Friday, April 29, 2016

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

My first encounter with Mike made an impression on me. I was living in Puerto Rico at the time working in a Christian book store in a suburb of San Juan. A former instructor of the Wesleyan college there invited me to do prison ministry with him. He said 90% of the prisoners did not speak English so if I could lead a Bible study for those who were interested he could spend more time one day a week with the Spanish speakers there.

As the saying goes, every picture tells a story, and in Bayamon Prison every inmate has a story as well. One of the inmates I met was a fellow named Art. I met Art on my first visit, a really nice American fellow with hair and pasty white skin who ended up behind bars over a misunderstanding. In order to keep the prison population from swelling too excessively (unemployment in 1979 was 50%) the prison made arrangements to put as many prisoners into halfway houses for six months of supervised early release. One of these was the Salvation Army facility within walking distance of the bookstore.

All this to say that when that year of prison visitation began Art was in prison and a guy known as Captain Eddie was head of this nearby Salvation Army halfway house. Ironically, when the year ended the former Captain Eddie was in prison and Art was head of the Salvation Army post there. That is a much longer story that is germane to this blog post only in that it was while visiting Art at the Salvation Army house that I met Mike.

The S.A. house had a room downstairs with billiard tables in it. On those occasions when I went to visit Art, and later a few other guys who who were placed here in limited release, I would be asked to wait downstairs while the person in charge went to retrieve that person. Evidently the men were housed in some large upstairs rooms bunkhouse style. On this one occasion, while waiting for Art a man came to the billiard room and stood in the doorway. He had dark, shoulder-length hair, dark sunglasses and a cropped beard. For a long couple minutes he didn't speak and without introduction or preface started into an oratory, something akin to an actor on a stage, one of Poe's most famous poems.

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary," he began. "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping..." He completed the first stanza with eloquence. But he didn't stop there. He continued with the second stanza and the third and on and on until midway through the 18th and final stanza he paused to say, "I bet you didn't think I could do that, did you?"

As I indicated up front, this first encounter with Mike made an impression, as it would anyone. From there we got into a variety of discussions about a host of topics that included philosophical and cultural observations. Bizarre as it was, it proved the beginning of a friendship of sorts. During one of these early visits Mike shared his experience of realizing, while look at the bricks on Grand Street that he was standing where Dylan must have stood when he wrote those lines from Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed...

And Mike said, "That was the second time I had that experience." He then described the images from Mr. Tambourine Man, out on the windy beach, dancing beneath the diamond sky, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus signs... It gave him a chill to realize he was inside another Dylan scene, this time in San Francisco.*

All of this came to mind in an instant the moment I saw that next week Dylan's handwritten lyrics to this song would go on display at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum here in Duluth for the month of May. This and other treasures from the Bill Pagel collection are for the first time going to be shared with the wider public.

Here's a current version of the placard that will accompany the lyrics.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Handwritten Lyrics 

Twenty takes of this song are known to have been recorded at Columbia studios. The date was February 17th, 1966, and the recording was done in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the twentieth take that was chosen for the album Blonde on Blonde. This song has been performed often live during Dylan’s career. It ranks 16th on his list of most played songs, with 744 live performances being documented.

"Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" was used in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and is also mentioned in the book by Hunter S. Thompson. During his reclusive “Dakota Years” even John Lennon wrote a spoof titled “Stuck Inside of Lexicon with the Roget’s Thesaurus Blues Again”.

An example of the lyrics:

“Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, “Jump right in”
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
An’ like a fool I mixed them
An’ it strangled up my mind
An’ now people just get uglier
An’ I have no sense of time
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again”
Bob Dylan, 1966

* * * *
From 1966 to 2010 Dylan performed this song 748 times in concert. Here's the song:

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Let it happen.

* For what it's worth, according to the book The Story Behind Every Song Dylan wrote Mr. Tambourine Man while on the East coast, on the Jersey Shore, not SF.  Mike may have gotten it wrong... but when Dylan sang about the hills of Duluth in Planet Waves, well, this city has quite a number of wonderful views from its hillsides...

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