By Dave Luhrssen

© 2002 Daniel De Lone

© 2002 Daniel De Lone

Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum is standing at the crossroads. As 2002 ends, the musician and poet, scholar and Harley-Davidson historian is re-releasing no less than five albums recorded over the past 15 years, even as he returns to the studio to record Navigator, a new CD with Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo. One way doubles back to the past and the other pushes toward the future.
But looked at another way, the road to the future is paved with the past. Rosenblum, tired of toiling in the obscurity of Tuesday-night poetry readings, discovered a new audience for poetry with The Holy Ranger (1989), a book of poems that made palpable the experience of riding a Harley-Davidson, and the ethos represented by the iron stallions. His recently reissued CD, The Holy Ranger’s Free Hand (1990), built a musical career around the theme of Harley riders as a community of perhaps one of the last meaningful communities on the American Landscape.
The Holy Ranger began as a character Rosenblum created in third grade, an imaginary friend who righted wrongs and went on to leave footprints on poems written by Rosenblum during the 1960s and ‘70s. “I’m dropping the Holy Ranger. I’m moving on,” Rosenblum says. And then he concedes: “All ghosts should keep coming back!”
At the onset of the 1990s, Rosenblum, disgusted with the rise of political correctness in academia and its substitution of bloodless theorizing for the manifold sensations of life, abandoned a career at UW-Milwaukee and found his way to Harley-Davidson, where he could apply his scholarship to something more meaningful than mind games—sorting out the artifacts of a company that had attained mythic dimension in the American consciousness, and teasing out its meaning. For Rosenblum, America is a frontier of the imagination, formerly traversed by cowboys and now by brotherhood of Harley. At their best, this fraternity clings to a time when loyalty and friendship mattered. “I’m going to die in that time,” Rosenblum sang on “Brotherhood Mystery” from Free Hand.

Pilgrim’s Progress
Rosenblum is fond of remarking that “if Chaucer were alive today, he’d release a CD box set. He wouldn’t write it down!” In common company with the author of Cantebury Tales, who wrote in an age of plagues, violence and upheaval, Rosenblum’s songs and poems are populated by convincingly persuasive characters on a pilgrimage—a journey whose goal is the illumination of the spirit, or at least the shedding of light on some particle of existence. Rosenblum’s geographical coordinates are less precise than Chaucer’s, whose travelers were shuffling toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Nor do Rosenblum’s narrators have the compass that guided the Old West figures, the Jesse Jameses and the John Wesley Hardings who sometimes cross their paths. Nowadays the wilderness is around and inside us. The frontier is within, although getting there involves a physical act. Jump on the saddle of a Harley for a ride past the end of the night!
To date, Rosenblum’s musical magnum opus is No Freedom Honey (2000), just reissued in a package with Places to Go (2000) and Spirit Fugitive (2001). Although it was recorded over several years, in several studios with many musicians, No Freedom Honey comes across at once raw and polished, and as a complete whole—an album with consistency and contrast, with flow, rather than a collection of songs. Even the bonus tracks, the alternate takes tacked onto the end, are enlightening, showing how songs themselves can be pilgrims in the process of becoming.
Contrast “Coming off the Prairie” from No Freedom with the sketchier, earlier version on Free Hand. Not only is the former a fully fleshed arrangement, a country-rocker with a touch of saloon piano, but Rosenblum’s vocal has become confident as he considers the obligations of manhood. “I’m Here” could have been a monster if unleashed, but somehow, finds greater meaning in its restrained performance. In the swaggering blues rocker “Cut to the Bone,” the imagery of the black ship coming to dock, and the hovering menace, is closer to Bertolt Brecht than to Rosenblum’s familiar Americana.
Although not everything on No Freedom Honey can be called blues (witness the delicately filigreed title track, a gem among love songs), the blues is another element that connects much of Rosenblum’s work over the years. With him, it’s not the connect-the dots variety of blues that has become altogether too common since the ‘60s. For Rosenblum, this bedrock American music is a deeply felt inspiration.

Out of the Garage
According to Rosenblum, his friend Little Steven Van Zandt (who may play guitar on a track or two of Navigator) has been after him to shorten and simplify his songs. “ He told me, ‘Take these five-minute songs and make them three-minute songs. Ok, four minute songs,” Rosenblum recounts. “I don’t want to get away from the narratives that come at me, but I am trying to find rock ’n’ roll roots.”
Growing up in Appleton during the ‘50s, Rosenblum was electrified by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran before he turned to the folk-blues revival of the ‘60s, which has continued to color his recent recordings. In order to get back to those roots, he thinks he may use John Fogerty and Neil Young as models.
“I’d like to morph the blazing clarity of Fogerty with those moments when everything implodes in Neil Young,” he explains. “Little Steven says I should go after the garage sound. I think that what I’m looking at is more of a driveway sound—the route of the garage rather than the garage itself!”
Whatever its sound, Navigator will likely continue the themes that have long preoccupied Rosenblum, especially the balance of freedom with the responsibility on the quest for experience. Even the title is a clue that the ghosts of the past will lead the way into the future. A pilgrimage, especially a long one over uncertain terrain, needs a navigator.

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