Three Nights of Dylan and the Giants Win the Series.

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My girlfriend said it best after the second Dylan show the night of Game 7, “This will never happen again.” And it won’t.

I went to work on Monday morning and had a full crazy day. I knew with the Dylan shows at the shimmering palace that is the Paramount Theater in Oakland and the World Series, I would be distracted at work. I went to work on Tuesday thinking about the Dylan shows and the World Series. At noon, I told my boss I was taking the rest of the week off. I told him I’d be worthless with MadBob and MadBum on the brain. He of course is well-aware of my Giants obsession (which he shares) and my Dylan obsession (which he finds mindboggling unsharable) and he wished me well.

I was immediately at once so excited that I couldn’t breathe and so relaxed that I felt I’d float away. So I did what any guy would do. I got my oil changed. I then collected my two older boys and a boy’s girlfriend and we set off. We found a great place to park and a cool place that served oysters and whiskeys and other stuff. I immediately lightened the mood by telling them I was paying for everything and they could get what they wanted. So dinner was crazy good and fun even though the Giants got blown out by the Royals. We were surprisingly unconcerned and confident of a win the next night. We walked a short block to the Paramount past Bob’s bus. We got to our seats in the 20th or so row and at 7:59 a gong sounded twice. The lights came down and Bob was singing exactly at 8 hence the “don’t be late” admonishment on the poster for the show. I was a little concerned because this is NOT a ’60s rocker greatest hits show to harvest dollars. ONE song from the ’60s, one from the ’70s, one from the ’90s and the rest from the last decade including 6 from his latest album. This was not for the faint of heart. My two boys had seen Bob a few years ago and loved it but this would be Bob the contemporary artist and I didn’t know if they could do Bob without anything on the Greatest Hits album. And Stephanie knew almost nothing of Bob.

But this “oldie-less”show means that he’s singing songs written for his current voice and not the ones from records that are now 50 years old. The band was locked in and Dylan was at the piano half the time and out front in front of a mike the other half. There is no guitar anymore and plenty of harmonica but he holds it in his hand rather than a wire rack around the neck. The SET setlist meant that the band was well-rehearsed and Bob could just focus on the performance.

Sometimes he looked every bit his 73 years and sometimes he was so spry that all I could think about was how much he must love what he’s doing. Vocally, he was good but I was amazed at how much work he put into the piano. The instrument was mixed way out front and there was no place to hide. Even though he’s probably the 6th best musician on the stage (because his bandmates are so good), it’s clearly his band and they are riveted to his every move.

Highlights included Love Sick, Tangled Up in Blue (with many new lyrics), Early Roman Kings and Spirit On the Water.

The last song of the main set is the dramatic “Long and Wasted Years” which was a curious choice. It’s not exactly anticlimactic but a long slow song about a decaying marriage isn’t what most people would do to spark a thunderous ovation.

He came out for a one song encore, Stay With Me, a song made famous by Frank Sinatra in the ’40s. You have to love Bob’s weirdness but on the other hand, until a few shows ago, the encore had been Blowin’ in the Wind and All Along the Watchtower. The inclusion of two older iconic songs would have made the night for a large segment of the audience. Having checked setlists on the remarkable www.expectingrain.com, I was prepared but many weren’t.

As he does now, after the last note, he stood with the band at the front edge of the stage and stared out at the audience as they clapped. The slightest hint of a nod but no bows, kisses or finger pistols. The word “stoic” comes to mind. The lights went down, he exited and the lights came back up. Done.

I thought it was great. To my surprise, the kids thought so too. They were practically gushing and did so all the way home. This was a relief on several levels since the boys would be coming with me on Thursday as well. A very happy and memorable night.

Wednesday

I really wished he Giants had won the series in 5 or six games but no dice so Lori and I headed out way early to Oakland. We found some hipster paradise that was so hipster that it was a parody of hipsters. We drank obscure beers served by rail-thin tattooed persons of ambiguous sexuality.  When the Hutch next door opened at 4, we headed there and found prime seats at the bar. I told the bartender that we would be there for the game and while we couldn’t drink for four solid hours, I would tip as though we did. He indicated that this was a plan that he could support.

The plan broke down when we did actually drink for four solid hours. Me less since I was the driver. The game was amazing. There was a brief scare at the end that looked like extra innings could occur. Lori made it clear that she preferred to wait until the end of the game to go to the concert which meant we’d miss the beginning. This was my 230thish Dylan show and I’d never been late to one before but this was special and she can be very persuasive so we waited.

We were in the balcony which meant a million stairs but we made it. Lori loved the show and I was excited by her comments. She “got it” and knew she was watching greatness and (this is key) was more inclined to roll with it than to roll her eyes at it. That made an already wonderful night indescribable. I told her that Dylan show staging is usually very sparse, more akin to a high school talent show. This tour, there were a few nice touches like old timey Hollywood style lights above and a few backdrops that appeared from time to time. Every time one of the backdrops would change, she’d whisper, “Production values!” Like I said, she got it.

Thursday

This night it was me and my three boys. Connor and Kyle had come on Tuesday but this would be 16s first Dylan show and I didn’t know how he’d take it. We had superb seats in the 5th row. The show was the best of the three. Bob was more into it it seemed. More hand gestures and vocal nuances as well as vocal clarity.

Musically and personally, three perfect nights. As I said, I’ve seen Bob many times. Every time, I think “this could be the last show.” I said that in 1998 and meant it. This time I’m not saying that. He changes, he morphs, he’s weird and seems like he almost wants to displease the audience sometimes. But at the same time, to see a tiny 73 year old man completely own the night like that is amazing. And to see him do it three nights in a row is unthinkable. And to think that this was one city on one tour and he does this night after night and year after year tells me that I have no right to assume or even guess when the last time will be.

(photo by my son, Kyle)

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: Why The Beatles will never happen again.

beatlesI do remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan because I’m old. And yes, I do shudder to think that all of these 50th anniversaries (and they’re just starting…yikes!) are happening so now I know what it must have felt like to be the last surviving soldier from the Civil War. Fun fact: The last verified Civil War participant died a mere 6 months before I was born. I digress.

The Beatles. I remember the anticipation of their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s difficult to explain to a young person today what TV was like in 1964. Try this. Go to your cable TV listing and look at the 200 or so channels you have available. Now, pick your favorite 4. Not so fast. One of them has to be the local PBS affiliate. There! That’s TV in 1964. Of course that’s not completely accurate because we didn’t get to pick our “favorites.” There were just a handful of stations and you got what you got. And in my little white, suburban Wonder Years-like existence, it was only a few years earlier that not everyone even had a television set at all. So in 1964, TV was entrenched but it also had the newish novelty factor.

Sports was on TV but only sporadically…a couple of games a season if you were lucky. Of course there was no internet, VCR or anything that could deliver moving pictures to you on demand. There were two ways to see a sports or entertainment performance: Live and in person or on television. Fandom lived on the radio and in the printed word and picture.

I do remember getting my own copy of Meet the Beatles. I remember the shiny cellophane with the four stonefaced yet slightly bemused guys looking out at me. I remember reading the notes on the back of the album over and over again and of course listening to the music that had previously only poured out of the tiny speaker in the dashboard of our Buick. I remember seeing pictures in magazines of Beatles, screaming girls and wondered why no boys went to see them and whether it was the kind of thing I should be listening to.

At my tender age, I was basically listening to nothing but the Mary Poppins soundtrack so The Beatles were a big jump. I don’t remember my mother being upset by it. The hair, which was only thing that was remotely counterculture about the boys (they wore suits to work ferchristsake) was a novelty rather than something to be afraid of. Other than that, they made girls scream and sang in perfect harmonies. A case could be made that Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis seemed more dangerous at the time. The Beatles were packaged, huggable sex appeal and you could not fault the catchiness of the songs.

By the time of the The Ed Sullivan Show appearance, we’d heard all about them, read all about them but had not seen them. The pent up pressure to actually see them play music in front of our eyes had built to the point that WHAT they performed or HOW they performed was immaterial. We wanted to see the energy and we wanted screaming girls and that’s what we got.

After the appearance, The Beatles were absolutely a big deal. The biggest. But the average Joe on the street saw what the fuss was about and went back about his business. Other bands got popular immediately and over the next few years (The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals, Dave Clark Five even The Monkees) so the The Beatles as the sole standard bearers for white rock and roll waned just a bit.

But on Sunday, February 9, 1964 on live TV (if you were in the east), all of that energy and curiosity was funneled through one medium and event that anyone in America would have had to work very hard to avoid.

And few did.

It was a time when the country could have a shared experience orchestrated and unveiled in a way that 200 channels, youtube and social networking would not allow today.

Throw in the jadedness that we wear like a badge of courage nowadays and it’s easy to see why The Beatles could not happen now and will never happen again.

Our cultural phenomena now happen in quick hits. They are reported live and unfiltered and are dismissed as quickly as they come because there are so many ways for them to come at us.

This isn’t necessarily bad but it’s not nearly as much fun.

On Being Bob Dylan.

Sharing a laugh with Jeff Tweedy.
Sharing a laugh with Jeff Tweedy.

This article in the current Esquire magazine (http://www.esquire.com/features/who-is-this-bob-dylan-interview-0214) about Bob Dylan got me thinking. The article is about being Bob Dylan. Not about songwriting or influence. About being. I mean, the guy’s gotta be somewhere doing something every minute. We all do. So what does he do? Where does he go? Give it a read.

I’ve talked about it before but I’ve been to over 200 Bob Dylan concerts and have spent way too much money on all things Dylan. If you include money spent traveling to some of those concerts, food, etc., it’s probably extra scary to think about. I was lucky that many of them came on business trips. These trips were always bona fide business trips with real objectives. They weren’t boondoggles. But the fact remains, they were planned with great forethought around Dylan’s touring schedule. The fact that I didn’t see him until 1976 and that I’ve only seen him twice in the last five years leads to a mathematical exercise that boggles the mind as to what 1979-2002 must have looked like. My biggest year was probably 1999 with approximately 25 shows including my best ever weekend, four shows in three days. I’ve never seen him outside of the United States but inside our borders, I’ve seen him in at least seven states.

The closest I’ve come to having the chance to meet him were some backstage passes in Oakland in ‘78 that went unclaimed because my mother didn’t relay a phone message she thought was a cruel joke. Had I gotten the message, I would have gone to a party at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco that Dylan actually attended. Of all the things I’ve missed in my life, this is my favorite. Because I have no interest in meeting Bob Dylan.

Our relationship is pretty perfect as it is. He writes music, performs it and does weird and quirky stuff. I consume the music and, depending on my mood, acknowledge or ignore the weird and quirky stuff. I really don’t want to screw this up. The chances that we’d meet and, what? Hang out? Become BFFs? Those are pretty slim. I could do without some oddball awkward moment or scribbled line on a piece of paper. I don’t do fanboy very well. I don’t buy or sell collectibles. I don’t actually have all that much dignity left at this point in my life but one bit I do have is that I don’t feel the need to pander to celebrities.

Bob seems to have settled into a nice groove on the whole “being Bob Dylan” thing and that makes me happy. If you can believe what you read, he has homes all over the world that he never goes to and friends who he considers close that he never sees. I couldn’t cope with the hassle of being Bob Dylan. Not a bit. It seems to work for him.

I just want the music that’s like a huge tapestry woven just loosely enough so that if you pull a thread, you don’t know where it will take you. So I keep pulling threads and finding new music, new thoughts and new states of mind.

It’s nice to think that they’re out there, thoughts and states. I owe Bob a debt of gratitude for the ones he’s shown me but he has no desire to hear about it and I have no desire to tell him.

It’s working for both of us just fine.

I wasn’t breastfed but I had a rather large record collection

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I suppose the first record I got was the Mary Poppins soundtrack. Then, Sound of Music. Then, Meet the Beatles although it had been out a couple years by the time I got it. I was young. My mother bought them and opened them for me. I played them on a black and white RCA record player. A record player is not a turntable. A record player is a turntable with a single speaker. Back then, “component stereos” were for guys who listened to jazz or classical music. They had berets and little beards like Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis.

My first experience buying a real record of my own that I opened with my very own actual fingers was The Monkees. An LP record. I’d bought a zillion singles. In fact, I bought Bobby Sherman’s single called “Little Woman” and even ventured to the other side to hear my first Bob Dylan song. It was Bobby’s rendition of One Too Many Mornings.

But an LP was so adult. An LP was one step short of cigarettes or Playboy magazine. It was large and I could see my reflection in the cellophane. It seemed like it was my giant face superimposed over The Monkees like I was one of them, the fantasy somewhat ruined by the round “AS SEEN ON TV” sticker in the upper lefthand corner. I took a pair of scissors and opened them up wide. I nervously slit the plastic. The brown cardboard opened a little but I had to pry it open with trembling fingers. You don’t have to be Fellini to figure out that this was actually my first sexual experience. And it would rank right up there with any that came after.

The paper sleeve was perfect. The record came out in my hand. I didn’t know quite how to hold it. I knew that fingerprints were bad and if my hand was larger, I could have employed what would later become my (and everyone else’s) signature move: Thumb on the outer edge, index and middle finger on the center label.

The first playing a vinyl record was always transcendental. It was as if Mike Nesmith invited me into his cool bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills  and offered me a cold Diet Rite soda while he smoked a funny cigarette and we both sprawled out on the glorious avocado green shag carpet and let the music wash over us. So powerful. No skips, crackles or pops. The first pop was always heartbreaking and the first skip was beyond tragic. A skip in a great record would cause insane mental gymnastics to pinpoint the exact moment the vinyl was damaged to the point that it wouldn’t play.

I’d go on to greatly upgrade my stereo and buy and open hundreds if not thousands of records and while it wasn’t always as toe-curling, underwear-changingly erotic as that first time, it was always special and nothing to be taken lightly. Even when I was older and I’d go to Tower Records on Bascom Avenue in Campbell and buy them a dozen at a time from Scott Shifrel, a clerk who would become a good friend and colleague at The Spartan Daily at San Jose State, the openings were always special.

Eventually, the CD came along and what was once a glorious ritual became a maddening chore. The horrible plastic wrapping that wouldn’t open. The ridiculous tape strip that held the CD jewel box closed. Most record stores were easier to break into in the middle of the night than the damn CDs were.

The last record I bought was Bob Dylan’s Infidels. At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s been 30 years. But today, a package came in the mail. My brilliant and thoughtful girlfriend bought me a vinyl copy of Jason Isbell’s wonderful new record Southeastern. When I saw the clean sexy package, everything changed. The cellophane with the sticker that said “180 gram virgin vinyl”. I felt like a virgin as well. I was back in that place.

My son has a turntable so I can listen to it. I haven’t opened it yet. Opening that outer packaging was good enough for today. But tomorrow, I’ll open a nice bottle of wine. Maybe fire up a Montecristo cigar and experience the full impact of my vinyl rebirth.

Home again.

Warren Hellman Died Today.

He was a San Francisco billionaire investor who bankrolled the one-of-a-kind Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. He was a really amazing and nice guy. Hardly Strictly is the best 3 day music festival in the country. Completely free to 600,000 people, well run, fun and magical.

His daughter said the festival will continue but it won’t be the same without him. Tammy and met him a couple of years ago and thanked him for the festival and he thanked us for enjoying it.

He was the 1% who thought that most of the 1% needed a kick in the ass. He practically predicted the OWS movement in this Fortune article in 2007 (http://money.cnn.com/2007/10/15/markets/hellman_private_equity.fortune/?postversion=2007101514).

He’d been in and out of the hospital for several months for lukemia and it finally got the best of him.

San Francisco is San Francisco because in a country that embraces sameness and the familiar, it’s a city that appreciates different ideas. Often, it pays the price for that. But sometimes, it helps create a Warren Hellman and that’s worth something.

The time U2 met me.

The cover of U2’s “Boy”.

In March 18, 1981 (right when ‘Boy’ came out), U2 was doing some free concerts at west coast colleges. I was told it was their second day in the US ever but that may not have been correct. They’d played a free concert at UCLA the day before and were now at San Jose State University where I was finishing up work on my journalism degree. The free concert was headlined by Romeo Void, a local punkish band and U2 was the opener.

The fabulous Christine McGeever suggested I go. We were writing for one of the school papers and she was going to interview them after the concert. Christine’s taste in music was uniformly impeccable. She had previously asked me if I wanted to go see a new band she was interviewing and I didn’t go and they turned out to be The Police. This time, I went.

The Student Union at San Jose State had a ballroom (a grandiose term for what it was) upstairs that comfortably held roughly a thousand people. Between the time the concert was booked and it was actually performed, U2’s first album, Boy had come out and the single I Will Follow was getting some airplay. This, of course, was back when things like “air play” and “singles” mattered. As the time for the music to start grew near, the place got crazy. It’s hard to imagine now, but U2 was seen as an artsy punk band at the time and the fact that they were from Ireland was a curiosity as well. I wore my usual Hank Williams Jr Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound t-shirt but the place was packed with mohawked, dog collared punks.

From the moment the first note was struck by The Edge, this would be remembered as “The Night That No One Would Remember If Romeo Void Existed or Played a Note.” According to the published setlist, they played 15 songs. I remember it being more than that and that they played “I Will Follow” at least twice if not three times. The Student Union was built on big rubber piers for earthquake safety. One of the common dances of the day was the “pogo”. So there were roughly two thousand people in a room meant to hold less than a thousand and most of them were jumping up and down in unison and crashing into one another. You could see the speakers on the stage start to sway and guitars falling over. People from the crowd climbed up on stage and became human ducttape to hold the speakers in place. I remember it being loud and crazy and I remember the crowd begging for more U2 until halfway through Romeo Void’s set.

After the concert, Christine and I went backstage. I don’t recall us having any press passes or any ID. We were just told to go back after the show and U2 would talk to us and Christine could write her usual excellent ‘up and coming rock band’ story. It was billed as kind of a press conference but in a moment that felt truly Spinal Tap-ian, we were the only ones there. The U2 guys were obviously very young (Bono was 21) and exceedingly polite. Surprisingly, they weren’t in much of a hurry which was unexpected. They seemed to be happy that we’d heard of them and that we were interested in the music. Christine asked her questions for her story. We asked them how they liked California and if it was what they expected. They said they liked the palm trees but were expecting to see Ronald McDonald walking down the street. Bono had a small tape player. I asked him what was on it. He said he didn’t write music but carried the tape player so he could hum tunes into it and as he came up with lyrics, he’d match them up. He turned on the tape player and I could hear him humming over the drone of what I’m sure was a jet engine.

To be honest, as Christine and I walked back to the newspaper office, I felt that I’d been to an event that was wild for San Jose State University but the crowd was much tamer than what we experienced at Mabuhay Gardens on any Saturday night when the Dead Kennedys played. Since at the time, rock was on its way out and punk was in, U2 in its very early formation was being marketed as punk. So instead of feeling like we went to an incredible rock show, it felt like watered down punk which really wasn’t fair to U2.

That said, you could not deny the power of the music and the performance. There were no thousand dollar sunglasses. It was kids with longish greasy hair and jeans and t-shirts who were playing a very tight brand of rock music that was at odds with the almost purposely unprofessional punk bands of the moment.

My Favorite Under-appreciated Albums, Installment I

I’m a big music fan. And if I make my list of my favorite albums of all time, many would be some of the same things many people would list. “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan and the like. But there are some that might be on that list that are minor gems. Some sold in reasonable numbers, some didn’t and some didn’t really sell at all. I’d like to throw a few out there and hear what you think. Genre-wise, I’m all over the map but I could throw any of these on my virtual turntable any minute of any day and be very content. I’ve got quite a list of these but I’ll start with these three:

Mule Variations

1. Mule Variations by Tom Waits. It’s odd to consider this a hidden gem or under-appreciated since it was Waits’ highest charting album ever when it reached #30 for a short time in the US and was #1 in Norway. Tom being Tom, did promote this album a bit with a performace of “Chocolate Jesus” on Letterman that might have been a little too quirky for middle America but it’s more than the reclusive Waits had done previously. It did get a couple of Grammy nominations. The fact that it won a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Folk Album” and was nominated for “Best Male Rock Vocal” (For the astoundingly great “Hold On“) tells you that critics and record buyers didn’t to know what to do with Waits’ incredibly nuanced, diverse work. Some critics found it to be a rehash for Waits, I think it’s a great summation of his career up to that point. From romps like “I’m Big in Japan” to the poignant “The House Where Nobody Lives” make this a very rewarding listen.

The Mona Lisa's Sister

2.The Mona Lisa’s Sister by Graham Parker. Parker burst on the scene in the late ’70s with the punk movement and was a contemporary of Elvis Costello and a harder edged version of Joe Jackson. After some commercial success in the early 80s, Parker’s bombastic personality caused him to change labels a few times. He got to RCA and made this album which contains lyrics that have stood the test of time, well for me they have. From the reggae-tinged “The Girl Isn’t Ready” to “Get Started, Start a Fire” where the album’s title comes from, his sly humor, insight and ability to not give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks all came together in a more stripped down approach that has stood the test of time. Sadly, it may be out of print in CD format but will live forever on iTunes.

Valley So Deep

3. Valley So Deep by The Texas Sapphires. This is straight ahead country. I bought a version of this CD for $10 from the band in the Austin airport. From a music perspective, Austin, Texas is my North Star. This band was playing in the airport. Free. Just playing their hearts out and sounding fantastic. I’ve never been so disappointed that a flight left on time. I talked with Billy Brent Malkus for a few minutes, took my CD and boarded. When I got home, I played the thing ragged. The CD I bought isn’t the one that’s for sale now. The band re-cut the songs with legendary Austin producer Lloyd Maines for a slightly crisper sound. Whether they’re doing songs written by Billy or covers of solid country songs, the musicianship and commitment to the music is unmistakable. One of my favorites, written by Billy and Arty Hill, is “Bring Out the Bible (We Ain’t Got a Prayer)” which explains that “There’s peace in the valley but we never made it down there.”