Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

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: 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?

The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete

The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete – Wikipedia

Recorded: June-October 1967

Released: November 4, 2014 (Hey, that’s my birthday!)

Gathering my thoughts on this has been killing me. I’ve been listening to this off and on for the last month or so, and trying to figure out what to say. The problem is (looking either ahead to the 21st or back to the 19th) is that it contains multitudes.

And remember: the first rule of “The Basement Tapes” is that Bob Dylan never made an album called “The Basement Tapes”. Dylan was living in Woodstock in 1967 with his young family, getting away from the insane pace of the past few years, and his friends who’d backed him up on his 1966 tour and parts of Blonde on Blonde were there, too. Over a few summer and fall months, they spent a bunch of time creating and recording songs in the basement of the house where Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel lived. Robbie Robertson was in Woodstock, too. ((Most of) The Band, don’t ya know.) 

Dylan did not intend these to be sessions for an album. But he was still working for The Man — i.e., the Record Company — and The Man wanted some value. So Dylan said he was writing and recording a bunch of songs that could be demoed for other artists (and yes, that happend, e.g., this), so I guess that gave him some breathing room.

These recordings became the heart of the first rock bootleg album, and at least in part because of their underground nature, became legendary, a hidden artifact that only a few had tasted, but many lusted after. By 1975 Dylan gave permission for the record company to do an official release of basement tapes recordings, so they brought Robbie Robertson in to take the lead on making this happen. He was most involved in selecting songs to include, cleaning them up, adding in new overdubs, and throwing in some songs by The Band. The result was the official “Basement Tapes” album. By the way, that Wikipedia article gives much more detail about the context of the recordings than the one about the Bootleg Series The Basement Tapes Complete…

So… I first heard the official album probably in the 70s or mid 80s at the latest, then bought an extensive bootleg in the mid to late 90s, then finally listened to the official Bootleg Series version when it came out in 2014. And as I said, I’ve listened to all or large parts of it a handful of times now … and I’m still not quite sure what I think of them. 

Remember the whole “legendary” bit? This (along with the 1966 Dylan tour) created The Band (qua Band). Multiple books have been written just about these sessions; best title is Greil Marcus’s “The Old Weird America”. Great description of the songs — was Dylan recovering the old weird America… or creating something that never really existed? (By the way, I only read the book when it came out, and found it obscure and pretentious… I should probably try again.)

I guess the first thing that puzzles me about The Basement Tapes is: what was Dylan up to? Sure, he sold it to the record company as writing and recording demos, but if you listen to the entirety of the tapes (which are in order on the Bootleg Series release), it’s clear he spent a bunch of time first looking for something (old weird America, anyone)… or else just having fun with his buds…. or both?  They ran through bunches of old country songs (some of them unashamedly cheesy, IMO), some good versions of Johnny Cash tunes (I’m particularly fond of “Big River”), a few songs he came back to time and time over his career (“Spanish is the Loving Tongue”, “People Get Ready”, “A Satisfied Mind” … good here, but better versions come later), some modern folk songs, some traditional folk songs, and some utter nonsense (“See You Later Allen Ginsburg”, “I’m Your Teenage Prayer”, “Kicking My Dog Around”). 

Why these songs? Remember that Dylan had just gone electric, and with (The future) Band had finished an incredible rock tour the year before. No trace of that here. And if he wanted to go back in time, why not go back to his teenage rock’n’roll days? Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry… they were right up The Band’s alley. So why utterly avoid early rock’n’roll, and instead go into country and diverse folk sources? 

And then come the originals. Most (but not all) of the most polished originals were included on the 1975 Basement Tapes. I really enjoy listening to these songs, but there’s one reaction I can never escape: many of them are just nonsense. “Million Dollar Bash” – “Well, that big dumb blonde with her wheel in the gorge / And Turtle, that friend of hers, with his checks all forged / And his cheeks in a chunk, and his cheese in the cash / They’re all gonna be there at that million dollar bash.”  And pretty much all of “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”. 

I like to be able to know (and maybe tell people) this is what this song is about. I feel like I can do that for most of Dylan’s previous songs, but for some of these I just can’t. Yet I really like listening to “Million Dollar Bash”, “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Lo and Behold”, “Apple Suckling Tree”, “Please Mrs. Herny”, etc. Dylan’s voice is so expressive, and he sounds like he’s having just the best time.

Of course, there are “serious” songs, too: “Tears of Rage”, “I Shall Be Released”, and “This Wheel’s on Fire” come to mind. “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” often are considered among Dylan’s best. I can see why, but for me, the performances are a bit lacking because I don’t think Dylan’s voice is well suited for parts of the songs — he sounds strained on the high notes… not emotionally strained, but like it’s hard for him to sing them. “This Wheel’s On Fire” is pretty great, though — no complaints there.

Lots of the songs aren’t quite finished… either in the lyrics, or the arrangement, or the performance… words are slurred, the mix of instruments is weird, songs kind of just end. Again, this can’t be considered a criticism, since these recordings never were meant to be heard. But I do like the more finished performances. For what it’s worth, “Odds and Ends” is one that always hits me as most polished and successful — it’s such a rollicking good time, why wasn’t this a hit? ‘You know what I’m saying and you know what I mean… odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time is not found again!”

And then there are treasures that remained hidden/forbidden after the 1975 release. Two stand above the rest: “I’m Not There” and “Sign on the Cross”. “I’m Not There” is shocking to listen to: the lyrics are not done, in fact, they’re barely there. Often Dylan slurs words, and when he doesn’t, the words he chooses don’t fit at all. Here was one try at a transcription of one of the verses: “I believe where she’d stop him if she wants time to care / I believe that she’d look upon beside him to care / And I’d go by the Lord and when she’s on my way / But I don’t belong there.” And other transcriptions are totally different. But it’s a great song — someone wrote that it’s Dylan’s saddest song ever. You can figure out what the song is ‘about’.

“Sign on the Cross”… a crazed country gospel sermon, but not a parody (not like what the Rolling Stones did in “Far Away Eyes” a decade later. I enjoy the sound of that song, but their contempt is palpable.) He means it: “Oh, when your days are numbered / And your nights are long / You might think you’re weak / But I mean to say you’re strong / Yes you are, if that sign on the cross / If it begins to worry you / Well, that’s all right you can sing a song / And all your troubles will pass right on through”

I’ll end with this: “Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy / But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna jump for joy”.

Shadow Kingdom

Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan – Wikipedia

Recorded: ?

Released: July 18, 2021

Bonus! Dylan’s “broadcast event”… “filmed performance”… “series of linked music videos”… The latter probably is most accurate. Pitchfork said: “As he sings in dusky rooms filled with cigarette smoke and lamplight, mannequins and Western characters, the whole thing takes on a surreal, ghostlike quality.” 

I’ve watched the whole thing three times, I think, and it’s a real pleasure. What this showcases is Dylan’s skill as a song interpreter… with the twist that these are all his own songs. These aren’t ramshackle tossed off run throughs; these are fundamental reimaginings of the songs that fit where Dylan is now. Given the ravages to his voice over the 30 to 55 years since he wrote these songs, he obviously changed how he sings them, but the changes to the musical settings in many cases are at least as fundamental. If you think this is how all these songs would have sounded if had recorded them for “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, you’ll be close (maybe that’s when he came up with these arrangements?) There also are lyric changes, and they’re interesting, but I don’t think they change the songs in a meaningful way.

There are a couple songs that don’t work as well for me: “Watching the River Flow”, “To Be Alone With You”, perhaps… it still feels like he hasn’t quite found the way to sing them with this current vocal abilities. But these are the exceptions.

Highlights for me:

  • Beautiful version of “Forever Young”. Seeing and hearing him do this at the age of 80 is moving, but if the performance wasn’t great, it would just be sad. But the performance is great, perhaps best version of this song ever.
  • “Queen Jane Approximately”: one of my least favorite songs from “Highway 61 Revisited” comes across beautifully in Dylan’s new mode.
  • “Tombstone Blues”. This is insane. Instead of the driving blues rock of the original, It verges on spoken word, delivered over a barely there ominous accompaniment. A prophetic vision, recited as if he’s receiving it in real time.
  • “What Was It You Wanted”. This was the biggest surprise for me. First, “Shadow Kingdom” was billed as “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan”, which I and everyone else assumed would mean the 1960s and maybe early 70s, and this is form 1989’s “Oh Mercy”. Second, while I really like Oh Mercy, it could barely crack the Top 10 of Dylan’s albums. And finally, “What Was It You Wanted” is my second least favorite song on the whole album (“Disease of Conceit” comes in last). And yet, this was a stunning performance. I feel like the song never existed before, even though Dylan’s singing actually is quite similar to the Oh Mercy version. Perhaps the melody just perfectly fits where his voice currently is at. Perhaps the stark stripped down arrangement gives room for the essence of the song to come through. And perhaps the message of paranoia, isolation, wondering what does this other person want? Is that a kiss of betrayal? is just so spot on. 

As of now (July 24, 2021), this performance is set to disappear in a day or so. I expect it will come out again in a permanent form. Whenever you have the chance, take a listen. It will change the way you imagine these songs, and change your view of what Dylan can do.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 – Wikipedia

Recorded: January 1965 – May 1966

Released: November 6, 2015

So I don’t have to talk about this, since it is a compilation album, and my rule was that I didn’t have to talk about compilation albums. But in case you don’t have any idea what this is, here’s what the Wikipedia article says: “it comprises recordings from 1965 and 1966, mostly unreleased demos and outtakes from recording sessions for his ground-breaking albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. “

The other complication is (again, per Wikipedia): “Three different versions of the set were released simultaneously: a two-disc 36-track Best of edition in the packaging and format standard to the rest of the series after the first installment; a six-disc 111-track box set Deluxe edition similar in packaging to its counterpart from the previous Bootleg set; and an 18-disc 379-track limited Collector’s Edition available exclusively by order from Dylan’s official website…”. The “Collector’s Edition” included  “…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric”.


So… I sprang for the Deluxe edition when this came out, so that’s 111 tracks. I’ve listened to these 111 tracks a few times over the past few weeks, and I have a grab bag of reactions that I’ll share in no particular logical order:

  • There are a few (but just a few) “hidden gems” here… that is, they were outtakes that weren’t officially released for years or decades. I’ve already talked about several of them: “Farewell Angelina” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. The other song that gets talked about a lot is “She’s Your Lover Now”.  Lots of people love this song. Pitchfork, for example (which doesn’t generally stan Dylan because he’s too old, etc.) had a nice passage on it, including: “it’s easily one of the best songs Dylan had written to that point, meaning it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written period, an alternately hilarious and pained story of a guy, his ex-girlfriend, and her new boyfriend encountering each other at a party.” But they also note that “Dylan was never able to record it properly.” It’s a complicated song musically and lyrically, and Dylan and the musicians never make it all the way through the song without messing up, and he eventually gave up on it. This is another song that I’ve just never warmed up to. Maybe I’m just too fussy, but I don’t feel like he ever got it right… I don’t find any of the versions very appealing musically, and as I’ve said often, I think Dylan’s best songs (and there are lots of them) are very appealing musically.
  • There are lots of “alternative” versions of the songs that appeared on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. What’s cool here isn’t that they are “better” than the ones selected for release. It’s that they show Dylan’s process. Again, if you haven’t read about it, he basically works through his songs — to some extent lyrically and to a large extent musically — with his backing musicians. This is how he “finds” the song: Robbie Robertson said (somewhere) that musicians have to be “fast and flexible” to play with Dylan. You see this in the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, where he’s figuring out this whole “electric backup band” thing. He tries a lot of songs acoustic first, then decides that some of them actually can use electric accompaniment… but what? Full rock’n’roll (or blues?) band? Or just a little “coloring”… ala Mr. Tambourine Man? He works that out, too. 
  • And for Highway 61 Revisited and Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he’s pretty much settled on “Yes, I have a full band backing me up”, but he’s very much working on the arrangements/feel of the songs (as well as finalizing the lyrics) — he’s playing, and listening to what he hears… is it the sound he’s looking for? Most of my least favorite songs from these albums are the fairly conventional “blues-ish” ones… and basically, he’s working out what type of blues he wants them to be… fast or slow, serious or humorous, etc.  These are interesting to me in part precisely because since I don’t like many of these songs as much, I like the somewhat different directions he explored (e.g., on “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” or “It Takes A Lot (It Takes a Train To Cry)”).
  • 20 versions of “Like A Rolling Stone!” What not? You get to hear the whole progression of his greatest song.
  • “Highway 61 Revisited” without that damn siren whistle, so that’s a plus. 
  • Most of the different takes on a song are within a fairly “sensible” range of possibilities… like I said, a fast or slow blues, prominent piano or not (in the same basic arrangement), etc. But then there’s “Visions of Johanna”. The early takes are with The Hawks (later The Band). They’re uptempo rock versions… and wow, do I ever think they are not right. At the end of one of them, Dylan says something like “That’s not right…”, and I assumed he was talking about the whole conception of it as an uptempo rock song… but no, it was the execution of it. So then Dylan moved to Nashville, worked with mostly completely different musicians, and nailed “Visions of Johanna” on the very first day… and that’s the version on Blonde on Blonde.

It looks to me like the Deluxe version is now available on the streaming services, so if you’ve made it this far, check it out when you have the time… but I think you should view this mostly as an educational experience rather than a super enjoyable musical experience.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – Wikipedia

Recorded: May 17, 1966

Released: October 3, 1998

Let’s just start by saying that if for some reason you haven’t listened to this, stop reading, and go do it now. And even if you feel like you know it well, it still wouldn’t hurt to give it a listen and try to hear it with fresh ears. Oh, just to be clear, this concert was at Manchester, not the Royal Albert Hall, but because it had been bootlegged as the “Royal Albert Hall concert”, they kept that in the title of the official release (besides, “Royal Albert Hall” sounds so much cooler).

There’s been so much written about this concert and tour that I can’t conceive of saying anything new. It’s an astounding performance by someone who’s about to turn 25 years old, has already written a boatload of stunning, unprecedented songs, been called the “Voice of a Generation”, raised various controversies, and created a new sound to bring into the world what he’s hearing in his mind. 

A few observations: on the acoustic songs, he sounds so weary, strung out, and yet warm. Sometimes tender, sometimes mocking, and are we sure of the difference? (And who’s he mocking?) I remember reading a quote that he wasn’t just burning the candle at both ends, but taking a blow torch to the middle, and you can tell. Another thing that struck me: he introduced “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” by saying “It used to be like that, now it goes to this”…. He now owns his songs, and performs them as he feels them: most of the songs he performs acoustic had electric backing on the studio albums, and three of the songs he performs with the Group (see Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings Album Review | Pitchfork) were acoustic on the studio recordings. That doesn’t matter. He commands the songs and brings them to you here as he understands them at the time. And finally, why would anyone have bought tickets to this concert, knowing Dylan’s going to rock out, and then boo him for… rocking out?

I’m not going to talk about every performance, as they’re all great (again: whole books about this concert!). Most performances are quite different from the studio versions, not better or worse, just equally great, although I would choose the performances of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “I Don’t Believe You” over the studio versions. And “One Too Many Mornings” is utterly transformed into an electric majestic storm.

And then there’s “Like A Rolling Stone”: the “Judas” shout from the audience, Dylan’s “I don’t believe you… you’re a LIAR”, followed by his aside to the band “Play fuckin’ loud”. This is a common take, but this is probably the single greatest moment in rock history… because of course Dylan and the band follow this with a bringing-down-the-walls-of-the-temple performance of “Like A Rolling Stone”. This is Babe Ruth calling his shot: ‘Williams’ summary of the story included, “In the fifth, with the Cubs riding him unmercifully from the bench, Ruth pointed to center and punched a screaming liner to a spot where no ball had been hit before.”’ 

I pointed before to the Pitchfork article about the insane 36 disk box that contains all of Dylan’s 1966 live recordings. It has so many choice quotes that apply to this concert, so I’m just going to end by including a few of them:

  • “Dylan is luminous and fragile-sounding during his opening solo acoustic sets, and equally fierce and possessed during the electric second halves, backed by the quintet that would soon become the Band, who match him in super-charged vitality.”
  • “Containing the notorious back-and-forth in which an audience member calls Dylan “Judas!” and Dylan snarls back, “I don’t be-lieve you, you’re a liar” (and to the musicians “play fuckin’ loud”)…”
  • “One takeaway, though, and perhaps the perpetual Dylan hot take, is that the dude actually is an amazing singer, lingering sensuously on every syllable during the quiet acoustic sets and occupying every bit of smarter-than-thou word-play and put-downs when the electric guitars come out.”
    • This is me, again, and Oh My God yes, this is amazing singing.
  • “Speaking almost entirely in parables in interviews and press conferences, the Bob Dylan that stood in front of audiences in 1966 had an unearthly air, a beautiful and vibrating young alien. “Bob Dylan got very sick backstage and I’m here to take his place,” he announces in Glasgow…”
  • “It would be the last time Dylan regularly performed extended solo acoustic sets, and it is a form he has mastered.”