Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan: Real Live

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infidels_(Bob_Dylan_album)

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.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sauron) 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: Desire

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desire_(Bob_Dylan_album)

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Before_the_Flood_(album)

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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”.