Tag Archives: genius

Music Review: ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ by Bob Dylan

A retro-review of a classic album..

Thoughts inspired by the music.

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Well, I try my best
To be just who I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

– “Maggie’s Farm”

Many confuse the reality of old with the definition of classic. Old is old. Many of us have, or are beginning to, understand just how much fun that is. A classic maintains its relevance over time. It is not of its time but, rather, for all time.

And, so, the Nobel committee conferred the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Bob Dylan, who has referred to himself as both “a song and dance man” and “just a guitar player.” Bono (the lead singer of U2) said in Rolling Stone that Dylan “busted through the artifice to get to the art.” [Or, perhaps, the heart. -ed.] Many people enjoy any opportunity to suggest that Dylan cannot sing (to which I refer you to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” from Greatest Hits Volume II, “Love Minus Zero” from MTV Unplugged, Blood on the Tracks. the outtakes included on Tell Tale Signs, such as “Girl From the Red River Shore,” etc., etc., etc.) But, people are welcome to their opinion.

And that is the point. The Nobel committee shared its opinion. Allow me to share mine.

When I was growing up, there was this concept called “The Canon.” It was what every educated person needed to read. Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the like. Well, my father was an English major and, like any good son, I could not imagine anything better than being like him. Now I realize I never stood a chance. He remains one helluva man. I can only hope people speak as highly of me when all is said and done as they do of him. Fat chance, but I do my best. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I love you, Dad.

So, I became an English major, and I got angry with business majors and engineers who never read anything. Dammit, how can you get a degree without reading Hamlet? Everybody has to read this stuff during their formal education or they never will. Well, I was wrong. First, you have to allow people to willingly expose themselves to ideas, imagine different alternatives, and see that their reality is not the only reality. Example: I read Moby Dick in my 30s. It was among the most tedious and disagreeable texts that I ever read – voluntarily or by force (Tristam Shandy and Clarissa excluded). Others would argue that it is great literature. Well, put this in front of a 16-year-old kid (it was traditionally a novel included in the sophomore high school curriculum), and don’t be surprised if young adults refuse to read “literature” again.

Recent events have re-energized those who are inclined to take their shots at Dylan. Perhaps some are envious that their ideas do not resonate with the soul to the extent that many of his do. I cannot help that. Let me remind you that Fitzgerald was oft criticized in his time as being “too autobiographical.” Does anyone wish that they had written The Great Gatsby? I sure as hell do.

So what is literature, if not a tool to provoke one to think and feel ideas and emotions that they have not previously experienced via their everyday existence? What is it if it does not spark in one the imagination to move beyond what they thought possible? Emotion sparks thought; rather than the other way around.

Many associate Dylan and 1965 with the Newport Jazz Festival and the instant that he “went electric.” But between March 22, 1965, and May 16, 1966 – 14 months, Dylan released three of the most seminal pieces of art of the 20th/21st century, these being Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Arguably, the thoughts, themes, and ideas that resonate here had not been expressed with this intensity in this time frame and in a manner that so challenged the social mores. No other works exposed the nature of the human soul so candidly since the 1490s (if you get my drift).

In The Mayor of McDougal Street, Dave Von Ronk, who was considered the king of Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the late 50s/early 60s, addressed the hidden sore spot of Dylan’s rise to fame. He said, essentially, that if you are the guy who writes “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” then you are the guy, period. Enough said.

“Hard Rain” was first released on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. And one could turn to “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan to suggest that his transformation from folk-protest singer to humanist-muse was not only in progress, but already completed.

Humans, however, do not tolerate change easily. So Bob decided to discard the subtle and get even more explicitly in our faces.

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The reason why Bringing It All Back Home blew the roof off of it all is “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Bob Dylan never claimed to be a poet but he wrote/sang this: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Include one of the greatest love songs ever written in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – which most people, other than Rick Nelson fans, don’t even know exists: “The bridge at midnight trembles/ The country doctor rambles/Bankers’ nieces seek perfection/Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring/The wind howls like a hammer/The night blows cold and rainy/My love she’s like some raven/At my window with a broken wing.”

Then there’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which includes lines such as, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying,” “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” “I’ve got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” and “While money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

The album ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a brilliant effort in and of itself, but even more poignant when it is revealed to be a bridge to Highway 61.

And so, after this, ridiculously great works such as “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again),” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shooting Star,” “Mississippi,” and many, many more phenomenal artistic creations – most of which the general populace has not had the time to absorb or brain capacity to digest, live in our collective psyche. And Dylan continues to create and perform.

Make of what it what you will. That’s your right. But, while placing poetry against music may have begun a long time ago, everyone in the music industry that followed Dylan has pointed to him as the transformational artist of this century and the pivot point for all that came next. (Rolling Stone magazine labeled Highway 61 as “The album that changed everything!”) And, the last time I checked, music was an art form.

For those who are hung up because Dylan is not a “singer,” in some purist’s definition, ask yourselves this: “How does it feel?”

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Again, for those who argue that Bob Dylan is not a poet, he never claimed to be. But he invented his own language; a language that changed the world. Is inventing a language worthy of the Nobel prize? You decide.

Genius is by definition untouchable by the rest of us, which is why it is genius. Artists possess the courage to attack and slay conventional wisdom, which makes them unique. Bob Dylan ended Bringing It All Back Home with “Baby Blue,” whose final lines are: “Strike another match, go start anew/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Indeed.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel; a story about life, love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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No Regrets

Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy by Judith Watt (Harper Design, $35.00, 288 pages)

“Alexander McQueen has been referred to as the fashion world’s darling, its rebel and pioneer.   He was all of these things…”   Daphne Guinness

“He likes to call his rivals ‘pretentious’…  (his arrogance is) his own worst flaw, second only to his ignorance.”   Daily Mail (London)

“Give me time and I’ll give you a revolution.”   Alexander McQueen

The fashion designer Alexander McQueen was a number of figures in one.   First, he was a fashion visionary – a man who saw the future of the industry and put his daring vision on stage years before the world was ready to see it.   Second, he was an infant terrible, a terribly antagonistic figure who loved challenging authority and upsetting others for seemingly no reason.   (In one instance, he began a fashion show exactly one hour late so that he could see the invited guests squirm.)   Third, he was literally a mama’s boy.   McQueen could so little handle the thought of living without his beloved mother that he committed suicide between the day of her death and her funeral service.

If it’s not already clear, McQueen was both a genius and a troubled figure.   This in itself would present problems for any biographer or tribute writer.   In Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy, Judith Watt does her best to present a calm portrait of a fashion designer most known for his “over the top runway shows,” and sometimes over the top personal life.   If a reader was to simply read the words of this generally complimentary account (clearly intended to present a positive spin on McQueen), he or she might feel the pro-McQueen case was aptly presented.   However, at least half of McQueen is filled with visual images of McQueen’s work and most of them are rather startling and uncompromising, if not unpleasant.   Strike that, they’re mostly unpleasant.

“You’ve got to know the rules to break them.   That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules…”   Alexander McQueen

“I want women to be afraid of the women I dress.”   Alexander McQueen

I began reading this account in the corner with the group that thinks of the late designer as a boat-rocking genius.   One might argue that he was a rock and roll designer, always seeking to rile up the establishment even when it was all for show (and for controversy resulting in P.R., resulting in becoming and being known for being controversial).   But the great majority of the images displayed in this self-proclaimed “in-depth look at the most controversial designer of a generation” are so often off-putting that it’s clear why McQueen had to issue this semi-apology for his work:  “I know I’m provocative.   You don’t have to like it…  you do have to acknowledge it.”

The release of this volume is unlikely to alienate existing fans of the late designer, but it is certainly not going to win him any converts.   It’s probable that some will pick up this book and rapidly set it down.   To give McQueen his due, he designed fashion that was – to use his own prophetic words, “ahead of its time.”   And he remained true to his vision first through failure and then success.

McQueen’s wild, unbridled form of genius sometimes led him to seem like a visitor from another planet – still he was a man, an artist of passion.   It will undoubtedly be many decades before his rightful place in fashion history will be determined.   But Alexander McQueen was fully correct when he told the world:  “If you don’t have passion for something, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Only A Pawn In Their Game

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady (Broadway Books, $16.00, 432 pages)

“(Bobby Fischer was) the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens.”   Mikhail Tal

“(He was) perhaps the most mythologically shrouded figure in chess.”   Garry Kasparov

“I am the best player in the world.”   Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer’s life was proof positive that genius often lies close to madness.   The boy who once went to high school in Brooklyn with Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond made chess a household game in the U.S., and at one time he was one of the two best known people in the world – along with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.   Fischer was a child prodigy at chess and he became a grandmaster (at 15) and World Champion who, notably, would win every chess match or tournament he completeted from the age of 23 onward.

Rumors began to spread that Bobby and his mother were estranged…  (However,) he did remain close to his mother…  they could agree to disagree.

Frank Brady decades ago wrote the then-seminal biography of Fischer, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, and he uses this opportunity to both update and correct so-called facts about the life of the chess legend.   He also tells us much about the relationship between Fischer and his mother Regina.   Most of the bios of Fischer have claimed that he and his mother were estranged, which is simply incorrect.   As Brady notes, Fischer was actually close to – and a lot like – Regina:  “As Regina had proselytized all her life for various causes – always liberal and humanistic ones – so, too, Bobby (became) a proselytizer.   The pawn did not stray too far from the queen.”

The misunderstandings about Bobby and Regina appear to stem from the fact that they had very different positions on political issues.   However, they were able to set these aside in order to maintain a respectful personal relationship.

This is, to be certain, an account of Fischer’s late-in-life madness – his “state of increasingly frequent paranoia” – which destroyed his reputation as a gaming genius.   Although Fischer was half-Jewish, he became a raving anti-Semite and a foe of the United States government.   To his credit, Brady places all of this in perspective, noting that Fischer was battling a form of mental illness that he could not accept or control.   Fischer, for example, was living virtually penniless on the streets of skid row in Los Angeles in 1975 when he rejected a $5 million dollar purse to defend his World Championship title against Anatoly Karpov.   It still seems shocking:  “…five million dollars!  It was the largest refusal of a prize fund in sports history.”   (Emphasis in the original.)

It is hard for Brady to recreate the context of a time when chess was a spectator sport; a time when 10,000 fans and spectators would show up to watch Bobby Fischer play Tigran Petrosian or Miguel Quinteros.   What Brady does extremely well – a major failing with most bios of talented figures – is to detail for the reader exactly how smart, how intelligent Fischer was in his prime.   So how smart was Fischer?   Well, before playing Boris Spassky for the World Championship, he demonstrated that he had memorized every move made by Spassky and his opponents in 355 games of chess – over 14,000 individual moves!   Fischer could recite every move of every one of these matches the way another person might recite a poem or the lyrics to a song…  But, for him, it was not a way of showing off – it was simply a tool of his intellectual trade.   Fischer was nothing in his life if not the most prepared individual who ever sat down before a chessboard.

Absent the behaviors created or caused by his mental illness, Fischer would likely have died as the  most beloved chess player of all time.   He was certainly loved by his great rival Spassky, who said at Fischer’s death, “My brother is dead.”

This is a beautifully-detailed and well-rounded biography of “America’s greatest prodigy,” a man who died near “the edge of madness.”   Endgame checkmates any all of the other bios of the brilliant but troubled man who may well have been the greatest chess player of all time.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Bobby Fischer’s IQ was 181.

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Sunshine Superman

The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk (Anchor, $15.00, 400 pages)

“Greatness was not a thing to Ted Williams.   It was a process.”

Are some people born with more talent and ability than others?   For as long as most of us can recall, the premise of nature vs. nurture has been used to describe the two major components that influence a person’s life.   Best-selling author David Shenk makes it his task to showcase a different, somewhat overlooked alternative concept in The Genius in All of Us.   He believes that hard work and practice are critical to success, not something you either have or not.   As he states, “Talent is not a thing; it’s a process.”

This book is more than what it appears at first glance.   It is not one man’s attempt at coining a new phrase or repackaging old ideas in a new survey-book format.   Rather, Shenk has spent time gathering information and gives credit where credit is due.   He thoughtfully presents the reader with a manageable amount of information geared at unseating the status quo regarding genius, or the lack thereof.   He is direct in his take on what has been fed to the public over the last 100-plus years – personal concepts that have not stood the test of rigorous scientific study, sensationalism and, lastly, letting slackers off easily by claiming that genius is a genetic gift that is passed on to a person.

If you choose to read the book in the original Doubleday hardcover edition, which was this reviewer’s experience, it is worth taking a few moments to examine the book without the dust jacket.   In doing so, please observe the care and deliberate effort that went into the creation of the volume.

The physical proportions, type font, graphics and paper stock (even its slight buff color) lend an air of timelessness.   What better way to present a concept that is meant to be taken seriously?   The text is divided into two main parts followed by “The Evidence” – an equal number of pages devoted to elaboration on the sources and points made in parts one and two, along with comments by the author.   Clearly, Shenk and the team he brought together to produce the book devoted their best efforts to showcasing an alternative to what he calls a wrong-headed approach to genius and success that has been imbedded in the minds of the general populace.

There is one new term, “interactionism,” that is used to characterize the concept of genetics interacting with environment.   An easy-to-remember shorthand for this is G x E.   The reader is advised that plasticity in humans, even as early as during gestation, guarantees that no ability is set or fixed.   Just as Shenk advises that practice and hard work are required to bring about the best results, the reader needs to know that attention and open-minded commitment is required on his or her part to fully realize the value within The Genius in All of Us.

David Shenk is a master at writing and sets a pace that allows the reader to consider the concept of G x E.   His clear voice is consistently authoritative; however, he never casts the reader as a lesser person.   Shenk carefully sets out the premise of G x E using incremental steps to coax the reader’s acceptance of how thought has unfolded over time within the academic community.   Helpful citations referencing prior chapters reinforce the learning process.

There are no great leaps in thinking or pushy theories, just well-documented scientific thought and exploration.   Shenk does his due diligence examining findings from dissenters; he demonstrates where they miss the mark.   The Genius in All of Us is filled with hope and is a call to action that fosters flexibility in thinking and a commitment to growth and success.   This is a book worthy of a reader’s time, attention and contemplation.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk.

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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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