The Basement Tapes

A month or so ago, I heard a strange version of “Nothing Was Delivered,” which I knew as a Byrds song, and was immediately transfixed by the simple boogie-woogie piano riff and the all-around lackadaisical style — not to mention the bizarre and earnest lyrics (“Nothing was delivered/And I tell this truth to you/Not out of spite nor anger/But simply because it’s true.”). When listening to the Byrd’s version I’d always assumed there was some religious angle, and never quite realized, as I did now, that it was really just a song about somebody who ripped a bunch of people off and how he had better come up with the money fast.

I did a little research and figured out that it was on “The Basement Tapes,” something I had always imagined to be a giant, many-disc compilation of bootleg Dylan stuff — I think my brother had one of the later, larger bootleg sets, and I had never realized that there was this separate double-album released in 1975.

There are a million theories about how these songs came to be recorded (and then not released for eight years while bootlegs proliferated, during which Rolling Stone published a demand that they be released). My favorite “origin story” for what is probably the most heavily-mythologized recording session in American musical history is the following: in the summer of 1967, Dylan owed Columbia Records fourteen more songs, and recorded these songs (and many more) with the Band (minus Levon Helm) on the cheap, in the basement of a house that became famous as “Big Pink,” to fulfill his contractual obligation (and while he recovered from a pretty serious motorcycle accident). Then, when he ended up signing an extension with Columbia, he no longer wanted to release these unpolished and off-the-cuff recordings, so instead he distributed them to various other artists, who recorded and released the songs. Hence the Byrds’ versions of “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” Peter Paul & Mary’s “Too Much of Nothing,” multiple versions of “This Wheel’s On Fire,” (including one that became the theme song for “Absolutely Fabulous”!) etc.

Of course, these deliberately stripped-down and rustic tunes turned out to be some of Dylan’s (and The Band’s) best work. I am utterly blown away, and more than a little ashamed that it took me this long to catch on. Right now I can’t think of a more consistently great record, let alone a double album. The songs that first seemed like filler now, on the 30th listening or whatever I’m at, seem just as great as the more immediately-accessible ones. I was initially drawn in by the “going to seed” and general dissolution themes (on songs such as “Goin to Acapulco,” “Too Much of Nothing” or “Tears of Rage”). But I am now just as enthralled by some of the less weighty songs, such as the hilarious “Clothesline Saga” which is a shaggy-dog tale about a family hanging up some clothes to dry. I’ve always had a slight resistance to what I saw as Dylan’s santimonious tone, and these songs are completely free of it.

Without getting any deeper into a track-by-track “golly they’re great!” post (which has been done many times before), I’ll just note that the songs all have an amazing, hymn-like simplicity that stands in stark contrast to a lot of the music, good and bad, that was coming out in 1967.

I love the thought of Dylan and The Band holing up and playing cover after cover of American traditionals, until they got to the point where they were just writing their own versions of these songs. I’m now reading Greil Marcus’ book “The Old, Weird America” which is largely about this record, where he ties the songs to the America captured in Harry Smith’s Folkways anthology — the weird mythic world of misfits, con men and murderers. It makes a lot of music I’ve loved for years seem strangely brittle and two-dimensional.

Finally, there is great appeal to me in the idea (which may or may not actually be true) that it was exactly because Dylan thought he was just banging out some stuff to fulfill a contract that let him realize his full potential (and perhaps avoid the sanctimony). I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the 5-disc sets with little song fragments and covers of “People Get Ready” and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs!

Recent airport sightings

Some silly things spotted in various airports during my recent trip:

World’s tiniest baggage carousel (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Yes, I know I already posted this in the Clichés In Action post… but: I wish I could rent this thing out for children’s birthday parties. I like how the modest tiny wall partition in the middle allows the carousel to maintain a veneer of ‘technological magic’ while some guy secretly stands behind it and loads bags on.

Ghoulishly lifelike Carl Yastrzemski display (Boston, MA). I swear, after Chicago, Boston has to be the most goonily sports-obsessed city in the entire lower 48. You already have to drive through Ted Freakin’ Williams Tunnel just to get to the airport… and now a life-sized Yaz? My friend pointed out that when he flies to Boston, he can always spot his gate from a great distance just by the proliferation of sports hats visible in the waiting area.

Reassuring ‘Focus Safety’ sign (Vieques, Puerto Rico). There’s a lot to like here:

  1. The likelihood that the copy originally read ‘Focus On Safety’, before someone incrementally decided to turn the ‘On’ part into eyeballs.
  2. The fact that the Cape Air signature hawk has been placed inside the eyeball. This is kinda cool, but also creates the weirdly dissonant implication that  Cape Air is the cause of the danger that the poster is urging you to be vigilant against.
  3. Come to think of it, is the poster exhorting you the customer to exercise vigilance? Or is it reassuring you that the airline itself is always focusing on safety?
  4. Given that the entire Cape Air operation consists of about 4 people and 2 tiny airplanes- each of which is the size of a large van- they’d probably be better off not drawing your attention to the safety issue at all. Take it from someone with first hand experience: the less you think about your safety while flying Cape Air, the happier your experience is likely to be.

How to apologize in public

During my month-long vacation in the U.S., one of my pleasure reads was Chuck Klosterman’s Eating The Dinosaur. This was the first Klosterman book I’ve read and I found it highly digestible and somewhat addictive, finishing it in three quick sittings over two days. After an excellent essay on Ralph Sampson, my other favorite bit was a short section that felt like an interstitial joke where he prints a series of public apologies from various high-profile celebrities for various inane misdeeds without any contextualization at all. For example, here’s Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants wide receiver who accidentally shot himself in the leg with an unlicensed gun he was carrying in a nightclub:

First of all, you people probably don’t know anyone who’s been shot. I, however, know lots of people who’ve been shot. I know lots of people who claim they want to shoot me, and some of those people are technically my friends. So that’s why I carry a gun. Second, you people probably trust the government, and you probably trust it because your personal experience with law enforcement has been positive. I’ve had the opposite experience all my life. I’m afraid of the government. I’m afraid of the world, and you can’t give me one valid reason why I shouldn’t be. So that’s why I did not apply for a gun license. Third, I shot myself in the leg, which is both painful and humiliating. What else do I need to go through in order to satiate your desire to see me chastised? The penalty for carrying an unlicensed weapon is insane. How can carrying an unlicensed firearm be worse than firing a licensed one? I broke the law, but the law I broke is a bad law. Would you be satisfied if the penalty for unlawful gun possession was getting shot in the leg? Because that already fucking happened!

This is awesomely looney and yet strangely persuasive at the same time, right? The section as a whole is kind of silly, but it also plugs into some larger, recurring themes. Like David Foster Wallace, Klosterman seems to worry a lot about the idea that it’s almost impossible nowadays to relate to other people in an honest and unselfconscious way. Fame and celebrity therefore naturally come up in his writing a lot as nothing involves more examples of people acting in a dishonest, calculating fashion towards one another. Klosterman seems to say that there’s something inherently really screwed up about any dynamic where one person is being observed by either an individual or public that doesn’t actually know the person in question. The asymmetric nature of the observation leads to all sorts of bizarre assumptions, expectations and distortions that eventually result in the convoluted spectacle of one person ‘apologizing’ to a group of people whom he or she doesn’t know from adam.

Eating The Dinosaur is a great read– given the choice, there’s only one thing I would change about the book if I could, and that would be to add the public apology of German artist Jörg Immendorff to this section, as I think it’s the greatest such ‘apology’ I’ve ever heard about.

Immendorff was one of the most successful post-War German painters, an artist who had practically become the patron artist of the city of Dusseldorf by the early 2000s (I only know about this story because I happened to be traveling in Dusseldorf in 2003 right after it happened and was told about it by friends who lived there). He even designed Dusseldorf’s Monkey Island, a kind of tiki beer garden island in the middle of the city that exemplifies the phony exoticism beloved by Germans (the music of Manu Chao being another such instance). Immendorff had also drawn some attention for marrying a model 30 years his younger who looks more or less like Kobe Bryant’s wife.

Then, in 2003, the 57 year old was caught in a hotel with a bunch of cocaine and seven prostitutes. Plus, four more prostitutes on the way. Scandalized, the citizenry of Dusseldorf demanded a public apology. Cantankerous and unrepentant, Immendorff released an awesomely defiant statement where he insisted that the matter was between him and his wife and nobody else’s business:

“My wife knows how much I love her. Sometimes I have to live out an Orientalism that has nothing to do with that.

As my friend likes to tell it, a tidal wave of ‘Orientalism’ naturally swept over the city of Dusseldorf on the heels of this kick-ass justification. It also provided a fine running joke for the rest of my stay there: ‘Who’s up for a little Orientalism?’ someone would ask when it was time to go hit the town in the evening. I only hope I have the presence of mind to invoke it as a cover for whatever debauched misdeed I might commit down the line.

Clichés in action

In addition to the Belmont pit stop described below, we also made it up and down the east coast during our just-completed month of traveling, making stops in upstate New York, Vermont, Vieques (small island off of Puerto Rico) and New York City.

One of the perks of sampling so many disparate places is all the little regional and situational clichés you run into on the way. A clueless-looking dude pulling off his boot in a ski lodge to find acute frostbite covering his foot (we happened to be watching his foot and his facial expression at the exact moment of discovery). A flight to San Juan nearly postponed on account of volcanic ash. Hassidic Jews tromping around mid-town Manhattan. A flight in a tiny 10-seater plane where we taxied by an iguana sunning itself on the runway.

Things came to a head, cliche-wise, at 6am on our first morning in Vieques. Imagine: we’ve gotten up at 5am the previous morning and taken two planes with my mom and 7 month-old baby to get to the island from Boston, so we’re really, really tired and desperate to catch up on sleep. At 6am, we’re woken bolt-upright in bed by blasting, cheesy Latin pop music that seems to be coming out of the heavens. It’s so loud that you can’t even identify a directional source of the sound– it just seems to be emanating out of the air particles around our heads.

Realizing that kiddo is not going to sleep through this onslaught, and that our prospective morning of sleeping in is dashed, I decide to throw on some clothes and at least make a grumpy harrumph of it. Stomping out into the bright Carribean morning sunshine, I make a wrong turn before correctly identifying the direction of the noise and setting off across a small field towards it. At one point, I look back over my shoulder and see that I’ve been joined by an irate comrade-in-arms, a shirtless, insanely-disheveled-and-outraged-looking guy. He looks strangely like a combination of Robert Downey Jr. and Morton Downey Jr. Finally, I cross the field and near a road where I am presented with the source of The Din and the following sight: about 20 guys neatly lined up on horseback, wearing sort of festive, tricked-out ranch wear. A kind of self-appointed inspector guy is making his way up and down the line, checking out everyone. A truck sits in front of them with a couple heavy-set women bouncing up and down next to giant speakers – the kind you see used for outdoor concerts– that are playing the music.

Of course, it turns out to be impossible to communicate anything in words once you get that close to a loudspeaker truck, much less in Spanish. After lots of irate hand-gestures, I eventually turn around and huff back to our guesthouse, satisfied at least to see that a veritable lynch mob of angry villagers has started to form behind me. At breakfast (served outdoors by the pool), The Din is the hot topic, with one of the guesthouse staff commenting off-handedly that the malefactors were probably just ‘some really drunk guys’. ‘They didn’t look drunk to me,’ I find myself saying. ‘They looked really, really organized, actually.” We never were able to figure out what the whole thing was about, although it seems reasonable to guess that it had something to do with 3 Kings Day, which happened a few days later and apparently is a big deal there.

This is the point where the blog entry veers sharply into insensitive ethnic generalizations… but: I haven’t experienced such an insane, nuisance-y episode of noise-making since, oh… the 10 years that I lived in the Mission District. Once I arrived in Prague, it felt disorienting to actually experience REM sleep, as though I’d been skidding over the surface of it during a decade spent with street noisy and crappy single-ply windows in SF. One morning in particular, shortly before I left SF for Prague, I was woken up at 8am on a blazing hot Saturday by a bunch of drunken guys congregated on the sidewalk outside with a guitar, literally doing the ‘Aye, aye, aye-yi … aye yi, yi aye-yi‘ song. Fuming, I decided to retaliate by filling a garbage pail full of water and dumping it on them from the roof, in much the same way as you train a cat not to jump on a table by flicking water at it.

There’s a big difference between thinking about doing something like this and actually peeling yourself out of bed to do it, but a few minutes later I actually got to the top of the stairs lugging a several gallons of water behind me. Unfortunately, our upstairs neighbor was also there, meditating in a cross-legged position and chanting. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to push by him and nonchalantly hurl a trash bin full of water onto people below while he was trying to tap into his inner center. So, I made my egress, feeling thwarted (common theme in these two stories, I guess). It struck me as a specifically ‘San Francisco’ kind of quandary: trapped between drunken noisemakers on one side and chanted Ohm Shanti Shantis on the other.

(Photo: world’s dinkiest baggage carousel at Vieques airport).

Sinister Minister

My wife, baby kid and I have been on the road for nearly a month now and are flying back to Prague this evening. Currently, we’re holed  up in my hometown of Belmont, MA, a town which – despite its close proximity to Boston – was once declared ‘Region’s Most Boring Town’ in a Boston Globe headline that I gleefully clipped out of the paper’s metro region section as a spiteful teenager. Belmont is so boring that, until recently, there was a law forbidding the sale of any booze within the teeny town confines, but that’s a blog rant for another day…

One of the poignant aspects of being home is all the Beavis-and-Butthead-type memories from junior high years that had nearly vanished from memory but come flooding back once I walk around the old neighborhood. This being my first trip back as a parent, these incidents somehow seem all the more comically juvenile and parochial in juxtaposition with my current ‘mature’ state.

Case in point: a few days ago, I walked by the bus stop where I used to idle away interminable periods waiting for the bus to come take me to more enlightened, boozing neighboring places like Cambridge and Boston. The site of the old bus stop immediately brought back a blazing hot summer day in 1989 or so when I was waiting around and spotted a big fat debauched-looking metalhead guy crossing the street with a brown paper bag under his arm and a weird dazed-yet-exalted expression on his face. ‘Hey, man,’ he cheerfully regaled me from halfway across the street. “What town is this?

Always a good sign, I think as I yell back “Belmont!”

“Belmont,” he says, wincing slightly. “Last thing I remember, I was drinking at the Aku-Aku last night and musta blacked out…”

The Aku-Aku was an incredibly depressing-looking tiki bar located in cement mall in a corner of Cambridge near the Belmont border. It had a spinning plastic sign picturing the Easter Island statues that people had thrown innumerable rocks through. The Aku-Aku figures prominently in Caroline Knapp’s tell-all memoir of her years as a Boston-dwelling alcoholic, Drinking, A Love Story.

“… Next thing I know,” continues the metalhead, “I wake up and some fat bitch is on top of me, going… (mimes coitus)… so I said, (with great vigor:) ‘Get the fuck off me, give me some beer, some money and some sandwiches!'” At this point, he happily flashes open his paper bag to show me some  beer and sandwiches lurking inside.

I spend a few minutes talking to this jolly reveler while we wait for the bus, eventually getting onto the subject of music and the Boston-area punk/metal band Bullet Lavolta in particular. He mentions being a big fan as well, and adds that they’ve had a big influence on his band. “Oh, what are you guys called?” I ask. “Sinister Minister,” he answers with great delectation.

At the time, this little meeting provided a much-appreciated rebuttal to the notion (apparently supported by Globe reportage) that nothing of interest EVER happened in this neighborhood. For a while, I would wait for the bus and look at the houses across the street, wondering where this sandwich-and-beer-dispensing seductress might live.

(Photo: corners of Belmont and Grove streets. Above-described incident happened in the left-hand corner of this scene).

The Subtitled Hitler Video Meme

I am somewhat ashamed to use the term “meme,” which I have been resisting for years. I’ve tried to group it into the category of pointless, space-filler terms like “outside of the box” or “on a going forward basis,” but it has become increasingly clear to me that “meme” is, in fact, a concise and distinct term that captures a phenomenom that otherwise can be described only with a lot more words.

The Urban Dictionary offers these five definitions for “meme”:

1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable

3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture
– meme pool (n.) : all memes of a culture or individual
– memetic (adj.) : relating to memes
– memetics (n.) : the study of memes

4 : in blogspeak, an idea that is spread from blog to blog

5 : an internet information generator, especially of random or contentless information

My favorite sorts of memes are those that start from some basic “text,” such as a short video, event or comment that “catches fire” in popular culture, and then build on it, creating new and increasingly bizarre derivations. So for example there is the Kanye West/Taylor Swift meme, where new words are plugged, “Mad Libs”-style, into Kanye’s infamous rant at the MTV Music Awards, or the “Yo Dog!” meme where the same thing is done to the host of ‘Pimp My Ride’s” infamous trope, “Yo dawg, I heard you like ______, so I put an __________ in your car so you can ________ while you drive!” (See the excellent website “Know Your Meme” for hilarious mini-episodes on memes, done by Dharma-initiative-like people in labcoats).

But my favorite meme of all is the “Hitler Subtitle” meme, in which people take a famously over-the-top scene from the movie Downfall, where Hitler freaks out at his generals, and add subtitles suggesting that Hitler is instead getting mad about something else altogether. The first one I remember seeing cast Hitler as Hillary Clinton, with the generals attempting to break the news to her that Obama was on an unstoppable course to securing the Democratic nomination. But it’s been done over and over again, on countless different topics ranging from problems with Windows Vista to a planned trip to Burning Man, and every time somebody sends me a new one, I laugh even harder than the last time. I have no idea why — the mystery of a successful meme is why it doesn’t fizzle out, but instead gains momentum as it evolves. In this case, there is something about the scene with its buffoonish German ranting that lends itself to literally any conceivable expression of outrage. And, of course, the more insignificant the topic, the sillier it seems in the context of Hitler and his generals. But what I don’t understand is my sense that it is funnier each time in part because of the experience of having seeing all of the other versions.

Here is the latest iteration:


(“Know Your Meme’s” explanation here.)