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Changing of the Guards

The Dylan train rolls on into the late '70s. Instead of posting regular updates on this project, I've decided to pack as much into each one to, uhm, minimize self-indulgence and audience tedium.

The first time I listened to Blood on the Tracks in earnest was in the late winter of 1999. I was downloading things of that ilk at the time (back in the wild west of FTP, before file sharing grew up and became a criminal) and I burned a copy to take along on an unexpected spring break trip to Austria. I remember playing "Tangled Up in Blue" for my exciting new girlfriend when she stopped by my hostel room one morning before work. It was one of the CDs that I listened to as I wandered around Vienna, stuffing myself on Lindt chocolates and seeing the sights that I thought I was supposed to see.

It is a testament to the album's versatility that I was able to listen to it at that time. After all, it's one of the most famous breakup albums of all time and I was walking on the clouds of my new love. One of my favorite things about the album is how, despite being written from turmoil, it manages to tell the whole story of love from the intoxicating beginning to the (sometimes) painful end. And they are beautiful stories, stories of life, because above all they are honest and real, uplifting and heartbreaking. This duality carries over into other interpretive aspects as well. Dylan toys with the perspective, going back and forth between the first and third person, to tell a story that sounds personal but has the occasional advantage of the omniscient narrator. This tool is also used to weave personal circumstances in and out of the narrative, making the songs alternately timeless and grounded in the present.

What can I say? It would be hard for this album to be any better. Plus I've got a memory of it associated with my girl. It will live in my mind forever.

Live 1975 is everything that I had hoped Before the Flood would be—joyous interpretations of the music in an intimate setting energized by palpable musical camaraderie. Some of the older material is spectacularly reimagined ("It Ain't Me, Babe", "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fail"), some more subtly but no less beautifully so ("Simple Twist of Fate"). The previously unreleased stuff ("Mama, You Been on My Mind", "I Shall Be Released") is good, but the new stuff off Desire is smoking. The album wasn't released until after the tour but it had been marinating with the band for over six months and it shows.

My only mistake was listening to Live 1975 before Desire, which I did in the interest of historical accuracy, because some of the originals are less spirited than the live versions. It's still a fantastic album, though. More than any other, I felt like Desire transported me to a new world with each song, to the Old West of Mexico in "Romance in Durango" or a little island on the brink of destruction in "Black Diamond Bay." Scarlett Rivera and Emmylou Harris bring so much magic to this album, it's easy to get lost in the imagined worlds.

I've been trying to put to words my reasons for undertaking this little Dylan experiment, the sequential listening and writing. It's something more than liking the music and respecting the man, something about living his journey that I have a hard time pinning down. But in the course of thinking about this, I also tried to list my reasons for respecting him (outside of "makes good music") and "Sara" encompasses a lot of it. I know that there are things in my life that can't help but to overtake everything I am and to deny them that would be to be untrue to myself. Throughout Dylan's career, he never denied himself that—whatever he was at the moment, that's what his music was: idealistic (The Times They Are A-Changin'), happily domesticated (Planet Waves), in turmoil (Blood on the Tracks), converting to Christianity (Slow Train Coming), etc. "Sara" is a shining example of this tradition, so beautifully bittersweet even without the context of his personal life, and a song that cemented my respect for him.

And that brings us to Street Legal, the precursor to Dylan's conversion to Christianity and the '80s, and completely uncharted territory for me. For the first time, the music sounds dated, a product of the time in which it was created rather than transcending it. It feels overproduced, especially the drums and horns. After accepting early on that this wasn't going to be my favorite album musically, I tried to look deeper to determine if it was the songs or the production and performance that was bothering me. It didn't take long to realize that the songs are as good as ever and describe an interesting transition in his life. This verse from "Changing of the Guards" always comes to mind:

Gentlemen, he said,
I don't need your organization, I've shined your shoes,
I've moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.

Most of the love songs have a twist that hints at a darker side beneath the well-intentioned words, although I'm still fighting that urge on "Is Your Love in Vain?" and maintaining that it's a beautiful hymn to the all-or-nothing nature of love, that minus maturity, commitment or gravity it's nothing but a waste of "precious time".

Next stop, the conversion to Christianity and the much-maligned music that followed. As always, I'm waiting to find something I don't like and I haven't been let down yet.

October 29, 2006

No Time to Think

Things are not going well around here lately. I'll save you the suspense of waiting for the reason: we have a seven-month-old. No one is sleeping enough. Veronika's special demands increase tenfold with each hour of sleep that she loses. Dinka and I barely cross paths during the week and the weekends are marginally better but usually exhausting enough to make up the difference. We wake up resentful for having been up for so much of the night, we go to sleep frustrated with another day lost to frustration. The days pass and not much changes, which reminds me of that old Chris Rock line—(paraphrased approximately) "People tell you life is short... no it's not. Life is LONG." Everyone says kids grow up so fast, but lately it feels like they grow up very slowly, if at all.

And behind all of this, constantly present in our lives and escalating it all to a fever pitch, is Ivan's crying. It is the soundtrack of our lives. I thought about recording a bit of it to really drive the point home but it occurred to me that someone might think it was cruel. Dinka tells me that I have a selective memory about what Veronika was like when she was young, but there is no doubt in my mind that he cries at least fifty percent more than she did at this age (it feels like two hundred percent more, so I'm using the standard exaggeration factor of four). He is no longer content sitting anywhere on his own, like Veronika used to love. Each increase in physical ability compounds his frustration. He wants to be held, but then dives out of your arms. He likes baths but tries to drown himself. And the one thing he was always best at—napping—he has recently given up. Twice a week, I feed the kids and put them to bed while Dinka's at work, and for the last month or so that has meant that by the end of the night I will have thought at least five things about him that I would be ashamed for anyone to ever hear (sneak preview of my confession this Saturday afternoon!). Part of me knows that he is not getting the same treatment that Veronika did because he is the second child and the situation that he's growing up in is more difficult for us to handle, and that just breaks my heart.

A recent trip to my parents, restful as it was, only underscored the fact that we have no one out here to help us. In our wonderful modern world you can live and work wherever you want, and we're all moving around to exciting places and new opportunities and forgetting that there's a reason that people used to stay put, part of which is that things might get tough and you might need help. We can't get anyone to watch the kids once a season for less than it would cost us to go out to the opera (for example), but we have two grandmothers thousands of miles away that could think of nothing better to do with an evening and kids that feel the same.

And my leg hurts from running too much and my elbows hurt from typing too much and I am done for today, my friends.

October 23, 2006

Summer Past

Obvious metaphor alert

There's a tree that I see every day on my way home from work that started announcing the end of summer just after Labor Day weekend this year by its leaves changing from a deep red to bright orange. Every year it's the first in the neighborhood to turn and while I respect its enthusiasm to get autumn underway, I never believe that summer is truly over until the rest of its peers join in. My drive home this week is much more colorful than it was in September, confirming that visionary tree's assertion that summer has come to an end. We usually do a good job of taking advantage of the summer weather by getting out with the kids and this summer was no exception. We were especially busy in late July and early August when Dinka's sister was visiting, so busy in fact that I'm just now getting around to publishing the pictures from those weeks (well, that and the fact that my photo album creation process is unimaginably time-consuming).

So here's a glimpse at our summer, represented by Veronika's third birthday party and our Rhode Island beach getaway. May the memories fade as slowly as the pictures.

Summer '06

October 11, 2006 | Comments (3)