October 23, 2016

When the Student Becomes the Master

To my readers: yes, sometimes my posts go astray. After seeing both Bob Dylan and Neil Young last weekend, I couldn’t help myself. Hence, what follows. I hope you read and share a comment.

Neil Young
It was an innocent summer. Not unusual, I suspect, for an adolescent lost in the isolation of high school, stumbling along to the sounds and voices that drew him away from a boring life of acceptance, toward the intoxicating journey of curiosity and skepticism.

Like a magnet, they drew me toward them, the sounds and voices of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, two iconic musicians who’s relationship, in my simplistic interpretation of folk music lore, can be characterized as one of student and master.

That Mr. Young revered his, I dare say, peer, in such a consistent manner, the relationship can only be described not as one of equals, as some would argue it should be, but as oddly submissive, if not subordinate. But should it be so? Should the annals of rock history go down with Neil Young, the “quintessential hippy-cowboy loner” as described by music critic John Rockwell, bowing in dutiful respect at the feet of the first musician ever to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature? If you ask this intoxicated skeptic, I should say not.

Dylan, for all his wizardry with words and verse, has staked a valid claim as a gifted songwriter and poet, one who has captured the imagination of a generation. As the Wall Street Journal music critic Jim Fusilli states, “…Mr. Dylan’s words absent the accompaniment…changed popular music by discovering and then exploring, repeatedly and often magnificently, new ways to set distinctive narratives to melody and rhythm.” Mr. Fusilli raises the Dylan bar to an insurmountable level by stating “there is no comparable body of work, regardless of standard of measurement, by any other artist of the rock era.”

But then I turn to a song by Young, the famous Cortez The Killer, where guitar and words lull me, slowly and methodically, toward a place of vulnerability and innocence that doesn’t really exist in this world, a place where Young often went, obscured by “evocative ambiguities” as Rockwell would put it. Or, to Southern Man, Young’s screeching reprimand of a country’s embedded hatred that remains stubbornly lodged in a certain fabric of our society.

Last weekend I joined the throngs in Southern California at the outdoor Desert Trip concert which featured, among other big names, the two legends playing on the same stage on separate nights. The first act, Dylan, was punctuated with black and white film clips from the early 20th century, casting a somber mood. Of the more than 500 songs written by Dylan, the music chosen by the recently announced Nobel Laureate was, to this music fan, largely unfamiliar and uninspiring. Dylan himself moved on stage - albeit behind his piano, without taking more than a few steps.

The next night I looked up and saw a row of glowing, golden tepees, eerily conjuring up an image of a small campsite nestled somewhere on the great plains, under a full moon no less. From there Young, the new master in my humble opinion, taught a lesson few can deny – that you should never take your craft as a performer and those who have embraced you for granted.

The hippy-cowboy-loner stood before a crowd of some 75,000 and unleashed a raw, emotional performance that only Young is capable of delivering. He worked slowly from a raw electric riff into a frenzy of guitars in Cowgirl In The Sand, bringing the audience to its feet more than once. Another song, Powderfinger, sent shivers down my spine, not from its meaning (which remains unknown), but from the imagery it foretells:

Shelter me from the powder
and the finger
Cover me with the thought
that pulled the trigger
Think of me
as one you'd never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love,
I know I'll miss her.

My hat is off to Bob Dylan for being the first musician named Nobel Prize winner in history. He deserves all the recognition and the glory. But Dylan, in my humble opinion, should at least tip his hat to a new master, the evocative one who raises the bar even a little higher – at least for those of us that still embrace the craft.