29 November 2012

“Don’t Sing With Your Mouth Full”

by Daniel J. Wakin

[In the article below, Daniel Wakin, classical music reporter for the New York Times, describes some of the issues opera companies and singers cope with when there are scenes on stage that feature food and eating or drinking.  I’ve never been much of an opera fan, but we in theater do encounter some of the same problems, even when singing doesn’t enter into the mix.  Handling and eating or drinking food or beverages can offer unique challenges for both the performers and the stage crews, as you’ll read.

[Wakin’s article appeared in the “Dining” section of the Times on Wednesday, 9 May 2012.  The on-line edition of the article was revised to correct earlier versions which incorrectly identified the composer of the opera Tosca as Giacomo Puccini; it is Giuseppe Verdi.]

Hansel and Gretel stuff pastries into their mouths, topping them off with toasted gingerbread witch. Leporello pours out a fine Marzemino wine from northern Italy for Don Giovanni, then nibbles at a piece of pheasant. Schaunard calls for Rhine wine, roast venison and dressed lobster for his fellow Puccinian Bohemians at the Café Momus in Paris.

And that’s just a sample of this season’s menu at the Metropolitan Opera.

Opera, of all the art forms, is singularly associated with food, whether because of the appetites of well-girthed singers or the sensual pleasures celebrated in its rich ragout of music, emotion and stagecraft.
Just a few nights at any opera house will drive this home. Hardly a performance goes by without some reference to a meal, enough so that cookbooks and even scholarly articles have been devoted to the subject. Opera luminaries have dishes named after them, like peach Melba and Melba toast, inspired by the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. The Met even has a backstage kitchen for meeting the culinary demands of librettos, and singers regularly face the challenge of timing bites between musical phrases.

“Every single opera, at least if it doesn’t refer to food, it refers to some sort of passion, and that’s one of the things people relate to,” the soprano Carol Vaness said. “For even Wagner, it’s got that ‘food of the gods’ feeling to it.”
David Anchel, a former opera singer, thinks there may be an element of oral fixation to the phenomenon: food goes in the mouth, and song comes out of it. But opera’s foodiness, he believes, comes mainly from something more basic. “Opera is about life,” he said. “How could you describe people’s lives without having them eat? It’s a very passionate thing, often.”

Mr. Anchel is well qualified to explain the connection. A frequent opera-going companion of mine and one of the best nonprofessional cooks I know, he sang with many small companies, briefly ran a catering business and found a ready supply of cookbooks in the bookstores where he used to work. Years ago he even proposed (unsuccessfully) a PBS series based on opera meals, in which he would sing scenes and cook dishes that might have been served in them. “I could be the operatic chef,” he said.

That fascination with the crossroads of food and music began 30 years ago when he and his wife, Julia Heyer, were young singers and would invite colleagues for parties that started with opera readings. “After we sang through the opera I would cook a meal” in its style, Mr. Anchel said. “I really thought this was a way to understand better what the characters were all about, if I knew exactly what they were eating.”

Food is so central to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi that the University of Notre Dame musicologist Pierpaolo Polzonetti has written papers on the subject. He has come up with what he calls the laws of “gastromusicology” to explain what food can signify in opera.

“The first law is that no meal can be sad,” Mr. Polzonetti said. “No matter what, when people eat, people seem to be happy, even if something bad is going to happen.” Other laws hold that meals show social cohesion, and that the presence of food or drink “excludes immediate catastrophe” (except, as in operas like “Simon Boccanegra,” when poison is involved).

The title character of Verdi’s “Falstaff” is one of the great operatic eaters. His bill at the Garter Inn, as he recounts at the opera’s opening, is for 6 chickens, 3 turkeys, 2 pheasants, 1 anchovy and 30 bottles of sherry. In “Macbeth,” Verdi prescribes a “sumptuously prepared feast” for the banquet scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears.

Another Italian, Puccini, larded his operas with meals—particularly “La Bohème,” a story of starving artists in 19th-century Paris.

In their chilly garret on Christmas Eve, Rodolfo, Schaunard, Colline and Marcello dine on a cold roast, Bordeaux and pastry. Later, outside the Café Momus in the Latin Quarter, vendors hawk an effusion of Parisian street food: oranges, dates, hot chestnuts, nougat, whipped cream, candies, fruit tarts, coconut milk, carrots, trout and plums from Tours. At a table, the bohemians order sausage, roast venison, turkey, Rhine wine and lobster. They also eat “a poem” of a chicken, as Colline sings, and stew—a sumptuous evening in contrast to their friend Mimi’s consumptive and tragic death.

Opera companies have to deal with these meals and often provide real food. The Met’s has a fully functional kitchen inside its room for small props, equipped with a Kenmore refrigerator, Corian countertops and a pot of rosemary that Mime uses for his potion in the current production of Wagner’s “Siegfried.” (Hanging in the prop room are two unappetizing fake severed heads belonging to John the Baptist in Strauss’s “Salome.”)

Grocery shopping is done at the Fairway Market several blocks away on Broadway. Michael Albergo, a prop man, prepares much of the food, taking heed of gluten or dairy intolerance among the chorus and singers. He cooks chickens in a convection microwave, and cuts them up ahead of time to make it easier for a singer to rip off a drumstick.

“If there is going to be the ubiquitous opera chicken, I would prefer it to have been cooked in the last 45 minutes rather than the last 45 days,” said Thomas Hampson, the baritone. As Don Giovanni, “I remember once getting a piece of chicken that really was roadkill,” he said. “I finally found a handkerchief and relieved myself of it.”

Sometimes prop managers prefer precooked food. For “Bohème” the Met used to order chicken from its cafeteria, but discovered that KFC was much cheaper.

Yes, much of this food gets eaten. While the practices of singers differ widely, a surprising number chow down on the props. Some do so for dramatic reasons. “When you’re faking your way through it,” said Kate Lindsey, a mezzo-soprano, “people can see through that action.”

Others are simply hungry. Singers generally eat lightly before a performance, and stage food is a handy snack, especially three hours into an opera.

Eating onstage has its perils. Singers have to worry about slipping on fallen food or sullying expensive costumes, and must make sure they have swallowed before opening their mouths to sing. “You always have to time yourself as far as ‘What can I consume between lines?’ ” said Richard Paul Fink, a baritone. “Can I have a full drink and a swallow? Can I consume this apple?”

It is standard for singers to make requests, especially for wine stand-ins. Favorites are flat soda (to prevent burping while singing), iced tea, Snapple and apple juice. The soprano Patricia Racette says she prefers watered-down lemon-lime Gatorade because it delivers a boost of sugar and electrolytes, and keeps her mouth moist.

The bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, playing Leporello in the Met’s recent “Don Giovanni,” asked for vegetable sausage, said James Blumenfeld, the Met property master. “It was the most disgusting thing I ever smelled,” Mr. Blumenfeld said. He added that the bass-baritone James Morris is known for preferring bananas when he is playing Scarpia in the fatal meal scene of Verdi’s “Tosca.” One of Mr. Albergo’s biggest jobs is Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” The witch in the tale has invited the unsuspecting and hungry siblings into her house for a good fattening up before consumption. She tempts them with apple tarts, meringues, chocolate mousse, Black Forest cake, rice pudding, creamy Swiss rolls and mountains of profiteroles. Mr. Albergo helps lay out a spread of real pastry, provided by Rockland Bakery of Nanuet, N.Y.

Ms. Lindsey, who played Hansel this season, said she avoided swallowing a lot of the pastry because dairy products create phlegm and can make it difficult to sing. “I developed a technique where I looked like I was eating, but smeared a lot of it all over my face,” she said. While pretending to drink milk, she learned to breathe out through her nose to avoid inhaling it.

And it is not just leading singers who indulge onstage. At a 2010 production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” at the Santa Fe Opera, Ms. Lindsey, who was singing the role of Nancy, said she was amazed at how many extras and cast members were grabbing the food, not all of it real. “You had to watch out because there was fake ham,” she said. “You could end up eating plastic.”

“Herring,” set in a Suffolk market town in 1900, provides a fairly specific menu of English cuisine before its broad upgrade of recent decades. Children sing with glee in Act 2 about the May Day feast:

Pink blancmange!
Seedy cake! Seedy cake! (with icing on)
Treacle tart!
Sausagey rolls!
Trifle in a great big bowl!
Chicken and ham!
Cheesy straws!

No such specifics are found in John Adams’s “Nixon in China,” which features one of the best-known feasts of modern opera, the banquet scene in which the character Chou En-lai and the American president toast each other during Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit in 1972.

But the historical nature of the subject would have made the details easy to provide. The Nixon Foundation has the official menu, which includes “spongy bamboo shoots and egg-white consommé, shark’s fin in three shreds, fried and stewed prawns, mushrooms and mustard green and steamed chicken with coconut, almond junket, pastries, fruits.”

Maybe all that was too hard to sing.

[I never had to contend with eating and singing as the performers about whom Wakin writes have, but I have had to work with food on stage as an actor.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of cleanliness rather than performance issues.  I was doing a contemporary play about a group of college and post-college friends living together in a large house.  In one scene, I came into the living room with a cup and a coffee pot and I was supposed to pour myself a cup of coffee and drink it during the scene.  Simple enough.  Now, the play was part of a three-play rep, and we’d had a couple of days off while the other plays performed, so we had a run-through rehearsal before our performances picked up again.  During the regular rehearsal period, my coffee pot was filled with plain water, which was fine, and that’s what I expected this afternoon.  But when I poured the liquid from the pot into the cup, what I got was days-old brown liquid with thick green mold growing in it!  Well, of course, I wasn’t about to drink any of that, but what was worse was that it was gross enough looking to stop me in mid line.  Thank goodness it wasn’t a performance, of course—though I hope I’d have managed to do something in that case to have covered the glitch.  (It probably shouldn’t have been necessary to make the note, but from then on, one of the prop runner’s routine tasks was to check the coffee pot at preset to be sure it was clean and filled with fresh cold coffee.)

[Speaking of covering, one performance I was in required a collaborative effort during a meal scene to cover a missed entrance.  (I may have told this story before once or twice.  See, for instance, “Short Takes: Theater War Stories,” 6 December 2010 on ROT.)  I was acting in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette, a family play in which one scene is dinner.  Part way into the scene one character has an entrance but the actress missed her cue, leaving us all stranded on stage.  The rest of the cast  just improvised an entire little domestic scene about preparing to sit down to dinner that Anouilh never wrote.   I recall it lasting several minutes, but it actually must have been much shorter.  No one in the audience, it seemed, had any idea we were making up a scene as we went along. 

[One food scene taught me a great lesson about my own acting.  I was in graduate school and my MFA class was doing a production of The Wood Demon, Chekhov’s early version of Uncle Vanya.  It was one of the first plays I did after starting to study acting seriously, having performed in college and in community theater as an amateur for several years.  Wood Demon starts with a long scene of a large banquet meal served outdoors with nearly the whole cast—Wood Demon has more characters than Uncle Vanya—around a huge table.  We’d carefully selected foods we could easily eat while speaking lines, with an eye also to food that wouldn’t congeal or go bad under the hot stage lights.  But what we couldn’t predict was where some of the place settings would end up once the scene got underway and actors moved glasses and plates around some as the action progressed.  Now, when I was an amateur, I could be flustered if things weren’t almost exactly the way we’d rehearsed them.  I was always afraid that I’d upset something or attract undue attention if I had to step out of the prescribed blocking.  At almost every performance or rehearsal of Wood Demon, though, something I was supposed to handle  was farther away than it was supposed to be, often in front of another actor.  I had learned to be confident enough in my own work—and to trust my fellow actors enough—simply to reach over, even stand up if necessary, and get what I needed . . . just as if I were a guy eating at a long table among friends and family!  No one noticed this little change in my stage work except my acting teacher, but I knew that I’d made a small but hugely significant breakthrough in acting technique.  For me, it was a little like an agoraphobe taking a step outside his apartment.

[Finally, I was working as a teacher and director in a middle school where the theater program was immensely important (I had many students whose parents were pros in the business, from soaps to the Yiddish stage).  I was directing my first full-length play at the school and we were doing Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.  (I know—who does that deeply philosophical play with 5th-, 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders?  Well, I didn’t select the script; it had been chosen before I was hired.  While many of the kids didn’t really understand the play—neither did some of the parents, I learned later—they did a terrific job anyway.)  My Henry, the central family’s son, was an 8th-grader and in one scene at the end of the play, he comes back home from war and digs a potato out of the fireplace coals and eats it ravenously.  Now, I’d very explicitly instructed the stage manager and prop crew—all students, of course—to be sure the potato every night was well-cooked, fresh, and cold.  Nonetheless, one night, the young actor bit into a raw potato that had been placed on the set—and he chewed it noisily and ate it.  Of course, I scolded the stage manager after the show to impress on her that this shouldn’t happen to the actor again—but Henry liked to play the tough guy and insisted it was perfectly cool, no problem at all!  (I insisted the student stage manager prepare the props the way she was supposed to anyway, irrespective of the actor’s bravado.  I had to teach her to do her job, didn’t I?—that was my job, after all.)]

24 November 2012

'The Heiress' (1976 & 2006)

[On 1 November, a new revival of The Heiress opened at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre.  A popular script, there have been numerous revivals both on Broadway and elsewhere around the U.S. and Canada.  I’ve seen two of them, one not long after I arrived in New York City, and I thought it might be fun to look back at them.  My performance postings on ROT aren’t usually reviews—I expressly call then “reports” to make this point—but the first piece here, from May 1976, is an unpublished review of a short-lived Broadway production.  The second, from 2006, is a report from the same Shaw Festival at which I saw the revivals of Noel Coward’s Design for Living (reported on ROT, 29 March) and the two Shaw plays Arms and the Man and Too True To Be Good (“Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival 2006),” 25 September).  (Those two posts, excerpts from a longer report on the festival visit, contain some observations about the Shaw Festival that I haven’t republished here.)]

7 MAY 1976

In this age of theatrical revivals, the supply was bound to run thin sooner or later.  The producers must be getting close to the bottom of the barrel with Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress (based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square and currently playing at the Broadhurst Theatre).  The play is predictable, plodding, and cliché-ridden in its handling of the mid-nineteenth-century story of a plain, awkward girl, Catherine Sloper (Jane Alexander), wooed and almost won by fortune-hunter Morris Townsend (David Selby) until father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Kiley), threatens to disinherit her and the ardent suitor skips to California.

What saves the evening—and elevates it beyond expectations—are the performances of Alexander and Kiley.  Kiley’s Dr. Sloper is a sardonic, resentful man, bitter toward daughter Catherine who is a reminder that his beloved wife died bearing her. He has no respect for his daughter and has wasted no love on heronly tolerance.  Kiley has a way of walking onto the setor just sitting down in a chairthat makes us realize he is master of both the Sloper household and the Broadhurst stage.

Until her father’s death, Alexander’s Catherine is dutiful, submissive and obedient (albeit ineffectual). Her ungainly gait, awkward stance, and graceless manner are portrayed with sensitive care and completeness.  When Townsend jilts her, she realizes that not only does he not love her, but neither does her father.  At her father’s death, she inherits not only his money, but his control and mastery.  When Townsend returns, she now has the strength, wisdom, and fortitude to spurn him.  She also has the cruelty to do it big and bold.  The transformation is handled with smoothness and credibility by Alexander.

Other performances support father and daughter nicely.  Of particular note is Jan Miner’s Aunt Lavinia Penniman (recognizable as “Madge the Manicurist” of TV commercials).  Only Selby’s suitor is unconvincing.  His movement and speech belie his nineteenth-century costumes, and his casualness is too often that of a late-twentieth-century stud, not a mid-nineteenth-century fortune-hunter.

George Keathley’s direction is another problem.  As the play is slow, the directing should not compound the problem by being deliberate and meticulously-paced.  The work is nice, comfortable and pleasantbut slow.  Why, for instance, does Keathley insist on having the curtain dropped between each scene?  No set changes are necessary and this adds to the slowness.

The set (by Oliver Smith) is simple and elegant, but the lighting (designed by David F. Segal) has one unfortunate major flaw.  When Aunt Penniman and Catherine look out the stage-right window for Townsend’s carriage, the lights shine in like anachronistic automobile headlights. 

All this comes back to the original question: why do this show?  It has no apparent connection to today’s world.  Catherine is no liberated womaneven in her ultimate freedom she is a victim.  There seems no reason to bring the show back.  And the audiences are staying away to prove it.  If sterling performances can make you forget a mediocre scriptthen by all means catch Alexander and Kiley.  But do so before too longThe Heiress is not destined for a long run.  [In fact, this production of The Heiress, which opened on 20 April 1976, closed on 9 May, two days after I wrote this review—after 23 regular performances and 5 previews.  ~Rick]

24 AUGUST 2006

On Thursday evening, 24 August 2006, the Round House Theatre group from Bethesda, Maryland, saw the Shaw Festival’s revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress at the Royal George Theatre in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake.  (We sat down center—and a tall man sat in front of my mother, just as she predicted would happen!)  I didn't see the 1995 Lincoln Center revival with Cherry Jones, but in April 1976 I did see the Broadway transfer from the Kennedy Center.  (I even wrote a review of it for my criticism class at Rutgers; I still have it stashed in some file.  [This, obviously, is the review published above.  ~Rick])  I remember the performances pretty well—especially Richard Kiley's Dr. Sloper and Jan ("Madge the Manicurist") Miner's Aunt Penniman.  (I had to remind myself that Jane Alexander played Catherine, however.  I'll have to look up my old review to see if there's a reason I forgot that.)

Okay, enough reminiscing!  (Never, never! I hear you cry.  What good is life if you can't reminisce?)  Back to the Shaw.  And back to the show, too.  This production of The Heiress, directed by Joseph Ziegler and designed (sets and costumes) by Christina Poddubiuk, is generally excellent.  It's a melodrama, of course, and the company plays the emotions appropriately.  Catherine Sloper (Tara Rosling, who, when not made up to look plain, resembles Lynn Redgrave) does a fine job of being the painfully shy and awkward young woman who learns from her father how to be hard and untrusting.  Dr. Sloper (Michael Ball), who is less of a cold martinet than Kiley was 30 years ago, is not only convincing as the father who believes he's protecting his inadequately-equipped child from the cruelties of the world, he comes very close to being sympathetic—until he actually tells his daughter outright that he doesn't respect her.  (Kiley was so frosty and unfeeling in the role, it's a wonder his Catherine didn't become Ilse Koch.)  What this seems to do to the play is make it more credible, despite its contrivances.  Even Aunt Penniman (Donna Belleville) is less a ditz than Miner was—although she still can't help falling for Morris's lies and charm.  (Belleville does suggest in her manner that she knows Townsend's a cad and a fortune-hunter but fears that, unless Catherine accepts him anyway, she will never find any kind of love.  She may have caught her brother's disease in this regard.)  In any case, once again the production is a superb example of ensemble playing, with every character taking the requisite focus when he is the center of dramatic attention and ceding it when she is not.  If ever "there are no small parts" were true, it is true here.

The one hole in the production is Mike Shara as Morris Townsend, Catherine's suitor.  He has two problems that render his performance out of synch with the rest, and which I see as actual acting weaknesses.  (He is also Sergius in Arms and the Man, and the traits I spotted here were again in evidence—though less detrimentally due to the character and play—so I believe my evaluation is correct.  It's odd, but Sergius, also a cad, is the farcical version of Morris Townsend, the character Shara plays in Heiress.  One works acceptably, the other doesn't.)  Shara's first problem is that he, alone among the Shaw company, cannot or does not put his (very pronounced) Canadian accent aside for the role.  It's a pet peeve of mine that some Canadians who play Americans—and the Brits seem to use them a lot—don't make a point of talking like Americans.  If they can't do it, they shouldn't take the role.  I don't know if they can't hear the difference and think they're speaking like us southerners or if they just figure the accents are so close to one another, no one will notice and they can just get away with it.  Well, as GBS would say: pshaw!  Shara's second problem is his voice.  I'm not sure I can describe this adequately, but he has a very strange voice—it almost sounds phony (the way Carol Wayne, the woman who used to appear on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and claimed she couldn't talk above a baby-doll whisper, seemed fake).  He has kind of a high tenor—I guess that's a lyric tenor—but it doesn't sound quite natural.  It's a little like he's doing Dudley Do-Right (from the cartoon—I don't know what Brendan Fraser in the movie sounded like) for real!  The best way I can characterize Shara's voice is to say that it sounds to me like a musical actor delivering lines between songs.  (He has no musicals in his credits—and he's been at the Shaw for 13 seasons.)  I don't know if that communicates.

Since I've been mentioning the sets, I should note that this one is fine without being extraordinary.  (They don't all have to be, after all.  [One of my general remarks in the full report was that the set designing was exceptional at the festival.  ~Rick])  It's a perfectly standard Realistic box and makes a perfect environment for the story without calling attention to itself in any way.  The costumes, though—especially the women's—are admirable.  They aren't showy—they shouldn't be in this play (except for Catherine's "cherry red" dress in act one)—but they just seem correct for each instance.

19 November 2012

Governors Island

A Special Installment of “A Helluva Town”

I recently ran an article on ROT about New York City’s unusual High Line Park, built 30 feet above the far West Side of Manhattan in the bed of a disused elevated rail line (see “High Line Park,” 10 October).  New York’s full of parks, as most people know, and not a few of them are unusual and even unique.  (The only other “park in the sky,” as Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe called it, is the Promenade Plantée in Paris, the model for High Line Park.)  Another public space in the city that’s at least uncommon is Governors Island Park in New York Harbor.  If the High Line is a park in the sky, then Governors Island is a floating park.

I’d never been to Governors Island before July 2010, when I attended a performance of that summer’s Lincoln Center Festival on the island (see my ROT report on Teorema, 3 August 2010). The 172-acre island was an army post from 1794 until 1966 when the Coast Guard took it over.  In 1996, the USCG abandoned the station and in 2003, New York State and New York City “bought” the island from the feds for $1.  They still haven’t figured out exactly what to do with it all—some proposals have been floated, including some commercial, for-profit use, but many decisions haven’t been made—and at present there’s little there aside from old buildings, the park-like landscape, and the spectacular view of lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, New Jersey, and the harbor with the Statue of Liberty prominent to the west and the silhouette of the Ellis Island immigration facility beyond.  At night, with the skyline and the East River bridges lit up, the view is worth the free ferry ride over, but the island isn’t currently open after 7 p.m. except for special events like the LCF performance, so getting to see that nighttime vista is tough.  There are also almost no facilities on the island yet, except for a few food vendors, swings, and hammocks for relaxing in the relative tranquility of an island in the middle of New York Harbor.  Basically, you can hang out, hike the circumference of the island, or pedal the bike path around it.  There’s a tour of the old military fortifications (which are a National Monument, so the guides are U.S. Park Service personnel) and there are some buildings in use for art exhibitions and installations, but otherwise, it’s basically a place for communing. 

The island isn’t even open for tourists during the week yet; it’s usual public operating hours are on the weekend from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and until 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, but in 2012, the island was closed to tourism on Fridays so that infrastructure upgrades can be accomplished.  (It’s also open on the Monday holidays during the season, Memorial Day and Labor Day.)  When Governors Island has been developed for visitors more than it was two years ago, I’ll wholeheartedly recommend a trip over for an afternoon.  Unhappily, unless the city expands the hours past 7 p.m. (or the island remains open later in the year than the end of September when twilight falls earlier), you’ll miss that evening ride back in the dark and the view from the island to the sparkling city over the water with the lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn cityscape lit up.  On the other hand, the ride is free.

In Upper New York Bay, the original, natural island was about 70 acres until the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the dumping of nearly 5 million cubic yards of landfill from the excavation of the Eastside IRT subway tunnels at the south side of the island in 1912, adding about 103 acres to it.  About 800 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan, like the dot at the bottom of a Manhattan Borough exclamation point, Governors Island is separated from Brooklyn only by the width of Buttermilk Channel.  The Native Americans living in what is now the tri-state area, principally the Lenape, valued the island as a seasonal fishing camp and for its abundant hickory, oak, and chestnut trees, naming it Pagganck (“Nut Island”).  In 1611, Dutch explorer and fur trader Adriaen Block named the island Noten Eylant, the Dutch translation of Pagganck.  The local tribes began using Noten Eylant/Pagganck as a convenient location to conduct trade with the European settlers and in 1613, Jan Rodrigues from Santo Domingo, a free man of African descent, was posted to the island, becoming the first non-Indian to live there, to act as translator and trade negotiator for Block.  

In 1624, Noten Eylant was the landing spot for the first Dutch settlers of New Netherland, 30 families arriving from Holland on the New Netherland.  The first fortifications on Noten Eylant were erected that same year.  In 1633, Wouter Van Twiller arrived on the island with a 104-man regiment, making the first use of it as a military base.   On 16 June 1637, Van Twiller bought Noten Eylant from the Lenape Indians for two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails.  A year later, the Dutch government seized the island and maintained it as part of New Netherland until Britain captured the Dutch colonies in North America in 1664. 

In 1665, the colony of New Amsterdam was renamed New York and Noten Eylant was corrupted into Nutten Island for about a hundred years.  The British colonial assembly immediately saw Nutten Island’s natural beauty and set it aside exclusively for “the benefit and accommodation of his Majestie’s Governors” by 1674.  Though not used as a permanent official residence, the governor's house, originally built around 1703, is the oldest structure on the island.  Although Nutten Island was not officially renamed until after the American Revolution, it came to be called “The Governor’s Island” from then on.   

In 1776, the British evacuated New York and the Americans fortified the island overnight on 9 April with earthworks to protect New York Harbor.  The only shots ever fired in combat from the island, colonial troops fired on British ships during the Revolutionary War from the island until 27 August 1776 when the British defeated the colonial army in the Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island), the largest campaign in the war, and Gen. George Washington retreated from Long Island and the Governor’s Island.  New York City remained a royalist stronghold throughout the Revolution.

After the British surrender in 1783, the city and its islands returned to American control and what officially became Governors Island in 1784, losing both its article and its apostrophe, became the territory and responsibility of the newly constituted State of New York.  Officially, the island is part of the Borough of Manhattan, otherwise designated New York County.  (The boroughs are city divisions; counties are state entities.  For an explanation of New York City boroughs and their coterminous counties, see my ROT article “A Helluva Town, Part 1,” posted on 15 August 2011.)  The island served no military use for several years, but in 1794, with the country in need of a system of coastal defenses to meet threats to territorial security and foreign trade from the hostilities between Britain and France (the Napoleonic wars), New York State began the construction of Fort Jay—named for John Jay (1745-1829), a Founding Father, the second Governor of New York State, the first U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs (now called the Secretary of State), and the first Chief Justice of the United States—on the remains of the Revolutionary earthworks in the center of the island.  The star-shaped fort was completed in 1794, confirming Governors Island’s long history as a military base, and it was transferred to federal ownership in 1800.  Fort Jay, renamed Fort Columbus (until 1904), was reconstructed in 1806 and ’09, and Castle Williams—named for Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams (1751-1815), the first American-born military engineer and a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, who designed the circular fortification—was completed in 1811.  In the War of 1812, these coastal defenses helped deter the British navy from entering New York Harbor, which they blockaded instead. 

The Governors Island fortifications became militarily obsolete by 1830 and the island’s purpose became largely administrative.  During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the island’s facilities were used as a recruiting center, a function that continued during the Civil War when Governors Island also served as a POW installation for captured Confederate soldiers.  Following the Civil War, Castle Williams was used as a military stockade, a prison for soldiers convicted of crimes, until 1965 and in 1878, the whole base became a major army administrative center.  In 1904, Elihu Root, Secretary of War (1899-1904) under Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, renamed Fort Columbus for John Jay and named the entire island’s military facility Fort Jay.  Root (1845-1937) instigated the 1912 expansion of the island to its current size with the landfill.  In World Wars I and II, the island served as a supply depot for the U.S. Army, including the Air Corps.  In 1939, Governors Island became the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. 

During Governors Island’s occupation by the U.S. Army, three members of the Grant family served there: Capt. Ulysses Grant (1822-85) was there in 1852-54; Gen. Frederick Grant (1850-1912), President Grant’s son, was in command there twice until his death in 1912; and Frederick Grant’s grandson, Col. Ulysses Grant III (1881-1968), was chief of staff for the commander there in 1936-37.  Wilbur Wright took off from and landed on Governors Island on 29 September 1909 for the first over-water flight in the U.S.  The Smothers Brothers comedy duo were born on the island, Tom in 1937 and Dick in 1939, and comic book artist Neal Adams (Batman, Green Lantern) was born there in 1941.  A couple of writers have lived on the island: Janet Lambert (1894-1973), a young-adult author of the 1940s through the ’60s, while her husband was the post commander in the 1950s, and Lois Lowry (b. 1937), author of The Giver (1993), during her high school years while her father was an army dentist posted there.  Michael Collins (b. 1930), NASA astronaut, spent a portion of his teen years on Governors Island.  On 8 December 1988, the island served as the meeting place of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, President-elect George H. W. Bush, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1964, the Department of Defense designated Governors Island as one of the bases to be closed in 1966 to cut costs and reduce the number of underused facilities.  When the army moved out on Changeover Day, 30 June 1966, the U.S. Coast Guard moved in.  The USCG, an agency of the Department of the Treasury until 1967, consolidated many area facilities onto the island and was able to offer Coast Guardsmen schools for their children and recreational amenities for their families.  The island, the largest USCG base in the world (with 3,500 residents at the base), became the headquarters for the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command.  The Coast Guard stayed on Governors Island for 30 years, leaving in 1996 when the facilities in New York City had become obsolete to the USCG’s coastal defense mission.  By then, the island had served over 200 years as a U.S. military facility.  During the 20th century (and some of the 19th), assignment to Governors Island was considered a prestige posting, not just for the military significance of the base—many officers stationed on the island went on to senior commands and greater responsibilities—but because of its connection to New York City, rapidly becoming the most important city in the United States and, as far as many thought, the world. 

During the island’s long military history, access was severely restricted and few New Yorkers, much less tourists, ever visited Governors Island.  Before the construction of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, dedicated in 1930, Governors Island was considered for the site of a city airfield, but it was never built, and in 1939, New York City master builder, Robert Moses, proposed a cross-harbor bridge with one base located on Governors Island, but the War Department rejected the idea as an impediment to access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard across from the island.  The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which opened in 1950, crosses under the harbor, passing by the island’s northeast corner where a ventilation tower can be seen.  The only way to get onto the island, aside from trying to swim, is by boat or aircraft, and the military controlled the access by both.  It was a little like Alcatraz in reverse: those on the island could leave as they pleased but no one wanted to escape the little self-contained community; off-islanders who wanted to get in were prevented by water and armed guards. 

Between 1996, when the USCG left, and 2003, when the island first opened to the general public, it essentially lay abandoned, inhabited only by caretakers, maintenance workers, and National Park Service employees.  Ninety-two acres of the island, encompassing the two military fortifications, had been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, but no visitors could come over and appreciate it. 

The 1996 congressional legislation that mandated the disposal of federal property required that Governors Island be sold at fair market value, but Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York inserted a provision in the bill that gave New York State first refusal on the property.  The state had to come up with a plan for the use of the island as a public asset and city and state officials, civic activists, and private developers all began pitching ideas.  A competition was held in 1996, attracting over 200 submissions from students, scholars, and professionals, including entries from 14 different nations.  On 1 April 2002, Pres. George W. Bush, Gov. George Pataki, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the United States would sell Governors Island to the people of New York for $1, and on 31 January 2003, 150 acres of the island were handed over to the State of New York; the remaining 22 acres were transferred from the Department of Transportation (of which the USCG was at that time a component) to the Department of the Interior and designated the Governors Island National Monument under the management of the National Park Service.  On 14 July 2010, New York City assumed responsibility for New York’s 150-acre portion of Governors Island from the state, and its administration was assumed by the Trust for Governors Island, a New York City agency.  Last 12 May, Mayor Bloomberg broke ground for the planned city park and public space, one designer of which is the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of the architects of the High Line Park. 

The park will be located on 87 acres in the center of Governors Island which is currently undeveloped open area.  The northern end of the island, occupied by the historic military structures that include the housing and regimental administrative buildings as well as the fortifications, will remain essentially unchanged aside from necessary renovation and restoration of existing structures.  (One proposal rejected by the Park Service as inconsistent with the structure’s historic status was the conversion of Castle Williams into a New Globe Theater, conceived in partnership with London’s Globe.)  The coastal areas along the east and west sides of the island will be developed commercially.  The entire island will be ringed by a circumferential promenade. 

The current blueprint for the redevelopment of Governors Island spans 10 years, the first phase of which is now underway.  Phase one, expected to be completed by 2013, includes plans to upgrade Soissons Landing, the ferry pier, to provide better access to the island; redesign the Parade Ground for lawn sports; add park amenities to the 34-acre Historic District; construct a drinking-water system; repair the seawall; add Liggett Terrace, a six-acre plaza with seasonal plantings, and Hammock Grove, a new 10-acre shaded, wooded area containing hammocks for visitors; turn South Battery into a lawn around the historic fortifications; and install the 14-acre Play Lawn which will include two new baseball fields.  Plans for future phases of the development, for all of which Mayor Bloomberg has allocated $250 million, are in progress and the only restrictions are that they may not include permanent housing (that is, no condos) or casinos.  The aesthetic goal for the Trust, which oversees the renovations and improvements, is to develop the island’s accommodations and facilities without making the changes obtrusive, to provide more concessions and vendors to serve visitors without turning the island into a commercialized zone. 

In addition to the park and the National Monument, Governors Island is now home to a public high school, the New York Harbor School, originally located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and artists’ studios run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in one of the historic  buildings.  A three-acre commercial organic farm operated by a non-profit organization was launched on Governors Island in 2009, and two years ago, New York University announced plans for a satellite campus, complete with student and faculty housing, on the island.  Commercial development, along the shorelines, is also planned as a way to raise revenues; among some of the proposals are a conference center, restaurants, and retail stores.

During the season, a visit to Governors Island starts with the free ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street, catty-corner from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, in lower Manhattan or from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park at the foot of Atlantic Avenue at the corner of Columbia Street in Brooklyn.  (Both locations are accessible by subway and bus and there’s parking nearby, though street parking is limited.)  The boats run every half hour from Manhattan and every 20 minutes from Brooklyn and land you at Soissons Dock on the north end, almost directly across from the lower Manhattan departure point.  (There’s also a NY Waterway ferry across the East River from DUMBO, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint in Brooklyn that costs $4, plus $1 for bikes.)  The ferry trip was nearly the best part of my visit—a seven-minute cruise across a corner of the harbor with the city skyline at your backs, the Statue of Liberty in the middle distance, and the harbor spread out before you.  It’s a wonderful little treat in itself, especially on a beautiful day when you can stand at the rail and watch the harborscape flow by.  As the downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines recede behind you and the New Jersey shoreline runs parallel to your route (albeit at a great distance), you get a fantastic view of the Statue of Liberty over the starboard side (where I happened to be standing) and Ellis Island beyond it.  The working harbor is also laid out around you with the various vessels that ply the waters, from pleasure boats to tour boats to ferries to tugs and other working craft, and the water shines and sparkles in the sunshine.  (Yes, I know it’s actually dirty.  It still reflects the sun.)  The last island-bound ferry from Manhattan leaves at 5:30 p.m. (5:10 from Brooklyn); the last return boats depart the slip at 7 p.m.

From Soissons Landing, the island offers a free tram (a sort of oversized golf cart) every 20 minutes to Picnic Point, an eight-acre lawn on the southwest corner that offers picnic tables, hammocks, and a spectacular view of the harbor and Liberty Island.  Otherwise, visitors are free to walk or bike around the island pretty much at will (except into areas closed for construction or renovation).  Bicycles can be transported on the ferry for free (except for the private ferries as noted) or there are bikes for rent on the island; tandems and quadracycles are also available.  Bike and Roll, the concession, offers Free Bike Mondays on the Monday holidays that the island is open.  (Bike fees are $15 for 2 hours, $20 for 4, and $25 for the whole day.  When the island reopens on Fridays, a limited number of free bikes will be offered.  Be warned, however: bikes have been known to “disappear” if you don’t keep them in sight.)  Aside from food trucks, the electric tram, and maintenance vehicles, automobiles and motorbikes are banned on Governors Island.  Though it’s scheduled for improvement, there is a 2.2-mile Great Promenade around the perimeter of the island that’s especially meant for bikers and strollers, providing the best views of the surrounding sights over the water, including Lady Liberty, the East River bridges, and the Brooklyn waterfront.

The federally administered Governors Island National Monument offers free guided walking tours of the historic area, led by Park Rangers.  This includes visits to Fort Jay and Castle Williams, Colonels Row, the Coast Guard barracks, Liberty Village (the Coast Guardsmen’s family housing area), St. Cornelius Chapel, and other sights among the over 60 structures in the monument district.  The two forts, with their long and unique military histories, have their own complex stories, but they’ve also served as locations for all kinds of non-historical events—such as the screening of a zombie film spoof at Fort Jay or the construction of a haunted house within the walls of Castle Williams.  The remainder of the island, the part that’s under city control, has few amenities so far.  Basically, you can stroll or bike around the island, picnic, kayak, hang out in the hammocks or Adirondack chairs provided, sit on the sand at the artificial Water Taxi Beach (no swimming, however), or fish (catch-and-release only and anglers over 16 must have a valid New York State fishing license).  Water Taxi Beach, just west of the ferry landing, is also a venue for concerts and dining.  There are art installations and the Figment Interactive Sculpture Garden as well as an 18-hole miniature golf course also designed by the artists of the collective Figment.  (Some of the holes are designed to recall New York City rooftops and the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island.)  There are often special events, including reenactments, concerts (rock to classical) and performances, food festivals, or art exhibits and installations, scheduled for the island using the old buildings or the outdoor spaces.  This practice will expand considerably as the park is developed over the next decade.  One vision for the island park is to make it a “playground for the arts,” with its own cultural aesthetic developing autonomously and under the watchful eyes of the Trust and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (which approves proposals for cultural events and performances in city parks).  So far, the emphasis has been on offering as broad a spectrum of entertainments as possible and no proposal that’s been correctly submitted has been rejected.  Not that all the events will meet with the enthusiastic appreciation of all visitors as the quality and the clarity of the artistic concepts varies widely.

Nearly 450,000 visitors came to Governors Island in 2011 during the four months of weekends it was open to the public; it keeps increasing from season to season (which range from 50 to 60 days) and will certainly multiply quickly as new facilities and amenities are developed.  (Though the increase from 2010 was only one percent, attributed to a steamy summer and Hurricane Irene, the growth in tourism was over 100% from 2008 to 2009 and 60% from ’09 to 2010.  The Trust estimates that this year’s vistorship will cross the half-million mark.)  Currently, most of the structures on the island, though remaining eerily handsome Victorian or Romanesque Revival architecture, haven’t been renovated or restored and are still decrepit and empty like a ghost town.  At present facilities are limited: indoor bathrooms are located only in a building next to the ferry landing; port-a-potties are available elsewhere on the island.  Trailer bathrooms are located at Picnic Point and the indoor bathrooms and many of the port-a-potties are accessible to wheelchairs.  (There are restrooms at the Battery Maritime Building where the ferry departs Manhattan and Pier 6 in Brooklyn.)  Potable water, however, is generally not available on the island except the bottled water sold by the food vendors or the vending machines; there are as yet no water fountains.  Visitors can, of course, bring water with them from off island, which may be a good idea if you plan to hike or bike around the place. 

Visitors are welcome to bring their own food and non-alcoholic beverages, but grilling or cooking on the island isn’t permitted.  There are also some food suppliers on Governors Island, including several mobile vendors, such as coffee and sandwich trucks.  Food is also available at the King Avenue Food Court and Picnic Point from a number of concessionaires offering a variety of snacks, drinks, desserts, and light meals, though some prices can be high—$3 ice cream cones, $2 sodas and water—since they have a captive audience.  Though bringing in your own alcohol is prohibited, some of the vendors, namely Little Eva’s at Picnic Point and the Governors Beach Club on the north shore of the island, sell wine (including sangria at Little Eva’s) and beer for consumption on the premises.  (There are ATM machines on the island, but they charge a fee than can be substantial.  It’s better to bring your own cash.  The Governors Island Food and Amenities webpage gives up-to-date information about eating on the island: http://govisland.com/html/visit/food.shtml)

The island is extremely child- and family-friendly, as well as almost entirely wheelchair-accessible (including the ferries and most of the restrooms).  If you bring your own food, drink, and bicycle, a visit to the island will cost you nothing.  There are, however, some additional rules of conduct for visiting the island, aside from the ban on off-site alcohol; most of them are the same as for other New York City parks.  Smoking, of course, is prohibited, as are pets.  Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult to visit the island.   Anyone may be searched, along with their packages and totes, and the Trust for Governors Island has the right to refuse entry to anyone at its discretion. 

For information about visiting Governors Island, getting there, what’s available, special events, rules, and so on, there are two websites, both with multiple pages of facts, information, and advice that will be helpful: the Trust for Governors Island’s site, http://www.govisland.com; the National Park Service’s site for the National Monument, http://www.nps.gov/gois/index.htm.  The information phone number for the Trust is (212) 440-2200 and the NPS number is (212) 825-3045.  It’s wise not only to check for scheduled events (http:/www.govisland.com/html/visit/calendar.shtml), but to see what new parts of the island have been opened or upgraded as it will be an ongoing project for about a decade.

14 November 2012

Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, my friend (and frequent ROT contributor) Kirk Woodward contributes an interesting article to this blog.  Kirk’s sent in many pieces over the years covering a variety of subjects and fields, including several recounting events and experiences from his own life.  One of Kirk’s most frequently visited topics is music, especially pop music and rock ’n’ roll (“The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010; “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011), and he’s very knowledgeable and perspicacious when it comes to discussing an art about which I know very little myself.  So here he’s contributed a report, which comes close to a review, of two performances by Bob Dylan, an artist for whom Kirk has had a strong attraction since the ’60s.  He’s discussed Dylan on ROT before, as he notes (“Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011), but this time Kirk’s offering an assessment of a Dylan concert and his new album, Tempest.  I’m confident you’ll find his evaluation as informative as I have.  ~Rick]
I wrote of my enthusiasm for Bob Dylan in this blog early last year (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2011/01/bob-dylan-performance-artist.html, January 8, 2011), acknowledging in that piece that he’s not the easiest performer to like. I thought of this fact again when I saw him perform on September 2, 2012, at the Bethel Woods Arts Center, located where the original 1969 “Woodstock” music festival took place generations ago. As I’m sure everyone knows, that astounding festival actually took place in the town of Bethel, New York, forty-three miles from the town of Woodstock.

But the name sticks. Bob Dylan at Woodstock! How remarkable is that! Although Dylan didn’t perform at the original Woodstock festival, he used to live in the area (as did The Band, in the house famously known as Big Pink), and his influence has always been felt in the event – his impact on music was particularly powerful in the 1960s.

Several of us drove the two hours from our homes in New Jersey to Bethel Woods. The only way in is through the frequently two lanes of Route 17, and our moderate level of traffic made me visualize miles and miles of cars parked by the side of the road, deep in mud, decades ago.

The Bethel Woods Arts Center is one of the best designed venues of its kind I’ve ever seen – much nicer than Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, or the PNC Arts Center on the on the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel, New Jersey. For one thing, the geography of the site is stunning – vistas, hills and valleys. Everything is designed in curves – wide curves of sidewalks, buildings with conical roofs like tents at medieval jousts.

The concert hall, open at the sides with a huge roof, seats several thousand, and people can also sit behind it on the grass. Lots of tailgating before the show, and, honestly, a kind of mellow feeling that really did seem like it belonged in the setting of Woodstock – people actually smiled, the ushers were friendly, and a sufficient number of people were pleasantly toasted.

Of course there were numerous signs telling one what not to do – don’t walk here, don’t bring in your own food, don’t take pictures of the performance (this last item “at the artist’s request,” presumably Dylan’s request, not that of Ben Harper, the opening act). The spirit of Woodstock, assuming there was such a thing, isn’t precisely recreated, and in fact the present concert hall isn’t on the actual site of the original performance stage, which was several hundred feet away, beyond the museum.

There are certain things one can count on at a present-day Dylan concert, starting with the fact that a Dylan performance is unpredictable. That statement may be a little blunt, so let me refine it a bit by quoting Jon Pareles, who wrote in The New York Times September 6, 2012, about a concert he saw two nights after the one I attended:

A current Dylan concert is always a matter of shifting expectations. At first his voice sounds impossibly ramshackle, just a fogbound rasp. But soon, at least on a good night, his willful phrasing and conversational nuances come through. . . . [H]e has rearranged many of his songs so that only the words are immediately recognizable . . . .

Other certainties include: his band will be muscular and will rock; its members will watch Dylan like hawks the whole concert to make sure he doesn’t suddenly change direction and do something unpredictable; Dylan will sing several songs in a voice so low and gravelly that you won’t be able to make out a word; most of the songs will be considerably rearranged from the way you remember them; and several of them will be so brilliant that you will hardly be able to believe what you heard. All in all, Bob will do what the great ones do, which is to draw you into their worlds, whether you want to go or not.

The set list, as reported (here slightly edited) by the website Boblinks.com, mentions the musical innovation of this tour: Dylan plays a grand piano for several of the songs.

1. Watching The River Flow (Bob on keyboard)
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob on grand piano)
3. Things Have Changed (Bob on guitar)
4. Tangled Up In Blue (Bob on guitar)
5. The Levee’s Gonna Break (Bob on grand piano)
6. Blind Willie McTell (Bob center stage with harp)
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Bob on grand piano)
8. Tryin’ To Get To Heaven (Bob on grand piano and harp)
9. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage with harp, then on piano)
10. Visions Of Johanna (Bob on grand piano)
11. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on grand piano)
12. Spirit On The Water (Bob on grand piano, then center stage with harp)
13. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on grand piano)
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage with harp, then on piano)
15. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on grand piano)
16. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on grand piano)
17. (encore) Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob on piano, then center stage with harp)

This is a fairly typical set list for Dylan these days – hits, obscure items, songs from five decades, nothing from the new album (more about that below). He changes it from night to night, although his selections are a bit more predictable than they were a few years ago; still, you never know for sure what you’re going to get until “Thin Man,” “Rolling Stone,” and “Watchtower,” which he has been singing in those positions for a while now.

It should be clear from the set list that Bob moves around on the stage. This is in itself an innovation: for years he performed at center stage with guitar and harmonica; more recently, he planted himself among the band members and played virtually everything on an electric keyboard. Currently he moves between that keyboard, a grand piano, and a singer’s microphone where he either does or does not play guitar. He may play the harmonica (“harp”) at any location.

“Watching The River Flow” was clear and not unlike the original, and I had hopes that he’d sing everything clearly, which were dashed by the next two numbers, both very hard for me to understand. “Tangled Up In Blue,” one of my favorites, was hugely rearranged and he’d written a new last verse for it.

But “Levee,” a terrific song from Love and Theft, was strong, and “Blind Willie McTell” was brilliant in every way. He sang it up front, holding a mike, sashaying (the only possible word) around for all the world like Tom Jones. After that everything worked, usually intelligibly, with “Spirit On The Water” from Modern Times being particularly lovely.

The last three songs of the regular concert are the way he ends all of them these days. “Thin Man” is as weird and creepy as ever, and he used a substantial echo effect on it, making it even more than previously like a Halloween song. “Rolling Stone” was substantial and not hugely reworked.

Some people had left by the encore, and I wonder what they’d have made of it. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was completely, utterly rearranged – I couldn’t identify the song until the second verse. In a way I was dumbfounded, and in a way I thought, well, here it is decades after Woodstock and he’s singing “Blowing In The Wind.” Everything’s changed, I’ve changed, he’s changed, the song has changed, but somehow, here it still is. And it was an interesting arrangement, too.

Dylan is much stranger than any other performing artist I can think of. I like that, though. Music would be a lot duller without him. The truth is, I left the concert exhilarated – in my head I was calling it the Bob Dylan Dance Party.

And, be honest now, is Dylan the only rock singer of whom we demand precision recreations of his songs (as though he were his own cover band), perfect diction, and absolutely under no circumstances any risk-taking? Are those reasonable demands for us as the audience to make, of a rock singer, for heaven’s sake? And consider: punk rockers have for years now berated, insulted, and sometimes even beaten up their audiences. Is Dylan not to be allowed the right to be a little edgy when he performs?

Dylan wants to sing his songs in continually creative ways, and he wants us to experience the songs in the same way – creatively. Is he insulting his audience by making the experience difficult, or is he giving us credit for having brains that can encompass more than just the recorded tracks that we’ve heard? To me what he does is courageous, and remarkable.

If the point needs any more proving, on September 11, 2012, Dylan released his latest studio album, Tempest, which was greeted with numerous hats being thrown in the air. It is a stunning album, not least because he appears to be in excellent control of his material – it is clear that his choices for the way his songs sound are just that, choices, and that he can sing pretty much any way he wants. On Tempest he often sings – unless he wants to speak a song, as he does with distinction in the track “Long And Wasted Years.” He performs the way he wants. Grab on and come aboard.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan is as much a poet as a songwriter, or at least that poetry is a large part of his songwriting. One of his gifts is the ability to take an everyday expression and put it in a context or a rhythm that makes it stand out as remarkable. Poets do that – they recover words for us.

In Tempest Dylan matches vigorous verse with emphatic singing and with more attention to musical settings than he has paid in years. I’ve presented previously my theory that Dylan’s artistic aim has been to put the values of the music he loves – today known as “American roots music,” music with its roots in country blues and little bands – on the big stage.

In this album we hear, as Jon Pareles listed in the Times (September 11, 2012), echoes of “western swing . . . 1950s-flavored slow dance . . . Celtic-country waltz . . . an old Carter family song . . . a Mississippi Sheiks refrain . . . the stop-time riff of Muddy Water’s ‘Mannish Boy’ . . . bits of the traditional ballad ‘Barbara Allen’ and phrases from John Greenleaf Whittier poems . . .” But Dylan’s songs transform their source materials.

What do we ask of a work of art, anyway? Surely, among other things, an experience, a journey somewhere that we wouldn’t be likely to take without the help of the artist. Dylan offers journeys to what I call Bobbyland. Bobbyland is an odd place. A song will start out fairly conventionally – often it’s a love song – but soon we notice that it’s starting to take extremely peculiar twists and turns. For example, “Soon After Midnight” begins as a familiar kind of love song:

I’m searching for phrases
To sing your praises –
I have to tell someone.

But by the time we’ve gone through a few verses, Dylan is singing:

Two-Timing Slim,
Who ever heard of him?
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.

The same progression is true of Tempest as a whole. Its opening is charming, its first song entertaining. But song by song it moves deeper emotionally, the level of intensity climbing. There has always been a significant amount of aggression in Dylan’s songs. In Tempest aggression is in the forefront, climaxing in a brutal love triangle story (“Tin Angel”) that precedes two final long songs – about the Titanic and about John Lennon.

Dylan has been quoted as saying he originally intended to write an album about religion. This album isn’t it, but we should note that even if he did write such an album, it wouldn’t be just about religion, because these days Dylan doesn’t compartmentalize life. This album has religion in it. It also has violence. Both are parts of life and Dylan doesn’t try to put them in boxes. Reality is reality.

Similarly, the comment has been made for decades that in the later 1960s Dylan stopped writing protest songs. He didn’t – he just doesn’t compartmentalize the protest. “Early Roman Kings” in particular is a protest song if we want to hear it that way, a protest against the oligarchy we’ve become.

And the song “Tempest” isn’t just a song about the Titanic. (“World’s Largest Metaphor,” the old Onion headline reads, “Hits Iceberg.”) Notice how Dylan frames the story with the image of the watchman dreaming that the Titanic is sinking. (Compare his song “All Along The Watchtower”.) The Titanic isn’t the only thing that’s sinking . . . and yet, although in the words of another song from the “Watchtower” days, “Nothing is revealed,” still, as is frequently the case with Dylan, there’s also an image of redemption nearby.

All in all, I can’t think of another artist as difficult as Dylan, and also as rewarding.

[Upcoming shortly will be another, somewhat surprising contribution from Kirk.  I don't want to give anything away now, but I'll say two things in advance: it's about the Beatles again, and it's a window back to a bygone era.  I'll add one more note: I enjoyed it immensely, and I'm convinced ROT readers will, too.]