THOUGHTS ON BOB DYLAN

The word enigma doesn’t come close to describing Bob Dylan. For a start he’s a Gemini – the sign of the twins. Duality. He once said he wakes as one person and goes to sleep as another. And that’s before we add all the different masks he’s worn, and the myths that have been woven by others, and by himself. This is no doubt an attempt by him to protect his true self – Robert Zimmerman. Bob Dylan was his invention and as such even his own autobiography “Chronicles Volume One” contains numerous things that are fictional. Again, adding to his own myth as a means of throwing people off the scent of this fiercely private man. He writes about Bob Dylan like the old Wild West reporters wrote about Billy The Kid, Davy Crockett or Jesse James. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

There must be many hundreds of books published about Bob Dylan. And why is that? Because he continues to fascinate us. We can’t work him out. Scratch the surface and you just come up with another surface. But I think this has always been his masterly plan. In the words of the late, great Alex Scott after seeing the movie about the life (or lives) of Bob Dylan, the aptly titled “I’m Not There,”  Alex said, “I knew more about him before I saw this movie!” Precisely. Or did you? I’ve had the good fortune to know quite a number of people who have known Bob for many years as a friend. And the words they use about him are “kind,” “sweet,” “gentle,” “loyal,” and “sensitive.” And those qualities are precious and need protection. “They say every man needs protection.”

Last Monday and Tuesday nights in Melbourne, a troubadour playing the role of Bob Dylan took to the stage at the Margaret Court Arena. No grand entrance. He merely sauntered on as a member of his band and found his designated place at the piano. No hello and no goodbye. Just two hours of brilliant songs, some old, some new, that any writer would give their soul to have written just one of them. But here is a small man trapped in the spotlight that has a catalog of so many classics they are too numerous to name. He has given us so much, and continues to give, thank God. When so many of our music heroes are gone, some cruelly taken from us who had so much more to give, we truly should be thankful that Bob is not only still alive, but continues to spend the majority of each year on the road performing for our pleasure.

Some people complain that he just stands there and sings his songs. There are no “showy” effects. No scripted witty repartee. But I continually have to remind some disappointed patrons that that’s all he’s ever done.

Bob was once asked if he still gets nervous before a show, to which he replied, “No. Never be afraid of disappointing people.” At first when I read this quote, I laughed thinking it was just another example of Bob’s very dry sense of humour. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised the heart of what he was truly saying. There is no point worrying about a performance. It will either soar or it won’t. He is not slick, nor does he want to be. He is an improv artist. A method actor. He has the same inspired, spontaneous genius as Brando. Always reaching for that unplanned moment of pure magic. The trouble with being that bold is that sometimes you miss the mark totally and run the risk of being ridiculed and walked out on. All of the greatest innovators have at one time or another been ridiculed and hung out to dry. But they’re the ones we remember. The brave ones. To be totally unique is a very heavy cross to have to carry. A lot of people will not “get” what you’re doing. Or what you’re attempting. But if everyone played by the tried and proven formula, where would the excitement be?

Bob has literally never looked back. The range of material he has tackled is extraordinary and at the age of 77 when most artists are happy to coast on their back catalog, Bob is still taking chances. Spare a thought for the huge risk he took in attempting, at his age, five albums of crooning the American Songbook. Yet those albums have been big hits and in some cases even named among the Top Ten Jazz Albums of that year.

But this is the same man who, just as he reached the pinnacle of the folk music world, went electric and angered the majority of his then fans. Next, just as he won most of those fans back with the electric mercury sounding masterpiece that was “Blonde On Blonde,” he goes country music. More angst from fans. Then he rebounds with introspective “Blood On The Tracks” about the pain of his divorce. Then Jesus popped into his life and we had the Gospel Years! Then, just when everyone thought he was no longer relevant, and running on empty, he comes back with arguably his best album, the multi-Grammy Award winning “Time Out Of Mind.” Then the Christmas Album. Then the Sinatra inspired saloon song standards. This man deserves a medal for bravery.

Oh, and when people say they don’t like his voice, I always ask, “Which one? He’s had about 6 different voices over the journey.”

As his dear friend George Harrison once described him, “He is a friend to us all.”

It filled my heart with warmth and my eyes with tears to see him perform such a spirited and brilliant concert last Tuesday night. It certainly was the inspired spontaneous magic he strives for.

And then, without a word of farewell, he was gone. But rest assured, he’s still on the road, headin’ for another joint.

(c) Frank Howson 2018

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THE OLD MEN AND THEIR GIRLS

The old men with their girls
Seated at the best table
The young girls treat the waitress
With a haughty disrespect
Why?
Because they are seated beside
Old men with more money than God
They so easily forget where they came from
Who they are
Because tonight they are queens
Reinvented
Making a huge effort to speak in an accent that doesn’t give away their back street upbringing
And it seems the first thing that dies is empathy
For someone who struggles
And serves in an honest job trying desperately to please
For that much needed tip at the end of the night
So she can walk home happy to be greeted by her young children
Who love it when mommy is in a good mood
Back at the best table
The young girls laugh at everything
The old well heeled men say
Even the serious stuff
One wonders whether they will be laughing long?
Until next month?
Next week?
Perhaps until check out time tomorrow?
Sex is so easily given
When it means nothing
But care about certain women
Really care
And it is much harder to get them to part with their favours
Perhaps a kiss is way more intimate
Than sex anyway
And more revealing
Than nudity
Perhaps I don’t know anything
Anymore
Everything I thought I knew
Was a sham
A pantomime
A play acting
And I was too young
To hear the hollowness
At the heart of her laughter
She got what she wanted
At the end of the day
And I got what I deserved
A table for one
For believing in Hollywood endings
My thoughts are broken
By the sound of laughter at the best table in the best restaurant in town
These young girls are trying very hard
To appear to be sincere to the Moneybags on their way to Life Support
I order a coffee
No sugar
No milk
Just as it comes
I don’t want to disguise the taste of anything
Anymore
It is as it is
The old men and the young girls laugh hysterically
And I feel sad for them somehow
Their eyes contradicting their open mouths and perfect teeth
Like those scary clowns with those insane smiles and eyes of terror
I know how their stories end
I’m a writer
With all the wisdom of a fool
And a life misspent
And no one to impress anymore
It’s a great relief in some ways
I need no sugar or milk
And as such have become an acquired taste
Not pleasing everyone
Not wanting to
But pleasing those who matter
The other acquired tastes
Of humankind
I pay my bill and leave
Giving the middle-aged waitress a tip that I hope helps contribute to her happy walk home to be greeted by those who genuinely love her
I will take the long way home down alleys that go round in circles
No need to rush
I am keeping no one waiting

 

(C) Frank Howson 2018

SWEET ROSEMARY

My sweet Rosemary
She came to tea
In 1994
She showed me
A thing or two
Before I showed her the door
We met again
By new year’s end
We kissed beneath our tree
Call me a fool
But I ain’t cruel
So once more I set her free

From her sacred chalice
I’ll never again sip
All my golden chances
I let ’em all slip
Now I’d lay down my life
If I could only see
Once more the smiling face
Of my sweet Rosemary

My sweet Rosemary
Come back to me
I’m broken and alone
I lay here
Beside you dear
And your grave of icy stone

I remember her words
Devoutly now
She said, “We’ll always be together”
She knew that, somehow
You don’t know the cost
Till you’re hurt this deep
And cannot awaken
From the nightmare sleep

From her sacred chalice
I’ll never again sip
All my golden chances
I let ’em all slip
Now I’d lay down my life
If I could only see
Once more the smiling face
Of my sweet Rosemary

(C) Frank Howson 2018

(c) 2018 photograph by Raija Sunshine

I DON’T DANCE ANYMORE

I was fooled by the mystery of women
Until I realised there is no mystery at all
Only myth
Invented by men so they could
Fall in love with the Virgin Mary
And partner with her to give life
To their boy child Jesus
But like Joseph us men don’t last the distance
We leave to give our saviour a chance
Not even returning to witness
His crucifixion
One overcast day
On a mount somewhere east
In our guilt
Sacrificing his life
To try and live up
To our destructive hopes
I once was a child dancer myself
Early in my journey
Spending hours
Polishing the steps made famous
By others before me
Too shy to speak to girls
In case they saw right through me
And realised any charm I possessed
Only hid my fear
That the problems of my life
Could not be cured by a slick dance routine
And a few witty lines
I was married three times
To three absolutely charming women
Who took everything I had
Except the will to go on
Still, the romantic fool
Remained hopeful
And God was exasperated
By my lack of ability to learn
Anything
So I endured many hardships
And trauma
Smashing my spirit
And voice
I then judged my true friends
By those still willing to listen to me
Patient enough to judge the message
And not the flawed messenger
Thus I found Saints
Where others found fault
I found angels
Where others found beggars
I found God
In the humility of affliction
No one is born with empathy
You are gifted it
After walking many miles
In the shoes of the suffering
Having lived it
How could you turn your back on another?
Young women are very well mannered
When they remind you that you are too old
It’s in their eyes
Their smile
Their giggle
Their changing of the subject
It is appreciated
For otherwise us foolish romantics
May think we are still 18 years old
And that life is still before us
But it is I that also pity them
For I know what their road beholds
And such outer beauty
Is a hard thing to live without
On their journey to inner beauty and humility
And empathy
Aloneness
And the higher purpose
Of a life
For sex leads to the entrapment of both parties
And longing is replaced by the desire to not belong
So just say that I don’t dance anymore
For my heart and my legs ache
And perhaps like Doc Pomus
Someone special
Will save the last dance for me
And although now
Wiser
I will decline it
But will be touched
And moved
By the invitation
As I think back
And remember
The days when I danced

(C) Frank Howson 2018

 

 

WRITERS

Why would anyone become a writer? Especially in a world that doesn’t seem to read anymore. Or go to the theatre, or go to the movies to see anything other than comic book heroes. Good question.

All the great writers were mostly drunks. Coincidence? Or is there a cost for looking too long into the abyss and reporting back to the good folk what they’re too timid to experience for themselves? Springsteen once wrote that there is a darkness at the edge of town. No, that darkness lies within us all. Each one of us has the latent potential to be a Hitler or a Christ. God has cleverly given us free will to choose our own poison. And the highly sensitive among us reach for the bottle, or the harder stuff, in order to numb ourselves to the responsibilities of that choice.

When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless. Sometimes I feel sorry for those who attempted to teach me anything. Not sure if my undisciplined mind was a result of the trauma I witnessed most nights in my abusive family home, or I had what is now diagnosed as ADD. One day the headmaster of the school phoned my mother for a meeting to question her as to why her son had the highest I.Q at the school and the lowest grades. She was at a loss for words. But not me. Words always came easy to me. In fact I could talk myself out of any beating I was about to receive from a Christian Brother. That was quite a feat considering the relish they got from handing out such brutal punishment. These guys would’ve been more at home as members of the Third Reich than Jesus’ band of 12. But talk my way out I did. So, words became my friend, my salvation. And humour protected me from the cruel slings of other peer group bullies. I could always hysterically put myself down before anyone else had the chance to. Timing was everything. Playing the court jester got me through my troubled youth and shielded me from revealing my true self. And what was that? I was scared of everything and everyone. I felt like an alien most of the time in a strange world that only threw contradictions at you.

My refuge again and again were words. The only subjects at school that I attained any respectable grades for were Art, English and Religious Knowledge. The latter because I loved hearing all the Biblical stories and for some reason remembered every detail. They were filled with such amazing imagery and drama. Oh, and miracles. I guess I was depending on a miracle to happen in my life that would save me. And this Jesus character sounded like he might’ve been the only person who would’ve taken the time to understand me. Whether he was the Messiah or not is up for debate, but he sure sounded like a nice man. And like me, and all the other loners and misfits in the world, grossly misunderstood. I never forgot those stories and if nothing else they were great morality word plays.

Due to my restless mind I found it too difficult to persevere and read a book through to the end. But I tried again and again to achieve this. Thank God I did because I now must own over a thousand books that I cherish and have taught me more than I ever learnt at school. I always tell people I was self educated and that’s the truth of it. All my education took place in a class of one. In many ways, books saved my life.

My introduction to books began when I was a small child and my Irish grandmother would sit me on her lap and read aloud the adventures of Noddy in Toyland. We bonded through the whole Noddy series until she was taken from me when I was two.

The first book that hooked me enough to finish was, ironically, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I guess it proved that I had a fascination with the mystery of women from an early age. This of course led to much heartache and my premature death but that’s a whole other story. Either that, or Ms. Alcott was one helluva writer that captured my imagination and kept me turning the pages. By the end of the book I felt I knew all the characters and cared enough about them to shed some tears. The mark of a great writer.

After that I read Enid Blyton’s book series “The Famous Five” followed by “The Secret Seven.” Then I graduated to “Biggles,” and then many books about the Wild West that introduced me to such colourful characters as Davy Crockett. Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy The Kid etc., etc., etc. Yep, who needed to time travel or see the world when you had books?

Then in my late teen years I read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and my life really did change. A book about the ultimate loner always surrounded by a party of people. I savoured every word in that book – it’s prose was exquisite and the story heartbreaking. It foretold me that following the wrong dreams can get you killed. Reading Fitzgerald was like finding a new best friend. I understood him. And from what I read I knew he understood me. After that I read all six of his novels and every short story he ever wrote. I couldn’t get enough of his words and the insight he gave into the human heart. It really was like he’d read my letters or thoughts and knew me intimately. Of course being part Irish, like me, virtually every story ended in death or heartbreak. He painted such a romantic but dangerous world where his characters always paid a high price for caring too much.

Fitzgerald’s own life was cut short by too much booze and heartbreak topped off by rejection in Hollywood. But he remains my friend and I reread “Gatsby” every couple of years. It never fails to move me. Hollywood has never been able to pull off a wholly successful film treatment of it for the simple reason that most of the truly beautiful stuff in the book are the thoughts in the characters heads, and that’s impossible to shoot. Films are about action. Fitzgerald’s writing is about emotions. Unless you do endless voice-overs and that usually renders your movie as exciting as porridge. That’s why the great Fitzgerald had such a hard time of it in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter in order to net enough money to keep his wife Zelda in a mental home and pay for his daughter’s schooling. He died a broken, despairing, weary man old before his time.

Like Gatsby, killed by the wrong dream.

I came to Charles Dickens late. Not sure why that was but come to him I did. The first book of his I chose to read was “Great Expectations” and was astounded. To me it remains one of the greatest novels of all time. And in my opinion he is right up there with Shakespeare.

I heard that Dickens original ending to “Great Expectations” was tragic and certainly all roads in the book are leading there. But his publisher leaned on him to come up with a more upbeat ending. Dickens listened, went away and rewrote it, and what he does is simply sublime. He gives it a happy ending that is so bitter sweet he moves us to tears as our damaged leading characters come together to try and seek a way forward, and into the sunlight. It is so beautiful my hands trembled as I read the final pages. This novel alone would’ve assured his place among the giants of literature, but he did it again and again, novel after novel – “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Hard Times,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Tale of Two Cities” (another ending that is so exquisitely executed as our flawed hero rises to the most noble of acts, laying down his wasted life so that others may live and find the joy that had always eluded him. Death giving his meaningless life a meaning. If there’s a better speech than his final words, I would surely love to know about it.

After Dickens I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, Schulberg, Shakespeare, O’Hara, Maugham, Hammett, Greene, Wilde, Twain, Isherwood, Chandler, Huxley, Ephron and many others.

All complex people, flawed, contradictory, confused, and yet so much wiser in their work than in life. Perhaps the writing down of stories and emotions helped them understand themselves.

It’s interesting how great writing never dates. You may think that picking up something that was written a hundred years ago or, in some cases longer, couldn’t possibly be relevant to your life. But the surprising revelation is that the emotions felt are timeless. Just different scenery and choice of words. But at the heart of every great story is just another human being trying to solve the same problems, whilst dealing with the same heartaches, pressures and obstacles. The universal human emotion. If you write the truth in its naked honesty it will always connect – now, tomorrow, a thousand years from now.

It teaches us that we are not alone. We are all in this together, wandering around a desert seeking an answer to why we are here. And awaiting that opportunity to rise to the potential of who we could be.

John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”

A person with books is never alone.

(C) Frank Howson 2018

OUR HEALTHY LIFE

I have seen it all
But missed so much
What happened to our healthy life?
Did we lose our touch?
There are women out there
That want to thrill ya
There are men who stare
That want to kill ya
I'm living in a two room condo
In Clownsville
I think I may've died but
The stubborn part is living still
Love is not for wimps
Or just a point of view
It waivers in the wind
When it doesn't ring true
I've been to hell
They know me there
Tell 'em Frankie boy says hello
If you dare
Everyone I meet
Is somebody's girl
My dad was Jack
My mother was Pearl
They taught me how
To survive our street
And to see the beauty
That comes with defeat


(c) Frank Howson 2018

Painting by Frank Howson (c) 2017

THE HUMBLED

I stumbled and fell into this. It was not of my doing as the road 
I was forging went in a different direction to the dreams of the boy 
I was. This caused me great confusion and suffering as I wandered
lonely as a cloud through school poetry and beatings. My pain became
my shield and protected me from the salt of their laughter. I learned to 
make them laugh before they had the chance to laugh first. Several women 
attempted to wash my feet before my crucifixion one grey day in history
when our father forsaken me because of his drinking. I cried in agony with
a thief each side of me, one believing in me, and one to ridicule me for a
life that ended so. Somehow I rose from the dead and since then I have had 
several resurrections. In fact, the more times people write me off, the 
stronger I come back. My enemies have unwittingly made me indestructible. The shock 
realisation of this has killed many of them. The rest I have dealt with. 
People now stop me in the street and ask for my wisdom. But this wisdom was 
not my doing, and has come from the undoing of everything I wanted and loved.
It was fired by pain and made as strong as steel through humiliation and 
injustice. But still I go on. And those who have spoken against me have
been struck down by God or are dying in the poisoned bile of their lies.
I visit their graves at night to laugh. For nothing is forgotten or 
forgiven at this train stop on the way to Armageddon. I choose to travel
economy for my instinct tells me that God only welcomes the humbled. The man
who brags may get ahead in this life, but suffers a thousand years in the
next. The ignorant fool who never stops talking and always distorts the
third hand facts will be the next to fall on his sword and death
waits patiently in his gallery of art to silence his unrepentant and envious
ways. I am coming for him. Coming in the night. Coming in the dead end
street. Coming in his busy schedule. Coming for rightful correction. Coming.
Every hurtful snide remark is etched on my heart. Every belittling lie
is another stab wound he will suffer. Another thousand years to linger 
at the abyss. And the hellish realisation that it was all for nothing. 

(c) Frank Howson 2017

Photograph by Raija Sunshine (c) 2017