The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

My 1996 interview with the late Nat Hentoff about his years at Down Beat magazine

Nat Hentoff. Photo (cc) 2004 by K.G. Schneider.
Nat Hentoff. Photo (cc) 2004 by K.G. Schneider.

The great journalist and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff died on Saturday at the age of 91. In 1996 I had the privilege of interviewing Hentoff and his former colleague Dom Cerulli for Northeastern University’s alumni magazine. Hentoff and Cerulli, who died in 2013, were both Northeastern alumni, and both served as the editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat in the 1950s. I can’t find the clip, but I did manage to dig up my last rewrite before I turned the article in to my editor. I cannot defend the way the piece opens; all I can say is that I’m glad I’ve continued to improve as a writer. Hentoff was a giant. His death creates a deep void, especially at this moment of crisis.

It was the 1950s, Manhattan, 52nd Street. And it seemed like the whole world was in a groove.

Check it out—over there, at the Five Spot. It’s Thelonious Monk, plunking out the chords to “ ’Round Midnight” on the house piano.

Charlie Parker’s seen better days. You know how it is: sometimes he shows up, sometimes he doesn’t. But he’s still Bird, and if he can borrow an alto sax he’s supposed to be playing tonight at Birdland, the club they named after him.

Dizzy Gillespie’s around, of course, only now he’s not playing much bop. He’s got himself this new trumpet that’s bent up toward the ceiling, and he’s doing some Afro-Cuban thing.

Like the old guys? Well, they’re still holding forth. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, you name it.

Miles Davis, that skinny kid trumpet player who used to be in Bird’s band, is starting to turn heads. And Charles Mingus has a band that’s making the biggest, wildest noise you’ve ever heard.

“It was magical. It was incredible,” says Barry Kernfeld, editor of “The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz” (St. Martin’s, 1994).

It was also a hell of a lot to keep track of.

And from 1952 to ’59, two of the most important witnesses to this musical revolution were a couple of Northeastern guys, Nat Hentoff (Class of 1944) and Dom Cerulli (Class of 1951). They were the New York eyes and ears of Down Beat, a Chicago-based magazine that was—and still is—the most authoritative publication covering jazz.

Continue reading “My 1996 interview with the late Nat Hentoff about his years at Down Beat magazine”

Alphonse Mouzon, a great jazz drummer, has died

As 2016 draws to a close, another great artist has died. This one, though, was not a celebrity. Alphonse Mouzon was a terrific jazz drummer with a long, varied career. I know him best from McCoy Tyner’s Enlightenment (above), a suite that was recorded live at Montreux in 1973. (If you’ve never heard it, I recommend it. It is deeply spiritual in the manner of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, on which Tyner played.)

According to the New York Times obit, Mouzon “learned this fall that he had neuroendocrine cancer and used a crowdfunding platform to help pay for treatment.” Not that the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, et al. weren’t every bit as tragic. But that’s a detail you don’t often see when reading about the death of a musician who at one time was fairly well known.

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And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to … Bob Dylan

I was thrilled to learn this morning that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although it’s a lifetime achievement award, he could have won 50 years ago just for “Visions of Johanna.”

I also hope his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One” is part of his Nobel portfolio. It is a stunning work that tells the largely fictional tale of a character named Bob Dylan. As Dylan once said, quoting Rimbaud, “I is another.”

Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial. Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile.

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A transcendent performance by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin performing at President Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Photo via the US Air Force.
Aretha Franklin performing at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Photo via the US Air Force.

I had thought Friday night’s Aretha Franklin concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion would strictly be one for the bucket list. She may be one of history’s great singers (“Queen of Soul” hardly does her justice), but she’s also 74 and supposedly in shaky health. So Barbara and I were stunned to see her perform for nearly two hours, with her voice as strong as it was in her prime. She put on a thrilling show, backed by a 20-piece-plus orchestra. It was a performance for the ages.

I won’t attempt a review of the entire concert, but I do want to describe something that elevated her performance into something transcendent. Sitting at the piano, she played an extended solo during the opening of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” By extended, I mean she did two long verses. She’s really good. I thought she might be resting her voice. Then she sang it—wonderfully, of course. And, finally, she segued into a some testifying about her health crisis of a few years ago, and thanking God that when she returned to the hospital whatever the doctors had seen before was gone. (I can’t possibly do this justice—I’m just trying to give you some sense of it. You may remember that, for a time, Franklin was rumored to have pancreatic cancer, something she denied in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone.)

At the end, overwhelmed, she started crying. She got up, walked over to a box of tissues, and for several minutes tried to compose herself while the orchestra continued to play. Then, incongruously, she turned to the crowd and said, “Are you all enjoying yourselves?” (That might not be word for word, as I wasn’t taking notes.) She launched into “Freeway of Love,” perhaps her most trivial hit—and crossed up the audience again, as the song eventually morphed into a chant of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Yes, she closed with “Respect.” Who would have guessed that that wouldn’t be a high point? What had come earlier was unforgettable and transformative.

‘When in the course of human events …’

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One of my favorite newspaper rituals is reading the Declaration of Independence in the Boston Globe on the Fourth of July. Reading it on my iPad takes nothing away from the experience. Happy Independence Day!

Talking about ‘Little People’ in Bridgewater on Oct. 3

Charles Stratton (a.k.a. Tom Thumb) and his wife, Lavinia Warren
Charles Stratton (a.k.a. Tom Thumb) and his wife, Lavinia Warren

If you’re in Southeastern Massachusetts, I hope you’ll consider dropping by the Bridgewater Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 3, at 11 a.m. I’ll be giving a talk on “Just Like Us: Images of Dwarfism from Tom Thumb to Reality TV,” based on my 2003 book “Little People.” The event is co-sponsored by Bridgewater State University.

You can read “Little People” online for free. But if you’d like to purchase a copy through the Harvard Book Store, just click here. I’ll also have a few copies available for sale after the talk.

Forty years burning down the road

c71b14f7d4853d150ed52e41e9dd889df4c007efI don’t want to let the day end without taking note of the 40th anniversary of “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s third and best album.

I was a 19-year-old Northeastern student in 1975, riding the bus from my hometown of Middleborough to Boston, where I was on co-op working in public relations at the United Way. I’d just about worn out my copy of “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” his second album, and had seen an incredible show of his at the Music Hall in November 1974. I’d been bugging my local record store for months about “Born to Run,” and I bought it the day it finally came out.

And what an album it was. On one level, I was disappointed. I loved the ensemble playing and long jams on “The E Street Shuffle,” and I thought something had been lost with the single-minded focus on Springsteen that defines “Born to Run.” But more had been gained: a mythic quality that he hadn’t even hinted at previously. Some of it was a mirage. The Spectorish shimmer of “Backstreets” gets me every time, but the lyrics are a muddle. Still, it all works together, and “Thunder Road” may be the best song he ever wrote. (It’s also pretty devastating if you think of it as the prelude to “Racing in the Street,” from “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” From boisterous hope to resignation in three short years.)

Springsteen has maintained his integrity, and he’s still a great live performer. On Aug. 25, 1975, he was magic.

Barry Crimmins gets his overdue due in ‘Call Me Lucky’

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Barry Crimmins in “Call Me Lucky”

What can you say about a film that stars someone you know and admire telling the world about being raped repeatedly — and nearly killed — when he was 3 years old?

Since we’re talking about Barry Crimmins, I would say that you should see it as soon as you can.

“Call Me Lucky,” directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, had its New England premiere on Saturday at the Somerville Theatre as part of the Independent Film Festival. As befits the subject, the documentary almost feels like two films. In the first part we meet Crimmins the caustic left-wing performer, who almost single-handedly created Boston’s comedy scene in the 1980s. In the second part, Crimmins comes to terms with his past as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

It was during this second phase that I got to know Barry. He revealed what had happened to him in the early 1990s in a harrowing front-page essay for The Boston Phoenix headlined “Baby Rape.” (I had a small role in copy-editing it, but most of the heavy lifting was handled by the late Caroline Knapp — and, of course, by Barry himself.) Later, Barry was a valuable resource as I was doing my own reporting about child sexual abuse. This was around the time Barry was engaged in a very public campaign against AOL and the pedophiles it allowed to run rampant in its chatrooms, a centerpiece of “Call Me Lucky.” Even though I can’t pretend to be a close friend of Barry’s, I’ve always been struck by his fundamental kindness and decency — a quality that comes through repeatedly in the film. (I was among many people Goldthwait interviewed, but I didn’t make the cut.)

Barry was a regular in the Phoenix, writing a satirical year-in-review piece every Christmas as well as other humor pieces. This 2003 takedown of Dennis Miller works as well today as it did 12 years ago. I still laugh when I recall his referring to George W. Bush as “the court-appointed president.” Barry was a big part of the Phoenix, and vice-versa. So I was pleased to see him pay tribute to the late managing editor Clif Garboden in the credits, saying he learned to write through Clif’s editing. Fittingly, Clif’s own classic apex as an angry humorist begins with a quote from Barry.

Despite its somber subject matter, there are plenty of laughs in “Call Me Lucky” — not just from Crimmins, but from many other comedians, including Jimmy Tingle, Margaret Cho and Lenny Clarke. The biggest laughs, though, are reserved for Ronald Reagan, who is seen attempting to explain what he knew and didn’t know about the Iran-Contra scandal. The man was a comic genius.

Barry was — and is — a comic genius as well. Because I wasn’t taking notes, I’ll rely on the press release for one of my favorite bits from the movie. A protégé of Barry’s, Bill Hicks, recalls that a member of the audience once yelled, “If you don’t love America why don’t you get out?” Crimmins’ response: “Because I don’t want to be a victim of its foreign policy!”

Also posted at WGBHNews.org.