Bob Dylan: Street Legal

Recorded: April 25-May 1, 1978

Released: June 15, 1978

The first message I sent to, Feb 28 1990:

I recently heard “Where are you tonight” for the first time. I really liked the sound, and not knowing what album it is from, I’m turning to for help. What is the overall sound of the album it comes from like? What do people think of this album?

Wondering about this led to to another question. From the early best album poll, it seems clear that there is a consensus that “Blonde on Blonde”, “Bringing it all back home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blood on the Tracks” are Dylan’s classic albums. At the time of the poll, and at now and then since, people have mentioned other albums they think are especially good. For example, someone argues for “Street Legal” pretty strongly.

I’d be interested in people responding to the question “What is your favorite Dylan album, excluding the consensus classics?”

I’m interested in this because I only have about 10 Dylan albums and would like guidance in deciding which ones I have to get.

Thanks a lot,

Loren Terveen

Reader, I bought Street Legal. And hearing “Where Are You Tonight?”, posting this message, buying this album, and continuing to participate in for the next decade turned me from a music-fan-who-liked-Bob-Dylan to a Dylan fan. Partly — not only partly — because of this, I love this album

Why? First, the sound. I think I once read — but absolutely can’t confirm it now — that Dylan thought this was the closest he’d ever gotten to reproducing the Blonde on Blonde sound. If I didn’t read it, I still believe it. The interplay of guitar, keyboards, backing vocals, and sometimes sax and even trumpet create a rich, full, and beautiful sound. Actually, “rich, full, and beautiful” strikes me as a more accurate (but not as poetic or idiosyncratic) description than “thin wild mercury music.” For example, I hear “Is Your Love in Vain?” as a cousin of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”. 

I also think the sound is a bit similar to what the E Street Band was doing at the time, or perhaps even more, like Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes. The great “Hearts of Stone” is another cousin of “Is Your Love in Vain?” 

OK, the backing vocals can be too much. When they serve more as support that helps enrich the background, I think they’re pretty great. But sometimes they’re overly up front, more than an echo, almost stepping  on top of Dylan’s vocals. Certainly that’s distinctive, but I could do without it.

Second, the songs. What always first hits me about a song is its overall feel, its melody, arrangement, vocal expressiveness, and eventually the lyrics. Dylan’s singing is fine here — not his greatest, but still very good. I’ve already talked about the arrangements. But I think the melodies are equally great; really, they are some of Dylan’s finest.“True Love Tends to Forget” and “Baby Stop Crying” just pull me in right away from their very first verses. And “Is Your Love In Vain?” is just the best.

It’s probably time to talk about “Is Your Love In Vain?”. It got a reputation as being sexist, even misogynistic.  As this nice essay put it, if this is misogynistic, full genres of music will need to be ruled out of bounds. But I think that’s a complete misreading of the song. Dylan isn’t writing a universal song here. He isn’t trying to please anyone. He’s not being political correct, magnanimous, or generous. He isn’t the mid 20s hipster anymore, he’s a divorced mid 30s father, who’s bitter — “He’s been burned before, he knows the score”. Of course, even though he knows it’s his own damn fault (Jimmy Buffet is one of Dylan’s favorite song writers according to the man himself), he’s hurt, bitter, but still hoping. Is “All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you” actually hopeful, or is it resigned (he knows he’s a fool, and fools fall in love)? And the sound is elegant, majestic, with the organ, trumpet, and background oohs. This song is the emotional center of the album.

Every song on this album has something to offer. I’m on the record as not generally a fan of Dylan’s blues songs, but I love “New Pony”. Completely over the top lyrics, whipcord guitars, great vocals, maybe the best on the album, and the background “How much longer?” vocals just work. And of course, you should check out The Dead Weather’s version, which sounds as if Led Zeppelin decided to reform just to cover this song.

While I’ll die on the “Is Your Love in Vain?” is the center of this album hill, there are three more epic, universal songs here, “Changing of The Guards”, “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, and “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”. Is there a better album opener than “Changing of the Guards”? (Well, OK, yes, there is “Like a Rolling Stone”) Fade in, swirling organ, then “Sixteen years, sixteen banners united over the field”… I can’t wait to hear more. Sax riff leads the way between pairs of verses. What’s going on here? I’m not sure. I know one of the criticisms of this album is that the lyrics are “bad Dylan poetry”, he’s just throwing things together, trying too hard to reproduce what he did unconsciously, through sheer inspiration, in the mid 60s. Here I have to confess that I don’t really know how to judge this type of Dylan lyric. Of course,  there are many types of Dylan lyrics:

  • The poetic masterpieces. Can we just stipulate  that “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”, and “Visions of Johanna” (for example) are amazing poetic achievements? Yes we can.
  • The finger-pointing songs. You know what I’m talking about.
  • The simple, elegant, mysteries. John Wesley Harding is the canonical example.
  • The simplistic songs, which maybe have more meaning than people like me can figure out. I’m looking at you Nashville Skyline and Under The Red Sky.
  • The simple, everyday lyrics that are just a pleasure to listen to. Hey New Morning, nice to see you!
  • The blues excursions. Stock phrases collaged together, getting by on sheer verve. Examples from the 1960s to the 2010s.
  • (Love and) theft. Cut out passages, glued together into ransom notes of meaning, but who’s the hostage?
  • Absurdism. Genghis Khan and his brother Don know what I’m saying, they know what I mean.
  • The skipping reels of rhyme. (“Mr. Tambourine Man” doesn’t count!) Lots and lots of words, images, what do they all mean??? “Gates of Eden” is the canonical example.

“Changing of the Guards” and “No Time to Think” are both skipping reels of rhyme lyrics. I have to confess that I don’t have the judgment to decide that (for example) “Gates of Eden” is an authentic work of genius, and “Changing of the Guards” and “No Time To Think” are fake. All in all, I prefer the Street Legal songs to “Gates of Eden”. As Paul Williams put it, Bob Dylan is a performing artist, and I am more moved by these performances. And I’m also moved by the penultimate verse from “Changing of the Guards”

Gentlemen, he said

I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes

I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards

But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination

Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

Is there any doubt that Eden is burning? And that we need the courage for the changing of the guards

“Senor” is a prayer, a plea for understanding in a world gone wrong.

Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?

Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

Seems like I been down this way before

Is there any truth in that, señor?

This may be Dylan’s best singing on the album, maybe the most interesting arrangement, and one that could have fit nicely on Desire. It definitely ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.

Bringing it all back home to what pulled me in: “Where are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”. Above a shimmery smoky haze, there’s laughter down on Elizabeth Street, a woman bathes in a stream of pure heat. Magical lyrics (the truth was obscure, too profound and too pure), organ and guitar doing great work. Background vocals that echo and push. 

And I can feel the meaning clearly, even if I can’t say it in words:

If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise

Remind me to show you the scars

There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived

If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived

I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive

But without you it just doesn’t seem right

Oh, where are you tonight?

He’s been burned before, he knows the score, he’ll take a chance, but is it all in vain? (“Hey, hey, hey!”)

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