His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett and Eliot

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In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

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(Lucie McNeill photo)

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

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A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

 Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

 The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

 Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

 The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

 To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

 It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

 Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

 I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

 Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

 On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

 Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

 Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

 Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

 When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

 Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

 What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

 Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

 Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

 Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

 Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

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A FOLKING GREAT WEEKEND

IMG_3241 For the first time in many years, I was without my constant companion at this year’s Vancouver Folk Festival. And my cousin’s young ‘un had the nerve to get hitched on Friday, the Folk Fest’s opening day, so I missed the fabulous Pokey Lafarge, when he still had a voice. Still, I had a blast.

Artistic director Linda Tanaka managed once again to assemble a vintage brew of the known, the barely known and the unknown into an eclectic, heady mix of outstanding music. There were fewer ultra-headliners than unusual this year, and yet the festival was terrific. All these people I’d never heard of. How dare they be both young and great…?

Not everything was perfect.

The legendary Birkenstock 500 dash to earn a good tarp place in front of the main stage wobbled on Days One and Two. But by Sunday, organizers got it right, and the 9 a.m. run was one of the smoothest this panting old codger can remember. (Let’s hope rumours that the “first come, first in line” tradition will be scrapped for a lottery are nothing more than the bureaucratic imaginings of someone who doesn’t get out much….).

And why o why, is the bass so often turned up to an unbearable level? Although it’s not nearly as commonplace as it used to be, for which I am thankful, when it does happen, the pain blasts through my feeble brain like a U-2 rocket. But hey, in spite of an unforgiving, broiling sun that had aging folkies clawing for shade, this was a wonderful few days of music.

Herewith some highlights.

BEST QUOTE. Vancouver’s one-of-a-kind Frazey Ford, at a workshop featuring songs of the human heart: “For songwriters, when you get dumped, it’s money in the bank.” Beside her, the ever-cool Basia Bulat completely lost her sangfroid and split a gut laughing.

BEST WORKSHOP: the aforementioned “Messin’ with the Wrong Heart”, featuring Bulat, Ford, Jenn Grant, pride of Halifax, and two luminous singers from the hot Brooklyn indie band, Lucius, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessing, clad in flowing, airy frocks of vivid yellow. In addition to their standout songwriting (heartaches and all), the performers displayed an appealing sisterhood and mutual admiration that made this a very special workshop. There was also a nice touch at the end, as the Lucius “girls” resurrected that fine old, Ian and Sylvia chestnut: You Were on My Mind. If you’ve never heard of Lucius, by the way, try this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcu5zJtWndI IMG_3264 BEST ANECDOTE: spun by Adam Cohen, son of Lennie, baby. Finding himself at some sort of odd Hollywood party, he looked around and noticed Tom Waits, there with his young son and wearing, naturally, a fur coat. Eavesdropping, Cohen heard Waits tell his kid to touch the drapes. “That’s silk,” he said. Then, he instructed him to touch the sofa. “That’s velvet,” father Tom affirmed. Finally, Waits asked his son to touch his coat. “And that’s fur,” he rasped. At that point, Waits saw Cohen listening in. Whereupon, he explained to the mystified Canadian, in his famous gravelly voice: “It’s never too early to teach your kids about fabric.”

BEST MAIN STAGE ACT BY A COUNTRY MILE: the legendary African powerhouse from Benin, Angélique Kidjo, who, at 55, showed as much dancing and prancing, fire and desire, charisma and melisma (look it up…), swirling and twirling as a pre-jowly Mick Jagger ever mustered at the peak of his preening. Her performance, complete with a dynamite band and some low-key but right-on political messaging, was mesmerizing. I didn’t even mind all those “young people” crowding in front of us older, sit-down folkies, who had risen at the crack o’ dawn to earn our coveted spots. We all stood and danced. For her final number, the show-stopping Afirika, Kidjo ventured right into the frenzied masses to help us with the song’s rousing chorus. Then, she materialized on stage again with a long line of dancing young people plucked from the crowd, including several tireless 10-year old girls, who couldn’t stop bouncing up and down. As the song went on and on, we grew ever more delirious, hoping it would never end. It did, of course, but I cannot remember a more dynamic closing to the Vancouver Folk Festival in all my 30 or so years of blissful attendance. (The lame, official closing of the festival after that was a complete anti-climax.) This gives you a sense of Afirikahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LInq0EioZjg

BEST PERFORMER IN A BLUE AND WHITE, POLKA DOT DRESS AND RED COWBOY BOOTS: Lindi Ortega, hands down.

BEST CONCERT FEATURING HEARTFELT COVERS OF CLASSIC CANADIAN SONGS: The charming, brother and sister duo, Matt and near-neighbour Jill Barber. Their version of Ian Tyson’s Summer Wages, one of my all-time favourite songs, was a festival highlight. But they also did lovely covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s Steel Rail Blues, Comes a Time by Winnipegger Neil Young, and, quelle surprise, the haunting French resistance song, The Partisan, which Leonard Cohen made sort of Canadian by including it on one of his early albums. (These comments about the song by Cohen are quite interesting… http://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-the-partisan-lyrics) I really enjoyed the gentle songs of the Barbers, reminding us that not all enjoyable music has to puncture our ear drums. IMG_3247 BEST PERSON I’D NEVER HEARD OF OVER WHOM I KIND OF SWOONED: Eileen Hodgkins, the out-there, tap-dancing, portrait-of-Eileenukelele-playing, bandana-wearing, cowboy-boots-from-Chilliwack devotee and all-round, irrepressible, effervescent spirit of the Perch Creek jug band from Oz. I hope she likes adjectives, too. Others in the band, complete with washboard and jug, were also great, particularly her wise-cracking sister Camilla, who kept referring to you-know-who as “My Sister Eileen”. The first song I heard them do was I’m a Woman, another long-time delight of mine, best sung by the equally irrepressible Maria Muldaur (then Maria D’Amato) of the famous Jim Kweskin Jug Band. So I was won over right there. They were just so much fun, as this shot of Camilla’s “wild sister Eileen” attests. IMG_3266 BEST SONG I NEVER TIRE OF HEARING: Mary Gauthier, as real a person as there is in this crazy world, and her searing, unforgettable, Mercy Now. I last saw her in Trondheim, Norway, a week after the bombs and shootings in 2012 that took the lives of 77 Norwegians, most of them young people. Never was Mercy Now more appropriate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT7NiFpJmvI

BEST IDLE THOUGHT BY ME: Listening to a soft, beautiful, Scottish fiddle tune, as I read about the mad, musical mayhem going on simultaneously in Pemberton, I thought there’s still a lot to be said for quiet and tradition in the music world. It has a sweetness all its own, and I wondered if, later in life, the 40,000 raucous, fun-loving fans then camped out at Pemberton would come to appreciate the worth of music that wasn’t blasted out at them through mountain-sized speakers. Oh, and also learn to pick up their garbage, before heading home…

BEST DESCRIPTION OF WHY WORKSHOPS SOMETIMES CREATE A MAGIC ALL THEIR OWN: A fellow from the Gaelic band Breabach suggested to musicians from another band that they merge their next number. “We’ve got a tune you’ve never heard before, and you’ve got a song we’ve never heard before, so it should work.” It did.

BEST TWO COVER SONGS IN A ROW: By Marlon Williams, the rising young Kiwi crooner, who wowed just about everyone who heard him sing. During his solo concert, Williams did a heartfelt song by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, followed by, yep, one of the best country songs ever penned, He’ll Have to Go, which became a massive hit for Jim Reeves. How often have I sung along to this all-time hurtin’ song? “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone/Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone./I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low./And you can tell your friend who’s with you, he’ll have to go.” Oh my aching heart.

BEST NON-EXPOS BASEBALL HAT: By the time I arrived on Saturday, Pokey Lafarge had lost his voice. While his vintage, old-timey band carried on, Pokey sat forlornly mute on stage, strumming his guitar. But what was that St. Louis ball images-1cap he was wearing? I didn’t recognize it. A few hours later, I came across Pokey sitting by himself at the CD signing table, looking glum. I took a chance that he could whisper, at least, and asked him about the hat. “Do you know the Federal League?” he whispered. I said I did know about the short-lived, outlaw league from a hundred years ago. “St. Louis had a team in the Federal League, and this was their hat,” said Pokey. “The Terriers.” Cool, I replied, in that winning, hipster way I have, and ambled on, leaving Pokey blessedly silent, once more. All in all, another great festival. Thanks, folks. See you next year. (picture below by Naomi Moses)IMG_5113