Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bringing it all Back Home

LBJ... Beatlemania. . . Woody Guthrie . . . Chuck Berry . . . Fallout Shelters . . .Welcome the Rolling Stones . . . Ed Sullivan.. . Another Side of Bob Dylan. . . Jean Harlow . . . Time Magazine . . .  Recorded over a couple days in January 1965, Bringing it All Back Home launched Dylan's own brand of revolution.  For his new LP had a side of all "electric" tracks and a side of acoustic tunes.  But they were nothing like his old protest songs about war and social justice, but songs of deep personal expressions of anger still radiating through the vinyl after nearly a half century.  "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sets the tone with Chuck Berry riffs accompanied by Dylan's own brand of jukebox poetry.  Set in a basement . . Or a back alley . .  The characters are out of a Beckett play and speak the language of James Dean. For this began Dylan's fascination with freaks and outcasts as inspirations behind some of his most adventurous songwriting. With Bruce Langhorne, "the original Mr. Tambourine Man"  on guitar "She Belongs To Me" hums along nicely. "Maggie's Farm" sounds similar to Subterranean Homesick Blues" only it's much funnier with absurd lyrics about bedroom windows made of brick and the National Guard standing around the door.  More splendid folk rock follows with Love Minus Zero/No Limit with images of ravens with broken wings. "Outlaw Blues" offers another jam with Dylan declaring I look like Robert Ford but feel like Jesse James"  Another hilarious epic follows with "On the Road Again" with about a girl's family of Gothic stereotypes. The first side ends on the hip absurdity of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" offers a phantasmagorical version of American history with appearances by Captain Ahab (Arab?), Christopher Columbus, some girl from France, telephones with foots coming through the line, ultra-violent patriots, and many, many, more. The false opening on the acoustic guitar which segue ways into a rock pastiche accompanied by producer Tom Wilson's chuckle is one of those magical moments one gets on transcendent albums.   Then the first acoustic number "Mr. Tambourine Man" evokes the dreamlike state of the creative process. OR maybe the mystical experience of falling asleep. Or inspiration. oR the magic of nighttime. or maybe some substances were involved.  One critic said "Gates of Eden" opened up "new philosophical frontiers."  I don't know about that but the imagery's magnetic with grey flanneled dwarves and Miltonic overtones of a flawed, but not entirely hopeless paradise.  We get an even blunter version of America with "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)  with its tirade against a rising empire destined to crash and join the other debris of history.  Despair everywhere here.  For Operation Rolling Thunder (the bombing campaign on North Vietnam) begins the same month Bringing It All Back Home was released.  All bent out of shape of society's pliers.  And, in yet another farewell song to end an LP, we get an unforgettably bitter sermon against something or someone which has wronged us.  "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" has Dylan singing in a higher register with terrifying lyrics like "yonder stands your orphan with his gun."  The song does end with the promise of renewal, "forget the dead you've left they will not follow you."  And we go into the jingle jangle morning.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Another Side of Bob Dylan: Goodbye to All That

Release Date: August 9, 1964
Pete Seeger, when asked about Dylan's potential for longevity replied: "Dylan may well become the country's most creative troubadour - if he doesn't explode."  Many around Dylan during those years felt the same way.  Between 1964 and 1966 he recorded four albums (one of them a double LP) of varying styles and increasing complexity.  By 1964 the pace of events began to speed up with hints of foreboding balanced by blinding excitement.  Those looking for more "protest" songs instead found philosophical musings ranging from the serious to outright jest.  Recorded June 9, 1964, Another Side one of the few, maybe the only, in which Dylan gave New Yorker writer Nat Hentoff full access.    

Joining Dylan in the studio were some friends, including "Ramblin" Jack Elliot, and Columbia producer Tom Wilson.  Hentoff reported the session began at 7:30 and ended around 1:30am.  Fueled by bottles of red wine, Dylan recorded a dozen new songs and  announced to Hentoff, "There aren't any finger-pointing songs in here."  

Much had transpired in the past several months. 

The assassination of President Kennedy, whom Dylan affectionately mentioned in "I Shall be Free," had traumatized the country. In December 1963, he was awarded the Tom Paine Award by the ECLU (Emergency Civil Liberties Committee).  He gave a derisive speech calling the audience fat, old, and out of touch and then professed an affinity with Lee Harvey Oswald just weeks after the killing of Kennedy.  The crowd hissed at him.  Dylan wanted nothing to do with the establishment.

In February he embarked on road trip (an attempt to emulate Kerouac) from New York to California partly in homage to Kerouac's On The Road, but also for inspiration.  Robert Shelton's biography gives a detailed account of stops made in coal towns, a visit with an unimpressed Carl Sandburg in North Carolina, experiencing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and ending with a tour of the west coast.  At least two songs were written: "Chimes of Freedom" (his most cryptic song to date) and "Mr. Tambourine Man."  

Dylan and his travel companions also listened to the Beatles on the radio as Beatlemania swept America.  Although Dylan dismissed the Beatles as "bubble gum pop" in interviews, he privately loved their music.

The first track, "All I Really Want to Do" is a sort of parody of all love songs, with its amusing wordplay of a neurotic suitor.  "Black Crow Blues" is all piano and harmonica set to a bluesy riff. "Spanish Harlem Incident" nicely evokes nighttime imagery.  "Ramoma" offers a message of solace and solidarity with a girl "conflicted about staying in the South." "Ballad in Plain D" is mostly autobiographical about the end of his relationship with Suze Rotolo. My favorite track, "I Don't Believe (she acts like we never met) is Dylan at his best playing the jilted lover. "My Back Pages" declares, "Ah, but I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now." The closer, "It Ain't Me Babe," bids a melancholy farewell.

As an album, for what Another Side lacks in coherent themes is made up for by some solid songs.  I'd compare with the Beatles LP, Help.  Both split the difference between their old and new styles, hinting at new directions.  For this was Dylan's last all acoustic album before "went electric" in Bringing It All Back Home.