Monday, May 23, 2011

Celebrating Bob Dylan: happy 70th birthday, Bob!

Bob Dylan turns 70 tomorrow, May 24th.

It's impossible to accurately measure Dylan's artistic achievements of the last 50 years or to overestimate his place in America's history. One could make an argument that he is the nation's preeminent artist, living or dead.

I won't try to do that here, but when he finally passes, you can be sure a lot of newspaper pundits will make that claim with confidence and no small justification. His artistic achievements go far beyond most of the great American writers you can think of off the top of your head: Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner and Frost. Maybe even Mark Twain.

In some ways he is more like a Russian novelist than an American pop star. Along with the Beatles, Muhammad Ali and Mahatma Gandhi, he may be one of the most widely recognized icons of the 20th century.

He certainly belongs on any Mount Rushmore of American musicians. The debate would be who to put next to his visage on the side of the mountain. Armstrong? Guthrie? Sinatra? Presley? Springsteen? You get the point. He belongs among the greatest of the great. His influence on popular culture is inestimable.

Considering that Dylan has never been known as a very fine singer, this is not just a major achievement, it's an incredible achievement. We tend to value the singer more than the song. But Dylan's production as a songwriter is so outstanding, and his artistic vision so expansive, he seems likely to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature before too long.

He writes with keen passion and worldly, hard-won wisdom about life's big topics: religion and politics; love and war; race and finance. His best songs paint vivid pictures of smalltown snapshot moments but he can offer biting commentary on the most significant, historic movements and disasters, too.

Philadelphia's WXPN will be playing a list of 70 Dylan songs tomorrow to celebrate his birthday. I have no idea how many of my favorites, listed below, will be on the WXPN playlist. I feel sure I will hear this from more than a few friends: "how could you forget THAT one!?!"

A couple of years ago I was gathered with my son, Luke, and several of his friends and we all decided to jot down our favorite ten Dylan songs. There were five of us and out of the 50 total songs we compiled, only four or five songs were on someone else's list. We spent the rest of the evening marveling at one another's choices and wondering how we could have been so clueless and forgetful.

It's a daunting task. Try for yourself! Good luck! I had to get my collection of Dylan CDs out to help me put the list together.

1. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited), 1965
2. Masters of War (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), 1963
3. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks), 1975
4. Desolation Row, (Highway 61 Revisited)
5. Just Like a Woman, (Blonde on Blonde), 1966
6. Maggie's Farm, (Bringing It All Back Home), 1965
7. Ballad of a Thin Man, (Highway 61 Revisited)
8. Mississippi, (Love and Theft), 2001
9. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are a-Changin'), 1964
10. It Ain't Me Babe, (Another Side of Bob Dylan), 1964

11. All Along the Watchtower, (John Wesley Harding), 1967
12. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, (Blonde on Blonde)
13. This Wheel's on Fire, (The Basement Tapes), 1975
14. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)
15. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, (Blood on the Tracks)
16. My Back Pages, (Another Side of Bob Dylan), 1964
17. Hurricane, (Desire), 1976
18. Lay Lady Lay, (Nashville Skyline), 1969
19. A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall, (Freewheelin')
20. All I Really Want to Do, (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

21. Every Grain of Sand, (Shot of Love), 1981
22. Chimes of Freedom, (Another Side of Bob Dylan)
23. It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleedin', (Bringing It All Back Home)
24. Queen Jane Approximately, (Highway 61 Revisted), 1966
25. Knocking on Heaven's Door, (The Ballad of Billy the Kid), 1976
26. Positively 4th Street, (Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits), 1967
27. To Be Alone With You, (Nashville Skyline)
28. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,(Blonde on Blonde)
29. Blowin' in the Wind, (Freewheelin')
30. Visions of Johanna, (Blonde on Blonde)

31. High Water (for Charlie Patton), (Love and Theft)
32. Quinn the Eskimo, (Self-Portrait), 1972
33. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You, (Nashville Skyline)
34. Red River Shore, (Telltale Signs), 2008
35. Mr. Tambourine Man, (Bringing It All Back Home)
36. Idiot Wind, (Blood On the Tracks)
37. Clothes Line Saga, (The Basement Tapes)
38. Absolutely Sweet Marie, (Blonde on Blonde)
39. I Threw It All Away, (Nashville Skyline)
40. It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (Highway 61 Revisited)

41. Dear Landlord, (John Wesley Harding)
42. Love Minus Zero/No Limit, (Bringing It All Back Home)
43. The Times They Are a Changing', (The Times They Are a Changing')
44. Most of the Time, (Oh Mercy), 1989
45. If Not For You, (New Morning), 1970
46. Shelter From the Storm, (Blood On the Tracks)
47. Subterranean Homesick Blues, (Bringing It All Back Home)
48. I Shall Be Released, (The Bootleg Series, vol. 2), 1991
49. Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, (Blonde on Blonde)
50. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, (Bringing It All Back Home)

51. Romance In Durango, (Desire)
52. Po' boy, (Love and Theft)
53. Jokerman, (Infidels), 1983
54. With God On Our Side (The Times They are a Changin')
55. Tryin' to Get to Heaven, (Times Out of Mind)
56. Mozambique, (Desire)
57. Catfish, (The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3), 1991
58. Please Mrs. Henry, (The Basement Tapes)
59. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, (Highway 61 Revisited)
60. I Pity the Poor Immigrant, (John Wesley Harding)

61. She Belongs to Me, (Bringing It All Back Home)
62. Ain't Talkin', (Modern Times)
63. Everything Is Broken, (Oh Mercy)
64. From A Buick Six, ( (Highway 61 Revisited)
65. I Want You, (Blonde On Blonde)
66. Girl From the North Country, (Nashville Skyline)
67. 'Til I Fell in Love With You, (Time Out of Mind)
68. If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Bootleg Series, Vol. 2)
69. Million dollar Bash (The Basement Tapes)
70. Not Dark Yet, (Time Out of Mind)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thank you Harold Camping, for reminding us

I was awakened this morning by some small brown finches singing a delicate and delightful song outside my bedroom window around 5:30 a.m.

Normally, I might shut my bedroom window and complain about the racket, but this morning I lay in bed listening closely to the birds chattering about their day. It was nice to hear their indifference to the End Times countdown that Harold Camping, a radio preacher from California, foisted on humanity for the last six months.

I knew, when birdsong woke me, that the day was as routine as any other spring day; that the world had not ended, and that we had a lot to be thankful for. The long-awaited Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the End of the World would not be happening today.

There would be great disappointment among Camping's followers. For sure, they could feel let down and deceived; again. They will be embarrassed and subjected to ridicule and finger-pointing. I hope they can take the ribbing in stride. I find their faith in Camping stirring and, although misguided, their belief in the immanent return of the Christ inspirational.

It is good for the rest of us to remember that End Timers are not wishing damnation on the rest of humanity (although that is a subtext of their message that we all need be wary of). They are awaiting the salvation of humankind and a glorious reign of the king's peace on Earth for 1,000 years.

In this era of our endless wars, their fervor for the end of the world should be seen as both hopelessly naive and wonderfully optimistic. You can understand, living in a broken world such as ours, that such a simple solution to our global problems and worries as the return of Jesus Christ has appeal.

Camping's track record was suspect from the very beginning. He made the same claim in 1994, thus matching William Miller's ineptitude at deciphering the mysteries of St. John's Revelation and prognosticating Christ's return. But we all have a lot to thank him for. If he didn't fill us with trepidation, at least he made us appreciate all that life has to offer, especially the small things like the birdsong of finches.

His misguided mistake and failure as a prophet should remind all of us of lessons we constantly forget and of daily pleasures we frequently take for granted. The world has not ended. Let us rejoice! And let us commit ourselves to its preservation and recognize God has asked us to be stewards of the Earth, that it is our only home, and that we have a responsibility to our children and their children to keep it clean and habitable.

This day, in which the world did not end, should renew our sense of obligation to be better stewards and to find ways to negiotate our most fervant religious convictions with others who do not share them. No one knows how or when or even if the end will come. We should do everything in our power to make sure the end never comes. I believe with my whole heart that is what Christ himself would ask of us.

I say that as a Christian, one who believes the Apocalypse should never happen and who who yearns to know the mind of Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus in their understanding and appreciation of God and the world God has given us.

So today, of all days, be glad and give praise. Listen carefully to what the finches have to say. Smell the flowers. See the majesty of the mountains or take a walk on the beach. Hug your children. Cut the grass or wash your car. Be glad and soak up all of it.

Rejoice! The world has not ended!

And say a small prayer of thanks to Harold Camping for reminding us of all we might have lost.

Friday, May 20, 2011

End of the World mix tape

In the spirit of tomorrow, and Harold Camping's prediction that the world will end on May 21,2011, let's see if we can come up with a definitive list of End of the World songs. I humbly suggest you pull these out and play them in your CD player while you're driving to your "final resting place" destination!

Here are some for your consideration:

1) "The End," the Doors, the Beatles, your choice!

2) "All Along the Watchtower" Dylan/Hendrix, take your pic

3) "Until the End of the World," U2

4) "The Man Comes Around," Johnny Cash

5) "Earth Dies Screaming," Tom Waits

6) "Revelator" Gillian Welch

7) "Resolution" or "Ascent", John Coltrane, pic 'em!

8) "Waiting For the End of the World," Elvis Costello

9) "Wheels on Fire," The Band

10) "1999," Prince.

Nearly made the cut: "The Beast In Me" or "The Hurt", Johnny Cash; "Rapture", Blondie; "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)", R.E.M.; "Man of Peace," Bob Dylan; "Four Horsemen" or "London Calling", the Clash; "Jesus Is Just All Right," The Byrds; "Peace In the Valley," Elvis Presley; "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," Blind Willie Johnson; "The Future," Leonard Cohen.

Put your thinking caps on!!,pa

Monday, May 16, 2011

Less than one week to make amends!

Allison Warden poses with her car showing a message about the Rapture. Warden, 29, has been helping organize a campaign using billboards, postcards and other media in cities across the U.S.

Are you enjoying life these days?

Hope so!

Because you don't have much time to dig in and grab life by the proverbial horns!

If you are a Bible thumping True Believer who listens to California radio preacher, Harold Camping, this is old hat to you. You've already cashed in your stock portfolio, purchased your ring side seat to the Battle of Armageddon and booked your flight to Jerusalem.

By Camping's careful calculations, the long awaited return of Jesus Christ will take place on Saturday, May 21st.

I am not sure if all Hell will break loose, as St. John's Revelation advises, or if those closest to God will be raptured out of their beds, cars or airline seats and miss the final dust-up between the Forces of Good and Satan's minions on a dusty, desert floor outside Jerusalem.

But it's worth noting, and raising an irreverent Victory HopDevil, that this is just the latest prediction in a long line of (failed) predictions that the End of the World is at hand.

Why make a fuss? Good question. Especially since this same End Times prognosticator published a book with the very same prediction 17 years ago called 1994?

He was wrong then.

He'll be wrong again on Saturday.

And if you think me impertinent or imprudent for saying so, please send me $1 immediately. I'd be willing to give you 1000 to one odds Camping is wrong again!

(....although if he happens to kick off on Saturday, I will gladly return your $1 to you, because that would be a pretty remarkable coincidence!).

I have no doubt if Camping is correct, and I lose my bets to the True Believers, they'll come hunting me on Sunday morning in the sixth circle of Hades, demanding I pay up. (If you read Dante's Inferno, you'll find that the sixth circle of hell is reserved for skeptics such as myself. Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Karl Rove will be the quartet playing AC/DC heavy metal riffs down in in the basement).

Why make fun of all of this? The End of the World ought to be serious business, should it not??

I couldn't agree with you more. But hear me out please. I'll tell you why.

Logic resists the idea that the world will end for numerous reasons. One would think the Good Lord would like us to use the brains (S)he gave us.

Here are a few of the most obvious reasons that bear some meditation.

1) Jesus will not return as an Avenging Warrior because that's not who he was, who he said he was, or what he stood for. Jesus was a pacifist. He ministered to the poor and befriended prostitutes. He healed lepers. He had no interest in winning a military victory for Israel because he knew his reward would not come on Earth.

2) Jesus told his disciples to "love your enemies" and to "turn the other cheek" when they were struck. When his disciples heard this message, in the Sermon on the Mount, they asked him, with no small wonderment, how many times they were supposed to allow themselves to be struck by their enemies: seven times? Jesus told them "No. 70 times 7 times." This is not humanly possible. When we are attacked, every fiber in our body demands retribution. We fight back. It's what people do. Our survival instinct kicks in. Darwin called it "survival of the fittest." (This incredible utterance by Jesus, the greatest paradigm shift in the history of the world, strikes me as a rational argument for his divinity. No mere human would promulgate such a notion and try to pass it off as morality.)

3) The world is in a very sorry state, to be sure, but the Chinese are too smart to take the Pakistanis at their word that America really is
the Great Satan or that President Obama is the Anti-Christ. They have no intention to lead the charge to Jerusalem with their standing army of 200 million. (I have to admit that that 200 million figure, first noted by Hal Lindsay in his apocalyptic bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth is pretty frightening, but I stand by my skepticism and by the inherent intelligence of the Chinese. They won't attack Israel on Saturday).

4) The Bible itself warns readers not to make predictions about the End of Time because no man can possess such knowledge and Jesus's own followers believed he could come back within their lifetimes. If he did (this is open to debate) he didn't return the way John predicted he would.

5) Camping's 1994? prediction was wrong 17 years ago. What the heck!!! We should believe him now? William Miller tried this in 1843 and it turned him into the biggest practical joker of the 19th century. Why Camping would risk another such Great Disappointment and the attendant ridicule that will surely follow him to the grave is beyond me.

Locusts lie buried in the Earth for that long and then take shed their horrid skins, take flight and chew down acres and acres of healthy crops. That's a working definition of apocalyptic.

Some radio preacher merely telling us to believe him again is not.

So, enjoy your Saturday. Take a nap. Watch the Phillies.

Wash your car. It probably needs it and you may want to resell it some day.

Whatever you do, DON'T donate it just yet to the Salvation Army.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Baklava was to die for

My sweet Aunt Elane was buried yesterday.

Family and friends met at a Greek Orthodox Church in Reading, Pa. to send her off to her just rewards. It was a great ceremony, sung for the most part, by the Greek Orthodox pastor of her church, Fr. Demetrius Nicoloudakis.

Of all the aunts and uncles in my mother's extended clan, she was not anyone's betting favorite to pass any time soon.

Her husband, my uncle Henry, is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and his mind is so far gone it made no sense for him to attend the funeral of his deceased wife. My own mother suffers from dementia too and, though less deranged than my uncle, is 10 years older than Aunt Elane.

My Aunt Helen came to the funeral gingerly stepping behind a walker with wheels. She's nearly 90. Her sister, my Aunt Celene, could not attend the funeral because she had fallen down and broke two bones in her neck a few weeks ago. My Uncle Frank came up from Georgia the day before on AMTRAK.

He's 91 years young and only needs a cane to navigate his way around. On the evening before the funeral, he held court at St. Martha's Villa, the home for the aged where my folks reside, telling stories about growing up in Holland in World War II.

These oldsters are all still full of mischief and surprises. My uncle came dressed for the funeral as if trying to make everyone forget the solemnity of the day. He wore a polyester pale blue jacket, plaid pants and a striped tie. This was all topped off with a wrinkled Aussie rancher's hat he had purchased some time ago on a trip to Sydney.

My father wore a black wool coat, a more circumspect choice given the occasion, except that, in this case, the wool fabric is starting to ball up and dozens of small clots of wool were spread over the coat like an army of ants, rendering my father's sartorial appearance somewhat pathetic.

On the drive up to Reading, my dad gives Uncle Frank some good-natured ribbing. Apparently, Uncle Frank "monopolized" their just-past social evening, regaling the octogenarians at St. Martha's Manor with remembrances of his life in pre-war Holland. My father, the newest alpha male at the manor, apparently didn't like sharing the limelight with Uncle Frank.

Their needle barbs at one another made sharp points. "He wouldn't shut up!" my father complains, which elicited chuckles from my uncle. My father casually mentioned to me one of the women in the nursing home had invited my uncle to spend an extra day in Pennsylania and to "stay the night with her and sleep in her bed." She would take the couch she told him. This sounded like a plan with substantial appeal to my uncle, based on the size of his smile.

Their good-natured ribbing took a serious turn about 15 minutes before the start of the funeral service. I sat stoically on the hard wooden pew to the left of my mom while my father sat to her right and next to my uncle. Suddenly, my dad waved his arm at me and pointed to the back of the church and told me to "go get help."

Uncle Frank had passed out and slumped against my father's shoulder like a scarecrow. His features, pasty to begin with, had taken on a whiter shade of pale.

I went back to talk to one of the guys from the funeral home. Apparently youth-challenged church-goers have strokes or dizzy spells at funerals all the time because he acted as if this was a common occurance. He took control of the situation, calling an ambulance and scavenging the church for a wheelchair.

Meanwhile, one of the deceased's local friends, a Reading doctor, saw what had happened to Uncle Frank and told my uncle to lay his head down on the hard wooden pew. He carefully loosened that striped tie from around my uncle's neck and stuffed it in the Aussie rancher's hat lying next to him on the pew. Uncle Frank's pulse was slight, his breath light. He appeared more pale than my Aunt stretched out in her walnut casket.

I turned casually to my brother and nephew in the pew behind me and, with a gentle nod toward the casket, whispered: "Hey, maybe they'll cut us a deal?"

They both looked blankly at me for a second and then stifled their chortles.

My brother-in-law drove in the ambulance over to the hospital to be with Uncle Frank. He missed the entire service, which was lengthy, elaborate and rife with pomp, incense and reverence.

Afterwards, we all assembled at the parish hall, a large meeting room with florescent lights and lineoleum flooring, located in a strip mall several miles outside of Reading. Several moving eulogies were made for my aunt, including one from Charlotte Somon, a 41-year-old friend who flew all the way from Holland to attend the funeral. She explained how my Uncle Henry had offered her a job in their New Jersey flower shop, The Flower Basket, when she was just 18 because she was from his hometown, Nijmegan, Holland.

She teared up near the end of a William Butler Yeats poem, "The Two Trees" when she read these lines:

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the hold branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender card:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

We ate a nice meal of cabe cakes (my aunt's favorite meal I was told), cheesy pasta noodles, sauce with meatballs, and Greek salad topped off with coffee and an assortment of Greek desserts.

The baklava was to die for.