Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Autobobography VII—Something There Is About You

This is a song about a woman. But although I was lucky enough to know several women who inspired me, I’m actually using this title because it’s the only song where Dylan specifically mentions his birthplace: Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin’ the hills of old Duluth.   

I was living in Boston in 2000 and not enjoying it enough anymore to justify the cost of living and the need to keep earning a high income. It certainly wasn’t a place where I could afford to retire. I was in a long distance relationship with a woman in Ohio so I moved there while I tried to figure out where in the upper Midwest to live next. I explored Madison and Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and Marquette, Michigan—all had strengths and weaknesses. Madison offered the most culturally but seemed too spread out; I liked the other two a lot but neither had much public transportation or seemed like a place I’d have much luck finding a decent job. 

So I decided to visit the largest town by Lake Superior. The bus station was in the west end of town and I didn’t like the look of the city until I got downtown and then to the eastern half of town where the Lake is. After exploring the city, I decided this would be my new home. It took three or four trips before I found an apartment which would allow Hijack, the cat who eventually kept me company for nineteen years. I buried him in the woods at Hawk Ridge, near a spot where I’d often sat on a rock looking out at the Lake. That was one of two losses in my life I don’t think I ever completely got over.

Beside the fabulous views of the Lake, what made Duluth work for me as a non-driving nature lover were the many trails in town. A minute off the sidewalk and I was walking by the side of a rocky creek with waterfalls and towering pines. Wildlife was common—nearby in the state was the only area where wild wolves had avoided being wiped out in the lower 48 states and they were sometimes spotted in neighborhoods, black bears denned in town and were often seen, pileated woodpeckers hammered streetside, peregrine falcons nested downtown, and large numbers of hawks and eagles migrated through, along with a very rare mountain lion. A long sandy beach extended miles along the Lake and made for a favorite outbound hike with a return trail through milkweed dunes and warbler woods. Over the years, I wrote some popular posts describing a few of my hikes in town. For many years I’d enjoyed all that Boston offered and still identify with the city in some ways, but I’d never had the feeling anywhere of finding home as I developed in Duluth.

When I moved here, I was happy to find that similar people had also discovered and moved to Duluth. One early event was searching for rare plants to stop a planned golf course (we won!). One of the leaders of that hike would go on to be the leader of the group Cloud Cult, and I later worked with his wife, who paints while the band plays, for a local environmental group. There were several organizations whose meetings and hikes I attended. One favorite was a nature and environmental book club. I didn’t do anything crazy like start going to parties but there were quite a few people I enjoyed seeing at all those events. I think most of them are still in town but I rarely run into them anymore now that the events have largely ceased. I’m not sure I’d go now even if they were still happening—as happened in Boston, eventually staying home is what I like to do best. I don’t hike those trails much anymore either—I originally stopped because I was tired of illegally unleashed dogs charging barking at me while on a trail next to a fifty foot drop. But even now that I could carry my bear spray, I mostly stick to walking by the Lake.

This was the town where Dylan had been born. I had a job in that hospital, working as a clerk for a spell, but I never did like it all that much, and one day the scalpel fell. Before that happened, I walked a few blocks one lunchtime to see the house where he lived for six years before moving to Hibbing. It later was bought by a Dylan fan and I guess it has a plaque now.

One thing I still love about living in Duluth is the way the Lake affects the weather so that there are many microclimates in town. It’s common for one part of town to be fogged in while another is sunny, snow totals can range widely, and there’s often a twenty degree temperature difference between neighborhoods.  Mentioning fog reminds me of one of the biggest losses while I’ve lived here—there used to be a deep, loud foghorn which blew and added mystery and individuality to the city. Unfortunately some people blew louder and more frequently and it was replaced by a pathetic little whistle.

The climate certainly seems to be changing. The winters aren’t as cold or as long, and the summers aren’t as cool (I used to love being fogged in for most of June). In 2012 while I was living in Yellowstone, there was a huge rain and flood here which caused widespread damage which is still being repaired. Two weeks ago, a similar event wiped out many of the highways in northwest Wisconsin—the bus I take to visit Marquette was out of service for a week. And a few mornings ago at 3:30 AM, the sky was lit up by nonstop lightning for an hour with 80 mph wind. Many trees were destroyed, some snapped in half, others with their entire root system torn out of the ground. I’d never seen a storm like this anywhere, even when I’d been in the vicinity of a tornado in Illinois or hurricanes in Massachusetts. Some homes and businesses are still without electricity.

I still like Duluth more than most places because of the Lake, but I don’t love the city or have the deep feeling of home anymore. I definitely believe it’s gone downhill (along with the rest of the country) since I first moved here fifteen years ago. (On the positive side there is a new animal shelter, and a wildlife rehab center is being built—I’d be volunteering at both except that they’re on the outskirts of town where the bus doesn’t go.) Part of my negativity certainly may be that I’ve gone downhill myself during those years, but it’s not my fault that I can rarely ride the bus anymore without hearing people talking about their drugs, crimes, and jail time. Still, I expect Duluth is where I’ll die, if I can keep a roof over my head until that happens. But unless something changes, I’ll likely be homeless before the end of the year and I sure won’t stick around for even a milder winter here. So maybe I’ll be migrating south too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Autobobography VI—Greatest Hits Volume II

If it seems odd to pick a greatest hits double album to write about, well, this is an odd greatest hits album. Released during one of Dylan’s dry spells (first words on the first record: What’s the matter with me, I don’t have much to say), it’s a record label product but with Dylan’s cooperation in sequencing and recording. Only three of the songs had been hits for Dylan, more were hits for other people, most were good album songs which hadn’t been singles, and five of the twenty-one tracks hadn’t even been previously released. 

More significantly on a personal level, this was the first Dylan album I owned. I was too young in the early 60s to appreciate the complexities of Dylan’s most famous albums; I was happy just to watch pretty Sheila dance to Rubber Soul in her parents’ basement. So although I later purchased all of Dylan’s earlier albums where most of these songs originally appeared, this is the setting where these songs seem most familiar to me, and where they seem to fit together best. Researching to see what others had written about this collection, I found a couple reviews calling it the best introduction to Dylan.

My first real appreciation of Dylan came here in 1971, from the single Watching the River Flow earlier in the year and his very strong public reappearance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh which led me to buy this album with its cover photo from that concert, a photo of his head developing a halo as the album cover wore down. 

In high school at the time, I was too young to notice that the era of the 60s was not gone but fading although the peak of the Endangered Species Act was still to come, too caught up in my youthful invincibility and hippie girls in miniskirts. Valerie, right behind me in alphabetical homeroom, wore some of my favorites. The yearbook showed values clearly with long hair and struggling beards. I wore a flag as a liner in my army jacket as I kept an eye on where my birthday was coming up in the annual draft lottery, wrote against The Man in a high school newspaper and even in a letter in Newsweek. In classes, I was part of the college bound artistic and political elite who explored the latest drugs and music, but because I was a couple years younger (crucial in the teens) than my classmates, I never socialized with any of them outside of school. 

But after graduation, while I endured two more years so I could start college at eighteen like a normal person, spending as little time at home as possible (walking three miles to work at a supermarket and a mile to church on Sundays appreciating the horses and cows as I passed, running like an animal on trails through the woods, when I wasn’t out of the house I was sealed in my room with headphones on), I started hanging out with working class alumni still in the area, bowling with a couple guys, hitchhiking around the three towns which made up my high school district, going to parties with a former classmate, making out in her car before we’d go in and act like friends. Spending a day hiking with a different pair of guys, we stopped by Valerie’s house where her younger sister invited us in and told us that Val was out with an older man. We hoped and dreaded that we might become older men too.

The titles of the first three posts in this series came from songs included here. There are others where I love to hear Dylan painting with lyrics which seem to mean nothing but still have an impact, such as Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again with its rare clear and favorite line, Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want. And the magnificent Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues with its hungry women, silent doctor, cops who don’t need you, and Angel looking just like a ghost--Everybody said they’d stand behind me when the game got rough, but the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to bluff. The gentle kiss-off of a relationship in Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, and the more assured farewell to his protest singer past (I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now) of the excellent My Back Pages.

Many other songs have the straightforward country pop feel of Dylan in the late sixties, such as the long string of quiet songs which finish the collection: the live from 1963 Tomorrow is a Long Time, the Leon Russell produced (along with Watching the River Flow) When I Paint My Masterpiece (everything is gonna be different), the rerecorded trio of I Shall Be Released, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, and Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood). Back it up to include It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and If Not For You for the mood if you like, but either way it was the final stretch of unreleased songs which made even Dylan collectors want to buy this and which left a feeling of simple peace after all the complications and confusions which had preceded them.

These were the days when I still believed, despite all the available evidence—in love, fighting the good fight, women, myself. Soon I would be released into the world—I was getting out of nowhere and there was still a masterpiece I was going to write. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Autobobography V – Gotta Serve Somebody

From the dreaded born again period, I suspect the important part of this song to Dylan at the time was the oft-repeated chorus (it may be the devil, or it may be the lord) but I love all the “you may” lines which make up the rest of the lyrics. There’s a lot of humor, along with the notion that all people are subject to the same justice despite their circumstances. It’s not true of course, but what a wonderful world it would be. (That eventual justice thought led me to listen to John Lennon’s Instant Karma, which led me to listening to a lot more Lennon for the first time in years despite him being one of the two good Beatles, and I was very pleased with the simplicity [no insult] and honesty of his work after all the time I’ve been spending on Dylan lately. Oh, and fuck you, Mark David.) Back to the title song--the music and backup singers work too. I haven’t heard or read all of Dylan’s god songs, and have no desire to, but along with this one I’m pretty sure my other favorite would always be With God on Our Side (though I prefer the version by the Neville Brothers).

Although (Because?) I was raised Catholic, I never did believe in the devil or the lord (but as another musical semi-related-to-this-title parenthetical comment, I do believe in the deep dark harmonica blues of Johnny Sansone’s cd The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too--in this case a more direct threat than Dylan’s), but from my precocious hippie days onward, I was always interested in finding some reason for living other than accumulating stuff as the dominant capitalistic society wanted me to.

I became interested in Bahai in college because of a very pretty and very kind woman, but she was a senior and I a freshman so it didn’t last long. In the eighties, the Moral Majority pissed me off so I joined American Atheists and did battle in the local newspaper, which caused someone to look up my address and sign me up for religious mailing lists.

Years later in Boston I attended a famous UU church for a while, but that was because of its social and political activism, not for any religious reasons. I read the Tao te Ching often and its sense of not trying to control the world fit well with my values and the tai chi classes I took. I also spent some time in classes with groups of Wiccans and Pagans—I didn’t believe in their magic and rituals any more than Catholicism’s, but at least they were focused on the natural world instead of the supernatural.

In music, there was also always that longing for something more. In teenage years it was mostly George Harrison—not My Sweet Lord (too obvious, too make believe), but Living in the Material World with its sense of being in the wrong place and the hope of escape had enough for me to relate to--and Cat Stevens for his varied seeking and vulnerability, but not for the god-awful Morning Has Broken which is so bad that skipping it wasn’t good enough--I had to delete it from my computer. 

Slightly later in my listening came Bob Marley, as wacky as religion can get but the music was fun and reassuring, and yet later, deeper exploration of Van Morrison’s music beyond the hits with its mix of Christian and Pagan lyrics, and even later Bruce Cockburn whose Christianity I ignored in favor of his extreme liberal politics and some adventurous music.

I have a few more titles on the original list I made a couple years ago when I first had the idea for this series and I’ve been checking lots of song titles and lyrics and listening to a lot of Dylan lately. There are some songs which I love but which don’t stir specific ideas or memories so I may combine them into a post which is actually about the songs for a change, and there are three, maybe four, albums which will get their own posts. 

Without internet at home, there is a lot more time for writing, but I still forget that I can’t check any lyric or fact any time I want and I only get to wifi two or three times a week which interrupts my attempts at a regular posting schedule. But I’m enjoying the motivation to do a little creative writing again; I’ve known from the beginning what the final two titles will be, but there’s some time before I get there.