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from Minding the Light, a West Hills Friends Journal

K.D. and Ben and Leslie and I were out at the VA’s long-term care facility in Vancouver one evening playing music for the guys. It was a thing I sort-of felt led to do and they thought it was a good idea and could make it so we went together. We played “Country Roads,” and “Ghostriders in the Sky,” and a bunch of fun tunes. We all sang, and traded lead vocals. Leslie had her violin. I brought my little amp and we’d borrowed a mic stand and music stands from the meeting house. We’d rehearsed a set-list. It was all set up with the volunteer coordinator.

The guys were pretty mixed: some had been in care and rehab for months, and some lived there. A guy in a wheelchair was a Korean War vet. There were guys in pyjamas and guys in slacks and shirts. We didn’t need the mics, really, there were only about a dozen people, besides us, a dozen counting the aides and caregivers. It was their cafeteria. The lighting was fairly low, as I remember, and they sat around in chairs, some up close and some hanging back. I can’t imagine what they were carrying or how they managed. We were all there together.

We wanted to play songs they’d know so I didn’t play much of my stuff. Besides, my stuff is pretty Jesus-y, which wouldn’t be fair. Towards the end of the set though I played a tune I wrote when I was first trying to get sober, a piece called, “See My Freedom Come.” I was getting through it in pretty good order, finding the balance with my voice and guitar; and when I was feeling pretty comfortable I looked up to see if it was going over. People were listening. There was a guy in the back, a younger guy, no real visible wounds or whatever. He was way deep in the song. His eyes were closed and he was sort of moving his head in time. He had a look like a smile or like his mouth hurt. He was way deep in the song.

I’m a pretty good songwriter, but I don’t really know what music is. Sometimes I wonder what it looks like to a sensible mammal, like a dog. What’s a dog see when he sees a string quartet? A bunch of people standing around doing incomprehensible things. They’re not eating or fighting or having sex or picking fleas off of each other. My cat used to leave the room fast when she heard me open the guitar case.

I’m glad we went. K.D. and Leslie and Ben are friends. We entertained and diverted lonely burdened hurt men, who made a space for us to give our gifts. I not only don’t understand music, I don’t understand anything, but it doesn’t matter: He says, “Go here and do this,” and we try to mind and that’s enough.

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Spotted Toad is a fabulously goofy tune, if I do say so myself, and a tribute to Bob Dylan who as we all know just officially turned a bazillion years old and I’m so pleased for getting to that little dusty attic (in my head) where I put things and finding this song right there. I listened to it again this morning for the first time in 15 years all the way through and I thought, “O my gosh, there was a bridge; yo Bill, I wrote a bridge on this one!” And it’s funny, at least a little bit. Witty, anyway. And it’s a tribute, in it’s own way, a tribute to Bob Dylan and all the sweet wreckage that man caused and inspired.

You know… a couple years back the Swedes finally stopped dithering and gave Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature; not because I wrote that song, or sent them a postcard, but they did. There was a lot of noise then about whether what he did qualified as literature. Huh. Literature. When I was a boy in my 20s writing poetry hand over fist, I remember discovering Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, speaking of literature, and another Nobel literary laureate, found him in the pretty good, they say, Ben Belitt translation. I remember enjoying his stuff immensely. And I loved it that Neruda said he wanted his poetry to be as useful to the people as a loaf of bread (and I’m not putting that in quotes because I don’t know exactly where it came from, though my cortex just assured me again it’s legit, so…).

I love it because the introduction to the Belitt translation said of Neruda that the shoeshine boys in Santiago could say his verses. I remember how important that was to me at the time, not because I expected any shoeshine boys to come knocking, but to provide some context. But I already knew the context pretty well, and didn’t need Neruda to tell me that poetry, (My Beloved), was on the thinnest, most begrudging life support in these United States. She did not look well there, (she looked really good if you know what I mean, but not well), with the quilt pulled up, coughing a little blood into a lace hankie, and looking longingly out the window at the daffodils, wah de do dah… Most Americans were so completely disinterested in poetry, and for good reason: modern poetry was disinterested in most Americans. Modern poetry was academic, or esoteric, or just difficult; alien, weird; egghead professor stuff. Heaven’s… the hours out of my young manhood I spend trying to decipher - trying to like - Ezra Pound’s later work. (His younger lyrics are great BTW). Like modern music or dance or theater it really seemed to only be made to appeal to a pretty small group of intellectual aficionados. But all of that was about to change, and Dylan’s stuff - excuse me, I meant, Dylan’s “Body of Work” - anyway, he was a big piece of that change.

According to the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 chart for 1965, Bob Dylan’s breakout folk-rock hit Like A Rolling Stone got to #41, snugly in between hits by Patti Page at #40, and Freddy and the Dreamers at #42. Competition was stiff: Wooly Bully, by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs was #1 that year. Millions and millions of otherwise defenseless American children like me got to try and get the words straight, when Bobby sang:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine,

threw the bums a dime in your prime,

didn’t you?

v.1, Like a Rolling Stone, B.Dylan

God knows there are books, fun and popular, catty and mean, respectable and not; bios and retrospectives and analyses; and now of course textbooks on Bob Dylan, by the shelf, by the truckload; a respectable cottage industry. Himself wrote a very readable and interesting autobio that brings that early Greenwich Village, Gerdes Folk City milieu into startlingly vivid life; and a pleasant read in part because he speaks with such relaxed humility, a million miles away from the guarded barbed unreadable surrealism of Tarantula, his first alleged book published in ‘66, I think. But… they sure didn’t give it to him for Tarantula - it’s real bad; or even for Like A Rolling Stone, good as it is, but properly, for an entire body of work that goes back to that first, self-titled album, Bob Dylan (1962) and forward through blazingly transcendent business like Blonde on Blonde, and Blood On The Tracks, and… well, what did Wikipedia just say…? 39 studio albums? Wow.

Not to dwell too long on what a different poorer world it would be without Joanie singing Blowin’ In The Wind, or Jimi Hendrix inviting us All Along The Watchtower; moments some of us think of as prophecy.

Here’s my biggest theme with Bob: as soon as there was language, people made poetry, (OK, Bob comes in real soon here.). They found lovely elaborate patterns in their languages, and chanted poetry and sung it; used it to teach skills and cooking and horsemanship; they used it to describe the heavens and the beings who lived there; they told the stories of the queens who freed their people, and told all about Coyote and Raven and Brer Rabbit. And then they got way smart and invented writing, and we used the one more and the other less until all the poetry dribbled out of the people’s mouths and leaked away, gone, utterly gone by the time I was a boy, shrug, except in the university… until, until… mirabile dictu … the phonograph record, and the radio station, and now they got this thing called the internet… so you can hear poets sing their work, even if you don’t have one in your town…….

Don’t miss it: Bob, meaning only to have a good time and do his best (and get laid) turns out to be the exact right, very ambitious, very talented, very lucky guy to model putting poetry back in the mouths and ears and brains of ordinary people, and he did it. But it doesn’t stop there either. Bob’s successes fueled all the new singer-songwriters: Joanie Mitchell, a great popular poet; Paul Simon, a great popular poet, and the list goes on and on. In turn, all of these pioneers inspired vast rippling developments still gaining authority in the culture: in regional voices, in women’s voices, the poetry of black people and brown people; rap and hip-hop; cowboy poets, poetry slams. So, of course, Bob was not the only one - just one of the earliest; one of the most successful poets since… who? And for my money, one of the very best.

Happy Bazillionth Birthday, Bobby! Enjoy your Nobel - you earned it. (And I hope Sony gave you more money than you can count!)

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The men listened, leaning in. “On the highway at Sepphoris,” he said, “The Romans crucified five hundred and twenty men going into town, and five hundred and twenty going out. One thousand and forty, all told, of the children of Israel and the Gentiles alike. I made marks on a stick to keep track.” Joseph looked around the circle at his neighbors. “Each man was crucified with three of these,” he said, and lifted the spike up for all to see. “That would be about three thousand one hundred and twenty wrought-iron spikes.” He waited to see if they understood. “At a penney a dozen,” he said, “Or thereabouts.” He reached out to hand the black iron to the man next to him, but it was Naaman, the rabbi, who threw up his hands and drew back.

“That should not even be in here,” he said thickly. “It is cursed by God and absolutely unclean, as you well know, Joseph.” “Yes, Reb Naaman,” said Joseph, “I understand. And Demetrius of Ptolemais understands that if we are hungry enough we will sell our children. First our daughters, we will sell them to feed our sons. Then our sons. Then our wives, and lastly ourselves, Reb Naaman. The pimp of Ptolemais will gladly keep us alive on those terms.” There was quiet for a few moments, and then Matthias, a man with five children, reached out and took the spike. He turned it over in his hands. “Even a prostitute may give a gift to the temple,” he said. “Isn’t it so, Rabbi?” He handed the spike to his brother Judah. “Can we sell the iron in Ptolemais, Joseph?” Joseph cocked his head, but it was young Ephraim across the circle who broke in, “You can sell anything or anybody in Ptolemais!”

“Well,” said Joseph, “We’ll probably get cheated; but it’s around five hundred pounds of Roman wrought iron. I think we could get enough to make it through until next year.” The men looked around at one another, and heads started nodding in agreement.

“God I’m hungry!” said one of the younger men, “Let’s get started!” More heads nodded, and the meeting started to break up into excited talk.

Joseph spoke up loudly, “Rabbi,” he said, “If we could bury them, and pray for them… maybe God could forgive the pollution?” Everyone looked at Reb Naaman. Looking down at his hands he began to nod, yes, and then looked up around the room and smiled. “Thanks be to God!” he said. The men echoed him around the room, “Thanks be to God!”

“We should work at night,” said Joseph. The men quieted. “And just around sunrise, I think. We don’t want to get caught doing this.”

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