Bob Dylan was just given the Nobel Prize for literature. I’m not certain on the criteria of it all…how a songwriter wins an award seemingly reserved for poets and dramatists and novelists….but what the hell. Dylan’s footprint is the size of continents….and words are words, whether they appear on pages….in scripts, or are shouted out from a million beer-soaked microphones over the last 50 years. Dylan works the language like a painter works a canvas…and to the pissy high-brow novelists and their recent snarky tweets….all I have to say is go fucking write something as good as “Every Grain of Sand” and maybe you’ll win an award someday too. It ain’t his fault your 500 page novel isn’t as cinematic as “Tangled Up In Blue.”
This day and age I look for good news like this. It means somebody has balls….even if it may just be a roomful well-read old Swedes swilling martinis. But I’ll take it brother. I’ll take it. I live in a land of stupid……a place where the only respite from blowhardism is earbuds jammed into the side of my head and the volume set to 11. Northeast PA has increasingly become the place where brain cells go to die….so I don’t just reach for proof of intelligent life, I scratch and claw at it like a dying man trying not to tumble off one of our endless mountains.
Bob Dylan. Recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. That is badass.
Dylan single-handedly took “I want to hold your hand” and changed it to “how does it feeeeeeel!”. He made it ok to jam the entire world into a 3 minute pop song. Every single songwriter who came along after Dylan owes him thanks….and most of the ones who were here before him subsequently developed that glazed look…..like ducks hit over the head. Early retirement beckoned…thankfully.
When the prize was announced Dylan was preparing for yet another show in yet another town in yet another theater on yet another tour….and true to form he said nothing. No press conference. No social media post. No official statement. He just pulled his hat down over his eyes, played his show, got on his bus, and headed for his next one. He’ll talk it when he receives it….unless he’d just rather they mail it to him. That would be rock and roll. But I suspect his love of words will get the better of him, and he’ll wish to somehow address the controversy of the selection in his own, unique, byzantine way. Because, it’s easy to forget, it’s not his prolonged silences that intrigue us as much as what builds up in his head between them. To put it another way…the world listens when he talks precisely because he’s not popping off every 6 minutes about what everybody else is popping off about.
Bob Dylan does not do mundane.
I’m hearing the same silly “can lyrics be poetry?” argument. To which I always reply, “why would they want to be? I fucking hate poetry.”
Really, does it matter? If the goal is to move the listener, then Woody Guthrie is our Keats.
Nobody living / can ever stop me / as I go walking / that freedom highway
Nobody living / can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me….
You got anything better than that? I’ll wait while you peruse your Shakespeare.
There would not be a Dylan without Woody….so work it out for yourselves.
Bob Dylan changed the world. He altered the landscape. He changed the conversation. He crashed a party he wasn’t invited to. He taught us our own songs before he started creating his own. And when his own got so wild they needed electricity to be harnessed, alone with his polka-dot shirt and his sunglasses he created rock and roll 2.0…where nothing was off the table and you no longer needed forks and knives to cut something. That wild, mercury sound was its own scythe….and finally his brilliant wordplay met its match……like Ali being defined by Frazier.
That sounds pretentious as shit I know. But, hell….NOBEL PRIZE yo! Maybe I am reading a little too much into “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”, but I ain’t gonna apologize. Because it’s only rock and roll. And I like it. It’s poetry too. It’s novelistic (even if that’s not a real word). It’s drama.
Words. Read them Sing them. Chant them. Memorize them. Scream them. Do they inspire? Do they demand reckoning but don’t insist on blood? Then they are literature.
In a bit..
When did we get so scared?
And more importantly, are we even afraid of the right things?
Because fear breeds ignorance as much as ignorance breeds fear. It can scramble brains so much that synapses stop firing….and what you’re left with is two half drunk partisan dimwits, both unburdened by pesky facts, trading insults on somebody else’s Facebook post. The very definition of depressing.
What’s clear to me is that to a rich man, all poor people look the same.
That’s clear to me even though I’m not always, or even often, the smartest person in the room. I’m Lake Woebegone average, but I can see, I can read, and I can listen. Ain’t that all it takes?
May I wander a bit? Because what I’m getting at requires verbal wandering.
I’m a descendant of 1840s famine Irish. I’ve lost track of how many “great’s” come before the “grandfather”…but there is a direct, traceable lineage back…..from counties Mayo and Sligo. The Flannery’s and the Loftus’s were starving, so they had to get out. To stay meant eternal rest.
It gets a bit murky here…..some arriving in New York harbor, and others possibly slipping over the border from Canada in a slightly less legal fashion. Freedom from want is way more powerful than any wall. Dig under. Climb over. Or blow a hole through. Whatever works. As Springsteen sang, “God, hunger is a powerful thing.”
They were met not with open arms, but with open hostility. The normal kind. The kind those that look different and act different and speak different are often met with. “No dogs nor Irish need apply”. Of course the fact that those doing the judging were themselves immigrants was ironic, but as a nation we don’t often do irony well.
We made our way to anthracite country, because as it turned out that there were some jobs that the Irish were welcome to. We might die from black lung or a cave-in or self inflicted liver disease trying to forget the first two, but we weren’t gonna starve to death. Assimilation would come not from knocking on doors, but from kicking them down. So be it. It did come, and our story is not much different from other ethnic groups. Only the places and names change…but the narrative remains as straight as Route 66.
So now we were “Americans” somehow….maybe helped along by blood spilled on both sides of Civil War battlefields. Dying has always been great ethnic PR, unless you happen to Indian of course.
And now, just like the rest, we went from being judged to being judges.We might be the bottom of the totem poll….but look at this sorry lot crossing over. They seem willing to cut the totem poll down!
And so it went. And so it goes. America is a strange place. The rest of the world finds it…crawls all over the place killing the original population, develops amnesia, and somehow thinks they sprouted here whole….like a European potato plant.
We learn our lessons. Then we forget our lessons. Then we fail our lessons. Then we teach our children.
And we go from laughing nervously about George Wallace to possibly electing Donald Trump president.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
As long as there is somebody to blame, then it can’t be our fault. That’s the logic of a 4th grader, coincidentally the language level of a Trump stump speech.
It sucks to be poor anywhere. It especially sucks to be poor in America, a place that claims to value work but actually values wealth. Two distinct things those. It’s also a place that likes its rich people to be white. Actually, it likes its poor people to be white too….because they are the only ones who will still vote for the rich white ones.
To be black or brown is to be an outsider. To be poor and black or brown is to be invisible…until they need your votes, or you start getting all uppity and demanding and saying your lives matter. All Lives are supposed to matter of course, but the cops only seem to be shooting the unarmed black ones….so…what’s a poor boy to do? Words matter too….or at least they used to until Trump claimed to have “the best ones”….and half the nation seemingly agreed with him.
Fear is that moment you snap the light on….and things you can’t quite make out scurry across the floor out of sight. It’s what your mind conjures up….that’s where the maximum badness resides. Reality has become what charlatans tell you it is….so if they say our nation is under siege by random people dressing as clowns, then we are. And if they tell you that all these unarmed black men getting shot by cops were really threatening thugs with hidden guns buried in their waistbands, then so goes the world. Fight the power and all that, but don’t make a big fucking deal out of it and block traffic.
I have no more right to judge an inner city black male being harassed by cops than I do a Syrian refugee fleeing relentless terror, Because I am not a black male, nor am I a Syrian refugee. Are you?
What I am is part of a clan that came to this country for the same reasons….because we were promised better days….a place where a man could hold his own in a fair fight. A place where when you turned on the light, the floor didn’t move.
In a bit..
What if we’re really not better than this?
I hear variations of that phrase all the time. As a nation we “deserve better”. Or we “deserve” Presidential candidates who act….well…..Presidential. Our kids “deserve better” than the reality show we’ve served up to them like so many TV dinners. We feel entitled to what a brain provides, even if we can shine a flashlight through our ears and light the opposite wall.. What gives?
We’re appalled. Shocked. Stunned. Or maybe just immune and bored. We see wrongs being done and don’t right them. We preach but don’t act. We kneel and pray, making sure, as long as we’re down there, to place our knees on somebody’s neck, all the better to curry favor with Jesus or Allah or Mike Pence or whoever the current deity is. Because it ain’t my fault. It must be somebody else’s. Like Syrian refugees or back-up quarterbacks or black men waiting with apparent gun-shaped books to pick up their sons at the bus-stop….or something equally 21st century. (amazing how the boogeyman keeps changing isn’t it?). Maybe we’re just lazy. Or astoundingly stupid.
Making the social media rounds today is a picture of a vendor at the Bloomsburg fair selling Nazi flags and Trump banners side by side….along with bumper stickers saying things like “Aids Cures Fags”. As chilling as the swastika itself is, its proximity to the Trump banner seems a bit…well…. I’ll leave the rest of you to work that out. Things that make you go “hmmm” and all that. (What I’d like to know is what kind of business the stand was doing, but nobody’s talking about that). It’s been pointed out that the stand did include Hillary banners as well……ones saying “Hillary For Prison”. So it’s not like the dude is a rabid partisan or anything.
Turns out the Fair had no idea the vendor was selling such reprehensible items….nor were they aware that the man who owned the stand is a convicted sex offender. So far that’s a batting average of .000. At least there’s nowhere to go but up from there.
The Fair, to its credit, has since booted the vendor, but not before Facebook removed many links to the story and photo that forced Bloomsburg’s hand, saying it was against user policy. So there’s that. Whatever would we do without Zuckerberg and his moral compass?
We deserve better, right?
Tonight is the Hillary/Trump debate….a spectacle that promises to out-circus the circus. It should prove a major rating winner to a nation still reeling from Brad and Angelina’s break-up. It promises to be great fun, especially to those playing the “pound a beer every time Trump lies” game, and to professional media pundits, who have set the bar so low that, unless Trump turns into a werewolf and starts drinking Lester Holt’s blood screaming “I told you it was rigged! Rigged I say!…..”, will declare the whole thing a tie and remind everybody what an unlikeable bitch that woman really is. I have no plans to watch, but I have no plans to rubberneck on the highway when I see a ghastly accident either. So who knows? Plus, who gives a shit about the Falcons and the Saints?
We deserve better, right?
My daughter is away at college and she asked me this morning, when she saw the Fair story, “why Dad? Why are people like this?”
What should I tell her? Hell….don’t blame me. I think Bernie is too far to the right, so what do I know? To me….candidates like Trump and Hillary are like monstrous Ralph Steadman caricatures from a Hunter Thompson novel. I think you’re ALL crazy.
That being said, I’ve been predicting Trump’s demise for well over a year now, sure that he had decapitated himself for calling John McCain a dumb pussy for being captured and tortured to within an inch of his life during the Viet Nam war….this was July 2015. Surely a Republican draft dodger could never get away with this! Ha! Not only did he get away with it, his numbers went up. It was this moment probably more than (many many) others that led me to being unable to answer questions like “why are people like this?” from my daughter….who radiates goodness and fairness and is desperately trying to not grow cynical before she’s legally able to order a beer. Because she knows that’s my job.
She’s 18 now, so it will be her first time in a voting booth. I don’t want her thinking that this type of visceral hate and rhetorical dumbing-down is the norm, but she’s smart enough to know that, sadly, it seems to be not only normal, but working gangbusters. Some things I can protect her from. Idiocy is not one of them.
We deserve better though, right?
Why? Are we somehow immune to history?
Sure hate is toxic, but it also sells. Flags from a county fair vendor and newspapers from a newsstand…..it’s all dollars and lack of sense. Who wants to hear sober policy wonking when you could be listening to the sound of raping Mexicans and the allahu akbar-ing of rabid US-hating Syrian refugees? Nuke ‘em all….just like Putin would. A serious leader and man’s man. Not like our….you know…not so white guy who was born Allah-knows-where and spawned that pot-head affirmative-actioned-to-within-an-inch-of-her-life Harvard kid.
So no, we don’t deserve better. A nation elects the leaders it asks for. So we deserve either Hillary or Trump…..and the pain either will cause will be self-administered. Don’t complain about the welts on your back if you’re into flagellation. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. Or Bob Dylan.
The fact that I’d vote for a rabid half-starved dingo living underneath a Dickson City meth-lab before I’d pull a Trump lever doesn’t mean I’m not partially responsible for his ascension. We’re all to blame. We allowed our democracy to come to this….and tonight we’ll witness the shit-show in all its unencumbered, tiny-fingered glory. Fact checking is not only discouraged, but actually against the rules! And no I didn’t make that up. Drink up boys and girls.
You’re gonna feel like shit in the morning. And you deserve it.
In a bit…..
My friend George Wesley received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Steamtown Music Awards tonight. I was asked to say a few words….and this is what I intended to say. I didn’t get to say all of it due to time and volume….but it’s worth sharing…for me anyway. God I miss him…
“I was thinking the other day what would make an appropriate monument to George. Came up with the usual suspects. A re-named street….with the street sign we could subsequently steal. How cool would it be to have a hot “George Wesley Boulevard” sign in your man cave? Maybe a bust on the square in Wilkes-Barre….where kids could pay homage, armed with illegal smiles.
How about plaques and custom bongs in every green-room on the East Coast?
The logistics might be tough for that one.
All of us dressing completely in black for the next 40 years?
But no….George was a giant…and a giant deserves something….well…BIG..
Scale is very important here….time to think outside the box.
So I googled Mt Rushmore. That seemed entirely appropriate.
Lincoln’s face is 60 feet tall. His eyes are 11 feet wide. His nose is two stories high. Now we were getting somewhere.
So George with a 60 foot face and 11 foot eyes and a 20 foot nose….over-looking the Susquehanna river. He’d have to wear the Tam….not enough rock for the dreads…..but the beard could hang down until it reached the tip of the river. Think of the tourist dollars! A six story beard.
And then I thought….well…..who else could be up there with him on that mountain? Even Lincoln has some company.
And…well…..no….there’s nobody else. He’d be up there alone. The old lion. King of the NEPA musical jungle.
The music. Music was like exhaling to George. That’s how naturally it flowed from him. Mozart claimed to be able to “write” music in his head. George could do the same thing. And if you don’t think that comparing George Wesley to Mozart is completely badass and rock and roll appropriate, then Vinnie and Frank’s bar is not the place for you this evening.
Me and George sat in my living room last year with a bunch of my lyrics and he instantly came up with fully formed melodies….as he was reading them. I don’t mean he hummed a few bars and tried stuff out on the fly…I mean INSTANT….memorable melodies, fully formed. It was like catching fireflies to him. To steal a line from Twain…..the difference between George and the rest of us is the difference between lightning and the lighting bug. We were friends for 20+ years and I never stopped being in awe of him.
We’d play these songwriter in-the-round shows…..and George would always play along to whatever song I was doing. Even if I told him not to because the song was so new even I wasn’t sure of the melody or the chords. I figured if I didn’t know……there’s no way he could.
And George would always smile and promise….and then he’d play along anyway….he’d guess where the song was going and was always right….and we’d finish and he’d say “I’m sorry man I couldn’t help it…” I said…..”you’re incorrigible” and he said…”yea….but it sounds good…!”
He’d go into his kitchen to get a drink, and he’d have his guitar with him. He walked into a NYC hotel with Diana….saw 2 beds….and immediately said….”Great….one for my guitar.” I love that story.
I once asked him to stand still while holding a guitar…..and see how long he could go without playing it. It was like dangling ice cream in front of a child. I think he lasted 8 seconds.
The last time we spoke…..I told him that I loved him. And he told me that he loved me. So I have no regrets. If that’s how it has to end between friends, I’d wish that for you too.
And as usual…..he signed off with “Jah bless”…
And after I hung up…..I had tears. But they dried. They always do. And for the first time I thought….
“Jah bless….……Yea…..he certainly does…”
I’m a better man because I knew George Wesley. I’m not the only person in this room who can say that. Show me….show him…..raise your fucking glasses….
“You count your blessings / when you count your friends”
How blessed we all were.
— tf 9/15/2016 11pm V-Spot Scranton, PA
Title tracks. I wanted to have one. Problem was I didn’t have a title. Bret lives in Dupont, so this one didn’t take that much imagination. We didn’t make this music on the back porch because it was the dead of winter and that would have been weird, but it sounded like the kind of music people make when they’re passing a guitar around over sun and beers and illegal smiles. So I sent Bret a text and said “I’ve got a title…”Dupont Back Porches”…and he loved it. Then I said, “we need a song.” I had this little instrumental that I was gonna use…some 2 minute open G tuned guitar ditty that I cut in my basement…but I kept thinking….”no, we gotta sing this one.” I had one verse and a chorus scribbled on a legal pad. No music. While Bret fiddled with the chorus I wrote another verse, and when he was done with his bit I was done with mine. Pure collaboration. Knee to knee. Some hand claps and electric guitar added later. It was the last thing we recorded. When it was done we knew we had a record.
Like a fingerprint no two the same / this back porch keeps me in the game
You can purchase a copy of Dupont Back Porches here.
Labor day has passed, always that stubborn signpost that marks the end of summer. The kids are back at school and it’s time to start worrying about how many days off you have left this year, because most likely you blew just about all of ‘em on some shore visit that you put on the credit card. The fact that it’s still 90 degrees outside is pissing me off some, but fall will arrive. It always does. And with it comes our tendency to barricade ourselves indoors….where we can choose our own distractions. And, incidentally, where it’s more difficult to spend money.
Summertime is for frolicking. We rarely get anything substantial done while sweat is dripping into our eyeballs. It’s what Chevy Chase called a “quest for fun”, and we go full speed ahead searching for it, even if it makes us fucking miserable. We pretend all is well and then look back, sipping a beverage while being massaged by a cool September breeze. We revisit all the cute pictures we took, and reality is walled in like that dead nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. We recall the glorious sunsets and the sparkling sand, and forget about the trip to the emergency room with the Jellyfish bite, and how much it cost to fix the broken air conditioner. We’re humans. Woody Guthrie called is “hoping machines”. We remember the party and forget the hangover. We’re glorious idiots, and I love that about us. And not much else.
We lose track of what time it gets dark. We cared back in July….when we went searching for the fireworks. And they all started around the same time. Close to 9:30pm. What time will it be dark tonight? Honestly, I’d have to look it up. And the time creeps too….like the turtle in the race with the hare. So eventually we go from fireworks finishing up near 10 bells, to leaving work at 5:30 across a pitch black parking lot….and never fail to be stunned by how it all seemed to happen in an instant. Lawn-mowers and snowblowers are like two ships passing each other in the night. Football goes from those fans blowing ice water on dehydrated offensive linemen to the frozen tundra of Green Bay. Where does all this time go? Is this the “life happening when we’re busy making other plans” thing? Perhaps. But I can’t imagine not living with the rhythms of these changes.
And so I come to the point of all this meandering. I wasn’t sure what to write about today, but I was sure that I wanted to write something. Because writing is what I do, and it’s what makes me feel good. Words. The way some luxuriate in bath bubbles…..that’s me with the language. Writer’s block is real, but it’s not an excuse. So off searching I go on days like this, hoping to be inspired by, well, anything. Begging. Borrowing. Stealing. All’s fair when you’re starting at an empty page. Being OCD helps too. A newspaper column is around 7-800 words. So these posts I make are never less than 700 words…..the same way no record I release has less than 10 songs on it. Because 9 seems like cheating (cmon! You don’t have some acoustic demo lying around to make the round number?)…..like a 699 word column. Of course none of this is rational but I know lots of writers, and while they don’t have much in common, a lack of rationality is the river they all run through. Which is why we don’t get invited to many parties, but the ones we do are always the most memorable.
So I sent a text this morning to my friend Bret Alexander, a man who is also word hungry. No preamble. Got right to it. “I need something to write about. Gimme an idea”.
His response? “Dude, you don’t know how creepy that question is…” Then he told me he was about to hit submit on his latest blog post….a post that dealt with…..wait for it….what to write about….and how to grind it out of yourself when need be. And then it popped into my facebook feed. Creepy indeed. As Van the Man once said….”Wavelength / Wavelength / You never let me down…”
I like to think that great minds think alike….but it could be that we are both just major league weirdos.
Which suits me just as well….because weirdos are rarely boring. And as a writer, there ain’t nothing worse.
So there. 781 words. My work here is done. And I feel fine. Until next time.
In a bit…
Wrote this for my friend, the late great George Wesley. We never got the chance to record it together. It came together so easily. Such a simple sentiment. Scribbled the title down on a piece of paper. The verses spilled out. The melody was like a hovering firefly. All I had to do was bottle it. Like a child.
It seemed so simple that I was hesitant to do anything with it. I just sang a snippet of it to Bret and he immediately perked up. So we just fell in together. “Like a demented Simon and Garfunkel” is how I described what it sounded like when I heard the playback. We didn’t add a thing. What you hear is what we did in those 3 minutes. I called out the bridges with nods of the head and we (sorta) ended at the same time.
It would have been a reggae song if I could play reggae but I can’t so it isn’t. But my heart aches to think of what George might have done with this. I remember singing it with him in my living room and it was like he was levitating.
Bret’s guitar here is a perfect counterpoint to my simple strum…..all brightness and positive vibes. And it wouldn’t be half the song it is without his harmony on the chorus.
If you’re gonna make a duo record, make a duo record. Man…this was fun.
You can purchase a copy of Dupont Back Porches here.