I saw that his face looked just like mine

white poppy

WE are approaching 11 November… in the UK it is known as Armistice or Remembrance Day.

Throughout the country people buy imitation red paper poppies to remember the soldiers from our side who have died in the many wars and armed conflicts since 1914.

For the millions of wearers of these poppies it is a good and noble cause to remember “those who died to protect our freedom”.

While I too mourn the loss of these soldiers’ lives, I also mourn the loss of the lives of soldiers from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Iraq, Argentina, North and South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Russia and many other countries.

And I mourn the 142 million innocent men, women and children killed in these wars.

I stand by the line from Wilfred Owen’s famous World War 1 poem: To children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

To translate the Latin, the old lie is: It is sweet and right to die for your country.

I could have been drawn into a long discursive piece about the evil nature of any war and why I am a pacifist and wear a white poppy.

Instead I draw my poem Red or White together with my piece about Bob Dylan, by publishing, with permission, the words to Dylan’s song John Brown. Dylan was just 22 years old when he wrote this, which speaks volumes about his talent and his insight:

John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him!
He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin

“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”

As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood

She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile
As she showed them to the people from next door
And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war

Oh! Good old-fashioned war!

Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come for about ten months or more
Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train
Your son’s a-coming home from the war”

She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around
But she could not see her soldier son in sight
But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes

Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!

Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face

“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
How is it you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move
And the mother had to turn her face away

“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home…  acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

Oh! Lord! Just like mine!

“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play
And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke
And a cannonball blew my eyes away”

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbLldlwYXRY

 

Journey Through Dark Heat: Part 1

EBP_B465-30_Bob Dylan14

1972-1978

 Forty years
Forty banners united over the field
Where my life lives and grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves

HOW can I do justice in words to a writer I have admired beyond all others for more than 40 years and to whom my words are like dust?

So I will not try to even pass close to justice. Instead just a simple narrative about my love affair with the greatest and most profound poet of my generation.

I came to Bob Dylan by way of a detour through David Bowie. I discussed some of the details in my recent eulogy to Lou Reed. It was one song by Bowie on his 1971 album Hunky Dory that provided my own Highway 61. The song was unsurprisingly titled: Song for Bob Dylan!

The lyrics are a refrain to my life:

Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
Called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more.

After playing this one song more than a dozen times in the first week I bought Hunky Dory, there was an inner need to discover more and answer some unanswered questions. Sure, I had heard Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone on the radio when I was younger, but what makes this guy Dylan so important that my hero Bowie writes a whole song to him? And what was I missing?

The answers came quite soon.

It was late 1972 and a lad in our upper sixth form was a Bob Dylan fanatic – he even had hair like him and was forever being reprimanded by teachers for not wearing a tie! So I asked him why… he eagerly lent me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits on vinyl LP and suggested I should get a copy of Blonde on Blonde to discover the real Dylan.

Then two related events overtook me. First I bought a copy of More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits simply because 21 tracks seemed like good value. Then CBS suddenly released the film soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and the single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door made the UK charts!

Now armed with two albums, plus the Heaven’s Door single I was beginning to discover Bob Dylan and it didn’t take long before I was hooked. His voice like sand and glue and words of truthful vengeance had me pinned to the floor, and like those before me I started to dissect his lyrics and find a new meaning to living.

More Greatest Hits was a delight. From Watching the River Flow to Crash on the Levee I was entering into his world of music and poetry. Two songs in particular drew me in… the wonderful Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and the forgiving Tomorrow is a Long Time.

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all

I spent the rest of my sixth form and university years buying up Dylan’s back catalogue of albums on cassette tape and allowing his music and words to become the soundtrack to all I did. Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changin’ led me to discover folk music and in turn Fairport Convention, while the awesome Planet Waves and Desire wrapped me up in stories, vignettes, lyrics and emotion I had never previously known.

On its own Forever Young became the anthem to my life, which I have played to each of my children in turn:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

These years also included the magnificent Blood on the Tracks, but more about that later in this narrative. He had already lit a burner on my stove and brightened my life.

And suddenly it was 1978… an important and pivotal year.

For the first time in my life I was working – as a trainee psychiatric nurse – and earning money. It was the first disposable income I could really call my own. So apart from buying Dylan’s latest LP Street Legal I also got to my first gig.

It was life changing.

I bought the ticket for one night at Earls Court in London after queuing for hours at an over-the-counter box office in Brighton. For weeks afterwards I was sweating with anticipation. At the age of 22 I had been blessed to have seen some amazing live acts; David Bowie (twice), Roxy Music, the Average White Band, Al Stewart and The Stranglers to name just a few. But as Dylan had not gigged in the UK since 1966, I – like thousands of others – had to wait to see my hero live.

Saturday, 17 June 1978 dawned like no other day in my life. I had hardly slept the previous night and was up at the crack of dawn with my ticket clenched firmly in my wallet. My father gave me a lift to our local railway station on his way to work, and I hopped a commuter train to Brighton and then a connecting express to London, Victoria. I arrived in the capital just before mid-day, grabbed a coffee and had hours to wait until the evening performance… but I was not going to miss this life event.

I spent most of the day in and around Oxford Street browsing record shops and at one side street outlet was a breath away from buying my first Bob Dylan bootleg… but that would have to wait. At around 6pm I met a friend from my university days and together we shared a couple of beers and our mutual excitement. The tension was palpable. It was Dylan’s third night at Earls Court so he should be relaxed and well in tune… we hoped.

And our hope was rewarded.

By 7pm we were in the venue and took our seats way back in the auditorium. Suddenly something was happening… the opening number was an instrumental Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, with sax and keyboards blasting the arrangement and pinning us back, waiting to hear the voice of the man himself. There he was singing an (at the time) unknown number Love Her with a Feeling, complete with female backing vocalists. He was live in front our eyes and invading our senses.

Dylan was awesome. The sound and the view weren’t great from our seats; but when he sang “You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man babe, now you’re back where you belong,” it didn’t matter… this was amazing, and yes “the sun was always shining”.

Sure I had heard his 1975 live album Hard Rain, but to listen to new interpretations of his songs straight from his mouth and guitar in the same room where I sat was without precedence. I had bargained for salvation and here he was giving me a lethal dose.

Dylan was this tiny figure in a waistcoat singing for me. His voice was strong and his harmonica electric. Here’s your throat back, thanks for the loan.

The highlights were many: Tangled Up in Blue was sung like never before, almost a hymn, and after about 45 minutes Like a Rolling Stone had me on my feet singing back How Does it Feel? I was tangled up by every song and by the time he sang All Along the Watchtower I was enveloped by tears of emotion.
The full setlist that evening was: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Love Her With a Feeling; Baby, Stop Crying; Mr Tambourine Man; Shelter From the Storm; Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Tangled Up in Blue; Ballad of a Thin Man; Maggie’s Farm; I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); Like a Rolling Stone; I Shall Be Released; Going, Going, Gone; Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later); You’re a Big Girl Now; One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below); Blowin’ in the Wind; I Want You; Señor (Tales of Yankee Power); Masters of War; Just Like a Woman; Simple Twist of Fate; All Along the Watchtower; All I Really Want to Do; It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); Forever Young; The Times They Are A-Changin’.

We left exhausted and exhilarated… my love affair with Bob had entered a new dimension and I vowed to see him again, and again, and again.

I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you

The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times

Bob was no longer invisible but he still had secrets to conceal.

To be continued