Holling’s concert rings in timeless singer’s birthday
ALBANY — Bob Dylan turns 70 (yes, 70!) on May 24, and Tom Holling is celebrating in the best way possible: with his music.
So if you’re in the mood for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “She Belongs to Me,” “To Ramona,” “Buckets of Rain,” and a clutch of other classics, played live in an intimate setting, Rhythm & Brews is the place to be.
But it’s more than a tribute to the troubadour’s five-decade repertoire. It’s a celebration of Holling’s own life, a memory of his teenage years in Clackamas with his friends, spinning Dylan records, parsing the great poet’s lyrics, teaching each other his songs on guitar. It’s a link to these relationships, bonds formed over shared interests and musical discoveries.
Holling is 60 now, familiar to music fans as a trumpet player (an instrument he’s played since the third grade) with the Albany Swing Band. But he still plays guitar, and he stays in touch with his childhood friends.
Back in March he visited with one, Craig Martin, at his home in Ashland. They got around to talking about Dylan, and Martin, a guitarist with the Roadmasters, mentioned that the artist’s birthday had become something of a town tradition, acknowledged annually with concerts since 1999, originally at Pioneer Hall, now at the Wild Goose Cafe & Bar (8 p.m. Monday, May 23, if you’re interested).
“The Dylan birthday celebration is pretty much the reason I moved here,” Ashland resident Steve Larson told the Daily Tidings’ Dawn Hatchard in 2009. “(He’s) the most important guy since Shakespeare.”
When Holling returned home to Albany, he got out his Dylan albums and revisited the master’s work. He discovered that the occasion is almost an international holiday, celebrated around the world. The Arches in Glasgow has booked a soiree. Barb Jungr will perform an evening of Dylan songs at the South Bank in London. Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where the young Dylan cut his teeth, is devoting an entire night to him. So, Holling thought, why not Albany, Oregon?
“I thought it was a great idea,” he said, “because a lot of his older songs have been my favorites through the years. And to play several in my hometown on his birthday is going to be fun for me.”
Last week Holling stopped by the Gazette-Times office, four Dylan sleeves in tow. He laid them out on a conference table: “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964), home to “All I Really Want to Do,” “My Back Pages” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe”; “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965), the half-electric/half-acoustic hybrid with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” which the young Holling learned from Martin (“The guitar chords are pretty basic on a lot of these songs,” Holling said. “They’re not fancy songs, but I’ve always liked them.”); the magnificent “Nashville Skyline” (1969); and the devastating “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), recorded by Dylan during a period of personal turbulence.
As the artist looked on from a decade’s worth of album covers, we talked about his music, his effect on five generations and why he continues to matter.
You play in an ensemble with the Albany Swing Band. What’s it like to play on your own like this, with very little accompaniment?
One difference is nervousness. When I’m playing with the swing band, there are 15 of us and I’m pretty at ease. But I do enjoy playing the guitar solo because after a song or so, I calm right down. I like the challenge of reaching a relaxed state, fighting the nerves and settling into it.
What did you find appealing about the trumpet and guitar?
What I love in the trumpet is that it has a certain piercing quality. For example, I love to play the trumpet in a church or in a big hall. As for the guitar, I play mostly acoustic and I like the mellowness of it.
One of my friends gets a chuckle out of this, but I like to take my guitar along when I go camping, pass some lyrics around the campfire and lead a sing-along. One of my other friends is always telling me, “Let’s play that again, and not so much in a campfire style.” But I do like that. I like the guitar for the fact that you can accompany a group and belt out some songs.
Many of us have had complicated feelings about Dylan as both we and he have gotten older. What has been your relationship with him, since you were there from the beginning?
I’ve bought about six or seven albums over the years. I’ve seen (the 1967 D.A. Pennebaker documentary) “Don’t Look Back” and Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home,” which I really liked. I’ve been out of touch with Bob Dylan for a long time — decades, really. So I’m mainly connecting with his songs from the ’60s and early ’70s.
What’s amazed me is that he sings, plays the guitar, writes songs, writes poems and performs. There aren’t very many people who have the complete package like that. I’ve also been interested in his changes, of course. He’s constantly gone from one type of music to another. When he first came to my attention, he had that kind of whiny, high voice and all these strange lyrics — he was just so different. But some of these albums, like “Nashville Skyline,” have really mellow sounds.
What’s your favorite lyric or song?
One is “Everything passes / everything changes / just do what you think you should do,” from “To Ramona.” Another is “Life is sad / life is a bust / all ya can do is do what you must” (“Buckets of Rain”). You can’t beat that for poetry as lines to ponder. It’s so compact and yet so profound.
Why does it resonate for you?
Just because it’s so original. I’d never heard anyone say anything like that before, and it fits in a framework of fairly simple chords.
I’ve been thinking about his writing over the last couple of days knowing that I’d be talking to you. And the songs I like have to do with romantic relationships, and most of those songs have an honesty about them. He’s not claiming to have all the answers, but he’s good at expressing what he’s going through. There’s some joy, some confusion and some sorrow, and he mixes them all together in a song. He has a rare ability to do that.
And people still follow his every move with curiosity. What do you think attributes to his longevity? Why are we still talking about him nearly 50 years later?
He’s a very talented poet, and musically he’s solid. What I like is the combination of unique words, his lyrics, and his playable melodies. These are songs that are within my reach to play and sing. The songs I like have words you remember for years. Some of his lyrics are just incredible.
Have you seen the movie “I’m Not There”?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t, yet.
I looked and looked for that movie. My wife found it at Ray’s in Albany on the 50-cent rack after quite a search. It’s amazing. There are, I think, about six or eight different actors who all play different phases of Bob Dylan’s life. The one who plays him in his really young years, when he was a fan of Woody Guthrie, is this little African-American boy, who plays guitar on a railroad. You can see some similarities between the actor and the Dylan you conceive from that era.
Then there’s Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett — some pretty well-known people. Richard Gere is more of the “John Wesley Harding” era, like a woodsman out in the hills. It’s quite a movie.
If I tried to put it in a nutshell, I would say that the man is just unique. You can look at him from different angles and get different information, just endlessly, like a jewel. That’s why he has such lasting value. He’s not doing the same types of songs for decades. He’s doing many types of songs, and you get little glimpses of his life through his songs, through his photographs, through his travels and statements. He’s an intriguing guy, there’s no doubt about that.