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“You can’t look at much, can ya man?”
Sometime in the early days of the pandemic of 2020, when contagion and disaster seemed immanent possibilities, we separated from each other and our daily routines. The sense of the familiar vanished and all of us found ourselves in some kind of alienated space. I sat alone one night in April in The Maltshop (my home studio) thinking about an unsettled and lonely future.
That night, I started relating Bob Dylan’s songs to these haunted, virus-ridden times. After a virtual discussion, The Karma Refugees decided to begin a Bob Dylan Pandemic Project. By exploring lines and insights from Dylan’s vast body of work, we have begun this project to record Dylan songs related in some way to our experience of this pandemic. I imagined how some of Dylan’s lines, images and insights speak to the world we are now living in.
Song 1. Surreal Loneliness in “Visions of Johanna” (spoken)
When I pick up my guitar and play these songs, I can visualize Dylan’s surrealistic poetic landscapes populated by lonely and alienated souls–beatniks, hipsters and creatures of the night. A great song like “Desolation Row”—perhaps an obvious choice to invoke alienation– is populated by these lost modern souls. I taught “Desolation Row” in many classes over the years. Each verse, filled with story and allusion, invites interpretation. Shane Balkowisch’s interactive painting of “Desolation Row” visualizes this weird, though now normal, scene.
Shane Balkowitsch’s Painting of Desolation Row
The idea that we are all on “Desolation Row” echoes through a song like “Visions of Johanna.” That lonesome night as a dim light illuminated my keyboard, Bob Dylan’s words flashed into my mind:
“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.
We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it.”
(Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna”)
The stark existential scene took me back to my college room—not a loft as Dylan’s song—but a basement room next to a furnace. In my room, the heat pipes did cough. The night did play tricks. Dylan’s words gave plot and substance to the feeling of alienation that room embodied. Then—and now—the stubborn propaganda of an ideal world fades before existential facts. As the song, “Visions of Joanna,” suggests, we are physical creatures, not ideal visions. As our busy social lives and connections fade before the virus, we can try our best to deny it. Nevertheless, as the song says, we are alone.
One of the great joys of playing music is playing music with people. Reflecting our current times, I started making Dylan songs alone. I find it lonely and yet intense to record tracks by myself—send them to Tom, Caitlin, Brian or Kathee and see what parts they add—then mix the song alone in The Maltshop. I got to know the songs well and followed the imagery and ideas.
Song 2. “The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind”
My sister and I each got guitars one Christmas. We had been banging around on an old beat up guitar that had belonged to our father. When we each got our own guitar, we played our first song together. That song was “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan. My sister was inspired by Judy Collins and Joan Baez. Like millions of people around the world, I learned to play guitar because of Bob Dylan.
Revisiting “Blowin’ in the Wind” during the pandemic of 2020 caused me to think about essential knowledge I have learned from Bob Dylan over the years. Not only did Dylan create a vast and rich body of poetic music, he also created the imagery and personae that carried that music to a global audience.
I remember being turned off by the popular music of my early teen years. Also the pop-marketed images of singers named Frankie or Bobbie did little to fire my imagination. The whole pop enterprise seemed stale and boring to me until I heard Bob Dylan. Dylan sounded honest and he looked real. Where others affected the image of Elvis or some other teen idol, Bob Dylan emulated Woody Guthrie. One of the first things I learned from Dylan is Woody Guthrie.
It is interesting to speculate about the shift in consciousness and understanding that Dylan created in me. I grew up in the post WW II baby boom and consequently was fed large doses of propaganda that passed for education. When Dylan pointed to Woody Guthrie’s socially conscious body of work, I listened. I was a white working class kid who started singing songs like “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” Once upon hearing my off key version of that song, my mother called out to me—“You’ll Always Have a Home with Us!”
I doubt I would have heard of Woody Guthrie if not for Dylan. The pop stars of the 1960s did not look like Woody Guthrie. When Dylan, on the cover of The Times They Are A’ Changin’, took on the appearance of Woody Guthrie, he signaled that he, like Woody, told the truth. Dylan’s work provided counter-points to the platitudes embedded in my education. Romantic poet, William Blake, called these counter-points “Contraries.” He wrote: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Bob Dylan gave me Contraries. Here is a gallery of some of these Contrary Truths.
I learned Woody Guthrie from Bob Dlyan
Leadbelly. I learned the blues from Bob Dylan.
“Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flag pole
And the national guard at a profit sells road maps for the soul
At the old folks home and the college.”
“I wish I could write you a melody so plain
The could hold you dear lady from going insane
The could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.”
(Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues”)
I learned “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from Bob Dylan
“Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried out the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table”
(Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”)
I learned Civil Rights and Medgar Evers from Bob Dylan.
“A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim”
(Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”)
Playing and singing Dylan has also allowed me to follow and explore the ideas and images of his music—rich in characters, plots and insights—in a deep and visceral way. I hope this project creates creates facets of a complex vision which we hope you will contribute to as we continue to create Chapter 2 of this project. Who knows where it will lead? I know many people make songs. When Tom and I started recording music, we made cassette tapes and sent them to each other through the U. S. Postal Service. Then we overdubbed multiple parts on simple 4 track recorders until we achieved what we considered “a song.” Much of that process was done alone and in different cities. After years of summer meet ups and recording in person as The Karma Refugees, now it seems like a virus has turned us back to our solo recording roots—though with much improved technology. I created many of these tracks in The Maltshop using 2 guitars, a keyboard, a program called Band in a Box and Mixcraft—sent them to Tom at The Maltshop East in PA for bass and other effects—edited, mixed and polished the tracks and watched them evolve. It was recording together, alone.
These following images capture happier moments in our home studio, The Maltshop. Karma Refugees like us have gathered every summer since 2010 to explore, play and record music. Not this year—2020!
It’s hard to imagine a future where playing songs together might be difficult or impossible. Nevertheless, we are living in those times. Even the simplest pleasures—getting together and playing songs—seems out of reach. One of the main insights Dylan has given me in this pandemic is carried by the song—“Things Have Changed.”
Song 3. “Things Have Changed” (Haven’t They)
Or in the words of another song:
“Come gather round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a’changin’.
(Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A’Changin”)
Appedix A. “Two video discussions of Bob Dylan’s work.”
Video on Dylan and “Tangled Up in Blue”
Video on Dylan and All Along the Watchtower
“You can’t look at much, can ya man?”