Sunday, August 5, 2007

Heroes - #3

Bob Dylan – Part One

If you have come with me this far, you will have noticed that, while the Al Kaline part was mostly about Al Kaline, by the time we get into the Dylan Thomas part, it has come to be largely about me. Ain’t that just what happens when your balls drop, though? You start to think that you’re Alpha Male Man. You are, as the old joke goes, a Legend in Your Own Mind. The world is your gig, and the rest of the poor schmucks are just your contemptible audience. And this is the perfect intro for a short discussion of my third, and final, hero: Bob Dylan.

I may not have been certain how I was introduced to Dylan Thomas, but I know exactly how I encountered the phenomenon that was Bob Dylan. When I say “exactly” I say it in full awareness that memory is a tricky and iffy thing. I have had demonstrated to me over and over again how memory takes the scattered events and contingent emotional elements of one’s past and reassembles them into a mosaic which satisfies the psychological/emotional needs of one’s present. Language provides us with the tools to usurp this role of memory and to construct such a scenario for ourselves. By rummaging through that catch-all drawer where the memorable events of the past have been carelessly tossed over the years, we can select the pieces that seem to match and cobble them together into shoes that fit the feet on which we now stand. The long story made short(er) is this:

I was afflicted in those days with a chronic insomnia. It left me tossing and turning nightly until 2 or 3 a.m., in a hormonal fever that no amount of self-abuse could quench. The only other ameliorating resort was listening to late night AM radio . After a certain hour, it was possible to catch DJ, Dick Biondi, on WLS out of Chicago. Sometimes it was even possible to pick up WBZ out of Boston, the name of whose late-night jock I can no longer recall. But the usual choice was either WJBK, out of Detroit, or the powerful CKLW, broadcast out of Windsor, Ontario. In those days, the role of AM radio stations, whose staple content was pop music aimed at a teenage audience, was to play the top 100 or top 50 hits, in rotation, over and over again. Playing album cuts on the radio did not become the thing until the ascendancy of FM, still several years up the road from 1963.

Nonetheless, one fateful night, either on WJBK, or after his subsequent move over to CKLW, my favorite local DJ, Terry Knight, in the wee small hours of the morning, broke the mold and played together in one mini-program, three cuts from Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, The Freewheelin’. And thus, he blew my mind.

As I recall, Knight played three songs: Blowin’ in the Wind, with which the world was already familiar from the Peter, Paul and Mary rendition; Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright; and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. First of all, nobody had ever heard a voice like that on AM radio. Secondly, nobody in middle-class America knew the sound of a blues harp being played on a rack, while the artist’s hands were busy banging on his guitar. But then – (Oh, my God!) – there were the lyrics. Blowing in the Wind, we’ve discussed. Don’t Think Twice is a good lyric and has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs. Given a different arrangement, however, one could easily imagine somebody like Johnny Cash doing that tune convincingly, or even having written it. But, Hard Rain? That was an earthquake! That was a sea change! After hearing that song, spun by Terry Knight in 1963 or 1964 – I don’t know which – nothing was ever the same again.

Let’s compare and contrast. We remember that the top song in 1963, the year that Bob Dylan released The Freewheelin’, was Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and claim today that I didn’t dig the Beach Boys in 1963. I was as appreciative of their pre-Beatles vocal harmonies and Chuck Berry guitar riffs as the next guy. But once I had heard Hard Rain, it was like Double Bubble compared to Red Man. But, observe:

The Beach Boys saw this:

You'd seem 'em wearing their baggies
Huarachi sandals too
A bushy bushy blonde hairdo
Surfing U. S. A.

Bob Dylan’s vision was:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

The Beach Boys left you with:

We'll all be planning that route
We're gonna take real soon
We're waxing down our surfboards
We can't wait for June
We'll all be gone for the summer
We're on surfari to stay
Tell the teacher we're surfing
Surfing U. S. A.

And Dylan’s agenda is:

I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Is my point made?