On ‘Blonde On Blonde’

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

I’m past the stage of thinking that a record can change your life. I’ve spent hours, days, sometimes even weeks lost in certain albums. And for me, that’s enough.

Any more – such as 18 discs of out-takes from one album – is too much, even if that album is Blonde On Blonde.

But not for many Bob Dylan fans, a sector admittedly not known for taking half-measures. Next month Columbia Records will release The Cutting Edge: The Bootleg Series Volume 12, 5,000 copies of which will be packaged in a limited collector’s edition, comprising 379 tracks crammed onto those 18 compact discs.

The ‘thin, wild mercury sound‘ has got a whole lot thicker.

News of The Cutting Edge made me wonder just how much Bob Dylan any one person needs to hear in their life; it also helped me realise that I’m becoming a simpler type of fan – one who’s happy with the original records, thanks.

I’ve been through my outlaw phase. The early days of bootlegs on eBay or, before that, Saturday afternoon visits to an old basement record store on Wicklow Street (whose name eludes me), which offered shelves of cassettes, all manner of live shows, outtakes and unreleased demos.

I still prize my Blood On The Tapes bootleg – the alternative Blood On The Tracks, cut by Dylan in New York with a stripped-down backing band shortly the later sessions used in the official release. And maybe one or two others.

But there it ends. It’s years since I’ve hunted down a particular session and, as time has passed, much of the better stuff has been cleaned up and officially released anyway.

Bob Dylan, 1963

Bob Dylan, 1963

The complete Witmark Demos, a bootleg passed to me with reverence by a college pal, was issued back in 2010. After a rush to the record store on the day of its release I returned home, slipped on disc one and waited to hear, down the decades, the coughing kid with the rough, golden touch I’d listened to 15 years earlier.

It sounded like what it was – a demo of a young, talented kid, rushing through what he had. The silver thread was missing.

Since then I’ve told l myself that I’ve changed – the younger man willing to spend hours listening to the same 1962 radio session over and over doesn’t have the time or the interest anymore. (That’s not to take from a powerful Death Of Emmett Till on the same recording).

But then I put on the studio albums, and one in particular always delivers – Blonde On Blonde, the record that emerged from the 379 tracks that make up The Cutting Edge.

Its 72 minutes brings much to mind – the Eason store on Church Street in Athlone, long gone, where I bought my first copy; the long, Guinness-and-chianti fuelled nights in college where it was a constant soundtrack; the many moments over the years when it’s come on, or come to mind. Different places, different times, different people – and always the same shambling opening line: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good”.

But it’s not a nostalgia trip. The album is as live an experience today as it was when I first heard or, or when Dylan first cut it, in a studio in Nashville almost half a century ago.

And at its centre is a song I still can’t get my mind around, with lyrics which have haunted me down the years – heat pipes coughing, ghosts of electricity howling in the bones of a woman’s face, harmonicas playing skeleton keys and all-night girls riding the ‘D’ train.

One version of Visions Of Johanna is enough for any man.

Blonde On Blonde hasn’t changed my life, it’s just been a constant part of it.



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New York City – five ways

Warning #1: all lists are subjective.

Warning #2: lists about New York City are more subjective than most.

So, unless you’re a 37-year-old Irishman with a MetroCard, good walking shoes, an empty stomach and a day to fill, what follows seem a little subjective.

But whatever. Here’s five ways into New York, five standout experiences among the dozens I encountered on a short visit to the city last week. And, helpfully, five photographs.

And no, there’s no particular order (though I’d leave the pizza until after the run).


New York1

A dawn run in Central Park

Get out of bed and get to one of the West 59th Street entrances just before the sun rises over the Upper East Side. Join the other early birds and start heading north. After seven or eight minutes you’ll come upon the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. It might be oddly-named but its 2.2km add up to one of the world’s finest urban runs – pure shuffling, sweating tranquility in the midst of Manhattan. You may never live in a West Side mansion but you will see the dawn break over one.



Grab some crab 

Done with the run? This is your breakfast. Get it from Artichoke Basille’s on East 14th Street, a tiny pizzeria which offers just four types of pie. Ignore (if you can) the sicilian or the artichoke and go for the crab. I’m not sure how they make it and, once I bite in, I don’t care. It’s the best slice I’ve had in the city, and best eaten standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other punters on the street outside. Can’t handle pizza at 10am? You’re in the wrong town.



Browse a (very, very large) bookstore

Yes, booksellers still exist – even in Manhattan. Strand Book Store, two blocks south of Union Square, is a bibliophile’s heaven; or hell, as you’ll amass a dozen books in an hour’s browsing, only to leave half of them because your suitcase isn’t big enough. That said, they had me at ’18 miles of books’.



‘A mug or two of your finest’

Famous for its policy of ‘Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies’ (until the 1970s at least) McSorley’s is what you expect of an old-school New York boozer – sawdust on the floor, exposed pipes, beer-rings on wooden tables and Irish barmen. Packed at nights (must be the onion-loving ladies) it’s best hit in the early afternoon, when the bar’s half-empty and the sun is shining through the tobacco-stained glass doors. Why does the ale come in two mugs? Who knows? Who cares?



The meating place of the world

New York’s famous for its steakhouses, and Keens is famous among them. This is the land of dark wood, low lights, chest-bursting T-bones, mutton chops and creamed spinach. Time slows, the city (and the world) outside the pipe-strewn roof and picture-clad walls ceases to exist. Your New York day ends with you, 16ozs of striploin and a huge cab sav. If you can finish it there, you’ll finish it anywhere.


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Crossing Brooklyn Bridge


Walt, I heard you sing – 

How we’re all tied together. 

Multitudes cross still. 


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Listening to New York – a playlist

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.

Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.

E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.

For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.

The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.

This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.

Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.

800px-53rd_&_3rdSome of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself  – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.

Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.

Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.

Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.

And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.

It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.

Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.



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It’s not you Richard, it’s me

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

There is a moment at a Richard Thompson show when his guitar-playing virtuosity can put the listener into a trance.

Time is suspended, seconds becoming hours, all of which hang on a raised note, the spell broken only when the melody is resolved. It’s heady stuff – up to a point.

Thompson played more than one furious solo during his show at Vicar Street in Dublin last Tuesday. As he tore through a stomping Hard On Me I found myself strangely transfixed, one part of my brain following the notes, another part thinking ‘where did I put the gas bill?’

Is this something that affects the musician? While most treat a two-hour Richard Thompson set as 120 minutes in the presence of a maestro, does the maestro ever find himself drifting away as he fires off another note-perfect rendition of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning?

One of the most common complaints people make about their jobs is repetition – the tedium of the same tasks the same way, workday after workday. Why should it be any different if you’re one of the top 20 guitarists of all time, whose performances make grown men sigh?

Most of us will change jobs in our lives but rock musicians – of certain stature – can find themselves damned to playing the same songs over and over, for decades. As Thompson commented – after playing Fairport Convention’s Genesis Hall – “that was from 1969” – I thought, ‘you must be a bit tired of it at this stage’.

Perhaps such songs are new every time, with a tempo change, a different venue, a bigger audience, the mutable factors that nudge the original just enough to keep it interesting.

It’s difficult to know what Thompson, whose stage manner is one of acerbic politeness, makes of it. Unlike some of his generation (Bob Dylan, who I’ve heard mangle plenty of songs over the years) the English folk-rocker seems content to mostly stick to the blueprint.

And what a blueprint. The Vicar Street set list included Wall of Death, Shoot Out The Lights and a poignant Al Bowlly’s In Heaven; the show ended with Tear-Stained Letter.

The songs and the technique couldn’t be faulted. The virtuosity was spellbinding. And if I worked through my household chores or audience-watched during a couple of the solos, well, my loss.

Perhaps it wasn’t you Richard, it was me.

A performance to make grown men sigh.

Solos to make grown men sigh


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The two words that will stop me running


Running in Tokyo, 2014

In the beginning was the burn – and the burn was sore.

A sharp, annoying type of sore, which radiated through the joint of my left big toe. First I felt it while running, then while walking. Eventually I couldn’t shake it off, it stabbed at me as I lay in bed at night.

So what did I do?

I ignored it, at first. Until it got so bad that – in a chain reaction of injury that doctors warn about but those who know better, like me, disregard – it kicked off a bout of plantar fasciitis.

That was over two years ago. At the time I reckoned – as did my then physio – that I’d sprained my toe and that rest, stretching and incorporating some cycling, would be fix me.

It didn’t. After two years of stretching, bathing, ibuprofen, heat rubs and an increasing sense of annoyance, all the while running less and less, I found myself with a new physio and the same old pain.

This time the news wasn’t good. She didn’t need an X-ray to diagnose hallux limitus, a form of early onset arthritis which leads to (the far more debilitating) hallux rigidus (two words that may eventually stop me running). Fun fact: ‘hallux’ is Latin for big toe. Less fun fact: ‘limitus’ translates as ‘oh dear’. (‘Rigidus’ is unprintable.)

Now that we had a diagnosis for the sharp needle jolt through my joint we could go about trying to stop it. But hallux limitus goes beyond just physical discomfort.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle

As I started treatment I found (correction: I still find) myself looking at 40 and 50-something runners in the park now and thinking – jealously – how can you still do that?

Of course, they may ache too. They may, while lacing up, wince and curse God, or their antecedents, for handing them shaky knee joints, tight hamstrings or a weak left ankle. But still I look at their feet, particularly their big toes, enviously.

And so began the last six months – a period of painful massage, podiatrist appointments, endless fiddling with inserts and, finally, the arrival of spanking new orthotics.

This culminated in a command from my physio – no running for 10 days.

Did I feel better? Am I limiting the limitus? It’s too early to say. My mandated 10 day break ended this week with a meekly-jogged 5k.

Of course this is the point at which I feel duty bound to warn of the dangers of not seeking treatment quickly for running injuries, the benefits of rest and the advantages of gentle walks.

But I can’t. In the past 18 months I’ve been lucky enough to experience solitary, mind-clearing dawns break over some wonderful places – Tokyo, Bordeaux, London, New York City, even Galway – something I could never have experienced without running – or without feeling that old familiar burn.

Lesson learned? Not yet, I’m afraid.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015


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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999


US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth. I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.


Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of strolling home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye has become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”


I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.


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In a station of the DART

tracxk‘Petals on a wet, black bough’ –

Autumn’s leaves down on the track.

If Ezra Pound returned, and stood on the platform at Killester,

What would appear?

Just the same,

Wet petals.


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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles


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Off the edge of the sea



Buoyant, sometimes white or black,

But mostly an unobtrusive grey,

They hang off the edge of the sea.

The clouds off Dollymount don’t move –

Midway from here to the Isle of Man they remain

Simply there, a reminder.

A little rain falls on all, the singer sang –

Some days it comes down, most days it doesn’t.

On the day the sun’s up and the air’s clean and we’re all

Almost assured of our place, the clouds don’t come to shore.

They’re there, though.

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