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Read This Lyric and Tell Me Bob Dylan Didn't Call All of This in 1970

Charles P. Pierce
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Esquire

(Special One-Time Replacement Musical Accompaniment For The Last Post Of The Week)

The winter wind starts in northern Manitoba and it sharpens itself like a knife in a metal sheath as it sweeps down toward Texas. Its blades are already shiny when the winter wind hits the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. It cuts right through the men and women who dig the coal and the iron from the frozen earth, fewer now than there used to be. It cuts right through those same men and women when they go off to the local bars and the shops and all the ancillary businesses that sprung up to service the men and women who dig the coal and iron from the Earth.

Small shops all gone now, like Zimmerman's Emporium on Fifth Avenue in Hibbing, just up the street from the Androy Hotel, for all your electrical and appliance needs. And bars like Molly's, over across the line in Superior in Wisconsin, that my friend Paul Metsa sings about. Metsa's from Virginia, deep in the range, and he recognizes as a kind of miracle the fact that from this cold, hard place, riding the winds that begin in northern Manitoba, images flooded out into the world and changed the way the world spoke to itself.

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood.
Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule

The only actor on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts.


The remarkable thing to me about the music of Bob Dylan, born in Hibbing 78 years ago on Friday, is that songs that meant nothing to me when I was 20 mean the world to me now that I'm over 60. (Don't get me wrong. The songs I loved when I was 20, I still love today.) Another friend, younger than I am, texted me on Friday how deeply he is getting into mid-1970's Dylan, especially Planet Waves, the stray-cat yowling comeback album he did with The Band. I hand-waved the music of his Christian period until the Bootleg Series set was released and I realized that, during that period, he was touring with the best band he'd put together since The Band itself. Can't get enough of it now. Gotta serve somebody.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Actors tell me that Shakespeare is like that. Get it right and you're set for life. Do Romeo when you're in your teens, Benedict or Viola as you get older, Hamlet or Othello or Portia when you hit your prime, Macbeth as you just begin to pass out of it, Prospero after that and, by the time you get to old age, mad, grinning Lear is waiting for you across the blasted heath. Dylan's music is like that for me.

How did I blow off "Jokerman" when Infidels came out? (And why, oh, why did he leave "Blind Willie McTell" off that record?) How has the emotional earthquake that is Blood On The Tracks picked up so much amplitude, year after year? Why am I still getting some of the jokes in "Desolation Row" for the first time? And why does this passage from "Went To See The Gypsy" from the criminally underrated New Morning still make me giggle this morning the way it did when I first heard it in an apartment in Milwaukee more than 45 years ago?

Go on back to see the gypsy
He can move you from the rear
Drive you from your fear
Bring you through the mirror
He did it in Las Vegas
And he can do it here




Look at those last two lines. Tell me he didn't call it. Tell me he didn't see, back in 1970, where we're all at right now. Tell me that doesn't define our present condition and how we got into that condition in the first place. He is what he once said he was-a song-and-dance man. Somehow, the songs told the future and the dance led us into it, gave us the strength to handle what came with it, and a place to keep the joy of it safe for when we needed it. If you write for a living, he showed you the voodoo shops and the incense inside your native language. And, ultimately, there is this, which is some of the finest writing I ever read.

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience


I'm sure that there's a reason why he left it off that album, but damned if I know what it was. Guess I'll keep moving until I figure it out.

It is now something of a pedantic cliche to note that the Korean War never really "ended" because no formal armistice ever was signed. The Vietnam War is different. There was a formal end to the hostilities, documents and everything, but we're still killing and maiming Vietnamese people anyway. From Yale Environment 360:

By the time Operation Ranch Hand ended in 1971, one-sixth of South Vietnam had been blanketed with 20 million gallons of herbicides, and as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians had been exposed to the spray. In the chaos of wartime, both at Bien Hoa and Da Nang, there was also a good deal of human error. Lethal chemicals were mishandled, spilled, or carelessly disposed of. Thousands of gallons leaked into the soil from bulk storage tanks. But now, 50 years after the contamination occurred, the time has finally come to clean up the Bien Hoa air base. Both U.S. and Vietnamese officials call it one of the biggest and most complex environmental remediation projects in the world. It will involve the treatment of enough contaminated soils and sediments to fill 200 Olympic-size swimming pools, and it will cost at least $390 million, and possibly much more.

The scale of contamination at Bien Hoa is hard to wrap one’s head around. The presence of dioxin is measured in parts per trillion, or ppt TEQ (toxic equivalency). In sediments, the level considered tolerable by the Vietnamese government is 150 ppt TEQ. In the Buu Long canal, the highest concentration found was 3,370, surpassing the limit by more than 20-fold. As for soils, the maximum levels set by the Vietnamese government range from 40 in croplands to 1,200 in industrial and commercial areas (the classification used for the air base). In the Pacer Ivy section of the Bien Hoa base, the concentration in one soil sample was an astonishing 962,559 ppt TEQ, about 800 times the Vietnamese threshold of concern, and 1,300 times higher than the stricter standard used in the United States.

Photo credit: Getty Images

As you can see if you read the whole thing, as you should, you'll see that American and Vietnamese people are working heroically to try to get this environmental catastrophe under control. But the dioxin is everywhere now, and it has been for decades, and it's already done horrendous damage.

Soon after the war ended, the Vietnamese-as well as American veterans-became aware of alarming new patterns of disease. No one will ever know how many have died of the conditions that are now known to be associated with exposure to dioxin, including nine different kinds of cancer. But the singular horror of TCDD is its epigenetic effects - causing changes in gene expression that can be transmitted from one generation to the next. The consequences are visible in Vietnam’s orphanages and rural villages: children and adults with grotesque facial deformities, matchstick limbs that splay out at unnatural angles, the swollen and distorted heads that denote hydrocephalus, the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. The best guess is that as many as a million Vietnamese have disabilities that may be attributable to Agent Orange.

One of my best friends in this business worked at Bien Hoa handling this poison. He died young of liver cancer. One of my best sources when I was covering Vietnam veterans at the Boston Phoenix in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a former infantryman, got so sick with so many problems, all of which he attributed to being around when the stuff was being sprayed. One night, he took his rifle into a closet and only the rifle came back out. Goddamn that war and its gratuitous heartbreak. This has been a Memorial Day message from the shebeen.

The Day of Jubilee rolls merrily on. From the Washington Post:

The Supreme Court on Friday put on hold lower-court decisions that said Ohio and Michigan had to come up with new electoral maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. The decision was not surprising, because the justices are currently considering whether judges should even have a role in policing partisan gerrymandering. There were no noted dissents in the orders for either state.

There was a moment there in which I really thought that, despite their reluctance to be the mapmakers of last resort, the justices had looked at these maps and seen them as so egregious as to be unconstitutional on their face, as the lower courts repeatedly have said.

“Judges-and justices-must act in accordance with their obligation to vindicate the constitutional rights of those harmed by partisan gerrymandering,” Judge Eric L. Clay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote in the Michigan case.The Ohio court took a similar approach in its decision. “We join the other federal courts that have held partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional and developed substantially similar standards for adjudicating such claims,” the panel said in its unanimous ruling.

But, no, the best that can be said of the Court is that it chickened out and retreated to the shadows on this issue where it's more comfortable. The worst that can be said is that the Court majority is sympathetic to the blatant power grabs being undertaken by some of its ideological soulmates in the several states.

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click: "Walking The Ceiling" (Hound Dog Taylor). Yeah, I still pretty much love New Orleans.

Weekly Visit To The Pathe Archives: Here is video of the U.S. Army routing the "Bonus Army" of veterans. They'd marched on Washington demanding the cash bonus they'd been promised for their service in World War I. They were met with tanks and tear gas and infantry under the command of that splendid kook, Douglas MacArthur, at the orders of President Herbert Hoover, who was not long from being evicted from Washington himself. History is...sometimes not so cool.

One more for the files of Tragedies We Did Not Anticipate 50 Years Ago, from the BBC:

It comes amid traffic jams near the summit as record numbers make the ascent, despite calls to limit the number of climbing permits. Nepal has issued 381 permits at $11,000 (£8,600) each for the spring climbing season at the world's highest peak. Two Indian climbers - Kalpana Das, 52, and Nihal Bagwan, 27 - died while scaling back down the mountain on Thursday. Local tour organiser Keshav Paudel told AFP news agency that Bagwan had been "stuck in the traffic for more than 12 hours and was exhausted."

Dear Bucket List Idiots: Look at that picture. The summit of Mt. Everest is not supposed to look like the opening of a Best Buy outlet on the morning after Thanksgiving. Humans are not supposed to be living there, much less lining up for selfies. It's sort of a rule.

Is it a good day for dinosaur news, Science? It's always a good day for dinosaur news!

For scientists, this is more than a place to buy pendants or bracelets. One morning in March, paleontologist Xing Lida from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing stops at a table and examines a cockroach in a golf ball–size glob of amber, paused in time from the middle of the Cretaceous period. Its intact limbs curve off a body that looks smaller and narrower than that of today's household pests. The dealer wants about $900. "It's an OK price," Xing says. But he moves on, hunting rarer, more scientifically valuable game.

Nine hundred bucks for a cockroach? Hold on for tens of millions of years and the dumpster out back could be a gold mine.

Within a few minutes, a stranger notices Xing, shoots video of him, and posts it to social media. With 2.6 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, the baby-faced, hypercharismatic Xing is a celebrity for his studies of dinosaur tracks and other adventures. Last year, he published 25 scientific papers and a dinosaur-related fantasy novel with a foreword by Liu Cixin, the country's superstar science fiction author. But Xing, like a few other Chinese paleontologists, is also lionized for the extraordinary discoveries he has made in this amber: the hatchlings of primitive birds, the feathered tail of a dinosaur, lizards, frogs, snakes, snails, a host of insects. Much as 19th century naturalists collected species from teeming rainforests in far-flung locales, these scientists are building a detailed chronicle of life in a tropical forest 100 million years ago, all from amber mined across the border in Myanmar.

"Right now we're in this frenzy, almost an orgy" of discovery, says paleontologist David Grimaldi, curator of the amber collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Hundreds of scientific papers have emerged from the amber finds, and Chinese scientists hint that many specimens have yet to be published, including birds, insect species by the thousands, and even aquatic animals such as crabs or salamanders.

Well, OK, if it's crucial to our understand a world long past, that's an OK price for a cockroach. Of course, because our highly evolved species is involved, there is greed and violence in this story, too.

But as much as Burmese amber is a scientist's dream, it's also an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar, where scientists can't inspect the geology for clues to the fossils' age and environment. In Kachin, rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. "These commodities are fueling the conflict," says Paul Donowitz, the Washington, D.C.–based campaign leader for Myanmar at Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization. "They are providing revenue for arms and conflict actors, and the government is launching attacks and killing people and committing human rights abuses to cut off those resources."

It was a more peaceful place when the dinosaurs ran it. Nonetheless, those specimens are stunning and further proof that dinosaurs lived then to make us happy now.

I'm sure that El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago and his crew have something stunningly inappropriate planned for Memorial Day. Me? While doing garage archaeology this week, I found a 1938 copy of Bowditch's book on navigation. Inside the front cover was written, "Ens. John P. Pierce. USN Armed Guard training, New Orleans, Louisiana." From there, my father spent two years running a gun crew on merchant ships in convoy to Great Britain and to North Africa.

I have some of his personal logs. One entry sticks with me. One entry says, "22:30: Submarine alert." The next entry says, "23:15: All clear." The 45 minutes in between must have been something and I'm very sure my father and millions of other fathers and sons didn't live perilous minutes like those 45, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, and year after year, so that a vulgar talking yam could shred the Constitution and pardon war criminals to celebrate the sacrifices of better men than ever have lived in the Trump family.

Be well and play nice, ya bastids. Stay above the snake-line and watch out for the Foot of Pride because, when it comes down, there ain't no goin' back.

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