Just a Wee Blether…

About Dylan and my musical youth

With all the tributes and celebratory pieces that have been written this week to mark the 75th birthday of Bob Dylan, it seems strange that I bought my first Dylan LPs while the great man was still in his 20s. I remember the first purchase, a cheap greatest hits compilation that I picked up in a shop called Harris’s in Dockhead Street, Saltcoats, and paid for with ‘old money’.

A few months later I bought the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I thought it was the greatest collection of songs I had heard and, since then, I’ve been a committed ‘Dylanisto’ or ‘Bobhead’, call us what you will.

Within a short time, I was the proud owner of a few other Dylan LPs, The Times They Are a-Changin’, New Morning, Bob Dylan, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Desire, Blood on the Tracks. I learned the words of all the songs, and their meanings, off by heart. From The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Tangled Up in Blue, Mozambique and Chimes of Freedom to Boots of Spanish Leather, It Ain’t Me Babe, Song to Woody and Like a Rolling Stone.

But the ones that remain closest to my musical heart are from the Freewheelin’ LP – Oxford Town, Masters of War, Girl from the North Country, Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. And my all-time favourite Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

I twice saw Dylan in concert, once at Stirling Castle, once at the SECC in Glasgow. On a drizzly night in Stirling, he was going through one of his slightly grumpy and uncommunicative phases, but in Glasgow he was in great form – he even broke into a smile several times.

The thing about all these teenage musical memories is that, no matter how many years go by and how vastly different our tastes become, they never leave us. It’s especially true for those of us who grew up in the late 60s and early 70s that our LP collection defined us musically and, to a certain extent, defined us as individuals.

Since moving to the US I have become reunited with my old album collection and, for the first time in 16 years, have a turntable to play them on. They had all been stashed away in a box, so uncovering them has been like a trip down memory lane.

My love for Dylan extended to most artists of that period who fell roughly into the same category – Neil Young; Joni Mitchell; Donovan; Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Band; James Taylor; Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez and others Are all there. Neil Young was a particular favourite and I have his classics like Harvest and After the Goldrush as well as a lesser-known live LP called Time Fades Away which I picked up in a second-hand record shop in Liverpool.

Another major schoolboy musical love affair I had was with the Newcastle-based band Lindisfarne. The first concert I went to see was their only gig in Scotland, at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow. There was a warm-up band that I paid absolutely no attention too because I was so excited to see Lindisfarne. Years later I found out the support band was none other than Genesis, complete with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins et al.

A few other LPs stir up musical memories. Past, Present and Future by the Scottish-born Al Stewart; Fly Like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band; Tapestry by Carole King; Transformer by Lou Reed; Argus by Wishbone Ash; Early Morning Onwards by Barclay James Harvest; Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel. There were a number of Beatles albums including Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, and I had a thing for Cat Stevens and the English folk-rock band Steeleye Span (six of their albums).

There are a couple of hundred singles all from the same period. I certainly wasn’t musically cool back then – the real dudes were walking around with Pink Floyd, Santana and King Crimson LPs under their arms.

Years later I’m not sure my taste has changed that much. Nowadays I would rather see Steve Earle or any Americana or bluegrass act in concert but I’m still a folk/rock lover at heart. And still remain close to my Bob Dylan roots.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About being S.O.L. ya goober

Last week I came face to face with what was described as “an iconic piece of Americana history”. There, in the car park of a shopping mall, was the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile – a car shaped like a giant hot dog on a bun. It produced loud OMGs from passers-by and I am now the proud possessor of a toy “weinerwhistle” given to me by the driver, a “hotdogger”.

It made for a hugely exciting Sunday afternoon trip to the store. And if it all sounds like a bit of a foreign language, it’s even more complicated than that. Americans use the German word weiner – as in schnitzel – to describe sausages on a bun. A barbeque with sausages over here is called a weiner roast. Meanwhile in the UK we use the term hot dog, a phrase invented in the United States.

weiner

It got me thinking about the various expressions I hear in America on a daily basis that I never heard in Scotland. Sayings that have no real UK equivalent.

When I first heard someone saying S.O.L. I had no idea what it meant. Now I hear it all the time. It stands for Shit Out of Luck. So if the wage rise you were hoping for doesn’t materialise, your least favourite relative arrives for the weekend, or your fantasy football team gets hammered, then you really are S.O.L.

Americans are obsessed with shit. Phrases such as “don’t give me no shit”, ‘you’re shitting me”, “shit happens”, “holy shit”, “what the shit”, CRS (can’t remember shit) and “up shit creek without a paddle” are common parlance. “Shit on a shingle” is an old US military expression for creamed, chipped beef served on toast. And if you can’t make up your mind you will be told to “shit or get off the toilet”.

But when they see a shit, Americans will warn you “not to stand on the doggie-doo”.

If you watched Spongebob Squarepants – and I know at least one aficionado of the show – you’ll know the character Goofy Goober. A goober is a type of peanut but the word in America describes a dopey harmless goofball. One step further than a goober is a hayseed, a sort of clodhopper, bumpkin type.

I’ve never heard anyone saying goober in Scotland. But as a matter of interest, here is the Urban Dictionary definition. “It’s a term of endearment really. It comes from the ancient Scottish verb “to goub”, which has to do with doing a dance and smiling sheepishly while doing so, exposing the goubs in one’s teeth.”

In America, don’t expect anyone nowadays to say they will call you, or email you, or contact you in any way. They won’t. Instead they will “reach out” to you. It’s a phrase beloved of younger, up-and-coming corporate types. Every time I hear it I have this vision of a clergyman on an alter reaching out towards his flock.

We had lunch in a self-service restaurant last week. The waitress told us we could fill our plates with chicken, beef, veg, “and all that good stuff”. It’s a common – and I find rather lazy – phrase used by companies to persuade customers to buy. But why don’t they tell you what “all that good stuff” is? What if you don’t think it’s good?

People here are never up to their eyes, they are “super-busy”. If you crack a joke, someone will tell you, without laughing, that it’s “too funny”. Instead of leaving a building, you “blow this popsicle stand”, if you want a piece of gossip you ask for the “skinny:” or “the 411” (for telephone information you dial 411), and if that nugget of information is difficult to believe you can reply with “get out of town” or a long drawn out “shut…up”.

Given that all these idioms eventually find their way across the Atlantic, it won’t be long until you’re telling Mrs MacLeod, the barista in the Achiltibuie tearoom, to get that decaf skinny latte ready in a New York minute.

Just a Wee Blether…

About nostalgia for my favourite Queen

A few years ago we took an evening sail on the paddle steamer Waverley. It was raining so heavily that the excursion had to be abandoned halfway up Loch Goil. But of course it was mobbed, passengers of all ages loved the entire experience – the scenery, the engines, the music, the booze.

I remember we approached the rickety old pier at a village called Blairmore, not far from Dunoon. The PA system on the pier was playing the old Scottish song Down in the Glen and there were a couple of dignitaries there to welcome the famous old vessel. The Waverley has that effect on people, especially those of us who grew up along the Clyde Coast.

So it was with great pleasure – and more than a little nostalgia – that I read this week that another old Clyde steamer, the Queen Mary ll, is to return home after lying disused for years on the River Thames. Her sailing days may be over but she will be permanently berthed near the Finnieston Crane in Glasgow, a reminder of a golden age of Clyde cruising.

queenmary

For me there is more than nostalgia involved here, I have something of a personal attachment to these old boats. My first proper hobby as a six-year old boy was standing on the piers at Largs and Wemyss Bay and watching all these vessels come and go (Yes – I was on my own with no adult supervision and miraculously survived. Amazing eh?).

The Waverley was one of four paddle steamers on the Clyde then. The others were the Jeanie Deans, the Caledonia and the Talisman. There were the impressively large turbine vessels the Duchess of Montrose and Duchess of Hamilton, the four Maids – of Skelmorlie, Argyll, Ashton and Cumbrae – the small workhorse vessel Countess of Breadalbane and many more.

My fascination for these boats was fueled by a kindly great aunt who took me on every one of them. Together we went on long sails to resorts such as Dunoon, Rothesay, Campbeltown and Brodick, and to smaller places, Craigendoran, Arrochar, Lochranza, Innellan, and the stunning Kyles of Bute. Long queues of holidaymakers waited the arrival of every boat and the Clyde resorts boomed.

I remember, on the Duchess of Montrose, going for lunch in the large and spacious dining room and being given the ‘silver service’ treatment by waiters and waitresses dressed in smart black and white uniforms.

Fast forward 10 years and most of these boats were gone, many to the scrapyard. The Waverley and the Queen Mary ll had survived but the Clyde that captivated me as a small boy was gone. Cheap Spanish holidays were the in thing, Scots preferred the Costa Blanca to the Costa Clyde.

Years later, in 1990, I was helping produce a radio programme and was in Banchory, Kincardineshire, talking to local councilor Douglas Black. He pointed up Deeside where the old rail line used to carry the Royal family and said, “Can you imagine the tourists that would love going up there in a steam train now? It was a tragedy.”

Of course Douglas Black was right. Now they’re bringing back boats and re-opening rail lines and stations. It’s too late for the Deeside line and the long ago scrapped Duchess of Montrose and Jeanie Deans. And of course the magnificent old buildings that were sacrificed in the name of progress. It seemed that, at some point during the 60s to the 80s, Scotland lacked any foresight or vision. As if the past had no place in our future.

The same is true in the United States. The great railroad system that opened up the West and brought prosperity to thousands of small towns is now just a memory. The car is king here. In Arizona, the O’odham Indian tribe is fighting to prevent an eight-lane highway being built through land they have held sacred for centuries. Their chances of winning are slim.

I would love to see the Queen Mary ll sailing on the Clyde again. Perhaps I’m an old nostalgic but so are many millions of others. And that’s the point. The past is important to everyone – so let’s not carry on destroying it.

Just a Wee Blether…

About the Wild West we still live in

Life is cheap in the good ole’ US of A isn’t it? Far cheaper than civilised old Scotland. Well, it’s an interesting debate, there are nasty characters everywhere. And many factors come into play, not least the simple truth that more people equals more violence.

But if you ever want to test the theory, perhaps add some credence to it, and have a good laugh into the bargain, then it is worth taking a trip to the famous Boot Hill Cemetery in the old Wild West town of Tombstone.

It is filled with memorials to cowboys, gamblers and prostitutes with names that could only have come straight from the rough tough pioneering west – Three Fingered Jack Dunlop, Curly Bill Brocius, The Kansas Kid, Indian Bill, Six-Shooter Jim, and Dutch Annie, the ‘Queen of the Red Light District’ – their bodies all lie buried in this tiny graveyard in southern Arizona.

This is the America we learned about in the Cowboy and Indian movies of our childhood. And consider the fate of poor old George Johnson, whose crime was being in Tombstone at the wrong time. His grave marker reads:

Here Lies George Johnson, Hanged by Mistake 1882.

He was right, we was Wrong,

But We strung him Up and now he’s Gone.

Ah well, tough luck George, that’s the way justice was meted out in Tombstone when the old town was in its heyday. A year before the unfortunate Johnson was hanged, the notorious Gunfight at the Ok Corral had taken place in Tombstone. It was the haunt of gunslingers and outlaws, dubbed “The Town too Tough to Die”.

Not far from the hapless George Johnson’s grave is another headstone indicating that death in Tombstone was not so much a reason for grieving, rather an excuse for a bit of harmless banter. The victim this time was a Wells Fargo station agent called Lester Moore and his marker reads:

Here Lies Lester Moore,

Four Slugs from a 44

No Les

No More.

Moore was only a young man, as were most of those who found their way to the cemetery, one of many Boothills throughout America and so called because cowboys who were taken there had “died with their boots on”.

Tombstone was built round a silver mine in the late 1800s and at one time there were 110 saloons plus dance halls, gambling halls and brothels to serve a population of 14,000. Nowadays it is a tourist trap for visitors like me who fancy a stroll down Wild West memory lane.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral is performed several times a day in the town’s main street, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon serves food and drink, and the notorious Bird Cage Theatre still stands. It is a bit of a disappointment to discover that the gunfight didn’t exactly happen in the corral but on a nearby patch of land, but never let the facts stand in the way of a good story and all that.

Hollywood never does. The most popular movie version of the gunfight story starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas has the ‘good guys’, Wyatt Earp, his brother Morgan and Doc Holliday gunning down the vicious outlaws Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. But on the streets of Tombstone they insist that the men who died had their hands in the air and were surrendering when the fatal shots were fired.

And just in case you don’t believe them go to Boothill and find their grave. It states: Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone 1881.

So why am I linking the meanest town in the Wild West with the argument that human life in 21st century America may be perceived as cheap?

Wyatt Earp, the thoroughly dubious character at the centre of the OK Corral incident, didn’t die until 1929. My father had been born two years earlier. This is not ancient history we are talking about. These are people who roamed the United States in the relatively recent past.

The heyday of the American outlaw may have been the mid to late 1800s – Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, John Wesley Hardin to name a few. But fast forward to the 1920s, 30s and beyond and you will find Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby-Face Nelson, not to mention the Chicago gangsters under Al Capone.

The modus operandi may have changed but the end result was the same.

I remember having a chat a few years ago with an American guy about various aspects of US life. At one point he nodded and said, “There’s still a bit of the Wild West in this country yet.” I’m beginning to think he’s right.