Monday, July 18, 2011

Bob Dylan and his Band in Southern California (including a very slight interaction with "his Band")

Here's my take on two Dylan shows I attended at the end of last week. I've previously posted these reviews on the Bob Links website.


Flew down from Seattle to catch the Southern CA shows, seeing Bob is skipping the Pacific NW this time around. You gotta do what you gotta do to see Dylan! Drove up the coast from Santa Monica, through Malibu and around Point Dume, where I hear the man has a home. Walked up to the top of a hill on the point and looked at the incredible view, a wide beach below and the sea, but I couldn't tell which of the fine gated houses might be Bob's. I thought there was supposed to be a copper dome, but it wasn't evident. Maybe I had the wrong spot or maybe the dome is gone or hidden, who knows? Slightly stalker-ish, but Hey, I just wanted to see the view Dylan sees during his rare times home in CA. And Bob himself has been noticed on pilgrimages to the childhood homes of Lennon, Neil Young and Springsteen!

Anyway, on to the Santa Barbara Bowl, a lovely amphitheater, up another steep hill, with views of the ocean. In summary: really great show. As fine an example of elder Dylan you will get, just everything good. The sound in that amphitheater is a treat.  His voice was in fine form. "Forgetful Heart" was chill inducing good. His tone and phrasing was clear and playful and harsh too, of course harsh, excellent harsh. But he really SANG well. Smooth when he wanted to be.

The band was tight and delicious. Sexton seemed to have a more freedom than in the shows I saw last late summer. He and Bob had great interplay between the guitar and keyboard, lots of focused jazzy jam. I could complain about a few choices in the set list, things we've heard so much, but when they are performed this well, jeez, I'm almost glad to get it one more time. Isn't that why I keep coming back? For example, Hard Rain is a song I thought I was done with long ago. But Bob really made it new and scary and also tender tonight. I thought hard on my own "darlin' young ones." I loved hearing it. Heavy on the apocalyptic overall this evening.

What else can I say? On to Costa Mesa, and speaking of hell and damnation, through LA traffic. If tomorrow is near as good as tonight, it will be worth it.

On the discussion boards, I read the question, "What was Dylan's last really great year?" Right now!


Last night in Costa Mesa Bob Dylan and his band performed a solid, if somewhat erratic set of the artist's classics, new and old. I don't know if was the sound in the amphitheater, or my own ears, but this show lacked the clarity and cohesion of the previous night's performance in Santa Barbara. One song might be brilliantly focused and tight, the next shambling and loose to the point of falling into pieces. Vocals moved from ragged and nearly careless, to nuanced and sublime, and on some tunes, like the current stand-out "Ballad of a Thin Man," immensely powerful.

What a surprise, eh? The bandleader does it his way, and sometimes it doesn't quite work. Songs that featured stellar interplay between the musicians in Santa Barbara lacked the same chemistry and magic in Costa Mesa. Sometimes Bob leads the guys into marvels with the keyboard, other times up the creek. And then Dylan straps on the guitar and they blaze through a super hot "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." That one put me in mind of the glory years of Dylan, Sexton And Campbell, standing in one line with guitars, smokin' through the rockers. Of course, back then they didn't have that particular great song to work with.

Then straight into a less than inspired version of "High Water," certainly a far cry from the controlled frenzy of the night before.

"Tangled Up in Blue" was appreciated by the crowd for it's place in their heart, but also uninspired to my ears. "Forgetful Heart" was gorgeous, again. Being a fairgrounds show, a size-able share of drunks and casual fans (or less) were on on hand, which never adds to the ambiance. People blabbered through the quiet songs and left for the bathroom. Some of the older folks in the audience are aging gracefully, like Dylan; others act like fools. Some are laid-up in wheelchairs, and Bob must be an inspiration of vitality for them, kicking his legs at the keyboard and going into a deep lean on the harp solos. Not to mention the strength that is undiminished in the music. Of course, things have changed. The younger set who meant to be there were adoring, the ones who were pulled in by forces beyond their control appeared bored and confused.

It might sound like I didn't enjoy this show but really I had a blast. Before taking my seat I found myself looking down over the loading zone ramp for the venue. And here comes Tony Garnier walking in: "Hey Tony," I shout. He looks at me and I give him a big thumbs up, which he returns with a smile. A couple minutes later, Donnie Herron rambles down, grey jacket in hand: "hey Donnie!" He looks wildly around before he sees me grinning at him. I give him the thumbs up again and he returns it with a big smile, and says, "hey man, how are you doing?" "I'm great man, but you rock!" Okay, sort of lame, but I meant it. Another big smile. Well, I'm already satisfied but a few minutes later here comes George Recile, looking a little drowsy or irritated, walking down the ramp. I don't want to bug him but hey, the drummer needs to be appreciated, too. Softly this time, "Hi George." I give him the positive force and get a little smile out of him, and the thumbs up back.

Well, I know Bob isn't coming down that ramp, but what do you know, there goes Charlie Sexton back up it, carrying something bizarre, looks like a water balloon or an udder, wrapped in a piece of cloth. It looks heavy and wet and it seems to be troubling him.  Jeez, I don't know what it was. Five minutes later he comes back down, tucking in his dress shirt, smoking a ciggie, looking all disheveled. By this time I am well into my rock star appreciation cadence: "Hey Charlie!" He smiles up. "You rock, man!" (creative as ever, I know). But he smiles again, appreciative. I say, "Hey, ask Bob to play "I and I!" At this his smile grows bigger: "Yah, right," he says, shaking his head and still grinning. I knew it was a crazy impossible request, hasn't been played in over a decade, but the song was on my mind. I doubt Bob takes requests, even from his lead guitarist. I guess I was thinking if they did play it, I would know it was at my suggestion! No such luck. But it was fun seeing those guys and I felt like they were happy at the acknowledgment, instead of bothered.

Have a good time at the shows everyone. Might be a while before I catch another, back home in the Great Northwest.

Finally, here's a link to a really fantastic review of Costa Mesa, from the Orange County Register. A great example of someone who understands Dylan in performance today. The reviewer and I had different takes on the show, but that's the magic of Dylan, when you are really listening. He hits everyone in slightly different spots at different times. And hey, even if you can't find that magic in the shows, you can always find it in the records!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bob and God and me. The Golden Bird, Part 3, Lightning Amen

Bob and God and me.


From Street Legal to Slow Train.

Just as I was getting this post ready to publish, a message from Dylan himself appeared on his website, urging, tongue-half-in-cheek I suppose, everyone who has not yet written a book about him to "get in on the action and scribble their own book." 
Check! Already done! 

The following essay introduces the the opening chapter of Part 3 of my book, in which, following in Bob's footsteps, I begin my own "gospel phase."

In the summer of 1978, while Bob Dylan was on the middle leg of his year-long “Vegas” tour, “alimony” tour, “big band” tour, “Street Legal” tour — take your pick of labels — I was a new high school graduate on the loose in England. As detailed in my last post, and in the first chapter of my memoir, The Golden Bird, I caught Bob at his hastily arranged, massive outdoor show in Surrey, at the Blackbushe aerodrome. The concert was a triumph for Dylan and a critical turning point in my own life. I fell under the singer’s “dancing spell” and my head cracked wide open. I met a lover that day and uncovered a new experience of nature, and a new intuition of the energy that animates nature.

Dylan was 37, freshly divorced, and although his creative powers were undiminished, they had become unmoored from any tether, a combustible zeppelin. This was clear in the powerful yet poorly recorded songs on the new album, Street Legal, twisted tales from a raw heart delivered through a wall of Styrofoam. This was clear in the dramatically reworked versions of older songs that he offered in concert: “Tangled Up in Blue” as a torch ballad. Fans were discombobulated, sometimes angry — a reoccurring motif in Dylan’s career, and nearly always a sign of advancement, or at the least, freedom. It was as if the listeners thought that they owned the songs instead of the composer, as if the version burned into vinyl and burned into their minds was the one truth, somehow sacred. Dylan, however, was gestating other ideas of sacred. The singer’s new intensity, different from the old intensity, was evident in his stage manner, cavalier, wanton, civilization’s most aggressively intellectual and creative gigolo. Or perhaps a carnival barker. Pleasures and freak-outs of the mind on sale, terms non-negotiable. Back-up singers complimentary.

I could smell danger at Blackbushe, on the wind that evening, in the smoke of the campfires. But I was inexperienced and I couldn’t name it. Four months later, when Dylan’s tour arrived on the west coast of America, the odor had become unmistakable, even to my innocent nose. My second Bob Dylan concert was on the evening of November 9, 1978, at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. Here’s how I describe it in Part 2 of The Golden Bird, in a section called The Silver Cross:

Dylan looked awful. I couldn’t tell just how bad until mid-
set, when Dave and I charged to the stage with hundreds of
others. I stood twenty feet away. Make-up, mascara, and sweat
flew from his face, in black poisonous drops. His eyes stared
desperately at the lights above our heads. He sang with a mix
of vehemence, pain and weariness, as if the songs were being
forced out of him. He seemed trapped, like a wolf in a leg-
His band was the same one that had played with him in
Europe. They made a tremendous din — saxophone scream-
ing, guitars flaring, violin weaving, and back-up singers chant-
ing. The bass and drums circled and thumped overhead like
What was he looking for in the lights? Dylan sang a track
off Street Legal called, “Where are You Tonight? (Journey
Through Dark Heat),” which portrays a man in disintegration
and despair, preyed upon by lions and demons. Several women
live in the song. One is “drifting like a satellite,” one is “in a
rage,” and another is “waiting, putting flowers on the shelf.”
Over and over, in the refrain, Dylan wails, “Oh, if I could just
find you tonight.” Is he looking for one of these women, or
beyond them — for something else?
I was convinced that Dylan’s poems contained clues about
experience in the world and even about my own future. Every-
thing I desired was contained in Marie, in her and me together,
in our inevitable and fated union. But in these songs — layered
with images from the tarot — nothing was so simple. A dan-
gerous, enigmatical force had overtaken the singer’s belief in
romantic love. I was troubled and intrigued by the darkness. It
seemed to promise both bliss and the implosion of bliss.  
Near the end of the concert, Bob introduced his band. He
presented his three back-up singers as “my ex-girlfriend, my
current girlfriend, and my fiancĂ©.”

I couldn’t conceive of why he acted this way. I was thrilled by my physical proximity to the artist that night and untroubled, in fact fascinated, by the new renditions of his best-known songs, but I was worried for Dylan’s very sanity. Or more truly, for the fraying edges of my own. Dylan never claimed to be an anchor for anyone and he actually represented the opposite in my life — the opposite of weight — but still, I looked to him for. . . something . . . a path unsoiled by bullshit, a window to cosmic joy. I had recently experienced these things and I wanted more. It wasn’t on offer that night in Portland. Instead, Dylan generated something else entirely, a rent in the fabric separating heaven from hell. An opportunity to hang out in the shadowy borderlands and consider one’s options.

The rest, as they say, is . . . a matter of public record. Nine days later, Dylan picked up a cross from the stage and ran into a fellow named Jesus in his hotel room.

I returned to college in Eugene. I wouldn’t see Bob again in concert for a long time, but over the next couple of years I felt bizarrely linked to his newest changes. In the late spring of 1979, while Bob was taking Bible study classes in southern California, I flew back to Britain to reconnect with the love I had met at Blackbushe — an older, married, half-pagan, half-Catholic woman. Who also happened to be pregnant. Details are recounted in The Golden Bird. The upshot, however, is that the autumn of 1979 found me disillusioned and  heartbroken in a London squat, where for the first time I heard Slow Train Coming. Before that point, like most others, I had no idea that Bob had gone Christian.

Although I had not a trace of born-again fervor in my own heart, the record appealed tremendously. I was delighted that the disintegration of hope that Dylan had suffered in the previous year had transformed to an expression of faith. As I huddled by the space heater in my friend’s room, I was suffering the same crisis of self-respect, the same craziness that Dylan had shown a year earlier in Portland. To me, the judgment that others heard in the record, that I read about in some of the negative press, seemed squarely directed at the singer’s own failures. I could relate, due to the terrible vanity of my own desire. All of the moral ambiguities that had mystified me a year earlier had shattered on my head.

Hearing Slow Train Coming changed everything. The wreckage of my decision-making was a mess but no longer a threat. The “Christian” nature of Dylan’s message, however, had less resonance than the need to transcend, to “change my way of thinking,” to offer my will to a higher love. I’d been raised as an Episcopalian, so I had some sympathy I suppose, with the vehicle of Christ, but as much skepticism as anyone with the institution of the church. I did, however, have a natural leaning toward metaphysical thinking, a belief in fate and powers from an unseen world.

While I loitered in my friend Theresa’s squat, off the Kilburn High Road in north London, listening to “I Believe in You,” Dylan was performing his soon-to-be-legendary residence at the Warfield in San Francisco, playing only his new songs of redemption, forsaking all others. The bootlegs reveal a strong connection of the artist to his material, and plenty of soul. Most of the audience responded in kind, but the critics were unmoved. One step behind and ten degrees too cold, they held tightly to an image of themselves that, ironically, they had learned from an earlier Bob. They expected him to glorify that one moment in time, when they had been so cool, like him. Instead, the singer had gone deeper into the very themes he had explored from the beginning: authenticity and the quest of the heart, the quest of the soul. 

(To this day, the powers that be at Rolling Stone are condemned to endlessly relive the sixties. The current issue of the magazine picks 9 of Dylan’s 10 “greatest songs” from that decade, completely ignoring the mature depth and beauty of Bob's output in the last 20 years. The editors are absurdly proud to be at the vanguard of a conceptual decade, an idea of a thing, something that exists now only as a marketing tool.)

But truly, back in the day, I too would rather have believed in “cool.” I too thought sixties Dylan was the paramount of hip, even as I was enthralled by the late seventies version. Early in 1980, back in Eugene at the University of Oregon, I intellectualized Bob’s Christian conversion with my sophisticated college friends and found it lacking in style and savoir faire. Regret over my own romantic illusions and missteps had faded and I just wanted to get back in the game. I might have jeered with the worst of them, had I been in one of the college crowds that Bob famously told off in his Bible raps from the stage. But I missed those shows.

And then I met Jesus myself. Turns out a church is about the last place you would find the guy back then. For Dylan it was a hotel, for me it was the bathroom of a college auditorium. He was having a pee I suppose, just before I walked in to do the same.

All of the above is introduction to the following excerpt from my memoir, The Golden Bird. Here’s the first chapter of Part 3, called Lightning Amen. In which I meet the Lord and go nuts. Like Bob. It might make more sense if you have read Parts 1 and 2, but I think you will get the drift. As I said in my last post, if you want a copy of my book, just let me know in the guestbook. Apologies for the lack of paragraph indentations. The text doesn't make the leap from my book PDF to the blog cleanly.


Chapter 8

In late May of 1980, I completed the second quarter of
my sophomore year at the University of Oregon. I had no aca-
demic direction. College was only a place to be, where I didn’t
need to worry about working and where I could chase my only
ambitions: romance and an elusive ecstatic ideal. 
All winter, I’d lived in a tiny lofted bedroom in a shared rent-
al on one of Eugene’s busiest arterials. The house stood smack
in the center of a parking lot. Each morning, I left for classes,
squeezing between the cars of students, professors, and office-
workers. In the late afternoon, I’d walk home, put the White
Album on the turntable, and two pots on the stove. While len-
tils and rice bubbled, John and I screamed at each other about
our loneliness in “Yer Blues.” After dinner, I’d scrub the pan
to the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” and dream up a girl who
might want to push and pull with me all night. I was hungry
for anything that offered a beautiful buzz.
Early in the spring, at the end of April, I moved to an equally
small but much more pleasant room in a quiet neighborhood.
I awoke in the mornings to the scents of grass and earth and
birdsong instead of exhaust and screeching brakes. I tucked
away my Guernsey sweater and my Bob Dylan t-shirts in a
chest of drawers and I felt something uncommon, something
resembling a sense of home.
I’d returned from England to Minnesota in the previous
November and had stayed with my folks through the Christ-
mas holidays. They had been disappointed in me, of course,
running off to Europe and missing the fall term at school. My
mom’s blistering words hurt because I knew she cared about
me and my happiness. I couldn’t talk to her though, any more
than I could talk to my father, about my spiritual desires and
how they had become tangled with the love of a pagan woman.
I also found it impossible to express the distance I felt from
everyone in the family. In my teenage years, my older siblings had
moved west, leaving me behind. More recently, my own actions
and ideals had created a psychic distance that surpassed even
the physical miles between us. In Europe, I had walked down
a hidden, winding fork. Mom and Dad saw it as a muddy path
to nowhere.
I had returned to Eugene for winter quarter and despite the
presence of my brothers two hours north in Portland — study-
ing business and working in business — I felt alone.
One warm evening, not long after classes had ended for the
year, I went out with a new friend, Erik. He was someone’s
cousin, visiting from the East, checking out the college. We’d
really hit it off because he liked to talk books — Jack Kerouac
and the I Ching — and he had a bohemian sense of style.
He had long wavy hair like mine and he wore a thin tie and
a slightly frayed black sports coat. For a few more moments,
I cared about such things. He liked to get high too, and that
night we had a joint of exceptional quality to share.
We walked together to campus, our destination an Akira
Kurosawa movie, The Seven Samurai, playing in a lecture hall.
I’d heard it was a classic tale, based on myth and archetypes,
about Japanese warriors — heroes — recruited by villagers to
save them from marauding bandits.
We stopped at an overgrown cemetery to smoke the weed. I
settled myself on the grass, my back to a tombstone, and Erik
sat lotus-style on a crypt. 
I’d been reading spiritual texts of different kinds, mostly
Zen and other Buddhist tracts, with a little of the Christian
mystics thrown in. Their descriptions of an enlightened state
matched my own brief experiences of transcendence. I wasn’t
disciplined enough, however, to devote myself to the required
meditation of the Buddhists or the solitary self-denials of the
Christians. I was too full of energy and desire.
I wasn’t even listening to Dylan anymore, not his new stuff
anyway. He’d followed Slow Train Coming with another Chris-
tian album, called Saved. In England the previous October,
while hanging around at Theresa’s, I’d been impressed by
Dylan’s new convictions. They had given me hope at a mo-
ment when hope seemed futile. More recently, back in the vast
New World, I’d been influenced by my college buddies. They
thought Dylan had lost his mind, trading creative thought for
the dictates and dogma of a narrow creed. My friends dispar-
aged these records as uncool and impossible to relate to. Logi-
cally, I also couldn’t see how the artist’s focus on Jesus, on one
single religion, could lead to any higher awareness.
I listened to other titles in my collection instead. When I
wasn’t in class or at a bookstore, I spent my time in the record
shops flipping through the racks of vinyl. I owned many clas-
sics of the sixties and seventies: the Byrds, Cream, and all of
Lennon’s solo albums. Most often, I felt closer to these musi-
cians, through their work, than I did to any real live humans.
That May evening, in the cemetery, a familiar quiet descend-
ed — a feeling that had nothing to do with logic. I’d first ex-
perienced it as a small child, staring at my hand — a sensation
that my flesh might be translucent. The same awe-struck vision
had descended in the days after my accident at Blackbushe; I’d
found a golden bird tangled in the roots of a silver birch. T.S.
Eliot had described this consciousness in Four Quartets as “the
still point of the turning world.” The Buddhists called it kensho.
Now, for the first time in months, the sublime bird appeared
again, strutting toward me through the graveyard. I stood out-
side nature and nearly outside myself, as everything around
— the trees and the architecture of stones — glowed with an
intensified light. Erik saw it too. 
“This is some wondrous herb, Steven. I swear to God that
lilac bush is burning.”
“I don’t know if I can move my body, Erik. I feel like it’s not
even a part of me. Is it the pot? Or is it the truth?”
“Of course it’s the pot, man. I suppose it could be the truth
too. But that’s dangerous shit, man.”
“What, the smoke?”
“No, man, your brain! The only one who can walk through a
wall is a ghost. Stay grounded, brother.”
I pulled myself off the cool earth. Erik leapt the monuments
and swung on a branch.
At the auditorium, I veered to the bathroom, while Erik
went ahead into the movie. I never saw him again.
Outside the bathroom door, I met Jesus. He stood by a water
fountain. He was arrayed in white, with a full, reddish beard,
and bare feet. He said nothing. He just looked at me with
bright blue eyes.
The rest of the world fell away.
I could only articulate the obvious: “You’re Jesus.”
He smiled. “I have something to tell you. Will you come
I followed him, and it occurred to me that I had died. Noth-
ing else made sense. There must have been an accident. Some-
thing had killed me fast, and it hadn’t hurt at all. My body,
gleaming and immaterial, wasn’t my body at all. It was some-
thing different, something changed.
At the door of a yellow school bus, he asked me to remove
my shoes and socks. Inside, a circle of figures in white sat on a
carpeted floor. When my eyes adjusted to the candle-lit dusk, I
saw men with long hair and full beards and women with white
scarves covering their heads.  
Jesus invited me into the circle, and, surprisingly, offered me
a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Umm…no, thanks.”
“Go ahead. It can’t hurt you.”
Jesus was offering me a cigarette. I took it.
“Am I still alive?”
“You are alive, brother. Yes, you are.”
“Who am I?”
“You are the same as me. How do you see me?”
He paused, only for a moment, while I silently considered
his question.
Then he said, “My name is Micah though, not Jesus. But
Jesus is on Earth. He’s come back, as he said he would. He’s
taken a new name: Lightning Amen. He’s out in the wind,
gathering angels. Come with us, and meet him.” 
“Just like that, come with you?”
“Just like that! Lightning wants you! We’ve waited until you
are ready. Now the time has come.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are three keys to heaven: no killing, no sex, and no
“Three keys?”
“No killing, including the animals. We are complete vegetar-
ians. No animal products and no leather. To create the peace of
God, we make peace with all men and all creatures.”
I could see that — of course.
“No materialism. Jesus says love your brother as yourself. He
said this two thousand years ago and He says it now. People
love their things more than they love each other. The few
things we need, we share. We don’t struggle to live. God pro-
vides everything.”
“That must be true.”
“No sex. Sex is separation.”
“Man, that’s been my problem. I believe you.”
These tenets seemed no less than the answers to everything.
They summed up, with a tidy precision, the central dilemmas
of my life and the appropriate responses.
The first key, the injunction against killing, had been an in-
tuitive realization I’d had in England two years earlier, one that
had been encouraged by Marie. That recognition — that a cul-
ture of violence could be dropped from your life like a stone
from your hand — had stimulated my early leap of conscious-
ness. Now the idea was extended to its fair conclusion. To be-
come a fully spiritual being, no longer of the body at all, there
was no need to nourish one’s true self — the soul — on flesh.
The second key also fit my life. My father’s pursuit of wealth
and security had bought me freedom but I had never under-
stood what to do with this luxury. I had used his money only to
chase love. I was deeply alienated from him and thus from any
appreciation of the ‘straight’ world and its rewards or opportu-
nities. I had long desired a benevolent father who cared only
about my inner self and nothing for worldly achievements.
Who else could answer this need but God?
The third tenet was more difficult because of my desire —
the natural desire of a young man — but it cut to my heart and
sealed the day. The enduring relationship I had craved with
Marie had been denied. Striving for mortal bliss was a vain
dream. Hadn’t Susanne shown that as well by her own dissatis-
faction, by her need to slake her longings with a confused boy?
The sensual world offered only transient pleasures, usually at
someone’s expense. As I considered this in the candlelight, in
a world released from time, half a dozen women’s faces looked
into my own, saying with their smiles that I could stop such
Smoke billowed above our heads like absurd halos. I puffed
shallowly on my bitter cigarette and wiped loose flakes of to-
bacco from my lip. Each pair of eyes around the circle invited
me to stay. I felt helpless to God, unwilling to turn away, unable
to believe any experience outside this ring had ever been real.
In a single moment, my brief life had been rendered, strained
of impurities, and recast in a new form. Christ had come as
promised in stories from childhood: “like a thief in the night.”
Why not smoke? The physical world had been revealed as
nothing more than a burning mirage.
“Yes, I’m ready. I believe you. It all makes sense.
I've been waiting for you. I see that now.”
Every smile grew wide. Later I would see that each brother
and sister relived their own conversion at these moments, their
own release from care and their own belief in happy endings.
The society of men that we had never really recognized, that
had always seemed so strange and brutal and confusing, could
be abandoned. We’d been right, in our hearts, all along.
Micah seized me again with his eyes.
“We need to release you from all the strings of the world.
We should get rid of anything that might pull you back.”
It was impossible that I’d be tempted by my small collec-
tion of belongings, but I quickly agreed to dispose of them.
To begin, we left my shoes and socks where I’d shed them on
the pavement outside the bus door. My feet, like the feet of
the others, would remain bare. Micah piloted the bus to the
quiet street where I’d lived for such a small moment. We flew
through the door into an empty house; I had no chance to see
if my roommates might share my shock and delight at this
change in the very structure of the world.
We filled trash bags with the contents of my room. I threw
in the Blackbushe t-shirt that had once sopped the blood from
my cracked head. I threw in my Guernsey sweater.
Micah said, “Your glasses, too.”
“But I can’t see without them.”
“You can, brother. You have new eyes.”
I tossed them into the sack.
I unclasped the silver cross from around my neck. It was
small and discreet. I had never worn it outside my shirt. I
looked at Micah and he motioned at the bag.
“Why does Lightning Amen need a token of the death He
has overcome? That debt was paid two thousand years ago. It’s
done. He’s back.”
The cross bound me to Marie, as a symbol of longing more
than faith — a token of misplaced hope. I dropped the silver
trinket into the black plastic bag with all the other adornments
of my brief life on Earth.
My LP’s were too heavy to haul away; I was glad to leave
them for my roommates. The only things I’d ever cared to buy
were books, a few articles of clothing, and records. Maybe the
music would be useful to someone else, someone who wasn’t
ready to abandon the world. Like Dylan, I didn’t need the old
songs anymore. I’d read that he only played gospel tunes at
shows these days. It all made sense now. I’d also heard that
he’d seen a vision of Jesus in a Tucson hotel room. It must have
been Lightning Amen.
We piled the bags into the bus and drove until we found an
anonymous alley dumpster. We pitched my stuff and contin-
ued on to a suburban street of office blocks, where we parked
for the night. Sleeping bags covered the floor of the bus. The
sisters produced a newly sewn robe and I slipped it on. The
only thing that remained from my previous life was my un-
Sleeping in the bus was like being at a slumber party of
strangely quiet children. We lay in our bags and smoked —
first pot and then more cigarettes. The brand of tobacco was
Buglar, a cheap, dry blend sold in paper pouches and round
tins. The packaging pictured a soldier, blowing reveille. It was
the chosen smoke of the returned King.
Micah spoke of our purpose.
“All we do is walk, brother, and share the keys. In the sum-
mer, we stay in the north, but as the weather cools, we travel
south, to California, Arizona, and Florida. We have a few ve-
hicles, like this bus, but mostly we walk. We meet the ones
we’re supposed to meet. One day, not too long from now, we
leave the Earth altogether, with Lightning.”
“Tell me more about him.”
“He’s just like you and me, brother. Just like us — in the
wind. Sometimes he drives a dune-buggy in the desert.”
The name “Lightning Amen” seemed perfect. It might sound
ridiculous to skeptics, but for the family, his new name was
part of an extensive inside language. It was amusing and pro-
found. No one who believed would doubt the thunder-struck
aptness of the first name and the plain closure of the second.
I was taken to my knees by a bolt from a clear sky. So be it.
Brothers and sisters also just called him Jesus. He embodied
continuity between epochs — the Rock of Ages.
In the morning, I felt just as high as I had the night before.
The Christ Family was my own. I was in love and, for the first
time since childhood, my love held no ambiguities. I had done
the only possible thing.
We left town that afternoon, motoring slowly through the
valley west of Eugene and then into the foothills of the coast
range. We parked at a wayside rest stop. The brothers on the
bus deferred to Micah’s leadership. He was the driver.
The Family performed chores according to traditional sex
roles. The brothers busied themselves examining workings un-
der the hood and the sisters set up camp stoves on the park’s
picnic tables. They placed large pots of rice and beans over the
flames. One sister sat close to me on a bench, mixing bread
batter in an iron skillet. I was too shy to initiate a conversation,
unsure of what constituted acceptable small talk among angels.
The sisters fascinated me but I could barely tell them apart.
With my blurry vision, I couldn’t see any detail more than three
feet away. In white head-coverings and loosely fitted robes,
faces became the only distinguishing features. This suited me
fine. I’d grown weary of attempting to understand a woman by
her body and her style. Here I had nothing to go on but the
eyes and the mouth.
Nothing was asked of me. I lay around, listening to conver-
sations, smoking whenever a Buglar or a joint was passed my
way. Dialogue was completely focused on God and Lightning
Amen, with contemporary language and references and none
of the biblical speech I’d heard in churches. A brother with a
thick black beard sat down beside me on the grass.
“We’re Jedi Knights, brother. Father wants us to cut through
the lies and deceptions of the empire with our light sabers. Re-
member, Luke Skywalker didn’t know his lineage, or his des-
tiny, or his mission until Yoda revealed it. Then he needed to
be trained. Just like you and me. We’ve discovered who we are
but we need to learn to use the Force. Walk with a brother and
you will learn all the powers of Lightning Amen. What you’ve
felt so far is just the beginning.”
These days, in the new century, Star Wars just seems like a
comic book franchise, like Spiderman or The Fantastic Four.
But in May of 1980, the second film, The Empire Strikes Back,
had just been released, as a follow-up to the 1977 original. Star
Wars seemed to contain, if not a vision of the near future, an
expansive and nearly magical vision of the now. It was a com-
mon cultural dialect for teenagers of the 1970’s, like Led Zep-
pelin and dime bags of seedy Colombian marijuana. In the
Christ Family, the metaphoric value of Star Wars was more
real than old stories from the Dead Sea.
At the evening meal, more than a dozen of us came together
in a large circle. Each individual had a bowl and a spoon but
every other bite was fed to a neighbor. The food was simple:
rice, beans, a vegetable and pan-baked bread. No one spoke
very much. I noticed that others looked directly at me, so I
returned the gazes. Most of the faces were young but several of
the men had longer beards, flecked with silver, and a couple of
the women had extra creases in their smiles.
After the meal had been cleared — by the women again,
although some of the brothers set to washing the pots — tiny
cups of thick coffee appeared. Then the sisters rolled smokes,
quickly and efficiently. We passed the cigarettes around the
circle and lit one from another. Some of the group sprawled
on one arm, while others sat up attentively. A joint followed
the Buglars. I wanted for nothing. Now Micah began to speak.
“Father loves us so much. We have given up everything for
Him. We no longer belong to the world and we are free to
inhabit the air. Lightning knows we only want to be with Him.”
As Micah’s words drifted over me, I continued to appraise
my companions. They were beautiful and calm. I looked above
the brothers and sisters to a row of cottonwoods bordering
the highway rest stop. A warm spring gust sent a storm of
fuzzy seedpods weaving and jumping in the air. This was how
I wanted to live: floating, light as pollen. 
In the morning, Micah presented me with a sleeping bag,
sewn with a shoulder strap and a rolled-up army blanket.
“Today, we walk. Sister Laura will come with us.”
I guessed it was time for my training to begin. We departed
after lunch, with few words and no plans for the future.
Micah simply shouted back at the bus, “See you in the wind.”
“In the wind, brothers, sister.”
Micah, Laura and I walked along the highway side, never
looking behind at cars, and never thumbing for a ride. Mi-
cah said that if someone was meant to pick us up, they would.
We’d hardly gone a mile before my feet burned. With each
step, gravel pierced the tender soles. I walked so slowly that
Micah and Laura couldn’t help but pull far ahead. Once in a
while, they’d stop and wait. I’d hobble up to them and we’d sit
together on our sleeping bags.
Giant firs lined the roadside. I had some idea of how bizarre
it was to be out here. I wasn’t floating and I wasn’t very high
anymore. I was rooted in my body by the sores on my feet,
but I also reveled in the strangeness. I had no sense of leav-
ing anything meaningful behind. I was simply glad. I had re-
moved my shoes and removed myself from the manufactured
world. I touched the earth, and whatever harsh surfaces men
had spread on the earth. I cared nothing for survival. To live
without shoes made no sense if you wanted only to survive.
Micah and Laura looked at me sympathetically and proudly.
They must have remembered days when their own feet had
bled. Their companionship and our shared conviction was all
I needed to continue. We had slipped outside of time. I would
never go back to the world. There was nothing to go back to.
It was over.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Golden Bird, Part One, Blackbushe

Here is Chapter 1 from my memoir, The Golden Bird. In the spirit of DIY, I have published through the Espresso Book Machine, an awesome piece of tech that prints, cuts and binds a flawless paperback book. The cover illustration was created by my wife Jennifer, and the text design was done by Vladimir Verano, who, in addition to having a really cool name, is in charge of the EBM at Third Place Books in Seattle.

What's it about? The back cover blurb reads as follows:

"The Golden Bird tells of a young man's coming-of-age in the 1970's and 1980's. It's the story of the author's love affair with an island witch and his year in a barefoot cult. The Golden Bird is about organic farming in the Pacific Northwest and lyric poetry in the Rocky Mountains. It's a tale of magic, sex, God, and fate.

The Golden Bird shows how the author survived strange days in the late 20th Century, with the help of a creature out of fairy tales and the songs of Bob Dylan."

If you are interested in reading more, leave a message and an email address in the newly added guest-book at the top of the page. While supplies last, I'll send you one absolutely free! I think you will find that the 203 pages of The Golden Bird will not waste your time or your mind. It is not without a sense of humor and although it begins with a voice of innocence and naivety, the tone changes as the story progresses. 

If you have arrived here from Expecting Rain, know that Dylan appears in my book almost as a chorus, or a shadow. Perhaps he has acted in your life in a similar way.

Part One

Chapter 1

Marie was a witch. Bob Dylan introduced us. I couldn’t
see her well at first because of the blood, but later, when I could,
I saw she was beautiful, and I fell in love with her. Her hair was
black and long, her eyes were dark, and she wore patterned
cotton skirts from India. She was a 70’s new age hippie witch,
but with credentials: Marie was from the island of Guernsey. 
Of course, I’d never heard of Guernsey or its wild magic be-
fore that summer night. I’d never heard of pagans or vegetar-
ians or T.S. Eliot or E. E. Cummings, or so many other things.
I had surely never heard of Jesus Christ Lightning Amen.
I knew nothing of Blackbushe, either, a week before. But
with the concert just minutes over, I hung suspended in time,
at a still point, a pivot between past and future.
I wasn’t alone. The rock festival froze the entire British na-
tion for one brief moment. Three hundred thousand people
strolled out on a July evening to watch the last glow of the
sixties hover on the horizon, then smear, dissolve, and darken
in the western sky.  
But for me, as I sat on the edge of the ditch — the pit, the
grave of my childhood — clutching a bloody rag, it was a be-
ginning, a night when fairy tale and myth escaped the bound
page, when songs coalesced out of the ether into pliable, joy-
ous, and heart-rending forms. Everything behind me receded
with impossible speed. Even the face of my traveling buddy
was falling away — I could barely make out his features as he
waved and shouted.
But coming toward me, the first form out of a red mist,
touching my wound, was Marie.

 On the fifteenth of July, 1978, a warm and clear morning
that tasted of full summer, of cut grass and hot tar, my friends
and I began a journey — from my aunt’s home in the Lon-
don suburb of Leigh-on-Sea to a concert site on the southern
downs of Surrey. As we came up from the Tube into Waterloo,
I hummed a few bars of an old Kinks’ hit, “Waterloo Sunset.”
I vaguely knew that some old battle had given the station its
name, but in my eighteen-year-old mind, rock and roll had
made it famous.
On the platforms, a motley assortment of youth waited on
trains to Blackbushe. Dapper hippies in paisley waistcoats
mingled with shiny rockers in silver boots. Kids with orange
Mohawks, clad in torn clothing, safety pins, and zippers, stood
in clumps and jeered. The Sex Pistols had assaulted Lon-
don the previous year with a hit single called “God Save the
Queen.” I had read about them in Rolling Stone, but I didn’t
really understand the punks. In the suburbs of St. Paul, Min-
nesota, hard rock still meant Led Zeppelin, Foghat, and the
Blue Oyster Cult.
An hour later, in the village of Camberly, signs at the sta-
tion directed us to the concert grounds two miles down the
lane at the Blackbushe aerodrome. We walked like an army of
sleepers through a dream of pastoral England. I thought of the
comics my grandmother had sent to me when I was little. They
featured a bear child named Rupert who lived in the idyllic
country village of Nutwood and spent his days wandering the
local hills, forests, and hedgerows. He would meet his friends
— Podgy Pig, Bill Badger, and Algy Pug — and together they
would have extraordinary, magical adventures involving Imps
and Bird Kings. These well-loved children, dressed snugly in
woolly plaids and stripes, inhabited a vivid natural world and,
within it, they were free to find the fantastic. The artists had
drawn the English countryside in fine detail and true tones,
inspiring me, in childhood daydreams, to run and jump along-
side the little bear. On the road to Blackbushe, I walked in
Rupert’s world. I wondered if a Pixie might be spying, hidden
behind a thicket of gorse, or sitting on the branch of a silver
birch, masked by the flashing leaves.
Around a curve in the road, we came to the festival gates.
Once through, my eyes widened to accept the view. Tens and
tens of thousands spread over an endless plain. The stage was
barely visible — a dot on the far horizon. All these people
had come to see Dylan, a young man raised in my own North
Banners had been raised all through the fields, decorated
with dragons, or mysterious symbols I would only come to un-
derstand later — Yin Yangs, the Om sign — or strange group
names like Welsh Bastards for Free Love. It was difficult to move
among the legions so we found an open place on the scabby
grass and sat. We scalded in the sun. We bathed in the murmur
of a hundred thousand conversations.
In the first hours, the music was only an ambient buzz over
a human swarm. Large speaker columns, scattered through the
grounds, blasted strong sound but I couldn’t see the musicians.
A band called Lake opened with psychedelic metal. In the in-
tense heat, my friends and I sprawled drowsily across our few
feet of brown turf. Graham Parker and the Rumor came on
next, playing a set of rough white soul.
I barely moved all afternoon. The crowd humbled me and I
was afraid of getting lost or crushed. Surges of anxiety passed
through me, a sort of claustrophobia, as if I was trapped in a
vast pen of swine. Eventually, I went in search of a toilet and
returned with a concert t-shirt showing an old red bi-plane
skywriting “The Picnic at Blackbushe” in smoky billows of cur-
sive. My friends wandered away and my nervousness returned.
I watched the Asian couple next to me make out.
The scent of marijuana drifted by and I wished I had some.
A young British folksinger, Joan Armatrading, came on stage.
Her clear strong voice chimed across the fields, soothing my
jitters. I was away from home for the first time. Despite the
company of two boys from my high school, and despite the
company of hundreds of thousands of young Britons, I felt
Of course, Dylan would be on stage soon. Two weeks ear-
lier, he had danced through the air in my Midwestern cellar,
and whispered in the dark about things no provincial teenager
could understand. “Isis, oh Isis, you’re a mystical child, what
drives me to you is what drives me insane!” What? What drove
him? And why did “insane” sound so good?
I had only guesses. I’d read that Dylan said “Isis” was “a song
about marriage,” which was also mysterious, because the lovers
weren’t even together through most of the story. Isis was some
sort of Egyptian goddess and the singer desired her fiercely. It
was like no marriage I could see around me — my parents’ or
my neighbors’ — but it was one I wanted to imagine.
My mom and dad had been born working class, in London’s
East End. They had emigrated in 1947 as newlyweds, fueled by
Dad’s ambition and his engineering degree. They escaped the
deprivations of post-war Britain for the promise of America. I
came along in 1960 — the last child, the third son — covered
in a constellation of birthmarks. After a deceptively settled
early childhood — forever, to a twelve year old — my fam-
ily’s leave-taking began again. We moved to the isolation of
St. Paul’s northern suburbs. Over the years of my adolescence,
my sister and brothers fled, one by one, for colleges in Denver
and Portland.
I’d lived in the Twin Cities my whole life but, at the cusp of
adulthood, I had few allies and no kin save my parents. Mom
was around, in an absent sort of way. Dad lived mostly at the
office or on a plane. Since fifteen, I’d been living on the fumes
of fantasy and marijuana.
Underground, in the cellar, I played Dylan’s Blood on the
Tracks over and over. “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll
make it mine . . . down the highway, down the tracks, down the  
road to ecstasy!” I thought, me too. But where could I find these
things? And how?
I’d never been to England as a child. Dad rarely mentioned
family or history. Mom held her losses more closely. Nearly
every Sunday morning, she sat at the kitchen table, writing
tissue-paper letters to her own ‘Mum,’ left behind in London.
Later, after a drink or two, she might speak of her childhood
— hardship and war and her father’s good humor. Her voice
might catch then. Grandad Harry had died suddenly one sum-
mer, before I turned ten. It was only his death, and Mom’s rare
tears, that woke me to the fact that he had lived.
An imaginary Britain lived inside of me, like a fantasy or a
folktale. In the last days of high school, I cut most classes. I sat
on the front bench of a hand-me-down ‘69 Ford LTD by the
lake in the park, smoking weed, stoned to the edge of sleep and
dreams. One afternoon I made a connection: Isn’t that where
ships drop over the horizon, in old legends? Isn’t that where
the gods and goddesses live?
For Mom and Dad, the past was not a romance or an ad-
venture story. It was a tough life, abandoned for a better one.
Still, they agreed to finance my idea: a graduation trip to their
homeland in the company of two responsible and well-heeled
new friends. Maybe they thought it would straighten me out.
Maybe I should see their humble beginnings after all.
In my parents’ youth, the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the
Royal Air Force rose from the tarmac of Blackbushe airfield,
defending the island from invasion. More than thirty years lat-
er, in a world made safe for rock and roll, Eric Clapton jammed
and then finally, as the stars flared above, Dylan took the stage.
I was attentive, alert, and calm but, with the band so far away,
it was more like listening to a soundtrack from the sky than
seeing live music. People swelled and ebbed all around as Bob
began to sing:

I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to

The song rang through my head like an incantation.
His large band, with horns, a violin, and several guitars, also
played cuts from a dense and difficult new record, Street-Legal.
Three black women sang harmony and response, adding a bi-
zarre religiosity to Dylan’s personal tales. The artist projected
strength and confidence, but the music and words suggested
a crack-up. Something dangerous was happening. These new
songs passed an urgent message in a language I spoke but in a
dialect I couldn’t quite make out. Maybe Isis — whoever she
was — had really driven Dylan insane and insanity wasn’t so
great after all. The crowd too had grown crazier throughout
the long day, first with heat and then with drink. Dylan’s voice,
fierce and triumphant, rode high on the barely contained ca-
cophony of his band and the drunken shouting of the mob.
“Boooaaaoooobb!!! Booooaaaaaaoooob! Aaaaaaargh!”
Sometimes, now, listening to a bootleg cassette of Black-
bushe, I hear that sound — a blurry, distant majesty, thick with
promise and dread.  
Close to midnight, and before the set was over, my compan-
ions and I pulled ourselves up and tottered toward the exit. We
were still jet-lagged, needing bed. My uncle had agreed to pick
us up in his car at Waterloo station. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only
Bleeding)” echoed and faded in the air. We stumbled through
the dusty field, past fires and mounds of trash. The road lead-
ing to the train had been transfigured by the night into a dark
and living tunnel of trees. We siphoned into it and marchedshoulder to shoulder with laughing, shouting, chanting Brits.
 Then I plunged into the earth. My head hit violently on an
edge, something sharp — rock or concrete. I thumped to the
bottom of a pit.
I lay for a while in the cool ground, alone in a strange bed,
After a few minutes or an hour — I couldn’t tell — I heard
voices and roused myself.
I managed to climb up and sit on the precipice. Something
warm and wet dripped into my mouth. I dabbed at it with my
t-shirt. My high school companion, a boy I barely knew, stood
a few feet away, waving his hands. The crowd flowed by in slow
motion, faces distorted, heads turning toward me and away,
bobbing like puppets. The world had become cinematic — an
epic scene with a cast of thousands.
I couldn’t will my legs to stand.
A woman appeared at my side. She looked at my head, spoke
an oath, and disappeared. In a moment, she sat next to me
again, and whispered in my ear, “You’ll be alright, now. You’ll
be alright.”
Had she come from the crowd, or from the breach in the
An ambulance arrived, incredibly, through the congestion.
As I was bundled in, my friend yelled some words at me, but I
couldn’t make any sense of them. Nothing made any sense. All
the molecules that gave shape to things had fragmented. They
spun crazily around my bleeding head, rearranging themselves
into new patterns.
The woman hesitated for a moment at the door of the ve-
hicle, in the strobe of lights. She looked at me, thinking hard.
Was there any choice? She climbed in beside me.
I retched and trembled all along the winding road. The
minutes stretched and tore and exploded inside my head until
we arrived back at the festival grounds. Inside a first-aid tent,
I sat on a folding chair next to the other casualties. Judging
from the smell of vomit, most of them suffered from too much 
drink. Eventually, a doctor appeared and while Marie — her
name was Marie — held my hand for comfort, he stitched up
the two-inch gash in my forehead.
Then the medic set us loose, “Off you go. Be a bit more care-
ful this time, lad!”
Marie protested, “He’s in shock. He has a concussion! He
can’t walk anywhere!”  
“No, there’s no room, no transport; sorry love.”
She stormed a bit more, but all in vain.
We trudged out into the night and found that the concert
had ended — the main exodus had begun. I wondered what
had happened to my companions. Waves of tired refugees
walked the lane to Camberly. I hobbled along weakly, leaning
often on my new friend. Several thousand small steps later, we
came to a halt in the village, well short of the station, where
the crowd had stopped, dead still. A resigned and ragged army
filled the high road from one sidewalk to the other. Appar-
ently, the trains had broken down.
Desperate for rest, I dropped to the road and sat in the rus-
tling underbrush of legs and shoes. After a while, Marie pulled
me up, held me, and we stood and shuffled through the slow
dark hours. Occasionally I pushed to some nearby bushes,
vomited, and staggered back. I felt anxious and claustrophobic
again, like a lamb in a feedlot, waiting for the chute to open,
the gateway to an unfathomable destiny.
A woman appeared at an upper story window, scolding us.
“Shut it, you noisy buggers!” She came again later and threw
a bucket of water on us. Another lady, in curlers and gown,
toasted us with a cup of tea.
Through the night, Marie smiled and propped me up.
Finally, at first light, we moved forward. As Marie and I
gained seats on a train to Waterloo, she said, “You’ll remember
this, eh? You’ll see this night on your head for a long time to
Thirty years on and a scar still lines my brow, faint but vis-
ible. It’s a reminder of a song and a dancing spell. It’s the mark
of a black night, an opening in the earth, and a blind fall. I
spilled blood in the soil of England. Something hidden shiv-
ered and woke.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On "Key-Slapping Slippards"

On “Key–Slapping Slippards”


Paradise Lost, in

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew
by Dr. Seuss


by Bob Dylan

What do Seuss and Dylan have in common? Read on.

I’m an escapist and I know it. Elsewhere is attractive, especially if there’s a beach and cold fruity drink. Not that I’m aching to get away all the time. My here and now in Seattle is often pleasant enough. But when the rain smashes down on a mid-winter afternoon, I become a first-class daydreamer. Even in fine weather, I am vulnerable to fantasy —  the seductions of a new ecosystem, unfamiliar plants, and a variation in the scent on the breeze. I’ve always been a wanderer, at least in my mind, ever since I was a boy growing up in the frigid northlands of St. Paul.

One of my favorite books of that childhood was I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, by the man known to his accountant as Theodor Geisel. The story is about leaving your troubles behind and finding someplace better, and whether such a thing is possible. The illustration I loved best shows the hero dozing contentedly on huge cushions in an airy room, crescent moon outside the window. The text reads:

            Then I dreamed I was sleeping on billowy billows
            Of soft silk and satin marshmallow-stuffed pillows.
            I dreamed I was sleeping in Solla Sollew
            On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo
            Where they never have troubles. At least, very few.

Solla Sollew was published in 1965, the year of my fifth birthday. I’m not sure why I connected with the story so strongly. I had no special need to escape anything in an early boyhood that was safe and content. We lived in a large St. Paul house in a neighborhood packed with kids. My friends and I had freedom to roam, from the banks of the Mississippi to the sledding hills of the Town and Country golf course. I suffered a few minor problems of course — bickering older brothers who made me the butt of their jokes, an adored older sister who was around too infrequently, and a fierce, distant father. But all in all, not too bad. More serious difficulties waited a few years down the path and over the wall of puberty.

I had little awareness of 1960’s unrest either. I do remember when RFK was killed because of the shock on Mom’s face when I came down for breakfast the following morning. Every child sees the bogey-man once in a while. The decade mostly showed itself in my parent’s post-war, pre-social-revolution lifestyle and in puerile manifestations of popular culture. Not Dylan and MLK, but the Monkees and the Brady Bunch.

One of my few windows into the convolutions of the day and other serious matters were the playfully subversive books of Dr. Seuss. The author is one of those rare adults who can put heavy issues into silly language and fun pictures that the under-ten crowd can seize upon. The Lorax, for example, is a eco-parable that will have any child thinking twice before yanking a flower — that small truffula tree — out of the ground. The Butter Battle Book makes kids laugh at the one-upmanship of its foolish generals, and tremble a little too, when “the bitsy big-boy boomeroo” is about to be dropped. In The Sneetches, one group of dowdy birds have “stars on thars” and the rest do not. Both tribes are swindled by Sylvester McMonkey McBean before they learn to overcome their superficial differences and get along. What Seuss said to me and other kids in these classics is what all great artists say to their audience: it’s a beautiful and disturbing world out there, a world that requires your attention.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is lesser known Seuss. It never achieved the mass appeal of The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or Horton Hears a Who. Many of today’s children are also unfamiliar with the story. Why? For one, it has never been translated into a live action travesty starring Jim Carrey. Moreover, unlike the above examples, Solla Sollew is hard to figure as a lesson in values. It is somewhat jumbled in message, especially the controversial, thought-provoking ending, as I explore below. But Solla Sollew also has a lot to offer: a bewitching vision of paradise, and a startling juxtaposition of human innocence and deceit.

A brief synopsis:

A boy — a man? — something related to the strange cat-like creatures that the Doctor called, in another of his books, “Thing 1 and Thing 2,” is out strolling in nature one day,

I was happy and carefree and young
And I lived in a place called the Valley of Vung

when he is confronted by some previously unseen troubles.

A Skritz (huge mosquito-like thing) at my neck!
A Skrink (casual foot-chomping beast) at my toe!

But that’s not all.  A “Quilligan Quail” is after his tail. We never learn why the nasties suddenly appear, but I am reminded of when my eldest son was in primary school and one day, he came home distraught and crying. “Daddy, have you heard about the bombs?” I wondered for a moment if we'd had a terrorist attack.  Instead, he had learned at school that day, that humans keep Weapons of Mass Destruction and have been known to use them.

An offer by a passing stranger — “a chap wheeled by in a one-wheeler wubble” — proves irresistible. 

I’m off to the City of Solla Sollew
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo
Where they never have troubles, at least very few.

It is not very far
And my camel is strong.
He’ll get us there fast.
So hop on! Come along!

So begins his journey in search of Solla Sollew  (Shangri-la Eden Brigadoon Avalon  (name your paradise) Kauai).

Disillusion begins immediately. The “chap” is a bully and a liar, the camel gets sick, the bus never comes, and wouldn’t you know it, “The Mid-winter Jicker came early this year!” As a result, “a flubbulous flood with suds in my eyes and my mouth full of mud…” Next, forced conscription at the end of a spear wielded by “General Genghis Khan Schmitz.” Also, the occupation is a disaster! Instead of a single “Perilous Poozer of Pompelmoose Pass” an entire pack of the toothy beasts attack. Our “Private, First-Class!” is way overmatched. Luckily, “Vent No. 5” appears and the young Thing from Vung jumps in, only to find himself facing “billions of birds, going all the wrong way,” in beds, with babies, fish, dishes, and drums (refugees, from the battle above, perhaps?). All the pictures that go with the these scenes are, of course, priceless.

But finally! Our hero pops up through a hatch on the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo. The glittering towers of Solla Sollew are just on the other side. Seuss’ illustrations again evoke paradise. We smell the waving, disc-shaped flowers which look like pastel Necco candy wafers. We nearly feel the marshmallow stuffed pillows under our bottoms. Vung crosses the delightful bridge to the promised land, where a doorman (actually, another “chap”) greets him with “a wave that was friendly and kind.” Our hero is welcomed again and again. The doorman recites the familiar speech about the city, ending with,

            Where we never have troubles.
            At least very few.
            as a matter of fact, we have only just one.
            Imagine! Just one little trouble, my son.
            And this one little trouble,
            As you will now see,
            Is this one little trouble I have with this key. . .

            There is only one door into Solla Sollew

And we have a Key-Slapping Slippard. We do!

Seuss moves to close-up, and we see the little green booger beastie doing his trick, flinging the key away with a malicious leer.

Can’t kill the Slippard. Bad luck, apparently.

So the doorman issues another invitation:

            I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball
            On the Banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall,
            Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!

The THING from Vung scratches his head. I, for one, would have taken the “chap” up on it. True, my fifth grade teacher did say I was the most gullible child he’d ever met. (I had to look up “gullible.”)

But here’s what Mr. Vung does. (And frankly, Dr. Seuss, I’m still a little shocked, just as I was way back in the 1960’s.) He returns to the home valley wielding a great huge baseball bat! And there they are: the Grintz, the Stinkz, and the toe-biter too! I mean, why not a gun, good doctor? Why not blow the little Furtz’s head off? When I read this story to some first-graders recently, a cute little fellow in the back began swinging his imaginary club, shattering imaginary skulls.     

Where does Bob Dylan fit into all of this?  

I turn to Dylan because he has often considered the same problems. In fact, the themes of deceit and heartbreak and self-doubt and the desire for a less corrupt, more luminous world run through his entire body of work. I need to turn to Dylan because, in this case at least, Dr. Seuss seems to have befuddled himself, or at least this loyal reader. A club can't be the answer. Something is missing.

Consider “Highlands,” from the 1996 masterpiece, Time out of Mind. “Highlands” contains the same themes as I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, but from a  different perspective. Can we get away from our troubles? Is it possible to find a place of peace and tranquility, at home or away? Can we find heaven on earth? But whereas the creature in Seuss’ book is young, innocent, and just starting out in life, the persona in “Highlands” is aging, weathered, and stuck in a rut.

For those who need a brief review: the man in the song (Dylan? You can never quite know, but okay, I think so) begins in a reverie. He’s thinking of a place he’s seen once, perhaps in a time long past, or in a dream, or in another life.

Well, my heart’s in the Highlands, gentle and fair
Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air.  

We don’t know why he didn’t stay in this place, out where “the bluebelle’s blazing,” but for whatever reason, he’s now living in a lesser world. He’d love to be in the Highlands, but something holds him back. He doesn’t yet feel “good enough to go.” But what sense of “good” does the singer mean? That he also has been corrupted? That a man in the fallen world just can’t live in paradise, by definition?

But the desire is strong, the daydream. “That’s where I’ll be, when I get called home.” In the meantime, he lives here, where “insanity is smashing up against my soul.”

A meal in a restaurant illustrates his human relationship problem. He is attracted to the waitress even as he feels alienated from her, even as he alienates her with a refusal to pander. “What in the devil could it all possibly mean?” All this man can do, in this lamentable society, is hearken back to his youth. If he was still young, least he could dance and drink and pretend. He would probably go home with the girl even though they have little in common.

The man singing “Highlands,” like the fellow from Vung, returned once, from a journey to paradise, after finding he couldn’t get in. As a matter of fact, in 1980, Bob Dylan stood on the very banks of that river, filled with a sense of wonder, sharing the vision, to the exclusion of all other songs. The strength of his belief in a heavenly kingdom led him far from any home he had known. It shocked and alienated fans from earlier periods. But three records and several years later, he remained outside the door. How could anyone get in? There’s a slippard in the lock.

So he returned to the lowlands. He lingered there through much of the eighties. But he didn’t pick up a club. He seemed troubled and disillusioned by the pests and dangers, but he remained vulnerable. Then, in the nineties, through a belief in the music, and grace, and an open mind, the inspiration returned. Maybe he needs “a full length leather coat” for protection and he definitely needs to cross the road “to get away from a mangy dog” but he is still dreaming of that place he once knew. He still has faith. This becomes a theme for many late period songs, including, most directly, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.”

You broke a heart that loved you
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

Who broke his heart?  It’s easy to read this as a woman, but I don’t think so. That’s not who “seals up the book.” It’s the King who walks the courtyard in that city in the Highlands. Only Dylan would call God a heartbreaker.

But he doesn’t stop believing and he knows that the club is not the answer, even though it is tempting, even though things look very bleak some days, especially when “someone hits me from behind.” Some days it’s a newspaper columnist from the New York Times, some days it’s your own depression. But he ain’t talkin.’ It’s better to just keep singing the songs.

The young man from Vung doesn’t need a club. Sure, he needs to look out for those little biting bastards."They will jump on your misfortune when you're down." He needs a skeptical eye. But more than this, he needs a vision of love. Dylan shows us, Dylan has always shown us, that you can’t settle. Keep looking to the Highlands.

            There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
            But I’m already there in my mind
            And that’s good enough for now.

I’m with Bob. I’m in the lowlands but I’m also dreaming on the banks of the River Wah-hoo. That nasty slippard can’t stay in the keyhole forever.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Suze Rotolo in the early 1960’s and Bob Dylan in the late 1970’s

More thoughts on Time as experienced while reading


In 1975, I turned fifteen and I fell in love with Blood on the Tracks. At that age, no way could I understand the sorrow of a failed marriage, but “Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must” appealed regardless, and I had already begun to hunger for the experience and romance implied by Dylan’s pain. I listened to “Idiot Wind” and understood that the anger, bitterness, power and magic of the song only existed because Dylan had a great love to mourn. I knew nothing about Bob’s personal life, but I fiercely desired such a love for myself, with all its attendant spirits, light and dark. In my Minnesota basement, as I dreamed, I had no idea how quickly these already flew toward me.

Music fans of several generations love Dylan. Point of view, however, differs profoundly depending on the facts of your own life, and what time you walked into the room. Greil Marcus heard Dylan singing live when I was still a small child. In the introduction to his book, he reveals himself, eighteen years old, at a 1963 Joan Baez show, where “a scruffy-looking guy” came out to join Baez on a few songs. Marcus was “transfixed.” After that initial blast of wonder, he listened to the mid-sixties masterpieces in real time, and he began writing about Dylan at the end of the decade. Marcus eventually authored books and articles about the mysteries of The Basement Tapes, the “shit” of Self-Portrait, and even Dylan’s Modern Times. Some of those pieces are collected in BD by GM. But all the while, he tells us, “that heroic period hangs over what I wrote.” Clearly true — in 2005, Marcus penned an entire illuminating book about “Like a Rolling Stone.”

In contrast, I admire the genius of Bringing it all Back Home through Blonde on Blonde tremendously, but that “heroic period” hangs over nothing I write about Dylan. I didn’t even hear Highway 61 Revisited (except the famous radio single) until my late teens.  And while Marcus was listening to Bob opening for Joan Baez, I was only three, still pulling on Mom’s skirt in our kitchen in St. Paul, near the stockyards of the Midway. We lived just over the river and up I-94 from Dinkytown, where a boy from Hibbing had squatted a couple years earlier.  Just before my first birthday, Bob had abandoned the neighborhood for Greenwich Village. It would be a long time before I found myself within screaming distance of the singer again, and I had to travel a couple thousand miles away from our home state to make it happen.

When it did, in 1978, I was eighteen — just like Greil Marcus had been in ’63. Dylan was finally close again, only a short stroll away, but such a journey was a practical impossibility, given that 200,000 people lounged between us, at the Blackbushe aerodrome, in Surrey, U.K. Another 150,000 rested beside and behind me on the parched dirt. Dylan, at thirty-seven, was no longer a “scruffy-looking guy,” but instead a dapper gentleman, in a top hat borrowed (legend has it) from the doorman of his London hotel. With a large band, Bob ran through a long set of radically transformed classics (from the “folkie,” “heroic,”  and “Rolling Thunder” periods), but he featured several of the songs from the new record, Street-Legal. The assembled crowd, and the press, received him with ecstasy. Makes me wish I still had my copy of Melody Maker.

I do not intend to ignite yet another discussion of that record (see my last post).  Only to say that, without a doubt, a single majestic and somewhat frightening summer evening in 1978 has hung over everything I have written or thought or dreamed about Bob Dylan since. And by extension, in the marvelous way that Dylan has held a mirror up to my life, over nearly everything I’ve experienced in the last 32 years.

So, it matters when and where you walked into the room. Or the auditorium or the field or the basement where you first spun the record or the bedroom where you piped the download through your ear-buds.

Suze Rotolo died last week. In the days since I heard the news, I’ve thought a lot about her, and looked at from a certain angle, it’s hard to understand why. After all, wasn’t she just a girlfriend of the artist? By the time I started paying attention, she was long gone, married to an Italian guy and rigorously avoiding those who saw her as only a “Dylan artifact.” She spent a few decades shying away from that role and maintaining privacy. Her later adult life had not much to do Dylan, although it has been said that they kept in touch. She lived most of her days as an independent, creative artist, within her own family and with a personal circle of friends. Dylan was only a piece of her life and she was only a piece of his. But that is exactly why she is important, even vital, to any overall picture of Bob.

I was thinking about her, of course, because of her untimely death, and because of her early relationship with the young singer. In the past decade she had at last opened the treasure chest of that time. After Bob wrote about her warmly in Chronicles, she was interviewed for Scorsese’s “No Direction Home,” and in 2008 she published her own book about the era, with an alternate take of the famous Freewheelin’ photo on the cover. Even before that publication, I saw her speak at The Experience Music Project in Seattle, on a panel with early compatriots Bruce Langhorne (Mr. Tambourine Man) and Izzy Young (the Folklore Center). Ironically, the occasion was the opening of an exhibit of Dylan memorabilia and artifacts. And yet, in a wondrous twist, by revealing her full humanity to the Dylan community, on that day and later in her book, she fully transcended the preconception of being just a curious object in the life of Bob.

So, the important thing about Suze Rotolo is that she was a full person in her own right. Consequently, the important thing about Suze Rotolo in the life and art of Bob Dylan is exactly the same thing. She was seventeen and Bob was twenty. They met at about the same age as many of us when we first encountered Dylan. But the difference between her and just about anyone else in the universe, even those who have known Dylan personally, is this: She was the only one who loved Bob when he was merely a North Country boy with a guitar and a gift. She was the only one, outside of Dylan’s birth family, who was close to him yet possessed complete autonomy from him — from the legend and artistry to come. Nothing she said or did had anything to do with his myth or his masks, but only with his life as a man, albeit a brilliant one. In fact, she left him to preserve that autonomy.

Consider it from Dylan’s point of view, if such a thing is possible. She was the only one who would ever know him in a completely authentic way. Not that he made it easy. He lied to her and cheated on her and she had no idea he was born Zimmerman until his draft card fell out of his wallet. So maybe she had to cajole some facts from him but she surely knew his heart, in a way no one else would the opportunity to experience, unadulterated by fame, money or media legend.

Suze Rotolo walked into the room before there was a table or chairs or a single picture on the wall. She helped decorate the space — two artists, each with a free mind. She and Bob have both written about the cultural influences she exposed him to, from Brecht to the organized left. But I am thinking about a force less visible. Suze gave Bob Dylan a pure love, and the heartbreak of a pure love, before he became, in the public eye, more than human, before he was anointed, before his own creativity and wild mercury blew away, like an idiot wind, all hope for anything like it to ever happen again.

We  know some, but not too much, about Dylan’s personal life, except through the songs, and it’s good that way. “Idiot Wind” was supposedly written with Sara in mind, not Suze. Many folks theorize about which songs pertain to which girl. In general, I don’t really care, because it’s what the song has to do with me that seems important, but there’s no doubt that “the could-be dream-lover of my lifetime” was Suze Rotolo alone. In A Freewheelin’ Time, Rotolo describes the end of the line for the couple, a terrible moment in which each waved a hand and gave the other leave, an awful nexus when each understood that the necessary life of the other prohibited their union.

Greil Marcus writes about Bob Dylan and considers his “heroic period” of the mid-sixties a reference point for all the rest. I think of Bob Dylan and I am swept up in the majestic, desperate and religious period of Street-Legal through Slow Train Coming. Although I appreciate all the other eras, with a particular fondness for the last twenty years, I can’t help but see and hear everything through the lens of 1978.

But I wonder, how about Dylan himself? How does it feel? How does it feel?

Bob Dylan’s days with Suze Rotolo, in the early 1960’s, when both were young and complete unknowns, surely hangs over everything he has written since.

1978, in the lyrics of Bob Dylan, was a year when romantic love no longer existed, except to cast a long black shadow. He released an LP that is assaulted by dissolution and despair, a record that is assailed by love and hate, an album that longs for salvation. I came of age in that unsettled sky. Now I’ve written a book that begins in the same twilight, when the sixties were only a faded glow. The opening chapters tell of a romance trapped in time, with no future. In that affair, the necessary life of the other made the present love untenable forever. I soon understood “Idiot Wind” for real. I didn’t understand “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat),” but it fascinated and scared the hell out of me. Something dark was coming. I longed for salvation.

My book is called The Golden Bird and it’s not much about Dylan really, but he makes a few appearances. He keeps holding up that mirror. The story is about my younger life, and my experiences with magic, sex, God and love. If, like me, you walked into the room when Dylan was preoccupied by such things, and you could relate, maybe you will want to read it.  

Love and peace to Suze Rotolo, on her way. . .

More later . . .