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Bob Shiel - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 26 / 3 / 2018

Bob Shiel - Interview


Bob Shiel talks to Lisa Torem in a wide-ranging discussion of his entertaining and well-researched book documenting 61 Bob Dylan albums.

The remarkable book '61 Highways Revisited: The Albums of Bob Dylan' is an attempt to tackle the great musician's work in a manner mirroring one of Dylan's own songs. Its author is Bob Shiel, a retired English teacher, musician, and yogi, who attended colleges in Chicago, Rome, and Vermont, worked for the Peace Corps in Micronesia for four years, and then found his life's calling helping American immigrants prepare for college careers. He published the book in 2015 along with an accompanying double-CD, and it's seen him embarking upon road trips from his home in Chicago to entertain and educate live audiences on the legacy of Bob Dylan, all while working on his next book of freewheeling poetry, fiction, and non-fiction about, well, life itself. Bob and I first met before he performed a set of excellent but obscure Dylan songs (a deliberate act to inspire further insight) and spoke to a group of aficionados at our local library. As he fielded questions with great enthusiasm, he put his set list in historical context. PB: Dylan's music has transformed you over the years, hasn't it? BS: Sure, Bob Dylan transformed my life, but he also mirrored, blessed, and saved it. Perhaps some elaboration is called for because retracing my attention to the music of Bob Dylan requires going back 49 years. First, in the summer of 1969, after my brother John's sophomore year at Notre Dame, he left a handful of Dylan albums in our bedroom. The one I remember most is 'Greatest Hits Volume 1' with, most importantly, 'Like A Rolling Stone' on it. Not shockingly, that got me going. Before long, I had also fallen in love with 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan', 'Another Side of Bob Dylan', 'Bringing It All Back Home', 'Highway 61 Revisited', and 'John Wesley Harding'. The first one I bought for myself was 'New Morning' (1970). I guess what attracted me was Dylan's elevation of the intellectual bar and that none of my teenage friends in Decatur, Illinois, knew much about him. They were intrigued by my singing of the "pencil in your hand" verse of 'Ballad Of A Thin Man', not to mention my recitation of the preposterous witty ditty, 'I Shall Be Free' off 'Freewheelin''. I guess like most teens I yearned to both fit in, on the one hand, and be different on the other. Sort of like Bob Zimmerman, I came from the Midwest, had a solid upbringing, and, looking back, always felt like I was born in the wrong place to the wrong parents. Bob's literary masterpieces 'Blood On The Tracks' and 'Desire' seemed to perfectly fit my college years. His bizarre 'Street Legal' followed by 'Slow Train Coming' spoke directly to me during my own bizarre experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Islands of Micronesia. I wanted Bob's unwavering spiritual clarity. When his albums, and to a lesser degree his concerts, hit a low for five long years in the 1980s, I was bottoming out myself, struggling to get off drugs and find a life back in the US after four years in the Pacific. For me, it was up and down and up and down when I got off drugs, and so it was with Dylan's albums in those days. When 'Time Out Of Mind' in 1997 ushered in what I refer to as Bob's elder statesman era, I thought I was in an excellent marriage, complete with a beautiful wife and two stepchildren. All was well in my world and with Bob Dylan. Finally! Then my divorce shattered my life for a few years, but Dylan's artistic excellence from his mid-50s to his mid-70s has never wavered and has inspired me to come back as a man and as an artist. I will always be grateful for that. Nowadays, while about a third of his live set lists find him crooning American standards, I find myself at a freewheeling point in my retirement, writing personal poetry, introspective fiction, and carefree non-fiction into my next book, which unlike '61 Highways Revisited' is not being shot from the hip Bob Dylan style. Although I will never really meet and get to know Bob Dylan, he in many ways is my best friend. I know countless people who feel similarly, and I guess at the core of my double CD and book is a calling to, by hook or by crook, not keep private something which could easily and otherwise go to my grave unshared, unexpressed, and unacknowledged. Part of my own legacy is venerating that of Bob Dylan. PB: You could have enjoyed a quiet retirement - what made you start on this book instead? BS: There is a pusher in me that is intense which I have learned to channel into constructive action in my life. I worked hard as an adjunct college professor for 27 years. Really hard. That does not and cannot just turn off overnight, no matter how much I longed for flexible free time. The truth is that writing '61 Highways Revisited', I probably spent over 50 hours a week, but it was not work. It was a volcano coming out of me on my own biorhythm. At times, I would flick on the light at two thirty in the morning with a sentence to jot down, which might easily turn into two or three pages before going back to bed at 5am. It was playful intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It was just a whimsical fantasy coming to fruition. I have this framed poster of all the Dylan albums up until 2000, and for years it sat in my home music recording studio. I kept thinking, "Nobody has done a chronological book on all Dylan's albums". It seemed like the right thing to do. The entire manuscript took one year, but in only 18 weeks I had a rough draft, and it took about two more months to glue together all my tangents. Finally, proofreading, which was when it turned from fun to work, took another five months. But the topic of Bob Dylan albums is so massive that writer's block was the least of my problems. In fact, this might sound preposterous, but I have no doubt that I could write the same book with the same outline and not repeat one word of '61 Highways Revisited'. Steeped fans of Bob Dylan will understand that. PB: You talk about 'North Country Blues' as "perhaps one of the most underrated folk ballads in Bob's early folk lexicon". BS: 'North Country Blues' appeared on 'The Times They Are A Changin' in January 1964 and was played live only twice in 1963, at his first appearance at Newport and at the Carnegie Hall concert. In both instances, enchanted audiences seemed gripped in the palm of Bob's hand, and then the song was never heard from again. In 1968, Joan Baez covered it, but Bob himself sort of threw it away. Its mesmerizing C minor arrangement and tragic maternal perspective of hard economic times in a northern mining town gone bust is enough to have made Woody Guthrie proud. PB: Why do you feel Bob's self-produced 'Blood on the Tracks' was what established him as an American literary figure? BS: 'Blood On The Tracks' did not so much establish Bob Dylan as a literary figure as solidify him as one. By 1975, 'The Times They Are A Changin' and 'Blowin' In The Wind', for starters, were already appearing in poetry anthologies. Whether it was inspired by his marriage to Sara or the short stories of Anton Chekhov, or both, not that it matters or will ever be verified, one listen to 'Blood On The Tracks' nowadays, 43 years on, certifies that on instrumentation and vocals alone, let alone poetry, it stands up as a Dylan masterpiece, perhaps along with 'John Wesley Harding', his greatest novel, if you will. Epic ballads such as 'Tangled Up In Blue', 'Idiot Wind', 'Shelter From The Storm', and 'Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts' rank with his finest, most observant and insightful lyrics. PB: In 1975 Bob collaborated with Jacques Levy for what would become 'Desire'. Do you think they complemented each other as songwriters? BS: They complimented each other in that, in most instances, Bob composed great music after, not before, Jacques Levy penned the lyrics. The music is driven by the words, and this is evident if one listens to 'Desire' with this in mind. On no other Dylan album are the lyrics written by a co-writer to the extent they are on 'Desire', which is one of Bob's great albums but certainly not his best. The album which comes closest is probably 'Together Through Life', on which Robert Hunter contributes lyrics to a handful of songs, but that 2009 album, as good as it is, does not hold a candle to 'Desire' on any level. PB: The 2003 film 'Masked and Anonymous' featured Dylan as "ageing rock star" Jack Fate, and its soundtrack features rerecorded Dylan originals - should it be on our "must listen" list? BS: For casual Dylan fans, no. However, even for casual Dylan fans I highly suggest watching the entirety of 'Masked and Anonymous'. Bob co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Charles and played the lead role. Although it was mostly panned by critics, this film is a little known gem. The less known about it beforehand, the better. The outset of the new millennium will go down as one of the more artistically creative outbursts of Bob Dylan's life. He made a movie, wrote the first volume of his memoir, 'Chronicles', recorded one of the finest American roots albums ever, 'Love and Theft', and meanwhile performed live at a pace of 115 shows or so annually. Who does that in their early 60s? As I go around talking to audiences of mostly casual Dylan fans, these are the sorts of facts lost on many which delight them to no end. PB: Then there's 2005's 'No Direction Home' (2005) which begins with Bob's arrival in New York City in 1961. Talk us through the soundtrack? BS: Well, first, it cannot rightly even be called a soundtrack because it contains unreleased studio outtakes not even in the film. So it is really a soundtrack and some other stuff. Second, the vast majority of the 28 tracks were highly anticipated previously unreleased material, so it immediately sold enormously well. Third, disc one especially, but not exclusively, provides access to extraordinarily early acoustic material that some thought would never see the light of day. However, once Scorsese was on board, all hands were on deck in full cooperation, including Bob's. 'No Direction Home' is, academically-speaking, at the very least worthy of being an essential in the library of any film student or Dylan scholar, but artistically, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. In the film we get recordings of Bob in his bedroom in 1959 singing Little Richard cover material, but the soundtrack starts off with a 1959 original composition. Here we find Bob's songwriting ability light years ahead of his performance skills. It makes you wonder what he could do with this simple gem in his 70s. For Dylan historians, the rest of disc one is simply one mandatory source after another. It is just the sort of release for which Dylan bootleggers had been keeping their fingers crossed for forty years. A 1960 recording of the traditional 'Rambler, Gambler' is a wonderful snapshot of Dylan just prior to his fearless departure from the Midwest and legendarily inconspicuous arrival in Greenwich Village. We are treated to live renditions of 'This Land Is Your Land' and 'Blowin' In The Wind' that sound less political or anthem-like and more like intimate love songs. This recording of 'Blowin' In The Wind', its first public performance on a major stage a few weeks prior to the release of 'Freewheelin'', certainly makes it historic, but more curiously, I've got to wonder what the heck was ruminating in the surely blown minds in that audience at New York's Town Hall. From the December 1961 Minnesota hotel tapes we get soulful deliveries of 'Dink's Song' and 'I Was Young When I Left Home.' We also hear Webster's dictionary definition of teetering-on-the-edge harmonica on 'Freewheelin' 'outtake 'Sally Gal', a Witmark demo of 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright', and a killer 'Man of Constant Sorrow' done for a 1963 TV show called Folk Songs and More Folk Songs. Rounding out breathtaking disc one are alternate studio takes of 'Mr. Tambourine Man' (with rare vocal harmonies by Ramblin' Jack Elliott!) and 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' with a slight, lovely melody alteration. Disc two kicks off with Bruce Langhorne supporting a 'She Belongs to Me' outtake with a lovely, lilting electric guitar filler. Then we go right into 'Maggie's Farm' at Newport in '65, which we again got two years later in 2007 in Murray Lerner's 'The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival', the best film footage of Bob Dylan in the 1960s, hands down. Since it's not an LP, Lerner's video masterpiece is not included as a distinct entry in this here book, yet his stunning close-up imagery and his, for the time, incredible audio work merit inclusion in any studious Dylan library, discussion, or undertaking. We also get to hear wild mercurial versions of 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, A Train To Cry' and 'Visions of Johanna' that make one question whether the right choices were made on the original studio albums. Furthermore, there are wow-dude renditions of 'Tombstone Blues', 'Tom Thumb's Blues', 'Desolation Row', 'Highway 61 Revisited', 'Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat' and 'Memphis Blues Again' which confirm the proper selections were made back in the day, but that are nonetheless entrancing passers of the test of time. PB: What were Bob's influences, going back to the "1860s, 1890s, 1930s and 1950s", as you put it? BS: The musicologist in Dylan came out in spades on 'Modern Times', three months into a three-year run of Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio [broadcast by the BBC in the UK] on which Bob played disc jockey, hysterically educating us on his personal tastes. First, on Modern Times there are incessant homages ranging from the lyrics of the Roman poet Ovid - just prior to the birth of Jesus - on 'Workingman Blues', 'Ain't Talkin',' 'The Levee's Gonna Break', and 'Spirit On the Water' all the way to Ralph and Carter Stanley's 'Highway Of Regret' in 1958, which is directly quoted in 'Ain't Talkin''. Bob Dylan has neither concealed his use of melody structures of others going all the way back to 'Song to Woody', a melody mimic of Guthrie's '1913 Massacre', nor ever claimed to be a melodist per se. Rather, as a veritable musicologist, he has fit his poetry into melodies familiar to his far-reaching conscious and sub-conscious musical instincts in order to come up with results that, to say the least, sound original. On no Dylan album is this more true than on 'Modern Times', and no shortage of examples can be cited (all of these and more are also in '61 Highways Revisited'). From 1857's 'Gentle Nettie Moore' by Marshall Pike and James Lord Pierpont, the composer of 'Jingle Bells', Dylan took the song's title and parts of its chorus. From 1929 Dylan outright simulates 'Rollin' and Tumblin'' by Hambone Willie Newborn with the exact same song title and merely comes up with original lyrics. And he based 'The Levee's Gonna Break' on 'When The Levee Breaks', recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie two years after the great 1927 Mississippi flood which partly contributed to "the great migration" north. A Bing Crosby rendition of 'Where The Blue of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day)' is the basis for 'When The Deal Goes Down' on Modern Times 'Red Sails In The Sunset' by Jimmy Kennedy and High Williams (1935) forms the melodic structure for Dylan's 'Beyond The Horizon'. That same year, 'Someday Baby Blues' was first recorded by Sleepy John Estes - Dylan turns it into 'Someday Baby'. A favorite on Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, June Christie's 1946 'June's Blues' is saluted on the chorus of Workingman's Blues. PB: You recommend people listen to the accompanying CD as they read your book. Did you field-test this on your friends? BS: I wish! Nobody has ever told me they have actually listened to the CD while reading the book. It was just a fantasy I had, and still have. PB: What kind of reaction have you had so far? Has Bob come "knock-knock-knocking" on your door? BS: While writing this book, I often thought it would be great if a couple of hundred people would actually take the time to read it. After all, I am not exactly a household name, particularly in the Bob Dylan world. However, my hopes were way off, as more than ten times that have sold in the first couple of years. Every month another trickle of royalties comes in. More importantly, I enjoy doing live audience events with Dylan fans, which have been well received in the Chicago area and even on the west coast in Manzanita, Oregon with a full backing band. I see myself doing this sort of thing until the day I die. It is a never-ending source of education and fun. People often ask me if I have heard from Bob Dylan since the book was published. I haven't, and I am not holding out to. His privacy, something clearly dear to his heart, is something I respect, especially when it comes to fact checking. All I can say is I'm human and mean no harm. Having said all that, I was able to get signed copies of my double CD and book to Bob Dylan through his music publisher, Special Rider Music, who graciously granted me the right to sell my covers of 32 Dylan songs to benefit a drug treatment facility in my neighborhood in Chicago. PB: If you could have coffee with Bob, what three questions would you ask him? BS: How are you feeling at the moment? Then, depending, I might squeeze in these two quandaries: Do you miss your parents? Tell me about all your kids and grandkids. I reckon that the first question might lead in directions that would make questions two and three irrelevant. PB: Thank you.

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Bob Shiel - Interview

Bob Shiel - Interview

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