipped largely under the radar from the 70s on.

Along the way, there’s some interesting political commentary, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the book is about the politics of the folk era. The book is about the music.

Mayor McDougal

There are stories of late night guitar sessions, his love of literature, and a few shenanigans and narrow escapes, but what is most interesting is the context in which other great musicians are discussed as Van Ronk’s tale unfolds. You get just about everybody: Odetta, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Leadbelly, Mike Porco, Izzy Young, Bob Dylan – of course – and many, many more. You get places: Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, Gaslight Cafe, White Horse Tavern, Kettle of Fish, and more. You get songs: some more obscure such as “Duncan and Brady” and “Dink’s Song,” and others that one might expect such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

The cover of the book states, “The life story that inspired the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.” For modern movie goers who might not otherwise know about Greenwich Village and many of the seminal performing artists referred to in these pages, that might be a hook, but for any serious music lover, this book is a must read, movie or no movie.

The last chapter brings much of the scene into perspective. Of “Hard Rain,” Van Ronk writes, “The tune was borrowed from ‘Lord Randall,’ and it was in the same question-and-response form, but the imagery was right out of the symbolist school. It was not a flawless work – the ‘clown who cried in the alley’ always sounded to me like the verbal equivalent of a painting on velvet – but the overall effect was incredible. I heard him (Dylan) sing it for the first time during one of the hoot nights at the Gaslight, and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.”

For those who were envious when Dylan hit it big, Van Ronk simply states, “All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ – for the first time.” And, of himself, he states acceptingly, “I have never made a fortune – as a matter of fact, I have often been deeply in debt – but dammit, this is what I wanted to do, and I have been able to do it for almost fifty years, and I haven’t been able to do anything else, and what more can I ask? I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Yes, Dave, it is.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator, drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

“Dave was the man on MacDougal Street when I arrived in the Village over forty years ago, and he is once more raucously ruling the street in these pages.” Tom Paxton

“Brilliant writing.” Christine Lavin

“In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.” Bob Dylan

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Coming Up Next…

Mayor of McDougal Street (nook book)

A review of The Mayor of McDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald.

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A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Positively 4th Street

Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Hyperion, $26.99, 383 pages)

“Hibbing, Minnesota, is the site of the biggest man-made hole in the world, an existential allegory if there ever was one…  Hibbing cannibalized itself…  If the biggest hole in the world had an effect on (Dylan), why hadn’t it shown up in any of his songs?   Or has it?   Is that what he’s been doing, filling it up?”  

David Dalton’s overly-psychedelic look at Bob Dylan never comes close to telling the reader who “the real” Dylan is.   There are a number of problems with this account, the chief one being that, instead of de-mythologizing the legend and presenting a human being, Dalton regurgitates every myth in circulation and then proceeds to create additional ones.   The all-too-clever Gonzo-journalism style, 45 years or so out-of-date, is often painful to read, as when Dalton writes about “…the hallucinatory negativity of Blonde on Blonde.”   Really?   (What album was he listening to?)

It gets worse, as when Dalton refers to Hank Williams, one of young Bob’s first idols, as “the hillbilly Shakespeare” (groan).   Although Dalton may now and then redeem himself (like when he notes that Dylan looks at America with an immigrant’s eye), the sometimes-fascinating portions of this work are fully overwhelmed by its dreadful aspects.   It may appeal to some – such as those who love middle-school style humor – but the writer tries much too hard to be as hip as Dylan’s old album liner notes.   Not recommended for hardcore Dylan fans, although some quirky readers who like humor and sarcasm presented in the guise of serious musical criticism may be inexplicably drawn to it.

All in all, this is Positively 4th Street.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note:  As an example of Dalton’s excessively strange style of covering Dylan’s recording career, he comes up with eight so-called reasons why Dylan’s two-record set Self-Portrait was relatively unsuccessful.   He cites as reason 5 the fact that someone failed to tell the Byrds that they were scheduled to play on the album, and so they “flew home.”   This is not factual nor is it funny.

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Tangled Up in Blue

It is often said that music serves as the soundtrack of our lives.   So how about setting a sports-related story to the words and music of Bob Dylan?   This is the interesting premise for the story Life and Life Only by first-time novelist Dave Moyer.   Life is the story of Dan Mason, a 92 miles-per-hour fastball pitcher in high school who turns down a major league contract in order to attend college at the University of Georgia.   Mason gambles that the MLB will be there waiting for him after he completes a successful pitching career with the Bulldogs.   What he doesn’t expect – although secretly has wished for – is to meet a perfect Southern belle.   Mason, in fact, meets and marries Anne Jean Simpson whose beauty is obvious to all.

Of course, there’s a danger in getting exactly what you want out of life, and the reader will wonder what’s less likely, that Mason will make the big leagues or remain married to Anne Jean?   Let’s just say that life throws a few curveballs Mason’s way, which is why he must come to terms with disappointment and loss.   What makes the telling of the story fun is to see the events in Mason’s life set in space and time by Dylan’s music.   And, to some extent, Dylan serves as a source of strength for Mason, because Dan attends Dylan concerts as a means of rejuvenating and recharging his life and his faith.

Yes, there’s a touch of the spiritual in this tale, although Moyer handles it so tactfully that it is not going to bother the non-church going reader.   Near the end, something happens that can be viewed as either a near miracle or as something simply meant to happen.   Perhaps, in Bob Dylan’s words, it’s a simple twist of fate.

I hesitate to divulge any more of the plot lines.   (Sometimes less is more; sometimes it is better to say of a review that “nothing was revealed.”)   I’ll just add that it’s not too late to order this book for Christmas from Amazon for anyone on your list who is a Boomer, a rabid Dylan fan, a Byrds or Joni Mitchell fan, a sports fan, a baseball player, teacher or human being.

Good work by Moyer with this semi-autobiographical tale (“I like to say that all of it is true and none of it is true…”), which is why we’re looking forward to the sequel, Younger Than That Now.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the author. Published by iUniverse.

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