Bob Dylan, Frederick, Maryland, August
I remember how I first got into Dylan. My Uncle George would pepper his conversation with profound folkisms occasionally, seeding the soil of banal "how've you been" family visits with words that surprised me into attention at the jaded age of 15. Now Uncle George is a smart guy, but these aren't his own, are they? You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, but it's nice to have someone to tell you that the wind exists, you know? That was Uncle George for me. Many an epithet can be tossed upon an insecure pimpled little teenager at his weakest and "unmanliest" of moments, but "the son's [sic] not yellow, it's chicken" might be the best. He didn't so much play me any Dylan songs as he would recite them, word for word-and if you know Dylan you know what that awkward silence was like for everybody else since Uncle George would take his good old time elocutionizing the entirety of "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," monopolizing the conversation and throwing sharp dagger looks at anyone making a gesture to interrupt with conversation. Not me. I was enthralled.
So I bought Times They Are A-Changin'. Where else to begin? And it was revolutionary-in its time and in my time, for me. I couldn't believe this existed. The title track will last forever, no matter how peaceable and democratic life might get (which, realistically, is an unthinkable probability at this point). It's revolutionary because one's adolescence is always revolutionary, the Chaturbate revolution all of us strike out into because we are finally becoming our own persons, developing identity on our own and for ourselves alone, no matter how reluctant we might be from fear of the unknown that is within ourselves. "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command." That lasts forever in every human being that makes it to puberty. That is the essential revolution, the essential uprising that begins our lives as real and authentic human beings (if it is possible to actually be authentic. But that's Existentialism, I suppose. This essay is about the Bob Dylan show in Frederick, Maryland. Sorry about the tangent.).
"The Ballad of Hollis Brown," "Restless Farewell," and, Christ, "Boots of Spanish Leather": all so complex and so simple. So obscure to my experience thus far but so completely about and for me. I never thought I would experience heartbreak like I experienced it in "Boots of Spanish Leather." But I have since.
Dylan started the show with "Maggie's Farm." Ah, Bringing It All Back Home! Still my favorite Dylan album. It was the cross-over album from folk to rock, so punk because he did it backward. He could have begun the album with the solo guitar and harmonica acoustic songs, but he decided to begin by pissing off all of his die-hard folky fans. That driving acoustic guitar strum that begins the album certainly felt odd to the album's first listeners in '65, but the electric onslaught that charges apace at second 5 of the song certainly blew listeners back in their chairs upon first placing the needle so lovingly and hopefully upon the vinyl disc, expecting the folk hero to please so complacently again. Dylan shook the music world when he first started off, but he announces only later on Bringing It All Back Home that he not busy being born is busy dying, and Dylan has been busy being born again and again throughout his career.
About two-thirds through the show, Dylan played "Highway 61." Uncle George's particular favorite:
Well God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."
Abe said "Man you must be putting me on."
God said, "No!" Abe say, "What??"
God said, "You can do what you want Abe,
But the next time you see me comin' you better run."
Abe said, "Where you want this killin' done."
God said, "On Highway 61."
That's the first time I ever thought about religion, really. See, I was raised Catholic, where we treasure the stories of the Bible without ever really reading them. Dylan read the Bible, knew it so well that he could do, over and over again, what all really thoughtful and brilliant artists do: use it and make it their own. The stories-so universally known in this oh-so-Christian nation-can become all of ours. They're there for the taking. But no folk or rock musician or song writer has ever made them their own so much as Dylan has and still does. He's always sacrilegious and devoutly true, no matter how much he mocks and mimics those Jasmin live tales, no matter how tall he exposes them to be.
Dylan, sadly, didn't play any songs from Another Side of Bob Dylan at the concert. That's probably my second favorite Dylan album. "Ballad in Plain D." That song helped me through my first real breakup with a long time girlfriend. In reality, she didn't have such a vicious sister, but in reality she did, because my reality became that song and its plot became my own. I didn't really love her like I thought I did-had felt for years she was holding me back. But still, when my friends from the prison they asked unto me, "How good, how good does it feel to be free?" I answered them most mysteriously, "Are the birds free from the skyway?" That is what it was like, even thought it wasn't. But not this time, Mama, 'cause you've been on my mind.
Dylan encored with "Like a Rolling Stone," that most archetypal of songs in his canon. He also played "Positively 4th Street." My father lived on 4th Street in Monroe, Michigan, and he told me how much he treasured that song for that reason. Both songs are such eviscerating love-hate songs. They are hate songs obviously-revenge songs that Jacobian playwrights would have been in awe of. But vengeful, stabbing lyrics like that are impossible without love. Revenge really is a human reaction to love lost. You want to hurt the one you love because of the unbearable hurt from losing the beloved. Dylan, with all of his obfuscations, is possibly the most human of songwriters.
Most of Dylan's set was rollicking rhythm n' blues, but he softened up a bit half-way through the set singing "Girl from North Country." Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine. Dylan sings about true love so often. In his notes to the Biograph collection, Cameron Crowe makes the astute point that with all of the different forms that Dylan has explored, he has written more love songs than any other type of song. So true. Look at the albums. Blood on the Tracks and Desire and Oh, Mercy and Time Out of Mind, and even Freewheelin'. Full of songs of love won and lost. I've been listening to Blood on the Tracks a lot lately. Isn't it essential to do so when you've lost love? Isn't it very strange and almost wicked to listen to anything but Blood on the Tracks when love is lost? "Bird on a horizon, sitting on a fence. He's singing his song for me at his own expense. And I'm just like that bird."
Mission of Burma
Of course the music was good. Jens Lekman, with his shiny brass instruments and the white-frocked Swedish women who played them, proved to be the only act I watched from start to finish, although that may have been because his act lasted a tragically brief twenty-five minutes. ("I'll find a park somewhere and play more songs if anyone wants to come," he promised, and I would've gone, too, if it weren't for Pitchfork's no-reentry policy.) Mission of Burma was there to remind us that we youngsters with our irony and our asymmetrical haircuts still have lots to learn from our rockingest elders. Danielson - evangelical members of the Sufjan Stevens International Friendship Society* - made fools of us all by braving the heat in full-out handmade navy blue uniforms and playing the xylophone.** There was a tent with a full slate of DJs from Sao Paolo to Detroit so we could take a break from making snobby faces and dance for a while.
I just don't think that the music was the whole point. I don't think it was an affront to the spirit of Pitchfork, or to my thirty dollars, that I didn't want to throw elbows and camp out in the stuffy throngs to be Right Up Front when it-band number seventeen strutted on stage.
I'll admit even this
I was nowhere near the main stage when Os Mutantes started to play. In fact, I was barely inside the park. My caravan had reconvened in a dark corner, between the poster tent and an armored truck, and we were waiting for our last stray member to wander out of the Diplo show. We picked at damp blades of grass and ate Clif bars and vegan chili. We decided who was riding home with whom. I was singing along to "Baby" under my breath and thinking about how sad I was to be missing the concert of the century for the sake of some fickle and antsy friends - then I was thinking about why it was I wanted to see Os Mutantes anyway, and how much time I had really spent listening to Os Mutantes. And it wasn't too long after I realized that it was really two songs - and the two charming men who had loved those songs and introduced them to me - that I really cared about at all, when one of those men walked right by the fence, looking lost and stoned. I called his name, he asked if I had any Ibuprofen, and we awkwardly hugged.
And that was that. It was music festival magic.
And I don't want to hear how many kids in reconstructed t-shirts and sad worn-through chucks would've killed for the chance to see Os Mutantes. I don't want you to tell me that I dumped a plate full of cheesecake into the garbage disposal in plain view of some seriously hungry people.
I don't care. I had a good time at Pitchfork. And next year I want to play some kickball with John Darnielle. I want to eat a popsicle and let David Berman and the Silver Jews sing me to sleep in the shade. And I want to relive the moment, leaving the festival, that I danced in the street to "A Minha Menina" and listened to the strains of the festival's final song as it followed us onto the El and westward into Chicago's steely heart.
Talk about wistful!
"Nobody Cares about the Railroads Anymore" - Harry Nilsson. This song has the old-timey feel that I find so attractive in much of Nilsson's music, and it also does some place-name dropping (Baltimore, Virgina), which I found, throughout the mix, to be very important in signifying my U.S.A.
"Louisiana" - The Walkmen. Everytime I think to myself that The Walkmen are overhyped, I just go and listen to some of their music and am always immediately proven wrong. Hamilton Leithauser has one of my favorite voices of any vocalist working today, and those horns are spirit-lifting. This will also be the first of a few Louisiana/New Orleans references in this mix. My wife and I went to NOLA for our honeymoon and (as a note to any of you newlyweds to be) this was a fantastic idea. I'd rather spend time in New Orleans than any other place I've ever been to on this green Earth.
"4th of July" - Aimee Mann. I had a very short post about this song quite some time ago. Aimee Mann is one of the few artists whose music I spend lots of time with every single year, whether she has a new album out or not. Patriotism is not the central theme of this retrospective tune, but it's just one of those songs that I felt needed to be here, even though the title makes it way too obvious.
"Shadows in the Dark" - Das Racist. I effing loved that "Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" song when it came out a couple of years ago and was thrilled to get the Brooklyn-duo's album when it came out. As soon as I got it, I let it linger, but recently picked it back up. This song has so many killer name-drops of American-ass shit that it was irresistible.
Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache - Bob Dylan. I've been listened to Dylan since a day in 11th grade when I spent an entire afternoon in bed listening to "Ballad in Plain D" on repeat for 2 hours. But lately, I've pretty much been listening to Love and Theft and Modern Times, his latest, old-fogey records. But then again, I really love old-fogey music, so new old-fogey music from one of my heroes has been a great treat. But somehow, this cover song from Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records has been the Dylan song I've listened to the most over the past couple years, according to iTunes.
"You're Slightly Less Than Wonderful" - Fats Waller. Another NOLA pick. Amy my wife had an album of his and I couldn't get enough. This one is particularly Fats-y.
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" - Hank Williams. Hank Williams is the king of sad sonofabitch music. This is one of the finest examples of the genre.
"First Few Desperate Hours" - The Mountain Goats. I've never actually gotten all the way through a Faulkner novel, but it seems to me as though this song could've been written by him. Allusions to the Bible, ominous warnings of bad tidings, a stoic optimism of the actors against the possibility of real evil afoot-these are elements of American Gothic, and there is something at the core of American, and particularly, the lore of southern American life, at the core of this masterpiece of a song by John Darnielle.
"Detroit City" - Alice Cooper - This song came out in 2003 on The Eyes of Alice Cooper, which I wouldn't have known if my neighbor Kenny hadn't said "This sounds like later Alice Cooper. You can tell in his voice."
Upon hearing the song, I immediately wondered why this song wasn't playing at every Detroit bar and sports arena/stadia instead of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin.'" People, for the up-teenth time, there is no South Detroit! South Detroit is Windsor!
The bridge-"6 mile, 7 mile, 8 mile, 9 mile, 10 mile, 11 mile, DETROIT CITY!" caused another friend to laugh uncontrollably at the cheesiness of the whole affair when I played it for him. So be it-it is cheesy. But marvelously so!
"Money (That's What I Want)" - Barrett Strong. What's more American than money. Also, I couldn't put together an American music mix without some Motown.
"Going Back to New Orleans" - Joe Liggins. This is another song that made it due to my recent honeymoon in the greatest city in North American: New Orleans. My lovely wife and I were taking a break mid-day in our hotel room from the heat and had WWOZ on the radio (just like the Better Than Ezra song) and this NOLA classic came on. I fell in love immediately, and have be listening to a helluva lot of Joe Liggins lately.
"Lydia the Tattooed Lady" - Groucho Marx. Even if you're an indie music snob and aren't interested in "old stuff," I can't see anyone disliking this song. Especially in a generation where tattoos have become so pervasive that when we're all in our 40s and 50s a sleeve or upper boob tattoo will likely not prevent you from climbing the corporate ladder, this song should have a bit of a resurgence, and I wouldn't be surprised if some tattoo'd 20-something isn't already trying to replicate all of the tattoos Groucho sings about here. I really wanted to put a Marx Brothers song on this mix, as I believe the Marx Brothers are really a supreme example of truly American comedy. The added historical references are just icing on the cake.
"Firing Squad" - Curtis Eller's American Circus. The entire reason for making this mix was to evangelize to my Mix CD club the music of Curtis Eller. I first saw him at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington, Virginia, and he's been one of my favorite songwriters/performers of the last five years. His songs primarily use references to American history. He plays the banjo, but his music isn't bluegrass. His last album had not one, but two songs about John Wilkes Booth. His performances are full of unpredictable hi-jinks, but are always predictably excellent. If your musical tastes are anything like mine, you should listen to his entire catalog, which is on bandcamp.
"Lilac Wine" - Nina Simone. Most people know this song from Jeff Buckley's Grace. It's worth knowing the Nina Simone version as well. Hearing it from the viewpoint of a woman, and especially from the voice of Nina Simone, gives the song a less ghostly quality and a more dramatic feel. You can't say one version is better then the other. They're both outstanding interpretations of a great song by true artists.
"The Novelist" - Richard Swift. As I was playing selections of this mix to my wife, she noted that I've used this song in a mix before. My first reaction was to remove it, especially as some of the people who will be receiving the mix will probably think this as well. But I left it in. There must be a reason I keep wanting to include it in every mix, and I'm willing to accept it without trying to discover the reason why. It's a sorrowful, somber tune, heartfelt and aching. It's a superb song, and it's portrait of the artist as a struggling, poor writer, encompasses much of what we think of the artist in the big city. Just beautiful.
"Uptown Girl" - Billy Joel. The best transition from the previous song I could find, and perhaps the best transition I've ever made on any mix.
A mini-essay on how I've turned around on Billy Joel:
Chuck Klosterman's unbeatable essay on Billy Joel in "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" is monumental in Billy Joel scholarship (I'm sure such a thing exists) and began to shift my thoughts of him as a second-rate, lucky-to-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-cultural-time artist. It's required reading. But what really pushed me over the hump into legitimate Billy Joel appreciation was a night I spent with my friend Richard in Washington, DC. We had a night of drinking and went back to his place to continue imbibing after the bars had closed at 3am. Richard recently bought a turntable and a selection of LPs at a local Salvation Army. Among these was Billy Joel's "Innocent Man" LP. We were drinking expensive cheap whiskey and chatting as it played, but were suddenly taken when "The Longest Time" came on. We were awestruck, stunned: It sounded so fucking good! We listened to it again. And then again. And then we slowly passed out. But in the morning, as I was just feeling the first stings of my hangover, I thought to myself "Could that song really have sounded that good without the influence of alcohol? Was it just hearing it on vinyl? Is it true that all songs just sound better on vinyl, or is that song legitimately amazing?" The answer? It really is actually that good, even on cassette or 8-track, I'm sure. And so is "Uptown Girl." Really.
I hereby and unequivocally endorse Billy Joel: American.
"Hey, Good Lookin'" - Ray Charles. From "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," Ray Charles does Hank Williams. What's more American than that?
"Unchained Melody" - Willie Nelson. A great American song, and to my mind, the truest interpretation of the song. The famous version of the song by the Righteous Brothers is wonderful, but Willie Nelson's more vulnerable interpretation makes Bobby Hatfield's more soaring and showy singing sound like Meatloaf in comparison. Willie's voice breaks at the songs famous apex, "Are you still mine?" which makes it sound like a genuine question that the singer needs answered.
"Tennessee Waltz" - Sam Cooke. I kind of don't understand this song, but I don't question its excellence. Sam is singing pretty jauntily about his old friend stealing his baby, but Sam Cooke is also irresistible, and I like to give it the justification that that Tennessee Waltz was so beautiful that its music was enough to make a let down and betrayal seem insignificant to the music itself. Now that's American music! Also, the song "Tennessee Waltz" isn't a waltz, which is the kind of meta-irony I always enjoy.
"Salon and Saloon" - Jim Croce. I'm surprised this song isn't more famous. I think Jim Croce is one of the great American songwriters, and this might be his best song. The "Oh Mary" is enough to break your heart. But the persona full of wistful, reflective regret, wondering what might have been, is what a large part of what American songwriting is all about-it's a large chunk of the Blues, of Country music, and a lot of Rock. It's a lot of Billy Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Weezer, Elvis, you name it. Croce performs it masterfully. It's just a perfect song, and the reason it closes the mix is because the last song on the mix is, to me, the song people pay the most attention to. Any song that you save till the very end must be really good.