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.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue – Wikipedia

Recorded: November 19-21, December 4 1975

Released: November 26, 2002

A compilation of some great performances from the first part of the famous Rolling Thunder Revue. The Dylan obsessive will know everything about this tour and will have heard many complete (real) bootlegged shows. The casual fan might ask “Rolling what?” I’m much closer to the obsessive, but will try to explain what’s great in a way the casual fan will understand.

First, the performances are fierce. Dylan put together a huge band for the tour, plus quite a few famous musicians were around for at least parts of it, including as featured here Joan Baez (four songs) and Roger McGuinn (one song). The arrangements are loose, rocking, and rollicking, and Dylan’s singing is passionate and powerful.

Second, Dylan’s voice. I tend to think of his classic 60s voice as coming in two main flavors: the astringent cutting tone of “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Subterranean Blues” (and much of their albums), and the stoned/weary drawl of parts of Blonde on Blonde and the incredible live acoustic sets of the 1966 tour, for example as immortalized at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. His voice is different here. It’s powerful, strong, warm, full, maybe husky, sometimes verging on shout-y. However, don’t get the wrong impression: his singing also is expressive and nuanced. It’s a hard combination to explain; I don’t know that I have the right vocabulary. But my guess is that most people will find Dylan’s singing on these performances quite appealing.

Third, the song selection. There’s something for everyone here: greatest hits (“Blowin’ In The Wind”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Just Like A Woman”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, …), a couple from the recent Blood On The Tracks (“Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”), and a generous serving from the at the time unreleased Desire (six tracks). 

To get more specific, I’m going to start with a performance that certainly is known to the Dylan fan base, but may be obscure beyond that: “Isis”. I’m on the record with my love for the studio version, but the live version here — and the version from Montreal available on Biograph are astounding. To appreciate them, you really have to watch the videos — the Boston performance is available on Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” and the Montreal performance is available here. These performances are unique in Dylan’s career — the theatricality of the face paint, the hat, the gestures, and above all else, the amazing vocals and the explosive band performance take the epic tale embedded in the “Isis” lyrics to a place of pure ecstatic myth. These two performances are two of the three greatest Dylan live performances ever — the other is the 1966 Manchester “Like A Rolling Stone”. That has more historical resonance and extra-musical drama, but I think these two performances of “Isis” are greater artistic achievements.

I’m a rock fan, not particularly a fan of the guitar-strumming-lone-folk-singer style that Dylan inhabited in his early days (don’t get me wrong: he was great at it; it’s just not my favorite style). And more specifically, I feel like once Dylan went electric, he wanted and needed a band to really express his artistic intentions. But oddly enough, I really like a lot of the pure acoustic performances here: “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”, “Tangled Up in Blue”, and “Just Like A Woman” are particularly fine. And although I’m also not a fan of Joan Baez nor of many of her early 60s duets with Dylan, I also like their duets here: my favorite is the traditional “The Water Is Wide”. (I wish they’d have included a couple of other duets they did at times during the Revue: “Never Let Me Go” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”.) 

And also oddly, while I generally like “rocked up versions of acoustic songs”, I do not think when he did that on some of the tracks here it was totally successful. I just don’t like “It Ain’t Me Babe” all that much (maybe there’s something about the guitar that’s kind of annoying), I don’t care for the arrangement of “Hattie Carroll”, and while I like the rocking version “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in principle — and maybe as its own thing — I just don’t think it captures the meaning of the song the way the “Freewheeling” original did.

I also really like the live versions of the Desire songs. I think “Hurricane” and “Romance in Durango” — while in identical arrangements as the studio album — work better here. The intensity of “Hurricane” and (IMO) corniness of “Romance in Durango” are better suited for the excitement of the stage. And “Oh Sister” and “One More Cup of Coffee” are just good in about any setting.

And I’ll give a final nod to the compiler: “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” absolutely is a great opener, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” a great finale.

Bob Dylan: Desire

Recorded: July, August, October 1975

Released: January 5, 1976

I think if I’d heard this album as soon as it came out, I might have been a little disappointed (coming so soon after Blood On The Tracks) and also a bit unsure what to make of it. I’m not disappointed anymore — why would I be? It’s another Dylan album with some great songs — but I am still a bit unsure what to make of it.

Purely arbitrarily, I’ve found that the songs on this album settle into three sets of three … for me. The first set is “songs that I like unreservedly”. The second set is “songs about real people which you can tell because they’re named after real people”. The third set is “songs that I like, but am particularly unsure what to make of”.

First set: “Isis”, “Oh Sister”, and “One More Cup of Coffee”. “Isis” is an absolute Dylan masterpiece, epic lyrics, perfect arrangement (Dylan’s piano driving the beat, drums and bass reinforcing it, eerie violin fills, joined eventually by harmonica), incredible vocal performance. There are great, crazed, pulling-out-all-the-stops  live versions of this (more on these when I discuss the next few albums), but they don’t overshadow the studio version. This version seems to be disciplined, even restrained, as it tells a story of an epic quest… all proceeding from and leading back to… Isis.

“Oh Sister” is just a beautiful love plea. “Oh Sister, am I not a brother to you? And one deserving of affection.”  I also love how he brings God into into it: 

Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms

You should not treat me like a stranger

Our Father would not like the way that you act

And you must realize the danger

Again, a beautifully simple arrangement: the violin plays a perfect counterpoint to Dylan and Emmylou Harris’s emotional duet.

“One More Cup of Coffee”. Allen Ginsberg wrote liner notes for Desire, and he wrote something that has always stuck in my mind and captures this song for me: “voice lifts in Hebraic cantillation never heard before in U.S. song. ancient blood singing”. Yet another incredible vocal performance supported by violin, with Emmylou Harris joining in on the chorus…. to the valley below.

Second set: “Hurricane”, “Joey”, and “Sara”. I’m never quite sure how to take “Hurricane”. I know some people think it’s among Dylan’s best, but not for me, for reasons that I’m not quite sure of. I believe Dylan really meant this song, and you can hear the performance as “I’m just bursting to get this story out, and there’s no time for concerns like good rhymes, lyrics and music fitting together well”, and if you do, that’s great. But I miss those things. Also, unlike the songs I’ve already talked about, I’m not a big fan of the violin on this one.

On the other hand, I really like “Joey”. It just sounds great, a beautiful performance all around. The opening verse grabs your attention:

Born in Red Hook Brooklyn in the year of who knows when

Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion

Always on the outside whatever side there was

When they asked him why it had to be that way “Well” he answered “just because”.

Perfect rich and intense vocals, once again the violin offers perfect color, then the accordion adds more character, and finally, the background vocals on the chorus offers just the right support. Another classic Dylan noble outlaw song. 

Of course, it’s too bad that Joey Gallo was a Mafia enforcer. Not unreasonably, a lot of people hated the song. This article does a great job acknowledging that, but ends up where I am: loving the song.

Someone once said (I thought it was Philip Roth, but I can’t track it down) “To write a great Jewish novel, write a great novel and give the characters Jewish names”. (I remember reading this in a review of Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, which painted a fairly fact-challenged portrait of Thomas Cromwell; she wrote a great novel, then named the protagonist “Thomas Cromwell”.) That’s how I interpret “Joey”: “to write a great song about a noble outlaw named Joey Gallo, write a great song about a noble outlaw, then call the outlaw “Joey”. In other words, from my remove, I don’t care about the real life Joey Gallo, I just am taken in by the artistry of this song.

I really like “Sara”, too, but with caveats. It feels a little too personal to me, and after Dylan had wrecked (and was still in the process of wrecking) his marriage, I’m not quite sure how much to believe this song. Does he really mean it? Is he really trying to mean it? Or doth he protest too much?

Third set: “Mozambique”, “Romance in Durango”, “Black Diamond Bay”. These are all quite enjoyable in different ways, but also in my opinion inessential. These all seem more like exercises than things Dylan really is passionate about. “Mozambique” is the slightest of the three, but perhaps the most fun to listen to with its light, breezy, and catchy music. “Romance in Durango” is a south-of-the-border adventure. “Black Diamond Bay” is the cleverest and most ambitious, with the first six verses spinning a short story about assorted sordid, mundane, or tragic goings on at Black Diamond Bay, culminating in (spoilers!) a volcanic eruption that sinks the island. The seventh verse is the kicker, where we take the perspective of a jaded observer hearing about — and dismissing — the tragedy:

I was sittin’ home alone one night in L.A.

Watchin’ old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news

It seems there was an earthquake that

Left nothin’ but a Panama hat

And a pair of old Greek shoes

Didn’t seem like much was happenin’,

So I turned it off and went to grab another beer

Seems like every time you turn around

There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear

And there’s really nothin’ anyone can say

And I never did plan to go anyway

To Black Diamond Bay

I’m reminded of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He wrote that instant mass media means that we all are constantly subjected to information that is irrelevant to the concerns of our own daily lives and which we can’t do anything about. How do we react? Losing track of what actually matters to ourselves? Confused about how to make sense of what we hear? Or just … apathetic… letting the tragedies wash over us without leaving an impression… because we never did plan to go anyway to Black Diamond Bay.

So: a really good album, with some classic songs, no clunkers, and even my least favorite songs are really enjoyable. Somehow, though, it just isn’t coherent… does that matter?

Bob Dylan: Blood On The Tracks

Recorded: September 16-19, December 27-30 1974

Released: January 20, 1975

As I have been listening to Dylan’s albums in order, I sometimes cheat by skipping ahead and often crosscheck my impressions by going back and re-listening to previous ones. I’ve also just gone down the rabbithole of listening to the really nice Bob Dylan: Album by Album podcast. Here’s something I’ve learned: among Dylan’s greatest albums, which ones you prefer says more about you than it does about differences in the quality of the albums.

The consensus on the greatest Dylan albums is clear: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood On The Tracks. (Here’s a blog post that proves it scientifically!) Me, I’ve always considered Blood On The Tracks his greatest.  Going through this exercise has both shaken my confidence in that judgement a bit, but more importantly, has helped me understand why I feel that way.

Blood On The Tracks does not have the spectacular, astounding peaks of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. As great as the songs here are, they are outshone by “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row”, “Visions of Johanna”, and “Just Like A Woman” (not to mention “Mr. Tambourine Man” from Bringing It All Back Home or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan). 

So why the love for Blood On The Tracks? I think it’s something that sounds trivial and even unartistic: the songs are straightforward and form a coherent whole. I have been listening to the Bob Dylan: Album by Album podcast take on Dylan’s older albums to avoid biasing my own (re-)impression of each album as I listen to it. Ben Burrrel (spent) well over an hour on both Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and these episodes were fascinating. For Blonde, he spends a lot of time on the sound (that “thin wild mercury music”) and for both, he spends a lot of time on the lyrics, pointing out interesting rhyme schemes, comparing them to surrealistic painting, and coming up with pretty ingenious interpretations. This was great stuff that much enhanced my appreciation of these albums (which I’ve probably listened to dozens, if not hundreds of times)!

But the thing about Blood On The Tracks is that you don’t need this level of analysis and interpretation to get it. The music is direct and appealing, and the lyrics are transparent, yet often powerfully poetic. I found an article about Dylan that had the most perfect capsule summary of the album:

With 15 years of fame behind him and the failure of a decade-long marriage in front of him, it is true that Dylan on this album looks at the world through blood-spattered glasses. The losses he is singing about seem fatal; his anger on songs like “Idiot Wind” is Lear-like. “Blood on the Tracks” is his only flawless album and his best produced; the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion, written and rewritten, formed in a way his songs almost never are. It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-’60s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years. 

“Discipline” is a key — a term that certainly doesn’t apply to Dylan’s mid-60s excursions. And yes, the “balance” between those brilliant excesses and the overly simple (simplistic) Nashville Skyline to Planet Waves period. 

The album begins with Dylan’s greatest story song, “Tangled Up in Blue”. Jangly folk-rock drives us forward, and the singing (as on the whole album) is just fantastic. Listen to “She turned around to look at me / As I was walking away” or “I seen a lot of women / But she never escaped my mind”. And then there’s the thrilling passage: 

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul from me to you

Every one of the words in this song — this album — glow like burning coal… And finally: “

But me, I’m still on the road

Heading for another joint

We always did feel the same

We just saw it from a different point of view

Tangled up in blue

Am I going to go through all the songs like this? Well, like Captain America said: “I can do this all day”… “Simple Twist of Fate” features incredible vocals, “You’re A Big Girl Now” starts sad, but resigned, before ending “With a pain that stops and starts, Like a corkscrew to my heart”, “Meet Me In The Morning” is a raw blues (the cleaned up version of the crazed “Call Letter Blues”, which is stark, more raw, and better, but too stark, raw, and personal), and the warmly appealing folk blues of “Buckets of Rain” is the perfect summing up of the album:

Life is sad, life is a bust

All you can do is do what you must

You do what you must do and you do it well,

I’d do it for you, honey baby,

Can’t you tell?

But before we get to that conclusion, we get another handful of amazing songs. “Idiot Wind” swings wildly  at everything in sight: There’s the press (which the narrator responds to with the funniest justification in Dylan’s work)

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press

Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess

They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy

She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me

I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

There’s the ex:

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, babe

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

But finally, the narrator might be facing up to his own role:

You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above

And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love

And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats

Blowing through the letters that we wrote

Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves

We’re idiots, babe

It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” features the happiest music on the album, and there’s lots of happiness in the lyrics, too, but they also look forward to the inevitable conclusion:

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy

Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme

Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy

I could stay with you forever and never realize the time

Situations have ended sad

Relationships have all been bad

Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

But there’s no way I can compare

All those scenes to this affair

Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

(While going through this exercise, I also learned something new: this song is obviously about a woman Dylan was having an affair with… I guess I wouldn’t have minded not knowing that.)

“Lily, Rosemary, and The Jack of Hearts”. This is a seemingly straightforward old-west narrative about … what really? A heist? Love affairs? The Law? A murder… yes, a murder. 

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick

The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked

And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised

Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes

She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black

Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back

And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink

The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink

The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts

This is a song I’ve always liked, but while I’ve been listening to the album now, I just can’t get enough of it. It’s almost nine minutes long, but when it’s done, I just want to listen to it again.

“If You See Her, Say Hello” is another masterpiece. Amazing vocals, and lyrics that gradually tell us not just what the narrator wants “her” to hear, but what he really feels:

Say for me that I’m all right

Though things get kind of slow

She might think that I’ve forgotten her

Don’t tell her it isn’t so

I see a lot of people

As I make the rounds

And I hear her name here and there

As I go from town to town

And I’ve never gotten used to it

I’ve just learned to turn it off

Either I’m too sensitive

Or else I’m gettin’ soft

If she’s passin’ back this way

I’m not that hard to find

Tell her she can look me up

If she’s got the time

“Shelter From The Storm” Dylan needed it, he knew he needed it, and he knew he’d lost it… but still needed it. (Dylan’s “this album isn’t autobiographical” shtick is fine, but c’mon, even if every lyric isn’t describing an event in his life, it’s clearly about his experience and where he was at at the time.)  I love pretty much everything about this song, and pretty much every version he’s ever done of it (including the very different live versions coming up over the next few years). This includes the biblical imagery:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes

I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose

I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

And there’s “Up To Me”, which Dylan left off the album. It’s great, it’s a masterpiece, some people have called it among Dylan’s best. Speculation is Dylan left it off the album because musically it was too similar to “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Shelter From The Storm”. At this point in the history of the world, this doesn’t matter — it’s available, so you can always include this in your own personal version of the album. 

Let’s let “Up To Me” have the last words:

And if we never meet again, baby, remember me

How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody

And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free

No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me

Bob Dylan and The Band: Before the Flood

Recorded: January 30, February 13-14 1974

Released: June 20, 1974

Bob Dylan as Rock Star. A rollicking and muscular performance. I think it’s strongest — and it’s very strong — on the rocking tracks. IMO, best ever performances of “Most Likely Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, “Lay Lady Lay”, “Highway 61 Revisited”. “Like A Rolling Stone” also is great, not quite as good as the 1966 version, but a close second. I love the rocked-up version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” with The Band (Levon, maybe?) coming in on the “No, No, No” of the chorus.  “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” also is good — not elegant and understated like the studio version, but that’s not what Dylan is going after here.

Speaking of not elegant and understated, while I really like the acoustic performances, I think the golden age of Dylan + guitar + harmonica ended a decade earlier. By this time, I don’t think this was the mode that he really cared about. So “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is more of a shout than the chilling deadpan delivery from Bringing It All Back Home. Still a great song — how could you ruin it? — but I just don’t think it brings across the message of the song as well.

In contrast, I’m totally into the rock version of “Blowin’ In the Wind” with the Band joining in on the chorus, screaming guitar solos, etc. Maybe this is sacrilegious, but the original studio recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is kinda boring compared to this. 

Apparently, Dylan became dissatisfied with how this tour went. As I understand it, he doesn’t like being put into a box, here the box of Arena Rock Star, even if it is a box of his own making. Even so, I think this is a great live album, and I totally recommend it. The Band performances are good, too.

Bob Dylan: Planet Waves

Planet Waves – Wikipedia

Recorded: November 1973

Released: January 1974

People were excited! The 1966 tour and the Basement Tapes hadn’t been officially released, but were legendary, and here you got an entire album of new songs of Dylan backed up by The Band.

But me, I expected it… never mind. This is an album that I find pleasant overall, no clunkers, but I never really want to listen to.  This is almost the opposite of how I feel about New Morning in that I really enjoy listening to it, despite the fact that there are a few clunkers, and I do sometimes want to listen to.

I think part of the problem is that I really am not a big fan of The Band. After I listened to the Live 1966 album and The Basement Tapes, I thought: “I should listen to The Band’s Music From Big Pink. While I’m familiar with quite a few of the songs on it, I don’t think I’d ever listened to the whole album, and wow… aside from the stone classics, “The Weight” and “Long Black Veil”, I found a number of the tracks nearly unlistenable, and it was all I could do to keep myself from skipping through them. Also… I cannot stand Richard Manuel’s strangled semi-falsetto on “I Shall Be Released” and “Tears of Rage”. So… I’m not going to jump up and down about The Band’s role on Planet Waves. (The Band’s second album is much better!)

I do enjoy almost all the songs. If I had to pick my favorites I’d go for “On A Night Like This”, “Something There is About You”, “Dirge”, and “Wedding Song”.

Of course, it’s also got “Forever Young” … times two. However, I’m not a fan of either of the versions here (“out out damned Band”). For me, the best version always has been Dylan’s demo that’s included on Biographbut I think he surpassed that with the version on Shadow Kingdom.

So there you have it. A perfectly fine Dylan album, but one that I may never choose to listen to.

Bob Dylan: New Morning

Recorded: June-August 1970

Released: October 21, 1970

This isn’t one of Dylan’s masterpieces — in fact, it might not even sneak into his top 20 best albums. So it says a lot about his abilities (or maybe my having drunk aaaaaaaaaaaaaall the Dylan kool-aid) that I find this a completely delightful listen. There’s the early 70s pop-rock of “If Not For You” and “New Morning” (imagine if Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had joined Fleetwood Mac a few years earlier, when they and the McVies still were happy couples… these songs would have been naturals for them), the academia paranoia of “Day of the Locusts” (maybe I’m a sucker for this because I’m an academic… and he takes off for the “Black Hills of Dakota” at the end), the Elvis fantasy of “Went To See the Gypsy” (ending with him watching the sun rise “from that little Minnesota town”), the goof of “Winterlude” (if this had been on “The Basement Tapes”, people would love it), the simple joy of “The Man in Me” (which took on new life and meaning after “The Big Lebowski”).

And then there’s “Sign On The WIndow”, which I think is a near masterpiece. Beautiful vocal performance, beautiful music, Dylan’s idiosyncratic piano playing.  Lyrics that begin with a bleak first verse (“Sign on the window says ‘lonely’…), go through a mysterious second verse (“Brighton girls are like the moon”), jump over a rainy bridge, and end with that perfect final verse:

Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me “pa” / That must be what it’s all about, / That must be what it’s all about.
I also recommend checking out alternative versions of the New Morning  songs on Another Self Portrait. They’re all also delightful. I might prefer the version of “New Morning” with horns, one of the other versions of “Went To See The Gypsy”, and think the slow piano and violin version of “If Not For You” is something really special.

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait

Self Portrait (Bob Dylan album) – Wikipedia

Recorded: August 1969-March 1970

Released: June 8, 1970

The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971) – Wikipedia

Recorded: February 1969-March 1971 (plus one track from 1967)

Released: August 27, 2013

“What is this shit?” That’s the famous opening to Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of “Self Portrait”. I think the what is easy to answer: it’s a grab bag of old-ish traditional folk songs, contemporary folk-ish songs, country songs, some very minor original songs, and some re-dos of older Dylan originals.

I think what was really baffling Marcus was another question: “Why this shit?” Why cover cheesy country songs, contemporary folk/country songs by lesser songwriters? And what’s up with the few odd originals.

I think the reaction to this album would have been much different if people had known what Dylan and The Band actually were up to in the basement of Big Pink. They ran through a bunch of old-ish traditional folk songs, some contemporary folk songs, a bunch of country songs, including some really cheesy ones, some older Dylan songs, as well as a bunch of odd Dylan originals… that’s just what Self Portrait consists of!

But don’t get my wrong: Self Portrait isn’t a good album, so why’d Dylan release it. The Wikipedia article gives a couple of the well-known theories, both of which are based on what Dylan himself said. One is that he essentially was trolling the world: he released some stuff he thought was bad in order to get everyone to stop thinking of him as a kind of prophet and just leave him alone. The other theory is basically that he knew whatever he recorded was going to get bootlegged, so he decided to just cut out the middleman and bootleg himself.

Hmmm…. The second theory makes more sense to me, but there’s still something I don’t understand, which leads me to my question: “why this specific shit?” To see why I ask this, I’ll turn to the Bootleg Series: Another Self Portrait. The track listing includes 13 songs recorded during the Self Portrait sessions. It also includes the entire Isle of Wight concert, a few songs of which were included on Self Portrait.

Here’s the thing. If those 13 recordings and some of the Isle of Wight tracks had comprised the original Self Portrait, the reaction would (or at least should) have been totally different. The selection of songs is much better, and even for songs that were included on Self Portrait, they come across totally different without the horrific overdubbed strings and background vocals. (Seriously, it sounds like they were going for Elvis-type arrangements… just awful.)

So, my advice is never listen to Self Portrait, but definitely check out Another Self Portrait. “Pretty Saro”, “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, “Thirsty Boots”, “This Evening So Soon”, and “Copper Kettle” all showcase what a great song interpreter Dylan is. Another Self Portrait also is worthwhile because of the New Morning alternative versions, which I’ll mention when I get to that album.

Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline

Recorded: February 1969

Released: April 9, 1969

Dylan goes country! Except… Dylan grew up with country music. Maybe that wasn’t really known in 1969, but we know it now. And thee’s the mid-60s video of him singing Hank Williams song, and the huge numbers of old time country songs he ran through on The Basement Tapes. Not to mention that many of his songs, including from The Basement Tapes were (at the least) country adjacent.

Now, I like country(-ish) music. And I quite like a few of the songs on this album: “To Be Alone With You”, “I Threw It All Away”, and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”. Now, past Dylan country excursions — like the stuff he did on The Basement Tapes or “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from John Wesley Harding — sounded like Dylan; he made this his own.  But the problem I have with Nashville Skyline is that it strikes me as a genre exercise: country-style themes with stereotypically country instrumentation. 

Also, this album is only 27 minutes long. And one of the songs is a duet with Johnny Cash of “Girl From The North Country”, an old song, and another is an instrumental.

So the other reaction I have to Nashville Skyline is that it doesn’t seem like Dylan was trying too hard.

There is another hand, however. I actually like it when Dylan reins things in, when he writes mores straightforward songs. (Although I can’t go so far as to say I prefer this style to his visionary work of a few years before.) But I do appreciate when he tries to work within limits, often demonstrating he can turn out a really appealing song. Here’s what that means to me. For Dylan’s most famous songs — say “Hard Rain” or “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Desolation Row” or “Visions of Johanna” — his version is the definitive one: the songs are his. But he also sends songs out into the world that other performers can do great versions of.  (You might be objecting: “What about Jimi Hendrix ‘All Along the Watchtower”? “What about The Byrds ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’?” Even “What about Peter Paul & Mary ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’?” I have answers. Hendrix created a different song. So did the Byrds. And ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is exactly the type of song I’m referring to here… others can do great versions of it.)

I guess I should mention two other things. “Lay Lady Lay ” was a hit, but it always struck me as teetering on the edge of ridiculousness. Maybe I’m the only one, but there it is. And the Nashville Skyline Voice?!? Dylan can sing? This is because he gave up smoking? Maybe… I don’t know how he got to sound like this (or perhaps why he chose to sound like this). But after all the listening I’ve done to Dylan’s various voices over the years, I actually am not much of a fan of his voice here. It sounds… too smooth, almost artificial… not real Dylan.

John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding – Wikipedia

Recorded: October-November 1967

Released: December 27, 1967 (although actual release date is uncertain)

The Pitchfork article on “The Cutting Edge” Bootleg Series has a quote about John Wesley Harding that so perfectly captures my reaction to this album that I’m just going to lead with it: Dylan was “stripping everything to the bone and writing with shocking economy and clarity”. The skipping reels of rhyme from 1964-1966 are gone. The high-spirited nonsense of the basement recordings has been reined in. Arrangements are sparse and clean.

But are these songs really clear

There’s “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, which sounds like a story about two friends, but really, what’s going on here? “Nothing was revealed” indeed. (I do really enjoy this song.) 

“All Along The Watchtower”. “Shocking economy” is right. Elegant, mysterious simplicity. “There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”. Perfect as it is. Jimi Hendrix version is great, but that’s a completely different song.

“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”. This is one of my favorite Dylan songs ever. It seems so straightforward, and the singing is so emotional. The last verse always hits me hard: 

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine

Alive with fiery breath

And I dreamed I was amongst the ones

That put him out to death

Oh, I awoke in anger

So alone and terrified

I put my fingers against the glass

And bowed my head and cried

I can’t even say why — maybe just the sense that there’s always deep regret for things you’ve done and wished you hadn’t. Or maybe the literal meaning — I’ve had a few dreams in my life where I did something terrible, and struggle to wake up, feeling awful until I fully realize it was just a dream.

“I PIty The Poor Immigrant”. This song always surprises me. I always expect it to be something like “Deportees”, a song lamenting the way immigrants to the US (and everywhere, really) are treated. But no. The lyrics are pretty shocking:

I pity the poor immigrant

Who wishes he would’ve stayed home

Who uses all his power to do evil

But in the end is always left so alone

That man whom with his fingers cheats

And who lies with ev’ry breath

Who passionately hates his life

And likewise, fears his death.

What the actual hell is going on here? Maybe the bogus ‘moral’ from “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” actually applies here: “the moral of the story, the moral of the song, is simply that one should never be where one does not belong”.  Don’t lose one’s traditions… you can’t solve your problems by taking off for a land of opportunity, where it’s all about material things… maybe that’s it.

“Drifter’s Escape” and “Wicked Messenger”. I like ‘em both (really enjoyed 90s live versions). Are the drifter and wicked messenger prophets? Are they Dylan?

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