Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Little Red Book

One of our readers mentioned Dylan, and a "cabin in Minnesota," holed up and writing an album. "Blood on the Tracks," I assume. Let me tell you the story of "The little red book." Sounds like a nice Christmas story, eh? It must have been around 1992. I was living in Brooklyn; in a little storefront I called "the bunker." A friend of mine, named Steve, called up and told me about an investment banker who lived up the street. The cat had a treasure trove of rare Bob Dylan manuscripts. Steve asked if I was interested in seeing the stuff. Of course. It involved having dinner with the investment banker and his family, so they could ascertain if I was safe enough, or worthy enough, to view the rare goods. I went over to this swank apartment, near Norman Mailer's place in Brooklyn Heights. I sat down to dinner with the banker; his wife and kid. Pleasant folks. "Pass the mash potatoes." Etc. I passed the test, because after dinner he seated me at a large table; then went to unlock the safe. He brought in the goods on a silver tray. One piece at a time. I think the first manuscript was the hand-written words to "Blowin' in the Wind," with Dylan's notes and changes in the margins. Out came more early songs, napkins and matchbooks; then recent road journals. Actually they looked like diaries; they contained Dylan's road sketches and notes on life and gigs. Who was sleeping with who. It seemed too personal for somebody else to be looking at, so I handed them back. I was beginning to feel funny about it all. How did this guy get the stuff, and where did it come from? I can only imagine Dylan had been ripped off, throughout his career, by hotel maids, roadies and friends. But here it all was. Probably purchased for hundreds of thousands. Then he brought out the red book. The high point of the collection. It was a little notebook with a red leather cover. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. This was the book in which Dylan worked on most of the lyrics to "Blood on the Tracks." All the songs were in there, plus about seven extra that have never seen the light of day. They were scrawled in very small handwriting on every page. The book was glowing in my hands; on fire. I felt like I was holding the Gospel of St. Thomas, dug up from a cave in Egypt. "That's the book," said the Banker. "I've confirmed it with sources like his ex-girlfriend, Carol. Dylan would go up into the attic of his Minnesota farm house every day and write lyrics in this little book. Lyrics to 'Blood on the Tracks.' It's priceless." Yeah; well about that time I needed fresh air. This same banker also collected rare medieval tapestries. It was all about the collection; not the songs. Medieval tapestries and Dylan lyrics. Worth about the same on the high-end market. Adios Brooklyn Heights. Last I heard, Dylan's people had contacted the banker…he was persuaded to give back or donate the collection to a museum. My hand is still burning; and don’t ask me what those seven rare songs were. I'm in San Diego…."still on the road, headed for another joint." And that, my children, is the story of the little red book.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving on the Bravo

In 1598 Shakespeare wrote "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Henry V." On April 20th of that year Don Juan de Onate reached the Rio Grande near today's El Paso. Twenty of the horses drowned in the water; others "drank until their bellies split." The Spanish had endured a scorching pilgrimmage across the Chihuahuan desert; El Original Camino del Muertos. Onate rode to the edge of the river, made the sign of the cross, and took possession of all lands watered by the Rio Grande. For God and King Phillip of Spain. Onate's horse reared in the air; the conquistador crossed the river with six thousand head of beef, a few fighting bulls, and hundreds of colonists. Famished and thirsty, the folks were ready to party. Don Juan called for a thanksgiving feast; the boys carved up a dozen beeves, threw chilis in a pot and handed around the tortillas and Spanish brandy. A half-bred gypsy sang the songs of Spain, and men wept for their homeland. The first thanksgiving on American ground. This thanksgiving transpired nine years before the pilgrims landed at Jamestown. I prefer our cowboy version here on the banks of the Rio Bravo. Now the tallest equestrian statue in the world stands in front of the El Paso airport. It's Don Juan Onate on a tall Andalusian horse crossing the waters of the Rio Grande. We crossed with him. And so we give thanks. We made it. So far. We crossed the deserts of love and hatred and fear. We swam the rivers and rode the twisters (as Rosalie would say.) We came this far. And "out there" is a new world and we're riding towards it. Always riding towards it. We give thanks for our families, our two sets of twins here and on the way, our music, and the people who come to listen. And for the songs…Forty years ago Bob Dylan was staying in a motel in Kansas City. It was thanksgiving day and someone called to invite him to their house for dinner. "I stayed in the motel," he said. "And wrote 'Just like A Woman.' " Thanks for that, Bob. Thanks for all of it. Time to stuff the turkey with celery and apples, and uncork the Rioja. A toast to Don Juan and Dylan. Jessica, Quinn. Nadine. Ole! Y Amor Y Gracias.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Flatlander Moon

Flatlander Moon….Winter comes to the desert. The mountains glow like that old mission wine. Four days on the train with the Flatlanders; renewing my faith in American music. Gut level, dust-blown truth; honest voices. Stories drenched in red wine realism. Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely. No pretense. A guitar and a song. Not many can do it anymore. Kids wanna buy the truth inside a magazine; wannna buy an image with a tattoo and micro-wave attitude. Youth caught inside an I-pod; deaf to the call of The Raven. These guys from Lubbock - they delivered. And you shoulda' been there at the Bob Dylan - Townes Van Zandt song-swap and the Canadian prairies rolled by frozen windows. There was no need to talk much; the songs flowed: from Butch singing "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," To Jimmie singing "She Belongs to Me," to Joe calling up Woody's "Pretty Boy Floyd," Back to Butch doing Townes' "No Place to Fall," to Jimmie singing "Girl From the North Country," to myself singing "Love is Just a Four Letter Word," and Michael Martin summoning up "Dark Eyes. " Here, then, is your roots music. Here's where we come from. Voices and words, and no nodding out to the whining gods of lost economies and doddering crow-bleat about downloading and record stores. THERE ARE NO realities that undermine honest art. Tell it to Van Gogh, Picasso, Leonard Cohen, and The Flatlanders. There's just the eternal longing to tell a good story and paint a decent rhyme and vent, and bend passion into a sing-able truth. We're all blacksmiths, and some people don’t have the nerve to buy the anvil and the hammer. You might bloody your fingers and wince at the thought of your soul shivering. But those lads from Lubbock delivered and restored my belief in folksong and minstrelsy. We receive such illuminations in odd places: Pullman train cars and Mexican bars; dreams and nightmares and cold, foggy mornings. The third cup of coffee; the call of a magpie hopping across the snow. The clatter of the baggage car and the last echo of a Dylan song. Resonating forever.

Friday, November 7, 2008

One More American Moment

I shook Jack Kennedy's hand once. I was on the Letterman show with John McCain. That's about as close as I got to "politics,"until recently. I don't really have any "politics," but one night a few months ago I was horrified as I sat in a car in the parking lot of an American Mall and heard Sarah Palin's rightwing dog-trot. That's history now. You can read about that horror in an earlier blog. I felt John McCain, a decent man, had been forced to put a gun in his mouth. So I decided to vote early, and I think millions of other people did the same thing. It was a proud and very moving moment at 9pm the other night when Obama took the presidency. Now he has his work cut out for him, but I read him as a decent man and an example of why this country works in the end. The world applauded. As far as Christian Right Wing Conservatives, they not only shot themselves in both feet, they destroyed so called Republican Evangelical Christian Conservatism (as a political force) for decades to come, and probably forever. By forcing Palin on McCain and allowing all the jive "terrorist" and "thug" talk about Obama; by assuming that there were millions of "pro-life" fanatics out there (pro life for babies, but not for those on death row) who would now jump on the band wagon they "f....d up," as a Republican friend told me. What they succeeded in doing was drawing out millions of non political people like me and millions of blacks and Chicanos and, most importantly, millions of people under the age of thirty (both "liberal" and "conservative") who were appalled at the shoddy, ignorant and hateful way the Republicans had tried to turn the election. They were appalled by Palin. And now that the election is decided, those same Ultra Right Republicans who convinced McCain to take on Palin have turned on Palin - snapping like the cowardly hyenas they are. Doomed piranha fish in a barrell eating each other. You've got to feel a little sorry for poor Sarah; she was just being who she is. Like Dylan said about the man who shot Medgar Evers: "she was only a pawn in their game." So John McCain, who is a fine American, though he crashed three fighter planes in maverick moves, now crashed his biggest plane of all - a jumbo jet filled with Evangelical Republicans who perished in the flames. The only one left is poor Rush Limbaugh who's staggering around trying to find a few skin heads to back him up. Finally: those under-thirty voters who Republicans unwittingly lured out of the woodwork are gonna be around for a long, long time. What does that say about the future of Right Wing Politics? Adios, radical conservatisms; you all done did it to yourself. You violated the primal rule: you don't sh..t where you eat. So, no sir, dear blog reader, whoever you were - I don't have any politics. I have a built in bullshit detector that I use when I write songs. I turned it on during this election for a brief moment and it started ringing. Songs are my day job and I'm going back to it. I leave you to your "politics," or what's left of it. Let's move forward. We're God's children, aint we? (Has anybody got a rhyming dictionary for any of this rant?) TR