Monday, September 26, 2011

Bob Dylan, Ralph Rinzler, and Folkways: A Vision Shared

Ralph Rinzler, Bob Dylan, John Herald

Fifty years ago tonight, Bob Dylan played his second major booking in New York City, opening for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerdes Folk City. At that time the Greenbriar Boys were led by singer-guitarist John Herald, with Bob Yellin on banjo and Ralph Rinzler on mandolin.

There are video clips of the Greenbriar Boys floating around, but so far as I can tell, all of them were recorded after Rinzler left the group in 1963. Rinzler was no slouch of a musician, but he was more influential as a folklorist. 

Rinzler published a piece in Sing Out! in 1963 which was a keystone in establishing Bill Monroe's role in the development of bluegrass music, served as Monroe's manager at a key point in Monroe's critical and popular resurgence, and even played as a Blue Grass Boy for a while. (Rinzler has also been credited, on occasion, as the first writer to use the term "bluegrass" in print, though that is likely an exaggeration.) He also brought Doc Watson to the national stage and identified and recruited scores of traditional musicians for the Newport Folk Festival.

In late 1966, Rinzler began working with the Smithsonian Institution, where he would spend the rest of his professional life. Initially recruited simply as a consultant for its planned folk music festival, he successfully pressed to expand its focus to folklife and folk arts generally. By 1976, he organized the Smithsonian's 3-month-long bicentennial folklife festival, then became director of its Office of Folklife Programs. His professional biography is rich in achievement.

In the mid-1980's, Rinzler became determined to acquire the Folkways Records archives from its founder, Mo Asch, and reissue its recordings as part of its successful music program. But the Smithsonian's newly installed chief executive refused to support the plan, forcing Rinzler to try to find business and corporate donations.

On July 5, 1986, accompanied by his son Jesse, Bob Dylan turned up at the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival, looking for Rinzler. He introduced Jesse to him, telling his son "This is the guy whose band I played opening act for on my first club date." Their conversation turned to Rinzler's projects, and his setback on the Folkways deal. The next day, Rinzler met with Dylan and his management team to develop the Folkways: A Vision Shared album project. With artists like Bruce Springsteen and U2 enlisted, donating their royalties, the $400,000 guarantee for the benefit disc, half the cost of the acquisition, making the purchase feasible. An unidentified private donor contributed another $200,000, allowing the deal, which also included Woody Guthrie's papers and personal archive, to close in 1987. (The balance was apparently funded by later artist-donated royalties, an HBO TV special and home video, and earnings from the revitalized label.)

After an extended illness, Ralph Rinzler died July 2, 1994. The Washington Post described him as "The man who brought America to the National Mall." The New York Times, citing his efforts to expand the Smithsonian's folklife programs beyond their traditional focus on Anglo-American culture, curiously and incorrectly described him as African-American. The Smithsonian renames a section of its archives in his honor.

Somehow I expect Rinzler would have appreciated what's said and shown here more. The video also includes a much better account of Rinzler's life than I've written here. It also includes a short clip of Rinzler performing (a song Dylan played once with the Dead, coincidentally), comments from the other two Greenbriar Boys who played that night 50 years ago, and various other folks you'll recognize.

Songs for Ralph

Curiously enough, you can't buy the Vision Shared album through Folkways Records (it's on Columbia). But you can buy Folkways: The Original Vision, the Guthrie and Lead Belly recordings of the same songs, from them, and Rinzler might have been more pleased if you bought that, too.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bob Dylan's Second Appearance on "Saturday Night Live"

Dylan's first appearance on SNL is well-documented and well-remembered, a benchmark in his career. It was the first exposure for most of his audience to the freshly-minted fire-and-brimstone preacher, on a TV show enjoying among the highest ratings of its long run, reaching perhaps fifty times as many viewers as people who had already bought the LP.

But who remembers even the build-up for his second appearance on the program, nearly a decade later, on the heavily promoted 1988 season finale, hosted by Gilda Radner. With an eagerly-awaited new album about to hit the stores, with his longest tour since 1978 to follow in just two weeks, Dylan surprised the audience as he fronted a small group featuring SNL bandleader G. E. Smith and delivered a riveting performance of his new single, "Silvio," as well as a sensitive acoustic rendition of another song from his new album, . . . 

OK, that didn't happen. Never took place. I made it up -- but only sort of. It was on the schedule. It was planned. But the internal warfare in the entertainment industry kept it from happening. Somehow it's gone virtually unreported, even by those of us with the most determined interest in documenting Dylan's career.

In the spring of 1988, the late night TV show had narrowly avoided cancellation just two years earlier after a period of creative and popular decline; but now the retooled SNL was recovering smartly. Lorne Michaels, by the beginning of March, had mapped out a top-drawer season finale, featuring Gilda Radner as host, making her return to the show after eight years, and Dylan as musical guest. 

And then in early March, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. While most of the 1987-88 TV season was unaffected, the scripted-on-the-fly, live or same-day taped series like Tonight and SNL were forced to shut down. The strike, the longest of its kind, dragged on until August. 

When SNL production resumed in September, no effort was made to repackage any of the cancelled bookings. Radner never hosted the show; she died within the year. In a pair of striking if unimportant coincidences, she died on May 20, the date of the 1989 SNL season finale, and was buried on May 24, Dylan's birthday. 

Dylan has not yet appeared again on SNL. While there were rumors of a Wilburys appearance during the 1988-89 season, it never happened, although the 1990 season finale featured Mark Knopfler's Notting Hillbillies. seen by some as a minor league version of the Wilburys.

The plans for Dylan's return to SNL were first reported, so far as I can tell, by AP reporter Kathryn Baker, who interviewed Dylan in August in Los Angeles and Michaels in early fall in New York, mentioning it in a nationally syndicated piece on the TV show's return to the air.

It's tantalizing to think about what might have happened. The SNL broadcast would have very high-profile, particularly with Radner's health drama and the tabloid focus on her failed marriage to G. E. Smith. A rousing performance by Dylan, along the lines of most of the early NET dates, would have washed away the memories of the televised Live Aid shambles and the less-than-exciting Farm Aid miniset. Then, a few days later, Down In The Groove would be released, to a chorus of mostly favorable reviews.

What's that, you say? Wasn't DITG scorned and castigated when it was released? Well, that's how it's remembered, but that's just not what happened. Rolling Stone's review may have been lukewarm, but its tone was friendly, and the high-circulation USA Today raved that the album was "a glorious achievement."  Most newspaper reviews found it enjoyable if less than major. Its reputation has steadily declined, but its initial reception was warm and supportive.

So, in this history-that-never-happened, following a smash TV appearance and a happily received album, Dylan goes out on the road in June 1988, not seen as the haphazard 60's refugee that the US press saw after the Petty and Dead tours pf the two prior years, but as the "reborn singing songwriter and collector of great tunes" that USA Today praised. It's hard to see him playing to the string of half-filled smaller arenas that faced him in the real 1988. It's easy to contemplate a triumphant fall appearance at Madison Square Garden in October, perhaps with a Wilbury or four in tow for the encores.

Of course, he might have decided to play "Ugliest Girl In The World," "Had A Dream About You Baby," or even "Shenandoah." He might have stumbled over his lines in a Candy Slice sketch with Radner. Not every promising opportunity turns out as well as one would hope. Even if the TV show went well, would the suddenly higher visibility have been such a good thing? I doubt the Bob Dylan who wrote Chronicles would have thought so. The NeverEnding Tour, as it actually played out, has had a pretty good run after all, at least so far.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lucinda Williams Wedding Videos

Most online wedding videos are rather dire, more interesting (if interesting at all) as train wrecks waiting to happen, and weddings that close with AC/DC songs are particularly unlikely to appeal to anybody not interested in ridiculing the participants.  However . . .

Two years ago, Lucinda Williams kicked off her "30th Anniversary Tour" at First Avenue in Minneapolis, a 650-seat club converted from a former Greyhound bus depot in 1970. About a week before the concert, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune broke the news that Williams and her fiancé-manager Tom Overby had scheduled their marriage ceremony between the main set and the encores of the September 18 concert.

The suggestion for an onstage wedding reportedly came from Williams's father, onetime U.S. poet laureate Miller Williams. An inspiration was apparently Hank Williams's onstage wedding in 1952.

There doesn't seem to be an audio recording of the concert in circulation, but there are lot of photos to be found, and, even better, enough audience videos to allow a pretty good record of the event. Williams began the show with "Motherless Children," running through a brief history of her recording career with "Stop Breaking Down," "Lafayette," "Happy Woman Blues," "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad," "Big Red Sun Blues." "Changed the Locks," "Pineola," "Sweet Old World," "Concrete and Barbed Wire," "I Lost It." "Joy," "Out of Touch," "Essence," "Real Live Bleeding Fingers," "Righteously," and "Come On." (It's a little surprising not to see "Passionate Kisses" in there, at least to me, but the song wasn't a regular feature of her 2009 setlists.) The main set finished with "Honey Bee," and there's a pretty good video of the performance.

Honey Bee

Williams then returned for two solo acoustic songs. The first, "Plan To Marry," pretty clearly sets up the remainder of the evening.

Plan To Marry

Lucinda finishes with what is probably the musical highlight of the night, her first performance (I believe) of the Hank Williams lyrics she set to music, "I'm Happy I Found You" for the Dylan-curated project, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

I'm Happy I Found You 

And then we come to the ceremony itself, beginning with a poem read by the father of the bride, who played a similar role at Bill Clinton's second inauguration. (No, not me, the other guy.) By the way, the guy in the tux who's been showing up from time to time is not the groom, but is Lucinda's guitar tech.

The main event

Then, of course, we get the newly-wedded couple's first dance. Untraditionally, they also perform the song they dance to. OK, it's mostly performed by the bride; she did, after all, bring her own band.


And then, the sentimental standard that closes the evening.

It's A Long Way To The Top 
And, as is the case for so many modern couples, you can find their official wedding photos online, too. 

The photo page 

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Dylan's Aura Was Purple, Just Like Buckminster Fuller's

The story goes that, in mid-1977, with Sara having at least temporarily having won custody of their children, Bob Dylan sat down with T-Bone Burnett, and that Burnett read him warnings from the Bible about how those who consort with astrologers and other practitioners of the supernatural would be punished with the loss of their families.

Burnett was certainly familiar with the sorts of unworldly folks Dylan had been consorting with. The Rolling Thunder Revue, especially during its 1976 leg, included a house astrologer and other New-Age style occultists in its entourage.

One of them was palmist and tarot reader Elissa Heyman. Heyman is now based in Santa Fe, NM, where she offers "psychic consultations," in person or by telephone, and related services including "house clearings," at a base rate of $135/hour. She accepts Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal.

But back in 1976, the 25-year-old neophyte psychic had recently left a long-term internship at a Santa Barbara mental health clinic and, following guidance from her Tarot, had just flown to Fort Worth when, as Heyman tells it, Bob Dylan drove up to her while she was sitting on a curb and invited her to join the Rolling Thunder Revue.
(This would have happened on May 15, 16, or 17, meaning her actual time in the Revue would be less than two weeks, hardly the official "psychic reader for Bob Dylan's 'Rolling Thunder'" she seems to be touted as these days.)

Heyman, although she recognizes Dylan, is initially hesitant to join the tour, saying she needs to wait for "an omen." But she soon enough agrees to join. Dylan warns her "You can't just come with me, you've got to do something." So she begins by reading his palm, going on to read tarot for members of the troupe.

She remembers that Dylan had an unusual, intense purple aura, indicating a "tremendous investment in knowledge." She can recall only one person with a similar aura, the late Buckminster Fuller. 

You can experience a recent interview on Heyman's life and career at Tarot Joy Radio, with audio here

Tarot Joy Radio (July 13 program)

and video here 

Tarot Joy Radio video

The video starts a bit later in the webcast, but goes on longer and includes full psychic readings.

I wouldn't worry that listening to/viewing these will cause you to lose your family. I'm pretty sure God would view the experience as pretty much punishment itself.