Sometime, before I was born, I was offered a deal by God. He said, “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m going to let you go back and have another shot at Life. I will also grant you a great gift. You will experience the dizzying highs and devastating lows of human existence but you must write about it. You will have great loves and learn what it’s like to lose such a prize. Your heart will be broken to such an extent that you will develop empathy for everyone and everything. It is only through pain that one obtains true insight into the human condition. You will be broken but through that you find a humility that will enlighten you with an appreciation of how precious every second of life is. While others around you accumulate money you will see the ultimate futility in this, and realise that true wealth is found in true friendship. Your loneliness at times will make you feel like a prisoner in solitary confinement, but this will only heighten your joy of walking in the sun. You will be granted my greatest gift to all mankind, free will. It is up to you whether you choose to call this life a burden or a gift. No one is born with empathy for others, it is earned by a life well lived, the mistakes made and the knowledge that is garnered by shared loss. You will break your heart to live it, and break your heart again to relive it in words. There will be times when you curse me for being a hard God and there will be times when you weep for how compassionate my love is for you. For true love is to accept not only the best of someone, but also their worst. We all fall many times under the weight of our cross. But let me remind you that this life was never intended to be heaven. It is a learning place that prepares you for the ultimate joy of having weathered a storm and the appreciation of finding the warmth and welcoming arms of unconditional love granted to those who complete their journey without bitterness or hate. For to truly appreciate heaven, one must first pass through hell.
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.
It’s always midnight in my school boy heart
Only the alleys have known my joy
For sometimes I have experienced a bliss that is so exquisite it can’t be verbalised to anyone
Not even to the few who would care
So I have walked it away
In the dark
Along empty city side streets
It’s a pity Oscar Hammerstein didn’t write the script for our lives.
He would’ve written it just right. It would’ve had its highs and lows, some humour, all the boring bits cut in Philadelphia, and ending, of course, on a note of hope
Instead here we are
What’s it all about, Alfie?
The Winner Takes It All?
A Change Is Gonna Come?
Or just 45s from our youth?
Is this the little boy I carried? We live in a world where everything we’ve been told for the past 50 years
Has been a lie
And those that come forth and tell us the truth
Get removed from this life
New leaders are elected on a platform of change
But usually it’s just a case of
Same car, different driver
Evil does indeed exist
And those who have sold their souls
Worship at the alter of a false God – Money
But all it buys them is emptiness
And if there is an eternity
What a hell it would be spent in that state of regret year in, year out – Arrogance comes before a fall The prophets told us – Yes, Wilhelm Reich was right And the weather report suggests a hard rain
My sweet Rosemary
She came to tea
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
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
I was fooled by the mystery of women
Until I realised there is no mystery at all
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
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
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
And God was exasperated
By my lack of ability to learn
So I endured many hardships
Smashing my spirit
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 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 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
Will save the last dance for me
And although now
I will decline it
But will be touched
By the invitation
As I think back
The days when I danced
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.”
It has been thought, up until now, that the 7th. Cavalry were committing a cruel and heartless genocide against the Americans Indians. An evil act. Not true. And we can’t believe that of the good guys, otherwise, where would we be? And good people are never confused about who they are. As anyone who knew him will testify, General George Armstrong Custer was a concerned citizen above all else. It has even been suggested by various world famous psychics that, in a previous life, at the trial of Jesus before Pilate, the nameless man in the crowd that started the chant, “Crucify him!…Crucify him!” was indeed the spirit of Custer again, our eternal concerned citizen.
In fact you can trace Custer’s previous lives quite easily through history. He triggered the French Revolution by spreading the lie that Marie Antoinette, when informed that most of the people in the street didn’t have bread to eat, responded with “Well let them eat cake.” Not the first time someone has been misquoted for political agendas, and certainly not the last. But let’s not blame Custer, our spiritual Everyman. He was just a concerned citizen doing what he thought was best for all.
The truth about the demise of the American Red Indians is this, and you’re reading it here for the first time, they were killed by a whole bevy of concerned citizens, concerned that the Indians penchant for sending out smoke signals was harmful to the health of non-smokers. Yep, that incredibly dangerous and toxic second-hand smoke theory. Of course it’s never been proven that anyone has ever died of second-hand smoke inhalation, well not unless they have lived their whole life in the smokers room at Hong Kong Airport, that is. But that’s beside the facts. In fact, facts confirm that concerned citizens throughout history have been more dangerous than second-hand smoke.
I remember when I lived in L. A and I was standing outside a restaurant on Main Street, Santa Monica, having a cigarette on the pavement, when a woman jogger saw me and started coughing about 20 metres away from me and continued to do so right until she passed and in doing so made the effort to put both her hands in front of her nose and mouth in case smoke from my cigarette changed course and veered into her breathing orifices. I watched this pantomime with bemused fascination for sometime before yelling out to her, “You are so concerned about your lungs, yet you choose to live in Los Angeles?…Oh, have a nice day!”
I shouldn’t have been angry at her. She was just a concerned citizen. And the product of a long line of concerned citizens. Just as the Klu Klux Klan will tell you they’re just a gathering of concerned citizens. Being aware of this trait, I am now, myself, very concerned when people around me get concerned. I have mental pictures of me hanging from a tree for the amusement of a mob of concerned citizens, or a judge washing his hands and sealing my fate rather than stand up to a crowd of angry and concerned citizens. Or having the cavalry run me off my land and turning to see my home in flames, and my family killed. Or what is left of them. But hey, the culprits weren’t blood thirsty killers they were concerned men who had families and homes of their own.
I have lived through the Civil Rights liberation (allegedly), Women’s Liberation (allegedly), Gay Rights Liberation (allegedly) etc. So, I’m using this forum to announce that I am starting the Smokers Liberation Movement. And at this stage we have not ruled out using violence to get our message accepted. Especially if we haven’t had a cigarette in a while. No longer will we be shunned as second class citizens. Banished from restaurants (even outdoor restaurants), bars, beaches, within 20 miles of a school, football stadiums (and fuck, do you need a smoke when your team is losing!), and planes. Trust me, if I’m on a plane and we’re going down? I’m lighting up. Fuck the fine.
We are told, in no uncertain terms, to go and stand in the rain if we want a smoke, or go up a dark alley (I once said to a waiter who instructed me to do so, “You must’ve misheard me, I don’t want to shoot up, just want a cigarette.”)
It even screws up personal relationships with people, because you are no longer a person, you are a “smoker” and in most cases that makes you as popular as Donald Trump at Hillary Clinton’a Birthday Party.
Even signs seem to scream at you. WARNING – SMOKING NOT ALLOWED!
They even give us our ridiculously priced (in Australia anyway) lethal weapon in packets displaying some of the most horrific images of gangrene feet, diseased black lungs. etc., etc., etc. These images are enough to traumatise you into 20 years of therapy. I now order the “Smoking may harm your pregnancy” – thinking at my age getting pregnant might be the lesser of the illustrated horrors.
One night a woman turned to me in a crowd and said, “You smell of cigarettes!” To which I replied, “And you smell of rudeness.”
I shouldn’t have blamed her. She was just a concerned citizen.