All posts by Loren Terveen

Bob Dylan: Real Live

Recorded: July 5-8, 1984

Released: November 29, 1984

In honor of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, I decided to listen to all of his “official” recordings in order. I’ve now reached “Real Live”. 

Huh… I’d actually forgotten about this album, and had to double back to it. I can see why.

First, the good: the rewritten “Tangled Up in Blue”. The same stories, but told from a different point of view. Definitely essential. “Girl from the North Country” also is quite good. 

But generally, I just feel like the versions here are just not quite right. There’s a set of adjectives that come to mind: “rushed”, “strained”, “unsubtle”, “rote”, “unimaginative”. None of these are definitive descriptions of the performances, but they all lean in those directions. 

I confess that I haven’t been able to strictly keep to my plan to just listen to Dylan’s official albums in order. Instead, this process has reinvigorated my long dormant immersion in Dylan’s unofficial live recordings, and I’ve mostly been listening to recordings from 1993 to 2003. By this time, Dylan’s voice was much “worse” than it was in 1984. And yet, his singing is generally much more expressive than it was in 1984 – sometimes astonishingly so – and the band also is generally much more flexible and creative. I’m sure this affects my response to “Real Live”, maybe that’s not fair, but there it is.

Infidels: As It Should Have Been

In my thoughts on Infidels, I forgot to make the well-known point that Dylan’s choice of tracks for Infidels is inexplicable. He recorded a bunch of other songs during the Infidels session, including the great Foot of Pride and the absolute masterpiece Blind Willie McTell. He should have included both of them. Let’s say he leaves off Union Sundown and Neighborhood Bully. Start the album with Foot of Pride cuz there ain’t no going back when the foot of pride comes down. End it with Blind Willie McTell cuz nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, and no song can follow it. 

This would make Infidels a great Dylan album, not quite at the level of the acknowledged masterpieces, the big four, which of course are Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Bringing It All Back Home. But still a great album, and one I’d want to revisit.

Bob Dylan: Infidels

Recorded: April-May 1983

Released: October 27, 1983

Infidels has almost broken me. I’ve listened to it five or six times, and still don’t quite know what to make of it. What can I say about Infidels that wouldn’t come back to haunt me?

Infidels is a good album.

Infidels sounds great.

Infidels isn’t an evangelistic record, but it’s full of biblical imagery.

I listened to Infidels soon after it was released. I didn’t really revisit it over the years, and I don’t know that I’ll do this a lot in the future.

Let’s talk about the songs.

“Jokerman”. This is the song I find most elusive, both lyrically and musically. I’m not a close interpreter of Dylan’s lyrics. I look for two things: (1) Striking lines that jump out at me. (2) An overall sense of the song’s meaning. I’d compare this to an impressionist painting: the details might be blurry, but I know what it’s about. “Jokerman” has the striking lines, but I can’t figure out the meaning: who’s Jokerman? The Antichrist, Satan, Dylan himself… ? I’m with Tony Attwood on this one. I don’t think there is a clear meaning here. That’s not good. Musically, the song is very appealing, but every time I listen to its beginning with the throbbing bass, gentle organ, tasteful guitar licks, I get this weird feeling that that is… mellow. Dylan should not be mellow! He should be rough and rowdy, raw and raspy, protesting and praising, but. Not. Ever. Mellow!  But: that chorus: the music starts to swell, and then:

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune

Bird fly high by the light of the moon

Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

Despite all my doubts, this insinuates itself past my defenses and sticks in my mind, and heart.

“Sweetheart Like You”. Maybe I’m crazy, but this performance seems gentle, but appropriately so… not mellow. I also feel like I know what it’s about – and it doesn’t matter if it’s literal (about a woman or Woman) or metaphorical (about the Christian Church???), because those interpretations work together. Someone (something) precious is in bad surroundings, maybe due in part to her (its) own actions. And Dylan laments the situation. This I think is how to understand “a woman like you should be at home / that’s where you belong.” “Home” is a place of safety, where you’re surrounded by loved ones, where “you belong”. 

“Neighborhood Bully”. I love the rocking sound, it gets me every time, but boy, are the lyrics problematic. The metaphor is so unsubtle as to not even be a metaphor, and so simplistic and one sided as to be offensive. 

“License to Kill”. This is a song I’ve come to like more and more, and perhaps would be one of the songs I would be most likely to revisit. Another of Dylan’s songs about someone who’s been corrupted, but there’s a lot of compassion here:

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused

And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill

All he believes are his eyes

And his eyes, they just tell him lies

He’s been manipulated into this state, but still:

there’s a woman on my block

Sitting there in a cold chill

She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

No matter how it happened, now he’s a threat, a danger.

And the final damning verse:

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool

And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled

Oh, man is opposed to fair play

He wants it all and he wants it his way

Which brings us back to the lingering, unanswered question that we’re left with:

Now, there’s a woman on my block

She just sit there as the night grows still

She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

“Man of Peace” – evil comes in disguise: watch out!  “About 500 years into the Second Age, Sauron reappeared,[T 17] intent on taking over Middle-earth and ruling it as a God-Kin. To seduce the Elves into his service, Sauron assumed a fair appearance as Annatar, “Lord of Gifts”, befriended the Elven-smiths of Eregion, led by Celebrimbor, and counseled them in arts and magic.” ( For all of us Lord of the Rings stans. Also, this song rolls along nicely.

“Union Sundown”. Another one that I like the sound of. Maybe excessively nationalistic. I always thought this was about labor unions, but I guess it’s more about the Union, i.e., the United States… right? The anti-greed, anti-exploitation message sure isn’t any less relevant today.

“I and I”. This is a song that I thought was pretty amazing when I first listened to Infidels, and I still think so. I think I’m being inconsistent, though, as I’m not sure that it passes my “Jokerman” test: is there really a meaning here? I’ve always focused on the duality of “I and I” – God and Man, two sides of the same person, the light and dark side… – but I can’t figure out how they relate to that. Maybe the “I and I” are the spiritual and profane in all of us? Maybe the first lyric – “Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed” is the key. Is Dylan leaving behind the rigidities of Christian fundamentalism for the pleasures of the flesh? Is he torn between the two? Some of the verses fit that, some don’t. But I do love the sound of this one – I claim it’s moody and eerie, not mellow, with the chorus vocals an echo of Dylan’s singing of Desire tracks like “One More Cup of Coffee”.

“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”. This grew on me. Maybe because of the video for the alt version? This is a pleasurable love song, with the nice twist that it’s really the narrator who might be falling apart. And it is one of Dylan’s great “regret” passages that I’m always a sucker for:

I wish I’d have been a doctor

Maybe I’d have saved some life that had been lost

Maybe I’d have done some good in the world

’Stead of burning every bridge I crossed

Infidels is a good album…

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981

The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981 – Wikipedia

Recorded: Various dates 1978-1981

Released: November 3, 2017

The importance of identifying Bob Dylan as a performing artist, as distinct from the popular perception that he’s a songwriter and recording artist, is immediately clear when one has a chance to hear his fall 1979 concerts. “What Can I Do for You?,” “Solid Rock,” “Saving Grace,” “Covenant Woman” and “In the Garden” as performed at these shows are some of the finest works in Dylan’s oeuvre, but you’d never know that from listening to Saved, the 1980 studio album that features these compositions. The Saved performances are technically adequate, but they fail to put across the essential character of any of these songs, which I suppose tells us that that essence is not automatically present in the words and music of a song; it is possible (and in this case it happened) that these elements can be in place and yet whatever it is that makes the song meaningful can still be missing.

Which is to say, your awareness and appreciation of Dylan’s greatness is incomplete until you hear these songs (and “When He Returns”) as (fourteen shows November 1-16) and in southern California, Ari performed live in the fall of 1979, in San Francisco zona, and New Mexico (twelve shows between November 18 and December 9).

Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol. 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986, by Paul Williams, p. 151

First, the title: “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist”. Not a poet, songwriter, “voice of a generation”. Critics and Dylan fans have long rejected the old cliche of Dylan writing great lyrics (and serviceable melodies), and others doing better versions of the songs. With Dylan’s music, it’s the way the lyrics, vocals, and instruments all come together to form his art. 

Or sometimes they don’t come together. That brings us to the body of the Paul Williams quote. The album Saved was recorded after Dylan had been performing the songs live. I agree with Williams’ take on Saved: the performances there don’t do justice to the songs, they are “flat”, “dead”, or however you want to characterize that essential lack.

And without these live performances, there we’d be. But with them, I think a handful of songs-as-performed enter Dylan’s pantheon. My list would be slightly different from Williams: I’m less touched by “Saving Grace”, but would add “Pressing On”.  These performances are alive with passion, but perhaps passions that are not common in Dylan’s work: joy, reverence, gratitude. Honestly, you should just listen to the November 27, 1979 performance of  “What Can I Do For You?” from San Diego. The performance concludes with amazing singing from Dylan, perfect background vocals, and then a brief but beautiful harmonica solo:

You have given all there is to give

What can I do for You?

You have given me life to live

How can I live for You?

I know all about poison, I know all about fiery darts

I don’t care how rough the road is, show me where it starts

Whatever pleases You, tell it to my heart

Well, I don’t deserve it but I sure did make it through

What can I do for You? 

Williams called this the “supreme achievement of this astonishing song cycle”. Yes.

I could go on about many of the other Saved performances, but I’ll limit myself to the November 6, 1979 performance of “Pressing On” from San Francisco. The instruments are barely present: mostly Dylan’s voice and the background singers, with many repetitions of the chorus. But what makes it unforgettable is Dylan’s singing of the second (and last!) verse, which starts about four minutes in:

Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back

Nothing now can hold you down, there’s nothing that you lack

Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given the devil reign

Because he sinned I got no choice, it run in my vein

But I’m pressing on

Dylan’s vocal performance brings the brief biography and admonition to blazing life: temptation to do wrong is inescapable: it runs in his veins, but thanks to Jesus, there’s nothing he (and you) lacks, so. Just. Keep. Pressing On.

The Saved songs are the real revelation of Trouble No More, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other treasures. First of all, there are many great versions of the Slow Train Coming songs, live performances, rehearsals, soundchecks, and alternative studio takes. I find nearly all of them appealing, and of course it’s fascinating to hear the sometimes subtly, sometimes fundamentally different ways Dylan can conceive of a song. Just to pick one, I love the live version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” that’s the third track on the second CD. (I believe it’s from July 15, 1981, but on YouTube Music it’s mislabeled as from June 27, 1981). The studio version is laid back and bluesy, featuring Dylan’s sly, conversational vocal. But the live performance is pure driving hard rock, guitars slamming and screaming, throbbing bass, and hey! a couple of rewritten or wholly new verses. Yeah, you really better serve somebody.

Wait, how can I pick just one Slow Train Coming song when the definitive version of the ultimate song from this era is included: “When He Returns” from the 1980 Toronto show. When I wrote about Slow Train Coming, I linked to Tony Attwood’s appreciation of this performance from the essential Untold Dylan site, and really, he says it better than I could.

Second, there are many songs that never saw an official release (although widely bootlegged, and some versions have appeared on earlier official Bootleg Series releases). Again, this release is an almost overwhelming embarrassment of riches, so I’ll just mention a few that I personally enjoy the most. Among live performances: “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Nobody” (simplistic, but fun, maybe deeper than it seems), “City of Gold” (sounds like an old fashioned hymn to me), “Thief on the Cross” (this is a good one), “Cover Down, Pray Through” (this is powerful, and deserved wider notice). Among outtakes: “Trouble In Mind”, “Yonder Comes Sin”, and “Making a Liar Out of Me” (as far as I recall, this had not been previously bootlegged, and it’s a major major find… a near Dylan classic).

Third, there are Shot of Love alternate versions, outtakes, and live versions. I don’t find these as revelatory as the performances I’ve discussed already, but: I love to hear all the various live and studio versions of the great “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind”. And I’m a big fan of the warm live version of “In The Summertime”.

 Fourth, we get some performances from June 1981 where Dylan started including his older secular songs again. I’m glad that he started doing this! And these are fine performances. But none of them seem particularly insightful or innovative compared to earlier (and later) versions of these songs. 

So to wrap up: most of the Bootleg Series sets are great, but I think this and the first one (Volumes 1-3) were most revolutionary for my understanding of Dylan’s music. The first one established beyond any doubt that Dylan had a bunch of great songs and masterpieces that he’d never chosen to release: astonishing. Trouble No More establishes that Dylan was on fire in 1979 and 1980 (and to a lesser extent in 1981), songs flowing out, effective arrangements and rearrangements, and passionate live performances. As I said when I discussed his studio albums from this era, you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate these songs. And I can’t recommend highly enough the Paul Williams chapter that I quoted at the beginning of this post for deeply appreciative insights that may transform your own understanding of this music.

Bob Dylan: Shot of Love

Shot of Love – Wikipedia

Recorded: March-Mah 1981

Released: August 12, 1981

I’m glad Dylan expanded his focus beyond explicitly Christian songs. I like the idea of songs that still have an underlying spirituality, even without that explicitness (I hear that about U2 songs, but for me, the spirituality is so implicit as to be irrelevant.). I love a couple of the songs (and outtakes), like a few others, and don’t dislike any. And yet somehow, I can’t really form a strong opinion of the album itself – maybe because it’s another transitional album? Or maybe because of what it could have been?

Maybe I’ll just talk about the songs.

“Every Grain of Sand”. This is a masterpiece. Recently I’ve been asking myself: which of Dylan’s songs would I call perfect? I don’t necessarily mean that these are his best songs, but instead, that there are no “wrong notes”, no lines that grate on me, no instrumental parts I don’t like, no letdown in the melody or vocals. And this is the first song that occurs to me. Moving and comprehensible lyrics. Great vocals. Beautiful melody and arrangement. And who knew that harmonica could deliver the crowning touch to this amazing hymn? 10 out of 10.

“The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar”. I understand the Christian allusions (Christ is the bridegroom, etc.), but this is a more typical set of Dylan lyrics, where I know there’s something happening here, there are some amazing lines and images, resulting in a compelling package, but: what the devil does it all mean? For me, that’s less satisfying. Still, a great song and rocking performance.

“In the Summertime”. I love the sound of this song. Some religious lines: 

And I’m still carrying the gift you gave

It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved

It’ll be with me unto the grave

And then unto eternity

Again, not sure I can put it all together, but I love listening to this one (and there are some great live versions from 1981, too)

“Shot Of Love”.  Pretty great rocker – “Don’t need a shot of heroin to cure my disease”. Sometimes the background vocals are too much for me.

“Lenny Bruce”. Another odd one that I really enjoy listening to. While the lyrics make sense, the song … doesn’t? This paean to Lenny Bruce seems like it comes from nowhere, and the details can get strange: “Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads”. Remind me never to ask Dylan for a character reference. I think of this song a bit like “Joey”: Dylan has created an image of a real person that isn’t exactly true to that person. Here it isn’t so much that it’s misleading (unlike “Joey”), it’s that it’s selective and enhanced. I love the solemn hymn sound – I suppose this strikes others as boring or lugubrious, but not me. I find it amusing that this hymn-like arrangement is used for lyrics about a subversive, transgressive, countercultural comic.

“Property of Jesus”. Another one where I really like the sound, and am pretty OK with the lyrics: it’s a finger-pointin’ song at people (maybe his so-called friends) who just don’t get it, who can’t understand what’s happened to the singer. But what do they have: “a heart of stone”.

I don’t dislike any of the rest of the songs: maybe “Dead Man, Dead Man” rises above the others.

The outtakes. Dylan left “Caribbean Wind” and “Angelina” off the album. Now, I’ve read recently that Dylan has a plan for his albums, and if a song doesn’t fit that, he won’t include it no matter how good it is. I can see that in some cases, but why leave these two off? What is the plan for “Shot of Love”? Why wouldn’t “Caribbean Wind” and “Angelina” fit? Would this have meant too many long / epic / wordy songs? I think if he’d have swapped them in for two of he weaker songs (really, pick any two of “Trouble”, “Heart of Mine”, and “Watered Down Love”… ok, maybe even “Dead Man, Dead Man”), the reaction to this album would have been much different. The consensus would have been that there were maybe four classics, several other very strong songs, and maybe one or two that weren’t as good.

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Bob Dylan: Saved

Saved – Wikipedia 

Recorded: February 11-15, 1980

Released: June 23, 1980

I think there are two conventional wisdom reactions to this album. (1) It sucks. (2) It’s “incomplete”. The first reaction is (more or less) self explanatory. The second reaction – that’s mine! – needs a little unpacking. 

A good way to start understanding this album is to contrast it with its predecessor. Slow Train Coming, while clearly coming from Dylan’s born again experience, still had more hooks for the secular audience. There was a strong strand of protest music (especially on the title track), indicting the hypocrites, the self-righteous, the oppressors, the falsely religious. And the music was still somewhat conventionally Dylanesque: blues oriented rock, with some catchy pop touches (e.g., “Precious Angel, “Gotta Serve Somebody, “Slow Train”, Mark Knopfler’s guitar, etc.)

“Slow Train Coming” also was pretty strongly evangelical, which means it was necessarily outward facing. It often addresses “you”, or America, or even a “Precious Angel”.

On the other hand, the musical style of “Saved” is much more straight up gospel. This includes both rave ups like the title song and “Solid Rock” as well as quiet hymas like “Pressing On” and “What Can I Do For You?” And I think, even more of a contrast, the songs here are more inward looking; many are devotional songs about Dylan’s relationship with God. He isn’t really concerned with America or his so-called friends anymore.

So you can see why “Saved” appealed even less to secular audiences.

But why would I give it an “incomplete”? For reasons that I don’t understand, the performances here are largely pretty flat, even lifeless. The uptempo songs fare the best, but even they don’t have the excitement of a good gospel performance. 

So, I’ve got to judge this album as a collection of performances. And if this was our only exposure to the songs collected here, they too would make little impression.

But fortunately, we have a completely different window onto the songs: the live versions included on “The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981”. These are fantastic, passionate performances (The “Slow Train Coming” songs also are great, but they didn’t need the transformation in the same way.) The odd thing is that, unlike what we saw with “Shelter from the Storm” on “Hard Rain” or “Isis” on the “Rolling Thunder Revue”, the live arrangements of the “Saved” songs are very similar to the album versions. It’s almost purely a matter of the passion and life that Dylan and the musicians provide on stage… and that mysteriously was missing in the studio.

But I almost forgot: the album opens with a wonderful acapella version of the country hymn “A Satisfied Mind”. So good that when I first heard “Saved” (long before Trouble No More was released), I think it led me to like the whole album more than I do now.

Since we now do have Trouble No More, I’m going to essentially pretend that “Saved” doesn’t exist. I’ll set down my thoughts about Trouble No More soon.

Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming

Slow Train Coming – Wikipedia

Recorded: April 30 – May 11, 1979

Released: August 20, 1979

Here’s the second huge inflection point in Dylan’s career. 1965: Dylan goes electric! 1979: Dylan is born again! But in retrospect — 40+ years on — both of these transformations feel much more of a piece with Dylan’s 60 year (and counting) career.

I remember well when this album came out. Everyone was a Christian where I grew up, so this was a pretty big deal. However, I wasn’t all that interested in it myself, since I was listening to The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, B-52s, Talking Heads, … 

This is an album I’ve listened to occasionally over the years and always liked pretty well. But now that I’ve listened to it carefully while going through all Dylan’s albums, I enjoy it much more and consider it quite successful on its own terms and in many ways consistent with the core themes of Dylan’s songs both before and since. 

How is it consistent with Dylan’s songs? First, there is a strong strain of protest music here, linking back to his 60s critiques of American culture. We go from “flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark, it’s easy to see without looking too far, that not much is really sacred” to “the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency, all nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion”.  You’ve got “counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts, Karl Marx has got ya by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots.” Dylan remains the prophet calling out the sins of the nation.

Second, people just don’t get it: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” And now matter what you do or who you are (“an ambassador to England or France”!), you’re still “gonna have to serve somebody”.

Third, it isn’t just American culture or people in general, it’s Dylan’s own (so-called) friends! “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” (1965) and “My so-called friends have fallen under a spell, They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well””. 

Fourth, there are some oddly specific parallels. Both “All I Really Want to Do” (1964) and “Do Right To Be Baby (Do Unto Others)” list a whole lot of things Dylan doesn’t want to do before coming to the point. But the point has changed from being with you to doing right to you. (OK, that’s a pretty big change.)

Of course, there is a big difference, too. Back in 1964, the mission statement of “Another Side of Bob Dylan” was his renunciation of “lies that life is black and white”, which is how he came to think of his early protest songs. I think Dylan wanted to be relieved of any burden for coming up with an answer, or perhaps more precisely, that there was any easy answer. But now he has found The Answer, and you better believe it, mister. 

You either got faith or unbelief, there ain’t no neutral ground

He who is not with me is against me

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

It may be the devil or it may be the lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

As I said, I really enjoy this album and think it succeeds on its own terms. However, there are two major caveats. First, while I don’t believe the theology on Slow Train Coming, it’s familiar to me, so maybe I’m susceptible to it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I have nostalgia for it, or even that I wish I could feel the way Dylan felt here. The second caveat is that if Dylan wrote songs like this for the rest of his career, I’m sure I would have quickly lost interest and felt like this was a waste of his genius. But as just one short phase, I think it fits nicely in his career and artistic arc.

Let’s talk about the songs.

“Gotta Serve Somebody”. I have to say that listening carefully to this song, particularly this version, has opened up a new perspective for me; it’s funny. Dylan’s vocal is amazingly expressive, conversational, and sly. And his sly vocal narrates a bunch of more or less implausible things you might be or do, but in the end, it’s all the same: you gotta serve somebody. “So… what if I’m a state trooper, would that do it? Nope. How about… a rock-n-roll addict? Still no. OK, OK, I’ve got it: the heavyweight champion of the world? NO”. While I might prefer some live versions of this song overall, Dylan’s vocal here is just unmatched.

“Precious Angel”. One of several songs about a (the?) woman (women?) that led him to Christ. 

Precious angel, under the sun

How was I to know you’d be the one

To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone

How weak was the foundation I was standing upon?

That’s a central theme of the song, but, to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, Dylan is a man of god, but he’s also a man:

You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re my woman, you’re my delight

You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night

There’s also some powerful Dylan-poetry:

We are covered in blood, girl, you know our forefathers were slaves

Let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone-filled graves

I assumed this somehow was a literal reference to Dylan’s and the subject’s ancestors. The Wikipedia article about this song suggests that the subject of the song was Black, so this is a joint reference to American slavery and the slavery of Jews in Egypt in biblical times. This interpretation is reinforced by the final lines before the lsat choruses:

But there’s violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed

On the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ

And this is a very appealing pop-rock song, with nice guitar from Mark Knopfler.

“I Believe in You”. This once was my favorite song on the album.  For some reason, it doesn’t stand out as much for me anymore, but it still is a (near) masterpiece.

“Slow Train”. This is a great song — perhaps the best on the album — that mostly could have passed for a mid-60s Dylan song. It’s not explicitly Christian or even religious; instead, it’s theme is an indictment of the state of the nation: “Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted”. There’s also some xenophobia. But before I get to any of those things, I think it’s worth dwelling on the second verse:

I had a woman down in Alabama

She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic

She said, “Boy, without a doubt

Have to quit your mess and straighten out

You could die down here, be just another accident statistic”

There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

I don’t like to biographize Dylan, but it’s clear that he felt a mess in 1978. His ugly divorce was just finalized, he was musically uncertain, and I think deeply burned out. In 1966, after his motorcycle accident he retreated to upstate New York with his family, but now he’d lost (destroyed) his family. If he didn’t find some refuge, (as he wrote on his next album), he thought by this time he’d “be sleeping In a pine box for all eternity”. Not just dead, but in the grave for all eternity. While “Slow Train” doesn’t tell us about the refuge Dylan found, the rest of the album does.

The verse about “foreign oil” and “sheikhs” who are “deciding America’s fate” is unfortunate: pointing the finger at “the other” is a bad place to start and can end even worse, as Dylan should have kept in mind. However, in most of the song the finger is pointing at us, at America. This is one of those songs that laments the state of the nation — America — and while it never says it explicitly, I think the power of these songs comes from Dylan’s acceptance of the old idea that America should be a “city upon a hill”, not that America is, but that it should be. Therefore, when America falls short of that, we essentially are not America

In the home of the brave

Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave

Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan

The enemy I see

Wears a cloak of decency

All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion

And perhaps the ultimate condemnation:

People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting

Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it

They say lose your inhibitions

Follow your own ambitions

They talk about a life of brotherly love show me someone who knows how to live it

We’re letting people starve while there’s abundant food, and our talk about brotherly love is just empty words. It’s hypocrisy, including specifically religious hypocrisy, just like when the 1965 Dylan sang about “flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark, it’s easy to see without looking too far, that not much is really sacred”. 

And — a common theme here — a beautifully crafted song and all around excellent performance.

“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. Hmmm… quite a few writers whom I really enjoy do not much like this one, but I’ve always loved it. This is kinda surprising, since I’m not particularly fond of Dylan’s blues songs (for example, on Blonde on Blonde and Time Out of Mind), but this is an exception. Maybe it’s because I don’t know all the different subtypes of blues? In any case, it’s the music that does it for me, just super driving, love the guitar and horns. The hate for the song came from the harsh, in your face, even accusatory lyrics. Not only has Dylan changed his way of thinking and made himself a different set of rules, he tells you that he’s going to stop being influenced by fools. that there’s only one authority, and that’s the authority on high, that Jesus said “he not with me is against me”. 

Honestly, this is a song where intellectually I don’t agree with the lyrics, but I respect that this is what Dylan was feeling at the time. So to me the question is does the song as a whole — lyrics, music, and performance — succeed at what it’s intending to do. I say: “yes it does”.

“Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”. This is a song that I basically never thought about — if you had asked me a couple of months ago to list the songs on the album, I probably couldn’t have remembered this. Now after listening to it a number of times, I really like the acoustic guitar part, and like the whole album, it’s a good performance. As I already wrote, I also find the parallelism to “All I Really Want to Do” amusing. Still, this isn’t one I expect to go back to.

“When You Gonna Wake Up”. Like the previous song, this is another that I never really thought about, but unlike “Do Right To Me…”, listening carefully to this one has really changed my impression of this one. The opening lines now strikes me as a powerful statement of where Dylan was at:

God don’t make no promises that He don’t keep

OK, sure, you can trust in God. But it’s the next line that gets me:

You got some big dreams, baby, but in order to dream you gotta still be asleep

You might have the American dream, dreams for yourself, but man, it’s time to wake up and face reality. You know why? Because:

Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts

Karl Marx has got ya by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots

The philosophies — the wisdom — of the world aren’t going to do the job. Not communism — that’s pretty easy for Dylan to dismiss; he never was a leftist. But “Henry Kissinger”? I think he represents secular wisdom or intellectual cleverness. This won’t do it either. You need to wake up

Once again, I think this is a thrilling call to action from where Dylan was at at the time. Others disagree. I really have enjoyed reading the essays at “Untold Dylan”, and the take there on “When You Gonna Wake up” is very negative, it’s just another preacher telling people what to do. I don’t experience the lyrics that way, but YMMV.

“Man Gave Names to All the Animals”. Just keep repeating: “It’s a children’s song, it’s a children’s song, it’s a children’s song…”

“When He Returns”. There’s too much to say about this one, so won’t even try. It’s a masterpiece. Unbelievably powerful and passionate vocals, yet not overwrought. Memorable lyrics: I could quote all of them, but here’s one couplet that has been echoing in my mind for weeks:

How long can you falsify and deny what is real?

How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?

Untold Dylan” criticizes the album version for showy piano playing, and calls out the April 1980 Toronto live performance as the definitive, perfect version. I agree that the Toronto performance is superior, amazing, and one of Dylan’s greatest ever performances (up there with the 1966 “Like A Rolling Stone” and 1976 “Isis”). However, the album version still is great.

Nine songs on this album. Even if you aren’t a believer, I’d argue that seven of them are complete successes, and four of the songs — “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Slow Train”, “I Believe In You”, “When He Returns” — are masterpieces or close to it. “For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears” … listen.

Bob Dylan at Budokan

In honor of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, I decided to listen to all of his “official” recordings in order. I’ve now reached “Bob Dylan at Budokan”.

Bob Dylan at Budokan

Bob Dylan at Budokan – Wikipedia

Recorded: Feb 28, Mar 1 1978

Released: April 23, 1979

I’m pretty sure I know what I would have made of this when it came out – at best, bizarre, at worst, just plain bad. At this point, my holy trinity was The Ramones, The Clash, and Elvis Costello, and while I already really liked Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan” was defined by The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blood on the Tracks. This live album (mostly) didn’t sound like any of that, with its big pop rock arrangements, saxophone, backing vocals, and even sometimes a flute. (Maybe he is just a song and dance man?)

But I didn’t hear this album until about 20 years later by which time my ears had grown (or at least changed). My recollection is that I thought something like “Eh, not bad”, but I may not have listened to it at all since then, until I reached it during this process. I’ve probably listened to it three or four times now. The first couple times my reaction wasn’t all that different from the first time I listened, maybe “not bad ++”. But the most recent time, something clicked, and now I actually really like a number of the performances. (But the flute? I’d still go full Belushi on it.)

The dramatic arrangements work really well for a number of songs: often they seem to be songs whose original records were either sparse or (in my opinion) not all that successful. I think the performance eof “Blowin’ in the Wind” may be (for now at least) my favorite version of this song; the original folk-strummin’ version is a classic, no doubt, but it just isn’t that interesting. Here we have a stirring dramatic anthem (as in a choir anthem… like a lot of what Dylan was doing here, a foreshadow of the gospel performances on the horizon) that really works. I also am not much of a fan of the basement version of “I Shall Be Released” — Dylan’s vocals seem strained — and this performance almost certainly is my favorite ever of this song. “Simple Twist of Fate” also is very nice. And I think “Just Like A Woman” is quite beautiful. The arrangement and Dylan’s vocal performance are very close to the original: sax and backing vocals aside, it’s very plausible he could have done it just like this in 1966.

I’m ambivalent about some of the performances. “Oh Sister” is a novel and interesting arrangement, but I just don’t like it that much. I like most of this arrangement of “Going, Going, Gone” except the interludes where the sax and backing backing vocals get turned up; this almost ruins the song for me. I feel kind of the same about “One More Cup of Coffee”, although I don’t like the main arrangement as much as “Going, Going, Gone”, and the sax parts aren’t as incongruous (the percussion is a bit hammy, though). The least successful performance is “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” — I just don’t get it.

Then there are the reggae arrangements. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is the least successful in my opinion; maybe it just doesn’t quite cohere, it “just don’t fit”. I actually enjoy listening to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, although it completely lacks the somber longing beauty of the original. So: musically attractive, but utterly incongruous with the lyrics. On the other hand, “Shelter From The Storm” is really successful. I would not take this over the Hard Rain version, but it’s completely original and beautiful, and the sax works.

“Is Your Love in Vain?” is good, pretty much faithful to the original. I wish they would have included many more Street Legal songs; obviously, this backing group could do justice to them. (I’m aware that more of the Street Legal songs were performed during the tour and show up on bootlegs. I’ve heard them, but the problem I have is that the sound quality is poor enough that I can’t really enjoy (or even hear) the performances; everything is tinny and muffled. There don’t seem to be any high-quality recordings from the 1978 tour available.)

“All Along The Watchtower” is another dramatic pop rock arrangement that I think works well. While I haven’t listened to the version Bear McCreary version from Battlestar Galactica recently, this performance gives me vibes of that.

Finally, there’s the highlight: “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”. We again have a big pop rock arrangement. The beginning of each verse and the chorus arerestrained, and then the music and vocals swell. The transformation from the original version reminds me of what Dylan did with “Isis” in 1975 and “Shelter from the Storm” in 1976. The original versions had all the intensity, drama, and emotion coiled up and kept in check; the live versions released them; the wind was howling, the snow was outrageous, and there was darkness at the break of noon.

Once again, I think negative and mixed reactions to this album stemmed from people having a set and narrow conception of what Dylan should sound like. This isn’t my favorite live Dylan, but I think it’s important because it served as the first wholesale reconstruction of his songs, which of course he’s now done many times, so now we’re used to it. And I won’t be waiting another 20 years to listen to this album again.—–More Dylan at

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!”)

Bob Dylan: Hard Rain

Recorded: May 16 and 23, 1976

Released: September 13, 1976

Maybe Dylan fans have just drunk too much kool aid. Or maybe the critics just don’t understand. But this live album may show the biggest divergence in opinion between (most) critics and (most) fans.

I have a theory why. This was another of Dylan’s albums that didn’t sound like Dylan was supposed to sound. The difference isn’t as obvious as for Nashville Skyline or Self Portrait (and various later albums), but it is crucial.

Dylan is raw here, blunt, unartful, sometimes desperate (and aren’t the guitars sometimes out of tune or just playing the wrong notes?). The performances take one aspect of the songs — the most primitive emotions — and dial it up to 11. A long time ago, I heard someone say that most people are “Dylan + X” fans. Obvious examples are: Dylan + Joan Baez (folkies), Dylan + The Band (roots lovers), Dylan + Hendrix (classic rockers). But Hard Rain appeals to a less obvious group: Dylan + The Clash. That’s me. And I think that helps explain why I’ve always really liked this album. (OK, Hard Rain really doesn’t sound like The Clash; it’s the spirit that’s similar.)

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Much of the negative reaction to this album came from its difference from the earlier concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue — I previously wrote about the Bootleg Series release that covers the Fall 1975 leg of that tour. Yes, they are very different! I described the earlier performances as loose, rocking, and rollicking. The contrast to Hard Rain is real. But that doesn’t mean raw lizard-brain performances are worse.

I think the track selection here is pretty coherent. While Dylan always brushed away biographical analysis — and who knows what he really had to do with the track selection? — most of the songs continue the story that came into sharp focus on Blood On The Tracks: the fallout from Dylan’s sabotaged marriage. The two outliers are “Maggie’s Farm” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. I really like this version of “Maggie’s Farm” (I think most live versions improve on the original studio recording, but YMMV). I’m not a big fan of any version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile…”, and this performance is fine, even enjoyable, but doesn’t speak to me in any significant way.

But the rest of the tracks are pretty great — again, think raw. The seductive crooning of the studio version of “Lay Lady Lay” is transformed into a frank demand — not threatening, but unsubtle and direct. The “Idiot Wind” here is the apotheosis of that song — unhinged paranoia and anger, including directed at the narrator.

The Live 1975 Bootleg began with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, but Hard Rain gives us “I Threw It All Away.” Seems to me that this would have been the perfect title for the album, but maybe it would have been too spot on.

Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round

Love and only love, it can’t be denied

No matter what you think about it

You just won’t be able to do without it

Take a tip from one who’s tried

The way Dylan sings “tried” (how many syllables is that?) pretty much gives the game away.

“One Too Many Mornings”, “Oh, Sister”, and “You’re A Big Girl Now” all continue he theme.

You are right from your side, and I am right from mine

We’re both one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door

Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow

I’m going out of my mind, oh

With a pain that stops and starts

Like a corkscrew to my heart

Ever since we’ve been apart

And finally, the highlight: this version of “Shelter From The Storm” is just sublime. Even more than the transformation of the studio version of “Isis” on The Live 1975 Bootleg Series, this gives us a whole new song. While thematically it does fit with the rest of the songs included here, I hear the performance as more in the spirit of the Fall 1975 shows. I’ll bring out the adjectives: again rocking and rollicking, but also joyful, even ecstatic. Dylan’s singing is powerful, but also subtly expressive: how many different ways are there to sing the single word “storm”?

Finally, it’s a mark of Dylan’s greatness that while I’ve been praising this album, I wouldn’t put it near the top of his available live performances. But it’s distinctive sound and spirit ensures that it remains special to me.