Sunday, June 27, 2021
Myth and Memory in Cooperstown and Woodstock (Lost Highway Series)
Wednesday, June 23, 2021
The Ersatz Woody Years (Summer of Dylan)
This week I embarked on my project of listening to all of Bob Dylan's albums in order while interspersing the relevant Bootleg Series content in chronological order. I feel like his first three albums represent a particular period of his career, the folkie years. In this era Dylan comes on the folk scene like a reincarnated Woody Guthrie, singing folk standards as well as protest songs. When I first started listening to Dylan in high school this was the music I started with, and was also what I assumed most of his career was all about until I learned better.
Once I became a real fan I learned better, and then rarely revisited this period. Listening to this music again, however, its power has been renewed for me. This is especially the case since I've been listening to a lot of early 60s doo wop and pop music and now I can hear just how revolutionary Dylan's whole thing was in the context of the times. It's easy to miss that since the folkie stuff seems rather tame compared to what followed in 1965-66.
(In this and future posts I will make some notes on the relevant albums, and offer my ratings, which range from zero to five Bobs.)
Bob Dylan (1962)
I will admit that I had never heard this album before starting this project. I'd always heard it was a fair collection of folk covers with originals but still very much a gestational work. I must say I was pleasantly surprised. The covers have a verve and confidence that places them above the standard folk music of the time. In an alternate universe where Bob Dylan was hit by a car while crossing MacDougal Street in 1962 people would still be talking about this album as a lost classic of the Greenwich Village folk boom.
There is little of the twee tourism of so much folk music of the time. His takes on "House of the Rising Sun" and "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" mine their harrowing emotions. You would never think these are the work of a callow 20 year old. This album only seems slight in light of what's to come.
Rating: Four Bobs
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
While "Masters of War" is deadly serious, Dylan hits on similar themes with the jocular "Talking World War III Blues." There's a streak of goofy humor throughout, something Woody Guthrie wasn't immune to, either. While the album starts with a heavy protest song, it ends with the silly "I Shall Be Free." The Bootleg Series shows just how insanely creative Dylan was at the time, and ending with this song expresses a kind of joy in the self-confidence such a creative streak can create.
For a younger generation emerging from years of postwar consensus, the Red Scare, and an increasingly depoliticized public sphere, this album had to have been an exciting jolt. In the midst of American self-satisfaction Dylan included a song like "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," which is still one of the most searing critiques of America's failure to live up to its promise. It also points to the future Dylan, one who could say something about the state of things without being so directly topical.
Rating: Five Bobs
The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964)
As great as Freewheelin' is, this is still my favorite of Dylan's folkie trilogy. "Hard Rain" is probably his best song of that era, but this album has two of the most trenchant critiques of American dysfunction ever put to wax: "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game." The first examines the ways that unthinking nationalism is bloody scourge on this nation; the second addresses the wages of whiteness and the blood shed in order to pay them. It's not just a song about the horrible murder of Medgar Evers, it's about the racist disease that led to his tragic death. This is a whole other level of protest song.
The seriousness of the whole enterprise is there on the stark cover. The last time around Dylan is walking with his girlfriend through the streets of the Village. Here he looks like an austere prophet, befitting the music within. There is a harder, more revolutionary edge. The title song is a harsher one than "Blowin' in the Wind," issuing threats to people in authority that their days are numbered. "When the Ship Comes In" also envisions a kind of revolutionary apocalypse.
The topical songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" brim over with existential dread. They speak of needless deaths and the crushing blows of oppression that do not seem to have any vindication. The more personal songs, like "One Too Many Mornings," have a similar level of Weltschmerz.
It's easy to see why he mostly abandoned protest songs after this, since he had taken them to the furthest extent that the form could still sustain emotional heft amidst all the didactic finger-pointing.
Rating: Five Bobs
The Bootleg Series Volume 1 (and tracks 1-3 of Volume 2)
As I have written about earlier, the first three volumes of the original bootleg series were the first Dylan albums I ever bought because a record store was going out of business and I could get them for cheap. It was a strange way to be introduced to Dylan, but it helped me appreciate the official releases that much more when I finally heard them. It is interesting how more than a third of the original three volume release, which covered thirty years of his career, are concentrated in that short three year folkie period.
The songs in this session reveal just how much Dylan was producing at the time. Freewheelin' easier could have been a double album and maintained the same high quality. Some of the songs are truly stunning, like the nuclear war-themed "Let Me Die in My Footsteps." Others are interesting attempts at self-authored takes on traditional folk themes, like "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie." This is all essential listening.
Rating: Five Bobs
The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (tracks 1-13 of disc one)
My favorite songs from this Bootleg Series entry come later in the 1965-66 material, but there's plenty of worthy stuff here. There are some things copied over from other bootleg series releases, but it generally more fully fleshes out what Dylan was up to. Since it's a soundtrack and not a typical excursion into the vaults it is less a treasure trove and more a curated look at Dylan's process.
Rating: Four Bobs (for these particular tracks)
The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos
I had actually not listened to this Bootleg Series entry until doing this project. These are all the demos Dylan recorded for a music publisher to entice others to perform them. They are pretty raw, and at times you can hear Dylan coughing or cutting songs off. After having heard a lot of other bootleg material I did not find this music to be super revelatory, other than the reemphasize the extent of Dylan's creativity at the time, when he was just churning out mountains of songs. This is less essential, but still worth a listen for the real Dylanologists.
Rating: Three and a half Bobs
Monday, June 21, 2021
Introducing the Summer of Dylan and Lost Highway Series
My summer break has officially begun, and I am now hard at work on various writing projects, including a book chapter and article. (I have come crawling back to academic writing.) When I am doing these kinds of things I tend to have less energy for additional blog posts. HOWEVER I have decided to meld my writing projects and the blog. SYNERGY, BABY!
My book chapter deals with Bob Dylan, and I am pretty darn pleased to do my first piece of academic writing related to my personal interests. To get in the mood I have been doing a deep dive into Dylanalia, and made the decision to listen to all of his albums, in order, this summer. (Thank you, magic of Spotify.) Not only that, I am planning on listening to the relevant Bootleg Series entries in the chronological order of their recording, not release. As I have said on other occasions, the Bootleg Series stuff probably gives the true insights into Dylan's work, the moments behind the mask. As I listen and research I will be making periodic blog posts.
My article is a joint effort dealing with postwar America's fascination with the road. I plan on hitting the road myself this summer as I write, and so will be including travelogues of my own, along with analysis of books and films about the American road trip. The pandemic has been difficult in so many ways, one of the biggest being my inability to travel on the open road. This summer will involve a return to Nebraska and some points in between and I can't wait to share what I find.
The two topics work well together considering Dylan's own love of the road and his Neverending Tour, which hopefully will be able to hit the road again soon as the COVID clouds lift. I've even made an extensive Dylan road mix for when we finally do take to the highway. This past year has been so awful, I am ready to share some joy.
Thursday, June 17, 2021
Soundtrack for a Suburban Drive
I came of age in the 80s and 90s in a small rural town in the middle of Nebraska. Taking a drive was a small pleasure to ward off boredom, one I did a lot in the backseat as a child, and later as a teenager behind the wheel. My parents now ride bicycles instead, something I should have done for my health, but which was associated with the loserdom of not having a car in those times. While today I go for long walk and bike rides, I still derive pleasure from the drive.
Although I live in suburban New Jersey, I take the train to work, meaning driving tends to be more of an event than a daily grind. (This has especially been the case since March of 2020, as my family has tended to order a lot more things to be delivered that I used to make trips to buy.) Along with the drive, I have also not shaken my youthful love of physical media. When behind the wheel I prefer to pop a CD on or listen to the radio and usually save streaming playlists for long road trips.
Today I ran a bunch of errands and leaned heavily on the weird set of CDs in my car. I say "my" because this is the old beater of a Honda Civic that I use mostly to drive the two miles to the train station and back. (My wife gets to use the newer Subaru for her more significant commute.) Some of my CDs have found an almost permanent place in my car because they are so well suited for a suburban drive. Here are some of the songs in case you are one of those modern people making playlists.
Sonic Youth, "Schizophrenia"
I bought the Sister album on CD soon before my daughters' birth. They were born premature and my wife had to stay in the hospital another day so the day after they were born I had to drive back to our Newark apartment alone. It was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever had. The next day, when I drove out from my urban neighborhood to the suburban hospital to see my wife and newborn children, I popped this song on and played it on repeat. It seemed to express that feeling of disconnection so well. I still have the CD in my car all these years later, and sometimes play it just to remember that moment in my life when everything changed. Beyond that it fits the sometimes alienating strip mall ugliness of my surroundings when I am further west in the sprawl.
Thin Lizzy, "Rosalie"
If Sister has been in my car the longest, Fighting from Thin Lizzy is the newest addition. I still pop into record stores to find the perfect CD to have in my car. As a Gen Xer I feel an almost perverse desire to keep the CD part of my world, a connection to my teen years when I thought it was an unmatched technological step forward. I also sometimes think I have the reincarnated soul of a greasy 70s Camaro-driving dirtbag since that style of music is my favorite guilty pleasure. Then again, I don't feel much guilt about the great Thin Lizzy compared to say Foghat or Ram Jam. This song is a Bob Seger cover of all things, from the days when he was a gut-bucket rock and roll growler busting his ass to expand beyond his power base in the Motor City. Phil Lynott also knew how to rock, and this song makes me pump my fist out the window as I drive past the tidy lawns of my town.
Bob Seger, "If I Were a Carpenter"
Speaking of Bob Seger, I am obsessed with his early work, the sweaty, fervid stuff he won't allow to see the light of day. Lucky for me I have a rare CD of Smokin' OPs, a covers album from the early 70s. If I want maximum rock and roll action I will thrown it on right after the Thin Lizzy. In this case Seger takes a pretty schmaltzy standard from the 60s and gives it a gorgeous rising organ part and a soulful conviction in his voice. I usually hit the repeat button whenever this one comes on.
Steve Gunn, "New Familiar"
Believe it or not, a drive in the New Jersey suburbs can be sublime. Trees overhang my town and many of the surrounding ones, too. I can cut through the South Mountain Reservation and admire the mountains and forests not so far from my doorstep. Today I had Steve Gunn's Unseen In Between album on and just let the sound and the sweet sunshine wash over me. He's sort of like the country cousin to Philly's Kurt Vile, playing hypnotizing guitar lines that mirror that half-conscious state of mind we find ourselves in behind the wheel.
Belle and Sebastian, "I Know Where the Summer Goes"
This time of year Belle and Sebastian's Push Barman to Open Old Wounds is stuck in my CD player. Their twee, languid songs (especially twee and languid on this comp) are the perfect accompaniment of driving under the pretty cypress trees of Summit while I drive to Natale's bakery to get their world class donuts. It's perfect for a lazy suburban drive on a summer weekday, one of the great pleasures of being a teacher. I look forward to doing it several times this year.
Prince, "I Would Die 4 U"
The day Prince died I had to go run an errand so I nabbed my CD of Purple Rain and it ended up staying in the car for over a year. It's a loaded album with so many great songs, but "I Would Die For You" is just a great driving song, especially on a sunny day. There's a propulsion here but it's a restrained propulsion, made for driving suburban streets and not the open road.
Sly and the Family Stone, "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa"
Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On is one of the ultimate documents of the onset of the 70s malaise after the dashing of the bright hopes of the 60s. This song, a robotic deconstruction of the upbeat hit "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" makes it even funkier, but with all of the hope drained out. Be that as it may, its rhythm and laid back feel work for a slow suburban drive, and the song's weirdness makes a wonderful contrast with the bland normality outside of the window.
Bob Dylan, "Idiot Wind" (New York version)
Sometimes my best reflections come when I am driving, and the right music helps me along. I bought the single CD version of the Dylan Bootleg Series on Blood on the Tracks and immediately put it in my car, where it has stayed. This winter I listened to it almost every day on my short morning drive to the train station. The New York versions of the songs were darker and more introspective than the ones Dylan later cut in Minnesota. Waking before the dawn with the morning's news of COVID and Trump ringing in my head while I faced a train commute in those scary pre-vaccination days practically required stuff this strong.
Saturday, June 12, 2021
Coming Home From the COVID Teaching Trenches
Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth is most famous for the sections about her time as a nurse in the Great War. Not only did she witness several people die in that role, the war also took her brother, fiance, and one of her closest friends. Her book is harrowing proof of how war can traumatize those who don't hold a rifle or have their homes bombed.
I have always been particularly struck by the way she recalled the announcement of the Armistice. She said people didn't say "the war is over" but "war is over." War had become their mode of being. Brittain herself was more stunned than jubilant, unable to forget that three people so important to her were never coming back and would never live in the peace she had to face by herself.
As my school year is winding down I am having a very difficult time adjusting to life outside of the teaching trenches. I have basically been in crisis mode since the middle of March last year. Most of my summer "break" last year was spent preparing for this school year. The year itself brought untold stress and multiple moments where the rug was pulled out from under me. My children's school didn't open until early May, but on the way there were false starts and schedule changes that threw our lives into chaos. My own work gave me less than a week's notice to adjust to five days a week in person rather than two, at a time when my daughters' school was still closed.
I got used to living a truly day to day existence where I could not count on anything being stable or secure. Out of the blue my wife or I might get a new directive from our jobs or our children's school, or news of COVID cases in our school or our daughters' child care facility. We might suddenly find out that we would need to eat thousands of dollars of new child care costs or that our child care would not be available that day.
All through it I was working twice as hard as normal, frantically trying to keep everything together. Hybrid teaching was like swimming with twenty pound weights on my ankles. To not sink I just had to keep flailing myself forward until I made it to the shore. I did it all with the knowledge that despite my desperate toil it was not as good as what I would normally be able to provide my students.
Friday was graduation day at my school. I didn't stick around too long after because I was afraid of having an emotional breakdown in the parking lot in front of everybody. I have three days of meetings and a ceremony for last year's graduates left and I am almost happy for mundane meetings to give me something to do. Adjusting to life without the day to day bombs falling this summer is going to be hard.
There doesn't seem to be much discussion of how educators have endured some bad shit this year and might be experiencing some emotional fallout this summer. I spent last summer in a constant state of worry and anticipation, never able to relax with the sword of Damocles that was the 2020-2021 school year hanging over my head. I had multiple anxiety attacks and by mid-August just wanted my break to be over so I could face the reality of the year instead of spiraling into fear.
I managed to survive the year, but I can honestly say it was worse than anticipated. Now that I am on the other end I don't know how to relax, my whole body just feels tense all of the time. Hell, that's why I am spending my Saturday night writing a blog post. I am so used to forward motion that rest is impossible. It's the law of emotional physics.
I have started to plan things with the understanding that I will need to be active or else likely fall into a crushing depression. In true dad fashion I am imaging home improvement, gardening and lawn projects. I have two different pieces of scholarly writing on the front burner and three or four essays I will be shopping to online outlets waiting to be written. We are planning on hitting the open road, but I am also looking to have as many local experiences as possible, too, from hiking to going to Mets games to outdoor Shakespeare to going down the Shore to the beach. I am planning on finally home brewing some beer. I will make even more pies and maybe learn to do cream pies next. I have a whole stack of summer reading on deck, too.
In past years I would worry I am making a ridiculous summer to do list, but this year it's a matter of spiritual survival. I hope the rest of my fellow educators can find ways to restore themselves after what we've been through.
Monday, June 7, 2021
The Consolation of M*A*S*H
I have recently returned to an old ritual to help me weather the hard days at the end of the long road that's been teaching and parenting under COVID: watching M*A*S*H reruns. Instead of catching them in the late afternoon or late at night on the local CBS affiliate as I used to, I can binge to my heart's content on Hulu.
Some of the attraction is just pure comfort, like an old sweater or a family recipe. The sound of the theme song and the cast's distinctive voices is a kind of salve to my soul. Back in my Chicago days my friend and roomie Dave and I would watch the daily nighttime rerun for that reason. It was a great way to disengage and take a break from life for awhile.
Under COVID, however, the show's deeper meaning has become clearer and clearer. It is a show about people doing absolutely necessary work in disheartening conditions beyond their control. It is about doing that job when your bosses, coworkers, and general circumstances are conspiring against you in completely unpredictable ways. It is about maintaining your humanity and good humor when everything around you is broken.
I must admit, this is the feeling I had as a teacher-parent in the last fifteen months. I know my job is important, I know if must get done, but some days can just be completely agonizing. We have had so many instances this year of having our work or child care arrangements changed at the drop of a hat. At the height of the pandemic I pretty much stopped planning anything more than a day in advance because any plan was bound to get shattered.
The characters on the show can never relax either, because a crisis is always ready to happen or a helicopter full of wounded is about to arrive. The downtime isn't really relaxation because they can never fully let their guard down. The still in Hawkeye's tent stays humming because booze is the only surefire escape. Let's just say I know a thing or two about this dynamic.
Even though the members of the 4077th are supposed to be united in a common cause, they are riven by divisions and resentments. Despite the horror of the circumstances Frank Burns still does his power plays and members of the unit clash and snipe with each other. The experience of surviving this situation simultaneously draws some people together and pushes others apart. When the worst crises hit, however, they mostly find a way to get the job done. I will be diplomatic and say I understand this dynamic too.
The same can be said of the ways that leadership behaves in M*A*S*H. Colonels Blake and later Potter are kind and understanding, but when any general or other outside bigwig appears they just end up causing problems and wasting people's time. The running character of intelligence officer Colonel Flagg does not not do anything other than antagonize the doctors and push them around. There are constant reminders that the doctors of the M*A*S*H unit are grunts whose life-saving labor is barely acknowledged by the powers that be. It is akin to how educators are often seen as an obstacle rather than a resource by their administrators.
COVID for teacher-parents like myself has a been a kind of purgatory, much like the Korean War in M*A*S*H. You know someday it's going to end, but you have no clue when. You hope to get back to "normal," but you know deep down that normal is never coming back and that your experience has permanently altered who you are. The show's last episode was the most watched thing in television history when it aired in 1983, and not just because it was a popular show. Plenty of other shows have been more popular. There was something deeper going on there. The characters on the show meant something to the audience, who needed to see them finally escape and go home.
After all, that was not a foregone conclusion. The killing off of Colonel Blake has to be one of the most shocking moments in TV history. It was done because the show's creators wanted to remind everyone that this was indeed a war they were witnessing, and wars have casualties. I have been lucky this year not to lose anyone to COVID but at the height of the pandemic riding the train into school while all my white collar professional friends were at home I was keenly aware that my health and perhaps my life were on the line.
So at the end of my work day, which usually involves passing out on the train at some point, and my post-work day of grading and answering emails, I put on M*A*S*H reruns. The theme song and opening credits, perhaps the most melancholy in television history, hit me like like a shot of spiritual novocaine. The credits are a reminder that the doctors are only stitching up wounded soldiers so they can get sent back into the line and shot again. There's no better metaphor for the necessity and futility of my daily life since March of 2020.
Wednesday, June 2, 2021
One Too Many Mornings
This is my last full week of classes for the 2020-2021 school year and I look and feel like twenty miles of bad road. I didn't really have a summer last year, since most of my waking hours were consumed with anxiety, dread, and preparation for the coming school year. This has felt like the longest school year ever partially because it effectively began on the first day after the 2019-2020 school year ended.
I made myself an expert in all kinds of classroom technologies. I completely altered my practice. I learned how to teach students in person and distanced simultaneously. During my work days I was often also my children's teacher's aide, school cook, and janitor all rolled into one. There were plenty of left turns, like my wife and I needing to be in school when my daughters' school wasn't open, or getting less than a week's notice that I would need to be at school five days a week rather than two. It was fun to know at the drop of a hat that I was about to eat two thousand dollars worth of child care costs.
And through it all, all of the 14 hour days and stress freakouts and questioning why I didn't go to law school instead, I could not escape the thought that all this effort added up to a learning product that was inferior to what I could give my students in the Before Times. That thought, always in the back of my mind, has been soul crushing. Was all of this even worth it? Does anyone even care? Will anyone remember it when we go back to "normal"?
One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs comes at the end of his Ghost of Tom Joad album, a kind of spiritual sequel to Nebraska. Like the earlier album, it contains searing indictments of America in the throes of neoliberalism and wracked by inequality, mostly set to spare accompaniment. The song is "My Best Was Never Good Enough," one of the great songs of defeat. He sarcastically spews a bunch of feel good cliches like "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" with the kind of contempt you never hear from the Boss. He taunts (with profanity!) these idiotic bromides that are used to get people to blame themselves for their misfortune. In the end, with the game rigged and the deck stacked, "my best was never good enough."
That's pretty much how I feel about this school year. All the toxic positivity told us that all of our efforts would pay off, that we would get through this together etc etc. It's all the usual bullshit. We worked our asses off, we sacrificed more than ever, and ended up just muddling through. It's been one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind, as the old Dylan song says.
Please please dear God just get me through these last days of school so I can finally make it stop.