Originally published September 13, 2007
For almost 30 years, Larry Monroe has been spinning records and CDs on KUT-FM radio - bringing us roots and folk and blues and jazz with a literate flair. Monroe 's signature is the "segway." He takes pride in piecing together creative set lists in which the songs are united by theme, a condition of heart or climate, or an artist's affinity for a single word in a refrain.
Monroe likes language. He likes backing Wayne "The Train" Hancock with Butch "The Brain" Hancock just so he can say it that way on the air. No surprise that Monroe has long showcased Austin singer-songwriters and all forms of "literary" music. The late Townes Van Zandt was his close friend.
No surprise, either, that he's a big Bob Dylan fan.
Monroe, 65, has championed Dylan on Austin radio since his very first "Segway City" shows on KUT in the late 1970s. At one point, Monroe set out to play every single Dylan song, in sequence, from every album, over the course of several months. He didn't quite make it to the end - but hey, it was fun while it lasted. Monroe has seen more than a dozen Dylan concerts. And on the occasion of Dylan's upcoming Austin shows, he invited us to his southside condo one afternoon to talk about one of the masters of American song.
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Monroe's place is filled with music and videos and photographs and posters -- a shrine to the creative process -- with red and green jalapeño lights strung across wood beams above an impressive sound system.
For the first hour, Monroe drank Anderson's Coffee Co. coffee -- aged Sumatra -- out of a Vincent van Gogh "Starry Night" coffee cup as we talked about his extraordinary life in radio. Dylan came up in the conversation sometime around hour three, long after the coffee was gone.
Austin American-Statesman: How would you characterize Bob Dylan's contribution to our culture? To arts, and to American culture?
Larry Monroe: He's the poet laureate to my generation, just as Chuck Berry was the poet laureate of the 1950s. Berry wrote about American life better than anyone else at that time, and he did it at two minutes and 15 seconds at a time.
But Dylan wrote about more intense experiences, things I was interested in, as our simple life of the 1950s got more complicated. Because we were at war.
When did you come to his music?
I was in college at Ball State University, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my own life, working at the college radio station, when I heard "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" in 1963. I liked it better than anything I'd heard in my life before then. It felt like I had taken a step forward, turned a page. Discovering Dylan was like discovering Tom Paine, or some of the other early writers of American history who used the power of the word to convey ideas about democracy.
"The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Bringing it All Back Home," "Another Side of Bob Dylan," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" came out during the five years I was in college. All astounding records, especially "Blonde on Blonde." I think that's maybe the best record ever made.
What Dylan songs defined your experience in those years?
"Tombstone Blues" had a great verse. (And here, Monroe begins to read from a book of Dylan lyrics.) "John the Baptist after torturing a thief/looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief/ 'Say hey tell me great hero but please make it brief/Is there a hole for me to get sick in?'"The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly/saying death to all those who would whimper and cry/and dropping a barbell he points to the sky/saying 'The sun is not yellow, it's chicken.'"
And there were little times in there where I thought, "He just might be talking about the war." Just maybe. "Like a Rolling Stone" was like an anthem. We were all kind of lost and trying to figure out a "direction home." Or a direction to the next part of our lives. Nobody was writing songs like "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" at that time.
(And here, Monroe recites from memory.) "Though the masters make the rules/for the wise men and the fools/I got nothing, Ma, to live up to."
"The Masters of War" is a masterpiece. It's from the first album of all his own compositions, yet it speaks to us as clearly today as the day he wrote it: "You fasten the triggers for others to fire/Then you set back and watch when the death count gets higher/You hide in your mansions as young people's blood/flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud." Man, that's today.
"The Ballad of Hollis Brown" addressed poor people in America - the plight of man who can't make enough money to feed his family. In "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," a rich white man kills a poor black maid and gets off scot -free. As Dylan addressed racial issues, sang at rallies in the South, I was watching from a distance at college thinking, I could play these songs on the radio. And I did.
What makes "Blonde on Blonde" the best album ever? Better, say, than "Sgt. Pepper" or "Kind of Blue"?
The songs -- the incredible and mysterious songs. "Pledging My Time" is a lowdown blues. "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" is full of mystery and crazy things happening. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" takes up a whole side of a record. No one put out double records in those days. Even the artwork was amazing. You could take that blurry picture of Dylan on the cover, lean it up against that stool over there, sit between a couple of speakers, light a candle in front of it -- and it was like being there with Dylan.
You've mentioned you've seen Dylan in concert 12, 13 times. Do any of those shows stand out?
I saw Dylan in Austin, at City Coliseum, in 1992, the day I learned my father had died. I spent the day arranging my trip to get back to Indiana, so by the time I got there, Dylan had just started playing the first song. I got my ticket. I walked in. And just at that moment, Dylan was singing (the Van Zandt song) "Pancho and Lefty." The very first lyrics I heard Dylan sing were, "Lefty, he can't sing the blues all night long like he used to." And I thought about my father -- a left-handed man. And here was this song, written by a good friend of mine, about a left-handed man. I got as close to the stage as I could. And I just stood there, letting the Dylan songs wash over me, the tears running out of my eyes for my dad. And I knew going to that show was the only place I could be that night.
In all the times you've seen Dylan, was there ever a choice of a song that surprised you?
(Emphatically) Yeah. "Positively 4th Street," (in the 1990s) at the Austin Music Hall. He sang it not in anger, but almost in sorrow. It wasn't that hard-driving version you hear on the record. It was sort of country, that and so sad, instead of angry. Boy, that stood out to me.
Interesting how fate has brought you to Austin, the home of so many literate songwriters.
I used to think of Butch Hancock as our Texas Dylan. There's something in Butch's phrasing, language for language's sake, the way he works with words in meter, that makes me think of Dylan. I thought of Butch as a West Texas Woody Guthrie.
But like Dylan, Butch rises above the state of being self-conscious about the way a song is supposed to sound. He doesn't let anything stand in the way of getting to that elemental place. "Hey, if I repeat the same word eight times, big deal -- so long as that's part of the elemental truth of the song." Butch can rhyme entire lines, and still make it all make sense -- and still not waste any words. To Townes, that was an important skill: to use all the poetic techniques, to make it rhyme, to make it alliterate, but not waste a single word. Or waste a whole line -- a nonsense line -- for the sake of a rhyme.
Did Townes talk about Dylan, study Dylan, care about Dylan?
He revered Dylan, yeah. And he got to know him later in life. Dylan really appreciated Townes' writing, too. Dylan once said -- maybe after Townes died -- that Townes is more a pure songwriter than he was. And Steve Earle said, "I would stand in my cowboy boots on Bob Dylan's coffee table and say that Townes Van Zandt is a better songwriter than Bob Dylan."
Do you know what Townes' response to that statement was?
No. I don't think Steve could do that. I've seen Dylan's bodyguards.
Isn't it interesting, this phase Dylan is in right now?
He takes these vintage songs that we might think of as cast in the mood of another time, and then he dabs different sensations and feelings on top of them. Takes a certain malleability for an artist not to get trapped in his own caricature. At the Backyard a few years ago, he gave those old songs completely new textures, new colors.
I think a lot of his songs have (extra) verses that we don't hear. But sometimes he'll add that verse in a concert performance. I know that Tom Russell must have heard Dylan bootlegs of "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" before he recorded his own version with Joe Ely and Eliza Gilkyson -- because there's a verse in there that doesn't appear on the version that appears on Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks."
Of those who cover Dylan, are there particular artists you admire for their efforts? Do you have some favorite covers of Dylan songs?
Probably the one I like the best is Joan Baez's "Farewell Angelina" -- because that song is so much about what's happening now. That line: "Fiends nail time bombs to the hands of the clocks." I mean, that's exactly what terrorism is -- fiends nailing time bombs to the hands of a clock. . . . I'd never found a version of Dylan singing that song himself -- and I'd looked for years -- until it came out on the Bootleg Series. Interestingly, that line is not in Dylan's version on that cut.
To many, Dylan is a symbol of a time, an artist who carried the torch in an era of war in the 1960s and 1970s. But he's not overtly writing these songs now, in a time of terrorism and America at war. How do you deal with Dylan's past, his relation to that time, versus the music he's producing in the present, in these times?
Just like I always have. I allow him to present whatever he's going to present. I take it in. And, mostly, I like it. I don't say, "Gee, I wish he would write a song about Iraq." Because a song like "Masters of War" -- an old song -- is a perfect song. Is "Masters of War" about Halliburton? No, it's not. But it could be. Is it about Dick Cheney? No, it's not. But it could be. He didn't write it with that in mind. He wrote a universal song about the way the war machine works, and who profits off the war machine. And whose blood runs into the mud.
Yet I'm sure there are fans out there who expect him to write that kind of song today - to repeat himself, or advance his craft (by revisiting) that area. But why should he repeat himself? He's done that. And as he said very early in his career, "He not busy being born is busy dying." So if that's his rebirth to explore these new realms every time he goes into the studio, that's fine with me. I'd rather hear that than the 16th version of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." I liked it the first time he did that, and it's fine. . . . And it stands. It didn't disappear into the mists and go away. People are still singing those songs - and in their own way that's how a songwriter achieves immortality. Even though his body is in the ground or scattered to the wind, Townes Van Vandt's songs will live forever, so long as there are ways to play back what he has recorded. That's his immortality right there. You don't see Shakespeare walking into La Zona Rosa, but we still read his poetry and his plays, and he's immortal. These guys " guys like Dylan and Townes Van Zandt " they are immortal, too.