Archive for May, 2011

The occasion of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday today has already spawned millions of words in the printed media and on the internet (“the whole world is filled with speculation”) about his place in the popular culture of the last half century. Many purport, as much Dylan literature does, to be serious, learned pieces about what status he has as a poet, what religion, if any, he adheres to, what really happened when he fell off his motorcycle in 1966 or even what his garbage tells us about his alleged drug use (the list goes on).

Well, this modest contribution to the cacophany has no more pretensions than to be an unashamedly heartfelt postcard – though not of any hanging – from a fan.

I know that there are many people who don’t “get” Dylan – they say that he can’t sing and he’s no longer relevant, having written nothing worth listening to for over 40 years and so on.  As far as the voice is concerned, I’ll grant them that it has always been an acquired taste, and even for many of his devotees, his current growl, the consequence of a lifetime of heavy smoking and punishing tour schedules, leaves them puzzled and dissatisfied.  Yet, even today, I believe that, in concert, the passion, intelligence and honesty in his phrasing are unrivalled.  But let’s agree to disagree on that one.  

These criticisms also tend to emanate from people whose acquaintance with Dylan’s work barely extends beyond a handful of “early” songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are A Changin’, Mr Tambourine Man and Like A Rolling Stone, astonishing works of art though each of those are and enough alone of a legacy for any other artist

How many of them realise, for instance, that Make You Feel My Love, now a modern standard recorded by artists as varied as Bryan Ferry, Billy Joel, Adele and Garth Brooks, and regularly heard in popular TV shows like Holby City and Strictly Come Dancing, was written and first performed by Dylan in 1997? 

His continued relevance in the music world is incontrovertible, manifested in the stream of testimonies by modern day bands as to his influence upon them.  And anyone who has been to a recent Dylan concert will know that they are frequented by as many enthusiastic young fans as pony tailed baby boomers.  His gigs in Beijing and Shanghai last month drew crowds of mainly Chinese youth turning to him, as their American and European counterparts had done fifty years earlier, for inspiration in their quest for a more open and inclusive society.

In the past decade alone he has issued several critically acclaimed (and chart topping) albums (including a Christmas one with ALL the proceeds going to the World Food Programme and Crisis), published the first volume of his Chronicles, hosted one hundred episodes of his peerless Theme Time Radio Hour, showcasing his vast knowledge of his musical roots and hilarious patter, exhibited his paintings and continued to tour the world with his band.  Oh, and he played The Times They Are A Changin’ for President Obama in the White House. No longer relevant huh?

Some people who are kindly disposed towards his art still have difficulty with the man, citing his uncommunicative (sic) manner on stage and perceived instances of “selling out” in recent years   But those minor and arguable lapses apart, it is rather his integrity and refusal to compromise in order to curry popular favour, in the manner in which contemporaries such as Iggy Pop and Steve Tyler have, that make him all the more impressive. Like any genius, he is a flawed human being, but I for one am prepared to accept from him what he is prepared to give me, even when, as was the case with much of his eighties output, he lets his standards slip – and that is so much more than I could ever have had a right to expect.  The debt is all mine.    

Perhaps one day I will attempt the thankless task of listing my favourite 10, 20, 50 or even 100 Dylan songs, but the reason I probably won’t is that I would feel uncomfortable at leaving so many great ones out. What I do know is that any list would include compositions from the whole spread of his career.  

Many artists have enriched my life immeasurably – Shakespeare, Mozart, Jerry Garcia, Samuel Beckett, Puccini, Jane Austen and Fra Angelico to name a few.  But none come close to providing such profound excitement and sense of challenge that I experience when I listen to the music of Bob Dylan.

So thanks Bob for everything (even though you will never read this).  We sure have seen nothin’ like you yet, nor are ever likely to see again.  It is certainly not dark yet, carry on being busy being born and may you stay forever young!

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I have never been a great fan of Starbucks on the grounds, pun absolutely intended, that I don’t find their coffee strong enough (perhaps I should order something other than latté in future).  I prefer the more astringent taste found in Caffe Nero or Costa Coffee or, even better, a traditional, independent Italian coffee house, though they are becoming, along with corner bookshops and record stores, increasingly hard to find.

That said, I think Starbucks has more to commend it than its core product.  Firstly, it plays the best music, with a lot of classic jazz and blues and a smattering of folk rock.  As I write this in the large branch in Bluewater (Kent), Bob Marley, is singing Three Little Birds, and we’ve just had Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Ella Fitzgerald’s Paper Moon – a fine playlist in my books.

The company also has a history of selling CDs exclusively from its outlets.  I was lucky enough to stumble across the live One Man Band by James Taylor whilst on a long, lonely road in California a few years back, but sadly missed out on the live Gaslight recording of Dylan because the offer was only available in the US (a long, expensive way to travel for a $10 album, even for Bob).

Then there is the ambience, which is particularly appealing in this branch – massive picture window opening out onto a sparsely populated mall, a casual mix of comfortable armchairs and stiff backed seating, and wooden framed photographs celebrating the coffee making process and posters advertising the latest special offers.

Shelves of packets of tea and coffee, assorted cups and other merchandise are arranged in the corner by a long perspex fronted counter that displays a tantalising array of things to eat, including tuna melt and mature cheddar panini, skinny lemon and poppyseed muffin and roasted chicken with herb mayonnaise sandwich.

I’ll confess that the food in Starbucks is another selling point for me.  My favourite delicacy is the toasted cheese and marmite panini, whilst my wife, who has a decent claim to being a connoisseur on the subject, asserts that the carrot cake is the best anywhere.  This reminds me that, although I usually eschew the (hot) coffee, I cannot resist a coffee flavoured frappuccino, which may actually be the best frozen / cold concoction available in any coffee chain.

With the busy lunch period past, the branch is now half empty.  The muted lighting generated by small, widely dispersed clusters of yellow and blue lamps, the gentle hum of conversation and the unobtrusive yet satisfying music all contribute to a civilised atmosphere.

Opposite me, two new mothers compare breastfeeding strategies, in word rather than deed, which acts as the perfect sleeping pill for their previously irritable daughters.   In the far corner, a gaggle of young shop girls from Zara, Gap and Hollister meet up in their mid afternoon break to slurp strawberries and crème and caramel frappuccinos and relay tales of annoying customers and bossy supervisors, whilst simultaneously maintaining text conversations with their boyfriends.

An elderly couple on an organised coach trip, nibbling at blueberry muffins and sipping “traditional” tea, suspicious of the exoticism of coffee that isn’t instant, bemoan their blistered feet and the cost of everything.  A bald, middle aged man with paunch protruding through ill fitting suit leers over his espresso macchiato at a female employee, and potential lover, young enough to be his daughter yet flattered by his worldly patter (not an entirely civilised scene then).

As my wife approaches (is that solitary slice of carrot cake still available?) I suddenly reflect – I like the ambience, the food, the fairtrade commitment, the music and some of the drinks  – should I not consider rewriting that first sentence?

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Of all the eccentric characters that have graced San Francisco’s history, Oofty Goofty must rank amongst the most bizarre.  His real name (Leonard Borchardt appears to be the most likely contender), background (he may have been a deserter from the US Cavalry), and place and date of  both his birth and death are all bones of contention, yet his strange antics intrigued and entertained residents of the City during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Herbert Asbury‘s 1933 book The Barbary Coast, An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, upon which most of the limited knowledge we have of of Oofty is based, explained that he acquired his name during his first sideshow appearance before the San Francisco public as a wild man on Market Street:

“From crown to heel he was covered with road tar, into which were stuck great quantities of horsehair, lending him a savage and ferocious appearance.  He was then installed in a heavy cage, and when a sufficiently large number of people had paid their dimes to gaze upon the wild man recently captured in the jungles of Borneo and brought to San Francisco at enormous expense, large chunks of raw meat were poked between the bars by an attendant.  This provender the wild man gobbled ravenously, occasionally growling, shaking the bars, and yelping these fearsome words: “Oofty goofty! Oofty goofty!””

This frightening spectacle lasted no more than a week before he became ill, unable to perspire through his thick covering of tar and hair.  Doctors at the Receving Hospital tried in vain for several days to remove his costume, and only when he was “liberally doused with a tar solvent” and “laid out upon the roof of the hospital” did it finally come off.

His wild man career abruptly cut short, Oofty turned to the theatre, initially securing a spot at Bottle Koenig’s, a Barbary Coast beer hall.  After just one song and dance, however, he was flung into the street, a humiliating and painful experience had it not been for the fact that it showed him the direction in which his career, or “work” as he termed it, should now turn.

Despite being kicked ferociously and landing heavily upon a stone sidewalk, he discovered that he felt no physical pain. For the next 15 years he exploited this new found talent by touring the city and allowing himself, at a price dependent upon the degree of brutality inflicted, to be kicked and battered by others.  Let Asbury again describe his modus operandi:

“Upon payment of ten cents a man might kick Oofty Goofty as hard as he pleased, and for a quarter……..with a walking stick.  For fifty cents Oofty Goofty would become the willing, and even prideful, recipient of a blow with a baseball bat, which he always carried with him…..It was his custom to approach groups of men, in the streets and in bar-rooms, and diffidently inquire:  “Hit me with a bat for four bits, gents.  Only four bits to hit me with this bat, gents”.

It was only when heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan struck Oofty with a billiard cue, fracturing three vertebrae, that he finally called it a day. He will no doubt have enjoyed Sullivan’s later World Championship defeat at the hands of San Francisco’s own James J. Corbett.  The blow from Sullivan caused Oofty to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and he was no longer immune to pain, flinching at the slightest touch.

There are many other colourful stories surrounding Oofty, for example:

  • acting as a human skittle in Woodward’s Garden where customers could win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball;
  • performing alongside Big Bertha (another candidate for inclusion in this series) in a Shakespearean parody entitled “Borneo and Juliet”;
  • attempting to push a shiny red wheelbarrow to New York for a bet (a challenge that failed after just 40 miles when he was knocked over in the dark and landed head first in a creek); and
  • being shipped upside down in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady and being left in the unopened package over the weekend.

Despite his physical debility he moved to Texas where he continued to play the fool for his living, drinking beer with a bar spoon and engaging in quail eating contests.

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The great German philosopher Nietzsche said it induced all truly great thoughts, Dickens felt it was the only thing that prevented him from exploding and perishing, and Ellen DeGeneres said her grandmother had taken it up at the age of 60 and now, at 93, nobody “knew where the hell she was”!  Moreover, it can boast almost two and a half million “likes” on Facebook.

If you haven’t already guessed, it is walking – simple, old-fashioned, placing of one foot in front of the other, the “first thing an infant wants to do and the last thing an old person wants to give up”.  It is the  most perfect form of exercise – health giving, stress busting, sociable and sustainable.   It is no longer the sole preserve of gaggles of retired teachers and postmistresses hiking from pub to pub, though organised Ramblers trips remain popular, but it has increasingly become the focus for major fund-raising events (witness the many “walks for life” around the globe), and many couples and families view it as a key part of their social life.

It may surprise readers who cannot buy their daily paper from the corner shop without getting into the car that walking is by far the most popular outdoor recreation in the UK – the proliferation of guide books on the shelves of your local WH Smith store is striking evidence.  Even in the home of the enemy  – the internal combustion engine – the number of walking trips has more than doubled, from 18 billion to 42.5 billion, in the last 20 years.

Over the past couple of years my wife and I have, armed with one of those guide books, increasingly devoted our Sundays to a countryside or coastal walk of between five and ten miles in Kent.  Lovely scenery – oast houses, meadow flowers, orchards and hedgerows –   accompanied by birdsong and captivating glimpses of wildlife, all richly compensate for the occasional hardships of mud, barbed wire fences and impossibly steep stiles. A visit to a local hostelry or tea rooms, either en route or at the end of the walk, completes the perfect afternoon. 

Yesterday was a case in point when, setting off from Frittenden church, we took a seven mile walk in the surrounding countryside, the mid point of which was the National Trust owned Sissinghurst Castle, the former home of writer Vita Sackville-West.  Here we sat outside the newly refurbished Granary restaurant with a coffee and a scone before taking a stroll around the acclaimed gardens, designed by Sackville-West herself, and then resuming our adventure. 

No walk would be complete without at least one unplanned detour, adding to the challenge and provoking a temporary raising of voices whilst the map is turned every which way and the book’s author is cursed for his imprecise use of the language.  But we haven’t got completely lost yet!

Walking in the countryside also provides the perfect environment in which, free from the noisy distractions of TV, neighbours and traffic, we can chat calmly and clearly about our plans –  the decisions to get married after 27 years and for me to take early retirement were both made on a cold February afternoon in a muddy field halfway between Shoreham and Otford!

Cynics will accuse me of over-romanticising the subject, of portraying a rural idyll that no longer exists (if it ever did), to which I plead not guilty.  Walking is the perfect antidote to today’s rushing, thoughtless world and an refuge, if only a temporary one, from its bombardment. 

On a more pragmatic level, it supplements the more frenetic gym regime and helps to prepare us both physically and mentally for the challenge of those lung bursting San Francisco hills and Lake Tahoe ski trails!

So, if you haven’t already, try it!  Approach it with an open mind and you might just find it’s the perfect workout and therapy.

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