All posts by Sean Curnyn

Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

For about a month now fans have been awaiting this somewhat mysterious “exclusive broadcast event,” a pay-per-view-type online streaming performance by Bob Dylan, and now it has aired, and will continue to be available to watch for 48 hours. Access in the United States costs $25.

It features Dylan performing in a stylized small club setting, alternating between at least three different stagings. The arrangements and performances are sharp and quite beautiful. The instrumentation includes accordion, mandolin, Spanish guitar, and acoustic bass, and sometimes electric guitar and bass. No drums at all. Dylan’s singing is superb (assuming you’re someone who can take his singing at all).

He has an audience of heavily smoking actors and actresses. (It appears that they inhale very little smoke, the better to blow it out for effect. Still, this viewer appreciates Bob’s support for the struggling tobacco farmers.) The band wear black masks while everyone else breathes and smokes freely.

The whole thing is directed by one Alma Har’el, an Israeli-American who has a prize-winning feature film and documentary in her belt, as well as various music videos.

While initially the show was billed as featuring songs from throughout Dylan’s body of work, this broadcast is actually subtitled “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.” And indeed it does focus on the 1960s, although there are a couple of exceptions in “What Was It You Wanted?” from 1989 and “Forever Young” from 1974. The show is about 50 minutes in duration. That surprised me: I thought it would probably be around 90 minutes.

Taken together, the subtitle “Early Songs” and the relatively short duration leads this viewer to conclude that this is going to be a series, and that there are likely at least two more “episodes” in the can.

It’s a brilliant business idea, to be sure: I bet Dylan could easily fetch a million views, globally, for something like this, and at $25 a pop, well … I’m not great at math, but it’s a fair bit of revenue for all concerned. And after the last year and a half of worldwide Wuhan weirdness, people are certainly well accustomed to substituting online experiences for the real thing.

In the end, for a fan, it’s one of life’s miracles, and something for which to be grateful. Bob Dylan is 80 years old, and here we get to see and hear him — in exceptional form — reworking his songs yet again in a scintillating and eye-opening manner. The version of “Forever Young” he performs is jaw-dropping: I’ve never heard him sing it so movingly (and I’ve heard him sing it quite a few times). “To Be Alone with You” is an almost entirely rewritten lyric, incorporating something of a religious passion. “Queen Jane,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Tombstone Blues” — all standouts. Every song reveals something new of itself. It seems to this listener that the enormous work that Dylan did in recording five LPs worth of songs from the Great American/Sinatra songbook has enhanced his ability to reinterpret his own songs in especially gorgeous and sensitive ways.

The songs often sound like a commentary on our strange times, but that’s how Dylan’s songs always sound, grounded as they are in an awareness of death, eternity, human nature, and the things that remain.

And it’s all going to stand up to quite a bit of re-watching.

Mourning Rush Limbaugh

Maybe the world’s always been divided between those who’ve actually listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and those who never have. Today, however — the day of his death — this feels dramatically true.

Rush was a phenomenon on multiple levels. With all that’s being said about him today, it would be redundant of someone like me to go on about how much he transformed the American radio industry and influenced the political landscape. However, you could never appreciate what Rush did or how he did it without having listened to his show. It was his ability to be there for three hours a day, five days a week, and to be engaging, entertaining, provocative and human: this is what made him without peer. If one was getting one’s view of Rush from what the big media outlets said about him — generally only in moments of controversy and/or ginned-up outrage — then one would merely know a caricature. What made Rush tick with his audience was not the single soundbite, but the whole of what he did, even the rare uneven moments. Listening to just one show was always a journey of sorts — let alone the decades of indefatigable work.

As much as he was a giant, proven by all the achievements and numbers, I wonder how people in the future who never listened to him in full roaring topical context will possibly be able to understand what he was all about and how important he really was. Perhaps this is similar to how no one really knows anything about Will Rogers today, except that he was huge in his time. Yet, even if so, that’s OK: Rush’s thirty-plus years of ruling the moment from behind that golden EIB microphone will stand in the ether of time and resonate forever. There’s just no taking it back.

He’ll be missed not only by those who loved him and what he did, but also by those who hated him, even if they don’t realize they’ll miss him yet (and even if they never consciously realize it). If he did anything at all, he made those who felt scorned and ignored by the east coast/left coast media elite feel that they had a voice in their corner, and it was a big, cheerful voice, a reason not to despair in depressing times. Despair is dangerous. After the last 12 months of general horror and chaos in much of America, this writer can’t escape the nagging but unwelcome perception that Rush’s death and disappearance from the radio constitutes one more brick taken away from what remained of coherence in America’s body politic, after so much else has already fallen apart.

In a time of waiting for the next shoe to drop, a very big one just did.

I remember well when I first listened to Rush. Maybe all of us Rush-listeners do. It was about 25 years ago, when I was working an office job in New York City — a mind-numbingly boring niche in publishing — and one of my co-workers would have his headphones on through a large part of the day, and was frequently laughing to himself, albeit vainly trying to suppress his giggles. (In other moments, he seemed pretty normal.) One day he made reference to who he was listening on the radio: Rush Limbaugh. He emphasized that he didn’t agree with his politics — and I believe he meant it — but said that he just found him funny. Having no concept myself about Rush Limbaugh other than the media caricature already referenced — ideas like “blowhard,” “hate radio,” everyone knows the rest — one day I decided I might as well get a laugh if one happened to be available, and I fired up my Sony Walkman AM/FM cassette player and stuck the headphones on. American talk radio was a world unknown to me (one factor at least being my growing up in Ireland). Politically speaking, I was out of my youthful socialistic fantasies but not particularly committed to any other ideology. Rush was in a way a perfect voice to clarify the thoughts then floating around in my cranium about political correctness, which I’d flirted with as a young skull full of mush but had come to loath. Rush made me laugh about it.

It was the Clinton years, his second term, and El Rushbo was firing on all cylinders. There was zero real fear of what Bubba might do to the nation, at least as I recall; it was instead all powered by laughter at the looney things the left was trying to do, undergirded by a certainty that it would backfire and fail. Halfway between agreeing and disagreeing with Rush’s stance on various issues (idiot that I was), I couldn’t help but be carried along by his good humor and humanity about it all. Paul Shanklin’s musical parodies were delightfully outrageous and in the same spirit.

Having discovered AM talk radio via Rush, I naturally thought that there must be so much more great stuff out there. However, keeping the radio on didn’t take me to similar places. It turns out that it’s kind of hard to talk for three hours on topical issues and keep it fresh and entertaining. Other hosts veered into repetition and excessive reliance on callers and other gimmicks, and too often fell into being shrill and monotonously negative. Of-course there are — now as then — ones who are better and ones who are worse. But — now just like then — there are none with the perfect touch that Rush was able to deploy, that deft way with the microphone that simply recreated radio and gave an unexpected gift to America. It can only be something he was born with. Exactly like he said to his dying day, “Talent on loan from God.”

God has called back that loan. His timing is His business. He always has a plan.

Times changed for yours truly, and I couldn’t always listen to Rush at length in recent years, but he was always there, like a good friend, someone who’s point of view mattered, and with whom I could check in and share a laugh. Millions of us have lost that very good friend, and I think we all wish him Godspeed on his next adventure.

As much as Rush was so funny about so many things, he was serious about some. You could tell these things if you listened to him. He was serious about his love for America and the ideas of its founding. And he was serious about his joy on hearing about people who bypassed the weaponized misery of the American left — sometimes thanks to time spent listening to his show — and who took their fate into their own hands and embraced optimism, by starting their own business, or just by shaking off the shackles of victim-think, and learning to love freedom.

There’s much else that could be said about Rush, and much else being said. The hate-filled things that are being widely propagated only highlight the mindset of those who are unwilling to tolerate honest discussion. They are the ones saying “Shut up!” all the time: a command increasingly being enforced these days by Big Tech and other sanctimonious authorities, some of them armed. Rush was the one they never succeeded in shutting up, despite extraordinary efforts to do so. We shall all see what happens next. And we are all going to miss El Rushbo.

Such a Night

As the lights go down, this January the 8th, 2021, it is certainly an incredible night, albeit in all of the wrong ways. Nobody is listening to anybody else, as people and their “platforms” are being banned, in the apparent belief that simply silencing the discontented will make everything alright. It is the crowning moment of “Social Media.” Let’s all get along! Hooray.

Well, for the record, count me out.

Paul Westphal, rest in peace

I was deeply saddened to hear that Paul Westphal passed away yesterday, at the age of 70, having been diagnosed with brain cancer last August. He was a legend in the world of basketball, but, as the remembrances currently flowing out everywhere are indicating, he was also legendary in a much more important way: that is, as a truly good man who touched and impressed just about everyone he brushed up against during his life.

In the archives of this website is an interview I conducted with him some years back, when I was pursuing all things related to Bob Dylan, and talked to a few public-type figures about their own interest in Bob. Paul was enthusiastic and insightful on Dylan’s music. He was deeply tuned-in to the spiritual grounding of Dylan’s work, and very sensitive to Dylan’s journey in Christianity (an area where many of the famous critics seem to find themselves quite lost). Being privileged to meet Paul a few times — he was generous in his friendship and his support of my little bits of writing on Dylan — there was never any mistaking his own deep, intelligent and burning faith in God. Nor his love for his wife Cindy and his family. And these are the things that carry on, to be sure.

May God bless and keep him always.