We sensed each other beneath the mask

We both felt left out, left over, left hanging out to dry, or left high and dry, or maybe left for dead. We were good friends. We lived in different states. This was in the days when people wrote letters. So we wrote each other letters, thinking out loud in print, weeping our woes and joking our joys and up so many floating poems down.

And we quoted Bob Dylan, especially the liner notes, written by Dylan himself, for the back cover of the album “Planet Waves.” Many of the songs Dylan recorded for that album also hit home with us then: “Something There Is About You,” “Dirge,” “Forever Young,” “Hazel”…every great song resonated on that great underrated album.

But the liner notes! I quote selected phrases that I remember we quoted to each other, finding some hidden meaning known only to us — and, maybe Dylan:

Back to the Starting Point!…I dropped a double brandy & tried to recall the events…headwinds & Snowstorms…We sensed each other beneath the mask, pitched a tent in the Street & joined the traveling circus…searching thru the ruins for a glimpse of Buddah…Yeah the ole days Are gone forever And the new ones Aint far behind…the Laughter is fading away, echos of a star…Energy Vampires in the Gone World going Wild!…My brothers of the flood…

And we quoted “Desolation Row” from the album “Highway 61 Revisited.”

We were lost boys who had lost true loves and had no idea where our lives might lead, and so we quoted the lines about eyes being fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow and nobody escaping from Desolation Row, and especially the last 12 lines, beginning with “Yes I received your letter yesterday…” and ending with the plea not to send any more letters unless they were postmarked Desolation Row. I believe, in fact, although the memory is hazy because I was in such a foggy haze, that the last letter I received from my old friend ended with those very lines — don’t send me no more letters no….not unless you mail them from…Desolation Row.

This all came to mind recently when I came upon a website featuring  a fascinating painting in which Shane Balkowitsch and Theo Cobb depict and portray every single line and character down on “Desolation Row,” even the restless riot squad — and thrown in for good measure are visual allusions to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Shelter From the Storm” and even the day Dylan wrecked his Triumph motorcycle outside of Woodstock, New York.

Here’s a video montage of the painting — accompanied by Mr. Dylan himself, singing one of his greatest songs:

I enjoyed it and so will my old friend — even though neither of us lives anymore on “Desolation Row,” I know we both remember it well.


It’s Todd’s Show! (And two of my friends are in it!)

They’re my comrades, colleagues, collaborators, co-conspirators: Laura Swanson and Keith Strunk, founders and principals of the great River Union Stage theater troupe in Frenchtown, work with me on the annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival. Both are extremely talented practitioners of the thespian arts — acting, directing, producing, stage design, lighting, sound, you name it they do it, including an extremely funny episode from the increasingly popular and absolutely hilarious Web series titled “It’s Todd’s Show.”

The show features two talking dogs and their interesting opinions of the humans they are forced to deal with in their lives.

Here’s the link to the episode starring Keith and Laura:

After you watch the hilarious performance by Keith and Laura (actually Keith isn’t acting — that’s the way he is in real life), go to the show’s Web site, click on the video tab, and find the short clip of the laughing dog, which will either creep you out or leave you in hysterics, just like the dog — and just like me.

“I was no more than a boy…”

I think I remember that…Everyone was wearing those then…

That comment about what everyone was wearing then, including me, referred to a photo in which I was wearing an ugly green parka, probably purchased at a cheap department store. It had a quilted orange-colored inside lining and a hood edged with obviously fake raccoon fur.

A few hours later I heard this song as I was driving in my car:
When I left my home and family
I was no more than a boy…

It all came back. It’s a few years after that photo was taken. I’m in my early 20s. I have absolutely no money and can’t find a job. I’m writing poetry. I’m sharing an apartment in Chelsea with two friends. I am so broke that when I get a one-day job as an office clerk through a temp agency, and have to head uptown to pick up the paycheck, I walk the 50 blocks each way because I couldn’t afford the subway fare.

And so the memory of that ugly green parka and hearing “The Boxer” somehow set me to thinking about William Packard.

When I moved to New York City, my friend Robert Lax — the great, saintly poet — told me to look up Packard. Lax wrote to Packard and asked him to be on the lookout for me. Packard — founding editor of the fine literary magazine New York Quarterly, a professor at NYU, a playwright and a poet — was a great bear of a man, capable of writing and speaking boisterous words but just as able to write gentler words expressing fear and doubt and love and regret and hope.

William Packard
William Packard

He was a good man. He and I had some engaging and provocative talks about writing and reading and living in some late-night chats at his apartment on 14th Street. And he helped me, just as Bob Lax had asked. Packard helped me get my poems published. He helped me get invited to read some of my poems at venues in Manhattan where I had no right — at least based on my abilities and credentials — to be reading. And one day there was an act of kindness I will never forget. I met up with him at some diner on University Place. He ordered a tuna sandwich. I ordered only coffee. I was so hungry I can’t even describe it — but I could barely afford the coffee. Bill Packard’s sandwich came — and he took half of it, put it on a napkin, and pushed it across the table to me. And never said a word about it.

Packard took photos of writers he met for the first time — writers, as he explained it to me, who might someday be noteworthy. The photos were generally slightly blurry, slight fish-eyed, slightly off-center and tilted. And he took a photo of me — I know he gave me a copy of it, but I don’t know whatever became of it. I’m sitting on a park bench in Washington Square. It’s snowing lightly – flurries — and the flakes can be seen in the picture. I look very cold and very thoughtful — and very hungry and very much at loose ends. And I’m wearing that ugly green parka that everyone wore back then, and the hood’s pulled up tight around my head, and as I peer out at the camera, my face is framed by obviously fake raccoon fur.

William Packard, in his later years, suffered a stroke. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him for a while, but at Bob Lax’s urging I called Packard about 10 years ago. It was a sad, strange conversation — but I did get a chance to remind him of the kindness he had shown me and to thank him for it. He didn’t know if he had a copy of the photo and he’d forgotten all about the sandwich. These things, I was startled to realize, were minor episodes in Packard’s rich and busy life — they were small things to him, I said over the telephone, but they meant everything to me.

Two half moons

I’m sending you images of the moon. It’s dipping and diving between black clouds. I’m looking at a river. I’m telling you about a bridge that crosses the river. I’m telling you about the darkness on the other side.

But there are lights on the bridge that crosses the river. The lights on the river are floating stars. And the moon’s a half moon, leaning forward. Its reflection floats on its back, drifting in the river, surrounded by stars.

You think about the moon. A pond becomes a river. You think about lights like floating stars and you think about the moon. And then it appears, the very same moon, come to visit, at my behest.
Who would have thought you could photograph this moon?


Who would have thought it could inspire such a poem?

When you see
the half moon
you can know

at the other end
of the lens
was me

thinking of you,
seeing it,
just as you do.

Goodnight, goodnight, and I’m lulled to sleep by moon songs tonight — “Moon River” and “Moondance” and “Mr. Moonlight” and a song called “Song About the Moon:”
If you want to write a song about the heart
Think about the moon before you start

This was my song about the heart, which I wrote after I stopped to tell you about the river, after I stopped to show you the moon.

There’s a half moon here and a half moon there, and together they equal a moon bright and full.

Song and dance men

The setting was perfect, in the cool and colorful waterfront town of Nyack, New York, on the western shore of the Tappan Zee, the wide stretch of the Hudson River which got its name from the early Dutch settlers — the name means “wide sea” and on its eastern side it laps against the shores of Tarrytown, home of Washington Irving and setting for his tales of Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.


Just up the river, also on that eastern side, is the town of Beacon, home of folk icon and social activist Pete Seeger. Also upriver, further north on the Nyack side, is Bear Mountain State Park, destination of the unfortunate daytrippers who inspired a young Woody Guthrie acolyte named Bob Dylan to write a hilariously clever song called “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” More specifically, the setting was the small, atmospheric theater occupying the upstairs of an old building on the town’s Main Street — the Nyack Village Theatre.

And the company was perfect: an audience that was disappointingly small (probably because the weather had been so terrible earlier) but included my good friend, the author and literary blogger/essayist Steve Hart and Rob Stoner (who played bass for Bob Dylan’s band on the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, is a friendly and low-key guy, lives in West Nyack, and continues to perform professionally while also working full-time giving guitar and bass lessons.

Here’s a photo of Stoner:

Best of all was the reason we were gathered: to hear and see an audiovisual presentation on Friday, April 3, 2009, by Michael Gray, author of the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, as well as the classic volume of amazing Dylan scholarship “Song and Dance Man,” and a forthcoming book focusing on the life and times of the late blues legend Blind Willie McTell.

Michael Gray
Michael Gray

Gray’s talk, “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues,” used rare audio and video clips — young Dylan playing blues harmonica with Big Joe Williams, a slightly older mid-1960s Dylan transforming his harmonica into an instrument that simply transcended the blues, to a Lightin’ Hopkins song, “Automobile Blues,” that clearly provided the template for Dylan’s own song (apparently inspired by Edie Sedgwick of the Andy Warhol crowd) “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat,” to a deep and perceptive reading of Dylan’s recordings in the 1990s of two somewhat frivolous songs, “World Going Wrong” and “Blood in My Eyes,” by the pre-World War II group The Mississippi Sheiks — in which Dylan’s nuanced changes turned those somewhat slight tunes into nothing less than songs of social and personal apocalypse.

Even the wait for Gray’s program to begin was entertaining — as we watched the Rolling Stones’ 1960s made-for-television hippie extravagance “Rock-and-Roll Circus,” highlighted by a performance by the Dirty Mac Band singing the Beatles’ “Yer Blues,” with John Lennon in fine form on lead vocals, drummer Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and two quite adequate guitarists: Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

And topping it off was getting a chance after the show to chat a little with Stoner about his musical career — and about how he’s content and happy now to play the occasional gig but mostly hang around Nyack, teach music, and spend time with his family (including a bunch of grandchildren!) and sharing a glass with Michael Gray, whose takes on American music and culture — from the perspective of a lad from Liverpool who hung out at the Cavern club! — are insightful, surprising and enlightening.

And after it all, driving back home, I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson as I listened to a recording of Mr. Dylan himself singing “Watching the River Flow.”

Finally, a musical treat:
Here’s a clip from the Rolling Thunder Revue of Rob Stoner, Mick Ronson and Bobby Neuwirth doing Dylan’s song “Catfish,” inspired by the great pitcher for the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees.

And here’s another treat. Gray shows this as part of his program. Dylan and what is basically an obscure band are appearing on David Letterman’s show in the mid-1980s. Dylan’s supposed to be promoted his new album “Infidels.” But instead of playing a song from the new album, he plays an absolutely inspired version of an old classic blues by Sonny Boy Williamson. Here’s the link to the Youtube clip:

P.S. Both Steve Hart (http://stevenhartsite.wordpress.com/) and Michael Gray (www.bobdylanencyclopedia.com) have now posted their own blog entries about the Nyack event.