Monday, November 14, 2016

Last Week Bob Dylan Was In My Back Yard

Last week Bob Dylan was in my backyard.

He came to Louisville, Kentucky and then traveled on to Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. All within reasonable driving distance from me. After googling some reviews I selected not to go and see him based on the setlist of his current Never Ending Tour, which mostly feature songs from his last two American Songbook albums, Shadows In The Night and Fallen Angels and a few songs from his post year 2000 albums. Although a forever reinventing artist, one of my favorite artists and a major influence on my life, I prefer the earlier Bob Dylan music.


I was first introduced to Bob Dylan, I remember well, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. It was in the converted front-porch-to-bedroom of John Henry Jordaan. A ship engineer or something like that, I never really knew, but I used to hang around at his house like a rock star groupie wherever he was in town. Well, I use to hang around more often than not because I was a friend of his younger brother and he had cool sisters too. I loved the stories he use to tell about the Scots dancing over swords, the English countryside, how he was robbed of a full month’s salary within 5 minutes of setting foot on French soil in Marseille’s harbor, and many other travelogues. But mostly I hung around because he had a state of the art turntable with a mean set of speakers, and an awe-inspiring vinyl collection that impressed the bejesus out of my young mind. Apart from a folky Dylan, I was also exposed to Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash, John Denver, and too many others to remember, mostly folk and country artists. I can’t credit John Henry for my lifelong wanderlust, I think that is my mom’s doing with her geography and history lessons, but I can most definitely credit him for teaching me how to play the guitar and a lifelong love for the instrument and music in general. Initially I practiced on John’s guitar while I nagged my mother for months to buy me a guitar.  

 Bob Dylan at Gordon Lightfoot's House in Toronto in 1975

Many years later I stayed for six or so months through a bitter cold Highveld winter in the “Chelsea Hotel”, a battered old caravan/camper in the front yard or back yard or whatever side that was, of Andrew Donaldson, the acclaimed South African journalist of the Rand Daily Mail and London Sunday Times fame, and band member of The Hip Replacements and lately of the Porchlights; in his own words: “Writer, journalist, sloppy guitarist, mostly happy, sometimes bewildered, occasionally angry”. There in Randburg I got to know another side of Dylan, profounder, more philosophical. It was there where I heard The Basement Tapes, Hard Rain, Desire, Street Legal and especially Blood On The Tracks for the first time.

Come in, she said
I'll give ya shelter from the storm

My sheltered musical upbringing at home on Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Creedence Clearwater Revival, traditional South African boeremusiek, Afrikaans gospel and 60s and 70s light pop music was shattered by Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, Roger Lucy, The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Punk in general, and any form of alternative music. During that period of my life I also saw Dylan trading Joan Baez to Harry Dean Stanton for a chestnut mare in Renaldo and Clara, got to know most of the bars in Rocky Street, rocked at two-tone parties in Houghton communes and was barely aware of seeing forgettable performances of unknown rock and punk bands with limited talents at the Wits Campus. Those were the days of hazy dreams, little money but no worries, drinking and driving and not going anywhere in any hurry.

It was a hot August night, the 31st, 1997. A Sunday. The traditional heat of Kansas City at that time of the year was enforced by clammy humidity, which pushed the heat index into the high 90s. We arrived late afternoon, family in towed (we waited for some of the heat to dissipate) at the Liberty Memorial Park on the Missouri side of the city. The whole weekend was a musical orgy, not quite like Woodstock, more controlled, but the city’s Spirit Festival was nonetheless footloose and fancy free. Friday night the house was rocked by Cher and INXS. Saturday was bluesy and headlined by the Robert Cray Band and B.B. King. But it was the Sunday night that made my years of dreams and strumming his tunes and belching out his poetry came true. After a visit to the jazz stage to watch Alex Bugnon and Peter White we found ourselves an advantageous position, just to the right of the main stage on a slight slope. Those days Liberty Park was still undeveloped, grassy and standing room only, unlike today’s seated arena. Anticipation was building; the natural bowl of the park was filling up and the buzz got louder. Today, all I can remember of the band that preceded the main event and they impressed me somewhat then, was their sound, rockabilly-folky and a twang of country with an attitude.


When Bob Dylan walked out that night in his black embroidered suit, Boss of the Plains cowboy hat and Apache scarf, and an electric guitar under his arm…you can’t fabricate the kind of stuff that went on in my head at that moment. For the next ninety minutes or so I didn’t take much note of anything going on around me. My focus was solely on that little big man on stage. I was…“It’s alright Ma, I am breathing”, sporadically and only in short shallow gulps, but nevertheless breathing. Most of the time I was singing along too.

Those days there weren’t things like bucket lists. You only had dreams and they were called DREAMS. They weren’t called planned achievements, or wish lists items that you can add to on the top right hand corner of your computer screen. They were called dreams. Surreal or not, I honestly never thought I would ever see Dylan live. Come on! A poor kid from one of the poorest suburbs of Cape Town whose mother could only afford a $10 deposit and then pay off the rest of the $30 guitar over the next six months! Seeing Dylan…ever…live? Those were unrealistic dreams. Those were the stuff you lived for.

I still have that old guitar. It is still my favorite. No matter that I added others over time. I don’t play it much anymore. But it has gone around the world with me the past 40 years. Beaten up, battered and bruised, but load it up with a new set of brass strings and it will zing the grey matter upstairs, reverberate through the folds of my brain and create waves of memories that will come flooding out like a tsunami striking a lonely island in the Pacific.

 Joni Mitchell Roger McGuinn and Bob Dylan

Either my dreams have changed, I know I still have many left, or the “new sounding” Bob Dylan is not part of my remaining dreams anymore. I guess the latter must be the case because I said no to see him, possibly for the last time, in action again.            

However, my decision to not go does not in any way diminish Bob Dylan’s greatness as the greatest poet of the Rock and Roll era for me. As the lately departed Leonard Cohen observed about Dylan’s Nobel Prize: “It is like pinning a medal on Everest.” That is how I still and forever will feel about Bob Dylan. Nor does my decision mimic some Dylan fans’ reaction at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he was booed because he plugged in and went electric. 

In crystal clear clarity I am reminded of Paul McCartney’s lyrics from The Song We Were Singing from his album Flaming Pie:

For a while, we could sit, smoke a pipe
And discuss all the vast intricacies of life
We could jaw through the night
Talk about a range of subjects, anything you like

Oh yeah

But we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time
Yeah we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time

Take a sip, see the world through a glass
And speculate about the cosmic solution
To the sound, blue guitars
Caught up in a philosophical discussion

Oh yeah

But we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time
Yeah we always came back to the song we were singing
At any particular time


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Madrid & The Pickpockets

My Madrid experience felt at most haphazard.  A classic hit-or-miss, unfortunate-or-lucky kind of experience. It may be because we were in and out of the city on daytrips and no continuous stay. It sometimes happens on these “we are on a vacation, but there is no rest for the weary” vacations. I am usually fairly relaxed and thoroughly enjoy what I am seeing, hearing, and experiencing on these overseas outings, but unfortunately Madrid denied me that important element of relaxation.  Hence, my mixed bag of memories of Madrid.  

Usually one of the first things we do in an unknown city, after we completed the business of finding our apartment, meeting with the owner, and taking possession, are to take a ride on a red City Sightseeing bus. They are in most world cities these days. Tickets are relatively expensive, but I consider it value for money because I feel it is the quickest way to learn the lay of the land, so to speak, or discover areas of a city I did not previously considered, and to get a general “vibe” for the new city.

We found one of the bus’s stops near our apartment and as M was ready to board the bus, a girl bumped into her, cleverly threw a scarf over M’s backpack and tried to unzip the back flap. M immediately felt it and recognized what was happening and quickly pulled away and turned around. The girl seeing her pickpocket plan is not going to come to any fruition, quickly disappeared into the pedestrian traffic at a busy street corner.

About 30 minutes into our ride we got off the bus at The Temple of Debod, an Egyptian temple near the royal palace complex. From there we would walk to the palace’s garden and other plazas around the palace to consume the many statues and building facades of the area. But while casually strolling near the gardens, two girls, I would guess 18 – 20 year olds, in a wide open area with many benches on the edge of the wide walkway, crashed into M from both sides, sandwiching her, while one tried to get to her backpack. This time M violently got out of the sandwich by twisting her body away and the two girls ran away.

The site of the second pickpocket attempt near the royal palace. I think the audacity of the second attempt in an open space in broad daylight while other people actually sat on benches and watched the whole ordeal unfold and did nothing surprised me most about the incident.

The first and the second attempted pickpocketing happened in a blink of an eye, not more than 2 seconds I would guess from contact to escape. Twice targeted in the first hour of being on Madrid’s streets? Not the best introduction to a new city. Coincidence? Or was there a message?  From then onwards M swapped her backpack for a small on-the-belt pouch. Luckily there were no further pickpocket attempts during our trip. But these attempts had negative consequences on the rest our vacation in that I was never really relaxed thereafter, looking over my shoulder all the time.

We hopped back onto the bus and a few stops later we found ourselves in the heart of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol Plaza, where we hopped off again. The plaza was packed with people and a quick look around confirmed that it really is a nondescript place devoid of any real beauty or interest. Very much like New York’s Time Square; nothing more than a traditional place to get together, a hub. Still jittery after our pickpocket experiences, I however, wanted to get out of there and directed M in the direction of the nearby Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s other famous square.              

 Scenes of Plaza Mayor

By now it was late afternoon, tapas time, and we found the perfect place for it at the Mercado de San Miguel adjacent to the Plaza Mayor. Oh My! I have never seen so many delicate, appetizing, mouth-watering dishes together under one roof. Pure food porn! I have been to many food markets on my travels, I love to go to them. I have drooled in Florence’s iconic Mercato di San Lorenzo and in the irresistible Les Halles D’Avignon. I have bought vegetables for a made-from-scratch Bolognaise sauce at the massive street market in La Spezia, Italy, and sharp cheese and black olive bread on the Tuesday morning market in the tiny hilltop village of Gordes, France, and ate strange fried balls and other unknown delicacies on Kuala Lampur’s Jalan Petaling, but Mercado de San Miguel was a culinary feast beyond them all, both on the eye and the palate. Obviously we changed tapas into dinner and unbeknown did the right thing.

 Mercado de San Miguel

Upon exiting the mercado we rested for a few minutes on some concrete balls just outside the entrance and contemplated our next move. We were a bit tired from the travels from Barcelona that morning, but I had plans to join thousands of other Medrileans to watch a Semana Sante.  Suddenly several policemen on motorbikes stopped right next to us and started to cordon off the road and the entrance to Plaza Mayor in front of us. We were aware of the terrorists attack on Brussels airport 2 days earlier, and although not terribly alarmed I asked one of the policeman what is going on.

“Procession” he said.

“Alright!” I said to M and immediate got my phone out and googled which procession was to walk through Plaza Mayor.

 A picturesque little square near Plaza Mayor

It turned out to be a case of being at the right place at the right time for one of the highlights of our Spanish expedition. What a fortuity it was to see a traditional Spanish Semana Sante, a Holy Week tradition.  These processions, a nearly 500-year old tradition, through hilltop villages, coastal towns and the riverside cities of Spain, by highly committed Catholics, some wearing tunics and robes with conical shaped hooded hats and their faces masked, others playing in the band or carry the religious floats, are still revered and going strong among modern-day Spaniards.

More about that in a next post.

 Plaza Mayor

Fruit Pies in Mercado de San Miguel