- “Feel It Still,” by Portugal the Man (“I'm a rebel just for kicks, now/ I been feeling it since 1966, now/ might've had your fill, but you feel it still”)
Published: May 24, 2017
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So Bob Dylan is 76. Impossible to think someone is carrying a cake and singing “Happy Birthday” to him. Also impossible not to look back at the moments when Dylan’s songs were like the tablets Moses carried down from the mount.
For me, the most piercing Dylan year was 1967-1968. It was the fall of my senior year in college. Thesis done, degree requirements satisfied — talk about your dish of cream! But there was a war on, and if you want to talk about “a nation divided,” consider how that was playing out in a year when 11,153 body bags would come home, 467 in October alone. That month, like everyone else I knew, I went to Washington to protest; I watched peaceful people beaten and arrested, with not a mention of it in most newspapers. The culture was just as split. In greater America, “To Sir with Love” was the #1 song that month; in New York, “Hair” opened off-Broadway.
Bob Dylan? That month, he was in Nashville, recording a new album.
The first session, on October 17, lasted three hours; out of it came master takes of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," "Drifter’s Escape" and "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." On November 6, Dylan knocked off “All Along the Watchtower," "John Wesley Harding,” "As I Went Out One Morning,” "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and "I Am a Lonesome Hobo." Late the next month, Dylan quickly finished the album.
Twelve hours in the studio for 40 minutes of music — there’s no comparison in all of American music.
And that’s just the start of What’s Exceptional about “John Wesley Harding.”
On December 27, 1967 — a month after he finished recording, in the dead week between Christmas and New Year — Columbia released the album. Promotion? None. A single? Not. Still, Dylan fans found it and snapped it up. And then it went away, until Jimi Hendrix plucked one song from it. “Two riders were approaching. The wind began to howl.” And did it ever…
I can understand why “John Wesley Harding” is not in your Dylan collection. It came after three of the greatest albums ever recorded: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde.” Then there was Dylan’s motorcycle accident. And a long silence. And then this — not quite a country album, though there were tendencies. With lyrics that teased and challenged: stripped-down story songs, vaguely Biblical in theme.
And not one word about Vietnam, drugs, hippies or the chasm between old and young.
And out of Dylan came this….
I listened obsessively to “John Wesley Harding” that winter, and as the man says in one song, “I bowed my head and cried.” First, for the artistic achievement; Dylan had, yet again, turned his back on his past and made something completely unexpected and contrarian. But even more for what I thought Dylan was saying. He’d taken a giant step back from everything contemporary and looked deeply into what mattered. What he found was scary, exhilarating, desperately important — and absolutely relevant to what was happening. [To buy the CD from Amazon and get a free MP3 download at a ridiculously low price, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
All these years later, I find myself draw again to “John Wesley Harding.” I am a slow thinker, so it took me a while to figure out why — of all the music I could be playing, this is the most relevant I know. The reason is right at the start of the first song: “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor…” The whole album is shot through with references to losers: hoboes, immigrants, drifters. In short, all the people that a certain group of politicians, moguls and voters want to exclude from the national conversation. And then, even though you and I are still lucky enough to matter, the line we can all understand: “Dear landlord, please don’t put a price on my soul.”
If I make this sound heavy as German philosophy, I do my cause no favors here. The fact is, this is a fantastic listening experience. The band —Charles McCoy (bass), Kenny Buttrey (drums) and Pete Drake (steel guitar) — was amazed at Dylan’s speed and self-assurance. Kenny Buttrey: “We went in and knocked ’em out like demos.” True, but these were the best studio players in Nashville. And the producer was the legendary Bob Johnston.
And we are, after all, talking about our Shakespeare.
UPDATE: DYLAN AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Barack Obama, on that evening: “Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”
I went to the kind of New England boarding school that makes you feel — wrongly — superior to the high school graduates when you get to college, so it was quite a shock for me to discover an elite even more elite than the preppies: the kids who’d gone to school in Switzerland. It was thus a pleasure to read Joanna Goodman’s “The Finishing School,” a novel that focuses on Kersti Kuusk, a scholarship student in the 1990s at the Lycée Internationale Suisse, and Cressida, her beautiful, rich classmate. Kersti has gone on to become a bestselling novelist. Naturally the school invites her to speak at its100th birthday celebration. And the trouble starts: In 1998, Cressida jumped or was pushed off a balcony at the Lycée. She’s still technically alive, but she’ll never be able to tell her story. What would a writer of historical women’s fiction do? You guessed it. “The Finishing School” drops all the right names, but it’s far from an exercise in snobbery. Its subjects are young love and lust, privilege and striving, and faculty-student relations that redefine that term. There’s a missing ledger and a dark secret, and the story is as tasty as braised lamb shanks and as easy to swallow as a good Riesling — add this to your stack of beach reads. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
When we last read Owen Lewis, it was 2015, and the psychiatrist/teacher/poet had just published “Best Man.” The title could not have been more ironic or bittersweet — the 23 poems were about his brother Jason, who died in 1980, age 23. Jason was the tragedy every family fears: a bright, drugged thief and liar. Here the dead talk, and the survivor talks back. [To buy the paperback of “Best Man” from Amazon, click here.] “Marriage Map,” in contrast, is about his enviable second marriage. The quotation from Homer that is the book’s epigram signals the tone: “There is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife.” But a second marriage invariably invites contrasts. In the first poem, “The day I met you/ a crane fell, smashing cars, slicing six/ stories of corners off a building.” Owen calls Susan to explain the trouble. She says she has a “Plan B.” He’s breathless. More accurately, she’s holding his breath — the breath of a man whose marriage is, like the crane, collapsing. The last line: “Who had ever considered for me a ‘Plan B’?” In these poems, love revives him, strengthens and affirms him. But not without cost. In a second marriage, you can’t avoid the shadows of all that’s come before: “We bring an in-gathering/ of exiles, taken from themselves/ scattered along the rivers of home.” So here are his brother, parents, first wife. Shining through is the simple fact of an abiding romance: “We make of time what we will… This wedding starts again, forever.” These poems are moonlight through a bedroom window. [To buy “Marriage Map” from Amazon, click here.]
When Dominique Salerno presented “The Box Show” last year, the Times reviewer called it “the most purely delicious production I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe Festival.” Now she’s back for a limited run, and I can understand why she got that rave: She does the entire show in a black box that’s 35″ x 35″ x 23″ — and in that claustrophobic space, she delivers 25 sketches, with hilarious characters that include a British pop star, the entire Greek Army squabbling inside the Trojan horse, and a baby in utero. If you’re free on a few Sunday nights — May 21 or June 4 or 11 — consider spending 90 minutes at 123 E 24th Street. Tickets are a bargain: $18. Click for info and tickets.
American Jews in Israel. An inheritance, which means money and a lot more. Back in Los Angeles, a son’s alleged financial crime — what kind of crime did you expect? — has become a family scandal. Not promising material, when you consider how Jews are presented in American fiction. The writer loves them. Or the writer hates them (or, more correctly, hates herself/himself). And in a first novel yet! I ask you: What was the last great first novel you read about Jews? Goodbye, Columbus. Okay, what else?
Bethany Ball’s “What To Do About The Solomons” is my favorite length for fiction: blessedly short. But in those 235 pages, we get a large — there are so many characters that Ball starts the book with a Solomon family tree — and unruly clan. They’re like moose with antlers locked: They can’t get closer, they can’t get apart. But you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. And coming to like them, for very different reasons.
For a novel about Real and Serious Things, this is a very funny book. Bethany Ball writes with wit as sharp as the blade of a mohel. For once, I totally concur with a New York Times review: “I ended ‘What to Do About the Solomons’ absolutely swimming with affection, not just for the characters but for the multiple worlds that created them. Despite their collective penchant for psychodrama, there’s something profoundly lovely — and loving — about the Solomons. And about Bethany Ball’s debut.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Obligatory Blog Roll
- Andrew Tobias
- Jenny McPhee
- The Midas Watch
- Roughly Daily
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Charles Pierce
- James Fallows
- Dominique Browning
- Speakers in Code
- New York
- Manhattan User’s Guide
- Show Biz
- Roger Friedman
- New York Social Diary
- Designer Previews