Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Up and down the avenue and along the side streets. A multitude of fine Italian restaurants: some better than others with the pasta and sauces, while some exceed with atmosphere and comfort. Capp’s Corner, sitting at Powell and Green, serves wonderful plates but the restaurant is best at making a diner feel at home. One starts with the little things. Sinatra sings in the background as one looks out the window by the bar while sipping a Moretti and perusing the Chronicle. The staff is friendly and the minestrone is so comforting that it seems to possess moral uplift. Yes, the ravioli and cannelloni are better at restaurants two or three blocks away, but even with an expense account one finds himself back time and again at Capp’s Corner. It’s home away from home by the Bay.
Sunday evenings are slow at Capp’s. The evening of March 26, 2001 was proceeding as most every Sunday there. The one difference was that instead of taking in the music of Sinatra, Martin and Bennett, the few patrons there looked up at the TV above the bar. The Academy Awards was on. For a few kindred spirits who love films but pay little mind to the hype of Hollywood, something special demanded our attention: Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” evoking the sensibility of Wonder Boys, the film for which it was written, was an Oscar nominee for best song. Prior to Jennifer Lopez naming the winner, a special treat was in store: Dylan and his band would perform “Things Have Changed” via live feed from Australia. Dylan gave a forceful and compelling rendering of the song, which like much of his best work, is as robust and vital upon hearing it the hundredth time as it was the first. In a neighborhood where Dylan had some friends and some history, there was a sense of celebration while watching him on Capp’s TV. Most of us, either 10 years older or younger than the other, recognized “Things Have Changed” for what it was, a song that reflected both the puzzling and affirmative aspects of lives led since the ’60s, when the times were changing and seemed as hopeful as the melody of Dylan’s “I Want You,” recorded in 1966, years before we started dealing with the consequences of changes and choices.
Finally, Ms. Lopez, with at least another decade ahead to greet shoppers from magazine racks in grocery store lines, made the announcement. Bob Dylan had won. How could he not? Try and think of any song written for a film as good since Lennon and McCartney wrote their eight songs for A Hard Day’s Night. But we cheered on as if it was a wonderful surprise. Another Moretti to celebrate and then up Powell and through Chinatown to the hotel.
The spontaneously-assembled Dylan pep rally was in keeping with the spirit of Capp’s Corner. Standing by the restaurant’s bar in the historic neighborhood, one could sense the connection with history: local and national. Then into his fifth decade of reflecting and making history, Dylan had his Oscar. He could now take his place with an old Capp’s Corner regular, Frank Sinatra, who won for Best Supporting Actor (From Here to Eternity) on March 25, 1954. Less than three months earlier, Sinatra’s friend, San Francisco native and baseball great Joe DiMaggio got his own Hollywood prize when he married Marilyn Monroe. The DiMaggio-Monroe union didn’t last a year, but the aura it created lives on in American culture. The relationship was impossible for the couple to shake also, as DiMaggio, on August 1, 1962, asked Monroe to remarry him. Monroe was found dead four days later. (According to some reports, Monroe’s funeral was on the day she and DiMaggio were to marry again.)
In conversations about DiMaggio at Capp’s Corner, it was his dazzling skills as a baseball player, not his marriages, that were most often mentioned. DiMaggio was a friend, apt to drop in at Capp’s from time to time. He had connections at the restaurant that took him back to childhood. As a boy, DiMaggio delivered copies of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. One of his co-workers, also a teammate on the City’s sandlots was Dante Benedetti, who never made it to the big leagues but did coach the University of San Francisco baseball team for 16 years. Benedetti also operated his family’s restauarant, New Pisa, just a short walk from where Joe Caporale opened Capp’s Corner in 1960. Caporale was yet another competitor for Benedetti in North Beach’s crowded field of Italian restaurants, but that was fine; he and Caporale went back a long way. As a district circulation manager of the Call-Bulletin, Caporale was Benedetti’s boss when he and DiMaggio delivered the papers.Benedetti proved a reliable employee but Caporale had to fire DiMaggio. Too often, Joltin’ Joe skipped work to play baseball.
DiMaggio was the Wonder Boy for many Americans from the mid-’30s on. He played baseball as beautifully as anyone who ever took the field. At the beginning of his last season (1951) as a player, he said, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best.” In retirement, DiMaggio married America’s Wonder Girl and he was immortalized in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” some 17 years after he left the game. It was in keeping with DiMaggio’s legend that he also is a part of Wonder Boys.
Wonder Boys was one of several films that seemed intriguing but I hadn’t seen yet. The film’s director, Curtis Hanson, was known for making smart and intense films like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild and L.A. Confidential. Dylan admired Hanson’s work and expressed interest in writing an original song for Wonder Boys. Based on Michael Chabon’s novel, Wonder Boys explores one life in particular, that of Grady Tripp, a Professor of Creative Writing at a college in Pittsburgh. Tripp is, naturally, a gifted writer but in the seven years since his breakthrough novel won him a Pen Award, he’s struggled with finding his voice and then containing it. 2611 pages into his follow-up, he says the ending keeps getting further out of reach. Grady, played by Michael Douglas, has trouble making choices with his writing and his life. After three failed marriages, the choices he’s made have not turned out so well. As in the words of Dylan’s song, Grady is “a worried man with a worried mind.” Thankfully, he has tenure at the college, but otherwise Tripp seems in a downward spiral. What he depends on to get him through the days, marijuana, is also what keeps Tripp in a fog, enabling him to postpone making choices. For all his interpretive skills with literature, the good-hearted Tripp is unable to connect the dots in his own life. Then on a snowy Pittsburgh weekend, he gets a cram course in decision-making. He must make up his mind, follow through and take care of those affected by his choices. In “Things Have Changed,” Dylan sings, “Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too.” Grady Tripp, through hard-learned lessons, looks down from the figurative bridge. Things would change for him and at long last, he could see past the haze.
Tripp’s third wife, young and beautiful like the first two, has just left him, apparently for good this time. He knows he let her down and would like to say something that would make her feel better. Then he would consider his next step, the one he’d take with his girlfriend, who’s just told him she’s pregnant with his child. But complicating matters further is that his girlfriend, Sara, is married to his boss, the head of the English department. Sara, the college’s Chancellor, played by Francis McDormand, is all at once weary and loving with Grady. And even though it may go against Sara’s better judgement, she’s hopeful he’ll decide to take that next step with her .
Along the way, Grady, in need of serious guidance himself, can’t help but try to help one of his students, James Lear, whose talent for lying nearly exceeds his writing skills. Grady tells Sara he’s helping Lear “through some issues.” Sara jabs Grady by noting Lear’s good luck. What Sara doesn’t know is that Lear is forcing some issues on her. Lear has stolen her husband’s prized possession: the jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe on the day she married Joe DiMaggio. Sara’s husband, Walter Gaskell, is both pompous and understated: except for not realizing his wife is sleeping with one of his employees, Walter is keen and worthy of his Harvard diploma. He’s most impassioned, though, about the DiMaggio-Monroe marriage, believing it emblematic of modern American life
While Walter fumes over the disappearance of the Monroe jacket, as well as his dog, Poe, Grady is back into the weekend which has already included calamities, criminal intentions and unexpected turns, many quite comical. And all in all, even with the betrayals, broken marriages, the loss of the valuable artifact, a badly infected ankle and a dead dog found in Lear’s bed, matters are resolved. James Lear gets his novel published while Grady’s work-in-progress, nearly all 2611 pages of it, is flotsam on the Monongahela. That’s liberation for both James and Grady.
Everybody gets enough of what they get to want. In the manevering that brings closure in Wonder Boys, Walter Gaskell will get his book published. It’s a treatise on the DiMaggio-Monroe story, tentatively entitled The Last American Marriage. Perhaps City Lights Books, a few blocks over from Capp’s Corner, would have a copy in the window to entice passersby. Enticed, one could go into Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wonderful store and purchase a copy to read while enjoying the camaraderie at the bar in Capp’s. Dante Benedetti, who later on his life, would live upstairs from Capp’s, had little to say about DiMaggio as sociological figure, but he would regale you with stories of how he and Joe played the game when they were kids and how his friend, “the best baseball player that ever lived,” paid him tribute that day in 1980 when the USF baseball diamond was named in his honor. Speaking at the dedication, “DiMaggio said, “When I refer to Dante Benedetti, I refer to him as Mr. Baseball.”
Ferlinghetti might’ve enjoyed heading to Capp’s and joining in a conversation with his customer about earlier times in North Beach, Joe DiMaggio and baseball in general. Besides, as was Benedetti, Ferlinghetti is a gentle soul with a sweet-natured demeanor, not what people would expect from one who shocked proper society by publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Ferlinghetti also knows his baseball. After all, he wrote the great poem, “Baseball Canto,” about a 1960s game between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. The great poet delivers his own brand of play-by-play.
Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.
A live recording of Ferlinghetti reciting “Baseball Canto” was featured on the “Baseball” edition of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour on XM in 2006. Also featured on the program were two songs about Joe DiMaggio, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” by Les Brown and His Orchestra, and “Joe DiMaggio’s Done It Again” performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco (the song’s lyrics were written by Woody Guthrie). Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy provides the play-by-play as Woody Guthrie conjured it:
Up along them clouds where the eagle
cracked that ball to whine and moaann; His
buddies laugh as they trot on in, Joe
Deemaggyoe’s done it again!
Dylan’s fondness for baseball was well-known prior to his show honoring the grand old game. In ’76 he and Jacques Levy co-wrote “Catfish,” a tribute to pitching great, Jim “Catfish” Hunter. The year before, Hunter, in his first season as a New York Yankee, won 23 games while pitching 328 innings. That kind of work ethic had to appeal to Dylan, who this year, at the age of 71, gave 87 concerts in 8 months across 3 continents.
Bob Dylan has proven the road warrior, particularly since the late ’80s. However, in the early stages of his so-called “Never-Ending Tour,” he began to experience, for the most extended part of his career, a writer’s block. In 1992, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times reported on how Dylan admitted the songs didn’t come as quickly as they did before. It was, Hilburn wrote, “a delicate topic,” but Dylan was forthcoming:
“Songs are mostly personal – something happens in your life or flashes through and then it’s gone, and sometimes it’s a song and sometimes it’s just lose. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t.”
“Part of the secret of being a songwriter is to have an audacious attitude. There was a time when the songs would come around three or four at the same time, but those days are long gone.”
“Once in a while, the odd song will come to me like a bulldog at the garden gate and demand to be written. But most of them are rejected out of my mind right away. You get caught up in wondering if anyone really needs to hear it. Maybe a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs. Let someone else write them.”
Ain’t No Shortcuts . . . . By the time Dylan won his Oscar for “Things Have Changed,” he was already on the comeback trail, again writing songs at a steady clip. On September 30, 1997, he released Time Out of Mind, his first album of original material in over 7 years. It was worth the wait. Bob Dylan had recorded nine new songs that were moving, gritty and stark. For him and his listeners, the songs worked.
Like Catfish Hunter, Dylan was ready to log some serious innings again. The thought and effort that went into “Things Have Changed” made that clear. Dylan paid a visit to Curtis Hanson one day as the director was going through some rough footage of Wonder Boys. “I told him the story and introduced him to the characters. We talked a lot about Grady Tripp and where he was in life – creatively and emotionally,” Hanson said after the film’s release. Hanson’s emotions must have been running high. It had long been a dream of his that Bob Dylan would one day contribute an original song to one of his films. And there he was, 27 years after Dylan had written the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, talking with the man about the song.
Weeks later, elation arrived on a CD. Hanson popped the CD in a player and his dream was fully realized; “There was Bob Dylan singing about a lot of water under the bridge . . . Dylan’s unique voice and imagery capturing the spirit and troubles of Grady Tripp and in so doing, the soul of Wonder Boys,” Hanson said, adding it was “Dylan’s own caustic mid-life commentary on life at the turn of the new century. We’re lucky to have it.”
No doubt, the song is brilliant. It possesses the element of surprise as did “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “Cold Iron Bounds,” and “Honest With Me,” to name just a few Dylan songs of consequence. The words and thoughts come flying out with verve. When the song comes on, attention must be paid.
Postscript: While preparing this story, a friend informed me of the similarity of “Things Have Changed” to Marty Stuart’s “The Observations of A Crow.” So I listened to Stuart’s song for the first time in years (“The Observations of A Crow” is on Stuart’s The Pilgrim album, released in 1999). And yes, the melody and structure in Dylan’s song are quite similar to what Stuart created. Dylan counts Stuart as a friend. On a day the two were viewing some of Stuart’s huge collection of country music memorabilia at a Nashville warehouse, Dylan was effusive about The Pilgrim, saying, “You’ve finally done a grown-up album, man.”
Stuart’s song must have lingered in Dylan’s head. Something like that is common for Dylan. Earlier this year, on a discussion page of the Dylan-centric site, Expecting Rain (www.expectingrain.com ), Scott Warmuth pointed out Dylan’s explanation of his composition process he once offered to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times:
“I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Tolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they’re talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
Twelve years after “Things Have Changed” was recorded, the similarity of it and “The Observations of A Crow” is now among the latest of Dylan subjects debated. Michael Gray, who has written eloquently about Dylan and culture, joined in the discussion on his blog (http://michaelgrayouttakes.blogspot.com). The give and take is interesting; Gray says that to him,”the resemblance is too close for comfort,” but then says there is “a bridge section in the Dylan song that isn’t there at all in Marty Stuart’s. And yes, Bob Dylan’s is a far, far better song.”
Michael Gray hits the nail on the head. “Things Have Changed” is a powerful and riveting song. As Curtis Hanson reminds us, we’re lucky to have it.