Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bob Dylan Gets It

Bob Dylan gets it (see post High Plains Drifter). On his new album Together Through Life, Dylan captures that hot, dry spirit of the High Plains and the entire Lone Star State. Really, the whole thing feels like a drive from Houston to Laredo to Brownsville in a dusty old El Dorado convertible--stopping in borderland cantinas and reminiscing about lost love and unrealized dreams. If you care more about honesty and art than pretty pop singing, then you should open your soul to this new album. If you are a Texan by birth and/or disposition, you should take time to let this album grow in you--it doesn't grow on you, it grows in you.

Here are some excerpts, highlighting Dylan's thoughts on Texas, from a recent Rolling Stone cover story. " 'You feel things, and you're not quite sure what you feel,' Dylan says of the region. 'But it follows your every move, and you don't know why. You can't get out of it...' The album bottles the feeling of King Ranch country along Highway 77... 'Spirited guys from down there,' Dylan believes. 'Independent-thinking guys. Texas might have more independent-thinking people than any other sate in the country. And it shows in the music... I think you really have to be a Texan to appreciate the vastness of it and the emptiness of it,' Dylan says. 'But I'm an honorary Texan.' "

Dylan gets it. And so should you. If you're planning a road trip this summer, or if you just want to pretend you're on a Tex-Mex adventure, you've got to include at least a couple of tracks from Together Through Life. I'd suggest "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," "If You Ever Go to Houston," "Jolene," and "It's All Good." The last one is a lesson in not going gentle into that good night, with lines like "Big politicians telling lies / Restaurant kitchen all full of flies / Don't make a bit of difference / Don't see why it should...it's all good."

When Dylan met French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently, the president asked Dylan where he was from. "I'm from the Lone Star State," was Dylan's reply. Then, for a gift Dylan gave the president a Texas-style belt buckle (we call 'em turkey platters). If you know that Dylan is from Minnesota, and really from nowhere, then you understand how funny it all is. But then on "I Feel a Change Comin' On" he sings, "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver / And I'm reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me / I've got the blood of the land in my voice." Indeed. Dylan gets it. And if you don't know who Billy Joe Shaver is, you've got some work to do.

High Plains Drifter

There's something about this place that I can't get away from, no matter how hard I try. I lived in Boston, full of history and culture but no sunsets. I lived in Vancouver where snowcapped mountains rise against beaches and cityscapes, but there was no space. Even the beaches and deserts and mountains and collision of glamor and struggle in California, which probably came closest to capturing my heart, still left me longing. To steal from Eastwood, I am a High-Plains drifter.

I don't know that you have to be born to it, but it helps. Most folks don't get it. Miles and miles of scrub and sky. For me it is miles and miles of soul. It's not a blank canvas. You camp out under a blanket of stars so thick you think you could reach your finger out and give it a swirl. You watch blue-black thunderheads roll in, empty themselves, then roll on out. The sunset moves through layers of pink and orange and red so vast you swear you'll never look down again. It's not a blank canvas, but there's room--room for soul.

When you finally do look down, there's dirt. There's dirt and canyons and cattle and snakes and ugly plants with ugly names like cactus and yucca--even the name sticks in your dry throat. In the summer, hot winds blow dust from the west. In the winter, biting winds blow snow from the north. Water is playa lakes, odd oases that attract all manner of migrating birds. Trees are dry, twisted mesquite. Mountains are 500 miles to the north, south, or west. And beaches? The whole place is a beach...with no ocean.

I think that's why you almost have to be born to it to really get it. It's not an accidental place. The people are solid and original. They don't talk a lot, but when they do they tell stories. Most folks keep farmer's hours--before dawn to after dusk--no matter what they do for a living. It's just in them--hard work, think for yourself, take care of your neighbor, take care of your own.

Yes, there are guns and rednecks and barbed-wire fences and sonsabitches--the place isn't a commune. Maybe it is backward, in some good ways and some bad ways. But you get out of this place what you bring to it. So, for some it's empty and dead and boring. And for others, it's filling and alive and beautiful. For me, it's home.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trouble With Exits

I’ve been having trouble with exits lately. My wife and I were driving in Dallas a while back and I just kept passing the exit we needed. It was one of those double exits that split into two highways going in opposite directions as soon as you exit, so I just wasn't understanding the signs. Four times, going one way and then the other, I couldn’t get it right. And then, even in Abilene, my iphone GPS was telling me to take the Jake Roberts Freeway. But the Jake Roberts Freeway apparently has about 4 other names, and "Jake Roberts" wasn't on any of the exit signs. So three times I watched the little blue dot that represented my car get off the little purple path I was supposed to be following.

One of the most frustrating things about exit trouble is getting back on track. There’s no telling how long you may end up going in the wrong direction before you can get back on the right road. Like Rain Man, of course I’m an excellent driver; but, these days exits are the bane of my existence. It takes a lot to admit this. We men are infamously fragile when it comes to our driving. We can end up nose-down in a muddy river and still swear we know where we’re going.

I look back at my life and see many exits that should not have been taken--choices that got me off track from an ideal direction. Or shouldn't I have taken those exits? Some were outright sin that led me away from God, and would have led me to a literal dead end. But others were bypasses or scenic routes that seem to have gotten me where I needed to go...eventually. They may have even gotten me to a better place than I might otherwise have gone.

The big difference between then and now is heading, knowing where I'm going. I don't have some big life plan--just some things I think I need to be and do while I'm around (and a number of these were not even on my radar a few years ago, while others have become completely irrelevant). But my real heading is Jesus, who calls himself "the Way." I have the strongest belief--faith, even--that he is the right direction. I'm aware enough of those "dead-end" exits to usually avoid them. And with such joyous traveling companions and the right heading, the occasional scenic route or even rocky road don't cause me to worry and wonder so much. But I still hate driving in Dallas.

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