Saturday, July 31, 2021

The First Second Coming (Summer of Dylan part six)

 I am writing this from the deck of a dear friend and loyal reader's lake cabin. I'm on my way home from the road, and finally have the time and quiet I need to dig back into serious Dylanology. The regeneration from my vacation is a perfect feeling to have when discussing Bob Dylan's mid-1970s resurgence. Some of my favorite albums are so-called "comeback" albums by great artists who revive their talents while leavening them with wisdom and experience. My favorite Elvis album is by far From Elvis in Memphis, and if Blood on the Tracks isn't my favorite Dylan album, it's for sure in the top three. 

When Dylan had his return to the fore in the depths of the mid-1970s malaise it must have seemed like a miracle to those left disappointed after the sixties' deflation. There is footage from the Scorsese doc about the Rolling Thunder tour where girls are crying tears of joy after the early shows. The best of this era of his music really is that powerful, but it did not last for long. 

Before the Flood (1974)

Dylan's comeback years (at least in my opinion) are bookended by two mediocre double live albums. The double live album is a curio of the 1970s, when fans wanted to relive live performances and those who missed it could feel like they were taking part. This one comes from Dylan's tour with the Band in early 1974, which I consider the beginning of his comeback period. He was doing a full tour for the first time in eight years and played huge venues, going from the margins to the cultural center with a flash of lightning and hype. Unfortunately, the music here is not especially compelling. As I have mentioned, I am a huge Band fan, but if you want a Band double live go and listen to Rock of Ages. In these recordings Dylan seems to be over-singing, still not sure of his footing. With the Band backing him it's still juicy stuff, though. This project compelled me to listen to it for the first time, I think I might go back for another listen.

Rating: Three and a half Bobs

Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Well, there really isn't anything I can say about this record that hasn't been said before. The lyrics are soul-baring and soul-crushing, an examination of what happens when life and relationships turn out different than you intended. I have jokingly called it "Middle Age: The Album." This may or may not be my favorite Dylan album, but "Tangled Up in Blue" is easily my favorite Dylan song. It's cinematic and touches on everything from post-Sixties disillusionment to the resentments we can't shake to the poetry of Petrarch. Nothing in the music he had made to this point in his career signaled that this was coming. What's truly mind-blowing is these aren't even the best recordings of these songs! (more on that later)

Rating: Five Bobs

Desire (1976)

Like Nashville Skyline this is a brilliant stylistic one-off. Dylan collaborated with Broadway guy Jacques Levy and assembled a big band with a spotlight role for violinist Scarlet Rivera. It sounds like nothing else he or anyone else ever recorded. The songs are topical for the first time since his folkie days, from the searing "Hurricane" to the godawful "Joey" (the reason this album gets downgraded.) The former is about a falsely imprisoned boxer, the latter about a murderous gangster. Both are treated as heroes. As much as I enjoy this album (and I do), the live versions on the Rolling Thunder tour are the true flowering of what Dylan tried to do here. 

Rating: Four and a half Bobs

Hard Rain (1976)

I first saw this album for sale as a discounted tape in a truck stop in the early 1990s, which immediately made me think it was not one of Dylan's essential albums and not worth listening to. I kept that stance until this project, and I turned out to be right. This live album comes mostly from Dylan's last shows of the second leg of the Rolling Thunder tour, when a lot of the joy was gone and he and the backing players were just soldiering on. It comes out in the performances, but some of the magic is still there, especially on "Maggie's Farm." The Bootleg Series recordings from the first wave of the tour blow these away, but if you'd never heard them, you'd enjoy this plenty.

Rating: Three Bobs

Street Legal (1978)

I was not sure whether to group this with the "comeback" or with the impending Christian period, even though the lyrics are very secular. The very Yacht Rock, lush musical style of this album would be applied to Christian lyrics on Slow Train Coming. However, I decided it was best to see it as the beginning of the end of the comeback, and the sign that a major change was about to happen. As I mentioned the sound is very much of the late 70s, so your mileage varies on how much that sound appeals to you. I have a big Dylan head friend who says this is his favorite Dylan album due to his love of that sound. His arguments have persuaded me that this is not a forgettable blind alley but a flawed record with some great songs. However, the brilliance of his last two studio records is gone. Still worth repeated listens. 

Rating: Four Bobs

Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979)

This is one I never listened until two days ago, and WTF?!? It's live recordings from the famous Japanese venue where the Bobfather has trotted out all of his old favorites and reimagined them in his then soft groove late 70s style. In some cases hearing old standards in this new format is fascinating, in many cases it's just grating. It's obvious that Dylan was feeling the need to make a big change in his life. Instead of permanently butchering his oldies, he opted to convert to evangelical Christianity. More on that next time.

Rating: Two and a half Bobs 

Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood More Tracks (recorded 1974)

Next to the Basement Tapes the New York sessions for Blood on the Tracks are the most bootlegged thing in Dylan's career. He had recorded the album with crack musicians, then decided after playing it for his brother to come home to Minnesota and record again with local musicians, and those versions make up most of the studio album. I like their more amateur, less precise backing, but some of the songs suffer from Dylan's changes in tone. The versions of "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue" here are absolutely devastating. During the height of COVID winter when I was still having to commute to New York City this album played in my car in my rides to and from the train station. Nothing else could speak to the pain in my soul at that dark moment. Once I get the money I will buy the whole shebang, for now I just have the one disc version. This is absolutely essential. (Some of the songs also appeared on the first Bootleg Series release.)

Rating: Five Bobs

The Rolling Thunder Review- The 1975 Live Recordings

Some of these songs first appeared in the fifth volume of the Bootleg Series, which amounted to a two-disc cull of the great Rolling Thunder recordings. This box set was my father's day present to myself this year, and includes ALL of the extent live recordings, including multiple full shows. That might sound like a crazy purchase, but it was worth it. Next to his punky live shows with the Band in 1966 these are his best live recordings. The band is amazing and Dylan's voice is in fine form. He's enthusiastic and even seems to be having fun! This also happens to be some of the best road trip music ever made. If you can, drop the money on the big box set, which will teach you why those fans were weeping in ecstasy after these shows. If you can't, settle for the Bootleg Series release, which is still fantastic. 

Rating: Five Bobs

There's also some songs from this era on the original Bootleg Series release, including the aforementioned "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue." I happen to also enjoy "Golden Loom" and especially "Catfish," outtakes from Desire.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

West (Lost Highway Series)

Today we started our trek back to New Jersey to Nebraska. After some time fishing with my dad this morning, we got as far down the road as Iowa City. This university town has been a perfect place to stop. People take COVID seriously and we had an amazing meal outdoors. College towns are also one of the few places in America designed to be walkable, so it felt good to stretch our feet after six hours in the car.

Iowa City is definitively the Midwest. Just two days ago we were in Valentine, Nebraska, which is definitively the West. My hometown of Hastings lies somewhere in-between, a place I always thought of as Midwestern, but now feels geographically liminal. As a child I thought the West didn't begin until North Platte, 150 miles west. My view was confirmed in high school when I read On the Road and Kerouac (through the character of Sal) described the sudden change in the landscape as farms disappeared and the range opened up. To him the transition was melancholy:

"Tall sullen men watched us go by from false-front buildings; the main street was lined with square box houses. There were immense vistas of the plains beyond every sad street. I felt something different in the air in North Platte, I didn't know what it was. In five minutes I did....'What in the hell is this?' I cried out to Slim. 'This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.'"

People may mock Kerouac's style but this is pretty much spot on. In this trip to the West, as in others, I like Kerouac was struck by its hardness and precariousness. Even my hometown, which puts on airs more than pure West towns, feels like a hard prairie wind could just blow it off of the map. On that broad flat plain under that impossibly big sky you feel like you are being smashed by nature's hammer and anvil. The horribly unpredictable and savage weather only compounds that feeling. I had nightmares growing up about the so-called "Children's Blizzard" in the late 1800s when an unexpected winter storm hit after a warm morning and children were stranded in their one room schoolhouses or froze to death, snowblind, trying to get home. There's a story of two girls at that time near Thedford who went out playing and lost their bearings. One survived, the other died after walking 75 miles. The West is a pitiless place. 

This trip a contrast hit me harder than ever: the West has the nation's most beautiful landscapes and its most atrociously ugly built environment. In the land of majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and breathtaking vistas so many buildings look like they are falling apart. The rest are practical to the point of grotesque. We ate at a metal-sided restaurant one evening in Valentine that felt like a glorified garage. The next night we ate at the best steakhouse in the area, a pricey place nonetheless located in a strip mall with an interior with all the charm of an airplane hanger. The other patrons were dressed like they just rolled out of bed, and this was what passed for fancy eating.

I think this awful built environment is a natural response to living in a place where nature is so powerful and fearsome that any human attempt to alter the landscape seems doomed to failure. No need to bother building nice things, they'll just get blown away. At other times it's a sign of the spiritual failure of the imperialist mission in the far West undertaken by the United States after the Civil War. The civilizers may have ravaged the original inhabitants and taken their land, but couldn't really do much with it. The people they killed and dispossessed had built something more sustainable and were treated with miserable cruelty in response. The Great Plains still feels like a place that has not been fully "settled." Everything is rough-hewn, not built to last. The food is the worst in the country: bland and lacking in variety. People still seem to eat merely to fill the need for calories, reflected a practical place stripped of any higher strivings apart from day to day survival. 

Be that as it may, I still love my Plains homeland. When our car headed west out of Iowa and broke free of the Omaha suburbs the immense sky lifted my heart. Floating down the Niobrara River I felt peace like I hadn't in a long time. Driving through the Sandhills I fell into a kind of mystic trance. The ugly dumpiness of the towns can't erase the sublime beauty of what surrounds them. Can't wait to go back. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Domesticity (Summer of Dylan part five)

Truth be told I was just about to burn out on Dylan with fifty years of recordings still to go in this project. However, today's installment involved a lot of his music I had never listened to before. In this late 60s to early 70s time period Dylan had retreated from the spotlight, much to the chagrin of his fans. While this initially meant a burst of creativity in the form of the Basement Tapes, increasingly his heart didn't seem to be in it. As a father of young kids who's feeling burnt out from his job, I totally get it. We all need to shut things down sometime and focus on taking care of ourselves and our families. 

Nashville Skyline (1969)

This is one of the albums that invented country rock, and as a fan of the whole 90s-00s "alt-country" scene I have always loved it. There probably isn't an album in Dylan's catalog whose reputation has changed more. When it came out fans were upset over the lack of connection to the events of the time, the overt country sounds, and most of all, Dylan's country crooner voice. I actually like that voice in the context of this album, and I also like how it was an early way Dylan tried to show his fans that what he was giving them had always been a persona and never "the real thing." 

I will admit that this album is very slight in some respects. It's less than a half hour long and one of the songs is an instrumental. However, "Lady Lay Lady," "Tell Me It Isn't True," "I Threw It All Away," and "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" are fine country rock songs. (The less said about "Country Pie" the better.) I wish Dylan had made some more albums with this sound, but in many respects Nashville Skyline is an interesting little one off.

Rating: Four and a Half Bobs

Self Portrait (1970)

This is one I had never listened to before, having been warned that it's his worst at least until the 80s. That assessment (so far) is absolutely correct. I always chuckle at the fact that Greil Marcus reviewed it simply by asking "What is this shit?" Unbelievably, it's a double album. Some of the songs are just flat out bad. If Dylan was deliberately trying to lower expectations and get people to stop worshipping him this would be an excellent way to do so.

HOWEVER, there are a couple of gems here and there. I also admire the audacity of doing a tossed-off twangy cover of "The Boxer," mostly since I've never cared for Paul Simon. If I'd had to pay for this album in 1970 I would have been pissed. Listening to it on streaming in 2021 I can just be amused.

Rating: Two and a Half Bobs

New Morning (1970)

Okay, this one actually surprised me. I bought the CD ages ago in one of those discount three packs (remember those?) as a bonus to go along with Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding, two albums I actually wanted. At the time I listened to it and then put it aside, since I liked those other albums far more. This time, however, I noticed how many good songs Dylan offers here, almost as a mea culpa for his last album. It also sets more a domestic tone, of a dad laying back on a lazy Sunday and cutting a record. Perhaps now that I am a dad myself who is tired and weary I can feel it on a different level. "Time Passes Slowly," "Went to See the Gypsy," "If Not For You," and "The Man In Me" are all great. "New Morning" sounds like a declaration of independence from his old life and an embrace of his new one. 

Rating: Four Bobs

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

This was almost the first Dylan album I bought because of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." Then one day I was able to tape that song off the radio and didn't feel the need to purchase an album that appeared to mostly be a film score. I made the right choice. The music is alright for what it is, but this really isn't an album. (I should say I am a Peckinpaugh fan and the film it comes from is quite good.) This project was the first time I listened to it, thirty years after I made my decision not to buy it. I wasn't missing anything.

Rating: Two Bobs

Planet Waves (1974)

Here's another one I never listened to before this project, but instead I found it to be a pleasant surprise. I am a huge fan of The Band, so I'd always been curious about this one. It was also Dylan's one record made in his break with Columbia Records, which retaliated by putting out Dylan, an unauthorized collection of Self Portrait out-takes, to get revenge. (I am not reviewing it since Dylan himself never intended for it to be released.) At this point The Band had run out of creative gas, and teaming with Dylan seems to have been good for them both. The tour they went on in 1974 would mark the beginning of Dylan's comeback, which might be the most significant thing about this album. It's not a great one, but it's worth a listen.

Rating: Three and a Half Bobs

Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self-Portrait (recorded 1969-1971)

Okay, now this was the real winner out of a bunch of Dylan I'd never listened to before. It's outtakes from Self Portrait and New Morning with a smattering of other stuff and perhaps proof that the Self Portrait album was an intentional troll. I have really been enjoying this, to the point I got it on CD when the local record store went out of business (sniff) and have been playing it non-stop in the car. The orchestral version of "Sign on the Window" is amazing, and the stripped-down versions of other songs have such heart and feeling behind them. I guess this marks the beginning of Dylan's maddening love of not releasing the best versions of his music. 

Rating: Four and a Half Bobs

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Voluntary Exile is Still Exile (Lost Highway Series)

At the end of the school year, with my reserves of energy depleted, I was in a meeting and for an ice breaker we were asked to say what the first sentence of our memoir would be. My response was "A voluntary exile is still an exile." Perhaps my complete fatigue had allowed me to dig deep for that insight, since I have been thinking about it ever since.

I will soon be driving back to my rural Nebraska homeland for the first time since Christmas of 2019. I am very excited to see my parents, sisters, niece, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends, childhood chums, college compatriots and random encounters with old acquaintances. At the same time I have other, more conflicted emotions.

These stem from my voluntary exile. 

While I long to see the endless Plains skies, the shoulder high July corn, and experience the eerie pressure drop whiplash of a prairie storm, I am dreading the negative comments about my move to the East Coast or the masks my children will be wearing in public places. A relative of mine is making a similar trip to the interior from the west coast, and we have promised to share a list of "WTF Americuh?!?" moments from our respective journeys to commiserate.

Every time I go home it feels more and more foreign to me. Some of this is to be expected, of course. People I know have died or left, old haunts have closed down. With the deepening political and regional divides, however, the sense of distance has intensified. For all intents and purposes, I have chosen the "other side."

The process began in my teen years, when my political consciousness emerged and I got some chances through school activities to go to cities (Omaha, St Louis, and Chicago). This happened after enduring years of bullying, which already made me feel like an outsider in my own hometown from a very young age. I knew probably as early as age 12 that I was not going to be staying in my hometown. It didn't feel like I was making a choice, more that it had been chosen for me. Still, I never saw myself going that far away. I went to college in Omaha, and for most of that time sort of figured that's where I would settle down. That way I could have the pleasures of a mid-sized city without really leaving my home region.

However, I embarked on an academic career and went to live in Chicago for two years after college, and that changed everything. Committing to that profession is like committing to the clergy, and I knew from that point that I would live wherever the four winds took me, which I pretty much did in the eleven years after I left Chicago. By the time all was said and done I met a Jersey girl and moved to the east coast and was working in Manhattan. At no point did I ever think I had to move back to Nebraska, but as the years went on I realized I had become a sort of voluntary exile.

Ten years ago when I moved from rural Texas to New Jersey the red-blue divide was stark; nowadays it seems completely insurmountable. The yard signs and bumper stickers tell the tale pretty clearly. The Black Lives Matter and LGBT signs and banners I see in my New Jersey neighborhood are far scarcer back home, where I am more likely to see anti-abortion billboards and Trump stuff. The feeling I get is that I am an imposter, a representative of enemy forces. A couple of times people I don't even really know have questioned my living in New Jersey when making casual conversation, as if there is something wrong with me. I dread having that happen again because my reservoirs of politeness have been drained. 

This also pains me because as much as I felt alienated from my surroundings in my teen years, rural Nebraska still feels more like home than anywhere else. I feel like an imposter when I go back there, but I also have never really felt like I truly belonged anywhere else that I've lived, except for the college town where I went to grad school (which being a college town is a special case.) I like Jersey better than any of the many places I've lived since leaving home, but I don't know if it will ever be home to me like rural Nebraska is. The only thing I can do about it is make peace with the fact that I am a permanent exile.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Basement Sojourn (Summer of Dylan part four)

 My entryway into Bob Dylan was a weird one because it came as much through books as through music. Around the time I purchased the first part of the Bootleg Series for cheap at a going out of business sale I checked out the first edition of Clinton Heylin's Behind the Shades. I thus first read about Dylan's most important music before I ever heard it. I also picked up all the lore about the 1966 motorcycle accident, and understood it as this great transition point that made me less likely to listen to what came after.

The same happened years later the summer after I graduated from college. I needed money before leaving for grad school, so I took a summer job as a gas station clerk. By the point I was getting heavy into Dylan, and so I picked up Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic (nowadays titled The Old Weird America) when I saw it at the bookstore. I read that book mostly while on break at my job, or during the lulls in business late in the evening. The book is all about the Basement Tapes, and it intrigued me enough to go out and buy the 1975 version. The music made me realized that Dylan was up to a lot after the accident! 

I fell in love with the music, and to this day it is my favorite thing to play on a lazy summer day. For Father's Day this year I finally bought the complete, official version. For a long time I had CD burns of a bootleg version. Ask your parents what a CD burn is. The Marcus book and the Basement Tapes also prompted me to go deeper in my interests in American roots music. I also acquired a CD burn of the Anthology of American Music and started digging things like Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, and Jimmie Rodgers. 

This summer, coming after a year of hellish stress and death, the music has felt particularly apt. It's music coming from a man who's survived his own period of extreme stress and is wanting to just lay back and have a little fun with his friends. Don't we all want to do that right now?

In terms of albums, I am going to cover the two official releases of the Basement Tapes as well as John Wesley Harding, an album that grew out of Dylan's period of recovery. If you don't like my periodization, take it up with Greil Marcus, since he groups it that way too!

The Basement Tapes (1975)

In case you don't know the background, Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle on the winding hilly roads where he was living in upstate New York in July of 1966. There are various tales of how bad he was hurt. It's important to note that he was nearing exhaustion from his schedule at the time, so the accident made it easier for him to cut back on touring commitments and get some rest. He was also newly married and had just become a father. I can say that life change will shift your priorities more than any motorcycle accident ever could.

While recovering he got together with the Hawks in the summer of 1967 (soon to be The Band) who backed him on his tour. They started recording some new songs (which were promoted to others to sing) as well as traditional songs, covers of pop songs, and some general screwing around. While they didn't always record in the basement, the name stuck. Some of the songs actually became hits for others. "Quinn the Eskimo" became "The Might Quinn" for Manfred Mann and the Byrds recorded a couple of them for their influential Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Some of the songs were bootlegged in the late sixties, then a selection of them were finally officially released (along with some Band recordings not from these sessions) in 1975. 

While the songs sound raw compared to studio recordings of the time, there are apparently overdubs aplenty on this release. Once I was able to hear the originals that became clear to me. However, since this is how I first encountered this music, I have a hard time hearing the "real" versions and getting them to replace the image of the song in my mind from the 1975 recordings. Maybe authenticity is overrated.

If you can remove these questions from your mind, this is still very much listening to in 2021 with the "original" version now available. Some of the songs are The Band without Dylan, and despite that are pretty great. "Long Distance Operator," a funky blues, is especially good. 

Rating: Five Bobs

The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (recorded 1967)

As I mentioned before, this was my decadent Father's Day present to myself and has been completely worth it. I can now hear the full range of the universe Dylan and the Band were constructing in the basement. The basement is a great metaphor, since in 1967 as the hippy thing was bursting forth and psychedelic music ruled the airwaves, Dylan had decided to call on the vast reservoirs of American roots music derived from life in the country. I love to put this music on and just let it take me to the alternate universe it constructs. I also just love the goofing off and screwing around. "See You Later Allen Ginsburg" isn't much of a song, but it's a lot of fun. 

It's striking how much bootlegs of this music impacted the broader music scene, a kind of underground message. Some of it came aboveground when The Band put out their first album in 1968, which supposedly moved Eric Clapton to disband Cream because the Band's rootsier grounding seemed to make psychedelia look silly. Within a year of Sgt Pepper, which had supposedly "changed everything," rock bands were retreating from its elaborate trappings. By 1969 even the Beatles realized it was time to "Get Back" to the roots. 

Maybe my love of this music comes from having grown up in a rural area myself. There is something strange and powerful in a languid hot summer day in an isolated small town. You can feel both completely peaceful and restlessly bored at the same time. I look forward to going home in a couple weeks to experience it again. 

Rating: Five Bobs 

John Wesley Harding (1967)

This has got to be one of the most unique albums in Dylan's catalog. He is playing guitar and harmonica with spare backing, which might be a return to the folkie days, but it doesn't quite sound the same. The songs are structured to be one verse after the other, with nary a chorus to be found. The themes are deep, literary, and metaphorical. They don't sound at all like the Basement Tapes songs, but certainly reflect the "back to basics" approach of that time. While I like many of the songs on this album, I have never been able to totally penetrate it. The music styles of the songs get a little sames-y, so that might be the reason why. It's still worth listening to, especially the lyrics.

The last song, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," lights the way to what's coming with Nashville Skyline.

Rating: Four Bobs

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Ghosts of Electricity (Summer of Dylan part three)

Dylan's electric transformation remains legendary, and to understand why just go listen to what was on the radio in the summer of 1965 when "Like A Rolling Stone" came out. This six minute song full of metaphors and imagery, twice the length of the typical pop number, went all the way to number two on the charts. It was the definitive sign that popular music could be so much more than greasy kids stuff. It should also be noted that this happened two years before Sgt Pepper, which is often falsely given that credit. 

Within a year of "Like a Rolling Stone" Dylan would release two all time great albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and face down "fans" angry over his electric turn with face-meltingly rocking live performances backed by the Hawks (soon to be Band.) Like a meteor screaming across the sky he burned bright but looked to be coming apart in the process. Dylan's famous motorcycle crash in the summer of 1966, which forced/helped him take a step beck before he burned out, could very well have saved his life. 

Listening to this music again I have to say that it still sounds amazing and the songs keep generating new revelations. 

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

I had dabbled in Dylan in high school, but did not become a totally craven Bob-head until my senior year of college when I bought this album. For sentimental reasons it's probably still my favorite. The hints of electric mayhem on Bringing It All Back Home are out in full force here. Mike Bloomfield's searing Chicago blues guitar like Albert Collins' sounds like "a bee struck by lightning." On his next album Dylan would soften this sound somewhat and bring it to more baroque territory, I prefer the gritty blues of this album. 

Every single song is memorable and some are among Dylan's finest. It's been said that 1965 is the year that "the Sixties" truly began, but "Desolation Row" seems to prophesy its end just as the metephorical "Sixties" are beginning. There isn't enough space for me to list all the superlatives, so I am not even going to bother. 

Rating: Five Bobs

Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Well how do you follow that up? With a double album, of course! Dylan is infamously loose and undisciplined in the studio, but here is one of his more crafted works, courtesy of Nashville session musicians. Pairing their chops with some of Dylan's least inhibited songs is quite the combo. Like all double albums it has some less than stellar tracks, but the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is more romantic and poetic, ending with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," an epic love song. Romantic melancholy seeps into other songs as well, such as "Just Like A Woman." I still wish Bob got less baroque on this and stuck more the rootsier sound of his last record, but there's no arguing with the results when you listen to something like "Visions of Johanna." "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" is maybe my favorite lyric of all time.

Rating: Five Bobs

Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966

If I was only allowed to have one Dylan album, this would be it. The live recording of Dylan's 1966 concert at Manchester Free Trade Hall (mistakenly labelled "Royal Albert Hall") has the evidence that folkies indeed shouted "Judas!" at him during his electric set. As the band is about to go into a brash version of "Like A Rolling Stone" you can also hear Dylan turn to them and say "Play fucking loud!" 

The concert had two parts, Dylan solo acoustic with harp and guitar, and then backed by the glorious Hawks (soon to be The Band.) In the acoustic side, which the folkies claimed to prefer, Dylan is still performing recent material and shies away from his old topical songs. He also plays the songs unconventionally, almost deliberately pushing his audience. The electric part is just amazing, and the fact that so many people saw this and then bitched about it because Dylan dared to evolve just proves how stupid human beings can be. I feel like I encounter this type on Twitter every damn day.

Rating: Five Bobs

Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge

I have listened to all the other stuff on this list innumerable times, but for some reason I didn't get around to this Bootleg Series entry until I embarked on this project. I realized I made a mistake by not including it in my last post, since it follows the traditional periodization starting this part of Dylan's career with Bringing It All Back Home. (See my last post for my reasons for my own periodization.) Listening to all of these studio outtakes I was really struck by how different many of the songs sound in their released form. Above all I saw how a lot of Blonde on Blonde got smoothed out in the recording process. It certain challenged my assumptions about Dylan's haphazard approach in the studio. I feel like I was barely able to take it all in, and I will have to go back for some more listens.

Rating: Five Bobs

Bootleg Series Odds and Ends

A lot of the tracks from volume seven, the soundtrack to Scorsese's No Direction Home, are included here. There is a lot of overlap from The Cutting Edge but when this came out the alternate versions really blew me away. There's also an especially sneering live take on "Ballad of a Thin Man." There's a few good nuggets that also get repeated later from volume 2, with "She's Your Lover Now" being my favorite. 

And speaking of sneering, Dylan put out a non-album single "Positively 4th Street" in this period that sounds like a pretty direct rebuke to the purists in his audience. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

An Uneasy First Post-Trump Independence Day

Every now and then I remind myself that less than six months ago a violent right wing mob spurred on by the last despotic president tried to overturn the last election and potentially turn the floor of the Capitol into a bloodbath.

Less than six months later it might well have never even happened. The leader responsible walks free, and led a rally this evening. His party refused to remove him from office and now refuses even to participate in an investigation of the event. They are spending their time actively dismantling majority rule and last week the Supreme Court just gave them an additional green light. 

When president Biden was sworn in two weeks after the attack on the Capitol, it felt like a cloud had lifted. I no longer woke up in the morning and immediately checked to find out what That Man had done or tweeted while I was sleeping. I was teaching from home on inauguration day and got to see the ceremony and had an ugly cry. It felt like a heavy burden had been lifted. With the Senate wins in Georgia, it looked like Democrats might be able to start fixing some of the damage. Vaccines started getting delivered more efficiently, the virus was in retreat. A massive relief bill passed through Congress.

Since then it's become obvious that the Trump Years were not an aberration, and that we are still living in the political world that gave rise to him. We see this in Republican attacks on democracy and the teaching of America's true history, but also in the cowardice and lack of vision among Democrats. The filibuster is being given a higher priority than the right to vote. The restrictions on elections combined with Democrats failing to deliver is going to mean an election loss in 2022 and perhaps in 2024 as well. Once this current version of the GOP has its hands on the levers of power I don't know how meaningful future elections will be.

Nobody I know who voted for Trump seems to have second guessed their decision, ever after the insurrection. A lot of people who voted for Biden seem to think that their work is done, and are doing nothing to counter the current tidal wave of reaction. I feel like I am seeing the whole Tea Party thing play itself out again, but this time with the masked dropped and outright fascism on full display. History repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as a bigger tragedy.

As I have been writing about time and time again, our country is in the midst of a low-grade civil war, one that has been going on for about thirty years now. The problem is that only one side is aware of this fact. 

At this point I just want to issue a plea to all of the people who fought so hard against Trump to get off the bench and get back out there and fight. I know we are tired, but we have had six months to rest. Time to push on the filibuster, voting rights, and the social safety net. If you are a social studies educator like me you need to get to your local school board meeting and stop the reactionaries from changing your school's curriculum into nationalist indoctrination. The power trifecta won't last long, we have to make the most of it because another opportunity like this won't be coming soon. Time to play offense instead of defense for once.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Exit Planet Folkie (Summer of Dylan part two)

In 1964 Bob Dylan stopped being a folk singer. It took a year or so for his audience to catch up with this fact. Sure, he still strummed a guitar and blew his harmonica and had that Woody rasp in his voice, but he was no longer writing songs ripped from the headlines. The title and cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan couldn't make anything more explicit. This is not the Dylan you know, but "another side." And instead of his Dust Bowl by way of Minnesota folkie garb, he's dressed like a hipster. That would be Dylan's persona in the mid-60s: an often mean, sneering hipster who still backed up his arrogance with some of the greatest music ever made. 

Don't Look Back, the doc of his 1965 UK tour, perfectly captures this moment. He spends a lot of his time putting other people down with the assistance of Bobby Neuwirth. When the latter meanly teases Joan Baez, Dylan just laughs along. Knowing that they were recently romantically connected just makes it harder to watch. Some of the targets did deserve it though, like the pretentious high class British journalists who talk to him with such condescension. 

This installment in the Summer of Dylan will delve into the albums from this short moment of transition from folk to what he called "the wild thin mercury sound" that started with Highway 61 Revisited. At that point Dylan is definitively a rock artist playing with a rock band. My periodization might be contentious, since Bringing It All Back Home is often grouped with Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde as a trilogy, but Bringing It All Back Home came out when Dylan was still performing by himself. I think taking the stage with a band, a la the famous Newport performance, is what really and truly marked the break he was hinting towards in the year leading up to it. 

Another Side of Bob Dylan (August 1964)

As I mentioned, this album's title is a statement of purpose. The topical songs are gone, the themes are romance, bitterness, and poetry. It gets a bit raw, and Dylan himself said he regretted releasing "Ballad in Plain D." "It Ain't Me Babe" is a better bitter relationship song but just as acidic. Here he still plays his material solo, but the material is completely different. "It Ain't Me Babe" could perhaps be read less as a song about rejecting a lover because of her demands and more as Dylan's statement to elements of his own audience. They wanted him to be Woody Junior forever, and he wanted to branch out. At this point it's undercover, like a child of a religiously devout family questioning their faith but still making the sign of the cross with them at supper out of obligation but not conviction. 

I've never found this to be a completely successful album because Dylan hasn't yet fully taken the plunge into his new musical territory. At the same time, there are several fine songs and some great weirdness on numbers like "Motorpsycho Nightmare." 

Rating: Four Bobs

Bootleg Series Volume 6 Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall (Recorded October 1964)

This is one of the most interesting entries in the Bootleg Series because it is maybe the best document of Dylan's changing direction. This performance comes after Another Side of Bob Dylan, but some of the revolutionary songs from his next album like "Mr Tambourine Man" are included too, as well as topical numbers like "Who Killed Davey Moore?" He sounds like a man trying to cross a stream, one foot on one bank and one on the other bank. Listening to it again I noticed that the crowd seemed to be most engaged when he was doing his most "relevant" songs, like "Talking World War III Blues." 

Joan Baez duets on several songs in the latter part of the set. Dylan is famously improvisational onstage and he seems to be deliberately sabotaging Baez's ability to keep up. This almost completely torpedos "Mama You've Been On My Mind," a normally tender song that sounds rushed here. During his UK tour the next year he stopped having her going on stage to sing with him, another (and more cruel sign) of his exiting planet folkie for uncharted territory. 

The mixing of elements makes this a fascinating document, and I keep coming back to it. 

Rating: Five Bobs

Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)

The cover of this album shows Dylan's transformation from folkie to arty hipster. No more denim and corduroy. Instead there's surrealism in the imagery and Dylan showing off his taste in music in the albums visible in the photo. The first song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," lays the gauntlet down with an up-tempo electric band and bon mots flying like mosquitos in June. Listening to it I can't understand why anyone was surprised by what Dylan pulled later that year at Newport.

That song and this album also point to shift where Dylan is most certainly commenting on American society, but is not doing so with specific stories of the tribulations of Hattie Carroll and Hollis Brown. He relies on language and metaphor, oblique references and allegories. Young people hearing him say "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows" in 1965 heard a cry for change but one far less direct that the threats issued in "The Times They Are A Changin'." 

Dylan's foray into drugs is also made explicitly obvious on this album beyond the trippy cover. When his false start on "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" ends with him giggling uncontrollably it's obvious that he's high AF. On "Mr Tambourine Man" (rumored to be inspired by LSD) he has become totally untethered from the usual folk song lyrics even if he's still strumming his acoustic guitar.  

This is most revolutionary with "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," which has to be a top five Dylan song. Like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," this is Dylan as angry Jeremiah, pointing his finger at an inhumane postwar America still believing it represents some kind of city on the hill. I happened to see him live the day after the 2004 election and when he sang "Sometimes the president of the United States must have to stand naked" the whole crowd went absolutely nuts. That's a sign of the power of his songs from this era that are commenting about modern society but not through specific references. It gives them a kind of timelessness. 

At two points the album also makes Dylan's new artistic direction explicit. "Maggie's Farm" is one of the best quitting songs of all time, one I blasted myself when I quit an especially rotten job. It can easily be read as angry rejection of the whole folk scene. (It was hardly a mistake that he started his electric set at Newport with it.) He ends the album with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," a song of love's end that could also be a metaphor for his relationship with artistic milieu in Greenwich Village that had once nurtured him. At Newport to appease the fans upset by either the loud electric set or the shortness of his appearance (accounts vary), he came back with an acoustic guitar and played this song. If you watch the great documentary Festival it feels like the funeral of the folkie ragamuffin he used to be.

While the difference in musical styles on this album can be a bit jarring, it is just packed with amazing songs, and is one of the greatest musical leaps forward by any artist in history.

Rating: Five Bobs

Bootleg Series Odds and Ends

There aren't nearly as many songs from this brief period of Dylan's career (which amounts to only about a year) on the various Bootleg Series compilations, so this time I am not going to separate them out. Volume 2 has a smattering of songs, including an alternate acoustic take on "Subterranean Homesick Blues." The surreal "Farewell Angelina" deserved to be on the cutting room floor, but is still worth a listen. 

Volume 7 of the series, the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home has a bunch of goodies, including the infamous blast of "Maggie's Farm" at Newport in 1965. This alone is worth the price of admission. There's also a few alternate takes of songs from his albums of the period that give insight into Dylan's process.