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“The Times They Are a-Changin,'” But Not Fast Enough

Those middle-brows over at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee have once again failed to pay proper respect to our two brilliant novels and countless inches of compelling newspaper copy and all these insightful daily internet essays, an annual slight which we happened to notice while desperately searching for some news to read about about something other than that awful presidential race, but it was at least somewhat heartening to see that the award had instead gone to Bob Dylan.
The selection took everyone by surprise, including ourselves and probably Dylan himself. Dylan is best known not for his little-read and widely-panned prose, after all, but rather for his impenetrable songwriting and nasal singing and sparse guitar strumming and slightly atonal harmonica-playing, so even those Nobel Prize people felt obliged to offer a rather elaborate explanation for their unexpected and apparently inexplicable decision. They could have spared us the effort, as we were around in the ’60s and ’70s and can readily dig all the jive about Dylan being some sort of poet laureate, and after even his creative slump in those long-ago ’80s we’re still punk enough to rather like the idea of our ol’ pal “Freewheelin'” Dylan getting a Nobel Prize in any old category they might have. It gives us hope that our next novel might win a Grammy, or that this daily internet essay will earn that coveted Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award, or that some sort of poetic justice might yet prevail.
We’re at least literate enough to know that his otherwise perfect song “Lay, Lady, Lay” would be more correctly rendered in proper English as “Lie, Lady, Lie,” and to have noticed that a lot of those imponderable lyrics so many of his pot-addled fans have long pondered are pretty much impenetrable to even the most sober listener, and we can’t heartily endorse his Christmas albums or Sinatra covers or some of those ’80s-slump albums, but we have nonetheless been Dylan fans for pretty much as long as we can remember. He first turned up on the radio as a fresh-faced folk singer right around the same time we started listening to the radio, although we were more likely to hear to his songs played by such more polished singers as Peter, Paul & Mary or Joan Baez, and even at that young age we had a natural affinity for his simple melodies and hopeful lyrics about how the answers as are all “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By the time we were old enough to start getting a rudimentary understanding of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests and sexual revolution and other cataclysmic “The Times They Are a-Changin'” stuff that he was singing about he started playing electrified guitar and doing even more nasally-sung and lyrically impenetrable songs, and at that point we were hooked.
It’s hard to explain it to the young folks, but when the acoustic “folk era” Dylan “went electric” at the oh-so-pure Newport Folk Festival back in ’65 it was a big deal, with all the collegiate folk purists feeling betrayed that their hero had gone the wickedly commercialist way of rock ‘n’ roll. As much as we’d liked the folk stuff, we downright loved how he noted that country-and-western players had been electric since Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had amped up back in the ’40s, and that those guys had been way more authentically proletarian than all those college-educated folkies he’d been playing to, and even after all these years that “rock era” Dylan still sounds far more quintessentially American to our wind-blown prairie ears. By the time our musical tastes were starting to harden Dylan was scoring top-10 hits with such rough stuff as “Like a Rollin’ Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its memorable chorus that “everybody must get stoned,” and the older and hipper kids we got to hang around with considered him the “voice of their generation,” and serious if not-quite-Nobel-Prize-level critics were gushing about something they had gleaned from those indecipherable lyrics, and we congratulated our junior-high selves that we also found something meaningful if inexplicable in that very rough-hewn music. As happy-go-lucky high school sophomores we somehow found ourselves oddly attuned to his beautifully bleak middle-aged crazy and post-divorce “Blood on the Tracks” album, even as we were starting to turn the radio dial to the honky-tonk country and and the old folks’ pop and swing standards and the first-generation punk music to quell our adolescent angst.
During our junior year of high school we got to hear Dylan live in his legendarily all-star-studded “Rolling Thunder Review” tour in what was then called Henry Levitt Arena at Wichita State University, named after local haberdasher, which is now Charles Koch Arena, named after the notorious local free-market billionaire, and we attended it with all those brainy College Hill girls from East High we were so enamored of, and to this day it remains one of our favorite musical memories, which is saying something given all the great American music we’ve heard since then. We caught him again a few decades later at downtown’s Century II, where we were a accompanied by the delightful and sexy but somewhat crazy younger woman we were dating in our own middle-aged crazy post-divorce years, and even though we couldn’t make out any of those supposedly profound lyrics he was warbling we were once again delighted by the strangely musical noise he was making. Our third time live with Dylan was a few years back when he was touring with Willie Nelson and made a stop on a warm autumn evening at the old Lawrence-Dumont baseball stadium by the Arkansas River, and even though we weren’t dating anyone at the time it was also a damned good show. Through it all, even those awful Christmas albums and mediocre Sinatra covers, we’ve been unapologetic fans.
We’re not sure if his career is the stuff of a Nobel Prize for Literature, though, and would have preferred that the award had gone to such writers as Muriel Spark or Robertson Davies before their relatively recent deaths, or to Philip Roth or especially Tom Wolfe in their advanced ages, but then again we’re the old-fashioned sorts who would reserve literary prizes to more literary writers. Those middle-brow Nobel committee people tend to hand these things out according to the latest political fads, though, which explains why the black and female and vastly overrated Toni Morrison was the last American to get the Nobel Literature medal, and although we’re glad to see that a defiantly Christian and Jewish college drop-out from Hibbing, Minnesota, won this time around we can’t help thinking that his reputed but deliberately ambiguous liberalism had something to do with the decision. If you’re handing out Nobel Prizes for Literature to rough-hewn American musicians we’d recommend the ex-con honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who died earlier this year with a body of work that for pure down-and-dirty and right-at-the-heart-of-America-and-this-cruel-world greatness surpasses even Dylan’s, but we can’t expect those middle-brows at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee to grasp that.
Even so, the news of Dylan’s newly-awarded Nobel Prize prompted us to replay that profoundly glum “Blood on the Tracks” album, and that gloriously electrified “Highway 61 Revisited” and all its apocalyptic Old Testament allusions, and revisit a time when top-10 hits weren’t so damn slick and over-produced as they are these bleak days, and it happily hearkened us all the way back to the Depression-era days of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson and the real down-and-dirty American music, and all in all it’s made for a pleasant diversion from that awful presidential race. So for that we give thanks to the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, and especially to the still “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, who we hope is still out there somewhere on the open road.

— Bud Norman

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Tommy, Clif, and Tommy, RIP

All of the original Ramones are now dead, two of the best rockers in our prairie city have recently passed away, and what’s left of rock ‘n’ roll music suddenly isn’t at all satisfying.
You probably had to be a troubled youth in the late ’70s and early ’80s to fully appreciate The Ramones, but we were there and you can trust us when we say they were one of America’s greatest musical creations. At a time when rock ‘n’ roll stars were absurdly overpaid prima donnas striking ridiculous poses in even more ridiculous clothes, pretending that a musical style derived from greasy-haired poor white trash in the hills and prairies and bayous in an unholy alliance with the no-account negroes on the street corners of the roughest slums was now some sort of effete art form, The Ramones came out of the garages in some nondescript New York suburb wearing leather jackets and torn jeans and cheap sneakers with shaggy hair in their eyes to pound out a fast and furious and funny reminder of what the real deal sounded liked. No synthesizers or drum machines or fancy production techniques or any pretense of redeeming social value, just an insistent man-made beat and a thudding bass line and three chords screeching from an electric guitar while a gloriously ugly lead singer wailed “I”m a Teenage Lobotomy,”  “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “Gabba Gabba Hey,” or similarly understandable and socially irrelevant rock ‘n’ roll sentiments. The Ramones’ formula distilled rock ‘n’ roll to its intoxicatingly stupid quintessence, and even now when we slap the old sides on the turntable we still tremble at its all-American brilliance.
That basic idea of The Ramones became known as punk rock, and was eagerly embraced by a smattering of oddball kids here in Wichita. With the band’s music blaring on record players at parties and in the afternoons at the apartments of unemployed friends we’d share the half-baked ideas that had been inspired by the demonstration that rock ‘n’ roll or any other cultural expression was something to be created at ground level by ordinary Americans such as ourselves rather than a commodity to be purchased from the established manufacturers. The more musically inclined among us formed bands such as The Agaarns and The Dream Dates and The Inevitable and that classic international cult band The Embarrassment, others painted pictures, some took photographs, and a few of us were compelled to write breathless accounts about with a few pieces that were somehow sneaked into the pages of the local newspaper. It was great fun, the sort of giddy entertainment that can only be enjoyed at a young age and with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, and seems to have had some lasting value.
Some of those troubled and creative kids we knew on the scene have died early deaths from various causes, one is locked away in a federal prison on some very embarrassing charges, others have drifted away to unknown fates, but many are still coming up with something worthwhile to contribute to the local culture, or at least offering some much needed friendship. The art shows that still draw a crowd on the “Final Fridays” of every month by collusion of the painterly part of town aren’t so interesting these days, but they’re still there and so long as they are it provides hope that another John Noble or William Dickerson or one of the other truly great Wichita painter will some day arrive. The band scene is in one of its periodic slow points around here, so far as well gather from our admittedly infrequent forays into the bars where live music is still heard, but there’s still enough of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll to germinate another generation.
The young punks will have to do it without Clif Major and Tommy Crabb, though, and that’s going to be tough. Major was a local guitar star going back to the mid’-’60s, when his screeching solos for the oh-so-southside band The Outcasts transformed the local scene. Most of the well-scrubbed Wichita youth back then preferred the bouncy rock ‘n’ roll of such uniformed midwestern horn bands as The Fabulous Flippers, while the more sophisticated college hippies went for the slightly jazzy psychedelics of the great Mike Finnegan and his Serfs or the San Francisco-connected Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, but The Outcasts introduced the bluesy working class that was being exploited by British bands such as The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones and wound up winning all the battles of the bands. The feat almost killed Major a couple of times, and we got to know him well enough that he laughingly recalled for us how a subsequent stint in a bluegrass gospel band saved his life by keeping him off the prodigious diet of drugs that had fueled those screeching guitar solos, but he lasted long enough to enliven the ’80s rock scene with some gritty sax-driven ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and offer guitar-playing advice to the 21st Century’s local rockers at his ultra-cool instrument shop and to raise a son who slaps a pretty mean rockabilly upright bass in the local bands. Major was a good musician and a good guy, right up to the point that he lost his long battle with cancer, and Wichita and the world can ill-afford to lose either of those.
Crabb was a longtime musical collaborator of Major’s, and his death in his early ’60s about a week after Major’s passing was an unexpected blow. Every local music lover we ran into had the same stunned reaction, that they’d just run into him a few days before and thought he looked great. He’d been drumming for local bands as long as anyone could remember, and it was widely expected to last forever. We remember with particular fondness a night that he and Major had a gig backing up the great Bo Diddley at a sleazy little strip mall on the near west side, and how their natural affinity for the good time music with the Bo Diddle beat had propelled the jaded old pioneers to new frontiers of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll. His last gig was The Tom Page Band, a rootsy outfit that jumps from old-time country to down-home blues to long-haired rock with an effortless knack and is about as good as it gets around here, and its sad to be dreading their next performance. Crabb was a good drummer and another good guy, and a friend of ours who used his bills-paying services laying tile in a renovated kitchen assures us he was quite good at that job, and we’ll miss a drummer a who could answer a cell phone call in the middle of a show without missing a beat.
Tommy Ramone and his fellow Ramones and Clif Major and Tommy Crabb all died younger than people are supposed to in this day of medical miracles, none of them reaching that three score and ten that the Bible described as the age of man, and we lament the work they each left undone. There was never going to be a Ramones reunion, as there’s no sense in sixty-something gray hairs banging out three chords about sniffing glue, and when replacement Marky Ramone tried to revive the old punk spirit at the Wichita River Festival last spring one of our original punk scene friends complained that some idiot was trying to start a “wave,” but we understand that Tommy Ramone was still performing some interesting acoustic folk music, going back to an even more democratic era of American music, and we would loved to have heard it. One of the guys from The Embarrassment is back in town to take care of his aging father, who was once a prominent player on the local big band swing scene, and the most famous local act is Split Lip Rayfield with their punk-meets-bluegrass blend, which can be quite exhilarating when the boys are on their game, and we hold out hope that Wichita will once again realize the glorious possibilities of that unholy alliance of greasy poor white trash and the no-account negroes on the street corners and the very heart and soul of working class America..
Maybe it’s already out there, and we’re just too inclined to stay home to have heard it. We’re always asking the young folks we run into about it, though, and they always glumly assure us that we’re not missing anything special. Nobody we run into eagerly debates who’s the best guitar players out there, the way that Major’s fans did back in the ’60s, and they certainly don’t argue about who’s the best clarinet player, the way our old fogey friends did even into our early youth, and these days the best drum players are all computer programs. America’s popular culture is now just another commodity bought from the established manufacturers, not something that ordinary Americans create spontaneously and joyously and rebelliously and dangerously, and we mourn that passing most of all.

— Bud Norman