What I’m Listening to This Week

Bob Dylan “Modern Times” CD

I put this on and tried to imagine that I had never heard of Bob Dylan before and this was a new artist. I know that’s not possible, but I tried.

I bought “Freewheelin'” when it came out, on a monaural LP (you had a choice in those days). I went through the wrenching experience of his change from folk to rock. I was one of the people his music transformed during the golden era of “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61” and “Blonde On Blonde.” I suffered when he changed his voice and pretty-much everything else. I found some hope from “Blood On the Tracks.” I stopped buying Dylan recordings when he found Jesus. I run from born-again types, except if they’re gospel singers. For some reason I don’t take their mythology seriously, but am uplifted by their spirit. Dylan’s religious period didn’t uplift me in any way.

I didn’t even bother with “Time Out of Mind” until it got famous. I saw him on the Oscars singing “Things Have Changed” and decided I liked him as an old guy. I was an old guy too and his sad wisdom was attractive. I bought “Love and Theft” the day it came out. I liked it, but it didn’t cause any fundamental light bulb to go off in my head. What I liked was that he was funny again. It wasn’t something I played a lot, but I’ve come back to it from time to time.

I thought the writing was sloppy. Don’t throw your hands up in horror. He tried fitting words where they didn’t fit. And I thought he took the easy way out too much. Some of the jokes were corny in a bad way. Like in not even ironically funny.

I’ve been reading “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” a memoir by Dave Van Ronk, who helped Dylan break into the Greenwich Village folk scene. Such sloppiness on Dylan’s part, quaint now, is nothing new. Writing about Dylan’s lyrics in the mid-sixties, Van Ronk wrote, “(Woody Guthrie) had created this wonderful, Will Rogers-style persona, and as part of that he fostered the myth that his songs just appeared out of the air-that he did not have to sweat over them, and rewrite, and polish. Bobby bought the myth lock, stock, and barrel, and that was always a problem with his work. He would write an incredible line, then follow it with a line that was utterly meaningless, and he never felt the need to go back and work it through. He always seemed to think that it was easier to write a new song than to fix an old one.”
Later in the book, he pointed out that one cannot go “along” a watchtower, as an example.

As great as Dylan’s greatest work is his not-so-great is extra-not-so-great.

Did he have anything to say in “Modern Times?” Of course he did and I appreciated every insight. But did it sit and listen over and over, trying to figure out everything? Nah. Bob Dylan’s work has become like a lot of people’s, mine included, hit and miss. (No, I’m not comparing myself to him.)

That’s what I think “Modern Times” should be called, “Hit and Miss.” It’s like an old dog-eared pillow. The writing is even sloppier than on “Love and Theft.” Don’t matter if it is intentionally so. You know what they say about good intentions.

Am I happy I bought it? Sure. Am I happy he got to #1? Absolutely. Am I creeping myself out because I’m sounding like Rumsfeld? A lot.

I don’t feel compelled to listen to “Modern Times.” When I tried to listen to it as though I had no history with his work, I started to feel conned. Then I felt like I might have when forgiving your old uncle for wearing a blue running suit and a yellow visor. I felt like he was getting away with a lot that I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with.

Then I thought, “Well, that’s ok, he’s earned it.”

Now I want to go hear it again. Damn ya, Bob.

p.s. When I went back to finish this piece, about a month later, after some surgery, I found I had not gone back and listened again. I think maybe I just wanted to write a glib closer. I have not felt the need to go back and listen. Maybe some other time.

Dave Van Ronk
“The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir” book by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald
“Gambler’s Blues” LP Verve/Folkways A 1968 reissue of Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and A Spiritual (1959)
“Songs for Ageing Children” LP Chess/Cadet 1973
“Sunday Street” LP Philo 1976

See, one thing leads to another. While I’ve been recuperating from surgery, my friend Art Levine sent me the book which is another angle of what’s in Dylan’s “Chronicles.” It paints the picture of what Van Ronk wrought when he trickled out of Queens and into Manhattan as a teenager (and “mouldy fig” of traditional jazz) as the Village folk/blues music scene was being born.

He was the king of the hill when Dylan arrived, and helped Dylan get started. Van Ronk’s wife even managed Dylan for a bit, and “Bobby” as Van Ronk likes to call him, slept many nights on the Van Ronk family couch. Of course, the “hill” Van Ronk was king of was not very large at the time. Folk music was divided into pop and purist camps, and Van Ronk was squarely in the purist camp, ridiculing the suit-wearing Kingston Trio, et al.

This book made me laugh out loud more times than I can count. It’s sweet, it’s tough, it’s manic and it crackles with uncompromising loyalty to idea and passion. Van Ronk led the life many of us dreamt of, the fun-loving literate intellectual who got the girls, who ran the table in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, who shipped out as a Merchant Marine, who knew everybody and whom everybody knew.

Seems like he was really like that, although Van Ronk’s version is grimier, more political and more outwardly focused than Dylan’s version.

The book led me to my LP shelves, where I pulled out “Songs for Ageing Children,” which most Van Ronk purists detest, but which I’ve always loved. Even he didn’t think it was all that hot. He sings with a band, and the addition of an electric guitar on “Duncan and Brady” spurs Van Ronk to greater gruffiness. Also, the strings on “Song for Joni” (Mitchell) work in perfect parallel to the perfect sweetness only a gravel voice in love can supply.

And then there’s “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.”

I also pulled out “Gambler’s Blues” and with a little digging, discovered that this was a reissue of Van Ronk’s first solo album, released in 1959 on Folkways Records. The passages in the book about Moe Asch, who ran Folkways and was very tight with a buck, are hilarious. Van Ronk could never seem to get any money out of Asch, even though the album was selling. He resorted to a set of raggedy clothes he would wear to visit Asch and make Moe give some up.

Van Ronk is young with an old man’s voice on this. He is not what he would become, but you can tell he was a force to be reckoned with.

“Sunday Street” was released three years after “Ageing Children” and is solo acoustic. It’s a fine, mature album, less adventurous than the other, and for that the purists like it better. I like it too, but it’s less playful and risk taking.


Fred Neil “The Many Sides of Fred Neil” 2CD set. EMI Music

Fred Neil is also in Dylan’s and Van Ronk’s books, and when one thing leads to another, the nother leads to another nother. Fred was another presence on the streets of the Village.

He wasn’t the Mayor of MacDougal Street. He wasn’t gruff. Van Ronk was blatant but Neil was subtle and quiet. His voice smooth and sonorous and deep. He didn’t sing Delta Blues. He sang Percy Mayfield and he sang his own compositions.

He came to New York in 1958 and got into the pop music scene, working in the Brill Building, even playing guitar for the Bobby Darin demo of “Dream Lover” and on Paul Anka’s “Diana.” He performed live on the Allen Freed radio show.

In 1960 he began singing in the Village. In 1961 he was booking folk acts at Village Clubs, including Bob Dylan who he introduced to Dave Van Ronk. In 1966 he began moving back and forth between New York and Coconut Grove, Florida.

In 1967, Capitol Records released “Fred Neil” which is included in this two CD set. It featured “Everybody’s Talkin'” which later served as the theme for “Midnight Cowboy.” I was a huge Fred Neil fan at that time, and knew the song well. When I went to see the movie and the first few bars started, I thought, “Man! They’re using Fred Neil.” Then this other guy started singing the song, badly. It was Harry Nilsson. I never forgave whoever made the decision to re-record it for the movie.

Three Capitol Albums are here and lots of other stuff including “The Other Side of This Life,” also a favorite of mine.

He was active musically now and then, and devoted a lot of his time to an organization he helped form to help save dolphins. He died in 2001.

Three men, all linked by the Village and their times, all very different, but very connected. And only one left alive. Pondering mortality while involved in surgery is morbid. This music and that book helped make it better.

“The Roots of Bob Dylan” Various artists. MOJO CD

When “Modern Times” was released, MOJO Magazine got on the bandwagon with what could have been a marvelous collection of some of the musicians who influenced “Bobby.”

There performers and performances here are all fine but they left out: Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and, can you believe it WOODY GUTHRIE!

They included The Staples Singers, and while everybody loves them, they don’t fit here.


Liv Warfield “Embrace Me” CD

Liv is a singer and a songwriter (as opposed to a singer-songwriter) with unlimited potential. “Singer-songwriter” is a category unto itself and involves young guys with messy hair whining and young women with yeast infections being morose, both chunk-a-chunk-a-chunking in lockstep on their guitars.

Liv is not one of those. She is a vibrant 27 year-old black woman who has all the things going for her that could make her a star.

I recently wrote about the CD release gig in the Oregonian’s A&E Section, “In four years she has gone from a raw talent, unsure of herself onstage, often sitting on a stool wearing a running suit, to a powerhouse, assured of her talent and her ability to move an audience, punctuating her music with movement and magically made-over to allow her outer beauty to match the inner beauty bursting out of every pore.

“Mark this CD release gig as her official triumphant debut. It was SRO at the still-sparkling new venue and by the end much of the audience was on its feet, hands in the air, dancing at their tables and screaming for more.”

About her tune, “Works For Me,” I wrote, “In a medium-tempo funk groove, it begins, “I stopped complaining about what I ain’t got.” It goes on to be what amounts to a self-help book in song. You might scrunch up your nose at the prospect, but Warfield makes it work, so to speak. It never verges on Oprah-like sap because Warfield is so damned positive, such a good wordsmith, sings with such power and conviction that even jaded old reporters can see sunbeams shooting out the top of her head.

“Her love songs aren’t sappy or nasty, they’re sexual, but you actually get the feeling she’s talking about love with sex. Quite a concept.

“She writes with great clarity about relationships gone bad. “I Decided,” also from her CD, is a girl-leaves-boy story told not in self-pity or anger but actually examining things, talking directly to the man in question. She knows what she knows but also what she doesn’t. She sings about the heartbreak without whining, and calls him out without calling names.

“If Liv Warfield woke up tomorrow and couldn’t sing another note, she could have a spectacular career as a songwriter.

“Getting the idea we’ve got the whole package here? She can funk you up, she can sing you a lullaby, she can give you a right-cross to the chin, too.”

The CD is more subdued than her live performance, and that’s ok. Almost better to listen close and feel her passion and hear what she has to say and then later let her raise your roof in person.

William S. Burroughs “Spare Ass Annie” CD

At the last place I had full-time employment, I had to keep a copy of a Burroughs anthology on my desk. Somebody asked me why. I said, “It keeps me centered.” I think word got around. I’m no longer working there.

My favorite piece on here is, “Words of Advice to Young People.” It contains the line, “Any old soul is worth saving, at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying.” And “If you are doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, GET IT IN WRITING. His word isn’t worth shit, not with the good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.”

Also the immortal, “Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. They want more money, much more.”

All of the pieces are read to funky music with other stuff rolled in at the right times, audio clips from here and there, and studio chatter. None of it detracts, most of it enhances.

Lots of your favorite Burroughs is on here, “Dr. Benway Operates,” “Did I Ever Tell You About the Man That Taught His Asshole to Talk?” and a lot of others including the title cut.

In a world gone mad, WSB sounds like the only sane man in the house.

TOM D’ANTONI is a writer and TV producer/reporter living in Portland Oregon. His book “Rabid Nun Infects Entire Convent and Other Sensational Stories from a Tabloid Writer” was published by Villard/Random House in November.