He’s 75 and his musical fans look back

He’s 75 and his musical fans look back

Mexicali Live celebrates Bob Dylan’s birthday

Bob Dylan, onstage in Victoria-Gasteiz, Spain, at the Azkena Rock Festival, 2010
Bob Dylan, onstage in Victoria-Gasteiz, Spain, at the Azkena Rock Festival, 2010

Arts-03-L-blood-on-the-tracksOn Tuesday, the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman will celebrate his 75th birthday. If Bob Dylan’s platinum jubilee seems particularly poignant, perhaps its because Mr. Dylan is now triple the age he was when, 50 years ago this week, he released “Blonde on Blonde” as a 25-year-old amphetamine-stoked wunderkind.

Artists, the young Dylan once sang, “don’t look back.” This week Dylan released his latest album, “Fallen Angels” which, like its predecessor, is a collection of songs from the 1940s and ’50s, taken from the Frank Sinatra songbook. Dylan has taken the month off from performing, but if his upcoming summer concerts are like those he played in Japan in April, they will feature mostly a mixture of the Frank Sinatra-style songs with songs he released in the past 15 years.

Those of us who are not artists, and do want to look back, can celebrate Mr. Dylan’s birthday with older, more familiar songs on Tuesday night, as two very different bands perform his songs at Mexicali Live in Teaneck. Those bands agreed to answer some questions about the concert and their perspective on Mr. Dylan.

Mary Lee Kortes burst on the Dylan scene in 2001, when she and her band, Mary Lee’s Corvette, performed all of Mr. Dylan’s classic album, “Blood on the Tracks,” in a performance later released as their second album. At Mexicali Live next week, the band will reprise that performance.

Mary Lee Kortes
Mary Lee Kortes

Q: What was your first Bob Dylan song?

Mary Lee Kortes: Probably “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He’s just been in my consciousness forever. It’s like asking me, when was the first time you breathed? What’s your first experience of oxygen? It’s that elemental.

Q: When was the first time you heard “Blood on the Tracks”?

A: I was pretty young. I remember loving it and I remember having the vinyl. I remember writing my name on the album. I was the youngest kid in my family; my older brother and sister always had the greatest records.

Q: What’s the basis of your connection to Dylan?

A: His words are so deep. He covers so much ground with such little effort that I’ve always been very drawn in by him. His use of metaphor doesn’t scream at you; it just makes you ask questions.

Q: How did you come to perform “Blood on the Tracks”?

A: It’s a kind of long and winding road. I discovered my singing voice working on a dude ranch in northern Michigan. I decided I wanted to be a singer. I also wanted to be a book editor. They were a very confusing set of ambitions.

I was just drawn to New York City. I came here knowing two people. I started answering ads in the Village Voice, and somebody said you really should be writing songs because that’s where it’s at. I started writing songs and performing my own material

This “Blood on the Tracks” thing was a really happy accident. I heard Arlene’s Grocery, this club on the Lower East Side, was doing this classic album night. They’d get three albums and three different bands. They had bands for the other two albums, but apparently no one was willing to do “Blood on the Tracks.” I said, “I’d do it. I love that album.” So naively.

They said, “We hadn’t thought about having a woman do it.”

So I said, “I’m your man.”

I started rehearsing and I said, “oh no, I don’t know all the words to the songs!” On two separate occasions I actually went to the telephone, picked up the phone, and almost said I was going to cancel. But something inside me said, I’m not a quitter. I’m going to figure this out and crack this code. I just kept singing the songs until I felt I could do it from my own inner well and not just imitate him.

I honored the original phrasing, because who wants to hear the songs sung differently? You don’t really want that. You don’t need this to be improved upon. Everybody loves the songs and needs an excuse to hear them.

That’s part of why I never considered changing the gender. Why would I do that? They were perfect poems.

Q: What did you learn about the songs from getting inside them?

A: Just how beautiful they are. When you’re singing the words, not just listening to them, it’s a really transformative experience. They’re so beautiful, so full of emotion. It’s an honor when these words come floating out of your mouth.

Q: Did you ever edit books?

A: I have done some. Now I do editing for the U.N.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: I just finished a new album, “The Songs of Beulah Rawley.” It will be out in the next few months.

Beulah Rowley is a regionally famous singer from the Depression-era Midwest. She wrote a lot of songs and stored them in a piano bench made out of wrought iron. She died in a house fire. The piano bench survived, with all of her songs and diaries, and made its way into my family.

Q: If you were going to a desert island, and could take the music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Joni Mitchell, which would you take?

A: If I could only pick one? I would probably take Joni.

Q: Any concluding thoughts on Bob Dylan turning 75?

A: It’s wonderful. He’s out there. He’s still doing it. Hillary Clinton’s running for president and she’s almost 70. Hurray! Let’s live long lives and stay alive while we’re here.

Deadgrass is, from left, Russell Gottleib, Clarence Ferrari, C Lanzbom, Dave Richards, and Matt Turk.Deadgrass
Deadgrass is, from left, Russell Gottleib, Clarence Ferrari, C Lanzbom, Dave Richards, and Matt Turk.Deadgrass

Deadgrass is the Jerry Garcia tribute project of musicians C Lanzbom and Matt Turk. In Jewish circles, Mr. Lanzbom is better known as one of the members of Soulfarm, and Mr. Turk is the musical director of the Downtown Synagogue in Tribeca, in Manhattan. Deadgrass generally plays the songs of the Grateful Dead, but the Grateful Dead frequently played the songs of Bob Dylan and even toured with him for a time, so on Tuesday night, Mr. Lanzbom said, you can expect to hear the words and music of Dylan with the rhythms and stylings of Mr. Garcia.

Q: What was your first Bob Dylan song?

C Lanzbom: Whoa! I was probably, like, maybe 10 or 11 years old. My older brother turned me on to a lot of different music.

Q: What was the song?

A: Probably something like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Q: What was the first Dylan song you learned how to play?

A: It was “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” I learned it as a kid. I never actually performed that particular track.

Q: What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?

A: Too many. There are too, too many. I don’t think I have a favorite, actually.

Q: What do you think about Dylan turning 75 years old?

A: All those guys are like pioneers. I’ve always been into the deep blues where these guys, if they lived this long, aged like B.B. King. [Mr. King was playing concerts until the year before his death at 89.] I admire them and they’re kind of blazing and paving a path for all the other rockers like us, to show the world how it can be done as long as you stay alive.

Q: Any plans for Bob Dylan’s 100th birthday?

A: I won a Grammy for working with Pete Seeger. I believe Pete died at 94. I worked with him all the way to the last year he lived. What I picked up from him, the way he came into a recording session, he came in like a kid just as excited as when he started. He’d be like a kid in many ways.

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