An American Classic: The Ballad of Sally Rose

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Emmylou ‘Sally Rose’ Harris

In the winter of 1985 I took a Greyhound from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana to visit my folks who were spending a few months living in the basement of my Uncle Franklin’s house.

 

Along for the ride was a C90 cassette of Emmylou Harris’ latest record, The Ballad of Sally Rose.  It had come out a few months earlier to not very good reviews. The scribes were united in their opinion that the record was a piece of fluff. Soft county folk which was neither mainstream nor punkish. Sure, Emmylou had a fine voice, but she really didn’t have the chops when it came to writing songs.

 

During those grad school years I shared a creaking weatherboard on South Chicago Ave with a bunch of artists and musicians.  These guys (plus Alison, the sole woman in the house) knew their shit. A couple had played in one of Minneapolis’ iconic cult bands, The Wallets. Another, who went on to a political career in Washington, had worked the counter at a popular West Bank record store and regularly brought home the most obscure LPs from around the world.  My own collection of music at that stage was miniscule and made up almost entirely of main stream, middle-of-the-road, acts: Dire Straits, Bruce Cockburn, Jimmy Cliff. Dylan, of course, was beyond reproach but not much else. Not exactly Top 40 but a long way away from the Violent Femmes, New Model Army, The Residents and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I was definitely woke enough to realise that Emmylou Harris was a tad too twee for this lot.

 

By the time I boarded the Greydog a couple days before Christmas, I had not yet had the chance to really listen to The Ballad of Sally Rose. So as we edged out of town on a windblown I-94 I eagerly pressed the play button on my Walkman and looked out into the grimy grey evening.

 

Her mama picked him up in south Minnesota
He promised her the world but they never got that far
For he was last seen in that ’59 DeSota
When Sally was born in the black hills of Dakota
She was washed in the blood of the dying Sioux nation
Raised with a proud but a wandering heart

 

The opening lines of the title track could not have set a better scene for the trip ahead.  The bus would climb its way through the Black Hills in the early hours of the morning and plow right through the heart of the dying Sioux nation to deposit me eventually in Billings, Montana the following midday morning.

 

I listened to the tape over and over on the trip and during the week I spent in Billings.  I thought my folks might like it, especially the semi-spiritual songs with their references to sweet chariots and diamonds in crowns, but it didn’t seem to do much for them.  But as we sat around the round kitchen table Sally Rose was always singing in the background evoking in the cramped space of the basement apartment a sense of the great American landscape. And of endless roads waiting to be travelled down.  As much as I loved the record I don’t remember listening to it much once I got back to Minneapolis.  [How could Emmylou compete against Throbbing Gristle?] It faded from memory like a smooth stone that skips elegantly but briefly along the surface before sinking quickly to the bottom of the lake.

 

A few days ago as I was scrolling through my collection—how the times have changed. Used to be we thumbed through our LPs but now every album you could possibly want is there in the palm of your hand—and spied the subtle cream-coloured album cover.  My mind flashed back immediately to that snowy trip out west more than 30 years ago and I touched play again.

 

That hindsight is 20/20 is a doubtful proposition especially when it comes to reassessing old records.  Pick up any music magazine and you’ll find articles that argue that virtually any record or artist that at the time was universally reviled or slammed, is actually, in fact, a classic. A legend. Iconic. Other than making the over-60s crowd feel good about their bad taste in years gone by, these sorts of arguments are less convincing than a Trumpian denial.

 

But when it comes to this album I’m afraid I’m going to step into the very trap I’ve just decried.  The Ballad of Sally Rose may not exactly be a classic but it certainly is one of Emmylou’s strongest, most thoughtful and beautiful records.  And given that she’s got nearly 70 to choose from that’s saying something.

 

Unlike most of her work Sally Rose is entirely written by her.  This was the great objection of the critics back in 1985. After carving out a space for herself as country music’s greatest interpreter of other people’s songs, the nabobs were unable to appreciate her own lyrics.  But what’s become clear over the decades and was obvious to fans at the time, is that an entire life of being exposed to the best songwriters in America is excellent training for how to use words, phrases and melodies.

 

Sally Rose is a story of a woman’s journey in the world, out to find love and make her name. And as such is full of gorgeous love songs.

 

Heart to heart, we’ll hold together

Hand in hand we’ll find a way

Oh, the storms of life may blind us

But with the loving vows that bind us

Heart to heart hand in hand we’ll stay

 

Whether this verse refers to Gram Parsons, her dear and intimate (but not romantic) companion throughout the first years of her career is not clear but it is as beautiful an expression of love and soul-mateship as any you’ll ever find.

 

In Woman Walk the Line Emmylou paints a simultaneously feisty but lonely portrait of the plight of a woman singer on the road.

Tonight I want to do some drinkin’

I came to listen to the band

Yes, I’m as good as what you’re thinkin’

But I don’t want to hold your hand

And I know I’m lookin’ lonely

But there’s nothin’ here I want to find

It’s just the way of a woman

When she goes out to walk the line

 

It’s a vulnerable song but full of attitude. And reverence for Johnny Cash whose own pledge to marital fidelity she echoes so beautifully.

 

The sound of Sally Rose is immensely warm. Filled with strummed acoustic guitars, mandolins, flat snare drum rhythms and beautiful female backing vocals you always have the sense that you’re being welcomed into an intimate space.  Even when the songs lead out into the wild, like Bad News about the death of lover in an accident, or KSOS, a rousing medley of country classics, you feel as if Emmylou and her band are in your living room, talking straight to you.   Of course, Emmylou’s voice is as wonderful as ever.  It’s a crystalline dagger that pierces the heart with just a hint of that wayward country twang.

 

There is not a dud song among the 13 on Sally Rose. This in itself is remarkable.  I probably wouldn’t need all of my fingers to list the other albums in this category. [Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers jumps immediately to mind.] Whether she is singing of love, the endless road (White Line) or our longing for something untouchable (Diamond in My Crown; Sweet Chariot) she infuses her lyrics with a depth of experience and wisdom that is no less impressive than any of her peers.  Her lyrics are straight from the heart. Unflashy perhaps but with nary a trace of our post-modern rancour and bitterness.  Delightful in the truest sense.

 

The Ballad of Sally Rose is supposedly semi-autobiographical; it draws deep on her early years on the road.  But it also a tribute album. A homage to those who have inspired her career. Running like a golden thread throughout the record  are numerous nods to the greats who’ve gone before her: Johnny Cash (Woman Walk the Line; KSOS), the Louvin Brothers (Bad News;  Diamond in My Crown), Gram Parsons (Long Tall Sally Rose; White Line) and the Carter Family (Sweet Chariot; I Think I Love Him/You Are My Flowers; KSOS).  But always in the end  it is Emmylou who brings all these threads together and delivers a genuine masterpiece.

 

Get it here

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Track Listing:

01 The Ballad Of Sally Rose

02 Rhythm Guitar

03 I Think I Love Him/You Are My Flo

04 Heart To Heart

05 Woman Walk The Line

06 Bad News

07 Timberline

08 Long Tall Sally Rose

09 White Line

10 Diamond In My Crown

11 The Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

12 K-S-O-S/Instrumental Medley/Ring of Fire

13 Sweet Chariot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Of Heroes and Villains

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There are a couple of interesting shows by a couple of pop music legends on Netflix at the moment.  Springsteen on Broadway is getting rave reviews as pretty much everything the New Jersey rocker does does. Surviving Twin, an hour and a half with folkie Loudon Wainwright III, is, by comparison, flying low under the radar but for my money the better of the two shows.

 

I would recommend you watch them in close temporal proximity but not necessarily back to back. There is a lot to absorb in both shows and you’d be doing Bruce and Loudon a disservice if you didn’t give them the time they are asking.  After all both men are consciously baring their souls. They are sifting through the entrails of the relationships in their lives, especially with their fathers. They are seeking some sort of expiation, and trying to set the record straight.  The shows are essentially about saying ‘I love you’ to their long-gone daddies as well as making amends for their own sins.

 

As you’d expect the tone and style (and even the length) of the individual shows reflect the artist himself. In Springsteen on Broadway Bruce is earnest, self-deprecating, intense and polished. He looks amazingly fit and even more handsome than in his youth. His set list rarely deviates from his greatest hits but he is able to connect aspects of each song to the goings on in his emotional life in a way that makes each of them fresh and even new. As he reveals the backstory of his family and their hardscrabble existence songs like Growing Up and Born to Run seem more real and more grounded.

 

Surviving Twin opens with Loudon singing the title track, a typically entangled Wainwright portrait of himself and his father as equal parts of the same person. Springsteen said in an interview once, that all of rock ‘n roll is about men crying, ‘waah, daddy!’ but his show moves on from this painful relationship pretty quick.  For Wainwright, however, this central father/son dynamic is the show.  In between songs, most of which are nowhere near Loudon’s best known repertoire, he enacts readings from his father’s LIFE magazine columns.  While in Springsteen on Broadway, the music is the part of the show that sparkles, in Surviving Twin, I found Loudon’s fantastic, embodied performances of his father’s writings to be the real attention grabber. He’s a natural, engaging performer, full of humour, lightness, spontaneity and comic timing. And by memorising such long passages of his father’s writings and bringing them to life in a way his old man never would have imagined, he pays a truly touching tribute. An undeniable statement of forgiveness and love.

 

In On Broadway, Springsteen tells his life story starting from being raised in a poor working-class Catholic home in industrial New Jersey, through his obsession with becoming a rock star, on to his finding love and eventually being compelled to speak out on political causes.  From the opening line—“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.”—Bruce brings some of the parish confessional to the event.  For those of us who grew up with ‘The Boss’, the ultimate rock god whose loud, long and exhilarating live shows guided our own growing up, to learn that he lived none of the experiences he describes in his classic songs is momentarily jarring. But to hear Tenth Avenue Freezeout and Backstreets played on only a piano and sung in a low voice is powerful evidence of the truth of Springsteen’s unique artistry. Which is his unfailing ability to touch and illuminate something in his stories and characters that transcends mere individual experience.

 

The many characters that inhabit Springsteen’s music are fundamentally, archetypes. They emerge from the suburban collective conscious, saddled with existential dilemmas. The Factory Worker [Early in the morning factory whistle blows/Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes/Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light/It’s the working, the working, just the working life], The Broken Hearted, The Restless [It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap/We gotta get out while we’re young/Tramps like us baby/Baby we were born to run], The Desperate.  Even, The Killer [From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska/With a sawed off .410 on my lap/Through to the badlands of Wyoming/I killed everything in my path]. Bruce may have a love-hate relationship with religion but he’s as familiar with Biblical themes and motifs as any preacher. Consequently, his heroes—and all of his characters, even the criminally flawed ones, are heroic—take on a larger-than-life, prophetic dimension.  Springsteen’s early lyrics may be full of ‘real people’: Sandy, Young Scott, Early Pearly, Sherry Darling, Eddie and Mary.  But over the years these faces fade into the background and he sings mainly of ‘you’ ‘they’ ‘girl’, ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Boss’s stories are allegories. His characters transcendent, massive and symbolic.

 

Springsteen would put his success down to hard work, and it is true there are few others who have given so much of their soul, guts and sweat to the cause of music. But his secret, in my book, is a basic eternal verity.  The truth of Springsteen’s music does not depend on personal experience and the ‘real life’ he sheepishly confesses to having avoided. Bruce Springsteen, like Jeremiah, was born it seems to deliver one essential message:  man must struggle, even fail. But in the end, there is love. And that love, is the only way.

If Wainwright’s music has a theme it may be best summed up in his song Nice Guys (Therapy:1989)

Nice guys are a dime a dozen
You know what a dime is worth
I was born to be the villain in your life
That’s why god put me here on earth

You could not design a more perfect foil to Springsteen than Loudon Wainwright III.   Born into privilege, the ultimate East Coast Yankee, Wainwright was, as the roman numeral at the end of his name indicates, a well-established member of the Establishment. Springsteen’s dad was a toiler in the factories of New Jersey. Wainwright’s dad was a distinguished and popular writer for LIFE magazine.  Three years older than Bruce, Loudon was sent to an elite boarding school in Delaware; Springsteen graduated from a mediocre public high school. Bruce busted his ass working. Loudon probably wouldn’t have had to work a day if he didn’t want to.  Wainwright’s mother was southern aristocracy. Bruce’s mom was the daughter of immigrants from southern Italy. The Wainwrights felt entitled. The Springsteens, forgotten.

 

But there are commonalities as well. Both fathers, the labourer and the writer, were alcoholics and when they were needed the most by their sons, unavailable. Both boys hated their respective educational institutions but were close to their mothers. And most importantly, guitars and songs provided the opportunity to move away from home and out of the oppressive shadows of their dads.

 

If Springsteen’s songs are all about Truth, Wainwright’s are all about himself.  They are musical lesions that ooze cynicism and doubt. Many—Screaming Issue, IDTYWLM, The Suicide Song, Revenge—are little more than accusations hurled at lovers, parents, peers and even his children.  But always, a dark humour and sense of the ridiculous help to staunch the wound. Springsteen can be self-critical in his monologues but his songs almost always resound with hope.  Loudon on the other hand is a man who loves to mercilessly flail his subjects, including himself, prodding their weaknesses and laughing at their failings.

 

Loudon Wainwright III has got to be the most intimate of American singer songwriters. His songs explore the foibles and follies of being himself: a father, a son, a husband, a human, a lover. His self-reference is huge and could be too much in the hands of a lesser artist. Yes, he’s a victim but Loudon can punch himself in the guts just as hard as anyone else. Just listen to Hitting You, if you don’t believe me.  In his songs he turns himself inside out and hides absolutely nothing. He makes no excuses, but if one slips through, he is quick to burn it to ashes with a sneer. Loudon is no Narcissus.

 

Like his dad, Wainwright is a born wordsmith. He can make a song about doing cannonballs into a pool as interesting and as meaningful as a song about the breakup of a long-term relationship. Some consider Wainwright to be a writer of novelty songs–think Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road–but this is way off the mark. He simply writes about everything that enters his experience, be it failed relationships, drinking too much, current events or roadkill. As a writer the whole world is his subject and if there is such a thing as Truth, it is to be found in the mundane, the quotidian, the ridiculous.  The message of life is not ‘out there’ in some transcendent Biblical allegory. It is here in the emotional violence, in the buffoonery, in the artifice and ultimate cheapness of human endeavour that the lessons of life lie buried.  If Bruce sings of the American working class hero, Loudon is the voice of the upper class lout.  Just as light cannot exist without darkness, Bruce’s heroes make no sense without Loudon’s villains.

 

Both shows are fascinating and among the best ‘rock’ films I’ve ever seen. Like the genre itself they are raw but life affirming.  They represent very different approaches to art, song writing and life itself but are absolutely spot on in their expose of the human (mostly, male) condition.

 

 

Going Clear

IMG_4720About 10 minutes ago I deactivated my Facebook account.  I did the same for Instagram yesterday.  I’ve gone clear.

This wasn’t a move I agonised over. It wasn’t a long time coming. I woke up on Saturday morning with the notion the time had come.  I’ve been struggling with a certain ennui with the whole scene for sometime.  Facebook was always the platform to engage an audience for my photos, writings about music and the safe place to go and let it all hang out when the packs of idiots and demagogues that run the world these days get too hard to handle.  But as I’ve grappled with a number of life’s passages in the past 12 months–turning 60 in July, the most serious health issues in my life, notions (for the first time ever) of mortality–I’ve found myself reflecting ‘Why?’ about a lot of things.

And though I have made some genuine friendships with strangers and, built up audiences who appreciate my music shares and photography, my heart was no longer in it.

The more I read about the creepy business model of our new global digital  Life Curators, the rise of A.I and the extent of  its already existing infiltration into our lives and the cyncism and faux ‘We Care About You’ attitude of Zuckerberg and the Apple Gang the easier it became to cut the cord.

I’m not planning to go ‘off line’ completely like some 21st century Unabomber. I’ve enjoyed Facebook and Instagram. I will miss it I’m sure. The twinges of regret are immediate. I may even return. It is after all the best way to create an audience in the current epoch. And I love a fanbase as much as anyone.

The real answer to why I’ve flipped the switch is because a certain part of declares it the right thing to do.  In some way, I know it is a catalyst to force other more important changes.

I took my first vigorous walk in months today.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 94th Birthday to My Dad

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Son and Father (March 2018)

One of those afternoons that stretches eternally between boredom and dinner. I’m lying on the couch in Allahabad listening to music.  On the small Phillips stereo behind me, The Beatles are urging a German composer to give way.  I’ve made sure the volume is set appropriately: loud enough for me to enjoy but not too loud to disturb Dad, who between lectures, is always to be found in his small office tapping away at some urgent piece of correspondence.

 

The front door bangs open and dad rushes in in a huff. My heart stops. Like a well-trained soldier I leap off the couch toward the stereo. My hand is already reaching for the volume knob.  ‘I can’t hear it,” Dad says, moving in my direction.  Before I am able to formulate a response he gives the knob a squeeze and…cranks it.

 

You know my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse
My hearts beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps a singing the blues
Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

 

At the end of the verse George Harrison lets rip with one of those essential Beatle screams. I watch Dad do a middle aged twist, just avoiding the brass coffee table that sits on the Mirzapur carpet. My first thought is: Geez! Turn that stuff down!

 

My second thought is: Wow Dad. I love you.

 

A bit of context.  Dad and Mom were, for nearly 40 years, conservative protestant missionaries in India. Dancing to rock ‘ n roll was not something they encouraged. Music was celebrated as one of God’s many gifts but the family record collection was limited. Classical music and religious records mainly. But as my older brothers grew into teenagers, a few more racy platters found (strictly controlled) rotation time: The Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels and eventually Dylan. ‘Upbeat’ numbers could be frowned upon but, in general, as long as there was no overt bodily movement especially of the hips and shoulders then it was tolerated as a part of ‘bringing up young people these days’.

 

So, to see Dad, this serious theologian of Midwest Methodist stock, trying to do the twist, and that too, with a spark in his eye, was stupefying.

 

Today Rudy Rabe, my father, is 94 years old. If you got him in an honest moment he would likely confess there is not much to celebrate, what with his eyes and ears and knees not showing up for work anymore. He would reject any but the most basic ‘fuss’ being made of him. Like so many of his contemporaries he has learned to avoid the limelight.

 

I know he’s not living long like this and though he may not think himself worthy, I need to put a few words together about one of his greatest gifts to me and my brothers and sister.  A love of music.

 

For years I’ve collected music in all media types from 45s to bit torrents. In recent times I have found myself gaining a bit of regional renown as a music journalist. I could not live without music. From South African accordion stompers to Noor Jehan and from Funk. Inc. to George Jones, music has been a constant, comforting companion. And it all began with that small record collection in India, and my dad.

 

A Rudy Rabe Playlist: 12 Essential Musical Moments

 

The very first traces of musical memory go back to Gadag, a small district town in northern Karnataka where we lived for the first several years in India.

 

  1. I Love Parisby English minor league trumpeter Eddie Calvert is a lounge-jazz classic. The soaring, pure, effortless way he blew the horn went straight to my heart and fired my imagination. Paris, I guessed was in the West, where what Mom and Dad called ‘home’, was. The cooing and harmonising ladies, the subtle organ, the plucked strings and Eddie’s horn still make my knees weak.  Eddie looked the part too with his pencil moustache and slick hair. But he was a bit of jerk. After his career fizzled out in the mid-sixties he moved to racist Rhodesia where he continued to perform in White Only clubs. One of his most popular renditions was Amazing Race, a pro-apartheid reworking of Amazing Grace.

 

  1. One night the circus came to Gadag. Decked out in our pyjamas the family trammelled in the dark to the dimly lit tents. As Dad pushed me on his bike my brother Mike began singing Drink Drink Drinkby Mario Lanza.  I’m amazed we were allowed to play this song given its rousing endorsement of beer, a beverage, despite his German heritage, my father has, as far as I know, never even tasted.

 

That night he told us that he didn’t approve of Lanza’s lifestyle which included allowing his kids to run riot and use crayons on the wall.  I’ve no doubt that Dad’s favourite track from The Student Prince was this: I’ll Walk With God. To sing God’s praise was the most important purpose of music and Dad never missed the opportunity, even if the song was surrounded by other less edifying content.

 

  1. It was 1963. I was 7 and this was my first visit to the States. My sister Beckie and I spent the summer criss-crossing America as Dad and Mom raised money for their work in India. Passing the long days in the back of a Rambler station wagon driving from one rural church to the next, local AM radio was our only entertainment. For the first time, I was hearing secular music on a regular basis.  One song stood out. Ring of Firewas everywhere.  There were those trumpets again. And the vivid imagery and fast pace. I would watch Dad discreetly turn the volume up when the horns burst out of the speaker. Sometimes he’d sing the chorus aloud. Even Mom would hum along. Many years later when I understood what the song was about I wondered what it was they were thinking when they sang along.

 

  1. Those long drives between Nebraska and Iowa, through the Dakotas and Montana and from New Jersey to Minneapolis were where my lifelong love of the Man in Black began.Several years later Dad returned from one of his overseas trips with a Johnny Cash Greatest Hits cassette. He loved to hear us listening to it and of course, especially loved Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord). I played that tape over and over. Maybe a hundred times. And I credit it with giving me my early appreciation not just for American roots music but rock ‘n roll, too. How much more exciting could you get than, I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues?

 

I don’t know how much Dad really knew about Johnny Cash. Though he was a committed believer all his life he was also a first class ‘sinner man’. When he recorded Ring of Fire and Were You There he was addicted to pills and starting an affair with his future wife June, one of the beautiful Carter sisters. Knowing Dad was an avid reader of Time magazine and newspapers, he surely knew some of Cash’s troubles.  And yet, I never heard him say a bad word about him like he did about Mario Lanza. I like to think Dad was able to understand that life is a struggle. Just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean you never screw up. And of course, I know that Dad was able to appreciate a man’s art as being distinct from his life. That he was a fan of Johnny’s is evidence of that.

 

  1. Though he loved Johnny Cash I don’t think Dad really ‘got’ country music. The few country records in the collection were sort of faux country of the sort you heard at Las Vegas shows. One was a Frankie Laine record of cowboy songs my favourite of which was Cool Water. The other was Tumbling Tumbleweedsby Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. He hated that record. ‘Don’t listen to that junk,’ he’d say, but it was too late. I had been bitten by the country music bug. Once after I played it he hid the record. I never saw it again.

 

  1. Dad returned from meetings in America in 1971 bearing gifts: a purple shirt with white stitching on the (very) elongated collar for me. And for us kids in general a couple of tapes. One was by the hottest pop star, Cat Stevens. The other was a collection of rock n roll songs played by Christians! Lordy me! After Johnny Cash, Cat Stevens was my favorite singer. His earnest lyrics about the passages of life were the perfect platform for Dad and me to have our occasional ‘deep and meaningfuls’.  Over the years we had several conversations with On the Road to Find Outas the template for exploring life away from home, spiritual longing and growing up.  But his favourite, which he quoted for years was the cautionary tale, Wild World.

 

  1. Though dad was a strong believer in the teachings of Jesus, India was a country and culture he held in deep respect. He was a student of its religions, a lover of its foods and captivated by its beauty. We hiked in the Himalayas together and from time to time he’d accompany me to a Rajesh Khanna picture. And of course, he enjoyed Indian music. His busy schedule precluded his truly digging deep into the raga system but that didn’t stop him from bringing home some amazing records. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, a native of Gadag, was his favourite classical singer and for years the only Indian musician I could name. A record he played a lot was Pannalal Ghosh’s Raga Yaman with which I fell in love with the bansuri(bamboo flute). Eventually the collection included Ravi Shankar, V.G. Jog and Bismillah Khan records which I must admit, I never understood but four decades on understand were the first portals to my appreciation of Indian classical music.

 

  1. Over the years music has lost out to other interests like college sports! But every once in a while I’ll send him songs I think he might like and that mean something to me. He always listens and gets back to me with a brief thumbs up or down, never overly enthusiastic about anything. Except for one. Almost Persuadedthe gorgeous Louvin Brothers hymn which brings together old time religion and impeccable country harmonies was one he’s mentioned several times as being ‘a blessing’. Like all those Cat Stevens songs, Almost Persuaded, were dad younger, could have been the perfect reason to embark upon another deep and meaningful.

 

 

There have been lots of other songs, records and artists I could mention. Rudolph Serkin and The Moonlight Sonata; Beethoven’s Ninth; Handel’s Messiah; the Tijuana Brass, Jesus Christ Superstar, Larry Norman and the Chad Mitchell Trio. And an obscure Christian folk rock group called Love Song.

 

I’m sad he can’t enjoy music the way he once did. But I’m so grateful for the way not only his own taste in music opened doors and  piqued my curiosity but also how in an environment where non-religious music of all types was distrusted and ignored, Dad, in a very subtle but classy way gave me (and my sister and brothers) one of best gifts ever.

 

Happy Birthday Dad. Thanks for all the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road Stories: The Wedding Fair

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Country fairs such as this one are common throughout Pakistan. Unlike the American travelling show which moves from town to town and is its own reason for being, most melas (fairs) in Pakistan revolve around the mazar (tomb) of a local pir (saint).   Mazars are areas of perpetual activity throughout the year as the local inhabitants come to offer prayers, seek guidance from the pir’s descendants (spiritual and familial) or simply seek the shade of a grove of trees nearby.

 

An attractive aspect of mazar culture is that secular activities are not just allowed but welcomed. This is never more so than on the occasion of the annual ‘urs’. Literally meaning marriage the urs signifies, in the Sufi tradition, the union of the pir’s soul with his divine bride. The urs is a time of intense and prolonged joymaking, eating, dancing, smoking, drinking, fainting, laughing, singing, ogling and of course, praying.

 

The urs of Syed Abdul Latif Qadri ‘Bari Imam’, a 17th century miracle worker and scholar is a 5 day extravaganza on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Around the green domed mazar itself malangs (wandering holy men) recognised by their green robes, kohl lined eyes and abundant bling smoke hashish and guide pilgrims in the niceties of ritual. The strains of qawwali emerge from a tent enveloped in a cloud of dust as hundreds of feet stomp and dance through the settlement. Cooking fires smoke and blaze all about the mazar and mosque enclosure as distribution of food to the hungry is an essential part of urs.

 

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Hazrat Abdul Latif Qadri “Bari Imam’

 

A network of alleys spreads out across the bumpy ground to form a buzzing temporary bazaar cramped with fried food and milky sweets of a thousand varieties, glasses of fresh mango and pomegranate juice, watermelon rinds and brittle clay pots, fortune tellers, henna designers, block print makers, and hawkers of topis and colourful nalas.

 

Here are tents and millions of loudspeakers each blasting a different tune. Dancing girls from Lahore perform on a hidden stage, while lewd skits entertain the overflow crowds outside. Burly mountain men from Murree and the Frontier take aim with toy air rifles at rows of small yellow and pink balloons. A makeshift photo studio is crammed full of young men who pay Rs 20 a piece to have their own image spliced on to a postcard of an Indian film star. Freak shows promise a prize of Rs 10,000 to anyone able to prove the snakelady is not real. Ferris wheels cut silently through the spring air moving nervous villagers up and down and up and down.

 

The biggest attraction of all is Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). A large rickety balti-cum-velodrome shakes and creaks as first a motorcycle, then a small car climbs the interior wall and races around and around perpendicular to the earth. Hijras (transgenders) work the crowds by gyrating, whistling and chasing the rupee notes that float down from the crowds lining the top of the wooden bowl, like so many autumn leaves.

 

The festivities ring on all night and into the early hours for nearly a week. In the end the pomegranates have all been juiced and dancing girls have returned to Hira Mandi. The Well of Death is taken apart. The huge cardboard cut outs of pretty actresses lie face down in the dust waiting to be packed up and taken to the next urs.

Bob Dylan’s Dark Night of the Soul

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Mention Bob Dylan and the spiritual path and most people think of his most controversial career move–turning into a fire breathing evangelical Christian. For many fans the trio of albums he released between 1979-1981 represent the embarrassing nadir of a genius gone temporarily mad.

 

Personally, I like a lot of the music on Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. But I see the records as religious artefacts more than spiritual tomes. At their worst, Dylan comes across as preachy and shrill, his message, blunt and antiseptic. Ironically, Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ accounts for some of his least spiritual music.

 

As with Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen there is a lode of spirituality that runs deep through most of Dylan’s art. His early protest songs are not dissimilar to Old Testament rants against the ungodly. Virtually the whole of Blood of the Tracks (1975), with songs like Idiot Wind, Simple Twist of Fate and Shelter from the Storm, is a compendium of the many faces of Love.   Isis (Desire, 1976), Highlands (Time Out of Mind, 1997) and any number of other tracks across his entire career are lyrical distillations of man’s search for meaning. One of my great favourites, to which I’ve been listening a lot recently, is Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).

 

Señor is the high point not just of Street Legal (1978) but, for my money, one of the loftiest pinnacles of his entire career. The song is a tale all right, full of vivid images, pithy observations and some of the greatest lines Dylan ever wrote.

 

All of Dylan’s great songs are subject to multiple readings and heated debates about their ‘meaning’. I make no claim that my interpretation is definitive. It is not. In fact, I don’t think any work of art has a single ‘meaning’. There are as many meanings as listeners and what follows is my current interpretation of the song.

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Given what we now know of Dylan’s spiritual journey in the late 70s—his Rolling Thunder Revue band included several committed Christians; his next album was Slow Train Coming, the first of his three overtly Christian albums–the song seems to be a description of religious conversion. But though this may seem plausible in retrospect, Dylan wraps the moral of his story up in obtuse (but evocative) imagery and words, beginning with the very title of the song itself: Tales of Yankee Power.

 

There are those (including me, for some years) who try to pick out a story of American ‘bullyboyism’ and military intervention in Central America here. After all, that’s what the song is called! But herein lies the song’s first spiritual truth: don’t get caught up in labels.

 

This is a song about power, just not political power. And who is this Señor? In Spanish the word means Sir or Master or Lord. A figure of authority. The patron. Let’s say for present purposes, Señor is that shadowy quiet Source that dwells within every person’s soul.

 

Señor, señor
Can you tell me where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

 

Dylan opens with a confused question. ‘Is this just regular life or am I hurtling straight for the end of the world?’   Both outcomes are plausible, at this stage. A drive through a familiar part of town, or Doomsday.

 

Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

 

The singer tries to reassure himself there is nothing to fear. ‘I’ve seen this movie before.’ But the doubt keeps nagging. ‘Can you just confirm that, for me Senor? I’m going to be ok, right. Just like all the other times.’

 

Whether we like it or not. Whether we know where we’re heading or not, we are on our way. Señor is riding out ahead and we’re feeling a bit irritable.

 

Señor, señor
Do you know where she is hidin’?
How long are we gonna be ridin’?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, señor?

 

Throughout my life my dreams have included a mysterious and powerful woman. When I was a teenager she was lithe, and when I was an adult she was motherly. Sometimes she was gentle, other times she screamed at me. Once, as an old hag, she revealed the entire Universe in an instant. But in all her guises I could never touch her. She was just out of reach. And I wake longing to see her again.

 

The song’s second verse is a perfect summation of that experience. In Dylan’s case perhaps this verse refers to his Muse. The 1980s were just around the corner. And for most of that decade he struggled to find the flow of words and images that seemed to come so effortlessly in the 60s and 70s. The 80s—revisionist thinking notwithstanding—are considered to be the weakest period of Dylan’s career. And here in 1978 he’s digging deep: do you know where she is hidin’? He’s on the brink of a crisis.

 

There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not”

 

The third verse’s imagery is cinematic and surreal. You can feel the wild wind howling against your body and see the hypnotic swing of that heavy iron cross. You can hear the creaking of the wooden decks of a ship tossed on the high seas. And then there’s a marching band playing for nobody. This is like a scene from a Bergman film in which She greets him with a delicate kiss which in actuality turns out to be a kiss-off, instead. What irony in those three words, ‘Forget me not’. Dylan hasn’t forgotten her, but she has done the dirty on him and is nowhere to be found.

 

 

Señor, señor
I can see that painted wagon
Smell the tail of the dragon
Can’t stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?

 

The tension is building. Our troubled narrator is scared and freaking out. He senses the monster around a gypsy’s wagon. He can smell danger. It’s lurking, but where exactly? The suspense is killing him. His panic is palatable. Cold sweats have broken out. Can you tell me who to contact here?

 

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
He said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

 

The singer is brought to his knees (in desperate supplication?) and then he blacks out. But just before he does he gets the bad news he’s dreaded for so long. That dragon-loving gypsy who has snared hundreds of foolish souls like his, cackles, Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.

 

Señor, señor
You know their hearts are as hard as leather
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together
Just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, señor

 

Confusion, betrayal and revelation are followed by resignation. The nightmare scenario turns out to be true. There is no point in resistance or even prayer. All the remains is to pull yourself up off the floor and proclaim, ‘I’m ready’. For whatever comes. ‘I submit, my Lord.’

 

Señor, señor
Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?

 

And once the decision has been made, once the point of no return is passed, a certain eagerness washes over the soul. Like Christ overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, it’s time to rip the cables from their sockets, turn off the lights and step into the unknown Next. That familiar place—Lincoln Country Road–where everything made sense is no more. ‘What are we waiting around for?’

 

Much has been made of Dylan’s influences—everyone from Rimbaud and Woody Guthrie to Jesus and Blind Willie McTell—and in Señor I hear echoes of John Donne’s beautiful but brutal holy sonnet, Batter my heart, three-person’d God (1633).

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new

 

Both poems share a sense of violence, foreboding and overpowering spiritual lust. Of wanting to be brought completely to one’s knees and to absolute surrender to Señor.

 

 

The critics were lukewarm to scathing of Street Legal. The musical pandits Christagau and Marcus labelled it ‘horrendous’ and ‘unlistenable’. But as Dylan reminded us way back when the times are always changing and today Street Legal is considered a diamond in the rough. Not as brilliant as his best but certainly superior to the original debunking it received.

 

Regardless of the critics, Dylan’s peers have always found Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) to be a powerful creation. There are a multitude of covers available on the internet from all sorts of angles. Here are three that are particularly good.

Let’s start with a live version from the man himself from 1978.

Willie Nelson and Tucson’s Calexico give an absolutely stunning, Tex-Mex interpretation in the Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There. Nelson’s elastic and worn vocal style is counterbalanced by a sweet Mexacali trumpet trio and his familiar pick/strumming guitar work.

Diva de Lai is a group that combined heavy rock with opera to give expression to their love of Bob Dylan! Karin Shifrin, classically trained opera star sends chills down your spine in this version which takes the songs inherent dramatic, spiritual tension to Himalayan heights!

There was probably no bigger fan of Dylan in the music world than Jerry Garcia (or Joan Baez or The Band or…)  He covered many of Bob’s songs throughout his career with Senor being one of favorites. This is a loving straight ahead telling of the story, nothing fancy but solid and full of Garcia’s characteristic guitar magic.