Monthly Archives: October 2010

Weekend Wrap-Up: James Jamerson, Rally For Sanity, And More

This week’s theme on James Jamerson was kind of lacking in my usual long postings.  I apologize.  It’s been a crazy week, I have to say.  To make up for it, here’s a pretty awesome clip of him performing “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye:

Yesterday, along with my girlfriend and several friends, I attended the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear.  For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of connection with a lot of Americans.  Seeing Ozzy and Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens) duel between “Peace Train” & “Crazy Train” was pretty surreal.  The event also reminded me of how fantastic of a band The Roots are.  They can play with just anybody.  And their own set (with John Legend) was pretty fantastic as well.  It was also great to see Jeff Tweedy laugh and smile as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart guided him on how to play guitar on their hilarious, “America Is The Greatest, Strongest Country In The World”.

Ozzy & Cat Stevens:

Yesterday also marked the tenth anniversary of U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind – an album that reestablished their reputation after the (mostly) terrible Pop album in 1997.  This album has meant a lot to me over the years, and I definitely rank it as one of U2’s best moments.  While most people probably remember it for “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation”, the song “Stuck in A Moment” has got to rank among U2’s best songs.

 

More James Jamerson

Okay, so I’ve been a really bad blogger this week, and James Jamerson deserves more.  Hopefully I’ll be able to add an in depth post tomorrow – though no guarantees – I’m attending The Rally For Sanity in DC.  (Which by the way includes both the Roots, Jeff Tweedy & Mavis Staples, so I will definitely have pictures.)

But here’s an video on Jamerson’s influence:

Preview of This Week’s Theme: James Jamerson

You can thank the bar I went to over the weekend in Greenwich Village for the inspiration for this week’s theme.  They played old-school soul music for hours straight.  It really might be the best-bar music I’ve ever heard.  I won’t officially start posting this week’s theme until tomorrow, but here’s a preview of this week’s theme – the great and perhaps (under appreciated) James Jamerson.

 

 

An Ode To the Walkman

(Weekly theme coming later.)

Sony announced yesterday that they would stop manufacturing the Walkman.  While I had no idea that they were still making them, this comes as a bit of a disappointment.  For me, the Walkman was a seminal part of growing up.  I was handed down cassette copies of albums by the Smiths, R.E.M., and Talking Heads by my older siblings.  The Walkman had a huge affect on what would eventually be my musical preferences. One year at the beach, my older Pete found a cassette copy of Chronic Town, and I must have listened to it 10 times in a row before falling asleep.

When I was 13, my sister was living in England and about to give birth to my niece.  For the trip over my older brother gave me my first actual Walkman. For years I had just been borrowing my siblings, but this trip was the first time that the portable music player was my own.  I had several cassettes ready for the flight – Weezer’s Blue Album, U2’s War, The Talking Head’s Sand in the Vaseline, Live’s Throwing Copper (hey I was 13), and R.E.M.’s Monster (which was my favorite album at the time.)

The Walkman allowed me to listen to music that my mother would otherwise disapprove of me listening to at the time.  Throwing Copper’s “Shit Towne” sounded fantastic and rebellious, and I felt a certain sense of pride when my mother was not able to hear Ed Kowalcyzk shouting, “C’mon, Motherfucker!” in the middle of “Stage”.  But cursing aside, it was during this time that I really began to understand The Talking Heads.  I had grown up with them in the background and was always a fan of “Once in a Life Time”.  “Same as it ever was”, became sometime of a catch phrase for me, even though I had to realize its irony and the disconnectedness in the way David Byrne delivered it.   But it was “Road to Nowhere” that really caught my attention on those crappy headphones on my 8 hour flight.  The song is a joyous singalong, and though I was taking my first international flight, I had no idea where I was going, or what life would be like on the other-side of the pond, even though my English mother constantly talked about returning for years.  (Of course it wasn’t until years later, that I realized that “Road to Nowhere” is probably the happiest sounding song about death.)

Soon after we arrived, I was stuck in the hospital in preparation for arrival of my niece.  I was left to my own devices, wandering around a foreign maternity ward with just my Walkman in hand.  There was nothing to read except books on pregnancy and breastfeeding, and if it weren’t for the Walkman I probably would have gone crazy.  I played the same tapes over and over again – but they never got boring.  (I did eventually have to give it up and lend it to my sister for a while.)

A couple of years later, my parents wanted to get me the upgraded Discman for Christmas. Even though it was new, and everybody I knew had one, I told them I didn’t want one.  Many of the cassettes that I had, I didn’t have on CD yet, and I had grown too attached to my dubbed versions.  I eventually did get a Discman a year or two later, when it finally broke.  I did keep a lot of my cassettes though.

Bob Dylan & New York: “Visions of Johanna”

If “Spanish Harlem Incident” finds Bob Dylan in Spanish Harlem  seduced by the sexuality, and mysteries of the “gypsy gal,” “Visions of Johanna” shows Dylan wandering around Manhattan in the middle of the night in a surrealistic bender.  Dylan had been writing surrealistic songs for over a year at this point, but “Visions of Johanna” finds him at the breaking point.

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks, when you’re trying to be so quiet?” Dylan muses at the beginning of the song.  Clearly, he’s ready to go to sleep, or pass out.  He’s also stranded with Louise, a woman whom he likes enough to have sex with, but his mind is distracted by another woman – Johanna.  Clearly, Dylan’s head is screwing with him – the heat pipes are coughing, and the “visions of Johanna” are seeping into his consciousness.

Dylan decides to wander outside into the night where he sees what appears to be prostitutes “whisper escapades out on the ‘D’ train”.  When they hear the Night Watchmen click his flashlight and asks himself “if it’s them or him,” Dylan thinks “that’s insane”.  Naturally, everything that is taking place seems a little out of place, and possibly insane.  The incident leaves him thinking that “Louise, she’s alright”, but no where to close to his true love.  Before Dylan stated that “the visions of Johanna” conquered his mind, but now they’ve taken his place.  Does Louise realize that Johanna has taken away her lover?   Either way, after the incident, Dylan seems to be on his own.

Now he’s truly adrift and he’s the “little boy lost, who takes himself so seriously”.  I’ve always taken this verse about Dylan talking to himself – “muttering small talk at the wall – while I’m in the hall”.   Though it’s unclear whose name he mentions (probably Louise), he fondly remembers her (“he speaks of a farewell kiss to me”).  And yet he still can’t escape the “Visions of Johanna” they’ve been keeping him up all night as he wanders around the city.

Eventually he ends up in a museum where “infinity goes up on trial”.  If you’re going with the theory that “Johanna” is a reference to “Gehenna” – a valley outside the Old City that came to represent destruction in Jewish folklore, infinity going up on trial would probably take place here.  Later, Gehenna would be associated with Hell (but not entirely).  At this point, Dylan seems to be in his own hell, and ponders his own mortality, possibly wondering if this is the end for him.  He’s caught between two women, but can’t seem to attach himself to either.  He’s strung out, lost, and hallucinating.  He can hear the paintings talk (“Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze I can’t find my knees'”.)    More strange things happen, but at the end of the song Dylan declares “these visions of Johanna are now all that remain”.

The ending is very open-ended.  Has Dylan finally let himself go?  Has he finally decided that in spite of everything that has taken place over the night, that Johanna is the only thing that he cares about?  Will he ever get back from his wanderings?  Either way,  “the visions of Johanna” have been haunting listers for decades as well.

Bob Dylan & New York: “Spanish Harlem Incident”

When I first looked at the track-list for Another Side of Bob Dylan, and saw the title “Spanish Harlem Incident”, I wrongly assumed that it was a topical song about Spanish Harlem.  This was back when I didn’t know much about Dylan, and had yet to realize what  Another Side of Bob Dylan was about.

It should come as no surprise that Dylan would be attracted to such a girl.  He’s always had a fascination with the exotic nomadic lifestyle – he’s romanticized his travel from Minnesota to New York.  The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975/76 was a sort of circus/gypsy touring extravaganza.  And “One More Cup of Coffee” is another song about gypsies.

“But now destiny was about to manifest itself,” He wrote in Chronicles Volume One. “I felt like it was looking at me and nobody else.”   Is this why he wandered up to Spanish Harlem, to confirm what he already thought might be true?  “Let me know babe, about my fortune,” He tells the mysterious woman.  “Down along my restless palm.”  Perhaps that was his original intention, but as the song goes on, he is seduced by the gypsy girl’s powers.  “You have slayed me, you have made me,” He tells her.

While on the surface, the attraction is purely sexual – perhaps Dylan felt a subconscious connection as an exile with her.  In the 1960’s Dylan had not only abandoned his home in Minnesota for a better life and opportunity in New York City, but he also abandoned his life as a Jew, adopting Dylan as his last name versus his surname Zimmerman.  Both Gypsies and Jews were targeted by Nazis in the Holocaust, so perhaps Dylan and the “gypsy gal” both saw themselves victims and exiles trying to make it in New York City, where all different kinds of cultures and races came together for a better life.  “I’ve been wondering all about me,” Dylan admits in the song.  Could he be referring to his new found identity as “Bob Dylan” versus “Robert Zimmerman”?  Did he think that this woman he found on the street could help him?

At the song’s conclusion, Dylan wants to know if he is real.  Is this referring to his legitimacy as a songwriter, or if making the move to New York was in fact the right move?  A year later, on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as his narrator wanders through Mexico in a drug-haze he answers this question by stating: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’d had enough.”

“Spanish Harlem Incident” – The only version I could find on Youtube was this cover by James Mercer:

Bob Dylan & New York: “Positively 4th Street”

1965 has often been described as the year when Dylan was an “angry young man”.   There are many songs during that period where Dylan cut down ex-lovers (“Like a Rolling Stone”), journalists (“Ballad of a Thin Man”), and society in general (“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”).     While “Like a Rolling Stone”‘s attack was visceral and sadistic its intent was covered in word-play and drugged out literary images.  This of course ensured that its meaning and lyrics could be deciphered for years to come.  But it’s “Positively 4th Street” that is downright nasty – Dylan eschews his surrealistic imagery that he was custom to at the time.  It’s so direct and simple, that there is no question exactly how he’s feeling.

For years Dylan had been living in Greenwich Village – (4th Street may be a reference to where he once lived) and cut his teeth performing at the coffee-houses in the area.  “America is changing,” Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles Volume 1. “I had a feeling of destiny and I wasd riding the changes.  New York was as good a place to be as any.”  Dylan was always good at picking up on change.  He came into New York just as the folk-scene was beginning to explode, and in the mid 1960’s he released followed the cues of the Beatles.  Of course his version of amplified music, would send ripples across the counter-culture.

It was inevitable that there would be a backlash once he decided to go electric.  The famous performance at Newport got the most press, but back in Greenwich Village, some of his supporters viewed him a sell-out.  The topical songs were gone.  Just as everyone else was trying to catch up to Dylan, he quickly moved the opposite direction.

“Don’t you know, it’s not my problem”, He declares near the end of the song.  Dylan wasn’t just being apathetic here – he had moved on, and felt that the scene was also moving on as well.  The Folk Scene in Greenwich Village might have started out as progressive, but sometime between 1960 and 1965 it seemed to become very constricted its own ideals. Dylan used to live on 4th Street in Manhattan (there’s also suggestions that 4th Street refers to his time at the University of Minnesota, but I find this doubtful) so he makes it clear from the beginning his targets in the song are those who used to come to his shows, old friends journalists, and anyone else who was now crying foul on his new direction.

“You got a lot of nerve,” Dylan says in the song.  As if to reinforce the idea, he says it twice (although it’s followed up with a different reason.) Dylan calls out his “friend” for talking behind his back.  He knows his target is guilty, because he used to do the same thing, and hang out with the same people.  This line reminds me of the chorus of “My Back Pages” – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – Dylan is realizing how pathetic the “scene” is to him.

In contrast to the song’s light tone, and an organ that you can almost whistle to, Dylan imagines that his friend would rather see him paralyzed.  “Why don’t you just come out once and scream it?” Dylan demands.  The weight of the song is put upon this line.  In his mind, much of the folk-scene complained and bitched about what was taking place, but very few actually made the change themselves. They couldn’t come up and “scream it”.   Dylan did in more ways that one, and that’s why much of the scene was pissed.  It wasn’t about Dylan being a sell-out.  They knew the change had come, and missed their opportunity.

 

(For some reason, Youtube only has covers of “Positively 4th Street”.  Sorry that there’s no video/audio.)

 

 

Bob Dylan & New York

I’m going to New York City this weekend, so this week’s theme is going to revolve around New York.  I was going to do a full week of my favorite New York songs, but I came to the conclusion that once I posted it I would be pissed, because there would probably be a song that I should have profiled.

So, to celebrate the release of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos (which was a publishing company based in New York) I’m going to look at Dylan songs about New York.

More later.