and the 2035 Grammy goes to…

The most eagerly-anticipated new album of 2035 was released this week, as ninety-four year old Bob Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Crap I Never Planned To Release” hit the airwaves on Tuesday. Coinciding with Dylan’s seventy-fifth year as a recording artist, “Crap” is a sprawling, maddening but ultimately rewarding and occasionally brilliant addition to the Dylan oeuvre, with undiscovered gems and a handful of new recordings which illustrate his still vital presence in the rock pantheon.

This has been a banner year for Dylan, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Tony award for the musical version of his Greenwich Village years called “Blowin’!” and his week-long sting as a guest judge and mentor on the still popular “American Idol.” The “Idol” appearance was marred by controversy, of course, as Dylan was shown yelling at one of the finalists to “stop destroying my legacy you kids!”

This latest collection has Dylan looking back on his Minnesota troubador roots while at the same time making peace with modern technology. Late last year, he bought his first computer, and on this new album seems to be excited about the possibilities of using what he refers to in the opening track, “I Think I Like This,” as “the bleeps and blips, the ones and zeros” of digital recording. He even had a special microphone (‘the Zimmerman’) designed, which allows him to electronically add entire notes to his vocal range.

The album, in a nod to nostalgia, is being released on six actual physical discs. Although primarily a novelty item (each disc only holds about an hour of music), this ‘boxed set’ is noteworthy for the inclusion of words printed on paper listing each of the songs in the order Dylan performs them. Naturally, the songs will also be availble for download into your Individual-Digital Ear Accessory. The Apple I-DEA version of the album includes seven hundred tracks not available in the physical release.

The first part of “Vol. 12” is the most revelatory, as it includes six new songs. The best of these, a rollicking country-blues wrapped around a folk-punk groove, reflects Dylan’s recent conversion to Islam. Entitled “Osama (Might Be Comin’ Back)”, the tune is kicked off by Dylan’s funereal noodling on an antique instrument known as a ‘B-3’ organ, and features the sounds of drone missiles and a haunting refrain from a children’s choir.

This is followed by the strangest track in the collection. A collaboration with The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, “R U From Minnesota 2?” is, on it’s surface, a slight acoustic number distinguished only by the return to the studio of TAFKATAFKAP after 20 years as an ordained minister for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But underneath, you can almost feel the existential angst and whispered questions—and the implication that, at least for three minutes and seventeen seconds, we are all ‘from Minnesota.’

After a couple of perfunctory genre exercises (the calypso-inspired Still Not Dead” and the rockabilly-tinged “(Baby, You’re The Reason For All My Crazy Runnin’) Around,” part one ends with the most personal writing from Dylan since “Blood On The Tracks.” Bob Dylan has always expressed ambivalence about being ‘the voice of a generation,’ and nowhere is this conflict more apparent than on the moody, zither-driven anthem “The World Is Screwed And I’ve Stopped Caring.”

At almost twelve minutes, “The World Is Screwed And I’ve Stopped Caring” is a cryptic ode, full of opaque references to “the world being screwed” and Dylan himself “not caring.” Always a challenge to decipher, here Dylan presents an almost impressionistic lyric which can be interpreted in many ways.

We don’t ultimately know if it’s the folkie Dylan, the electric Dylan, the born-again Dylan or the romantic Dylan who is speaking to us, or is it an overlap of all of those Dylans in some sort of rock and roll Venn diagram? The song’s lyrics give us few clues, but he seems to be repudiating the notion of rock stars as prophets when he wails the lines “I repudiate the notion of rock stars as prophets/I can’t make it any clearer than that”.

After he became a Muslim, Bob Dylan famously said “God wears a lot of different suits, man, depending on where he has to go that day.” In this, his 47th album, it is Dylan who changes his wardrobe, and not all of the suits fit. Even Dylan fanatics won’t need an entire disc of sound checks, although “Test: One Two” is interesting. And the spoken word piece “Brownsville Girl Parts Two, Three And Four” is a bit self-indulgent. But after a fifteen year absence from the studio (claiming that “the magnets they’re using steal your soul”), “The Bootleg Series Vol. 12” is a stunning return to form from a man battling his demons, and ours, at times with just a harmonica.

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gettin’ old, watchin’ the tube

One thing I love about having survived half a century is that I’ve become comfortable with guilty pleasures. So comfortable that I just think of them now  as…pleasures.

Which brings me to television. First of all, now that the Supreme Court has decided corporations are really people, I should treat corporations as I would treat people, and if they want me to watch something, wouldn’t not watching be…rude? You’re not gonna hear me say “I don’t even own a TV” or “I only watch PBS.” Nope. Made peace with the idiot box. I.Love.TV.

Don’t get me wrong. You look through my library, you’ll see plenty of deep and substantial things. Hell, I was a cybernetics major at a top-tier university, and I can debate arcane philosophical points with the best of ’em. I’ve even occasionally been known to wear a beret, so obviously I’ve got some intellectual credibility. But life’s all about balance, and for that balance, I’m more than happy to suckle at the anesthetizing teat of television.

Or as I call it, my friend. TV is great, because when I want other humans in my apartment (but don’t want the hassle of actually interacting), I push a button and there they are. When I don’t want to be bothered by the tiny people in the box, I can make them go away. And unlike actual people, I can make them shut up and they don’t get all passive aggressive. It’s not like after turning the TV off, the next time I want to watch the TV throws me attitude like “Oh you didn’t want to watch me an hour ago—maybe I won’t turn on now.

See, the wisdom of my advanced years has taught me that, despite what Newton Minow famously claimed in 1963, the medium is not a ‘vast wasteland’. True, there’s a lot of garbage. But that’s why God made the remote and the TVGuide (or whatever the kids use to find out what’s on).

Now for entirely non-philosophical reasons, I haven’t had a TV for a few years. When I decided to get one, I had a classic ‘old man’ moment. I’m in a Best Buy, and the only TVs I see are flat-panel. So I ask the twenty-something clerk, “Do you have any TVs that look like…TVs? You, know, kinda like a… box with a cord?” And he says, “Yeah, I think we used to sell those a while ago…”

Initially I didn’t want cable–figured I’d just watch the ‘broadcast’ channels, with an antenna. But the antenna only allowed me to pick up the Spanish-language Home Shopping Club and the Evangelical Word Network, so I dove in, and now, with a TV and cable, I feel like I’ve been whooshed into another dimension like in an episode of Doctor Who. Which I can also watch now.

Random Observations About The TV Thing

Be careful if you’re flipping between two shows. And you’re stoned. Once, a couple years ago, I was going back and forth between the Golden Globes and the premiere episode of 24, and at one point I was worried that Jack Bauer was about to shoot Sandra Bullock.

I think the best solution to NBC’s late-night problem would have been to make Leno a regular on Law and Order—he stays on the network, Conan keeps The Tonight Show, and the 10pm slot is filled with cop shows again, like God intended.

I like Sarah McLachlan. I like animals. I DON’T like Sarah Mclachlan’s music as background for public service announcements about abused animals. Now I can’t listen to the song ‘Angel’ without thinking of sad, hurt puppies.

The Game Show Network is a weird concept, because they show reruns of game shows. Harder to get excited for someone who won $1,500 in 1978. That money’s probably gone now.

Niche channels like the History Channel maybe shouldn’t try to fill an entire day, because they seem to be running out of material. Hard to believe, with all of…history to work with, but there was an episode of Modern Marvels that was about COLD CUTS! Yeah, turkey bologna is truly a wonder of modern technology.

I love that my TV is high-definition, because with the wider screen resolution, now if I watch Fox News I get two extra inches of stupid.

Finally, a few thoughts about PBS. If you’re the type who ‘only watches PBS,’ that must be because your life is made richer by the deep, insightful analysis you get from the Legends of Doo-Wop, because I swear on the grave of Philo Farnsworth that is only show they play during pledge drives! I’m sure you think you’re playing to your demographic, but most of the members of the groups themselves are dead by now! Concert footage of seventy-year-old guys singing “Teenager In Love” to an audience of other seventy-year-olds doesn’t make me want to subscribe, it just reminds me that I’m old!

Oh, and not all British sitcoms are funny. Some them are simply crap with an accent. Frankly, I think most Americans watch BBC shows out primarily out of guilt for beating the British in the Revolutionary War.

Last night on PBS, there was a special featuring violinist Joshua Bell. Talented, and as close to a rock star as classical music gets. But he did something very disturbing. He performed a  ‘duet’ with dead pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. A recording of Rachmaninoff was played through a computer, which was connected to an actual piano, and somehow the piano looked like it was being ‘played’ without anyone sitting at the piano. I thought I was watching sorcery. And in that moment, I realized that when technology frightens you more than it impresses you, you’re getting old.

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the comedy trenches

Thought I’d give you a comic’s-eye view of your basic road gig…

I’m on a bus headed to Minnesota. On Saturday night I begin my return to standup comedy, with a performance for the Rotary Club of Buffalo, Minnesota. On the surface, none of that exactly screams ‘show business’-not Rotary Club, not Buffalo, not Minnesota. But, it is a gig. I feel a bit like Michael Corleone in The Godfather–no matter how many times I try to leave standup, “it keeps pulling me back in.”I’m not even sure how I feel about getting back in the game. Excited, sure. And, in a weird way, a little resigned. So now I’m playing catch-up with all the hipster, alternative and most importantly, young comedians working today. And here I am, the Grandpa Moses of comedy.

First thing I have to do is throw out a chunk of my material, because I used to do topical jokes, and a lot of those are past their freshness date. Back in the day, I used to have bits about an out-of touch, incompetent president risking American lives in wrong-headed military action motivated by oil, while the economy stagnated and inner-city violence soared. Well, maybe I don’t have to rewrite that much material.

I also need to figure out how to market myself . Used to be if I wanted work as a comic, I’d send a VHS tape of a show to the club owner. Now I need to have a website, a clip on YouTube, I probably should have a MySpace page and I’m sure there’s some way to implant a microchip in the heads of prospective audience members so they’re forced to watch my show in an endless loop. Well, at least I’ve got the website and the clip, which you can view here.

I realize I’m sounding like an old vaudevillian here (‘why, if radio hadn’t come along I’d still be somebody”), but it’s a little scary getting back on the horse. I was lucky enough to get into standup when it was booming, in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system had ‘comedy night’ at the local bar. If you had twenty minutes of material and a car, you could make a decent living. Then comedy got devalued when the market was flooded with 18,000 mediocre twenty-something comics who realized it was easy money and you got to work in bars and occasionally get laid because for forty-five minutes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa you were a star. Yeah, I’m a little bitter. But it’s good to be back.

Now, to get to Buffalo, you drive west from Minneapolis (which is an actual city) about 45 minutes, past the suburbs, past all signs of civilization, until you see the lights of a town. That town isn’t Buffalo. You keep driving.Interestingly enough, for the 20 or so miles before you get to Buffalo, there are no signs along the freeway saying ‘Buffalo–20 miles” or “Buffalo–next exit” or…anything. The only signs you see tell you to watch your speed, because you certainly wouldn’t want to get to Buffalo too quickly. Also on that stretch of freeway, they’ve painted white dots in the middle of the road, with signs saying “2 dots equals 3 seconds.”

So you keep driving and counting dots until you see the Menard’s, take a right, and there it is–the Buffalo Civic Center. However, whereas ‘civic center’ implies a rather grand structure, where…big events might happen, this place looks like an aircraft hangar built on top of a high-school gymnasium. An old gymnasium with god-awful fake ‘turf’ duct-taped to the floor. Guess my ‘comeback’ had to start somewhere.

This was the Buffalo Rotary Club’s yearly fundraiser, during which they raffle off a new car. Now one of the fundamental rules of comedy, along with “Always Be Nice To The Guy Paying You” and “Don’t Make Fun Of The Girlfriend Of The Guy Paying You” is ‘Never Follow A Raffle.” See, everyone is there trying to win something, and when you go on, they realize you’re not giving away any prizes. You never want you introduction to start with the phrase ‘and don’t forget we still have a comedian.’

The three hundred or so people who didn’t win a new car dejectedly head for their own car (I mean it was almost ten o’clock in Minnesota after all) and I’m left with fifty or so people, who thanks a prime rib dinner and an open bar are either drunk or napping. The head guy of the Rotary Club then spends five minutes trying to get the drunk people quiet enough to hear my show, and to get them really pumped, gives me this introduction:

“Alright, so we’ve got a guy here from Chicago to entertain you. Here’s Michael Dane.”

The ‘audience’ is seated at gigantic round tables, thereby making sure that two-thirds of them aren’t actually facing the ’stage’, which is not really a stage but a three-inch high riser made of unfinished plywood. I start off playing with the crowd a little, and I had been given some notes on a few of the notables in the group to riff on. Unfortunately, none of the people for whom I had notes were still there. So I play with some people at the front tables, and I see a woman with big frizzy hair, and suggest that she was “the victim of a tragic home-perm accident.” Not brilliant, but the kind of line that loosens up the crowd before I get into my material. Well this crowd wasn’t too clear on the notion that comics…make shit up. No real grasp of sarcasm. So, a woman next to the frizzy-haired woman felt compelled to yell in the middle of my next joke “that’s natural–that’s her real hair!” I clearly had entered some sort of bizarre Literal Land, so I decided to just get to the act.

Although a core group in the crowd was clearly digging my routine, I spent much of my contractually-obligated hour essentially babysitting. Apropos of nothing I would be talking about, someone would announce loudly “I’m getting a drink–anyone need anything?” or “I gotta take a piss.” If I turned to the right, the people on the left would start talking. If I turned to the left, a canasta game would break out on the right.  On every other joke, if I didn’t yell the punchline, they seemed unable to tell that it was the end of a joke, and their cue to laugh. And, since it was an room full of Minnesotans, when they did laugh, wasn’t able to tell. The innate Lutheran-ness of Minnesotans doesn’t exactly lead to boisterous response.

It was also the whitest group of people assembled outside of the Republican National Convention.  The only person of color in the auditorium was the black security guard. Not even sure why he was there–Rotary Club events don’t tend to draw your rabble-rousers and troublemakers, even when they have an open bar.

I pushed through, though, eventually got to most of my actual jokes, and at the end, quite a few people said the had a great time (again, not that I could tell they had fun). Did my political stuff, did my pot stuff, even did my bisexual stuff (now I know why the security guard was there). Afterwards, I went to the open bar, had a gin and tonic in a plastic cup, got my money in cash, and headed out of Buffalo. Showbiz, baby! Bottom line–I got as much out of a Rotary Club raffle crowd in Western Minnesota as any comedian could have.

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