Me and Bob

We go way back, me and Bob Dylan.

I knew Dylan’s early songs from a young age, but they were a little esoteric and to young ears, the voice was grating. But when other people started recording his songs – first there were pop-folksingers like Peter Paul and Mary – and then the Byrds, I started paying attention. Then I heard “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Since that day, Dylan’s lyrics have filled a disproportionate amount of space in my brain. It wasn’t long before I knew all the words to “Desolation Row,” all ten verses (but who’s counting?). Even now, I can sing (and play) most of the songs from Highway 61 Revisited.

Dylan’s way with words is surely Nobel-worthy. He has written serious songs that still resonate – “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain,” “Hurricane,” “Gates of Eden.” There are love songs that are achingly beautiful – “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “If You See Her Say Hello.” There are short stories in song – “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Black Diamond Bay,” and many more. And songs that make no sense but are unforgettable – “Memphis Blues Again,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”

The words have sunk into our language the way Shakespeare’s words did. “Don’t think twice” or “something’s going on, but you don’t know what it is;” “one more cup of coffee,” or “how does it feel?” – none of these lines are unique to Dylan’s songs, but you may hear the melody when someone says them. Dylanisms like “to live outside the law you must be honest” or “she breaks just like a little girl” ring familiar. And the poetry – “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes,” “yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free” – can bring tears to my eyes.

When I wrote my book, I knew from the start that the title had to be drawn from Bob’s songs. Since the book is about my journey through the politics, culture and music of the late 1960s, it was just a question of which song, which words. In the end, it was easy: the book is my search for some way out of adolescence, out of my suburban hometown, out of here. All “Along the Watchtower” says it plainly, “there must be some way outa here.” It also tells a mysterious, ambiguous story about “too much confusion,” where “there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.” The sense of urgency rang true for me: “let us not talk falsely, the hour is getting late.”

Dylan’s Nobel prize is a well-deserved affirmation of his craft. But even now, there is one big part of his work that is underappreciated: his 21st century songs. When Rolling Stone listed “Dylan’s best” songs a few years ago, only a handful of recent songs were included. They haven’t been paying attention, and if you haven’t either, take heed:

Spend a little time with Modern Times, Love and Theft, and the others. Listen to “Mississippi,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Spirit on the Water,” “High Water,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” and “It’s All Good.”

It is…all good. Very good.

Thanks for everything, Bob.
dylan-glaser


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You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Mr. Trump

Let it bleed Donald Trump

Let it bleed Donald Trump
When Donald Trump finished his blustery acceptance speech at the Republican conventions, rock and roll from 1969-70 filled the convention hall. Among millions of other Americans, I was perplexed by the choice of tracks. But now I think I get it.

There’s a long history of weird and often inappropriate songs being used as campaign theme songs.

For years, the Democrats used Franklin Roosevelt’s theme song, “Happy Days are Here Again,” regardless of the fit with the occasion. The last time it was featured was the catastrophic 1968 convention in Chicago, as antiwar protesters were gassed and beaten in the streets by police.

Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, seemingly unaware of the song’s grim lyric. The Boss told him to cease and desist, though it might have been better to let him keep playing it through the campaign.

Four years later, George Bush the First appropriated Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at the convention. Woody was spinning in his grave. The Republicans omitted the verse…

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

When Pete Seeger sang it at Barack Obama’s inauguration, the verse was restored.

The same year, Michael Dukakis featured Neil Diamond’s cumbersome epic ballad “Coming to America.” His campaign was equally cumbersome, and people tuned out for the later verses.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” echoed from Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech through to election night. For those of us who watched that campaign, the song is forever linked to Bill and Hillary.

But when we come to 2016, Trump’s song selection puts all of these to shame.

As the balloons dropped in Cleveland, the opening strains of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” rang out. Really? TV commentators immediately began commenting on the “odd choice of music” (Judy Woodruff). At first, I was annoyed that he would dare appropriate a classic Stones song for his angry, bigoted campaign. Then I started thinking about the message.

“You can’t always get what you want.” Right. “You’ll find, you get what you need…” OK, so you’re saying that neither you nor Hillary are what we want, but we’ll have to settle for what we need. Thanks for telling us, Donald, but I’m not sure that really helps you. Because, honestly, you are not what we need.

It was weird watching the balloons drop as Mick sang about standing in line behind Mr. Jimi, who said one word to him, and that was “dead.” And then thinking about the central place the song had at the disastrous Altamont festival, which wasn’t much worse in tone than the Republican convention. (Read about it in my pal Joel Selvin’s new book, “Altamont.”)

But then a second song filled the air, louder and more insistent: Free’s “All Right Now.”
The song was a minor hit in the summer of 1970, thanks mostly to a catchy, thrashing guitar hook. I used to play it, loud, driving around my mom’s car with friends, windows rolled down, hoping people would look askance at our slightly rowdy selves. It sometimes worked.

The lyrics of “All Right Now” are something else entirely. It’s a song about a really bad date. A guy pursues an attractive girl, talks her into going home with him, and he proclaims his love for her, to which she pretty much says “are you kidding me?” and leaves. This is what Trump wants us to think about as he leaves the stage in Cleveland?

In retrospect, I suspect that some clever convention planner who didn’t particularly like Trump told him “Hey, Mr. Trump, these are two great old songs that everybody loves, let’s use them!” And Donald said “Great idea!” and the planner is still laughing about it.

The two songs are perfect.


Read about our music and our lives in 1969-70 in Some Way Outa Here.

What’s Your Soundtrack?

Most of us are incessantly playing music in our heads. Don’t take it from me – Oliver Sachs documented it in Musicophilia. Our brains are wired that way. It’s not just you – we’re all pretty musical. It drives us in interesting, sometimes profound ways.

This week the husband of a friend passed away, after a long struggle with cancer. Very ill, Jim Barringer had a last wish – to see Bob Dylan play one more time. His wife, writer Joyce Maynard, wrote about his insistence that he go to Berkeley’s Greek Theater for Dylan’s concert, and how he spoke his last words upon returning home. Along with his love for his wife, music was part of the life force that kept him going. (For Joyce’s account of the concert, see her Facebook page.)

Music drives us in ways we are barely aware of. It frames our moods, and can change them. A good beat keeps us exercising when we’re tiring, a catchy tune cheers us, and an upbeat anthem motivates us.

Try thinking about the civil rights marchers of the 1960s without hearing “We Shall Overcome.” The song was a key ingredient of the movement. The soundtrack of the antiwar movement was everywhere in the 1960s – people hummed Dylan’s protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “Get Together,” “All You Need is Love,” “Revolution” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Bill Clinton took office to a resounding, looping soundtrack of “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Rap and hip-hop have been expressing anger and outrage since the beginning, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.”

We’re being manipulated by music all the time. Stores pick their soundtracks carefully – Starbucks has decided what music is most likely to get you to stay around and drink more coffee. Yoga, massage and meditation all use music to relax you. Movie and TV soundtracks are often masterful manipulators. A good soundtrack is invisible, yet it drives your emotions and tells you how to feel about the characters. You may leave a movie theater humming a song you don’t even remember hearing.

It’s personal. We each have our own soundtrack. Mine is based around the blues and rock I immersed myself in as a teenager, but it includes the jazz and classical music I came to love later. The jukebox in my head plays a strange brew of Beatles, Miles Davis, bluegrass, Muddy Waters and Bach. Songs seemingly come from nowhere, but upon reflection, they often come from a lyric association: hearing “foreign movie” might trigger Steely Dan’s “Peg.” The mind works in strange ways.

I’m a musician (so was Jim, a basssist), and the music might be more powerful for people who play it. (Think of Beethoven – he was still composing when he couldn’t even hear the sounds.) When I ask others about the music in their heads, they often say, sure, sometimes I get a song stuck in my head. But then they think about it, and usually realize that songs come and go through the day.

Our personal soundtracks connect us with our past: our experiences, our friends, and our selves. Joyce writes about how Jim went back to his Beatles collection in his last months, reveling in the exuberance, the energy and the memories. I get it…that’s probably exactly what I would go back to. It’s a way to reconnect with something that’s still there inside, still strong, young and fun. It connects us with our emotions, and strengthens us. I can only hope that the last song I hear is “Here Comes the Sun.”

We need music, until the end. It’s part of who we are.

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Some Way Outa Here reveals how the music of a time, the late 1960s, permeates daily life. It’s a book with a soundtrack, an homage to one of the great eras in popular music.

Soundtrack