Of Heroes and Villains



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.




Happy 94th Birthday to My Dad


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

old womn 74

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.



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


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.


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.

The Balladeer: Sharif Idu



Sharif Idu is probably the most widely known dhadhi singer in India. Of course, dhadhi is not a massively popular genre. Least of all in the urban, recorded-music consuming markets of India. So the word ‘widely’ needs to be tempered somewhat.

Dhadhi is a genre of traditional music performed mostly in Punjab and some border areas of Rajasthan and Haryana. Its natural audience lives and works in the agricultural villages and small towns of Punjab. While the recent folk music revival in India has given artists like Sharif Idu more ‘fame’ than they would normally enjoy, dhadhi, like so many other indigenous, local forms of singing and playing music is struggling to withstand the forces of digitally-consumed commercial popular music.

Punjab is blessed with an incredibly rich traditional/folk culture which includes a number of distinct styles of singing and playing music. While certain geographic areas of the State are…

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Road Stories: Running Home (Pt. 3)


My bodyguards followed their orders and didn’t allow anyone to talk to me. And neither did they utter a word. From Hardwar to Lucknow, a journey of 15 hours, they kept their prisoners on a tight leash, taking turns at dozing, sometimes whispering, occasionally sharing bidis. Up on the top tier, I was left alone.


When the train pulled into Lucknow, our party clanged and shuffled its way across a platform or two until one of the cops pointed at a train. “That one will take you to Pratapgarh,” he said.


With their duty done, they turned their detainees around once more and left me to my own devices.


An empty train in India is a rare thing. The one I boarded was oven hot and completely quiet. I had the feeling of entering a long steel church. A familiar air of hope and faith filled the space. Hope and faith that the train would soon start moving. A handful of passengers lay stretched out here and there prostrate in the presence of the Sun god. I found a window seat on the shady side of the compartment and waited.


Eventually, the train did pull away from the station and onto the dry, scrabbly plain of central UP. I squinted into the wavy horizon. Though it must have been close to 45 degrees, I relished the way the heat burned the monsoon chill out of my bones.


The slow swaying and jolting of the carriages comforted me. I lost myself in the clacking of the rails. I was excited now. Just a couple more hours to go and I’d be home.


I must have nodded off for I was woken by someone tapping my shoulder. In front of me stood a Sikh ticket inspector in a navy blue blazer with worn cuffs. He had his hand outstretched and asked me to show him my ticket.


“I don’t have one.”


Perhaps because a representative of the Indian government itself had deposited me, Special Delivery, on this train my fear was gone.




“My money was stolen and the Railway Police told me to take this train. My mother is sick in Allahabad and I’m going there.” The further I traveled the longer my opening line became.


The Ticket Inspector eyed me quietly for a minute. As he did, my courage wilted. The same panic I had felt after the Russians had laughed me out of the compound, rushed through me. I was sure the moment of my arrest had arrived.


“You do one thing,” he said after a while. “Just before we enter Pratapgarh Station, the train will stop. You alight there and walk to the city. There will be no issue of ticket shicket.”


I nodded my assent somewhat incredulously. How was it that a man charged with enforcing the rules was advising me on the best way to break them?


Several minutes later the train did roll to a stop about 200 metres from the station. I, along with what seemed like every other passenger on the train, hopped onto the hot earth and scampered out of the railway premises through a hole in a symbolic fence that stood 5 metres from the highway.


I’ll never forget that Sikh.



Pratapgarh is a small district town famous for tamarinds and a historic fort. But its main role is as a rail junction and transport hub. I entered a chowk bustling with activity. People were streaming up and down the road toward the station. Buses and Tempos, India’s awkward three wheeler taxi-buses that ferried people to remote villages off the main highway, stood three deep on both sides of the road.


Touts shouted out destinations of nearby towns and villages. Hawkers shouted the prices of their fruit and peanuts. Horns blasted incessantly. Loudspeakers attached to trees blasted Lata Mangeshkar and Rafi songs.


“Allahabad, Allahabad. Allahabaaad! Hey kid, why not go with us?”


A man with sweat dripping from his nose and ears and with a soiled handkerchief around his neck motioned me in his direction.


He was standing by a taxi. I couldn’t afford a taxi. I was looking for a bus. I couldn’t afford a bus either but somehow catching a free ride on the latter seemed more feasible than in a taxi.


‘Where you going?”




“Come on. I have one seat left, Rs. 12 is all. Come on, quickly, right over here.”


He pulled me towards the Ambassador.


“I don’t have 12 rupees.”
“No problem, how much do you have?”


“None. But if you stop on Stanley Rd, across from Beli Hospital I can get you some.”


“Done,” he said. “Sit down, here.”


He pulled open a creaky door and shoved me into the back seat. I joined five other adults. Across their laps they carried a charpai, a country rope bed that had been partially disassembled to fit into the auto. None of them could move from the weight of the wooden legs and the tangle of rope. I squeezed in as best I could, holding the door shut with my arm.


In the front seat sat another four adults. Not one of them was the driver. With his taxi now full the driver began to insinuate himself little by little behind the wheel. After some wiggling and numerous requests for reconfigurations in the passenger’s sitting arrangements, he was able to reach both feet to the pedals. His back was mostly resting against the front door which caused him to maneuver the wheel with distinct awkwardness. As if he was puppet with broken arms.


Somehow, by stretching and nudging the gear shift with the very tips of his fingers, the driver got us rolling down the highway towards Allahabad. Inconceivably, in every little bazaar we passed through he shouted out loudly, “Allahabad. Allahabad” as if he was the only one in the car. Luckily, no one took up his offer and an hour and a half later just as the hottest sun of the day was turning into cool evening, we stopped in front of Allahabad Bible Seminary.


Before I managed to tell the driver to wait while I got the fare, he pushed the car into gear and moved down the Grand Trunk Road.


48 hours after leaving Mussoorie I walked into the shady compound of home.



My parents were expecting me. Mr. Kapadia had called to inform them that while the school didn’t know my exact whereabouts, “I suspect he’s on his way to you.”


I spent a week at home. When my folks grilled me about what had caused me to take such a drastic step I didn’t know what to say. For the entire journey I had operated on the principle of forward motion. I didn’t doubt my feeling that I needed to be home and had spent no time analyzing why I had bolted.


I had no words to express the oppression I felt inside. The monsoon, the mist, the mountains, the Bible Club, the school, the cold had all worked to make me feel agitated and disconnected. Out of sorts.


My sister Beckie had graduated that summer and gone to the States for college. I was the last of my siblings, so perhaps I felt alone and vulnerable. Without an older brother or sister as a reference point boarding school seemed more scary and hostile. All I knew for sure was that I had an overwhelming but inarticulate need for home.


After a week my dad put me back on the train. “We told Mr Kapadia that he has our agreement to punish you in whatever manner the school decides.”


It was matter-of-fact statement. I didn’t care. My inner battery was recharged.


When I got back to Mussoorie I felt strong and connected. And heroic. People that I had admired or been intimidated by looked at me in awe. “Rabe, you actually ran away! Far out!”


I don’t know if anyone followed my example but for a brief moment I considered myself a trailblazer.


Mr Kapadia informed me that I would be gated for 10 days. No extra curricular activity and straight home after school. I was to serve my sentence in the home of the Harpers, whose son Phil, was in my class. Mrs Harper was a vivacious, and extremely liberal minded woman and she welcomed me with love, a no-nonsense attitude and French Toast for breakfast.


“If you ever want to run away again,” Mr Kapadia told me when it was all said and done, “just come to me. We’ll have a talk. If you want a cigarette I’ll let you smoke in my house. Just don’t frighten everyone by disappearing!”

Road Stories: Running Home (Pt. 2)


The Russians were easy to find. I heard their tipsy, vodka soaked laughter coming from a shady part of the compound. Four or five of them were sitting on adjacent porches of their apartments, their fleshy faces flushed red with heat and drink.

As I approached, silence broke out.

I smiled, hoping it would break the ice. It didn’t.

They stared at me, obviously perplexed and irritated that I had interrupted their lunch break. One of the women whispered something to her friend.

“Excuse me,” I began.

By now I had my tale-of-woe down pat. I told them my mother was ill and I needed some money. “I need to get to Allahabad, about 700 kilometers from here,”

“No. No money,” one of them said.

A couple others joined in the chorus. “No money. Go away.” A man with huge arms and angry eyes said it louder than the others. With real authority.

Having spent 8 years in boarding school I knew a lost cause when I met one. I turned back toward the gate.

But I was dying of thirst. With a drinking gesture I said, “Could I have some water?”

This second request really set them off. Amidst the general clamor of, “No water. Go!’, one of the men made a move towards me. He didn’t follow me but I didn’t have  the courage to turn back and check until I was several meters down the path. When I did turn the Russians were still tense. They glared at me, but as I retreated the laughing resumed.

A mali who was sitting in the shade on his haunches watering a guava tree beckoned me over.

He held up the hose for me to drink. He didn’t say much and I didn’t offer anything. I have no doubt he had been watching the scene play out from a distance. I sensed it was one he himself was familiar with and took his kindness as an act of solidarity.

The thought of a 10 km ride back to Hardwar in the midday sun depressed me, especially as I was no richer for my effort. I was too spent to formulate my next move, but I knew I needed to be in town where there existed at least the potential of assistance.

I must have looked miserable pedaling along the highway because out of nowhere a man appeared. His  well oiled, wavy hair  glistened in the sun. He wore narrow legged pants and a plaid yellow shirt. I can’t remember how it happened but he successfully commandeered my bike, sat me on the rear carrier and began cycling toward Hardwar.

Despite the heat, we got a bit of breeze going which cooled my cheeks slightly. I vaguely remember the Stranger talking to me but can’t recollect about what. Before I knew it we were back at the Station. He dropped me at the cyclewala and even paid the outstanding balance. Then with a nod of his head he disappeared as unexpectedly as he’d appeared.


I retreated to the relative comfort of the 1st class Waiting Room. I dozed on a rattan lounge chair with extendable arms that doubled as leg rests, one of the distinctive artifacts of railway waiting halls in those days. But I was hungry. And more than a little anxious about how I was going to make the next leg of the journey.

A middle class family were the only others in the Waiting Room. The patriarch reclined on a rattan chair like mine, staring blankly at a ceiling fan that swayed as it whirred madly. From time to time he lifted his buttocks and farted. But other than that, he didn’t move.

I may have been oblivious to him but I had been watching him for some time. After one of his farts I cleared my throat and in my best Hindi launched into conversation. I learned they had come to Hardwar on yatra (pilgrimage) and were now heading back home. I asked him about his business (the nature of which I’ve completely forgotten) and may have said a nice thing or two about his young child.

As a conversationalist he was unenthusiastic.

“My mother is ill,” I offered, hoping to pique his interest.

He may have nodded, but if he did, it was ever so slightly.

“I need to get home. To Allahabad. But I have no money.”

“Why do you not have money?”

“I was robbed,” I found my mouth saying. I couldn’t believe it. But I was in the water now, so I had to keep going.

“This morning on the way from Dehra Dun, it was very crowded in the bogie and when I got here I realized someone had stolen my money.”

He looked at me skeptically.

“Could you provide me with Rs. 20, so I could get a ticket? My mother is very ill.”

“You must report to the Railway Police,” he said. “If you have been a victim of theft.”

As far as he was concerned the conversation was over. The spinning fan captured his attention once more. I felt foolish but let a decent interval pass before shuffling out of the Waiting Room.


Once again, 24 hours after the first occasion, I entered the office of an Indian Railways bureaucrat. I had mulled over what the farting businessman had said. He was absolutely correct in his observation that the Police needed to be notified in the event of a crime. But in this case there had been no crime committed so fronting up to the Police would not be the smartest tactic. On the other hand, I was clean out of options.

The Railway Police office was shabbier than the Station Master’s in Dehra Dun. The man behind the desk had a pot belly and sweat stained his khaki uniform. His closely shaved head sported a choti, the little tuft of hair that identified him as a high caste Hindu. Unlike the Station Master his face lit up when I stood in front of his desk.

“Kya baat hai, baba?” he asked. What is it, lad?

Though he addressed me in Hindi he clearly didn’t expect me to respond in kind.

“Meri ma bimaar hai, aur mere paas ticket ka kiraya nahi hai,” I said, laying down the by now firm foundation of my story.

“Arey! Hindi bolte!” His belly jiggled with delight. “Ay shabaash!”

Before I could continue with my dishonest story he shot a series of questions at me in an attempt to come to grips with the fact that a white kid could speak Hindi.

I told him about me. I was American. I studied in Mussoorie. I was born in India. Rajesh Khanna was a good actor, yes.

Whereas the Station Master had instantly linked my school being located in Mussoorie and my being in his office to funny business, this jolly man didn’t give a stuff. Indeed, he was hooting to a couple of underlings about what a spectacular thing I was.

Somehow in the midst of this excitement I managed to explain my dilemma: 700 kms. No money. Sickly mother.

Before I knew it he grabbed my wrist and dragged me behind him. He marched outside with me in tow. A couple of minutes later we were seated at an open air dhaba that sold tea and fast food to the throngs around the station.

He instructed the dhabawala to give me a plate of curry and a few chapatis. “This fellow is American but born in India! It’s true. And he speaks spasht Hindi! Just listen.” He could hardly contain himself.

Though my mouth was full (this was my first food in nearly 36 hours) I knew this was the price of dinner. A small crowd had appeared or, rather the endless crowd of passersby stopped for a moment to look at me. It was my cue.

I restated in Hindi what I had told the Police Inspector a few minutes earlier, that I was American, born in India, lived in Allahabad but studied in Mussoorie.

People marveled and exclaimed. The Inspector couldn’t have beamed wider had I been his son. He ordered my plate to be refilled. I ate up. He continued to hold court but eventually passersby grew bored and the rhythm of the bazaar returned to normal.

The Police Inspector led me back to his office. I was grateful for the meal but had no idea how I was going to make it home.

He pressed a buzzer on his desk which immediately produced a minion. The underling was sent forth to find others and after several minutes returned with two colleagues who carried rifles and bulleted shoulder straps. They noisily pushed a pair of prisoners into the office in front of them. With their legs and wrists in irons the prisoners shuffled and clanged like cheap robots.

The inspector didn’t move from his desk and in a loud voice told the newly arrived cops that they were to include me in their party. They were on official duty, transporting criminals from Hardwar to the state capital. “You take this boy with you to Lucknow but do not let anyone, and I mean anyone, speak with him.”

With that, the chubby Police Inspector himself walked me to a train and bade me bon voyage.

I was on my way at last. Still ticketless, but with a pair of personal armed guards.