Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bobbin' Along

My mom always had the radio on - listening in the forties to hit parade music and in the fifties to rock ‘n’ roll.  I can remember her dancing in the kitchen to “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”  But before rock ‘n’ roll came along, one of the very first song I can remember hearing when I was a toddler was “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbin’ along.”  Mom and I used to sing along with the radio whenever it came on.  I remember having a great deal of fun with “Bob, bob, bob.”

Now all these years later it has occurred to me that I am still bobbin’ along.   When I was a teenager, the pop charts were flooded with “Bobbies” and I listened to of all of them.  Bobby Rydell, Bobby Curtola, Bobby Darin, Bobby Vinton.  They all flew out of my brain, however, when “The Bob” came along.  Bob Dylan. 

Dylan’s first self-titled album was released in March of 1962.  I was a sophomore in high school, happily surrounded by a whole passel of friends, doing well academically, dating my first real boyfriend - my life was perfect and I was in love with the world.  In June of that year my dad announced we were moving - (insert dramatic teenage pause) - and my life fell apart

Sometime during that awful summer, I stumbled upon that first Bob Dylan album at a Sears Roebuck store in Buffalo.  From the very first spin on the console record player in the living room, it captured my complete attention.  This music was so very different from the pop pap served up on the radio in those days so as I started my junior year in that new high school that I detested even before I stepped foot in it, my loathing was fueled by the unconventional “voice” of Bob Dylan.   (I must admit at this point in my narrative that I mispronounced his name “Dye-lan” for a while until a hip friend from the beloved former high school clued me in to the correct pronunciation - thanks Susan!)

The song that I became most enamored with on that first album was “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and I played it repeatedly at top volume until my mother finally flew into the living room yelling for me to turn it off. “Do you know what that song is about?” she screamed.  (I had no idea what that song was about but it just sounded so dangerous I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by it.)  Senior year, when the socialite kids in this school were planning the details of their prom (“Blue Velvet” - named after the Bobby Vinton song) (Ack!), I was memorizing the words to “With God on Our Side.” It has always made me wonder - had I not changed towns and schools at that time in my life, would I be the person I am today?  Would I be a housewife?  Somebody’s  grandmother?  (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)  Would I be one of those people hanging on every episode of American Idol - a (shudder) pop music fan?

Dylan proved a prolific song writer and albums began flowing out of Columbia Records at a very swift pace and I acquired Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are a Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan - all before I graduated from high school in 1964.  Songs that have stood my test of time from these three albums are “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “With God on Our Side,” “ Boots of Spanish Leather”  and “All I really Want to Do” (Even now, I still hope to someday own a pair of “Spanish boots of Spanish leather”).

I have always credited Bob Dylan (and the Beatles to a lesser extent) to forever changing my life.   His raw and powerful songs enabled me to survive those last two years of high school.  In December of 1964, finally away from that awful town and safely ensconced at Buff State College, I attended my very first concert - seeing Bob Dylan and his special surprise guest Joan Baez, at Kleinhans Music Hall.  In the impressively designed and acoustically perfect hall, the crowd of college students in blue-jeans was interspersed with the very baffled Kleinhans patrons in their usual pearls and furs. It was thrilling to see Dylan and Baez together on that stage and I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.

Of course in 1965 everything seemed to happen at once - Dylan released two seminal albums Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited (still his two best, in my humble opinion).  These songs were embedded in my heart and brain and soul from the first second I heard them:  “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and my all time favorite Dylan song, “She Belongs to Me.”  Just think - it has been 45 years now that I have been searching for an “Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks.”  And I have often imagined “She never stumbles, she’s got no place to fall,” as my perfect motto (for whenever I ever need a motto).

That same year I was in the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan “went electric” (despite Pete Seeger and his frantic backstage efforts to try to pull the plug).  Some of the folkies booed but most were eventually captivated by both sides of Dylan, acoustic and electric.  In the fall of ’65 Dylan was back at Kleinhans again not too long after the Great Northeast Power Failure.  He did the first half of the concert with simply his guitar and harmonica, and then for the second half, out came the electric guitars and amps.  When he took to the stage for this electric set, some guy yelled out “Pray for another power failure!” and everyone laughed and the concert went on without a hitch.

Dylan was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in July of 1966 and did not tour again for eight years although he recorded albums with some regularity in that interval.  Blonde on Blonde which contained “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,”  and “Just Like a Woman,” John Wesley Harding with “All Along the Watchtower,” and Nashville Skyline with “Girl From the North Country” and “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  I missed buying Self Portrait and New Morning in sequence, but later became fond of “Quinn, the Eskimo” and “If Not for You.”  I remember buying Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and loving the entire soundtrack especially “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

In the summer of 1972 a very interesting Dylan incident occurred which at the same time had both everything and nothing to do with him.  I was attending the Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto Island and that weekend a rumor began circulating throughout the crowd that various folk celebrities had been spotted in our midst:  Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and (Gasp!) Bob Dylan himself.  We were hoping one or all of these luminaries would grace the main stage for a nighttime concert. 

One bright afternoon I was sitting on my blanket not really paying any attention to an old timey folk duo on one of the workshop stages under the huge willows along the shining water’s edge.  It was a tranquil workshop, the crowd couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred languid sun-worshipers, and I don’t think any of us were doing anything other than killing time until the next workshop.  Suddenly a murmur swept through the crowd like a tsunami and we all seemed to be instantaneously aware that “Bob Dylan is here!”

As one, the crowd jumped to its feet, and began the first few steps of a crazed dash off into the direction (stage left) where Dylan was supposed to have been seen.  And just as swiftly we all changed our minds and went back to our spaces and sat down.  I cannot speak for anyone else present that afternoon, but in my Gemini mind the following dialogue took place:  “Oh my God!  Bob Dylan is here - we must run to him!  But then what, what would we do?  He would be very annoyed to be mobbed by hundreds of crazed folkies. In addition, we would be insulting these lovely traditional performers by abandoning them on this little stage, so we are being silly and let’s just sit back down.”

The event that I have labored to describe for the last three paragraphs took place in less than a minute from start to finish and it is one of the oddest occasions of mass hysteria (and mass sanity) I have ever encountered.  Poor Bob never knew what he missed that afternoon. 

In 1974 his career seemed to ramp up a lot and he released Planet Waves (containing “Forever Young”), and the live album with The Band, Before the Flood.   1975 brought Blood on the Tracks and my next batch of treasured favorites: “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts.”

I was still bobbin’ along in late1975 when Dylan’s own version of the magical mystery tour, the incredible Rolling Thunder, came to town.  I rank that event as one of my all time favorite top ten concerts.  I have little recall of the concert in its entirety, just one amazing performance after another and when Joan Baez sang “Amazing Grace” it was so quiet in the Niagara Falls Convention Center you could literally have heard a pin drop.   Scarlet Rivera was particularly otherworldly playing her electric violin (considering when Dylan released “Desolation Row” back in 1965 we all assumed he was singing about an imaginary instrument). 
Over the years, Dylan had an almost mystical ability to gather outstanding musicians to back his efforts - among my favorite sidemen were Bruce Langhorne, Al Cooper, Mike Bloomfield, and of course, The Band.  The silvery soaring silkiness from these (and many other) incredible musicians provided an ideal juxtaposition for Dylan’s always unique vocalizations and his dancing tumbling lyrics.

In 1976, along with a live concert recording of The Rolling Thunder tour, Hard Rain, Dylan released Desire containing yet another of my absolute favorites, “Isis.”  1978 brought the release of Street Legal and although I loved the photograph on the cover and owned a huge poster of it, the songs therein rang no bells for me.  Dylan also performed a number of solo concerts in the seventies - in 1978 I was fortunate enough to see him in Toronto, Buffalo and Rochester!  Plus I was able to photograph him from my second row seat at the Aud in Buffalo - not the world’s best photos but they made me very happy for many years.

The last two albums I ever bought were Live at Budokan, which was nice but I rarely listened to it, and Slow Train Coming which I played only once.    Those were in 1979, and by that time Talking Heads  and The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim Curry and many other performers had entered the scene and then came the eighties and the Continental and local bands and musicians, all jostling for room in my life.  Oddly enough, although I rarely approve of cover songs, Tim Curry recorded a breathy and riveting version of “Simple Twist of Fate” and I still enjoy it equally with the Dylan original.

So I guess 1979 was about when I stopped following his career.  I have memorized almost every single word to every single song in Dylan’s first dozen or so albums, but, again, in my humble opinion, he suddenly “jumped the shark” and I stopped buying new albums.  I saw him being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and (later learned) it was “Masters of War” which he had performed but as I was watching it I could not understand a single word he was singing and I couldn’t even figure out which song he was doing.  Friends who are Dylan fans tell me his new stuff is great and I will take their word for it - I have no desire to immerse myself in any new Dylan songs.  My Bob Dylan remains suspended in as if in amber between 1962 and 1978.  Both of us are floating there - forever young.

In her 95th year now, my step mother enjoys watching and listening to the musical stylings of The Lawrence Welk Show. If I am blessed with such health and longevity, mayhap someday I will be the one in the rocking chair on the porch of an old folk’s home and I can only hope I will still be bobbin’ along, listening to Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. 

"Bobby Dylan" by Mar 1965