Music Italian style and a Dylan surprise

Jill Fisher

Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," part of a retrospective of his artwork on display in Rome. Photo by Jill Fisher.


Am I missing the Duluth music scene or what? I am currently experiencing my third trip to Italy in 44 years and have returned to my former focus on historic architecture. 

But all the while I've been on the lookout for live local music to broaden my taste in that sphere. I know there must be some here, but so far have had precious little luck in hearing it.  

The long three-legged, 12-hour flight from to Duluth to Rome left me stiff and cranky so I figured finding a small club with some local talent might be just the ticket to revive my sagging spirit. And the first afternoon following touchdown a walk through Borghese Park was somewhat promising. There I happened upon a solo busker, Mika, with an electric guitar, foot pedal and all, producing some jazzy riffs and Django-like tunes. Would have liked to hang out longer to hear more of his repertoire, but the Curmudgeon was impatient to see the sights, so on we trudged.  

It wasn't long before we happened upon another couple of busker acts; probably the buskers were out in force because of the crowds of tourists visiting for the Easter holiday and Spring break. A woman playing violin (definitely not fiddle) was accompanied by her male partner who had a type of keyboard I have never seen before. It was strapped around his neck like a guitar and looked to be almost as big as he was. They were playing a classical piece not familiar to me that was quite beautiful. Not too many people were pausing to enjoy their music, which was too bad. But then we didn't linger long either.   

A couple of blocks further along much louder sounds were emanating from a rapper who had attracted a very large gathering of teens and young adults (We were the oldest of the onlookers by a long shot!). He and his buddy who was running the sound were really working the crowd. Like other Hip Hop artists I've seen, he was kinetic, moving to the backup groove and actively engaging with his audience. He must have been all of 20 years old and sounding and appearing to be proficient in the genre.

Of course I couldn't understand a word of the Italian he was rapping, still it got me moving and wanting to dance, always a good sign by my lights.  

We got one lead for a club with live music on a barge on the Tiber River which sounded fun, though it wasn't getting started until 10 pm, so between a long day of walking and the time zone adjustment it seemed wise to pass it up. The next day was Easter so we found nothing happening then.  

In Naples the story was much the same, though the buskers I saw there looked to be recent immigrants playing sitar-like instruments in such a way that it seemed more akin to panhandling than musical offerings.

It was only when we arrived in Catania, Sicily, that we happened upon some lively, local music. It was a late dinner hour when we stuck our noses into a restaurant, which was quickly filling up, that we heard an accordionist accompanying a man playing a wooden flute. It was truly music to my ears, making our  dining decision easy, our feet tap and our heads bob. A real lift to our spirits.

When it was time for the duo to move on, the flutist switched to playing a colorful jug, which served the dual duty of collecting coins. We hoped to find more such serendipitous performances in our remaining time here.  

But let me rewind back to our brief time in Rome – thanks to a tip from our fellow Duluthian Ed Newman, we were able to see an exhibit, a retrospective of artwork by Bob Dylan at the Museo Maxxi there. Other than Dylan's iron work, gates being its primary expression, I didn't realize he had added painting to his creative output. (I only became aware of his ironwork last year when the Duluth Armory Arts & Music Center held a fundraising event to fabricate a gate out of donated iron implements during Duluth Dylan Days).

But Bob as a serious painter? I had no idea! (Of course there was the cover of his Self Portrait album.)   Not knowing what to expect, I was blown away by the stylistic scope and fine technique his artwork revealed.

As in his music, Dylan borrowed from, appropriated and was inspired by any number of recognized masters to create works worthy of this important exhibition. The show included small pencil on paper drawings from the early 1970s through large pieces, several in triptych format completed in just the last several years. Mediums used in this work on display included oil, watercolor, screen printing, pen, charcoal, mixed media and the aforesaid iron assemblages, but mostly acrylic on canvas.  

The hardcover catalog, which unfortunately for me was in Italian, provides the means to understand his artistic evolution and which famous painters' styles he has emulated: Edward Hopper, George Bellows, Marc Chagall, Vincent VanGogh, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Edvard Munch and likely others. 

Clearly he was exploring and received some real training.  And there are some direct references to specific well-known works of others: Dylan's "Spectator Sport" realistically depicting a boxing match reflects subject matter associated with Bellows, while his "Chimes of Freedom" (pencil on paper) harkens Francisco Goya's "Third of May" and "Mississippi" echos John Everett Millais' "Ophelia."  

One section of the exhibit l found fascinating was 40 of his songs illustrated with pen and pencil drawings, accompanied by the corresponding lyrics in his own hand. They were not  necessarily direct illustrations of the songs, but rather wry commentary and in one case seemingly prophetic, as in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" where he drew a tsunami washing over Manhattan.

For "Mr. Tamborine Man" he drew an empty street bordered by ancient ruins (quite like those we would later tour in Pompeii)! A series of 16 of such drawings were for "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."  

A fun part of this show was the projecting of his 1965 film set to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on a loop with the music able to be heard throughout the exhibit. The 64 cue cards he flipped through in the film were also on display--they weren't the originals though, but replicas as the date given in the catalog was 2018.  

One of the triptychs, titled "Dark Clouds" (118 by 60 inches), is a monochromatic stunner in acrylic of the Manhattan skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground and barges plying the East River. Painted in 2021, it attests to the evolution of Dylan's painting.  

Another of his largest canvases, "When I Paint My Masterpiece" (36 by 48 inches), dated 2020, was a very realistic, yet unreal, image of the Spanish Stairs in Rome which we had descended the day before we saw this exhibit. It was hard to imagine them devoid of the crowds of people we fought our way through. But then, when l googled "Spanish Stairs," up came a photo of the same image he painted. Still it was a fitting piece of work.  

Questions asked of Dylan and his responses arrayed the walls of the exhibit. Here's one that resonated for me: "Why do you have the need to constantly reshape things?" "Because that's the nature of existence. Nothing stays where it is for very long. Trees grow tall, leaves fall, rivers dry up and flowers die. New people are born everyday. Life doesn't stop."  

I can't help thinking what a great coup it would be if this exhibit could be brought to Duluth to celebrate our native son during the annual Duluth Dylan Days one of these years.