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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


Here Comes The Story of a Hurricane
(Well, Almost!)

 by J. R. Stokes

 

She started out as a blast of hot air from an expresso machine on the counter of Café Americana in Guatamala City. That blast of hot air was carried north until it got mixed with the down draught from a herd stampede in the San benito valley. When that heady combination of hot air hit the exhaust from a clapped out VW carrying a family of six across down town Belize a violent gust of wind, with a temperature of 110 degrees F, spiralled into the atmosphere. Heading east towards Kingston, that mass of hot air pulled in some cooler winds from the Caribbean and all hell broke loose. We had the start of a twister. They gave it a name: they called it ‘Claudette’. It was the third tropical storm of the season and it was coming our way. If it turned into a hurricane, it could destroy my holiday in Cuba.

CNN kept track of Claudette and I kept track of CNN, watching every weather report until Claudette became something of an obsession. It’s a funny thing about names, especially girl’s names. With a girl’s name, there’s always a song to go with it and I knew that Dylan had written a song with ‘Claudette’ in the lyric somewhere. It would have been easier for me if they had called the TS ‘Ramona’ or ‘Rita Mae’ or ‘Sara’ but we were only in July, you would have to wait until early next year before the hurricane alphabet got to the R’s or the S’s.  So I was haunted by the Everly’s with their ‘ Oh, woe Claudette. Pretty little pet Claudette. Never make me fret Claudette’. Haunted that is until those lines from ‘The Grooms Still Waiting At the Altar’ dawned on me:  

‘What can I say about Claudette? Ain’t seen her since January
She could be respectfully married, or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aries.’

How could I forget those lines, especially as we were holidaying west of the Jordan and also west of the Rock of Gibraltar. Then, with something of a shudder, I also remembered the opening lines of the verse just quoted:

‘Cities on fire, phones out of order’.

Was Bob trying to warn me about Claudette? Jeeze, I hoped not. 

As it turned out Claudette turned left into the Gulf of Mexico and missed us completely. The folks of Texas weren’t so lucky however as the angry lady lashed out at Brownsville and Galveston, uprooting trees and destroying homes in the process. 

So we were safe in Cuba; safe in Havana despite the declaration of George Dubbleya that this particular city was at the centre of the ‘Axis of Evil’; safe, despite the humidity in the 90’s playing havoc with the sensitivities of our delicate European constitutions; and safe despite the street hustlers who would, every 10 yards or so, harangue any obvious tourist with: “Hey, Senor. Wanna buy a seegar?” or “Hey Amigo, my friend. Wanna have a nice meal?” Apparently, if you took up the offer of a cigar or a nice place to eat, you get lead to some squat where anything was for sale from watered down Club Rum to young mulatto girls with coral anklets. We resisted the offers. 

It’s no wonder that Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Havana. The place has a 24 hour buzz that would have perfectly suited Hemingway’s own 24 hour lifestyle. No matter what time of the day or night I walked onto our hotel balcony overlooking Parque Central in Havana, the population was on a constant meander. At 2.45 am there were people walking their dogs, families out with children, passengers being carried  in rickshaws and all this against a background of what looked like a 1950’s film set with vintage Cadillacs and Chevrolets being used as taxis.  Perhaps it was the heat and the humidity that brought these night walkers out on to the streets; perhaps they were exercising their right to search in the darkness for some kind of destiny as they found themselves caught up in Castro’s continual struggle with the outside world; or perhaps it was just that they found it hard to sleep in a city that is forever awake. On none of their faces though did I trace marks of weakness or marks of woe. In none of their cries did I hear mind-forg’d manacles; but then I was a tourist, only here for a short period, only here to holiday, to soak up the atmosphere, to enjoy that Salsa beat and to follow the Hemingway trail.  What the hell would I know about life after dark in a tenement block in old Havana?

Hemingway clearly knew a lot about life after dark in Havana for he lived on Cuba for 20 years and wrote most of his famous novels there. When he learned, in 1954, that he had been awarded the Nobel prize for literature, he said ‘This prize belongs to Cuba, since my works were created and conceived in Cuba…..’. In preparation for our trip to Havana, and indeed during our stay, I re-read a lot of Hemingway and one passage from his novel ‘To Have and Have Not’ seemed particularly pertinent having regard to the starling news from home of  a major player  in the Iraq dossier debacle having taking his own life following unbearable pressure being wreaked upon him.   The particular passage, written in typical Hemingway journalese style, concerned a capitalist yacht owner who:
did not think in any abstractions, but in deals, in sales, in transfers and in gifts. He thought in shares, in bales, in thousands of bushels, in options, in holding companies, trusts, and subsidiary corporations…Having no regard for the lives of ‘lesser’ mortals that the yacht owner had double crossed and double dealed: ‘He used to say that only suckers worried’ and ‘He would not need to worry about what he had done to other people, nor what had happened to them due to him, nor how they’d ended….’  

Then, the following passage which deals with suicide and is set out here, not only to demonstrate Hemingway’s genius but also as a reminder to those who know his work or a starter to those who don’t: 

‘Some made the long drop from the apartment or the office window; some took it quietly in two-car garages with the motor running; some used the native tradition of the Colt or the Smith and Wesson; those well constructed implements that end insomnia, terminate remorse, cure cancer, avoid bankruptcy, and blast an exit from  intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger; those admiral instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up’. 

The passage also has its irony attached because, like his father before him, Hemingway took his own life. After three unsuccessful suicide attempts, Hemingway blasted an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of his own finger on the trigger. He died in 1961 aged 62 years. 

We were not in Havana however to mourn Hemingway’s demise but rather to celebrate his work and take a brief glimpse into his chaotic life. This we did, firstly by visiting the Ambos Mundos hotel on Obispo street in the old part of the city where Hemingway had rented a small room on the 5th floor.  Our visit to room 511 was made special because no one else was there! The hotel has turned the room into a mini-museum and the attendant told us that, in high season, about one thousand visitors a week paid their two dollars each to enter the room. Now that the hurricane season had arrived, tourist numbers had dropped and so we were able to unhurriedly ponder the artefacts (including the author’s old Royal typewriter) and take a long and leisurely look across the same Havana skyline towards which Hemingway had no doubt peered for inspiration on occasions. 

And then of course there were the bars: the La Bodeguita del Medio and the Floridita, both made famous by the author’s visits and infamous by his drinking sprees. On our visit, both places were packed out with punters ready to try a daiquiri, the tropical cocktail which Hemingway helped to invent, and although we stuck to local beers in the Floridita, it was  many a daiquiri that passed our lips before our time in Cuba had ended. 

Hemingway entertained extensively in Cuba and one snippet of gossip that caught my interest concerned a visit by Ava Gardner to Hemingway on the island in the 1940’s. Ava Gardner was of course the former wife of Frank Sinatra and Sinatra had also wined and dined the special lady of his life in Havana, when they stayed at the very grand ‘Hotel Nacional’. The Nacional is like something out of Palm Springs and is famous for its links with the Mafia before Castro dispelled the thieves from his Temple and banished the great and the ungood from his doorstep. Now that things have changed and certain lucky tourists have been let back in, we decided to tread in Frank and Ava’s footsteps and so we booked a meal at the Nacional followed by a cabaret in the hotel’s show room. At dinner I realised though that I was totally out of my depth in this aristocratic social scene when the wine waiter refused to serve me the Cuban red that I had ordered at 14 dollars a bottle.
‘Have you had this wine before Sir?’
‘Well actually, no’.
‘Then I would not recommend it. I suggest you choose something else. I will leave you alone for five minutes’.
I felt like an out-of-tune choir boy before the Pope, promptly reprimanded for my insolent conduct.  I studied the extensive wine list and realised that there were some bottles of slightly better than half decent plonk here that were priced at more than we had paid for the entire holiday! 

The Pope eventually returned with his crisp white apron, his black leather belt with all manner of bright fancy gadgets hanging from it, and his trolley.
‘Well Sir?’.
‘We will have number 983 from bin 24’, I sang, out of tune of course. It was a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon at 28 dollars.  The most I had paid for a bottle of wine in a long time.
‘Very well’, he sniffed, looking down at me from what seemed a very great height. The exchange thereafter continued when the mighty one returned again with number 983. He went into a very elegant but also very elongated routine of slowly removing the cork with one of his bright fancy gadgets, carefully wiping the top of the bottle with a clean white cloth and then placing the cork against both of his nostrils as if to take in the Chilean air. What happened next totally flabergasted me: without acknowledging my right to try, this Prima Donna of the cellar poured a little of the wine into his own special glass and took a sip. OF MY WINE! AT 28 DOLLARS A BOTTLE!
After a moments pause, he ultimately remembered my presence, looked down at me again from that very great height again and spoke:
‘I like this wine. You have chosen well Sir’.
I felt like saying: ‘Look buddy, I don’t care if you are John Paul the third or the thirty third. JUST POUR THE FUCKING FINE WILL YA’. But I didn’t, I was in the company of many yacht owners, you see. Now, having mentioned this situation, I have to say that the wine, the meal and the subsequent cabaret at the Hotel Nacional were all absolutely exceptional. 

I mentioned that Ava Gardner had visited Hemingway on Cuba. The reason I became interested in this piece of tittle tattle was that one of the books that I had taken on holiday with me was  ‘Mr.S. – The Last Word on Frank Sinatra’, a tabloid style ‘kiss ‘n’ tell’ book co-written by George Jacobs, Big Frank’s valet and confidant for the 15 years between 1953 and 1968. The book was rampant with stories of Frank and Ava and indeed became the best book to read when we arrived at the beach resort of Varadero, which took up the second part of our holiday on Cuba. Gone were the hustle and bustle days of Havana, all we had to do now was choose the right factor of sun cream to ease the pain of our idleness, and read. 

Whilst the ‘Frank’ book was an easy going  read on the beach, another book that I had with me got me into some difficulty. I had promised my travelling companion that this was going to be a ‘Bob–free’ holiday but, part way through the break, on Thursday 10th July to be exact, I received a text message from our daughter as follows:
‘Hi! Hope u r havin a good day. There’s going 2 b an item on C4 news bout Dylan’s lyrics & confessions of a Yacuza – weird eh? I will video 4 u. x x x.’  

The ‘weird’ reference was that, previously knowing of the connection between ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Confessions of a Yakuza’, I had persuaded my daughter to buy this little book for me as a birthday present, as the first day of my holiday just happened to fall on my birthday. I had accordingly smuggled this ‘Bob-item’ into the luggage and was a good way through reading it when I received my daughters text. Weird eh? 

The connection between ‘Love and Theft’ and  ‘Confessions of a Yakuza’, was first spotted by a guy called Chris Johnson who is an English teacher living in Japan. Following the recognition of similarities in certain lines of the songs on the album and the book, Chris made the following posting on the internet:
 

Textual sources to the "Love and Theft" songs

Submitted by Chris Johnson

Here are some phrases that Dylan apparently lifted from the English translation of Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza (translated by John Bester) and used on Love and Theft:

Original   "Love and Theft"
     
My old man would sit there like a feudal lord (6)   "My old man, he's like some feudal lord, Got more lives than a cat" (Floater)
"If it bothers you so much," she'd say, "why don't you just shove off?" (9)   Juliet said back to Romeo, "Why don't you just shove off if it bothers you so much." (Floater)
My mother...was the daughter of a wealthy farmer...(she) died when I was eleven...my father was a travelling salesman...I never met him. (my uncle) was a nice man, I won't forget him...After my mother died, I decided it'd be best to go and try my luck there. (57-58)   My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer, / My father was a travellin' salesman, I never met him. / When my mother died, my uncle took me and he ran a funeral parlor. / He did a lot of nice things for me and I won't forget him. (Po' Boy)
"Break the roof in!" ...splashed kerosene over the floor and led a fuse from it outside (63)   I’m leavin’ in the mornin’ just as soon as the dark clouds lift, / Gonn' break in the roof, set fire to the place as a parting gift (Summer Days)
I won't come anymore if it bothers you (139)   Some things are too terrible to be true, / I won't come here no more if it bothers you. (Honest With Me)
"D'you think I could call myself a yakuza if I couldn't stand up to some old businessman?" (141)   What good are you anyway if you can’t stand up to some old businessman. (Summer Days)
...some kind of trouble that put him on bad terms with the younger men... it's up to him whether a session comes alive or falls flat...even kicking him out wasn't as easy as that... I decided to wait a while and see how it worked out... age doesn't matter...Age by itself just doesn't carry any weight. (155)  

Well, the old men 'round here sometimes they get on bad terms with the younger men, Old, young - age don't carry weight.
It doesn't matter in the end (Floater)
Things come alive or they fall flat. (Floater)

Not always easy kicking someone out,
Got to wait awhile, it can be an unpleasant task. (Floater)

I'm not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded (158)   I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound,
I've seen enough heartache and strife (Floater)
Tears or not, though, that was too much to ask (182)   Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up.
And, tears or not, it's too much to ask (Floater)
Just because she was in the same house didn't mean we were living together as man and wife...I don't know how it looked to other people, but I never even slept with her--not once. (208)   Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months. / Don't know how it looked to other people, I never slept with her even once. (Lonesome Day Blues)
They were big, those trees--a good four feet across the trunk. (241)   There's a new grove of trees on the outskirts of town.
The old one - long gone.
Timber, two foot six across,
Burns with the bark still on. (Floater)
There was nothing sentimental about him--it didn't bother him at all that some of his pals had been killed. (243)   My captain he's decorated, he's well-schooled and he's skilled, / He's not sentimental, it don't bother him at all how many of his pals have been killed (Lonesome Day Blues)


‘Well, there you have it! It's a fascinating read in it's own right, and obviously Dylan liked it. What more recommendation could you possibly need?! It's available quite cheap in paperback from amazon.

Cheers! Chris Johnson Kitakyushu, Japan’ 

I was intrigued sufficiently to request a copy of the book and, sure enough, I found the textual references pointed out by Chris. True to her word, my daughter videod the C4 news item which lasted for less than a minute and in which the rock critic Charles Shaar Murray made the following observation: ‘I don’t think you really can call what Dylan’s done here with the song ‘Floater’ plagiarism. It’s quite a long song, it tells a story. There are a few lines in it in which paraphrases of the lines from the Yakuza novel have been embedded but it’s not as if the song could not have existed without those lines.’ 

So, what’s it all about Bobby? Well, as you may have guessed, I have my own theory but that will have to wait until the conclusion of my ‘Visions of Johanna’ exploration, the penultimate episode of which will appear in the next Freewheelin'. Did I really say ‘penultimate’? 

In the meantime, it’s back to Cuba. At the end of our fantastic holiday CNN reported that another tropical storm, (perhaps hurricane) was heading our way. It was called ‘Erica’. Now this time it didn’t take me too long to remember the Dylan line with the name ‘Erica’ in it….although  I may have got the surname……wrong!

 
 
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