Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Street Song and Street Songs

June 3, 2019

I haven’t posted anything about my book, Street Song, here in quite some time. One reason is that nothing’s happening. My agent has the book and is shopping it around, but so far there haven’t been any takers. This doesn’t worry me at the moment. It’s an unusual book—not the type of book that editors are going to fight over. I put more than 12 years of work into it, and I’m confident that it will resonate with some editor who is able to see beyond the contemporary book market. That’s not to say I doubt that the book would be of interest beyond a small pocket of unusual people. In some ways, it’s a bit of a mystery story—it’s told like one—and I think it would have more general appeal than some industry people might suppose. It’s also about living a meaningful life, and the desire for that is something that never goes away. It’s inherent in the species.

Another reason I haven’t posted anything is that I’ve been totally absorbed in a project that, while starting out as supplemental to the book, has proved to be integral to it. Street Song is in part about my short-lived effort to make it as a musician. It’s also about how the music of the 1960 and 70s reflected the lives and aspirations of a lot of people. It was almost like a religion. In some senses it really was. While writing about my own performances and the songs that moved me and sometimes changed my life, I was bothered by the fact that you can’t really do justice to music with words. I got the idea then to record a few songs as a supplement to the book. A friend of mine, Bruce Kaphan,  has a recording studio, and he was one of the readers of my manuscript as I was working on it. I told him what I wanted to do and asked if he’d be interested in helping me with it. He agreed and we set to work with only a half-baked idea of what I was trying to do. I thought at first that it would be just me and my acoustic guitar doing some of the songs I used to play on the street. But from that simple seed there grew a mighty tree—something I never could have imagined. I thought I was finished with music. Over the years, I’ve only played sporadically. But I’ve been practicing every day for hours on end, and now we have 12 songs with the backing tracks finished and awaiting my final vocals. While working on the song order I found that, without doing it deliberately, the songs I chose to record tell the same story that the book tells. Here’s the list:

Street Song (one of mine)
Strawberry Fields Forever (Beatles)
Poppa John (another of mine)
Farewell (Dylan)
Jackie Wilson Said (Van Morrison)
Sweet Thing (Van Morrison)
Highway (singer/songwriter Lane Tietgen)
On a Slow Boat to China (songwriter Frank Loesser)
You’re So Peaceful (another of mine)
Within You Without You (Beatles)
I Pity the Poor Immigrant (Dylan)
The Arrow You Want (one more of mine)

It’s an unusually eclectic mix of material that covers folk, Tex Mex, psychedelia, jazz, rock, r & b, swing, blues and bluegrass.  The instrumentation includes acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, ukulele, organ, piano, drums, bass, saxophone, harmonica, accordion, lap steel, shakuhachi, harmonium, Weissenborn, mandolin, flugelhorn, trumpet, baritone horn, dulcimer, and electronic tamboura. We should have the whole thing mixed and mastered this summer. I’m calling the collection Street Songs and my intention is to make it a free download to help support the book. I’m quite pleased with how the songs are turning out. I’ll write more about it in the near future.



Within You, Without You

February 28, 2018


I’m recording a collection of songs (called Street Songs) as a supplement to my book (called Street Song). One of the songs is the George Harrison song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Within You, Without You.” One day, around 20 years ago, I was curious to know which scale he’d used to create that Indian sound and discovered it was C Mixolydian. The scale is used a lot in folk, mountain, and bluegrass music, and I thought it would be amusing to play it as a hillbilly tune. But “Within You, Without You” contains some unusual, non-hillbilly meter, and I didn’t have enough interest at the time to work it out—until this recording project came along. Once I’d come up with a suitable rhythmic and chord structure, I recorded it—me on guitar, my sister Beth Lyons singing a duet with me, Peter Lacques on harmonica, Matthew Lacques on mandolin, and Bruce Kaphan on Weissenborn, a kind of lap steel guitar. I loved how it turned out and will make it available when my book is finally published. It was a group effort. The musicians came up with some great ideas, taking my original concept well beyond anything I was capable of.

Some people disparage the original recording of “Within You, Without You.” One reason given is that it’s not rock and roll, which is a pretty dumb reason. It’s excellent music, but there are a lot of rock fans who don’t really love music—just rock and roll. Some criticize it as faddish—that it’s just Indian-sounding pop music. But that doesn’t hold water. When Harrison wrote and recorded the song, he was a serious student of Indian music. (He remained one his entire life.) At the time, he was, by his own admission, neglecting  guitar in favor of  sitar, taking lessons from pupils of Ravi Shankar as well as from Ravi Shankar himself. He wrote the piece with an understanding of the forms of Indian song. He played on it without any of the other Beatles, just some Indian musicians and an orchestra whose parts were arranged by George Martin. In recently released outtakes you hear him guiding the Indian players. He’s not asking them for something “Indian-sounding.” He knows the scales he’s playing and how to count time in their tradition.

Another complaint some people make is that it’s too “preachy.” I think that’s something people say when they don’t want to hear a strong truth. Every word in that song is true—more true, I think, than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote.

Within You, Without You

We were talking about the space between us all
And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away

We were talking about the love we all could share
When we find it, to try our best to hold it there with our love
With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew

Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?

When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you

Having lived with that song for more than a year, I’ve come to appreciate it more rather than less. It’s a great song—one of the greatest I’ve ever heard. Harrison had a creative idea that grew out of what he was experiencing, and he made it work. It’s something of a miracle that millions of people were exposed to it when it came out. We live in a time where its sentiments are seen as naïve or too idealistic. But that’s either going to change or we’re going to do ourselves in.

Progress Report #113

February 16, 2018

I’m currently working on the final chapter of Street Song, which is presenting me with some expected difficulties. The previous 41 chapters, “the story,” were told in a voice where the narrator (me) never knows much beyond what he is experiencing at the time. This was not a plan. Something inside me resisted using the voice of the omniscient narrator. So this final chapter, which I’m calling “The Afterword,” is told by me as I am today looking back at what I’ve been through, explaining certain things, and drawing conclusions. I need thoroughness and concision at the same time. Difficult to do. I hope to be finished by the end of April. We’ll see.

For the last year, I’ve been working on a collection of songs (called Street Songs) to go with the book. The book is fairly saturated with descriptions of and stories about music, and it occurred to me that you can’t really describe music with words. So I approached one of my readers of the work-in-progress, Bruce Kaphan, an outstanding musician, composer (he did the music for Judy’s latest film Pelican Dreams), and recording engineer, and worked out an agreement with him to do some songs in his studio, Niagara Falls. The original intention was to keep things fairly simple— more than just me and my guitar, but not much more. But things have gotten more elaborate. Two songs in particular have a somewhat large sound. I’ve always been curious about how recording works, and I’m getting some good lessons in that regard.

In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a musician (or a rock star, whichever came first), but never got beyond singing in the streets and in bars during band breaks. It’s difficult to explain here how it happened, but I ended up on the street at the same time my musical ambitions ended. But even after I quit playing seriously, I used to go down to City Lights Bookstore and stand in front of the doorway and sing for spare change. One of the songs I used to do was the Bob Dylan song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” At the time I was quite bereft—even afraid for my life. To me, I was the immigrant in the song—someone who’d left his old life behind but was having grave difficulties finding a new one. I sang it as if I were praying. It’s in the book, and it’s an easy one to play, so it was one of the first songs I recorded over a year ago. It was just me and my guitar, played simply and starkly. At the time, Bruce suggested he add a harmonium (harmonium is a small organ-like keyboard) and a tambourine. I thought it was a perfect idea, but we moved on to other songs and the track was neglected—until yesterday. We finally dusted it off and resumed work. I was expecting the harmonium simply to add a little instrumental texture—sound. But Bruce knows a good deal about harmony and he added extensions to the chords that gave the song colors and feelings it didn’t have before. I was so incredibly moved—laughing sometimes because I was so happy with what he was doing, at the edge of tears sometimes because it was so solemnly beautiful. Very simple, but just right.

A Clever Rejoinder

March 10, 2013

I’ve been edging toward putting up a more serious post on a subject that, since my return from Santa Barbara Island, has been taking up a lot space in my head. But I’m not quite ready to write it. So in the meantime…

I love clever rejoinders. We probably all do. This week I was reminded of one of my favorites. It’s a well-known rejoinder, but I repeat it out of affection for its humor and for those who might never have heard it.

Steve Earle is a singer-songwriter whose big inspiration was the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. (Singer-songwriters were once extremely important to me. I wanted to be one.) Steve Earle was asked to write a blurb for a Townes Van Zandt album and came up with this: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” When Van Zandt was asked about Earle’s blurb he replied (spontaneously, I hope), “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he is sadly mistaken.”

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

April 23, 2010

“I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is the title of a Bob Dylan song that I used to sing on the street. It also reflects my feeling with regard to immigrants in the current political climate. Certain people in this country—right wingers, Republicans, and now the Tea Partiers—are constantly seeking some outsider to hate. They thrive on it. I’ve seen this my whole life. Right now their preferred target seems to be the so-called illegal immigrants. The state of Arizona just passed a law that criminalizes them. People say, “But for god’s sake. They’re here illegally. That’s it. End of story.” But laws work only if they are just, and they are just only if they are in harmony with the law of Karma—also known as the law of cause and effect, also known as “as you sow, so shall you reap.”

We have a long history of undermining and overthrowing any government in the Americas that doesn’t cooperate with our way of doing business. We train their politicians, their military, their police. Then we extract their natural resources and their labor and bring the wealth up here, leaving the countries of Central and South America miserably poor and oppressed. Anybody who insists that this isn’t so doesn’t read. The evidence is well documented. The karma of the situation is that the people who have been exploited will follow the loot. No human law can overcome karma. They will keep coming until we stop exploiting them. We can’t have it both ways.

Most people prefer to live in the land in which they were born and raised. It’s a natural affinity. It’s only when conditions become intolerable that we leave our homelands. If we want America to be for Americans—whatever that means—then we have to leave those countries alone, stop trying to dictate how they run their affairs, stop installing our puppets in their governments. I’ve met a lot of “illegals” here in San Francisco, and I’ve rarely met any that I didn’t like. They’ve never struck me as criminals. The criminals are those who participate in the exploitation of these countries or who agitate against the people who come here after having been ripped off by us.

Idealism and Realism

November 17, 2009

One of the biggest differences between the time I grew up in—the dreaded 1960s—and today is the level of idealism. I was particularly impressed by Martin Luther King and his supporters. They were willing to accept beatings, jail, and even death to accomplish their end, which was an end that was good for everybody. I also admired Pete Seeger. People like King and Seeger presented a consistent vision of us all being in this together, and they really inspired me in my teenage years. (I was more a fan of Bob Dylan than of Pete Seeger, but I see now that while he fooled around with idealism at times, Dylan was in it for his own glory.) The hippie commune movement emerged from that same idealism. When I say ideals, I mean universal ideals that go beyond any individual culture and its desires. Some people consider Ronald Reagan an idealist—an absolutely crazy notion. A real ideal is the refusal to opt for violence as a solution to anything, refusing to allow people to starve to death, cheerful renunciation of the pursuit of wealth, and the willingness to see one’s nation as simply one among many nations—no better than any other. There must be justice. For complicated reasons, not all of which are obvious, this kind of idealism has waned. Some say that the old ideals were unrealistic. But it seems to me that, realistically speaking, we either recover those ideals or we do ourselves in. It feels like we’re getting nearer and nearer that point.

The Nobel Prize

September 22, 2009
Bob Dylan receiving some award or another

Bob Dylan receiving some award or another

If I remember correctly, it was the poet Allen Ginsberg who started the movement to get Bob Dylan awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ginsberg worked on several academics to nominate Dylan, and apparently he succeeded, for Dylan has been nominated several times already. I read today that there’s a growing movement in Europe to give Dylan the prize this year. Some Danish professor came out and said that she’d officially nominated him and that others had done so as well. I would like to add my own small voice to this issue and plead with the Swedish Academy: Don’t do it. Please resist the pressure. Don’t do it.

Thank you.

The Magnificent Return of Lane Tietgen, Part II

May 24, 2009

[Part I sits just below this post.]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a lot of talk about the singer/songwriters being the real poets of the time. They were said to be taking poetry back to its oral roots. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with this idea. I loved books and I loved songs, and I longed to be a member of the noble fraternity of poet/singer/songwriters. Much of my new book, Street Song, is about this. I don’t think the “singer/songwriter as poet” idea has held up very well. Not that it’s inherently flawed, but show business destroyed it by seducing its practitioners and turning them into rich entertainers.

But this isn’t the case with Tietgen. While currently he doesn’t make his living playing and writing music, he never quit working on his art. And it sounds to me as though he has remained true to the original idea. The music consists of the usual American blend of folk, rock, and blues with touches of jazz, reggae, Motown, and so on. I say “usual” in regard to the form, not as a comment on the quality. The quality of the music is consistently first rate and the lyrics are fresh, original, and involving. He wrote a song that, if it had been described to me, might have made me cringe. Entitled “Some Call It Evil,” it’s about GMO, and it’s fantastic.

As I say, the high point of the album for me is “Raindrops on the Page.” The first time I heard it, it sounded like a happy-go-lucky, good-time type tune. (I thought it sounded something like the Beatles doing their version of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” with Rick Danko of The Band guesting on lead vocals.) But as I grew more familiar with the song, that happy-go-lucky quality began to feel more like triumph, which was odd once I began to understand the story the song told. It’s about great loss and deep disappointment. It’s fascinating how the music affects the lyrics. I guess you could say it’s about the glory of accepting that which is bitterly difficult to accept. I won’t say too much about the song’s internal workings. There is, after all, the joy of discovery, and I hope people reading this will have the opportunity to hear the CD for themselves. (It’s not currently available in the marketplace. If there is any interest and it does become available, I’ll let you know.) What I will say is that the song is honest in the way of all true poetry. A lot of people nowadays think that honesty is just having the balls to repeat whatever bullshit pops into your head. The more outrageous, the more courageous. But that’s not deep. For depth you have to dig, and this song digs. I’ll quote one line because the point of view is higher than that of most writers today—and I mean Dylan, too.

“She’s trying to see the whole thing through the eyes of love/and not just questions that she’s asking.”
(Lane Tietgen, Shaman Music)

I don’t hear that kind of maturity in anybody’s songs today. Sometimes this song pushes me toward the brink of tears. It’s only the song’s spirit of triumph that keeps me from having to go there.

Bob Dylan

May 4, 2009

When I was young I thought Bob Dylan was great. At some point, I let go of him. But every now and then—usually when he has a new project out, and the media is making noise about it—I go check to see what he’s up to. Writers, journalists, and music critics have always been fond of rhapsodizing over Dylan’s ability to “reinvent himself.” I was fascinated by that ability myself. It seemed evidence of a truly remarkable mind.

One day, several decades ago, I suddenly saw this chameleon-like quality in a different light. It dawned on me that Bob Dylan is a character created by Bob Zimmerman, and that it isn’t a matter of Bob Dylan reinventing himself, but of Bob Zimmerman reinventing Bob Dylan. Not as hard a thing to do. I think he’s gotten lost in the role a few times, and, at other times, has lost interest in playing it.

Other people have done this sort of thing. Marilyn Monroe, for example. She was clearly a character created by Norma Jean Baker—not a real person. While the the Bob Dylan character exists at a different level, it’s the same phenomenon.