Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Why Does It Always Rain In Songs?

It’s been raining here for the past day or so and if the weather forecast is any indication, it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Rain is such a powerful force of nature – it can be destructive, but it can also regenerate. Rain can symbolize depression, or in the sense of a spring rain, happiness and joy.

Bob Dylan has probably gotten the most use out of rain just in song titles alone – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Buckets of Rain”, “Rainy Day Women #12 & “35” and “Rainy Day Afternoon” plus a live album named Hard Rain.

On “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” Dylan uses it as a metaphor for an impending destruction. Dylan has stated that the song isn’t about a nuclear fall-out, but rather  just a really hard rain. It’s hard to take that into account when he sees travesties such as “a new-born baby with wolves all around it” and a “young woman whose body was burning”.  Dylan’s visions are so chilling that’s impossible to envision the rain in the song as anything but destructive.

Besides song titles, Dylan uses rain throughout his lyrics. “Shelter From the Storm” off of Blood on the Tracks is much more personal and the storm is entirely metaphorical. Over a soft acoustic guitar, Dylan recounts travels he has under taken, and let in by an unnamed woman who offers him shelter.  Though the song seems sincere – she’s offering him shelter – I’ve always thought of the song as ironic. Everything seems perfectly fine until Dylan admits “there’s a wall between us and something has been lost”. Perhaps he got “his signals crossed” and misunderstood her motives. Each that each time Dylan repeats the chorus after that he seems increasingly bitter and betrayed. His tone on the words “give you” turns into “give ya” that cuts like a knife. At the end of the song the listener is left wondering where “the storm” actually is, and whether there is actually any shelter at all.

Similar to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fail” John Fogerty used rain to vent his frustrations on the Vietnam War and the Woodstock generation on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain”.  “Long as I remember, the rain been comin’ down,” Fogerty laments in the folk-rock classic. “Clouds of myst’ry pourin’ Confusion on the ground.” He sees that there is no end in sight and wonders, “who’ll stop the rain”?

Prince’s “Purple Rain” might very well be his masterpiece (both musically and lyrically). Throughout the song Prince tries to rectify relationships that have been torn apart – his girlfriend, his father, and his band members. “Purple Rain” represents a sort of redemption for Prince. It’s aching beautiful and heartfelt. While “Purple Rain” is certainly an anthem, it shouldn’t be interpreted as “Purple Reign” as a couple of Baltimore bars seemingly do after the Ravens win a game.

For Van Morrison, rain evokes peace and renewal on “Sweet Thing” off of Astral Weeks. The slow jazz inspired number even sounds like a spring rain. Throughout the song Morrison wanders through “gardens all wet with misty rain” with his love. On album filled with looking backwards, “Sweet Thing” is the only song that looks to the future, and the only one with a hint of happiness.

Rain is also a major theme of The Who’s 1973 double-album Quadrophenia. The main character Jimmy is a raging alcoholic and pill-popper, who constantly questions his identity (he even has multiple personalities). At the end of the album, Jimmy finally comes to terms with himself in the pouring rain. The song even opens with an extended collage of rain and thunderstorms.

Fran Healy of Travis famously asked, “Why does it always rain on me?”. Unlike the other artists mentioned, the narrator doesn’t get it. With self-loathing lyrics like that, the rain and sadness will never stop.

 

 

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Songs About America: “Old Old Woodstock” – Van Morrison

For decades Woodstock, New York has been something of  a safe haven for many musicians.  Famous residents have included Jimi Hendrix, Theonius Monk, and David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Band. It’s a secluded area, yet only a two-hour drive to the city.

Away from the busy lifestyle the city breeds, creativity was reaching new heights. The sounds coming out of Woodstock reflected the easy-going lifestyle.  Bob Dylan and The Band’s home-recordings were loose and fun. The Band became equally inspired, and their debut became one of the cornerstones of what would later be called Alt-Country. New life was breathed into American music through this small town and the nature surrounding it.

For these musicians, work and domesticity were one and the same in Woodstock. No one knew this better than Van Morrison who retreated there in the early 1970s.

He was recently married, and enjoying his new bride and young daughter.  The songs he wrote during his time reflected a happiness not normally found in Morrison’s works. It was a time of joy and inspiration.

Like his contemporaries in this upstate hamlet, Morrison looked to the past for musical inspiration. His mix of soul and Irish mysticism has been dubbed “Celtic Soul.”  His lyrics may state closer to his Irish roots, but his voice was more like a white Sam Cooke.  At Woodstock, Morrison adopted country and folk to his already wide ranges of influences.  His original idea was to record an album full of country and western songs that was eventually scrapped.

As a result, Tupelo Honey ends up being one of Morrison’s most relaxed affairs. Gone are the sonic Impressionistic styles of Astral Weeks.  Gone are the grand statements like “Into the Mystic” found on Moondance. Instead, Tupelo Honey is the soundtrack to happiness in the simple life, with touches of country, jazz and soul.

“Old Old Woodstock” is the song that best exemplifies the sounds of upstate New York and Morrison’s carefree attitude with its gentle piano and jazzy rhythms. It starts off slow and unassuming – just like Woodstock itself.  Yet the song pulls you in with its cymbal washes and light snare by Connie Kay. “Feel the breeze blowing through your coat,” Morrison croons.  His voice opens up like trail leading into the forest.

It’s Morrison’s voice that truly makes the song.  His voice is powerful, but restrained.  It’s full of joy, but never lazy.  He whispers through the verses, slowly building in the chorus when he announces that he will “give my child a squeeze”.   His voice is full of love and simplicity.  Nothing else matters in that moment, except this embrace, and the natural surrounding.  He’s found a new beginning both creatively and personally. “Going down to old, old Woodstock,” Morrison sings in the chorus.  “Feel the cool night breeze.”  The musical past of America is conjured up as the bridge opens up to a lengthy jazz-inspired piano break.   Halfway through Morrison lets out an exuberant shout.  His “Hey!” is off the cuff, but is commanding.  If you haven’t listened earlier, you should.  “Listen,” He sings at the beginning of the next verse, which is a repeat of the first verse reinforcing his love for his child.

“Old Old Woodstock” can easily be overlooked as a small ditty.  But like Woodstock itself, the song captures a lifestyle at ease.  Work isn’t a chore when inspiration is right outside your doorstep.

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Songs About America: This Land Is Your Land

I’ve decided to go back to weekly themes.  It seems I do my best writing when I have a specific topic.  So with July 4th around the corner, I thought I’d pick song about America.  Enjoy.

In grade school, I seemed to be in a pageant every month.  They were mostly historical and Biblical fluff (I went to a Christian school) aimed at entertaining parents and friends, rather proving any intellectual value.  Every once in a while we had a patriotic theme.  My fellow classmates dressed up as iconic American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  Naturally, Washington did not tell lies and Lincoln lived in a log cabin.

As for the songs, they were standard patriotic fare – “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful”  -to the applause of the audience.Interestingly, during one pageant we sang, “This Land is Your Land”.

Yes, Woody Guthrie’s anthem was performed by a group of school children.  “From California to the New York Island” seemed perfectly innocent, and evoked an image of The American Dream. As far as I can recall, we only sang the first verse and the chorus.   The verses where the narrator wanders through “heat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” were left out.  We sang it with no sense of irony or contempt.  Our rendition of “This Land is Your Land” was as straight an arrow.

As a 5th grader, I didn’t know the song was written by Woody Guthrie and was written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.  Even if I had known those facts, I’m sure the concept would have been lost on my feeble mind.  The song seemed just as cheesy as any of the others songs we were forced to sing, and not worth my time.

Years later while listening to The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues, I discovered the familiar chorus on the last track on the album.   Why the hell are they covering this piece of shit?  I wondered.  The Waterboys had sunk to a new low.  When I dubbed the album to a cassette, I purposely left it off.   The “proper” ending to the album was “The Stolen Child”, not the little ditty that came off as Celtic campfire song.

“You realize this is a Woody Guthrie song?” My older brother asked me once when the song came on.

“Who’s Woody Guthrie?” I asked.  “I thought it was a traditional song.”

He was shocked.  “No, no,” He replied, with a hint of disgust.  “He was a singer in the 1940s.  Big influence on Bob Dylan.”

“Oh ok,” I nodded, not really understanding what he meant.   I still hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan, so this connection was hardly revelatory.  Besides, any type of music made before rock and roll, had nothing to offer me.

It wasn’t until I went to protest the Iraq War that I discovered the true meaning of the song.  Thousands of people were gathered in the cold streets of Pittsburgh.  It was snowing lightly, but no one seemed to mind.  Their minds were elsewhere.  As local artists and activists shouted their position from a nearby stage, the crowds cheered loudly.  By the time the Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag took the stage, the crowd seemed ready for action.  Surely this band would get the momentum going.  Surprisingly, they came on stage with an acoustic guitar.  “This is a song that I’m sure all of you know,” leader singer Justin Sane announced, launching into “This Land is Your Land”.   Suddenly, its lyrics made sense.  It wasn’t quite the flag-waving anthem I had previously thought it to be.  It was an attack on a Capitalist society, and an out of touch government.  “This land is your land, this land is my land” was hardly an invitation.  It was a call to arms.  This land belongs us, and we will take it back if necessary.  As thousands of people sang Guthrie’s words, my attendance in the protest never felt more secure and right.  If we didn’t take control and voice our opposition, who would?

Though Guthrie’s song isn’t what most Americans consider to “be patriotic”, for me, it means more than “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”.  It offers hope, and possibility.   It’s not idealistic and naïve, but rather a rallying cry for those who might not otherwise have a voice.  Guthrie is an American icon, because he was able to express his views in song form, even if it wasn’t popular.  And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.

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Happy Bloomsday

Today is June 16th, otherwise known as Blomsday, the day on which James Joyce’ masterpiece Ulysses is set.  As such, I’d thought I’d re-post my essay on Bob Dylan and James Joyce for those new readers who may not have checked it out originally.  

 

Imagine today, if a young rock and roll artist emerged on the scene, writing dozens of songs capturing the zeitgeist. Other popular artists cover his songs, and his lyrics are studied like a pop-culture Bible.  Influential poets and thinkers, even called the “spokesman of a generation”, embrace him. In the process, he changes not only popular music but also the cultural landscape at a mere 24 years old.  Imagine this same artist, at the height of his popularity, turns his back on his audience picking up a new musical direction.  Viewed as a traitor to the scene, his new guise also redefining, becoming a standard by which everything else that follows is measured.  Except this no fictional rock and roll artist.  This is Bob Dylan’s influence and power in the mid 1960’s.

No singular artist in the latter half of the 20th century has redefined the popular musical world as much as Bob Dylan. It is often argued Dylan is a true artist because of his achievements and not just one in the rock and roll medium.  But what does being a true artist mean, and how does this apply to Dylan?  The answer might be found in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel,  A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. In Portrait, Joyce tackles artistic integrity through the protagonist Stephen Dedalus.  Throughout the novel, Joyce presents several forms, which must be followed in order for a person to truly become an artist.  Using Joyce’s outline and Stephen Dedalus as a model, the argument for Bob Dylan being seen as a true artist is even more evident.

Portrait follows the life of Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of Joyce) an ambitious young artist conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his artistic visions.  At the end of the novel, he discovers the only way to be an artist is to completely abandon the familiar, leaving Dublin for Paris.  As the novel progresses, Joyce’s words become more complex paralleling Stephen’s own revelation.  When Bob Dylan started his career, his lyrics, music, and persona moved in a similar fashion to Stephen’s.  When Dylan first arrived on the scene, he began as a protest-singe.  When he grew tired of “finger-pointing” (as he called it), he abandoned folk for rock and roll, again creating a standard by which almost other rock and roll is measured. Just as the world caught up to Dylan, he disappeared from the pubic eye, and created some of his best music while no one was watching. Dylan, like Stephen realized you must abandon the familiar and follow your own artistic visions.

In Portrait, Joyce (through Stephen) presents three forms outlining the progression of the artist.  The first form is the lyrical form “wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relationship to himself.”  In the epical form the “artist prolongs and broods himself as the center of an epical event…the narrative is no longer personal.”  The third and final form is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life.”

Dylan’s lyrical stage begins with his early albums and protest songs. Even early on, Dylan had major ambitions.  He wanted to emulate his hero, Woody Guthrie.  Much like Guthrie defined the post-depression era with his songs, Dylan captured the spirit of the early 1960’s with songs such as Blowing in The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and Masters of War. Dylan sang these songs in the first person, essential to the lyrical stage. Yet at the same time, these songs connected with the masses because they reflected the turbulence that many felt during the early 1960’s.  These songs and others brought Dylan national attention; earning him the infamous label “the spokesman of a generation.”

Except Dylan wasn’t just interested in protest.  Much like Stephen feel hinged by Catholicism, Dylan felt similar to protest. Numerous artists were covering his songs, and soon many people were copying his style with less impressive results.  As everyone was waiting for Dylan to make the next profound statement, he had no interest in doing so. In 1964, less than a year after The Times They Are A-Changing, he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, a collection of songs hardly touching on protest.  Another Side presents Dylan as funny (Motorpsycho Nightmare), heartwarming (To Ramona) and even scathing (I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)) – themes barely present on his previous three albums. Following the trends of rock groups like the Beatles, Dylan went even further with his next album Bringing It All Back Home – an ambitious album featuring two sides of music split between rock music and acoustic songs.

With Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had no intention on turning back, and writing more protest songs to appease his growing fan-base who worshipped his every single word.  With this stroke of genius, he had now reached the epical stage of the artist.  Joyce says the epical stage is reached when the  artist no longer presents himself in the first person and becomes part of an event.  Whereas Dylan’s early songs were mostly song from the first-person to reflect a greater truth, Dylan himself was barely present.  Even when he was, it was a fictionalized version of himself – as Joyce suggests, less personal.

Influenced by a combination of surrealism, drugs, and Beat poetry, Dylan’s lyrics reached a new sophistication and height.      Much like Joyce’s own Ulysses weaves in and out of character’s sub consciousness, narrative, and third person, Dylan was pursuing a similar path.  His songs became filled with literary, Biblical and historical figures doing bizarre acts, and taking part if bizarre situations.  And Dylan also put himself in the middle of all this craziness – the center of “epical event”. No more is this clear than Desolation Row off Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan’s first full rock album).  Desolation Row’s minutes follows characters such as Ophelia, Casanova, and TS Elliot who appear damned on a fictional placed called Desolation Row. Dylan himself does not appear until the last verse, where it is revealed he is on Desolation Row as well.

Dylan’s fictional self was no limited to his music, either.  Early in his career, he had been warm and funny in interviews – and most of all appeared sincere. Now, he traded his “every-man” image for that of a cynical hipster.  Constantly under the influence of many drugs, Dylan began answering interviews in a vague and mysterious manner and could sometimes be antagonistic.  When Blonde on Blondewas released in 1966, “the spokesman of a generation” was nowhere to be seen. The music was louder and wilder, the lyrics even more abstract  – but never lacking intelligence. Just as he did with modern folk music, Dylan was changing the rules for rock music.

Dylan’s retreat from the public eye leads to third and final form.  Joyce suggests it is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life”. Just as Stephen leaves Ireland and goes to Paris for his artistic integrity at the end ofPortrait, Dylan created some of his most celebrated music while no one was looking. Taking cues from Americana, he recorded dozens of songs in his New York home with The Hawks (who would later become the known as The Band) at his home in Woodstock, New York. Freer, funnier than anything Dylan had previously recorded these songs with no pretense. More than anything, these sessions showed Dylan truly comfortable in his own skin. Never meant for official release, these sessions became bootlegged for years – eventually released as The Basement Tapesin 1975.

When Stephen reappears in Ulysses, he is wiser and much more intelligent.  Yet, he lacks self-confidence even at one point dismissing his own ideas near the end of the novel.  Dylan too faced a similar problem after his mid 1960’s peak.  He had a hard time living up to being “Bob Dylan” -releasing almost unlistenable albums including the critically panned Self Portait.  Almost ten years after Highway 61,Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, which is generally considered another highpoint of his career.  In the past 10 years, he has enjoyed a renaissance – he has released four critically acclaimed albums and artists constantly cover his songs in concert. Dylan never stayed in the same place twice, and like Stephen discovered you “gotta keep on keeping on.”

 

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Quick Update

Sorry I haven’t finished my final three posts on The Best Post Blood on The Tracks albums.  It’s been a busy few days.  Hopefully, I should finish them sometime this weekend.

 

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 9. “Empire Burlesque”

Empire Burlesque is one of the stranger albums in Dylan’s career.  It’s full of some great songs, but it’s hard to listen to because of the glossy production. It’s clearly the product of its time, cementing it to the mid-1980s.  It’s one the most star-studded album of Dylan’s career with numerous guests including reggae rhythm legends Sly & Robbie, Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and Ronnie Wood an Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones.

But don’t let the awful cover and production fool you.  There are some real gems here – “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love”, “Something’s Burning Baby”, and the stand-out final track, “Dark Eyes”.  Underneath the glossy sheen of the album, Dylan is fine spirits throughout whether he’s spitting out venom in “Seeing You The Real You At Last”, or lamenting the trials of a Vietnam-Vet on “Clean Cut Kid”.  “I’ll Remember You” is one of his most heartfelt ballads since Desire.  The vicious “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky” loses it some of its lyrical power with its thick groove, and odd synthesizers fills.

“Dark Eyes” is without a doubt the best song on the album.  In an album filled with big production, it ends with Dylan only accompanied by guitar and harmonica.  It’s full on folk, and Dylan gives one of the best vocal performances of the 80s.  It’s a nakedly stark song.  Is this a nod to “Desolation Row” which was the only acoustic song on the electric-fueled “Highway 61”.  You never know with Dylan.

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10 Glaring Omissions From The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame

The rock and roll hall of fame is known for excluding numerous bands and artists over the years.  Here’s a list (in no particular order) of artists that are eligible, but currently not in the hall of fame.

Joy Division

With just two albums Joy Division influenced generations of artists from the early U2 records to The Killers.  Emerging from the punk scene, they were one of the first groups of that era to take the lo-fi esthetic of punk and emphasize mood and texture rather than sheer energy and bombast.  Ian Curtis’ cold baritone and lyrical fascination with isolation and despair  was a perfect mix for the icy, atmospheric music found throughout Unknown Pleasures and Closer.   And no matter what you think of the genre, it’s hard to think of Emo existing without Joy Division.

Television

Television more or less invented post-punk taking cues from the Velvet Underground.  even though they began their career just as the punk scene was beginning to explode in New York City in the mid 70s.  Guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd circumvented the traditional roles of lead and rhythm guitar, specifically on such songs as “Marquee Moon”, which often led the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca to anchor the songs.  What’s even more profound is the lack of blues influences, which even the more avant-garde and wild groups (like The Velvet Underground) had used as a blue-print.  While U2’s The Edge gets most of the credit to popular audiences for the extensive use of delay pedals, Verlaine was perhaps the first to really explore it.

Brian Eno

To many Brian Eno is just the guy who worked with U2, David Bowie and Coldplay.  As a producer and a member of Roxy Music, he certainly deserves recognition, but his solo albums have proved to be extremely influential as well helping to popularize minimalism.  Eno is often credited with coining the term (and also creating) “ambient music” – low volume music which is meant to change the listener’s perception of the environment around them.  His collaboration with David Byrne  1981’s My Life in the Bushes was one of the first records with extensive use of sampling.

Gram Parsons

There are so many alt-country artists on the scene, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what exactly constitutes the term.  But Gram Parsons was a true pioneer.  He welded together his love for traditional Country & Western into the emerging rock scene in a way that was not only groundbreaking, but also respectful to its original source. Country-rock never sounded as glorious as it does on GP and Grievous Angel.  While Parsons never had huge success, his influence can be felt on many records by The Rolling Stones, The Black Crowes, Ryan Adams and Wilco among countless others.

Toots and the Maytals

Bob Marley is more universally known, why omit Toots and the Maytals, one of the key artists in reggae?  They might not have had the big names songs that the wanna-be white dude with dreads plays in his dorm, but they might be more consistent.   The band had some of the best harmonies found in reggae, particularly on such as “Sweet and Dandy” the immortal “Pressure Drop”.  It also doesn’t hurt that Toots Hibbert has often been called a Jamaican Otis Redding for his soulful, tender vocals.

Emylou Harris

Emylou Harris has one of the best voices in rock and country music that is gut-renching and aching as it beautiful and angelic. So it’s no wonder she has been a go-to back up singer for artists such as Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, John Denver, and Ryan Adams among others.  Like her mentor Gram Parsons, Emylou Harris helped make traditional country cool for a rock audience.  And like many of those artists, Harris has a restless musical soul with consistently great records (Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner in particular).

Son House (Early Influence)

Thankfully the Rock Hall inducts early influences from artists who pre-dated rock and roll.  If you can include Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Lead Belly where the hell is Son House? Torn between his spiritual upbringing (he grew up wanting to be a preacher) and the secular and profane delta music, Son House embodied the Blues like no one else before or since.  Son House’s rhythms provided blueprint for hundreds of artists Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson to most recently The White Stripes.

The Faces

While The Faces aren’t as well known (or influential) as The Rolling Stones, they’re torn from the same cloth.  If you want dirty, sloppy rock and roll for a bad-ass party, The Faces are an essential soundtrack.  And like The Stones, you can feel the sweat and sheer joy from the performance. It’s hard not to want to get up and dance when listening to songs like “Stay With Me” and “Too Bad”.  A Nod Is As Good as a Wink To a Dead House is an undisputed classic in straight-up rock and roll boogie.  It’s also proof that, despite his cheesiness now, Rod Stewart was once pretty fantastic.

The Smiths

If you can include R.E.M. in the Rock Hall, you also have to include their British contemporaries, The Smiths.  Like Peter Buck, The Smith’s guitarist Johnny Marr favored a clear ringing style of guitar that was under-stated but brilliant.  The Smiths’ jangled, melodic, alternative rock with Morrisey’s articulate and literate crooning style was a direct anthesis to the synth-pop that was over-taking the British music scene at the time.   Like Joy Division, The Smiths had a huge influence on Emo, providing the soundtrack for many alienated and confused teenagers.

Harry Smith (Non-performer)

It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of The Anthology of Folk American Folk Music (aka The Harry Smith Anthology).  Prior to this collection, many of these recordings would otherwise go unnoticed and be lost in time.  The Blues, Folk and Bluesgrass music culled from Depression-Era America, directly resulted in the Folk-Revival off the late 50s and early 60s.  Simply put, without Smith’s archival the Coffeehouse perfomances in Greenwich Village probably wouldn’t have existed.  And who can imagine music without that?

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