All the friends I ever had are gone

Pete Townshend, who just turned 76 last week, wrote the iconic lyric “Hope I die before I get old” back in 1965 at age 20. It was the most important line in The Who’s signature song of youthful angst and rebellion, “My Generation.”

Townshend has been asked in many interviews over the years just what he meant. One response: “I hope I die while I still feel this alive, this young, this healthy, this happy, and this fulfilled.” Most recently, he said, “The line ‘I hope I die before I get old’ is more about a state of mind than actual age.”

So there you have it. The consummate rocker wasn’t hoping to literally die, as in a fiery car crash or an overdose. He meant he would rather die than to live in an “old” state of mind — cranky, stubborn, set in your ways, unwilling to embrace new ideas.

I bring this up because, this week, Bob Dylan — the Nobel Prize-winning lyricist and one of the most prolific songwriters of the past half-century — marked his 80th birthday.

If young, rebellious rock ‘n’ rollers are supposed to “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse,” as the saying goes, then Dylan has turned out to be the ultimate rebel, rebelling against following that advice.

I’ve written more than once in this blog about the well-known list of rock stars who DID die young. They left us way too early, robbing themselves of many more years, more accomplishments, more expressions of the talents that made them famous in the first place. By extension, we too were robbed of the enjoyment we would surely have experienced from listening to the music they likely would have continued to create.

In June 2020, Dylan released his 39th studio album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” Now, let’s face facts: Dylan has released some really lame albums over the course of his six-decade career, which shouldn’t really be that surprising. Nobody, no matter how high a pedestal we’ve put them on, can be expected to maintain a consistently excellent track record for so long. But what’s important to note in Dylan’s case is that he has kept at it, and more often than not, he has gifted us with some extraordinary music and lyrics, and/or strong recorded performances.

This most recent album is a case in point. After biding his time through the 2010s by recording four albums of cover versions of Sinatra torch songs, standards and Christmas music, he surprised us all when he dropped another amazing batch of original tunes on us in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown. Critics were mightily impressed, and so was I. “Academics who can’t dance will fill unread books dissecting the library of historical reference engrained in these grooves,” wrote Pat Carty in his review for Hot Press. “The rest of us can just be thankful that the greatest song and dance man of them all is still rolling.”

True, that. Dylan himself acknowledges that fact in the new album’s song “Mother of Muses”: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.”

Truth be told, Dylan’s ability to write captivating songs went through a mostly fallow period in the ’80s and ’90s when it seemed to me he had grown stale, even irrelevant. But damned if he didn’t come roaring back around 1997 with his “Time Out of Mind” LP, followed by consecutive successes: “Love and Theft” (2001), “Modern Times” (2006), “Together Through Life” (2009) and “Tempest” (2012). These five albums, plus the newest one, offer many exceptional new lyrics and melodies from a man in his 60s and 70s. Where most of his contemporaries have either passed away or retired from the business, Dylan has found the strength and the creative muse to produce quality compositions even at age 79. God bless this man for that.

I’ve had at least a dozen different friends tell me they have seen Dylan in concert and were severely disappointed. I saw him once, in 1997, and I’d give it a C+ at best. He doesn’t seem to give a damn about what the audience might want, which can only be described as self-indulgent, especially when he radically reworks his classics to the point where they’re unrecognizable. That’s why I’ll always prefer his albums. And yet, he says he loves performing. “I like to tour. I like to sing to the people. I don’t like to sing into microphones in a studio. If you look for me when I’m 90, I’ll be on a stage somewhere.”

Dylan is a prickly guy who happens to have a marvelous way with words and musical phrasings, as the people who award the Nobel Prize for Literature recognized in 2016. I’ve remained grateful that I get to revel in his songs even if his recordings of them can be, well, rough around the edges. Again, I say, he doesn’t have to do this anymore, but he has chosen to make the effort, and he deserves our applause (particularly in this instance) for the results.

Like all people who reach the age of 80 or even 90 or 100, Dylan has paid a price for his longevity. As this essay’s title forlornly states, “All the friends I ever had are gone.” That’s a recurring line of resignation from a 1993 song he wrote called “Delia,” in which he bemoans the passing of a woman he loved. Was she real, or a fictional character? I’m not sure…but does it matter? The sentiment is the same. (My mother and my aunt and uncle all lived well into their 90s, and their chief regret, besides deteriorating health and all the challenges it brings, was, “All of my friends are gone.” It’s a lonely business, old age…

Dylan has lost so many of his close associates: childhood friends; former manager Jerry Weintraub; musical colleagues like Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Tom Petty from his Traveling Wilburys days; songwriting rivals like Leonard Cohen; fellow iconic travelers as varied as David Bowie and Muhammad Ali. In almost every instance, the press has insisted on getting Dylan’s reaction, asking insensitively if these deaths touched him. “Sure, they all did,” he’d say. “We were like brothers. We lived on the same street, and they all left empty spaces where they used to stand. It’s lonesome without them.”

Advanced age may be lonesome, but age also brings wisdom and perspective. There’s a bounty of each in the lyrics of nearly every track on “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” At one time, he flatly refused the moniker of “prophet for the ages” when he was held up as the de facto spokesman of the Sixties Generation. Here, in the aptly named “False Prophet,” he drives that point home with sagacity and verve:

“Well, I’m the enemy of treason, enemy of strife, I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life, /I ain’t no false prophet, I just know what I know, I go where only the lonely can go…” “You don’t know me darlin’, you never would guess, I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest, /I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said, I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head…”

I’m among those who were not fazed by the 16-minute length of “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s wordiest song ever and the centerpiece of the new album. It’s an astonishing piece of rhymed reportage about the Kennedy Assassination and much much more, full of cultural references about that day and that period in time, often mentioning specific rock song titles and lyrics, and the artists who sang them. Rolling Stone referred to this epic piece as “a long fever-dream ramble through cultural memory.” Playing it again this morning, I felt its relentless message wash over me gently, “with a violin floating in and out of the arrangement like a haunt in a mansion with no windows,” as Esquire‘s Charles F. Pierce put it, and I wept at its impact. As you listen to this song, I strongly urge you to have the lyrics in front of you just so you don’t miss anything. I’ve printed out the words to “Murder Most Foul” at the end of this essay. It’s well worth your time to absorb this one.

There have been many Dylans for us to consider since his arrival in 1962, when Robert Zimmerman first became Dylan: Average folkie, fiery songwriter, electric pop star, convalescing family man, project actor, Jesus convert, Dead collaborator, comeback icon, crooner, elder statesman. When asked by the press about himself and the meaning of his songs, the younger Dylan remained cryptic in public statements because, as he put it, “If you have to explain ’em, then they weren’t any good in the first place.” These days, he’s far more candid and forthcoming about himself and his different personas. Consider these lines from “I Contain Multitudes,” another new one:

“Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe, got skeletons in the walls of people you know, /I’ll drink to the truth and the things we said, I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed, /I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes, /I contain multitudes…” “A red Cadillac and a black mustache, rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash, /Tell me, what’s next? What shall we do? /Half my soul, baby, belongs to you, /I rollick and I frolic with all the young dudes, /I contain multitudes…”

There are those for whom Dylan’s voice is a dealbreaker. They can’t get past his gruff, guttural delivery, particularly on tracks from more recent albums. For those folks, all I can say is “I get it,” but I can’t help but feel sorry for them if they’ve tuned out Dylan’s lyrics and music in the process. I can only offer this suggestion: Turn your attention to the many dozens of cover versions of his songs out there, performed by men and women with superb singing voices. The Byrds won their fame singing Dylan songs. The Hollies did an entire album of Dylan covers. There’s a fantastic 4-CD collection called “Chimes of Freedom,” released in 2012 to commemorate Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary. It contains 72 Dylan tunes recorded by 72 different artists, from Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger to Diana Krall and Adele, a treasure trove of fine interpretations of some of Dylan’s greatest work.

But remember this. These pleasing performances by all these artists wouldn’t have been possible without the unparalleled songwriting of this uncommon man who just turned 80. For his continuing efforts to create astonishing new songs to add to his iconic library — All Hail Dylan!

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It’s only fair to point out that Dylan is not alone among rock and pop stars from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who have made it to their 80th birthday. Many of these folks listed below continue to contribute to their legacies, while some have retired from making music. Most of these titans are worthy of more focused attention in Hack’s Back Pages, and I intend to write about them in future posts.

Willie Nelson, 88

Jerry Lee Lewis, 85

Ringo Starr, 80

Neil Diamond, 80

Mike Love, 80

Tom Jones, 80

Eric Burdon, 80

Joan Baez, 80

Dionne Warwick, 80

David Gates, 80

Ronald Isley, 80

Aaron Neville, 80

Tom Rush, 80

Dave Brigati, 80

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“Murder Most Foul”

It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
“Of course we do, we know who you are!”
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
Was a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh Wolfman, oh Wolfman, howl
Rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul

Hush, little children, you’ll understand
The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll
Stack up the bricks, pour the cement
Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President
Put your foot in the tank and let’s step on the gas
Try to make it to the triple underpass
Blackface singer, whiteface clown
Better not show your faces after the sun goes down
Up in the red-light district, they got cop on the beat
Living in a nightmare on Elm Street
When you’re down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe
Don’t ask what your country can do for you
Cash on the barrelhead, money to burn
Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn
I’m going down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride
The place where faith, hope, and charity died
Shoot him while he runs, boy, shoot him while you can
See if you can shoot the invisible man
Goodbye, Charlie! Goodbye, Uncle Sam
Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don’t give a damn
What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know
“Shut your mouth,” said a wise old owl
Business is business, and it’s a murder most foul

Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen
I’m riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine
Ridin’ in the back seat next to my wife
Headed straight on in to the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, I got my head in her lap
Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap
Where we ask no quarter, and no quarter do we give
We’re right down the street, from the street where you live
They mutilated his body and they took out his brain
What more could they do? They piled on the pain
But his soul was not there where was supposed to be at
For the last fifty years they’ve been searchin’ for that
Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me
I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free
Send me some lovin’, then tell me no lie
Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by
Wake up, little Susie, let’s go for a drive
Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive
Turn the radio on, don’t touch the dials
Parkland Hospital, only six more miles
You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead
That magic bullet of yours has gone on my head
I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline
Never shot anyone from in front or behind
I’ve blood in my eye, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier
Zapruder’s film I’ve seen night before
Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more
It’s vile and deceitful, it’s cruel and it’s mean
Ugliest thing that you ever have seen
They killed him once and they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son
The age of the Antichrist has just only begun”
Air Force One comin’ in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at 2:38
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul

What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?
I said that soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day
Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play me that “Only the Good Die Young”
Take me to that place Tom Dooley was hung
Play “St. James Infirmary” and the Court of King James
If you wanna remember, you better write down the names
Play Etta James, too, play “I’d Rather Go Blind”
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind
Play John Lee Hooker, play “Scratch My Back”
Play it for that strip club owner named Jack
Guitar Slim going down slow
Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe

Play “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling any good
Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey
Take it to the limit and let it go by
Play it for Carl Wilson, too
Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue
Play “Tragedy”, play “Twilight Time”
Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime
Play another one and “Another One Bites the Dust”
Play “The Old Rugged Cross” and “In God We Trust”
Ride the pink horse down that long, lonesome road
Stand there and wait for his head to explode
Play “Mystery Train” for Mr. Mystery
The man who fell down dead like a rootless tree
Play it for the reverend, play it for the pastor
Play it for the dog that got no master
Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz
Play “Blue Sky,” play Dickey Betts
Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and “All That Jazz”
Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton, play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel, play Pretty Boy Floyd
Play the numbers, play the odds
Play “Cry Me a River” for the Lord of the gods
Play Number nine, play Number six
Play it for Lindsey and Stevie Nicks
Play Nat King Cole, play “Nature Boy”
Play “Down in the Boondocks” for Terry Malloy
Play “It Happened One Night” and “One Night of Sin”
There’s twelve million souls that are listening in
Play “Merchant of Venice”, play “Merchants of Death”
Play “Stella by Starlight” for Lady Macbeth

Don’t worry, Mr. President, help’s on the way
Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay
Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?
Tell them, “We’re waiting, keep coming,” we’ll get them as well
Love Field is where his plane touched down
But it never did get back up off the ground
Was a hard act to follow, second to none
They killed him on the altar of the rising sun
Play “Misty” for me and “That Old Devil Moon”
Play “Anything Goes” and “Memphis in June”
Play “Lonely at the Top” and “Lonely Are the Brave”
Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave
Play Jelly Roll Morton, play “Lucille”
Play “Deep in a Dream”, and play “Driving Wheel”
Play “Moonlight Sonata” in F-sharp
And “A Key to the Highway” for the king of the harp
Play “Marching Through Georgia” and “Dumbarton’s Drums”
Play darkness and death will come when it comes
Play “Love Me or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell
Play “The Blood-Stained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul”

Whistle while you work

I’ve had a different kind of week, full of medical distractions, so I haven’t been able to devote the time to write a more substantive piece for the blog. So I’m offering up a fun, utterly lightweight list I came up with recently.

I was thinking about various professions and what their favorite bands might be.

If you’re in law enforcement, it would make sense if your favorite group was The Police.

If you’re a baker, your favorite group might be Bread.

You see where I’m going. So why not play along?

See if you can guess which bands from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s I picked as the ones that seem like good matches for various professions!

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1. If you’re a dairy farmer, you probably like _______________.

2. If you’re in broadcast news, you’re surely a fan of ____________________.

3. If you’re a city planner, you pay attention to _______________.

4. If you’re a cardiologist, you no doubt listen to _______________.

5. If you’re a pilot, you might be a fan of ______________________.

6. If you’re a U.S. Ambassador, you’re interested in ______________________.

7. If you’re an electrician, you’re probably listening to ________________.

8. If you sell prime seafood, you’re a follower of ________________________.

9. If you work at a marijuana dispensary, you certainly dig _________________________.

10. If you’re a medical researcher, you’re interested in _____________________.

11. If you’re a hair stylist, you might be fond of _________________.

12. If you’re manning a suicide hotline, you may listen to ____________________.

13. If you work at a pet rescue shelter, I’ll bet you love _______________________.

14. If you’re a porn star, no doubt you’re into _________________.

15. If you’re a gun manufacturer, you surely like ___________________.

16. If you’re a zookeeper, you probably enjoy __________________.

17. If you’re a scuba diver, your favorite band might be _______________________.

18. If you work at a sober living home, you might like _______________________.

19. If you’re a career military person, you may enjoy the music of ____________________.

20. If you’re a locomotive engineer, you’re a fan of ___________________________.

21. If you’re a sleep therapist, you know the music of __________________.

22. If you’re a garage mechanic, you’re into _____________________.

23. If you’re an entomologist, you might listen to ____________________ or ____________________.

24. If you’re a jeweler, you’re probably a fan of ____________________ or ______________________.

25. If you’re a colorist, you enjoy ___________________, or _____________________, or ______________________.

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Scroll down for my answers. Perhaps you came up with something different!

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1. Cream

2. Talking Heads

3. Traffic

4. Heart

5. Jefferson Airplane

6. Foreigner

7. AC/DC

8. Blue Oyster Cult

9. The Doobie Brothers

10. The Cure

11. Blondie

12. Dire Straits

13. Stray Cats

14. The Kinks

15. .38 Special

16. Def Leppard

17. Air Supply

18. Crowded House

19. The B-52s

20. Grand Funk Railroad

21. R.E.M.

22. The Cars

23a. The Beatles

23b. The Crickets

24a. Golden Earring

24b. The Bangles

25a. Pink Floyd

25b. Simply Red

25c. Deep Purple