Bob Dylan – Someone You Want To Photograph.

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May 24 2016: Happy 75th Birthday Bob Dylan

FullSizeRender (1)Bob Dylan has always been almost as old as my parents. He has also always been forever young, staring up at me from the cover of the book that has graced my coffee table for decades.

I don’t remember when what he sang first mattered to me, yet I can’t remember a time when it didn’t, a time when I wasn’t tangled up in blue.  In 1979, my high school English teacher let me borrow his Street Legal LP, an album that was crucified by a handful of critics who might consider themselves more qualified than I to measure the success of a Dylan song. (Not Michael Gray, mind you, who writes that it is “one of Dylan’s most important and cohesive albums . . . of astonishing complexity and confidence delivered in one of Dylan’s most authoritative voices.” He also points out that it was badly produced, but that doesn’t matter to me.  What matters to me and anyone else who has ever missed someone – or something – is “Where Are You Tonight?” It remains a staple in the “soundtrack of my life” and maybe even yours. We all have one.

But without you it just doesn’t seem right.
Oh, where are you tonight?

“Hey, hey, HEY, hey.”

Where are you tonight? 

Examining the cover of the Street Legal album, it occurred to me that this was the first time I considered Bob Dylan in color. Until then my idea of him was monochromatic, an iteration of the Bob Dylan we know from the “Subterranean Homesick Bluesvideo – forever flippant, flipping over his cue cards, dropping them in the alley. Deadpan.

Laid Off. Bad Cough. Paid Off. And, finally – naturally – What?? 

What??

Always on the road, heading for another joint. That’s what. That’s why. Isn’t it?

Always on the road, heading for another joint.

During one of my first summers in the United States, an American cousin took me to Buffalo to see The Grateful Dead open for Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. In color. I had seen Dylan perform at Slane Castle in Ireland in the summer of 1984 –  a mighty performance with Santana and a surprise appearance by  Van Morrison.bob-002But this was different. This was as American as the idea could be. Deadheads. Tie-dye. Weed. The Wave. This was the Fourth of July.  “It doesn’t rain on the Fourth of July!” Bob Weir told the crowd, and like poetry,  the heavens opened. This was Positively 4th Street (What??), and I loved it.

As a going away present, my cousin later gave me the coffee table book. Published in 1967, it is a collection of photographs by Daniel Kramer. Black and white, these indelible images taken over a period of two years, reveal the young man Kramer characterizes as someone “who set his own marks and did not allow himself to be manipulated.”

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes

IMG_7430For Kramer, Dylan is “someone worth photographing,” someone worth seeing from different perspectives. For me, Dylan is someone who forces you – without telling you – to shift a little in order to see better.  Thus we find him perched on a branch in a tree or in an alleyway in London or Stuck Inside of Mobile. Or in the falling shadows.

Photography is just light, of course, and the good photographer finds the right light. It is writing with light, and there’s magic in it, as Amyn Nasser describes:

. . . the ability to stir the soul with light and shape and color. To create grand visual moments out of small and simple things, and to infuse big and complicated subjects with unpretentious elegance. [The photographer] respects classic disciplines, while at the same time insists on being fast, modern and wild.

Yes, the ability to stir the soul and to see things – like Bob Dylan sees things.

What??

Dylan has a way of seeing into things right in front of us and into the empty spaces between them. It makes sense, I suppose, that the self proclaimed song and dance man is also a welder, making gates out of vintage iron and scrap metal. Gates appeal to Dylan, “because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”

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What??

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Hundreds of fragments of songs from Dylan’s phases and stages ripple through every decade of my life, through all my twists and turns, through all the mess – the joy and the loss and the moments when my expectations were so low that I wanted only to make it through the day without being seen.  By anyone. Nobody phrases it better than Dylan.  Nobody.

On his 75th birthday this week, there will be fanfare and tributes and an unspoken relief that he is still with us in a year that has left us bereft, perhaps more aware of our mortality. There will be revised “essential” lists  compiled by Dylanologists who have explicated and analyzed every lyric. There will be recycled stories about that time he was booed for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and perhaps renewed speculation about what if he had married Mavis Staples. What if? There will be arguments over the ‘seminal’ moments of his life. Some of us might disagree and just take a trip back to a hot night in the summer of 1988 when we saw him play at the Mesa Amphitheater – when lightning struck.

I just want to wish him a happy birthday and say thank you. I’ll maybe even buy a ticket to see him play one more time.  With Mavis Staples.

It’s not dark yet . . .

 

 

 

 

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still we dance – on mother’s day in america

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This weekend marks another Mother’s Day without the man who made a mother out of me, the man who loved me so well and for so long. Our girl plans to take time off work to spend the day with me, and we know – but we keep it to ourselves – that looking forward to a special Sunday together will lead to looking back to the way it used to be, to once upon a time when she, her father in tow, set out on the annual quest for a gift for me. Every antique store in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area was their stomping ground as they searched for something bijou, something that would bring whimsy to our backyard – the kind of thing I would never need but would more than make my day. There are reminders still – napping cats wrought of stone and metal, painted birdhouses, fading windsocks, and wind chimes of bamboo that would toil less were they hung from a Cypress tree on the Monterey coast. Always – because I would have been annoyed otherwise – that man of mine would commision for me a piece of original art by our daughter. We both knew my odds of acquiring such a piece were significantly better when he asked her to do it. We all knew our dance steps.

At the same time, every year on Mother’s Day in America, I am drawn back to another world, another time with my mother. The miles between us fall away, and there she is standing in our garden; in her arms a great armful of sheets rescued from the clothes-line just before another rain. Next, there is the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next.

Our daughter learned those same moves not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen on the Dublin Road, but on the sandy edges of California, late on an August evening before fog rolled in. Facing me, a blanket stretched between us, she stepped forward, intent on matching her corners to mine, my edge to hers.

In the middle we met, and there we paused to make the final fold, while unbeknownst to us, her father took photographs of us and wrote our names in the sand, and waited for the tide to wash them away. Forever.

And still we dance.

From Clearances V by Seamus Heaney

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984I

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The cool that came off the sheets just off the line 
Made me think the damp must still be in them 
But when I took my corners of the linen 
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem 
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook 
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, 
They made a dried-out undulating thwack. 
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand 
For a split second as if nothing had happened 
For nothing had that had not always happened 
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go, 
Coming close again by holding back 
In moves where I was x and she was o 
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

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Listen here as Seamus Heaney reads the poem.

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In appreciation of a teacher . . .

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Remembering Brian Baird . . .

Once upon a time, before news traveled at break-neck speed to our smart phones and our Cable TV networks, we waited for it. We had no choice, and when “the news” came on at teatime, it was a serious affair that demanded our attention. It was rarely, if ever, about  a new animal born at the zoo or a wardrobe malfunction of someone famous. When UTV broadcaster, Brian Baird, entered our living rooms, in black and with poker-faced authority as he told us something new, we took it as gospel.

As my brother says, “You could read nothing in that face. It was all in the voice. The face, if it told you anything, told you this: listen to what I’ve found out since I was talking to you last. This is very important, and will take only three minutes.” There was no shuffling of papers, no footerin’ with a pen – there was just the news.

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I remember wondering, amid the flurry of texts and Tweets about the death of our Seamus Heaney, how the late Brian Baird would have broken the news. Would he have maintained his composure or would he have lost what veteran American anchorman, Walter Kronkite, described as the “running battle” between his emotions and his news sense when he announced on-air, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I suspect the latter.

I first met Mr. Baird on a September morning in the early 1980s. I was a student at Queen’s University of Belfast’s Stranmillis College, and I was late for my first Modern Irish Fiction Since Joyce seminar. When I opened the door, it was to the sound of a familiar voice coming from the front of a classroom. There he was, sitting behind a desk that was too small for him, reciting Yeats, delivering the message with the same gentle gravitas with which he also read the news. Away from the TV in the corner of our living room on the Dublin Road, Mr. Baird was larger than life. As such, over the course of that year, he changed my life as only the best teacher can.

In Mr. Baird’s seminar, I discovered the novels of Edna O’Brien, the short stories of Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, and Brian Friel’s plays. Even as I write, I can hear his recitation of Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Raglan Road,” which made we weep a little. Indeed, it is preferable to think of Mr. Baird waxing poetic than reporting news that was mostly bad in those days.

It was Mr. Baird who introduced me to Seamus Heaney. “Professionally unfussed” like Heaney’s Diviner, he led his students in and out of those poems, wondering always and wandering through rural places and practices I knew well, but had until then taken for granted. I felt a new pride, almost boastful  that I belonged to Heaney’s places – Castledawson, The Hillhead, The Lough shore, Broagh. I found a new respect for the craft of certain men who peopled those parts and Heaney’s poems – The Thatcher, Barney Devlin, the blacksmith at The Forge, The Diviner, men like my father who I once observed “witch” water, the pull of it so strong where he stood, that the stick in the shape of a wishbone, bent and almost tied itself in a knot, “suddenly broadcasting through a green hazel its secret stations.”

My newfound appreciation for the ways of life in the townlands of rural Derry did little to make me more punctual to class or timely with submission of homework. Mr. Baird referred to me as “the late Miss Watterson,” announcing my arrival in a way that only encouraged my tardiness. I enjoyed his attention, and I saved every hand-written essay, because I loved his red-ink comments. Often, I imagined him sharing his assessments of work on the six o’clock news: “A very sound survey, which I was pleased, at last, to receive. I had had oral evidence of its existence.” Or, “This was received very late, so I can’t guarantee this mark.” I got the mark anyway.

He started out as a young English teacher in 1956, far away from Belfast, in Kuala Kangsa, a small town in Malaysia. He had accepted a post that had recently been vacated by a John Wilson, who later under the pen name of Anthony Burgess, wrote the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. After a successful five years, he moved to the island of Penang, where his son, Patric, was born. And in 1963, the year I was born, the Bairds returned to Northern Ireland, bringing with them a cargo of words and phrases, recipes and photographs, of exotic Eastern places that could not have been further away from Belfast.

I remember seeing Mr. Baird one night in the foyer of The Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street, just a few doors down from where I lived when I was a student.  It was before a play, and he was enjoying a cigar and a laugh with local celebrities, his thick gold bracelet chinking against a brandy glass as he raised it in my direction. I wish I had been bold enough to say hello and ask if he thought the play was going to be all it was cracked up to be. I know now he would have welcomed me into the conversation, but I was hesitant, awkwardly aware of being the first person in my family to attend university or to go to a play at The Lyric Theater – I may as well have been in Penang.

In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney explains to Dennis O’Driscoll:

Even Belfast was far away to me. In those days,I was outside the loop, my family had no familiarity with universities, no sense of the choices that there were, no will to go beyond the known procedures, no confidence, for example, about phoning up the local education authority and seeking clarification about what was possible – no phone, for God’s sake.

A university education in Belfast was a world away from the Broagh and necessitated a kind of verbal dance with his mother, when he returned from it to the family home, full of new knowledge, new words, and new sensitivities. I can almost picture him – in that tight space between elevated and plain Derry speech, watching every word he says, weighing its impact before he utters it. My mother and I have danced that very dance, her telling me to this day, ” you know all them things.”

From Clearances IV

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.

With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.


In 1991, Mr. Baird would receive a letter from me. I was living in Phoenix and teaching part-time. In anticipation of teaching an Irish literature class, I wondered if he would maybe share with me the syllabus from the Irish Fiction course that changed me. He obliged, and I love knowing that the elegant hand-written letter remains folded between the pages of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.

Letter from Brian Baird

I wish there had been more letters between us, because he probably had much more to teach me. He died in 1998, by which time I was consumed with learning how to be a new mother – my daughter’s first teacher. I never made the time to thank him for the life-long gift of Seamus Heaney’s poetry – there has not been one day of my adult life that I have not been grateful for it.

When Mr. Baird died, then manager of Ulster Television(UTV), Desmond Smyth, described him as many of us remember him:

To a TV generation Brain Baird was the voice and the face of UTV news. He was a totally professional broadcaster and a charming work colleague with not an ounce of ego about him.

Like Seamus Heaney’s men – not an ounce of ego.

Out of the blue, one morning in April 2013, I received an email from his son, Patric. In his travels, he had found my writing and was pleased to read there about the impact of his father on yet another former student. It turns out I am part of a large and global fan-club. Patric told me that on a trip to Malay to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, he met some of his father’s former pupils, now men in their seventies who recall with gratitude how their teacher had helped shape their appreciation of literature and the English language.

It was a long struggle with a rare form of leukemia that killed my favorite teacher, and Patric says he remained positive throughout the illness. Of course he did.

Sadly, Mr. Baird did not live to see his son become a journalist, nor would he ever know the full extent of his influence as a teacher and a lover of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Even though I know he is the man who kept on reading the news in spite of a fly landing on his lip, I have to believe that his inscrutable poker face would break into a smile at the thought of his son and a former student, each of us in our fifties and like Seamus Heaney, “crediting marvels.”

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After my husband died and the weekend before my first Christmas as a widow, a large envelope arrived from Belfast. Inside, was a typed letter from Patric, who had heard the news, and a familiar volume of poems. For some time, he had been meaning to send me one of his father’s books of Heaney’s poetry, and while searching for my address, he learned of my husband’s death.  In his letter, he shared with some details of his father’s death, a few days before Christmas in 1998, and told me of the long flight Patric made home to be with his family. Whether from London to Belfast or Phoenix to Arizona, the flight is too long, fraught with a desperate desire to just be where you belong.

So it was that Mr. Baird’s personal copy of “Death of a Naturalist” became part of my collection. Patric tells me it was

 It is certainly the most dog-eared of the collection and probably the one he read the most. I’m sure he could think of no better person to whom he would like it passed on.

All over America this week, teachers and their craft will be honored with public fanfare and the more personal gestures as well. It’s the time of year when some teachers are counting down the days until school’s out for summer, and others are figuring out how to make every minute matter until the final bell rings on the last day of school. Cards and hand-written letters of gratitude will be saved in shoeboxes or between the pages of books and rediscovered over the years, reminders of what Henry Adams said about a teacher’s effect on eternity. “He can never tell where his influence stops.”

Thank you, Mr. Baird.

I am forever in your debt.

 

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‘you need a love that’s gonna last . . .’

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Little red Corvette
Baby you’re much too fast
Little red Corvette
You need a love that’s gonna last.

I first paid attention to Prince and the Revolution when I was about twenty years old and “Little Red Corvette” was getting regular airplay on Radio One. It was the eighties. Accordingly, I had big hair, big enough to be in The Revolution, and stowed in the back of my mind I had big plans to escape from Northern Ireland and its greyness. Most of the time, I was bored and with no particular place to go other than the disco on a Saturday night with my best friend. And, “Little Red Corvette” – if it’s about anything – is about Saturday night, when driven to dance under strobe lights and a fog machine, you might just get the girl or the guy, if only for that one Saturday night. Sexy, seductive, and – as only Prince could sing it – smooth.

I knew that “Little Red Corvette” wasn’t really about the Corvette, not that I could have correctly identified a Corvette had it been parked sideways in front of my door. It was about something else, some elusive thing that shook and shimmered beyond a Saturday night at the disco in a Northern Ireland town, something wild and just beyond my grasp, something that all these years later still teases and taunts me to take a walk on Lou Reed’s wild side. It was a little dangerous, but not enough to stop me from taking that walk with Lou Reed or David Bowie or Prince or the man I married. That walk has always been worth it because along the way I would discover at least one book of magic in the garbage can – the kind that makes an appearance just once in a lifetime, the stuff of shooting stars, and only for those who are the luckiest. And the unluckiest, because then comes the loss – just to even things out.


Long before he met me, and somewhere between the motorcycle, the muscle car, and the flatbed Ford, the man who loved me owned a Corvette. A little red one. A 1961 model that became highly sought-after, he said, decades after he had traded or sold it for something more practical.  He regretted letting it go, and every time the song came on the radio, he would tell me so – and then he would tell me again. I would pretend to understand his longing for that car and all it represented to him, but invariably the sound of Prince would drown him out, and I would find myself dancing in the shadows of a disco on a Saturday night over three decades ago.

Holy-Wisdom-Parish-2014-1061-Corvette-Converetible-or-25000-left-front-hood-550x378Just last weekend, a lifetime later, I spotted a little red Corvette parked in front of a drugstore next to Ken’s favorite breakfast place. I pulled in right next to it. It was a beauty, its cherry red paint glistening in a rare Phoenix rain. I could dismiss this as a coincidence, but I am choosing to consider it a little sign from beyond the grave that he is still around, watching out for me, perhaps frustrated that he can no longer save me from myself.

Before getting out of my car, I found my glasses and then found the song on an app on my phone. I turned it up and dancing in the driver’s seat, I listened to every word and then to the silence at the end after Prince fades away. And, I was young again.

Let’s Go Crazy.

‘Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own

And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy, punch a higher floor

For Prince Rogers Nelson ( June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016

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