Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Back to the beginning: Another song

I want to go back to the first album I ever bought.  I'd heard of the singer/songwriter, as who hadn't by then, but I'd never owned, or even seen, one of his records.  Then, sometime in early 1964 (the album was released on January 13, 1964--my younger brother's 10th birthday, as it happens), I was in a store called Shopper's Fair, in Irvington Plaza, in Indianapolis, browsing through the record bins, and I came across it, picked it up, flipped it over to read the liner notes.  And I was confronted by a solid mass of text, written not by someone hyping the record, but by the artist.  Not about the record, either.  It was a series of poems, titled "Eleven Outlined Epitaphs," which, if you know, tells you that the album was The Times, They Are a-Changin', and that the artist was Bob Dylan.  Still, I didn't know what was on the album; all I had was this strange, compelling set of poems, which begin:

I end up then
in the early evenin’
blindly punchin’ at the blind
breathin’ heavy
an’ blowin’ up
where t’ go?
what is it that’s exactly wrong?
who t’ picket?
who t’ fight?
behind what windows
will I at least
hear someone from the supper table
get up t’ ask
“did I hear someone outside just now?”

And I stood there for maybe 10 minutes, reading what was
on the album cover...but that was not the end.  The poems continued on an insert inside the shrink wrap.  And I was sunk; I had to have this.  The price was $2.74 (including sales tax), which was, for me at age 16, a large chunk of change (adjusted for inflation, that's about $20.75 in today's prices).  I took it home, tore the shrink wrap off, and finished the poems.  Then, to play the record, but that had to wait; I had no record player, I would have to use the family's, in the living room.  And that meant waiting until my parents weren't around...I knew how they'd react to any Bob Dylan song.

But before I get to the songs...I was heavily involved in my high school speech and debate program, doing small group discussion and extemp in speech, and debating.  But reading the "Eleven Outlined Epitaphs," I decided to work up a piece for poetry interpretation--five minutes, two or more poets.  So I did some cutting and wound up with these from the "Epitaphs":

strength now shines through my window
regainin’ me an’ rousin’ me
day by day
from the weariness
of walkin’ with ghosts
that rose an’ had risen
from the ruins an’ remains
of the model T past
even though I clutched t’ its sheet
I was still refused
an’ left confused
for there was nobody there
t’ let me in
a wasteland wind whistled
from behind the billboard “there’s nobody home
all has moved out”
flatly denied
I turned indeed
flinched at first
but said “ok
I get the message”
feelin’ unwanted? no
unloved? no
I felt nothin’
for there was nobody there
I didn’t see no one
t’ want or unwant
to love or unlove
maybe they’re there
but won’t let me in
not takin’ chances
on the ones that come knockin'
should I then be angry?
I feel that the grittin’ of my teeth
for only a second
would mean
my mind has just been
swallowed whole
an’ so I step back t’ the street
an’ then turn further down the road
poundin’ on doors
not really
just out lookin’
a stranger?
no not a stranger but rather someone
who just doesn’t live here
never pretendin’ t’ be knowin’
what’s worth seekin’
but at least
without ghosts by my side
t’ betray my childishness
t’ leadeth me down false trails
an’ maketh me drink from muddy waters
yes it is I
who is poundin’ at your door
if it is you inside
who hears the noise

I am still runnin’ I guess
but my road has seen many changes
for I’ve served my time as a refugee
in mental terms an’ in physical terms
an’ many a fear has vanished
an’ many an attitude has fallen
an’ many a dream has faded
an’ I know I shall meet the snowy North
again-but with changed eyes nex’ time ’round
t’ walk lazily down its streets
an’ linger by the edge of town
find old friends if they’re still around
talk t’ the old people
an’ the young people
runnin’ yes . . .
but stoppin’ for a while
embracin’ what I left
an’ lovin’ it-for I learned by now
never t’ expect
what it cannot give me

lonely? ah yes
but it is the flowers an’ the mirrors
of flowers that now meet my
an’ mine shall be a strong loneliness
dissolvin’ deep
t’ the depths of my freedom
an’ that, then, shall
remain my song

there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
“music, man, that’s where it’s at”
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
an’ they
are still ringin’.

(I opened with a poem by Robert Frost, "Escapist--Never," from In The Clearing:

He is no fugitive--escaped, escaping.
No one has ever seen him stumble, looking back.
His fear is not behind him but beside him
On either hand to make his course perhaps
A crooked straightness yet no less a straightness.
He runs face forward.  He is a pursuer.
He seeks a seeker who in his turn seeks
Another still, lost far into the distance.
Any who seek him seek in him the seeker.
His life is a pursuit of a pursuit forever.
It is the future that creates his present.
All is an interminable chain of longing.

Not one of Frost's best, but it seemed to fit.)

I was an outlier in the poetry interpretation events, being just about the only male, but it was fun.

But to the songs.  The Times They Are a-Changin' is an amazing album. Opening with the title song and ending with "Restless Farewell," it contains many of Dylan's best-known early pieces (the title track, "With God On Our Side," Only a Pawn in Their Game," When the Ship Comes In").  But the song that somehow stays with me is a very personal song, a song about something ending, about sadness, "One Too Many Mornings."  It opens with this:

Down the street the dogs are barkin’
And the day is a-gettin’ dark
As the night comes in a-fallin’
The dogs’ll lose their bark
An’ the silent night will shatter
From the sounds inside my mind
For I’m one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind

To me, this said "loss;" it said "sorrow."  And then:

From the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade
As I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid
An’ I gaze back to the street
The sidewalk and the sign
And I’m one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

And it's clear that he is leaving--feels he has to leave--someone he has loved.  Many songwriters might have left it at that, but, even at age 23 (which is how old he was when he wrote the song), Dylan knew it was  not enough.  He knew:

It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

Ten year later, he was to echo this song in the first track on Blood on the Tracks, which ends:

And me, I'm still on the road
Headin' for another joint,
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue


Monday, October 28, 2013

A Farewell to Lou Reed

Lou Reed died over the weekend, at age 71.  I won't even try to compete with the discussions of his career that you can find elsewhere, but will just say that I found his song-writing to be amazing and inspiring, particularly in his solo work.  I particularly loved his album New York, and, from that album, "Busload of Faith": 

"You can't depend on your family
you can't depend on your friends
You can't depend on a beginning
you can't depend on an end

You can't depend on intelligence
ooohhh, you can't depend on God
You can only depend on one thing
you need a busload of faith to get by, watch, baby


You can't depend on the goodly hearted
the goodly hearted made lamp-shades and soap
You can't depend on the Sacrament
no Father, no Holy Ghost

You can't depend on any churches
unless there's real estate you want to buy
You can't depend on a lot of things
you need a busload of faith to get by, who

You can depend on cruelty
crudity of thought and sound
You can depend on the worst always happening
you need a busload of faith to get by, ha...

Thank you, Lou, for your music and your words...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Re-reading Rex Stout's Early Novels

I’ve started doing reading “projects,” for some reason, and the most recent was to re-read the non-Nero-Wolfe books by Rex Stout.  I actually have them all, and the largest sum I have ever paid for a book, I paid for one of them.

Five novel:
Under the Andes (1914)
How Like a God (1929)
Seed on the Wind (1930)
Forest Fire (1933
The President Vanishes (1934) [Published anonymously], reprinted under his name in 1967]

Four mysteries:
The Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937)
Mountain Cat (1939)
Red Threads (1939) [Inspector Cramer]
Alphabet Hicks (1941)  [APA: The Sound of Murder (1965)]

The Tecumseh Fox mysteries:
Double for Death (1939)
Bad for Business (1940)
The Broken Vase (1941)

I’ve said this before, Rex Stout is my favorite mystery writer.  But I will also have to say that the five novels he published are mostly not worth reading.  Under the Andes reads very much like an attempt to write something like Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger books (in particular, The Lost World).  How Like a God—well, here’s a fairly accurate review of it on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7502340-how-like-a-god).  Seed on the Wind (which is available from an Amazon seller for $783.50, if you’re willing do something foolish, and for between $300 and $500 elsewhere) is (how shall I phrase this politely) a bad attempt at a Freudian sex novel.  Forest Fire—which I purchased for $75—is another psychological novel, set in Montana, in which the main character is a sexually confused forest ranger.  Its sole reason for continued interest is that Stout reused a scene in it (which went on for about 4 pages) in Death of a Dude (in which it took two paragraphs).  And The President Vanishes, which is actually the most readable of these five books, reminds me in a lot of ways of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Can't_Happen_Here), in that there’s the threat of a totalitarian military takeover of the U.S.  Subject yourselves to these only if you’re feeling masochistic.  The last 10 pages are pretty good, though.  It’s hard to believe, really, that he published this book in the same year that Fer-de-Lance appeared; the first Wolfe book in incomparably better.

Of the 7 non-Wolfe mysteries, by far the best is the first, The Hand in the Glove, featuring Dol Bonner.  (Bonner, of course, appears in subsequent books—one of the Fox mysteries, one of the Wolfe novellas, and in one of the Wolfe novels.)  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hand_in_the_Glove)  Bonner re-appears in Bad For Business, and seems to have an almost entirely different character. 

Mountain Cat, set in Cody, Wyoming, involves the effort of Delia Brand (aside—Stout reused this name, for the character of Delia Brandt, in Might As Well Be Dead) to solve her father’s murder.  The town in which it is set has always seemed to me to appear larger than it really was (1,800 in 1930; 2,500 in 1940), with taxis, “high-rise” buildings, and so on.  But the main character is fairly well done and the solution is fairly arrived at.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Cat)

Inspector Cramer has a major part in Red Threads (and the red threads involve an old Navajo blanket unraveled and re-woven into a jacket).  (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/148957.Red_Threads)  The introduction to this book, which was re-printed as a part of Bantam’s Res Stout re-issue series, in notable for trashing—justifiably—Stout’s knowledge of and use of native American culture.  Still, the mystery is fairly well done, and it’s nice to see Cramer not dealing with Wolfe.  Although he doesn’t actually solve the mystery.

Alphabet Hicks, the title character of the book, is a disbarred lawyer currently driving a cab, and apparently becoming involved in the occasional investigation (2 or 3 others are mentioned in the book).  (http://thepulpfictionproject.blogspot.com/2012/01/alphabet-hicks.html)  Hicks is hired by Judith Dundee to figure out why her husband, industrialist R. I. Dundee, believes she’s selling trade secrets to his arch-rival.  It also has one of the most insipid love-struck young men in the history of mystery novels.

The three Tecumseh Fox books, in terms of quality, are close to The Hand in the Glove.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tecumseh_Fox)  Double for Death is nicely plotted and makes use of a confusion of identities twist.  Bad for Business, which Stout re-wrote as a Wolfe novella (and, frankly shouldn’t have), deals with industrial sabotage (and also has an insipid love-struck young man).  The weather provides a crucial clue.  The Broken Vase involves the suicide of an extremely promising classical violin player, and a stunningly simple ploy for destroying his career.  (Stout also re-uses a plot twist in this book in one of the Wolfe novellas—but with a, well, twist, but telling you which would be a spoiler.)  It’s also the best of the three Fox books.  Stout was known to have said, in later years, that Fox was not a real character, just a bundle of characteristics.  I’m not sure he was right about that; was is true is that the books apparently did not get good reviews and sold poorly.

After re-reading all of them, I find my love of the Nero Wolfe books intact, and I also find it difficult to understand how it was possible for his earlier books to be so…inadequate…when, from the beginning, the Wolfe books were so compelling.

And this has been much longer than I intended.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Another Week, Another Song

This one has no lyrics.  The best description I've ever heard of it was the spoken introduction to the song:
You know, sometimes we're not prepared for adversity.  When it happens sometimes, we're caught short.  We don't know exactly how to handle it when it comes up.  Sometimes, we don't know just what to do when adversity takes over. .  And I have advice for all of us, I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune.  And it sounds like what you're supposed to say when you have that kind of problem.  It's called “Mercy…..Mercy…..Mercy.”

"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," from Cannonball Adderly's Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live At "The Club."  This is a remarkable album in a number of ways.  First of all, all the songs are incredible.  The first side of the album consists of three songs:  "Fun,",  ("This song was written by Nat Addrely, our brass section.  He comes from a distinguished family.  The only reason we played this song was so we could couple it with his newest composition...") "Games," and "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."  The flip side, also three songs--"Sticks," "Hippodelphia," and "A Sack o' Woe," the last song being an amazing blues.  (Cannonball composed "Sticks" and "A Sack o' Woe;" Nat, did "Hippodelphia.")  Second, the playing is amazing.  Cannonball on alto and Nat on cornet play beautifully together and when they are playing against each other.  Victor Gaskin (bass) and Roy McCurdy (drums) are a solid rhythm section.  And Joe Zawinul's keyboard work throughout the album is worth the price of the album all by itself. 
"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" is a remarkable buoyant and joyous blues, and Zawinul's playing it is breathtaking.  I could listen to this song--and to the entire album--over and over again.  And I have.  It will make you feel better when you're down, and it will lift your spirits higher even when you are felling good.  It makes me happy every time I hear it.