Friday, February 27, 2015

How to Tell a Story in Dialogue: Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather

One of my favorite Dylan albums is The Times They Are A-Changin', released by Columbia Records seven days before I moved with my family to New Jersey in January, 1964. It's a powerful album, dealing with themes of poverty and racism among other things. The tone is heartbreaking in so many places, including his laments about relationships, also delivered perfectly. "Boots of Spanish Leather" is one of these.

What strikes me is how skillfully the young Dylan has mastered the art of story telling. Many of the songs here are ballads, stories in song. In this case it is a story told by means of a dialogue.

A great story has several noteworthy elements. First, there are the characters. Study any great story and you'll see that each character has a motivation. The characters are defined by that something that they want. This want or need is what moves them. As Syd Field, in his book Screenplay, puts it, "The need of your character gives you a goal, a destination, an ending to your story."

A second feature of a good story is conflict. Again quoting Field, "Without conflict there is no drama. Without need there is no character. Without character there is no action."

A third feature of short stories is its focus. Our lives are generally like a train rumbling down the railroad tracks. Only at incidental moments does the train come to a place where by a slight movement of a lever the track can be moved, resulting in the train moving toward a different destination. Great stories zero in on this moment where the character comes to a decisive changepoint or, in some stories, where the character fails to act and to his shame misses this alternate destiny.

One of the most important skills writers must cultivate has to do with the manner in which dialogue is handled. On of the things that this song shows vividly is Dylan's grasp of how to write dialogue when telling a story. The entirety of Boots is an exchange between to people who have been very close, but whose relationship has dissolved.

Even though books on screenwriting and on writing fiction hammer home the importance of learning this skill, many a writer handles dialogue clumsily. When you really listen to people talk, including yourself, it is surprising how much discussion is indirect, even conceals what we think or feel. We have a tendency to fear being direct, often because of a fear, whether a fear of revealing our true depth of feeling, or fear of being rejected, or fear of hurting someone we still care about. So we speak obliquely. We veil our meaning. We suggest or even conceal.

This is what makes "Boots of Spanish Leather" such a true and painful song. It's the breakup of a love affair. At the beginning of the song even he doesn't understand that this is what is happening. Near the song's close we, the listener, and the hero come simultaneously to the realization of what's going on, which amplifies its poignancy.

I've taken the liberty of rewriting the song in dialogue form, as opposed to the stanza form that you'll find at any song lyrics site, or here at Dylan has performed the song 299 times live; four times in 1963 and 295 times during his later career on the Never Ending Tour.

Boots of Spanish Leather

Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love, I’m sailin’ away in the morning. Is there something I can send you from across the sea from the place that I’ll be landing?

No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love, there’s nothin’ I wish to be ownin’. Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled from across that lonesome ocean.

Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine made of silver or of golden, either from the mountains of Madrid or from the coast of Barcelona.

Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night and the diamonds from the deepest ocean I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss, for that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.

I might be gone a long, long time and it’s only that I’m askin’. Is there something I can send you to remember me by, to make your time more easy passin’?

Oh, how can, how can you ask me again? It only brings me sorrow. The same thing I want from you today I would want again tomorrow.

I got a letter on a lonesome day. It was from her ship a-sailin’ saying, “I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again. It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.”

Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way I’m sure your mind is roamin’. I’m sure your heart is not with me but with the country to where you’re goin’.

So take heed, take heed of the western wind, take heed of the stormy weather. And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, Spanish boots of Spanish leather.

* * * *

For some reason no matter how many times I hear this, or read it here now, this last stanza just pulverizes me. It's so simple. All throughout he was being direct, earnest, straightforward. But he mistakenly assumed she was being the same. He didn't hear what she was saying. Because of his own obtuseness he was unable to hear her saying that she was leaving him.

How many times do we ourselves fail to hear what others are saying? Why does it take us so long to "get it"?

I'm certain it has happened the other way around for many of us. Maybe we were traveling abroad, or just going away to college. Lacking the courage to be frank in a relationship that we wanted to cast off, we wait till we're going away. Our thoughts are not with where we've been, but to the place where we're landing.

Like all Dylan songs every detail has been analyzed in depth (or to death) by someone somewhere. Many "analyzers" note that it could be a song that reflects the departure of his first serious flame, Suze Rotolo, who went overseas to Europe and left him behind brokenhearted. But it's the universality of the song's sentiments that give it such power. Someone is heartbroken.

How heartbroken? You may find it interesting that the Spanish Boot is a torture device. Of course it could in this case simply be a metaphor for what she already did to him: she gave him the boot.

Another revealing piece worth noting in this story is how the rejected lover reacts in the end. It could have gone a hundred ways at this point. There is no rage. He doesn't berate her, doesn't blister her with recriminations. Despite his disillusionment, he responds with a surprising dignity, affirming that he still wants to remember her. And yes, there is something she can send after all, even though he's lost her... Spanish boots of Spanish leather. For her to know what size shoe he wears indicates that they knew each other fairly intimately for this breakup. If this is the case, the shattered hero may be a role model.

Boots of Spanish Leather, Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Economic Power of Arts and Culture in the Northland

Wednesday I attended a special presentation at The Underground by Sheila Smith of the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts regarding new data about the impact of the arts in Minnesota. The economic impact of the non-profit arts sector is nothing short of remarkable, especially since it has been essentially undocumented until recently. Ken Bloom, executive director of the Tweed Museum of Art on the campus of UMD made a few introductory remarks before inviting Ms. Smith to make her prepared presentation.

The report that was released two weeks ago is based on the most comprehensive study ever conducted. The aim was to document with data the impact of the arts on quality of life, the economy and more.

Smith being interviewed before the program by local media.
Smith noted that in this particular study the data was based on arts organizations, not individual artists. The foremost finding was that the arts has an economic impact of 1.2 billion dollars on the state of Minnesota, up 43% since 2006. According to the study 62,378 volunteers gave more than 2.7 million volunteer hours in a year.

What was of special interest to me is how non-local attendees brought financial benefits to the community. Non-locals spend 80% more when attending local arts and cultural events than the locals do, who often skip eating out or going for after-event activities.

The reason these stats interest me is because of the insights gained from research about music-based tourism. I've developed a strong conviction that it would be beneficial to the Northland to let the world know that Bob Dylan, and artist and one of the most significant singer/songwriters of the past fifty year, was born and raised here. Liverpool tourism created a positive economic impact of more than 40% once they created Strawberry Fields and other touchstones for Beatles fans. Graceland brings 600,000 Elvis fans per year who spend money in that community. If each spent $100, that would be, $60,000,000 that Memphis businesses (and the community by virtue of taxes) might not have otherwise each year.

The influence of arts and culture on communities is significant in a variety of ways beyond economic, though a legislator or community leader would be hard-pressed to ignore these factors. Here in the Northland the economic impact has been $40 million, the second highest of anywhere in Minnesota other than the Twin Cities Metro. We're second in economic impact even though only fourth in population.

For details on the study, visit the website where you can download the report. Be sure to read and review the data. Many of us have been aware that  it's a very exciting time with regards to the arts herein the Northland. Now, we have documentation of why this has been an exciting time.

After Sheila Smith spoke, Jan Sievertson of SiVi's gallery in Grand Marais and Canal Park spoke very briefly, noting that the arts are thriving, that the arts are essential and that all Minnesotans are benefitting. Sievertson shared an anecdote about how the arts have united disparate elements in Grand Marais. Tea Party conservatives and liberals have worked together to maintain high aesthetic standards for the city, which has gained a reputation over more than a half century for its arts and culture.

Young Man with Impish Smile
A third speaker shared how the arts is becoming more integrated in Duluth city council activities and enterprises. Look for new developments with the Duluth Public Arts Commission. Beginning a couple years ago the city council began the practice of each member selecting a piece of artwork from the DAI Member Show to hang in the city council chambers. That first year one of my pieces -- Young Man with Impish Smile -- was selected, which I found to be pretty cool.

Finally, Sue Jennis talked briefly on the importance of this study. Frequently, arts advocates get questioned by legislators and business people regarding how important the arts really are. "What difference does it make?" they ask. This study demonstrates what an important asset the arts really are. The arts mean healthy communities.

Jennis closed by stating that jobs don't produce quality of life. "Just look at what is going on in North Dakota," she said. "Rather, quality of life produces jobs. This is what appears to be happening in Duluth." Most assuredly, and many concur.

Based on the data, the arts are making a difference in many measurable ways.

* * * *
Youth Art Month at the Duluth Art Institute

Yesterday it was appropriately announced that March will be Youth Art Month at the DAI. They will hold an Opening Reception next Thursday, March 5, 5-7 pm. The exhibition will be on view from March 5 – 25, 2015 in the Depot's Great Hall

The announcement included this factoid: A recent study published in the New York Times shows a causal relationship between students experiencing art and higher test scores. With education funding for the arts under constant threat, it’s refreshing to focus on the depth of talent we have in teachers and students. This exhibit celebrates the unique excellence that is coming out of our local and regional public schools.

March is Youth Art Month and the Duluth Art Institute visited 10 schools from the region to showcase the creativity being expressed in our young artists. As I travel I have seen increasing numbers of art exhibits in airports around the country, many featuring the art of young people. In this case you won't have to fly anywhere. Just meander down to the Depot. It may surprise you all that is going on.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Dig it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Do you like Dylan cartoons? This one's a favorite.

If you're not a regular reader of then you may have missed this. Today the site had a link to a collection of Dylan-themed cartoons. This one here struck me as amusing because I once did a self-portrait of myself as the Dark Knight.

Evidently Batman has a following. Look how many television shows and films he's inspired. Batman comics have been around longer than I've been.

The Caped Crusader was just a mortal who wanted to make a difference. Unlike Bruce Wayne, I'm no millionaire, nor a superhero. But, I liked the concept of a guy who by day has one identity and after hours is out there trying to push back the darkness.

Well, just as Batman has become an American cultural icon, so has Bob Dylan in his own way. That might be why I found this particular cartoon so fun.

Lighten up, Robin. It's one of my favorite themes.

If you would like to see more Dylan-cartoons, here's a smattering. Smile.

Dinner @ The Newman's with Chef Micah

Preparing the amuse-bouche
Monday evening we had guests for dinner and our son Chef Micah created a masterpiece for us. The four-course dinner proved worthy of any four star restaurant, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have him home for a spell.

As he assembled the particular servings he was asked what his favorite thing to cook is. He replied, characteristically, "Something I've never prepared before."

This meal was something I myself was unprepared for, so very sumptuous, beginning with a special treat called amuse-bouche. The expression is French and means "mouth amuser." Amuse-bouches are different from appetizers in that they are not ordered from a menu by patrons, but, when served, are done so free and according to the chef's selection alone. Our chef was exceptionally kind to us for this delightful surprise, a Kumquat-Yker Acres bacon marmalade, brussels sprout leaf, pickled mustard seed and chive.

The rest of the menu was equally imaginative, and delicioso. Yummmm.

Salad of watercress, pea shoots, and Susan Newman’s homegrown sprouts w/ charred tomato ceasar dressing in a parmesan “cup”, piment d’espelette croute, anchovy.

Confit of Susan Newman’s farm-raised Goose, crispy “Cassoulet”, saute of swiss chard w/ bacon and kumquats in a whole grain mustard and goose fat vinaigrette, cranberry-currant gastrique.

Homemade dark chocolate ice cream, warm bourbon-raspberry sauce, vanilla salt.

* * * *
Here are some pictures of the rest of the preparations... Unfortunately, we were in such paradise by the end that I forgot to take photos of that fabulous dessert. The photos could have been better lit, and if there was more time some captions could be informative, but every picture tells a story.

A delight to the eyes and to the palette. 
There's nothing like sharing a good meal with good friends.
Thank you, Micah.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Local Art Seen: Flight at the Zeitgeist Cafe

Last night I attended the opening reception for Ann Klefstad and Bridge Riversmith's exhibition titled Flight at the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe. The art primarily features paintings related to birds, though a few pieces reflected other nature themes, including water, butterflies, and rabbits. The opening, on the upper level of the restaurant, was well attended, almost packed even.

Fascination with birds is probably as old as time. Bird characters appear in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and at the turn of the 16th century A.D. Leonardo DaVinci took an intense interest in birds, making drawings and writing a treatise on how birds achieve flight. He had a personal interest in manned flight.

I myself have done more than a few paintings and drawings of birds. Not sure what makes them so compelling, but it has been a recurring theme from long ago. Hence, it only feels natural to find an art exhibition in which birds are the stars.

As a young artist Ann Klefstad spent a number of years in Los Angeles before becoming a North Country transplant. Her love of our natural surroundings is reflected in her work, which includes sculpture, photography, painting and drawing. She has a wealth of knowledge about art and the arts, and served at one time as an art critic for the Trib.

Biomachine Whales Clean Up Trash Islands
I first saw one of Bridget Riversmith's creations at a Duluth Art Institute Steampunk show in 2012. Called a Recycl-O-Scope it was a variation on 19th century zoetropes. I've since been at a couple shows where her work was featured. Much of her work has a playful quality with titles like Red Rabbit Evades a Vaportrail, and Biomachine Whales. On one wall upstairs was a sequence of five pieces that were designed like frames in an animated short. This was titled "Letting Go" and featured a character releasing a bird.

Ravens and crows feature prominently in Klefstad's work, with a variety of titles like Angry Crow, Ukranian Crow, Crow Over The Lake, Crow In Snow, Inquiring Crow and Old Crow. There were other themes, however, from Catspaw and Sea Snake to Blue Fog and Lonely.

The show itself fits the space nicely with pieces both captivating and delightful. Recommended: take a friend to lunch or dinner and spend just a little extra time taking in the show.

* * * *
Riversmith's "Letting Go" (fifth picture)
Meantime art goes on all around you. Enjoy it. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Richard Loren's High Notes Is A Story About Rock 'n Roll

Years ago I met a man who said, "All my life people have told me someone should write a book about my life." It's the kind of statement that makes you take notice.

I'm sure that Richard Loren's High Notes: A Rock Memoir came about in the same way. Every time he talked about his experiences in the center of the world of rock stars and rock star excess he was probably told, "Wow. You should write a book someday." And he did.

Loren's first brush with the entertainment industry was in the service of Liberace at during an eight-day gig in Maryland. This foundational experience gave him a first-hand look at what real show business is about. From here he headed to New York and put himself in the center of the emerging music scene as a music agent with the Agency for the Performing Arts from '66-'69. He scouted talent and worked with many of the most famous names of the era including Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Chambers Brothers, Iron Butterfly, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steppenwolf and more.

His stories are frank, and not always flattering. Among the most striking stories from this period for me were about Loren's frustrations trying to manage the mercurial Jim Morrison of the Doors. Several scenes depicted in Oliver Stone's The Doors were real life challenges for Loren, including the near riot that ensued after Morrison was maced by an intrusive police officer.

The book is an easy read, thanks to his teamwork with co-author Stephen Abney. It's a chronological ride from that first Liberace experience through to his years with the Grateful Dead as Jerry Garcia's personal manager. It's also a fairly accurate picture of the impact of various kinds of drugs that came in waves over time. As is well-known the Sixties San Francisco scene was awash in LSD and cannabis. Later, cocaine came on the scene and had an entirely different effect. And though Loren and Jerry Garcia had been close for many years, it was heroin that ultimately led to their parting as the Grateful Dead singer/songwriter retreated from the life of performing that put the Dead on the map.

One of my favorite surprises in the book is the story of how the album Old & In the Way came about. For decades this has been one of my favorite vinyls. Jerry Garcia loved music, and as a side-project without ever leaving the dead he formed a bluegrass supergroup that included, among others, John Hartford, David Grisman (who wrote an introduction to Loren's book) and the phenomenal fiddler Vassar Clements. These are the kinds of stories that make the book a worthwhile read.

Though the era is famous for its "sex, drugs, rock 'n roll" Richard Loren respectfully writes very little, if any, about the sex. Drugs, however, are a featured character in the book, with a portion of the story leading Loren to attempt to find the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial Hippie Trail rainbow. One of those journeys to the Middle East results in a fortuitous experience while at the pyramids in Egypt. He realizes that it would be a killer concert if the Grateful Dead could perform there in this remarkable setting. Years later, he is able to pull it off, undoubtedly a major life achievement.

Here's how reviewer who calls himself insolent cur at described the book:

If you have even just a passing interest in the development of rock and roll from the Bay area in the '60's, '70's and '80's, you will enjoy High Notes. Author Richard Loren writes from his personal perch, during the ascendancy of very well known and much loved bands. Unlike so many who have written personal reflections of the time, he keeps his ego in check as he weaves together tales from his experiences through the years. This is a must read for Deadheads.

I was never a Deadhead, but I did enjoy the book. It approached the scene from a new angle, an insider who worked directly with names that were in the news at the time. He doesn't fawn over anyone, and clearly considered it a privilege to be in such close association with Jerry Garcia during his years in the business.

In the 1980's Bob Dylan performed some concerts with the Dead, after Loren was no longer involved. By this time Jerry Garcia had put on more than 3,000 shows. Dylan's career was in an uncertain place at the time, but some suspect that this intersection of performers was the catalyst that resulted in Dylan's Never Ending Tour, which continues to this day.

Meantime, life goes on... and on all around you. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Local Art Seen: Double Opening at the Duluth Art Institue

Cuttlefish galore. (48 patterns in all)
The Duluth Art Institute hosted an opening reception for two very different shows Thursday evening. Despite bitterly cold temperatures many brave friends of the arts chose to attend.

The George Morrison Gallery featured a unique show by Japanese-American artists Ryuta Nakajima and Aya Kawaguchi called Natural Contract. The two have been collaborating for more than a decade and after a two-year stint in Hawaii they chose Duluth for their home this past ten years.

Nakajima, who is an associate professor of painting and drawing at UMD, finds source material in squid, octopus and cuttlefish, exploring the way they create color and patterns. He finds similarity in the way humans and cephalopods take external information and react by producing new shapes and colors. This show features more varieties of cuttlefish than you have ever imagined in your life.

Kin Ika
Admittedly, over the course of a lifetime I have not given much thought to what cuttlefish are. What I know is that they do not appear to be cuddly. I have since learned they are a marine creature in the Cephalopoda family, which includes squid and octopus. They have eight arms, and two tentacles with suckers on them to hold their prey. Most are small, sic to nine inches, though there is a large species which runs 20 inches and weighs about the same as my son's dog Noodles, 23 pounds.

Artists and photographers who are familiar with sepia tones, which is something akin to brown stain, may not know that the original Greek and Latin word for cuttlefish is sepia, based on the brown liquid it disgorges when frightened. Next time you have a sepia-toned print, think cuttlefish.

from Pillow Drawing Series
According to the program guide Kawaguchi's art explores the differences between experiencing something and interpreting it. When she sees something she finds beautiful, she often finds she has a memory or other experience that connects her back – interlacing the two. She adds or subtracts information from her photographs to transform the originals into something more personally meaningful. The main part of the gallery featured dozens of varieties of drawings of patterns on pillows.

In addition to the variously decorated or designed cuttlefish sculptures, there were several large paintings and also a large flat-panel monitor showing underwater footage of what must have been a cuttlefish in its habitat.

NOTE: Mark your calendar for March 19. There will be an Artist Talk that evening at 5:30 p.m. at the Gallery.

Sunday Drive by Chris Dillon
The Steffl Gallery featured work by the Lake Superior Watercolor Society in a show titled A Retrospective Response. Though I enjoy seeing the variety of subject matter and the colors, I occasionally get depressed by exceptional watercolorists. If you've ever worked with watercolors you know that it requires an uncommon patience, something I liked when I attacked this medium.

The Watercolor Society has been quietly producing art for as long as there have been artists in the Northland. There are few places in the world as conducive to painting as our Lake Superior region. This show will be on display thru May 1 and Natural Contract thru April 19. Next time you visit the library, put a couple extra quarters in the meter and visit these two exhibitions at the Depot.

* * * *

Don't forget the opening reception tomorrow evening at the Zeitgeist Cafe featuring work by Ann Klefstad and Bridgett Riversmith. The show is titled Flight. From 5 - 7 p.m. you can meet the artists and ask questions about their work. Enjoy!

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it!