Tuesday, January 24, 2017

One Too Many Mornings and Other Local Dylan-Related Items of Note

When it comes to all things Dylan, there's always more going on than there's time to write about it. Here are a few items of note that relate to Dylan and Duluth, in no particular order of importance.

1. WWDD bracelets are now available here in all the usual spaces where Dylan souvenirs are sold. As you walk down Bob Dylan Way from the Depot to the Armory, it will remind you to ask yourself, "What Would Dylan Do?" Proceeds from the sale of WWDD bracelets will go toward events surrounding Duluth Dylan Fest.*

Gaelynn Lea (L) with Alan Sparhwak, The Murder of Crows
2. One of the highlights of last year's Duluth Dylan Fest for me personally was the celebration of Bob Dylan's birthday at his former home on the Central Hillside, followed later by the Duluth Does Dylan CD release party at The Rex. This is a truly great CD featuring local bands that do Dylan covers. When I wrote my review of the CD last June, I noted many stellar features of the various renditions of the selected songs. One of these songs was One Too Many Mornings, recorded and performed by The Murder of Crows (Alan Sparhawk and Gaelynn Lea.) At the time I was impressed by the wholly different variation or spin they put on the song, totally unlike the original. My admiration for Alan Sparhawk climbed another notch for his innovations (I assumed that Alan designed the chord structures and new design of the song.)

Then, this past week, a video of Dylan performing One Too Many Mornings live during the Rolling Thunder Revue came across my path. And guess what? It was Dylan himself who had produced the new chord structure, tempo and design of the song. I copied the link to the YouTube page where I discovered it but today find that it has since been removed. (It must have been a bootleg.)

Dylan's continuous variations and reconfigurations of his songs have long endeared him to his fans. Let me add kudos to Alan and Gaelynn for choosing this rendition sharing it on this CD. To hear Gaelynn Lea become Scarlet Rivera and Alan squeezing emotional juice into the lyrics is quite satisfying, and worthy of accolades.

3. An finally, hey man, it's that time of year again. As we slide toward the end of January we call to mind Buddy Holly's Dance Party Tour that passed this way in 1959. This Saturday everyone is invited to put their dancing shoes on and celebrate the Winter Dance Party with us, 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. at the Sacred Heart Music Center. Proceeds go toward the Armory renovation and restoration project that has been ongoing for many years, with some noteworthy progress being made this past year. Will we see you there?

*EdNote: I just made all that up. But while we're talking about Duluth Dylan Fest,
  the dates and tentative schedule for the Seventh Annual DDF can be found here. Mark your calendars. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia

Since first discovering Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami I have been continually stirred by so may of the exhibitions. Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia looks like another fascinating show that I will wish I could attend. Maybe when I retire I'll have the luxury of being a travelling art critic.. but for now, I will be content to share a few images here on my blog.

The opening reception will be this coming Saturday, January 28, 4 - 7 p.m.. More than 70 pieces will be on display in an area that encompasses 4,000 sq. ft. of the Frost Museum's real estate.

Miami's Frost is the second stop on a two-year national tour. Praise for the show has been effusive, “These women have re-drawn the boundaries of Aboriginal art and are re-defining the vision of contemporary art,” says Dr. Jordana Pomeroy, Director of the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU. “With subject matter ranging from faraway celestial bodies to the tiniest of flowers on the native bush plum, they assert the wisdom of revered matriarchs and grapple with the most fundamental questions of existence.”

Painting and making art is a not really new pursuit in the Aboriginal culture of Australia's Outback. Selling and showing art in this manner is totally new.

Perhaps it is the freshness of the work that inspires such hyperbole among those who have seen the work. “When I first saw this work it felt like I had been struck by lightning,” says Dennis Scholl who with wife Debra is a Miami-based collector and philanthropist.

You can tell from the artists' names that they are neither Scandinavian, Italian, British or German: Nonggirrnga Marawili, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Yukultji Napangati, Angelina Pwerle, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu and her sister, among others. The work is as original as the names.

Despite their origins, the Aboriginal peoples are not oblivious to the broader community of humankind. “These artists are globally alert and connected to our modern world,” says Henry Skerritt, curator of the exhibition. “There has never been a more urgent need for contemporary artists to imagine our shared predicament as the diverse occupants of the same planet."

Though it appears to be promoted as a women's movement, I would guess that this cultural exposure will do much to foster an increased understanding of what it means to be human on this third rock from the sun.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Shooting Star: Bookend on Dylan's Monumental Oh Mercy

For the past two to three months it's been my intention to write a post about the song "Shooting Star" that closes out Bob Dylan's stellar 1989 comeback album* Oh Mercy. I purchased the vinyl of Oh Mercy almost as soon as it was released. With the exception of the two fast-tempo songs in the early tracks of side one ("Everything's Broken" and "Political World") the album is quite laid back, reflective and laconic.

Daniel Lanois, who would later produce Dylan's Grammy award-winning Time Out Of Mind, produced the album Oh Mercy.

The song "Shooting Star" is a fitting final track for the album. From 1990 to August 2013, he's performed it 126 times live in concert.

What intrigued me about the song, and why I keep returning to it in my mind, was this notion that the song seems to be about someone specific. For some reason I believed it was about his first wife Sara Lownds. It opens, "Saw a shooting star tonight and I thought of you // You were trying to break into another world // A world I never knew // I always kind of wondered // If you ever made it through // Seen a shooting star tonight // And I thought of you.

The song conveys such a gentle tenderness. From the first time I heard it there's a specificity about the word "you" here, and I desired to know, a song about someone special it seemed, a song about someone moving into a new realm, a different world from where his own life path was taking him.

It's funny how one can get an idea into one's head and never find a way to shake it. This idea of the song being about Sara came about because I thought someone, a friend, had said as much when the album first came out. It was the last song on the album, and so was another song for Sara who was also featured in a final track on another album, Desire.

I laid on a dune, I looked at the sky // When the children were babies and played on the beach...

Bob married Sara Lownds in late 1965 during one of the epic periods of his career. She was purportedly the inspiration for many songs including "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit". Much of his Blood on the Tracks album circa 1974-75 has been cited as a response to the emotions stirred as his marriage was falling apart, ultimately leading to a divorce that finalized in 1977.

The thing is, my assumptions were wrong. (Not the first time, either.)

In recent years, as I've become involved with the Duluth Dylan Fest and people more likely in the know about these things, I had a chance to ask a few of them, "Is this song about Sara?" "No," I am told, "it is not about Sara."

Perhaps I got the notion into my head because the middle section of the song speaks of God and temptation and the sermon on the mount and I'd linked this to the coming life transition Dylan underwent ten years earlier that resulted in the trio of albums in his Gospel period, beginning with Slow Train Coming. There were fragments of memories rattling around in the cobwebs of my mind that associated these allusions to the Vineyard and Keith Green and other miscellany... all of it mistaken.

Here's the Wikipedia synopsis of the song:

The album closes with "Shooting Star", a wistful ballad of remembrance with possible allusions[citation needed] to the loss of Dylan's Christian faith. Dylan appears to address Christ: "Seen a shooting star tonight and I thought of me/If I was still the same/If I ever became what you wanted me to be". The next line, "Did I ever miss the mark or overstep the line that only you could see" makes an apparent reference to Joseph Addison Alexander's poem "There is a line by us unseen/That crosses every path/The hidden boundary between/God's patience and His wrath.". The words occasionally evoke some portentous imagery ("the last fire truck from hell goes rollin' by"), but it ends the album on a soft, romantic note.

Now for those familiar with this album in a more intimate way (like I, you have listened to it a hundred times) I think you might find the following an interesting exercise. When you play the song in your head and reach the bridge ("Listen to the engine, listen to the bell...) and you go through this and reach "The last radio is playing" -- do not proceed with the last verse. Rather, splice in a verse from "Ring Them Bells." Any verse will do. Look how synthesized these two songs are.

Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow 
Ring them bells with an iron hand 
So the people will know 
Oh it's rush hour now 
On the wheel and the plow 
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow

Notice how well these two songs shuffle together. Has anyone else ever done this? You're playing a song in your head and suddenly you jump-cut to a different song. These two songs work that way.

* * * *
Dylan has a way of making everything so personal. Each of us who has experienced the painful loss of a loved one can relate to a song like this. The shooting star is a trigger. Upon seeing the shooting star flung across the night sky he impulsively "thought of you." Or rather, of her, whomever it might be.

But his thoughts turn inward next.

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

It always felt like he was talking to a person here. There's been a lot of water under this bridge. But then, someone recently suggested he is talking to God. In the Judeo-Christian view, God is a person. We have been made in God's image as persons. So it is a possible interpretation. "If I ever became what you wanted me to be." It's a question that is searching, probing, vulnerable.

Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

The images here speak about the end of something. This stanza makes one freeze, for he compares this ending with the end of all time, of life  and the world as we know it.

Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away
Tomorrow will be
Another day
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

This verse, though, seems to bring it all back to earth. Someone near now seems to be gone.

The song is evocative and sentimental without being sappy, ambiguous without being abstract. It's pure Dylan, and a perfect close to what many feel to have been a perfect album, Oh Mercy. They don't get much better than this.

*The word "comeback" is something of a misnomer, since every time he produces a great album there are critics who make it seem he'd lost his way in the period before. The result is a whole career of comebacks.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Epic Truths of Beowulf -- the Hollywood Version

At the very opening the beautiful queen fills the sacred Royal Dragon Horn with mead to bring to her king. The Dragon Horn as yet has no meaning but will reappear several times, including the story's final scene. What is quickly established is this: we have a debauched king encouraging celebration. His exploits have evidently preceded him. "He offered us protection when monsters roamed the land..." they sing. He had promised his people a glorious hall, and delivered on this promise. But the sounds of celebration echo into the distant darkness where a creature weeps blood, a creature whose identity we as yet know not.

Seven minutes into the film and the monster Grendel bursts upon the scene. Screaming, a horror of horrors, ripping limbs from torsos, flinging men across the hall, biting off men's heads, drooling slime, a contorted beast with an anguished heart.

Hrothgar the king calls for the monster to fight him, not destroy his people. But Grendel cannot. He returns to his cave, to his mother, where he is confronted, and comforted.

Hrothgar then declares that half the gold of his kingdom will be given to the man who slays this monster. Unferth suggests that in addition to sacrificing goats and sheep to their current gods that they also pray to the new Roman God Christ Jesus. (This story takes place in Denmark, 507 A.D..)

Hrothgar rejects appealing to any of the gods. "The gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. What we need is a hero."

And so, the foundation is laid for Beowulf to appear. And appear he does. "They say you have a monster here. They say your lands are cursed... I am Beowulf. I'm here to kill your monster."

The soldier sent to confront him puts it plainly enough. "I thought there were no more heroes foolish enough to come up here and die for our gold."

Beowulf makes the epic declaration. "If we die it will be for glory, not for gold."

* * * *

Idealists are many, too. As the fair queen notes: "There are many brave men who have come to taste my Lord's mead, and many who have sworn to rid his hall of our nightmare. But in the morning, there was nothing left of any of them but blood to be cleaned from the floor, and the benches and the walls."

Beowulf is not deterred. "I will kill your monster."

* * * *

Hrothgar presents Beowulf with the Royal Dragon Horn, and explains that the ruby on the Dragon Horn represents the spot on the throat where your dagger must plunge. "It's the only way you can kill a dragon."

Each symbol introduced has its meaning disclosed later, producing a latticework of understanding.

In addition to the king's gold, whoever destroys Grendel will also obtain the king's beautiful queen... "forever and ever and ever."

* * * *

Hideous. Monstrous. But Beowulf, in the horrifying battle, becomes ripper, shredder, slasher, and upon discovering Grendel's weakness tears off an arm from the monster.

In the aftermath the king, in his bedchamber, expresses his desire to produce an heir. But the queen resists, citing his having lain with the mother of the beast.

We understand fully now how this horrorshow came to be. "The sins of the father..."

* * * *

Grendel, the damaged son, returns to his mother, awakening her grief. Giving birth to her revenge.

* * * *

The fascination here is the making visual and vibrant these mythical images, this classic tale of heroism, of valor and failure. The tale is classic, and Hollywood's skills have reached a point where the film can make vivid what was previously only possible via imagination.

Beowulf is seduced by means of his vanity. "Your story will live on after everything here now is dust."

Ah yes, the appeal to make a name for oneself, a legacy, is indeed appealing.

* * * *

Beowulf lies about his achievement, declaring that he planted his sword into Grendel's mother's chest. In reality the only planting that occurred was his own seed. But it is essential to keep up appearances. Beowulf must be believable as a hero. The monster's head was delivered. What further evidence was required.

Lie follows lie, and the sheep in eagerness accept it in order to placate their fears. All is well, the sun will come out tomorrow.

The only doubter is Hrothgar. "Did you kill her?" he asks privately.

And so, Hrothgar makes exclamation that upon his death all that he possesses, including his queen, shall become Beowulf's. And moment's later he plunges from a balcony to his own death.

Denial of the obvious continues as the queen explains, "He must have fallen."

* * * *


Beowulf in its essence is a classic morality tale. As a horror story it captures the imagination, became bigger than life like the monsters in the story. In the end, though, the lesson is straight out of the scriptures: "A man reaps what he sows." Frankenstein meets Howard's End. Sooner or later your past comes back to haunt you.

At one point, as they watch their soldiers engaged in battle, Beowulf says, "We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf."

* * * *

I personally found the graphic novel treatment utterly enthralling. They paid a boatload of money to make a CGI film with a boatload of stars and grossed a little over half back that first year. Why the less than stellar ratings? First, because like many, if not most, of Hollywood's translations of story to film, it becomes an entirely different story. Those who are knowledgeable about such things feel betrayed.

Reviews by those unfamiliar with the original tale scored much higher. Those who teach the story know well that this film account is a total bastardization. As one IMDB.com reviewer wrote:

Please people, READ THE BOOK! The only thing this movie had in common with Beowulf were the names of the characters. Say no to bastard children, naked mommies of monsters, and lips that do not match up with the dialog. The only thing I got out of this was true/false test material for my British Literature students who think they can get away with watching the movie instead of reading our text.

If learning about the original story is important to you, I recommend obtaining a good translation (like the Bible there are easier and harder translations to read) and reading the book, as this professor suggests. If you don't really mind not getting the facts right, enjoy the film. It's dramatic, bigger than life and has much to be commended for.

Much more can be said, like who wrote it, who directed it and who was in it, but you can get all that at IMDB. I enjoyed it... enough to watch it twice and write about it. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Mirror Of Our Acts Reveals Who We Are

"...leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognize what we are."
--Andre Gide, Journals

For nearly all of us mirrors play a role in our morning rituals. Whether for shaving or make-up, fixing one's hair or straightening one's tie, the mirror is a useful tool, presenting to our eyes a true reflection of what is there so we can fix it as we primp and preen.

On other occasions, a reassuring glance in the mirror before a job interview or an important date gives us confidence that at least the external things are taken care of -- our hair isn't mussed, collar turned right, no food crumbs on our chin.

At the end of the day there's another mirror which is equally valuable to us, and perhaps even more so once we practice using it. We can call it the mirror of our acts. As we quiet ourselves and reflect on the day, we discover that our actions reveal our souls as surely as the bathroom mirror reveals our faces.

The mirror of our acts reveals us as we truly are, giving a more precise picture of ourselves than we may wish to see. For it reveals not only our strengths, but also our limitations; it shows not only our inward beauty, but also the defects that mar that beauty. When I look back on my day, standing honestly before this mirror of my soul, what do I truly see reflected there? Thoughtfulness and sensitivity? Selfishness? Duplicity and deceit? Laziness? Industriousness? Courage? Courtesy? Foolish pride? Pettiness? The character defects we see need not discourage us. Recognizing one's shortcomings is the essential first step to the cure.

Taking time for reflection is an essential facet of personal growth, as important to our souls as diet and exercise are for our bodies. Whether it be at day's end, the middle of the night or early dawn, it can be a most useful tool to help us grow to our full stature as human beings.

* * * *
The above originally appeared in my unpublished 1993 devotional Nightfall: A Time To Reflect at the End of the Day. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing excerpts from my newest book, Writing Exercises: How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else.

It's my conviction that being able to write well is an essential skill in your career toolkit. Writing Exercises is more than a collection of writing prompts to help students learn various tricks and techniques to improve their writing, it also presents a methodology, a new way of teaching writing in order to get better results.

Meantime, guess what? It's Friday. Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Insights from the Marshmellow Experiment

"Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things... I am tempted to think there are no little things." ~ Barton Sutter

The other day I stumbled on an article about a Stanford research project that attempted to correlate a single aspect of human behavior as an indicator for future success or failure. The series of studies conducted by professor Walter Mischel came to be known as The Marshmellow Experiment.

The experiment was essentially about deferred gratification as a predictor of future achievement. James Clear describes the setup like this.

The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.

The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow.

The researcher would leave for 15 minutes and then return. The team filmed the kids fidgeting, staring, and frequently succumbing.

What makes the experiment famous is that these children were then checked in on for the next 40 years. Mr. Clear summarizes the results:

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.

* * * *

Take a minute to reflect on the ramifications of this experiment. And then consider this.

Can delayed gratification be taught? If the answer is yes, then success can be taught. Or at least the odds of achieving more successful life outcomes for our children can be favorably influenced.

When I was growing up in the Fifties our elementary school had some kind of arrangement in which we could deposit money in a bank account. Beginning in second grade my father gave me a dime for every A I received on my report card. The dimes were deposited in the bank. I also began to receive an allowance of a quarter a week.

What I learn with that allowance was powerful. We had a candy store a few blocks away, and if I wanted to I could ride my bike there and buy candy. My dad also brought my brother and I to the Lawson's Milk Store fairly frequently and they had a magazine rack there that was fun to peruse. Once a month the new Mad magazine came out and my quarter would be used for that. On the other hand, if I saved my quarter and waited till I had fifty cents, I could then buy a Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. And if I skipped candy altogether and somehow saved four quarters, I could buy a model Revell battleship to assemble to put on a shelf in my room.

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

Is this a behavior that parents can teach? Or were those children wired for failure as a result of genetic dispositions?

In psych 101 students learn that even pigeons can be taught to do a surprising number of things by means of incentives, including playing a primitive form of ping pong, by means of stimulus-reward arrangements. On the other hand, how many times have you seen parents in a grocery story line attempting to restrain a screaming four or five year old brat who wants a candy bar, and instead of making this a teachable moment, they reward the child's ranting. "I want it now!"

What about now, as adults? Is it too late for us if we've been poorly wired as kids? There's plenty of evidence to support a belief that inner change is not only possible but in most cases desirable. Here's that article on The Marshmellow Experiment.

Once we're set in our ways change is not easy. It begins with awareness. To quote the Little Engine That Could, it begins with an affirmation: "I think I can." If we persist, we will succeed.