Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bob Dylan At Budokan

Released April 23, 1979
Say what you will about Dylan's live shows during the 70s: they were unique and never repetitive. Before the Flood went for straight rock and roll and The Rolling Thunder Revue grasped to recapture the magic and possibilities of rock and roll.

Live at Budokan is a collection of songs Dylan played on his tour of Japan in February and March 1978. These concerts were famously known as Dylan's "lounge act" phase.  Donning white jumpsuits and eye liner, it seemed his road show took inspiration from Neil Diamond and Dylan's recently departed hero, Elvis.  Bill Murray could've been the opening act!

Dylan spent a good portion of 1978 touring, on what many cynically dubbed the "alimony tour."  The grueling schedule took its toll on Dylan's voice and the shows varied in quality.  With a full band and backup singers, the Dylan of 1978 favored grandiosity over spontaneity. 

Budokan is strictly for Dylan completists.  Once the novelty wears off these songs leave little impression.  "Maggie's Farm" seems static and harmless.  "All I Really Want to Do" sounds like a late 70s sitcom theme. "Oh Sister" is ersatz reggae.  In fact most of the album are ersatz versions of Dylan's own songs.

Maybe I am missing the point and there is a brilliance I'm missing.  Maybe.

Rock critic Robert Christgau pointed that beneath all the schmaltz and convoluted arrangements on the Budokan LP - the songs are still powerful.  That is true.

But there are nice moments: "Forever Young" and "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)". The latter song sounds like a megachurch hymn (I doubt megachurches would ever play that one though).

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Street Legal: 16 Years Gone By

Released June 15, 1978
The cover of Street Legal featuring a disheveled Dylan marks a far cry from uber confidence he displayed on Highway 61 Revisited or the domestic tranquility on New Morning. Street Legal ponders loss and picking up the pieces. 

There's enough spiritual tension on Street Legal to fill a Bergman film. So it's difficult not to read the album as a prologue to Dylan's conversion to Christianity.  

"Changing of the Guards," immediately places the listener into a forsaken world of theologies at war, one of Dylan's more ambitious compositions.  The beefed up production and back up vocals adds a nice dimension. This live version is way more upbeat than the album track, almost as if Dylan took inspiration from the E Street Band.

"Baby, Please Stop Crying" is a soul song and a good one at that.  Dylan plays the consoling friend to a woman he's secretly in love with.  A far cry from the bluesy swagger persona he typically inhabits. Here we get dull desperation.

"Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" remains a highlight: a sobering portrait of purgatory and nice companion to a Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory or Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.  Take your pick.

"True Love Tends to Forget" is resigned and cynical on love. Not a bad tune, but also a bummer.

The production values were heavily criticized on the initial vinyl release, but a splendid remastering has captured the rich sound of Street Legal.

After a heady decade Street Legal sounds like one big coming down, an epic hangover starting to wear off.  You can hear that slow train a comin'.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hard Rain: The End of the Tour

Released September 10, 1976
The live album Hard Rain captures a different Dylan from the one on Before the Flood a few years earlier.  If Before the Flood felt like a victory lap for Dylan and The Band, on Hard Rain we get an angrier, more fragile performance.  

Most of the selections come from the penultimate show of The Rolling Thunder Revue performed in May 23, 1976 Fort Collins, Colorado, while the rest were taken from a May 17, 1976 show at Fort Worth.  If the first leg of The Rolling Thunder Revue brought theatricality and spontaneity to the 70s rock concert, the second wing of the tour during the spring of '76 seemed tired and met with less than enthusiastic reviews (also aired as a TV special on NBC to kick off their fall season).

Despite the rickety nature of Hard Rain, there's an endearing desperation to it. "Maggie's Farm" goes all over the place.  Then a weary version of "One Too Many Mornings."  With "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", the hip poetry from Blonde on Blonde gets shredded into hallucinogenic paranoia. Then the tenderness of "Oh Sister" and "Lay Lady Lay" gets replaced with rage and impatience. 

The second side included three reworkings from Blood on the Tracks. The homespun ease of "Shelter from the Storm" is transformed into an emotive farewell. "Idiot Wind" takes no prisoners as the venom builds with each verse.  "You're A Big Girl Now" sounds like a dirge with the horns in the background.

Fans of Blood on the Tracks and Desire will dig Hard Rain. Dylan sounds raw. honest, almost punk in his delivery.  One of his best live albums.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Desire: Into the Wild Unknown Country

Released, January, 5 1976.
Desire, Dylan's Bicentennial album, defied expectations for those expecting a sequel to Blood on the Tracks.  On Desire Dylan inhabits other characters and even takes the third person perspective. The creative momentum of the Rolling Thunder Revue's autumn 1975 tour through New England, an insurgency against the stagnant rock scene of the mid-70s, carried itself into the studio.  Everything about Desire feels quixotic, there's a desperation to pick up the pieces and to keep searching for answers no matter the cost.

After years of dismissing protest music as pointless, Dylan opened Desire with "Hurricane", an angry statement on the ingrained racism of the justice system.  The song, co-written with Jacques Levy (as were seven others on Desire), relates the story of middleweight boxer Ruben Carter's murder trial and subsequent conviction under suspect evidence. Some saw "Hurricane" as desperate cry for attention, Dylan's cynical attempt to remain relevant. But there's an energy to "Hurricane", not dated in any sense.

"Joey" chronicles New York mobster "Crazy" Joe Gallo's rise and fall in the criminal underworld.  Many took issue Dylan's mythologizing of a violent sociopath, notably rock critic Lester Bangs.  But those objections now ring hollow, after all "Joey" plays like a precursor to Scorsese's wiseguy cinema.  The background vocals of Emmylou Harris ratchet up the pathos.

"Isis" marked a venture into speculative fiction.  A reckless husband leaves his wife to go off in search of treasure into a land of "pyramids embedded in ice" and returns home with nothing left except the hope Isis will take him back.

The travelogue songs are hit and miss. "Mozambique" imagines an idyllic locale full of beautiful strangers and romance. "Romance in Durango" and "Black Diamond Bay" are all about intrigue in exotic places, adding a lightness to the second side.  "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" tells of a mystifying sojourn into a world free of modern trappings.

"Oh Sister" and "Sara" are clearly related. "Oh Sister" is my favorite track, a mesmerizing recording with Dylan and Harris's twining voices set against Scarlett Rivera's weeping violin are unforgettable. "Sara" like "Hurricane" is so direct and personal, a bookend to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

So Desire, for all its thrown together tequila fueled grasp at immortality may be just enough to get you through a dark night of the soul or inspire quiet contemplation on Saturday afternoon. All the rage against fate, happenstance, and circumstance suggest we can emerge from the other side, not unscathed, but still alive.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Basement Tapes Part 2: A Thousand Years Old

The 1975 official release of The Basement Tapes came with cover art featuring characters inhabiting the otherworldly terrain of the songs, including Dylan himself as a back country troubadour who claims he's a thousand years old.  The songs contain the echoes of a forgotten world, one existing outside the confines of history books.

Appropriately the album begins with "Odds and Ends", old time rock and roll channeling the Elvis of the Sun Sessions.  Elvis holds a high place in Dylan's universe and "Odds and Ends" is the perfect entry point into a world where fact and myth will intermingle.

While Dylan experimented with personas on previous records, on The Basement Tapes he seemed to inhabit characters.  On "Goin' to Acapulco" he sings in a higher voice register, expressing the quiet rage of a lapsed saint. While hundreds of songs were recorded, many of them stand out as Dylan's finest. "Goin' to Acapulco" being an example. 

Alcohol's another recurring theme.  "Million Dollar Bash" imagines a surreal party offering a temporary escape from existence.  The drunken Chaplinesque narrator on "Please Mrs. Henry" embarks on one misadventure after another with no clear destination.

And so many songs about isolation.  "Too Much of Nothing" turns ennui into poetry, a realistic portrayal of the male psyche.  On "Clothes Line Saga" banality leads to social commentary and hilarity.

There's poignant songs on the human condition, some of the most striking in Dylan's catalog. "Tears of Rage" tears at the soul with the opening lyric "We carried you on our arms/On Independence Day/And now you'd throw us all aside." An epic story in those lines! Then the ballad climaxes into Greek tragedy with the final line "We're so low/And life is brief."  The Band's version with Richard Manuel's heartbreaking vocal transcends even the original.

A longing for redemption is another theme explored as Christian ideas and imagery find their way into many of the songs. "Open the Door, Homer" talks about healing the sick and ideas of forgiveness from the perspective of a lost pilgrim. Although "Sign on the Cross" did not appear on the official release (finally released on the 2014 official bootleg), the seven minute song suggests the possibility of salvation through faith, a message from another century.  The sentiment's anti-modern, yet powerful.

The final track, "This Wheel's on Fire," is very open to interpretation. I've heard everything from Dylan's motorcycle crash to the mismanagement of the Vietnam War. Whatever's going on is ominous, almost too terrifying to contemplate.

Ironically, The Basement Tapes are often considered an expression of American identity, yet all the musicians grew up from the remote corners of their civilization. Dylan was raised in a Jewish middle class family in Hibbing, Minnesota.  Four members of the The Band were Canadian, while Levon Helm, the lone American in The Band, was a native of Arkansas. 

I'd argue the outsider/insider perspective on The Basement Tapes is one of the elements that makes them so special.  The homespun sound and sense of spontaneity in the music adds an authenticity, before that very concept become something of a cultural holy grail.

Neither Dylan nor The Band set out to invent a new genre of music and yet they did. The next part will examine some of the music they inspired.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Basement Tapes Part I: Great Jones Street Revisited

The Basement Tapes, Released June 26, 1975
The Basement Tapes still sound as if they materialized from some future age looking back at a distant time fading away into dusty history books. The next couple of posts will offer some thoughts on their mystery and influence through the decades.

The Basement Tapes were recorded over the summer of 1967 in Woodstock, New York during Dylan's so called retirement from touring. Fragments of the sessions appeared on the 1968 bootleg The Great White Wonder.  Some of the songs were given to The Byrds and a few other bands.  Eight years after the original recordings Dylan allowed Columbia to release the first official version.

Two years before the official release, the legend of The Basement Tapes partly inspired Don Delillo's third novel Great Jones Street, which follows Dylanesque rock star Bucky Wunderlick in his quest to escape the trappings of fame and excess.

The novel opens with Dylan's doppelganger quitting his tour and taking refuge in a run down New York apartment.  He spends his time by having surreal interactions with hangers on, his drugged out girlfriend, underground revolutionaries, and various media types in bits of biting satire on mass culture. Like the "real" Dylan portrayed in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back, Great Jones Street captures the paradox of both being worshiped and treated like a tool.

Descriptions of Bucky's concerts parallel Dylan's 1966 tour of Europe, as he explains to an interviewer:

We make noise. We make it louder than anybody else and also better. Any curly haired boy can write windswept ballads.  You have to crush people's heads.  That's the only way to make those fuckers listen (104).

With ongoing media speculation about his disappearance, Bucky's pressured to release The Mountain Tapes, a set of songs he recorded on the fly with no commercial considerations in mind:

They were something unexpected, undreamed of, a whole new direction.  But I can't go out before crowds and do those same songs.  The effect of the tapes is that they're tapes. Done at a certain time under the weight of a certain emotion. Done on the spot with many imperfections.  The material can't be duplicated in a concert situation.  So the tapes can be released, sure.  But how do I get released?  (Delillo, 188)

I suspect Delillo invented part of Bucky's persona from Dylan's 1966 interview with Playboy. During the interview Dylan spun webs of non-sequiturs and verbal riddles to fend off Nat Hentoff's sincere questions about his transition from folk to rock. When asked about the commercial considerations that went into his songwriting, a question prompted by Dylan's recent disavowal of protest music as a catalyst for change, he gave a defiant answer to the media's attempt pin him down as a sellout: 

All right, now, look.  It's not all that deep.  It's not a complicated thing.  My motives, or whatever they are, were never commercial in the money sense of the word.  It was more in the don't-die-by-the-hacksaw sense of the word.  I never did it for money.  It happened and I let it happen to me.  There was no reason not to let it happen to me. I couldn't have written before what I write now anyway. The songs used to be about what I felt and saw. Nothing of my own rhythmic vomit went into it . . . My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing.  The newer ones are about the same nothing - only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called the nowhere (101).

As the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis dramatized, Dylan arrived on the folk scene as a destroyer. From that point on the so called purity of folk would mutate into something else entirely. 

Dylan would move so fast through the 60s, progressing from Woody Guthrie to T.S. Eliot in a few short years and leaving his peers and a portion of his audience in the dust. Yet the pressure to keep producing brilliant albums took its toll. As the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home suggests, Dylan came very close to the abyss.

A recurring theme in Great Jones Street is the unending pressure the marketplace places upon the artist, really all of us in the end.  Eddie Fenig, a troubled writer who befriends Bucky delivers a powerful soliloquy on the demands of the market:

There's a cruel kind of poetry to the market.  The big wheel spins and gyrates and makes firecracker noises, going faster and faster and throwing off anybody who can't hold on. The market is rejecting me and I'm not blind to the cruel poetry in it.  The market is phenomenal, bright as a million cities, turning and turning, and there are little figures everywhere trying to hold on with one hand but they're getting thrown off into the surrounding night, the silence, the emptiness, the darkness, the basin, the crater, the pit (Delillo, 141).

Fenig's rant remains poignant in our fragmented/social media obsessed/market yourself/brand yourself capitalism of the new millennium.  

I like to think of The Basement Tapes as a defiant statement against such expectations, a path off the revolutionary road leading to something more tangible.

The songs recorded by Dylan and The Band conjure images of the 19th Century, or "the old weird America" as described by Griel Marcus.  They are all Gothic madness and Romanticism, ideas to foment liberation from a modern society devouring everything, anti-commercial music in the grandest sense.

If Great Jones Street imagines the future as a quiet nightmare, The Basement Tapes envision a sojourn into the past, not necessarily to escape the present, but to salvage it.

Works Cited:

Delillo, Don.  Great Jones Street.  New York: Penguin, 1973.

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. Ed. Jonathan Cott. New York: Wenner Books, 2006.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Blood on the Tracks: A Study of the Sublime

Released January 17, 1975
Blood on the Tracks.  In an interview Dylan once expressed bewilderment at the thought of anyone enjoying so many depressing songs, "A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album... It's hard for me to relate to that - I mean people enjoying that type of pain."  

Perhaps Edmund Burke's study on the sublime can explain the appeal of the album: The 18th century Irishman argued we derive pleasure when observing pain at a distance. For anyone who have never experienced such feelings or for those who have, and even those who are in the middle of it - Blood on the Tracks investigates the sacred and profane of our internal lives.  Looking into the wreckage of another's soul has its unique appeal as long as it not our own.

"Tangled Up in Blue" plays with notions of linear time. The singer describes a mysterious woman he keeps running into, parting with, and running into again.  The idea of parting and then renewing the search feels like an endless cycle, as the last verse opens with, "So now I'm goin back again/I got to get back to her somehow."

"A Simple Twist of Fate" achieves a similar effect, with simpler, more haunting lyrics.  The narrator sees no hope of redemption.  Fate's left him trapped, but the search for meaning continues.

"You're a Big Girl Now" is the most direct song about the pain of heartbreak from a broken man's perspective.  Lyrics like "Time is a jet plane it moves too fast/isn't it a shame all we shared can't last" contain a multitude.

"Idiot Wind",  A full of SOUND AND FURY cry into the abyss. Raw Existential Angst to the Extreme.

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" evokes a bitter sweet affair coming to an end, the sense of something precious being lost forever.

The bluesy "Meet in the Morning" contrasts the saying farewell vibe of the previous track to the idea of waiting for something or someone new, Dylan once again plays the put upon guy trying to make sense.

"Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" tells the story of a complex love triangle.  Unlike the other songs, Dylan stays in the third person.  All the characters in the song literally leave Blood on their tracks.

"If You See Her, Say Hello" offers noble acceptance of fate after going through yet another emotional ringer:

If you get close to her, kiss her once for me
I always have respected her for busting out and gettin' free
Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won't stand in the way
Though the bitter taste still lingers on the night I tried to make her stay.

"Shelter from the Storm" could be the distant cousin of "Tangled Up in Blue", same idea, different setting. Loss.  Redemption. Lost again. Search for Redemption resumes.

The final song, "Buckets of Rain" ends with a Joycean epiphany:

Life is Sad
Life is a Bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and do it will.

I recall reading Pete Hamill's liner notes before listening to the album or maybe as "Tangled Up in Blue" chimed in on the dashboard speakers. The writing for me encapsulated all Dylan was and what he was going to be.  I'll close with a quote from those:

So forget the clenched young scholars who analyze his rhymes into dust.  Remember that he gave us voice.  When our innocence died forever, Bob Dylan made that moment into art.  The wonder is that he survived.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Before the Flood: Dylan/The Band Perform One More For the Road

Released by Columbia Records, June 20, 1974
After recording Planet Waves, Dylan and the Band embarked on a tour throughout America in the winter of 1974.  In July Columbia released a live album, Before the Flood.  Despite the mixed reactions to the tour and the album, all agreed it was great to see Dylan back onstage.  Of the 21 cuts on the LP, there are 13 Dylan songs and 8 from The Band.  Before the Flood has an array of interesting moments and yet nothing stands out.  There's enthusiasm, but nothing like the passion from their previous tour eight years earlier. Dylan's foray into arena rock rode the nostalgia train to a nice paycheck and manufactured some exciting music for a live LP of adrenaline fueled performance.

The Dylan songs:

Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll go mine)
Lay Lady Lay
Rainy Day Women 12 & 35
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
It Ain't Me Babe
Ballad of a Thin Man
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (acoustic)
Just Like a Woman (acoustic)
It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (acoustic)
All Along the Watchtower
Highway 61 Revisited
Like a Rolling Stone
Blowin' in the Wind

The Band Songs:

Up On Cripple Creek
I Shall Be Released
Endless Highway
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Stage Fright
The Shape I'm In
When You Awake
The Weight

All but one of the numbers were taken from their February 13-14 shows at the LA Forum. Ticket prices were high, but the shows still sold out.  Unlike Dylan's previous tour back in 1966, when crowds met him with a cascade of jeers and screamed JUDAS at him, in 1974 his fans were ecstatic. Regardless of the music's quality, the mere "event" proved enough. After all the children of Dylan had reached their 20s and 30s.  The Beatles were a memory.  Nixon was on his way out.  The protests came to a halt. Elvis set up shop in Vegas.  Times were changing.

The rock concert scene had changed considerably as well.  Major acts like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin played arenas and reveled in working their fans into a frenzy.  While Dylan offered some new arrangements of his familiar hits, the tracks are often loud with Dylan shouting more than singing at times.  On "Most Likely You Go Your Way" he sounds as if he's trying to overpower the Band and the crowd.

The album ends on a soaring note with "All Along the Watchtower" a favorite of Dylan's to play to this day.  Robbie Robertson's guitar on "Blowin' in the Wind" transforms a folk song into a rock anthem.  That's a memorable moment.

Before the Flood begs the question: What makes for a great live album.  Is a true live album one that plays the entire concert from beginning to end?  Should those with selected cuts be critiqued differently? 

A good rapport with the audience can translate to a great record.  Live albums from Sam Cooke, Bruce Springsteen, and James Brown all have that audience connection thing going. Sometimes the historical moment adds drama, as in Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert.  or Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Nirvana's 1994 Unplugged album achieved an intimacy with audience- whether present, watching at home, or listening on headphones.  Some live LPs can capture the virtuosity and unpredictability of a live performance you might get from the The Allman Brothers Band or the Grateful Dead.

Granted, Dylan was bound to sound a little rusty after being off the road for so long. While Before the Flood isn't one for the ages, listening to it makes the moment come alive - and that's something.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Planet Waves: Rainy Days on the Great Lakes

Released January 17, 1974
Newly signed by Geffen records during his brief estrangement from Columbia, Dylan recorded a new batch of songs with The Band, by then a phenomenon in their own right.

The album opens with the jubilant "On a Night Like This" in a sound reminiscent of the Basement Tapes with its accordion driven, wintry, back country atmosphere.  

A shift in mood occurs on "Going, Going, Gone."  Dylan's despairing lyrics combined with Robbie Robertson's blistering guitar, and Richard Manuel's piano seems to almost float - musically my favorite moment on the album.

The appropriately titled 'Tough Mama" blends the sacred and profane with pure rock and roll.  Then a shift to the angelic "Hazel", reminiscent of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

"Something There is About You" opens with a memorable stanza:

Something there is about you that strikes a match in me
Is it the way your body moves or is it the way your hair blows free?
Or is it because you remind me of something that used to be
Somethin’ that crossed over from another century?

The mystical and primal once again blend in a familiar Dylan trope.

Then one of Dylan's most enduring compositions 'Forever Young."  Placed at the end of side one, the track has an epic sound and builds up to a soaring crescendo.  Written for his son, Dylan wanted to write something for his kids without being overtly sentimental.  The homespun version on side two makes for a nice coda.

"Dirge" may be the bleakest song Dylan ever recorded.  Full of rage after a relationship ends, the narrators spews anger in every direction. In her review Patti Smith described "Dirge" as the type of love song, "Burroughs could get into . . . Broken masculine honor on low streets."

"You Angel You" feels sentimental and even a little perverse coming after "Dirge" with its syrupy lyrics.  "Never Say Goodbye" has a great line, "My dreams are made of iron and steel."  "Wedding Song" promises eternal devotion.

The first of an amazing trilogy of albums in the mid 1970s with Blood on the Tracks and Desire to follow, Planet Waves brought back an edge absent on previous albums like New Morning and Self-Portrait.  I'm sure every Dylan fan has a few "go to" albums, ones you can listen to on any day, and I would put Planet Waves in that category for myself because of its own unique groove of shifting tone and emotion - a rainy day album.