Dylan at Todai-ji

Here is a real video treat to commemorate Bob Dylan’s 72nd birthday today.

BD-GME-1BIn May 1994, Dylan performed at The Great Music Experience, a concert starring Japanese and international musicians staged in front of the 8th century Buddhist temple of Todai-ji, in Nara, Japan. Todai-ji is the headquarters of the Kegon (Huayen or Flower Garland) sect, and is also houses the world’s largest statue of a Buddha, a bronze figure of the Buddha Vairocana, also known as Daibutsu, which you can see in the video below.

The concert, put on in cooperation with UNESCO, was held over three nights (May 20-22) and, in addition to Dylan, featured performances from such people as Joni Mitchell, Jon Bon Jovi, Wayne Shorter, Richie Sambora, The Chieftains, INXS, Ry Cooder, and a host of Japanese singers and musicians.

BD-GME-3B
Bob and Joni Mitchell in the finale.

Dylan’s performance marked the first time he was back by an orchestra, the Tokyo New Philharmonic orchestra, conducted by the late, great Michael Kamen. Bob does three songs, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, I Shall Be Released, and Ring Them Bells. The video clip also includes the all-star finale, a reprise of I Shall Be Released. Bob’s performance is stellar.

It was reported that when he walked offstage, Bob remarked that he had not sung so well for 15 years. Some months later, Q Magazine wrote, that  A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was “no ordinary version…[he] really opens his lungs and heart and sings, like he’s not done for many a year…The only word for it majestic.”

Bob passes by Buddhist monks on his way offstage.
Bob passes by Buddhist monks on his way offstage.

You might also notice among Bob’s backing musicians, percussionists Jim Kelter and Ray Collins (of Elton John fame). The music was later mixed by Beatles’ producer, George Martin.

I had never seen this until a few days ago and I found it stunning. Majestic, indeed. Soaring. Beautiful arrangements and orchestrations, Bob singing at his nuanced and melodic best, and a truly magnificent setting. Watch for yourself.

Musicians said the collaborations, however rewarding, were difficult given the differences in musical backgrounds. “The only thing holding us together this evening is the shining Buddha,” said Michael Kamen. (New York Times)

Thanks to johannasvisions.com, Nothing but Dylan FaceBook page, and hollisbrown000.

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Short Takes:Two Interviews

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Aung San Suu Kyi is in the United States for a 17-day tour. Yesterday, she met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just look at the expression of joy on Clinton’s face. It’s wonderful.

Suu Kyi was interviewed by Scott Stearns for Voice of America. He asked her this:

 STEARNS: One final question. Another question from Facebook – In your years under house arrest, what is it that kept it going? Did you feel that it was just never going to end?

ASSK:  No I never felt it was never going to end,  and I didn’t really feel the need for anything to keep me going.  I felt myself to be on the path that I had chosen and I was perfectly prepared to keep to that path.

I don’t know if I would have that kind of perseverance. Aung San Suu Kyi has been free nearly two years now, and she will be in Los Angeles at the Convention Center on October 2, and I am free to attend this free event. I am really looking forward to seeing and hearing this woman I have admired for so long. If you’re in the L.A. area and are interested, go here.

Dylan in 1963

Bob Dylan is also on tour in the U.S., and Canada. Last week, I shared some thoughts on Bob’s new album and I mentioned how he’s been accused of plagiarism. Accused is not the right word. It’s a proven fact. Bob has been a serial plagiarist going back to his high school days. Below are some links that discuss some of the incidents.

What does Dylan have to say about it? In a recent interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone, he says, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

He also claims, “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” That’s true, to a certain extent. In rock, for instance, who hasn’t borrowed from Chuck Berry? That classic guitar riff has been used in plenty of songs with only a few of the borrowers crediting Berry, who in turn borrowed the lick from his piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Bruce Springsteen has been rather open about what he calls “stealing.” Listen to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” sometime and then listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band.” It’s basically the same song, Springsteen just slowed it down.

Still, when an artist releases 3 albums in a row full of “quotation” and refried blues licks, it gets a bit old. I cannot believe the reviews Bob’s latest, Tempest, is getting. If it is the best album of the year, then the rest of the stuff out there must be really putrid.

In new interview Bob sort of confesses to stealing lines from Japanese novelist Junichi Yakuza (2001’s Love and Theft), and Civil War poet Henry Timrod (2006’s Modern Times).

Bob “writes” a poem in 1957.

Plagiarism in Chronicles Volume One.

Questions about Bob’s “Original” Artwork.

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Tempest

Sorry, no Buddhism today. Bob Dylan instead.

I’ve been a Bobby D fan for a long time. I’ve seen him in concert many, many times and I’ve eagerly awaited release of each new album. You could say I’m sort of an amateur expert on the man, and in my opinion, the last decade or so, far from being a renaissance period in Bob’s career, has been a drought. I haven’t cared of any of his albums since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and his voice has become so ragged that even I have trouble listening to it. My biggest gripe about the last 3 albums of original material was that I just didn’t care the songs. I didn’t like the lyrics, I am bored hearing him recycle old blues tunes, and although I liked where he was coming from with the mix of jazz and swing on some songs, he didn’t pull them off. There was a time when he could.

Yesterday, Bob released his 35th studio album, Tempest. Unfortunately, the drought continues. One of the first things a Bob Dylan fan learns is that it is futile to expect Bob to live up to anyone’s expectations. He travels his own road. But one expects something better than this, especially when it’s been several years between albums.

Tempest opens with “Duquesne Whistle.” Its catch old-timey melody is familiar, but it strikes me as the best song on the album. The second track has one of the better vocal performances on the collection with “Soon After Midnight,” an easy going love song.  After that it’s pretty much a case of, as Bob sings in “Narrow Way,” “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.” In other words, you gotta take what you can get.

More recycled blues riffs with “Narrow Way” and “Early Roman Kings (Muddy Water’s “I’m a Man). The latter song at least has some fun lyrics:

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
They’re lecherous and treacherous
Hell-bent for leather
Each of ’em bigger
Than all them put together
Sluggers and muggers
Wearing fancy gold rings
All the women goin’ crazy
For the early Roman kings

This album marks a return to the long-song form, with tracks clocking in at 7:25, 9:05, and 13:54. One of those, “Tin Angel” is folk music-styled ballad of desire and murder, while in “Scarlett Town,” (7:15) which is more or less another folk ballad, Bob’s voice is subtle and his phrasing effective.

Now if you want to hear an outstanding song about the sinking of the Titanic, I suggest you listen to the Carter Family’s “The Great Titanic,” the melody of which Bob “borrowed” for the title track, “Tempest.” Oh, and Bob’s song is also about the sinking of the Titanic. The longest song on the album, nearly fourteen minutes, it seems to me, without benefit of having the lyrics as with the other songs, a rather straightforward telling of the tale.

Unfortunately, these new longer songs lack the clever lyrics found in similar songs on “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” and neither do they have the surrealist imagery of “Desolation Row” and some of Bob’s other earlier work.

The track I was most looking forward to was “Roll On, John,” about John Lennon. I was hoping for something like “Lenny Bruce” from Shot of Love (“Lenny Bruce was bad/He was the brother you never had.”) Nope. Now, “Roll On, John,” features what I believe is a first in Bob’s career. In recent years, he’s been accused of plagiarism, and here marks the first time he has plagiarized the subject of his song:

Slow down you’re moving too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary
You’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be
Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John

Actually the first line is a double-plagiarism, ripping off not only The Beatles’ “Slow Down,” but Paul Simon’s “52nd Street Bridge Song.” The line from “Come Together” is obvious, and “you know how hard it can be” comes from “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” William Blake makes an appearance in “Roll On, John,” too (“Tyger, Tiger burning bright”), but I guess that’s okay since Blake is in the Public Domain. I can’t tell you how disappointing I find this song.

Maybe I’m being too hard on ‘ol Bob. He’s always borrowed melodies, and lines. But in the past, he did so more creatively. And it’s unfair to expect the current Bob to be like the old Bob. In fact, as I alluded to before, it’s virtually a sin. Still, I don’t expect Bob Dylan to be boring.

In “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan sings “Don’t you know, the sun can burn your brains right out.” Yeah, I know that. I liked it better when he told me stuff I didn’t know, like “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”

Now, here’s the video of “Duquesne Whistle.” Like the album, it’s strange, dark and violent, and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the song. But I really like the tune:

One last beef: I really wish they’d let me know when they’re going to film Bob Dylan videos on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m only a mile away. I’d like to be there. Hell, I’d like to be in one. They can use me, abuse me, for free.

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Doc Watson R.I.P & The Sunglasses of Freedom

This is a blog about Buddhism, but sometimes I drift off course to some of my other interests, like music. I love music. My musical tastes run the gambit from Al Jolson to the Clash. Although, I have to say that I’m not too crazy about classical or jazz music. That’s because they are instrumental, and I’m mainly into singers. I’d rather hear Louis Armstrong scat “Dinah” or Cyndi Lauper belt out “Shine” than listen to Rossini’s “Sinfonia Di Bologna” or “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock.

One guy whose voice I admired greatly was Doc Watson. Doc passed away on Tuesday in a North Carolina hospital at age 89. He’d been in critical condition since having colon surgery on Thursday.

He was a powerful singer, blessed with a rich baritone voice. Being a guitar picker myself, his instrumental chops were not lost on me. It was his flatpicking style that really made him a legend in American music, and influenced several generations of guitar players. Doc went blind before his first birthday. He always said that’s what caused him to turn to music. He never set out to make it big, he just wanted to be a good picker. He started playing for money in the 1940’s but it wasn’t until his performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival that he got any wide-spread attention.

I had the pleasure of seeing Doc Watson way back when he and his late son, Merle, were a team. It was a pure delight.  I regret that I did not avail myself of the opportunity to see him play more often.

You can read Doc’s obituary here at the LA Times, and if you’ve three minutes and 25 seconds to spare, you can watch Doc do Jimmie Rodger’s “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia,” a song that showcases both his voice and guitar playing.

Now, Bob Dylan was crowned the “King” of Folk Music at Newport in 1963. Today at the White House, he was given the American equivalent of knighthood when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. I’m willing to bet that Bob is to the only person in the history of the medal to receive it wearing sunglasses.

Although, he is no stranger to receiving awards, I think Bob is a bit nervous at these kind of events. He probably wore the sunglasses so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. During the ceremony, he fidgeted in his chair a lot and messed with his hair. Then when his name was called to get the award, well, you can see how he reacted in this short clip:

Doc Watson photo by Joe Giordano

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Hard Rain on a Sunday Afternoon

I'm out in that crowd somewhere . . .

It’s hard to believe it was 36 years ago yesterday that I attended my first Bob Dylan concert. It’s hard to believe Bob turns 71 today. Yes, it’s hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard rain . . .

It was on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Fort Collins, CO, the next to the last concert of the Rolling Thunder Review tour. The show featured the Alpha Band (with T. Bone Burnett), Mick Ronson, Kinky Friedman, Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan. The Rolling Thunder Revue band included violinist Scarlette Rivera, whom I met at a Dylan concert in 2002, and Bob Neuwirth, whom I’ve never met.

It was a great afternoon. Since it was the day before Bob’s birthday, the crowd sang to him, but he kept his back to us the entire time and didn’t acknowledge our birthday greetings. Iconoclast to the core.

Dylan will be awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama on May 29th. Not a bad birthday present, although that’s not the reason he’s getting it.

12 others will also receive the Medal, including novelist Toni Morrison; former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; John Doar, a key figure in the Justice Department during the civil rights era; William Foege, who helped spread smallpox immunizations around the world; Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought Japanese-American World War Two internment; civil rights campaigner Dolores Huerta; and Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.

That first Dylan concert (the first of many) so long ago was in a football field. We got there early, driving all the way from Omaha. They already had the stage set up and we sat in the stands for a couple of hours while they played nearly every song the Beatles ever recorded on the sound system. As soon as the curtain went up, we moved down in front of the stage where we ending up standing not far from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, though we didn’t know it at the time. After the Alpha Band’s first song, T. Bone Burnett pulled Ramblin’ Jack up onto the stage, but Jack was too drunk that day to perform.

The concert later became an album, Hard Rain, and a ABC television special. Here’s Bob and Joan singing “Railroad Boy (She Died of Love)” on that fateful day:

As an extra added attraction, so that you can get a glimpse of T. Bone Burnett and Scarlet Rivera, along with Bob’s paintings that served as back drop for the show (one of which I’ve always felt was of Bruce Springsteen), here is “One Too Many Mornings”:

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