Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Autobobography IV–Boston, 10-8-94

That was the night I attended my first Dylan concert, and I picked a good one. As that linked review of the bootleg puts it, it was “an incredible, jaw-drop performance”. I listened to the concert again before writing this, and it would still make me buy another ticket to attend the following night’s concert just as I did over twenty years ago. I think what surprised me most at the time was how many classic older songs were in the setlist—some idiosyncratic performances by Dylan as usual, but all great songs performed in extended versions by either a very solid rock band or in a stunning acoustic set by Dylan. 

Of course the following night’s show didn’t seem as good for whatever reason (fewer classics, although it did include the two songs which inspired the first posts in this series), but a year later I was back in the same theater to see Dylan again—this time I thought opening act Patti Smith, who I’d never seen before and most of whose songs I wasn’t that familiar with, blew him away. Another year later and it was Dylan’s turn to blow away Van Morrison as they shared a bill at a large sports arena. It was fun to hear some of Morrison’s upbeat songs but the constant switching between those and the slower spiritual songs was jarring and the band’s performance much too slick. 

My first Dylan concert was one of the best I’ve ever attended but the concert I’m happiest to have attended actually wasn’t very good—George Harrison in 1974. He was hoarse, a chunk of the concert was Indian music, other band members led a couple songs, and some of Harrison’s song selections weren’t that great. But I arranged our group of attendees (my cousin, her stepsister, and a guy I went to high school with) and it was a bit of history. There were also some big stadium shows during those years which I have very little memory of but I’m fairly sure I saw the Stones, a Beach Boys/Chicago cobill, Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, and Elton John. Did I see the Allman Brothers or just listen to a lot of live recordings? It’s a bit of a blur.

The strangest setting for a concert was a farm building somewhere in Illinois. Or maybe it was an old hockey rink. All I’m really sure of is that it was a large rectangular building with no seating, lots of drinking during the show, and pissing in a trough on the outside of the building. That was for the group Boston after their peak.

There was blues on a Chicago pier, the Holmes Brothers at the Lowell folk festival, Harry Chapin at a university in Illinois, the Waterboys past their most exciting period but still good enough to make me wish even more that I’d seen them years earlier, and many free outdoor concerts everywhere I’ve lived.

In Boston, I enjoyed the fantastic singer-songwriter scene for many years, getting the chance to meet a lot of the local and touring performers. The legendary Utah Phillips, excellent guitarist Richard Thompson, many Greg Brown concerts, Luka Bloom liked my t-shirt, Chris Smither (a great songwriter, great guitarist, and great guy) recognized me from attending many concerts, Bill Morrissey played These Cold Fingers, Steve Forbert Goin’ Down to Laurel

Patty Griffin, who I’d see as an opening act at a tiny place in Cambridge and then tell everyone who’d listen that she was going to be a big star if she wanted to be. Years later when she put out her first major release I had her sign a tape she had been selling at those early performances and she couldn’t believe I had it.  Jonatha Brooke of The Story and a former dancer (oh, how I loved dancers), who signed “Stranger no more” by the lyrics of Full-Fledged Strangers. Lori Carson at a record store performance where I requested Snow Come Down which had just been released that morning. Joan Baez, who sang a fitting song about older women and younger men which caused my companion and I to look at each other at the same moment (we also attended a magical evening with the Paul Winter Consort at Symphony Hall).

Compared to my decades in Boston, the weeks I’ve spent in New Orleans aren’t much but many of my current favorite musicians are based there. I owned a couple of Walter Wolfman Washington’s lps back in the 80s in Boston, but I was introduced to most of the rest of these New Orleans musicians by a friend in Yellowstone. I saw Jon Cleary, who writes funny Facebook posts while touring, play solo piano at the same Frenchmen Street bar where I saw Washington’s band but would love to see him with his band, Anders Osborne who I haven’t seen in New Orleans but did see play in Montana, Johnny Sansone who I’ve yet to see in person, the Revivalists (loved their first three releases, but not the latest which seems more like a solo than a band album) who I saw at the Po-Boy Festival.

I’ve just finished rewatching Treme with the music commentaries playing and it was great to see and hear them all—I’d love to be able to live in New Orleans for a couple months to have the chance to see them all in the various local clubs where they play regularly when they’re not touring the world.

I don’t go out to hear as much music in Duluth as I used to when I first lived here, but Charlie Parr remains a favorite who I’m looking forward to see play by the Lake next month. A Jackson Browne concert here surprised me by how good it was. A couple weeks ago, I saw Sarah Krueger on the bus and felt a little star-struck which seemed odd considering all the much more famous people I’ve actually met; maybe I’ve just finally reached the dirty old man stage of my life.

There were many folks I wish I’d seen—Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Jim Croce, Willy DeVille, War, and I suppose Bach wouldn’t have bad.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Autobobography III—A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall


I’m sure you’ve noticed these essays don’t have much to do with the songs they’re named after except via association and inspiration. I may use the Hurricane title to write about New Orleans even though the song is about a boxer, and I’ve got almost as many possible topics for Tangled Up In Blue as there are versions of the lyrics. 

This song’s a magnificent one (appropriately Dylan’s first song on The Concert for Bangla Desh DVD), but I’m just going with the general apocalyptic theme. This was a difficult one to write, more speculation than memory—I already had more notes for the next two installments before I started writing much of this one. But collapse and aftermath has always been a major part of how I see the world so it needs to be mentioned in this series.

Maybe it began with science fiction, which I started reading at an early age. I don’t recall the then current novels I was reading as being particularly apocalyptic or misanthropic but there was also Verne and Wells and all the great sci-fi invasion and mutation B movies of the fifties. 

More recently, post-apocalypse tales have become best-sellers such as The Road and Station Eleven and many less well-written. I think that part of the reason for this success must be that many people are dissatisfied with the current civilization, and subconsciously recognize that catastrophe is the only possible route to a better way of life because there is no hope of this one changing voluntarily or intelligently to the extent that is needed. For most people, subconsciously is the only way they’re willing to recognize it because they have children and other family.

And of course, people can be dissatisfied for opposite reasons—what motivates people to vote for Trump is very different from what motivates my dissatisfaction. But some people may just be sure early in life that the mainstream is wrong and then spend their lives trying to find what’s right—I’m probably one of them. As an example, long ago I was introduced to the books of Ayn Rand and was briefly a fan for reasons I now think had nothing at all to do with Rand. Fortunately, I’d long embraced Thoreau’s call for simplicity and shared the longings of the back to nature movements and I soon stopped flirting with Ayn.

Ultimately for me, a youthful concern about the unfairness and injustice of human society expanded because of the obvious and repetitive damage our civilization does to the natural world in general and other species in particular (pellets of poison are flooding their waters). I always found the notion that my individual life, liberty, and happiness were of much importance compared to that destruction an incredibly narcissistic and immoral viewpoint. I’m repelled by the self-centered behavior of many humans, whether in Yellowstone or on the streets of Duluth, but if I were still focused on people, I could be just as upset about what our civilization does to our own health.

Nine years ago I wrote about a science fiction novel, City of Pearl, which seemed like a fantasy come true for radical environmentalists such as me. Here’s a link to the post I wrote then, but essentially there is a planet of extremely powerful beings some would call econazis and I would call heroes. They enforce their views of deep ecology and veganism on other planets, even if it means destroying the dominant species which has been doing their own destroying (the executioner’s face is always well hidden). 

That was the first in a series. I’ve read the rest of the books in the past couple months and am now halfway through the sixth and final book in the series in which these folks finally make it to Earth. I thought of finishing the book before posting this, but decided this was more appropriate since we never know what’s going to happen next in real life either.  I only know that I’m going to be very disappointed if this series which through five books has been one I’ve admired for speaking my values in a popular format, suddenly decides that humans really know best and we escape the fate we deserve.

Call me a monster—like most things, it depends on the point of view. I’d say humans are the monsters and almost every other form of life on the planet would agree with me. It’s not that I get pleasure from the thought of billions of humans dying; it’s that the collapse of human civilization is the only hope for most life forms—it’s only a loss if you think humans are all that matters. I get pleasure from the thought of all that life getting a new chance. I am tired of the pain and the grief and the frustration, and would love to strike back in defense of what I love if I believed striking back against any specific target would make any difference. But this is a systemic, not a specific, problem, so, yes, I do deeply hope that a hard rain is gonna fall; I’d seed the damn clouds if I could, but it seems inevitable even without my help. For now, I’m the monster detouring around the pigeons on the sidewalk while the precious children are trying to frighten them.

Next up: Boston,10-8-94

Friday, June 10, 2016

Autobobography II--Lay, Lady, Lay

On a winter evening at a Yellowstone pub, a quartet of a certain age enjoyed an evening of beer and conversation. When this song began to play, both women simultaneously groaned with pleasure and memories of romantic eroticism and erotic romance, and I learned it had the same effect on them it had on me. 

On an elementary school bulletin board, each of us had a rocket ship with our name. When the display was taken down, a girl wanted my ship but I destroyed it rather than let her have it. That’s some ridiculously obvious foreshadowing, but I swear it’s true. I’ve been a heartbreaker since I was in single digits.

Back in my prime, I was a good-looking guy with long hair, fit, funny and intelligent--when young and out of the mainstream, those qualities still easily outweighed a complete lack of ambition and not driving. Though I appeared to women as a potential bad boy, I was actually much too good for my own good.

I could have lost my virginity in a threesome with a couple at a party but walked away. Not from any troubling questions of morality which I struggled with in later years but because I didn’t like waiting while she kissed her boyfriend. The woman I considered my first girlfriend broke up with me because she felt I was holding something back from her. That was certainly true, because she had told me she wanted to get pregnant, but it would be just as true with every woman I’d ever be with.

In college I was still a boy although briefly engaged, still unaware of the power we all have, still adoring from afar, happy that beautiful intelligent women seemed to enjoy my company but never expecting more. On the edge of my leaving town, Suzanne stopped by the house to say goodbye and a farewell embrace ended with my hands on her jeans and her confession that she’d considered breaking up with her fiancĂ©e to go out with me, all a complete shock to me. I had a degree but I still barely had a clue.

The odd combination of 60s Catholicism, 70s feminism, and my parents probably eliminated any chance I had of becoming an open and assertive lover. I thought the best thing about Catholicism was Ellen’s ass a couple pews forward—that was all I ever believed in in that building, but a lifelong concern with ethics certainly took root there. Feminism left me so tentative about acting without a woman’s permission that one once angrily told me, “Don’t ask, just do it.” In my childhood home, passion meant objects flying and police cars parked out front. Little wonder that I became a guarded man who depended on technique rather than passion in all areas of my life.

Reading my journal from my early thirties (when I began writing it as a practice), sexuality was always in my life but seldom fully expressed outside the pages, despite seeing, even meeting, many women who were both interested and interesting. I was well aware of and enjoyed the attention I received while running bare-chested in shorts through Boston’s Emerald Necklace; I simply had no idea how to respond to it. After I’d already started making notes for this post, I found this in a 1990 journal:

Further discussion led into the sexuality of the situation and her past and my reaction to it and therefore into my own confused attitudes toward my own sexuality. I have an enormous amount of unresolved issues in that area, so many that I don’t think I really even have all the questions asked yet. What kind of boundaries do I want to have sex within, do I want to act on fantasies I have, is porn OK or should I throw out the little I have as I did with all I had about a year ago, who do I want to fuck and why, how do I express my interest to someone on the street, what is the difference between the days when I feel very sexual and the days when I have no interest, do I want long-term monogamy or short-term fun, which feelings are real and which are society induced, either as the almighty sex rules that I’m supposed to follow in my conduct, or as the corruption of true higher values I have?  

And a couple days later:

I think the big issue sexually is that I’m torn between regarding it on one side as a very physical thing which should be free and casual and widely shared and on the other side as a very spiritually connected thing which should be treated as something very special and sacred. But the “down and dirty” type urges and fantasies where I want to fuck everything in sight are definitely a part of me too and I have no desire to pretend that doesn’t exist. I think I’d feel more naturally whole if I were able to act on that side of things more.

A few years later I’d replay that inner dialogue as an actual conversation with a woman on a park bench by Jamaica Pond as we decided whether to share a bed. And it was still playing out decades later in Yellowstone. Clearly, I never found my answers. 

When I would somehow stumble into a relationship, I’d make up for lost time. Although one lover would happily tell me that with me, she’d finally found someone who could keep up with her, there always could have been more—more women, more variations. But I was often too busy putting them on a pedestal to put them in my bed. And apart from my self-doubts, I was also choosy, wanting to feel something deeper than chemistry. I needed a woman’s emotional connection far more than her body—when I went to bed with a woman, it was because I was seeking her pleasure, not mine. Eventually that led to feeling that sex was a chore, not a desire.

Although we would exchange a few emails fifty years later, I never really stopped running from the little girl next door who wanted me to kiss her to prove I liked her.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Autobobography I—Watching the River Flow

I think this might have been the first Dylan song I remember hearing regularly on the car radio. Or that may be as untrue as many of the statements Dylan made about his life over the years. The song itself is a bit of a contradiction because though he’ll sit there so contentedly and watch the river flow, he also wishes he were back in the city. I’ve always been pulled in both directions myself, neither city nor wild, Boston nor Yellowstone, being enough to give me complete peace. But water has always been important.

There were childhood trips to Cape Cod where I always got a kick out of seeing the sign for the town of Dennis, named after me. Later came a Cape Cod trip with Robin, my first girlfriend with her black kitten and hip chain and stolen kisses in a church parking lot, and the first of many battles with my mother about women. For many years I imagined studying oceanography at Woods Hole. The Cape’s dunes and waves and salt in the air would reappear often in my life. And then there were sunset drinks above Newport’s waters.

In the Ozarks on a college weekend, we wound up hanging from a fallen tree while our canoe and possessions continued down the river. We eventually caught up with them on the shore about a half mile farther on. On the same trip, my girlfriend, lagging behind the main group in another canoe, never made it to our camp. As darkness approached, some of us headed back upriver where we found them at a hillbilly car camp where we joined them for the night. In later years came canoeing in Concord at Thoreau Society meetings, hillbillies of a different sort.

There was rafting on a western Massachusetts river with a volunteer group which took people with various disabilities out into nature. I still have treasured photos from that trip. Later came a short trip on the Yellowstone River with coworkers.

There was the Atlantic Ocean for frequent humpback whale watching trips. Always I felt the sense that I wanted to keep going farther instead of returning to land. Perhaps that came from my father’s years in the Navy. Seeing the whales breaching was always a blessing. For me, the many boat trips blend, but a friend who visited me in Boston remembers her time with the whales as one of the best experiences of her life. 

The Charles River, subwayed over, walked above, with its sailors and scullers and fabulous view of the Boston skyline, and on the opposite shore, the Cambridge River Festival. North of the city, I first discovered oceanside Rockport, which became a regular escape from the city, on a field trip for a wild plants class which I enjoyed most for its eclectic group of classmates.

I met the Mississippi River in the middle near St. Louis at age eighteen. Later, New Orleans trips, where I sometimes ferried across the river to Algiers or listened to an early morning saxophonist on its levee, bookended a trip to its headwaters in distant Minnesota.

I always loved wetlands and their turtles and skunk cabbage. Therefore, I also loved the books of artist/writer David M. Carroll who was kind enough to reply to an enquiry with a letter and an autographed copy of one of his out of print books.

And of course there is Lake Superior. After the Lake and the ocean, I saw Yellowstone Lake and wondered what all the fuss was about (the waterfall was impressive though). I fell in love with the Lake along the entire coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula consummated in the Porcupine Mountains by the Presque Isle River, with a barred owl cooking above the tent. Perhaps too practical, I settled for the jobs of Duluth, where I watch the stormy waves like an ocean without its salt, try to capture its moodiness, walk the trails beside its many hillside creeks, and where the dunes and pines of Minnesota Point take me back to the days of old Cape Cod.