To these humble though experienced ears, the five most influencial musicians of the 20th century were George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Today, rather unexpectedly, Bob Dylan turns 70 years old. Though he needs teleprompters to remember all those amazing lyrics, Dylan is still at it. He starts a short tour of Europe and the Middle East next month. Beyond his lyrics, here’s a few mental gems from Bob Dylan: “A song is anything that can walk by itself.” and “All this talk about equality. The only thing people really have in common is that they are all going to die.” and “Being on tour is like being in limbo. It’s like going from nowhere to nowhere.” and “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” and “People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.” and this could go on and on. Happy Birthday Bob and I thank you for writing and recording my third favourite album of all-time, Blonde on Blond, in 1966 when you were just 25 years old! My review of the album follows. The picture is a doctored still from Dylan’s classic video for Subterranean Homesick Blues done in 1965 as the opening sequence for D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about Dylan’s tour of Britain called Don’t Look Back.
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#3. BLONDE ON BLONDE – Bob Dylan 1966
The story so far: scrawny Jewish kid from grimy mining town Hibbing Minnesota, in the thrall of a muse shared by Woody Guthrie and other patriotic American dissidents, flees to NYC and instills himself in the burgeoning “folk explosion.” Writing and performing his protest vision to increasingly enthusiastic folkies and recording three albums of great folk purity, he wears his folk troubadour mantle with appropriate dustiness.
Under the sway of big city life and its denizens, he transforms easily into dandified street hipster, tousle-haired and poetic, his new muse the Symbolists, Rimbaud et al. This new electrified personality demands a different music, electric, bluesy and peopled with his strange new friends and their antics. He creates two albums (Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) of blues-pierced rock and roll with snarled chaotic images ranging from street scenes to bible stories, almost hits #1 on the pop charts and, unfazed, continues his transmogrification.
To create the third album in his rock and roll trilogy – an unintended trilogy as history would demonstrate – Dylan went to Nashville taking just Robbie Robertson of the Hawks, and Al Kooper on keys. Everyone else is a veteran Nashville studio musician. And the result: Dylan’s masterpiece.
As a Zen master put it, “When I heard the sound of the bell ringing, there was no I and no bell, just the ringing!” This is the ringing. The levels of invention on this album are astounding. Seasoned Nashville session musicians mix with raw young rock players under Dylan’s hallucinatory wand to create four sides of inspired new music. Blonde on Blonde scratched into the wall a new meaning for the term rock & roll.
It was the first double rock and roll album ever released. It changed the way musicians, fans and the music industry felt about LPs. It shockingly expressed, for the first time that a song could take up a whole side of an album and that was okay.
From the howling homage to the Beatniks – Rainy Day Women #12 & 39 – that opens this creation to the final notes of the stoned epic to his new wife Sara as of 1965, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands that consumes all of side four, there is seldom a moment not awash with musical and/or poetic eloquence. This was the album where Dylan demonstrated he thoroughly understood rock and roll, too.
We’d heard the evidence of his folk roots and those understandings. We’d listened along as he grew into a relatively comfortable blues player. Like a Rolling Stone became an unlikely Number Two hit and established Dylan’s rock & roll wrinkle, a wild cascade of images and vitriol over the raw shriek of bastard guitars and clamoring keys. Like a Rolling Stone’s visceral form left vast areas of refinement available for Dylan to explore. Blonde on Blonde was the earnest beginning of that exploration.
An even more unlikely hit for Dylan opens the album, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, got to Number Two! Here we have a whorehouse full of Beat poets, all very horny, high on wine and pot, yowling their mantra for a generation “Everybody must get stoned,” backed up by a German mariachi band, also drunk and high. It’s a marvelously ridiculous introduction to the subtleties that follow.
Next is the lowdown blues of Pledging My Time, teeth-filling-rattling harp in the forefront throughout while a concoction of musicians simmers away behind him.
There are several songs I absolutely love from this album and Visions of Johanna is the first to appear. It is my favourite track here. This is the newly transplanted urban poet keenly observing the crazy strangeness that the city produces in people, cautiously dipping his body and his mind into relationships but always ruled by an infatuation with Johanna, a vision of unattainable beauty and his life’s fulfillment. He’s having fun with it though.
“See the primitive wallflower freeze,
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the moustache say, “Jeez,
“I can’t find my knees.””
(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Knowis another of my faves, an edifying, almost hymnal organ/piano rant with Dylan trying to “explain” a relationship, even taking some responsibility for the way it turned out. The spookiest line in this tune is “You told me later as I apologized, you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really…from the farm.” At once accusative and spiteful yet loving, there is something about how he says those three words that is still wonderfully enigmatic in meaning and delivery. So ends Side One. Three to go. This is vinyl, remember.
I’m convinced Dylan either worked on or spent way too much of his youth on midways. There is a carnival atmosphere to some of his material. I Want You, follow-up single to Rainy Day Women, getting to #20 on Billboard, is stoned Bobby Vee meets the guy who plays the organ at hockey games. The candid title seems to justify every strange thing that happens in the song, all because “I want you.”
Southern music, cool, smooth and sublime, describes (Stuck Inside of Mobile With the) Memphis Blues Again. Some of Dylan’s most surreal images and characters emerge in this song. It’s sticky with desire, murky with symbols transforming into concepts. And I love the ending!
Barroom brawls are happening in the background of the haute Chicago blues number Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat; snaky guitars feed a hungry piano being chopped in two with a dull axe. Add another full measure of vitriol! This was a single, peaking at #81!
The fourth and final single from the album ends side two, Just Like a Woman, peaked at #33. Who could possibly resist “her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls?” The song is about a small increment of his personal evolution that happened, to Dylan’s surprise, at the end of a relationship.
Those eight songs would have comprised any normal album of the time. But we have two more sides that expand on the themes and format of the first two. Back to the carnival for Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, another cranky ending to a relationship, another favourite.
Temporary Like Achilles follows the second track/blues format. It’s a slow, crisp number with the great line “I’m trying to read your poetry but I’m helpless like a rich man’s child.” The organ in the break is bubbling up from a very deep pool, likely played by Al Kooper.
Absolutely Sweet Marie follows, a bouncy rocker with another mystery tableau peopled by Marie and friends. Dylan’s harmonica break is, simply, nuts.
The most delicate setting backdrops another tale of a bizarre relationship with 4th Time Around. The floppy melody carries a yarn about a one-night stand with some serious drug use and the morning after; off-kilter observations and events flow in and out of the collage. (Legend has it Dylan played this tune for Lennon and McCartney before he had recorded it. Soon after he got a thematic re-write of it on Rubber Soul (#16) called Norwegian Wood. Legend has it.)
Obviously 5 Believers is the album’s last romp, clangy guitars, blues harp and honky tonk piano conspire in this yearny tune.
Side Four is all Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, about 11 minutes of Dylan at his hallucinogenic best. In an album full of such moments, here he manages to evoke in a dream a hovering feminine wraith that haunts his consciousness to the point that “a warehouse eyes my Arabian drum.” Now that’s serious fantasizing! Pour on the churchy organ, tap out a rhythm on a wastebasket, refer to “the farm” again in an eerie nostalgic way and keep the joints lit. (This was when drugs were still fun for Bob.) The song, the side and the album end with another harrowing harmonica blow from Dylan.
The next step on his journey is complete.
Favourite Track: Visions of Johanna
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
I was sitting in the Tim Horton’s at Stafford and Corydon and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2 came on the radio. (I know, Socrates, Tim Horton and U2 in the first three lines with Ken Wilber and St. Francis of Assisi yet to come! Please bear with me.) It got me wondering if, in my lifetime, I have found what I’m looking for, a question that demanded some serious introspection. Then I thought Chris and I could both blog on the question and post on the same day. People could compare and contrast our answers. Chris jumped at the idea. He is twenty-five years my junior and had an upbringing much different from mine. This should be interesting.
My search for an answer started with making a list of the most important things I have gone looking for in my life. It turned out to be a six item list: Love, Friendship, The Muse, Happiness, An Audience and My Life Purpose.
- Love: When I was a romantic lad growing up in Shoal Lake in western Manitoba, I had an imaginary dream girl, the perfect woman who would love me forever, cherish everything about me, forgive all my sins and die happily in my arms, all the same things I would do for her. Her name was Johanna, inspired by Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna. I held onto my vision of Johanna through high school, took her to Toronto with me to learn radio announcing and brought her back to the prairies where I started my career. Still not having found my Johanna by that time, I was starting to lose hope, thinking it was all just a childish thing ready to be discarded. However, I kept searching and I found her. She was just using another name – Linda. I am among those incredibly fortunate men who found a perfect soul mate to love and understand him. I found the love I was looking for in full measure.
- Friendship: At The Celebration of Light and Linda last fall, I was joined for a photograph by five guys I went to school with 50 years before. It is a most telling picture showing deep camaraderie and love. I could call on any one of these men today and they would help me, no matter what, and I would do the same for them. These are lifelong friends with whom I share common childhood experiences and mutual admiration. I have human friends of all ages and endeavours and find them stimulating and satisfying. My closest friendships feel more like family. Through shamanism, I have a pantheon of spirits who are also my friends but of an entirely different order. I have found the friends I was looking for.
Six buddies from Shoal Lake: from the left Terry Lewycky, Dennis Lewycky, Ernie Bart, myself, Mark Fikkert, Ron Bart
- The Muse: My creativity is a family legacy from my mother and her father. Imaginative and always ready to tell a story, real or imagined, my teacher Mom exhorted me to get inside my own head and discover what’s there. I’ve had an eager and unabashed connection to my imagination ever since. On my About page, I wrote (quoting myself, writer’s bliss!): “I seem to have tapped into the source of an endless stream of ideas that flow like quicksilver through my mind, some of them getting captured and sent far and asunder in my own words. As Terence McKenna said, ‘Imagination is where we are coming from and imagination is where we are going to.’ I have honed my imagination to a fine nib that dips into the rainbow ink of many worlds, leaving behind a sometimes elegant, sometimes smeared trail of word crumbs. If they ever help anybody find their way home, my job is done.” Finding a life partner like Linda, equally imaginative and creative, was an unexpected bonus. Looking for The Muse is a process, it never ends. I have found The Muse and an ongoing connection to its process.
- Happiness: The big truth here in ordinary reality is we only get little stabs at happiness, not long blissful swaths of it. The happiness we do experience is seldom of our own making, often artificially induced, always fleeting. Needy egos, the bind of the mind and the rolling thunder of life’s experience keep us from sustained happiness. Developing an inner practise like shamanism opens up new realms of potential happiness often leading to bliss. My power animal, Tiger, brings joyfulness into my life daily. Linda made me happy during her life and continues to do so after her death. Her consistent message is “Be happy.” Although this is not the forum to detail this, using wisdom flowing from her new vantage point, Linda has shown me a glimpse of heaven to illustrate why I should “be happy.” I have found happiness wherever I looked.
- An Audience: Both Chris and I are seeking our audiences this year. In my life, I have frequently had an audience: as a radio announcer, as an artist and performer, as an old friend prowling the stage of The Park Theatre at The Celebration and now with this blog. Today I’m finding my next audience in a whole new way. The content – me – is the same but the format is new and exciting, awash with instant possibilities combining images, video, audio and words. I am finding my audience here, view by view, in this burning ground of history where everything is immediately retrievable while the whole world watches.
- My Life Purpose: It’s not radio, not retail, not any of the myriad odd jobs I tried. It’s not even writing. My life purpose became clear to me when I was 45 years old. In 1994, I discovered a little book called The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner. He laid out the core elements of shamanism as it had been practiced for over 50,000 years, adapted the techniques and technology for modern people and, suddenly, I had access to the spirit world. I had found my Way! Though it would take me a few years to realize it, I had found my purpose, as well. Widely traveled, I visited dozens of ancient sacred sites on the Canadian prairies, performing rituals and exploring the realms opened up through my daily practice of neo-shamanism. Discovering my spiritual calling, my purpose has enriched my life beyond measure.
St. Francis of Assisi said something so profoundly simple in its truth that it took me years to understand it. He said, “What you are looking for is what is looking.” I knew the things I was looking for, that was the easy part. But what is looking? I pondered this many times. My searching and scrambling seemed to be what I wanted but I never had any real perspective on myself until I figured out what St. Francis meant.
So, what is looking? Our very essence, this vast empty awareness in which we and everything we experience and perceive arises, that’s what is looking. Call it Spirit, cosmic consciousness, God. Ken Wilber calls it “the deepest suchness of our being where all worlds arise.” Spirit is what’s looking, partaking of the world through my eyes and my being, in fact, everyone’s eyes and beings. Spirit is the tireless watcher, the eternal Witness to all that arises. The most satisfying discovery of my life had always been plainly obvious. To experience it, all I did was get out of my own way.
The Answer: Yes, reflecting back over six decades I can honestly say I have found what I’m looking for and I have been found by what is looking for me. In both cases, it is Spirit. If I die tomorrow, I’ll have a smile on my face.
However, although satisfied so far, I am still committed to the search, to learn my whole life long, to shine my curiosity into new realms and discover what’s there. I can report today that what’s there is incredible!
Check out Chris’ blog to see if he’s found what he’s looking for.
Chris welcomes the world to his blog.