Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Look Back At The Bootleg Series: Vols. 1, 2, and 3 (rare and unreleased) 1961-1991

Released March 26, 1991
As Bob Dylan approached the 30 year milestone of his recording career, he began to open up his massive archive of unreleased material.  Most of the tracks on this initial release of the Bootleg Series had appeared on actual bootlegs before, but never got the official stamp of approval from the artist.  Many of these songs were good enough to appear on an album and they also shed some light on Dylan's creative process.  A groundbreaking release and perhaps the most valuable edition of the ongoing Bootleg Series the, an outstanding introduction to Dylan's expansive catalog.

Dylan in the early 1960s at the height of his protest music phase
The first disc features recordings from Dylan's early years in the folk scene.  Some of the early songs included are "Hard Times in New York Town", "He was a Friend of Mine," and "Man on the Street" all capturing Dylan at the height of creative kinship with Woody Guthrie.  Dylan's earth shaking second LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan had enough material for two records.  Early tunes like the hilarious "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" and defiant Cold War anthem "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" hint at Dylan's growing power as a songwriter.  Topical "protest songs" dominated Dylan's output from 1962-63, everything from the reform school ballad "Walls of Red Wing" to the always relevant "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" (Dylan walked off Ed Sullivan when they disallowed him to play it in front of a TV audience). A few selections from his Carnegie Hall Concert on October 26, 1963 also appear, including brilliant "Who Killed Davey Moore." As 1963 closed out The Times They Are A Changin' LP was about to be released with some of the greatest protest songs ever recorded on vinyl.  Appropriately, the first disc ends with Dylan's prose poem tribute "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie."

Dylan expands his sound during the making of Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

The second volume covers quite a bit of ground, spanning ten years 1964-1974.  Further acoustic outtakes reveal a more introspective streak, especially on "Mama, You Been on My Mind," a song Dylan loved to sing with Joan Baez.  Dylan's transition to "electric" music on Bringing it all Back Home (1965) with an early demo of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the exuberant rocker "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Gotta Stay All Night)". Only a few selections are included from Highway 61 Revisited, with possibly his first attempt at "Like A Rolling Stone."  On "She's Your Lover Now," an early outtake from Blonde on Blonde, you can possibly hear Dylan's creative breakthrough that led to those magical sessions in Nashville, a special moment for sure. Then the disc jumps ahead, a highlight being Dylan's duet with George Harrison on "If Not For You."

Dylan joins friend George Harrison onstage at the Concert For Bangladesh (1971)

The highlight of the second disc are the amazing alternate cuts from the 1974 New York sessions of Blood on the Tracks, which were ready for release until Dylan decided to start over with a group of Minneapolis musicians on the advice of his brother. Early versions of "Tangled Up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "If You See Her, Say Hello" are much quieter and melancholy than the songs that appeared on the official release. Also, don't miss "Call Letter Blues" a far more viscous version of what became "Meet Me in the Morning." 
Dylan continued to tour throughout the 1980s, here Tom Petty joins him onstage.
Dylan's post Blood on the Tracks career spans most of the third volume.  Some of these are mere curiosities like "Catfish."  A live version "Seven Days," a song Dylan wrote with Eric Clapton and performed during the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour in 1975-76 hints at the unique spirit of those concerts.  Material from the Christian albums from 1979-1981 gets some coverage with an emphasis on Shot Of Love from 1981. Five outtakes from Dylan's 1983 LP Infidels sound underdeveloped with the exception of "Blind Willie McTell," a foreshadowing of where Dylan would be going creatively as he entered the late stage of his career.  Even the infamous Empire Burlesque album from 1985 gets resurrected with a more upbeat performance of "When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky." Then an appropriate conclusion with "Series of Dreams" from 1989, one of Dylan's more interesting efforts towards achieving a modern rock sound. 

A valuable collection for any serious Dylan fan, these discs are a worthwhile overview of Dylan's first three decades as a recording artist.

Dylan's peers pay tribute at the 30th Anniversary Concert on October 16, 1992.

Some must listens on Vols. 1,2,3

"He Was a Friend of Mine"
"Let Me Die in My Footsteps"
"Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"
"Eternal Circle"
"Mama, You Been on My Mind"
"Farewell Angelina"
"She's Your Lover Now"
'Tangled Up in Blue"
"Idiot Wind"
"Blind Willie McTell"
"Series of Dreams"

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Under the Red Sky/Traveling Wilbury's Vol. III: Dylan in 1990

Released September 10, 1990
The spring of 1990 proved a busy one for Bob Dylan, recording two albums simultaneously: Under the Red Sky and Traveling Wilbury's Vol. III.

Released a year after the well received Oh Mercy, Under the Red Sky failed to impress most fans and critics.  Recorded in Los Angeles and produced by the Was brothers, the album featured guest appearances from some of the biggest names in the music industry including Elton John, Bruce Hornsby, George Harrison, Slash, and many others. 

I like to think of Under the Red Sky as a coda to Oh Mercy in terms of tone. The former looks at life with an honest, serious, and ultimately tragic outlook. While the latter goes for a more child like wisdom, making the two albums suitable companion pieces.  

"Wiggle Wiggle" may be the most despised song ever to open a Dylan album, a children's ditty with nonsensical lyrics.  Easy now, the Beatles could get away with "Piggies" and "Wild Honey Pie" on The White Album.

The title track features excellent guitar from Harrison and some poignant lyrics, a dark retelling of Hansel and Gretel.  "Unbelievable" was made into an amusing music video starring 80s icon Molly Ringwald. "Born in Time" provides some seasoned reflection on life and loss. "T.V. Talkin Song" reads like a lost passage from Tarantula.

"10,000 Men" offers up some leisurely blues with Dylan sounding like he's making it up on the spot. It's a fun jam.  "2 X 2" continues the nursery rhyme theme. "God Knows" recalls on the Christian Rock on the Shot of Love LP. Dylan refined "God Knows" into an epic rock song for his live shows in the 90s.  "Handy Dandy" introduces another eccentric character with "Like A Rolling Stone" evident in the melody.  The closing track, "Cat's in the Well," became a mainstay of Dylan's live repertoire throughout the 2000s.

A collection of odds and ends lacking in memorable moments or high points, Under the Red Sky works strictly as a curio.

Released October 29, 1990

After the unexpected passing of Roy Orbison, The Traveling Wilbury's continued on as a quartet for one more album. Orbison's absence left a melancholy shadow over the proceedings that made the original so magical. Nevertheless the songs on Vol. III hold up and are defiantly retro in style and tone. 

Dylan took a leadership role and his material dominates the album. 

"She's My Baby" is an uptempo rocker and "Inside Out" features the Wilbury's working on all cylinders.  

"7 Deadly Sins" and "Where Were You Last Night" bring some punch that the tracks on Under The Red Sky lacked.  "New Blue Moon" belongs on every jukebox.

"Wilbury Twist" ends things on a playful note.

Unfortunately the Wilbury's never got back together and their music went out of circulation throughout the 90s and early 2000's.  Both are now widely available. Great albums to get out on a rainy day!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Oh Mercy - Late Summer 1989

Released September 18, 1989

(From the Journal of Danny)

Late '89, another new Dylan album out only this one had a buzz surrounding it, different from his other recent stuff. Not a redux of the 60s shtick either, hints of a new path forward. I bought the cassette at Encore Records and played it on my stereo three straight times in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon.  I knew a few things about Dylan's new producer, the Canadian Daniel Lanois, young, brash, prodigy not intimidated by anyone, not above pushing Dylan around if the situation called for it. I imagined knife fights in the studio. With no one around in the broken down house, occupied by various other out of grad school malcontents, I put the speakers on full blast. No air conditioning either, windows open with no breeze on a seething Ohio summer afternoon. Rarely saw my old friends those days, still thought of them though. "Political World" came on and I understood what the critics were saying, a song from the swamps with all sorts of chaos in the mix. Sounded as if Dylan took all the frustrations of the 80s and exorcised them in one song. 1989. CEOs walking around like kings. Just what the decade needed, a misanthropic rant. All a stacked deck.  Right on; right on. "Where Teardrops Fall" hints of old jukeboxes, hints of lost love. "Ring Them Bells" could be a sermon from a disgraced preacher, like Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath or a jilted convert. Once the exuberance of being born again fades away- I wonder what happens?  Old vices return along with new temptations of every salacious variety.  But the old time faith (the only faith with meaning) never vanishes either, it stays there, and crops up on songs like this. Staring at the unremarkable clutter of my half-empty room made "Everything is Broken" sounds all too appropriate for my less than minor occasion. "Man in the Long Black Coat" forces you to watch evil triumph and renders you powerless. Keen observers learn to accept such unique pain, grapple with it, and maybe learn something, paying/praying as they go. Where better place to record this album than New Orleans?! A special place, my favorite section in On the Road took place there, the part I reread anyway. A new art for the lost pilgrims. Flip to side 2. "Most of the Time" levels you, for we are no longer the observer but the one on the receiving end. The lyrics were simple, direct, the bass lines luminous. Calling it a heartbreak song cheapens it. "What Good Am I" asks the right questions. Enlightened narcissism as the guiding light? The theme continues with "Disease of Conceit" shifting the point of view back to the omnipresent like a lost chapter from the Old Testament.  God knows we need prophets now more than ever. Don't look at me says Dylan. Who is he addressing in "What Was It You Wanted?" Jesus? Judas?? Lucifer??? Fans???? Critics????? Himself?????? The World???????... My thoughts floated back to the Winter of '81, the front end of the decade. Drifting in those days, drifting all day and all night, with Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding on constant rotation.  The two brothers Tim and Jeff frequently stopping by plotting their futures; Empire builders with no armies and complicated motivations. Those records offered poignancy and meaning to banality. "What Was it You Wanted" channeled those old sentiments of mine, late night conversations in a lonely place where dream and reality intermingle. A way station where existential tensions get absolved. The finale "Shooting Star" features arrivals/departures, goodbyes/hellos, something close to a complete circle. Some thoughts on Oh Mercy, late summer 1989.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Dylan and the Dead (1989)

Released February 6, 1989
During the summer of 1987 Bob Dylan joined The Grateful Dead for a stadium tour of six shows.  Nearly two years later, Columbia released a live album with a meager seven selections from those performances.  The confluence between these two gigantic forces in rock and roll/pop culture history promised unlimited potential -unfortunately the live album yielded disappointing results. The two gospel songs, "Slow Train Coming" and "Gotta Serve Somebody" are the only highlights.  The rest leaves much to be desired: "Joey" is a mess and "I Want You" goes all over the map. I'll assume the live album may not be the best representation of their concerts.  Guess you had to be there. In saying that, Dylan reportedly enjoyed his time with the Dead and even considered becoming a full time member.  When Dylan began the so called "Never Ending Tour" in the summer of 1988, I think he took some inspiration from the Grateful Dead - steady touring backed by a full time band willing to reinvent old and new material on a nightly basis.  Unlike most of his contemporaries Dylan emerged as a road warrior late in his career and would build an entirely new audience.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Bonus Post! The Traveling Wilbury's Vol. I

Released October 18, 1988
The Traveling Wilbury's featured Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan (Jim Keltner played percussion).  In the spring of 1988 the group began jamming together at Bob Dylan's garage and decided to record a full album of tunes. With each member representing different eras in rock and roll, the project seemed too good to be true, even misguided. Against all odds the LP won popular and critical acclaim, including some of Dylan's finest work in years.  Their music combined Rockabilly, Dylan's idiosyncratic lyrics, Beatles Power Pop, Electric Light Orchestra's melodic production style, and Tom Petty's catchy hooks. 

The title of the first track "Handle With Care" seemed appropriate, as if telling all the naysayers to chill out for a second. Bob's comically racy lyrics on "Dirty World" were apparently a shout out to Prince. "Rattled" threw some country rock into the mix.  "Last Night" sounds identical to a mid 70s Harrison record with Petty taking over on lead vocals. "Not Alone Any More" is a hybrid of Doo-Wop and ELO.

Dylan sang lead on "Congratulations", one for all the sad bastards out there. "Heading for the Light" really sounded like a Beatles song with Harrison's signature guitar style. "Margarita" combined Beach Boys harmonies with Brian Wilson's production style on Pet Sounds.

Dylan wrote an homage/pastiche to Bruce Springsteen on "Tweeter and the Monkeyman", an odd tragicomic story set in New Jersey. And "End of the Line" promises everything will be all right.

I imagine them all gathering in Bob's garage one day and deciding to make a record like they did back in the day.  Everything about 1980s production got tossed out the window and the final results were close to magical.

Sadly, Roy Orbison passed away after finishing the album.  In their music video for "End of the Line" the surviving members paid Roy a special tribute.

For anyone disillusioned with the music scene of the Eighties, the Wilbury's may have provided a brief respite. A fun record full of freewheelin' lyrics and faultless musicianship.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Down in the Groove: Dylan Gets Back

Released May 30, 1988
Down in the Groove, at the very least, displayed improvement over Dylan's previous LP Knocked Out Loaded.  For what it lacks in original material, there's enough to suggest Dylan was getting the ship back on course. Opening track "Let's Stick Together" is a pleasant pop-rock version of W. Harrison's R&B classic.  The quiet soul of "When Did You Leave Heaven" has a Fifties feel. Arthur Alexander's"Sally Sue Brown" once again channels early R&B. "Death is Not the End" sounds like a reworked song from Dylan's Christian period - steady beat and solemn vocals set a striking mood. "Had a Dream About You, Baby," sounds like another ode to Elvis.  Dylan also wrote two songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter: "Ugliest Girl in the World" and "Silvio." The former is an awful song title, but the latter is rather catchy and even earned a place on a Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. III. "Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dean End Street)" is another nod to Elvis with some good harmonies. Dylan closed the album with two American traditional songs "Shenandoah" and Albert Brumley's gospel standard "Rank Strangers to Me." Critics were tough on Down on the Groove, Dylan seemed more out of touch then ever. Nevertheless, the album's aged well. Dylan was getting back to his roots: folk standards and the music of his youth.  After a decade of experimenting with new production methods and occasional writer's block, Dylan was carving out a new path by going back to the basics.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Knocked Out Loaded: Dylan's Junk Drawer

Released July 14, 1986
If anything, the title is appropriate. There's no getting around it, Knocked Out Loaded is a sub standard Dylan album. In 1986 and 1987, Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, playing generic greatest hits heavy set lists. In Chronicles Dylan recalled the lack of enthusiasm he put into those performances, while Petty was at the top of his game. Dylan wanted to record an album backed by the Heartbreakers  but it never took off (although the Heartbreakers appear on KOL).  Dylan and Petty's best collaboration "Jammin' Me" appeared on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 1987 LP Let Me Up (I've Had Enough). The bluesy opener "You Wanna Ramble" shows promise, but the next track "They Killed Him" pretty much derails the album. A tribute to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus (written by Kris Kristofferson) falls embarrassingly flat with children's choir and all. "Driftin' To Far From the Shore" sounds like an outtake from Empire Burlesque. "Precious Memories" offers some soothing reggae.  "Brownsville Girl", often considered a diamond in the rough, works better as a prose poem instead of a song. "Maybe Someday," "I've Got My Mind Made Up," and "Under Your Spell" are all forgettable. Knocked Out Loaded adds up to nothing more than a random collection of odds and ends, an uninspired commercial product.  At its best, all too brief flashes of the old magic. I understand Knocked Out Loaded has a cult following - so contrary comments are welcome!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Empire Burlesque: Adrift in the 80s

Released June 10, 1985
Empire Burlesque somehow found its way into Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. A longtime Dylan fan, Jobs dismissed the album's sound as "disco" and lamented Dylan's long decline since Blood on the Tracks. Granted, Jobs was in the middle of losing battle to stay in control of Apple and in a grim mood.  I suspect many Dylan fans felt the same way. It was the middle of the 80s and music just didn't sound the same anymore.

Glancing at the top albums of 1985, one is struck by the dominance of British bands like The Smiths, The Cure, New Order, and Tears for Fears.  All critical darlings getting airplay on MTV. American rock looked like it was losing its way with a few exceptions.  REM's Fables of the Reconstruction offered a revised Americana, while The Replacements inspired a new "lost" generation with their definitive Tim. A new Dylan album no longer seemed special.

Empire Burlesque rests on an uneasy balance between's Dylan's unique lyrical style and Arthur Baker's synthesizer heavy production (which inevitably dates the album's sound).

But buried beneath the mechanical beats are some great songs. For example go read the lyrics to "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky." The imagery and mood are striking. Unfortunately, the majesty of the song never comes across with the repetitive drum beats. Or listen to "I'll Remember You", a tender ballad Dylan revisited for his film Masked and Anonymous in a more traditional arrangement.

Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin noted many of the lyrics were lifted from old movies, even from Star Trek episodes!  Dylan, a Trekkie? I can see it, Kirk and crew travel back in time to visit Dylan at the Cafe Wha?  Can you imagine the conversations between Dylan and Spock? Maybe it was a new cut up technique?  Watch hours of TV and VHS tapes and copy down the best lines? Then create a hit song?  Dylan would refine this technique later in his career - igniting a new wave of controversy.

"Tight Connection to My Heart" is a jumpy milk shop ditty and "Seeing The Real You At Last" explains all with the title.  "Clean Cut Kid" may be a close cousin to "License to Kill", with its theme of youth being corrupted by a greedy, bloodthirsty state. "Trust Yourself" could be the closest Dylan ever came to expressing his personal ethos in song.

"Emotionally Yours" and "Never Gonna Be the Same Again" are pleasant enough filler.

The last two tracks make for a welcome contrast.  "Something's Burning, Baby" features perceptive lyrics directed at a mysterious woman. I especially like the ominous intro on that one.  The melancholy acoustic ballad "Dark Eyes" brings things to a subdued conclusion.

After repeated listens Empire Burlesque gets better. It would be easy to mock Dylan for trying to update his sound as Steve Jobs and many rock critics have done.  But I won't - the songs are solid and live on.


Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. London: Faber and Faber, 2011. See pages 574-578 on the making of Empire Burlesque.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.  See pages 207-208 on Steve Jobs dismissing Dylan.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Real Live (1984)

Released November 29, 1984
Real Live features a selection of live cuts from Dylan's 1984 European tour to promote his 1983 album Infidels.  Dylan played with British Musicians including former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, former Faces member Ian McLagen on keyboards, Gregg Sutton on bass, and Collin Adams on drums. 

I imagine if Dylan ever fronted a band like The Rolling Stones it would come out something like Real Live. While the arrangements were nothing special, even static at times, Real Live succeeds as middle of the road 80s stadium rock.

The opening number "Highway 61 Revisited" moves along with Taylor laying down some Chuck Berry riffs to keep the song afloat, although it dilutes the power of the lyrics. "Maggie's Farm", another standby from his 60s catalog, sounds routine.  Then two tracks from Infidels, "I and I" and "License To Kill", are both well done.

Then three acoustic numbers "It Ain't Me Babe", "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Girl From the North Country", are classic Dylan, just a guitar and harmonica. "Tangled Up in Blue" includes some revised lyrics.

"Masters of War" still sounds powerful and relevant.  "Ballad of a Thin Man" is all over the map.  "Tombstone Blues" feels a little random for a closer, but moves along nicely with Carlos Santana standing in on lead guitar.

What else can I say about Real Live?  Nothing special, not a total loss either.  Strictly for a Dylan completist.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Infidels: Look Into the Fiery Furnace

Released October 27, 1983

Some notes I jotted down after a recent listen of Bob Dylan's 1983 LP Infidels

1) "Jokerman" - static production, laid back vocal, dense lyrics
2) "Sweetheart Like You" - Catchy Soft Rock, retrograde gender politics?
3) "Neighborhood Bully"- A nice rocker on Middle East Politics
4) "License to Kill" - A feminist message?
5) "Man of Peace" - More religion, simple message on the nature of evil
6) "Union Sundown" - Capitalism, Globalism, Neo-Patriotism
7) "I and I" - difficult, conflicted, inner turmoil
8) "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" - Struggle to find purpose?

I suppose when it comes to Infidels most Dylan fans will say, "yeah, it's ok."

Produced by Mark Knopfler, the album marked Dylan's return to mainstream rock and roll after a trilogy of Christian themed music. So Infidels feels like Dylan's first "80s" album because of the synthesizer heavy production.

The first four tracks of Infidels are my favorites. They are all solid songs.  I know there are many bootleg versions that included "Blind Willie McTell" and "Foot of Pride", considered some of Dylan's finest work of the decade. According to the blog Albums That Never Were, the original mixes were much edgier than the original release. Without much explanation, Dylan ditched the original version.

But there's a compelling coda to Infidels.

On March 22, 1984 Dylan made a rare television appearance on Late Night With David Letterman backed by the Plugz, a Punk band based in L.A. They took over the Letterman show that night, performing three songs before an ecstatic crowd.  Dylan appeared wearing a black suit with a skinny tie.  His expression all business, eyes looked downright sinister.

Dylan performed three songs: "Don't Start Me Talkin" (Sonny Boy Williamson cover), "License to Kill" and "Jokerman."

"Don't Start Me Talkin," an classic R&B number, got things off to an rocking start.  Dylan looked and sounded reinvigorated as if playing in a garage band back in Hibbing.

"License to Kill" is a heavy song, dark lyrics about a psychopath who cannot control his violent urges, "all he believes are his eyes and his eyes just tell him lies." The Letterman version sounds alive and relevant, as if saying  yeah the world is still the same no matter what anyone says.

And the finale "Jokerman" transforms the song from a spiritual meditation on a quasi-religious figure into an Anti-Hero Anthem.  With deliveries like "manipulator of crowds, you're a dreamtwista"  and  "look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name" suggest London Calling instead of Infidels.  In a surreal interlude, Dylan leaves the stage to find his harmonica; the Plugz keep the beat going as Dylan returned harmonica in hand.  An excited Letterman asks Dylan if he will stop by every Thursday, eliciting a rare smile from Bob.

The performance suggest an alternative 80s Dylan, an anomaly in his career trajectory.  A moment when all expectation and predictability came crashing down.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Shot Of Love: I Hear the Ancient Footsteps

Released August 10, 1981
To begin with an obvious observation: Shot of Love is the most rocking of Dylan's trilogy of Christian themed albums.  He gathered some of the finest rock session musicians around including Tim Drummond on bass (who played on Slow Train and Saved), Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and Benmont Tench on keyboards.  Ron Wood and Ringo Starr contributed to "Heart of Mine."

"Shot Of Love" gets things off to a lively start.  Dylan sings angrily "My conscience is beginning to bother me today" as he lists a litany of enemies trying to divert him off the righteous path. Beneath the bombastic performance lies a weariness and frustration.

"Heart of Mine" is one of my favorite songs on Shot of Love.  If was an A&R man, I might even hear a single.  Actually it was a hit in Norway. There's no mention of religion either, a low key song about fear and heartbreak.

"Property of Jesus" and "Watered-Down Love" are responses to those who mocked Dylan for his recent conversion.

Dylan's tribute song "Lenny Bruce" feels a little random and yet appropriate. A hymn to a secular hero.

Spiritual turmoil reigns on "The Groom is Still Waiting at the Alter" (not included on the original release) and "Dead Man, Dead Man."

The final three songs move towards something of a finality.

The leisurely "In the Summertime" recalls an innocent romance, but also may be about God:

And I'm still carrying the gift you gave
It's a part of me now,it's been cherished and saved
It'll be with me unto the grave
And then into eternity

"Trouble" foreshadows ideas Dylan would explore on his later albums, namely, trying to preserve one's dignity in a broken world.  A wicked blues riff kicks off the song before it spills into rickety rock and roll.  Tension builds with the repetitive chorus "Trouble, Trouble, Trouble/Nothin' but trouble." The last verse ends on a nihilist Jeremiad: 

Nightclubs of the broken-hearted, stadiums of the damned
Legislature, perverted nature, doors that are rudely slammed
Look into infinity, all you see is trouble

I would compare "Trouble" to "Political World", the opening track on Oh Mercy, a song even heavier on cynicism and despair written at the end of the 1980s.

Even the harshest critics of Shot of Love acknowledged "Every Grain of Sand" as a masterpiece, Dylan's acerbic critic Robert Christgau even declared the song "canonical." Some compared the lyrical verse to William Blake. 

"Every Grain of Sand" encapsulates the past, present and future. The first verse recalls the bleak darkness before the dawn:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There's a dyin' voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

In the midst of despair he finds peace in the work of the "master's hand." The song goes on to mention a journey, the sense of falling off the path and struggling to get back on it. Temptation, painful memories, and anger will not go away, but he finds solace that "every hair is numbered like every grain of sand."

The last verse alludes to the future, almost as if Dylan is saying farewell to this phase of his life, but will continue on with renewed purpose:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me
I am hanging the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

As a symbol a lone Sparrow can be interpreted loneliness and sorrow- and that good things often come in small portions.  In some cultures, prisoners get a sparrow tattoo when their sentence ends - a reminder to stay on the right path.

Shot of Love begins in a fit of righteous anger and ends on a reflective note of courageous maturity.  

In the ensuing years, at the suggestion of his son Jesse, Dylan got enamored with punk and New Wave.  In the 1980s he would make a few attempts to update his sound with mixed results.

With Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love we get a progression from the zealousness of the newly converted, introspective reflections on faith, and finally a return to worldly concerns with a new perspective tempered by age.  All three offer a glimpse into Dylan's ever evolving world view.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Saved: Shattered Like An Empty Cup

Released June 23, 1980
In contrast to the fire and brimstone exuberance of Slow Train Coming, Saved offered quiet and meditative musings on faith.  "A Satisfied Mind" and "Saved" are straight up gospel one might hear in a revival tent.  The meditative "Covenant Woman" carries a quiet eloquence with a stripped down production. "What Can I do For You" expresses gratitude to God for finding peace.  "Solid Rock" blends gospel with rock and roll. The next two tracks are among Dylan's best during this period: "Pressing On" and "In the Garden."  Even the most most hard headed non-believer would be moved by the soaring gospel of "Pressing On." "In the Garden" is a passionate song on Christ and the Resurrection that builds to a soaring crescendo.   "Saving Grace" and "Are you Ready" bring Saved to a spirited conclusion.  Dylan's band and backup singers performed brilliantly in one of his most optimistic albums, achieving a sense of peace and tranquility.  Although Saved is often relegated to a minor work in his catalog, it stands as a poignant testament of Dylan during a fascinating time in his career.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slow Train Coming: Dylan's Christianity

Sister, lemme tell you about a vision I saw
You were drawing water for your husband, you were suffering under the law
You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammad
in the same breath
You never mentioned one time the man who came and died a criminal's death

-A verse from "Precious Angel"

With Dylan's conversion to Christianity in 1979, a move which drew the derision of the rock community, he released a collection of songs with deep Christian themes entitled Slow Train Coming.  Dylan's righteous tone marked a striking contrast to his work in the 70s and a return to his swaggering pronouncements of the mid-60s.

The Grammy Award winning "Gotta Serve Somebody" offers a simple warning: ego and pride have nothing to do with salvation. Regardless of wealth or status, everyone must answer to their creator. The Day of Reckoning will arrive regardless of fame or the size of one's bank account. 

Dylan's old frenemy John Lennon wrote a scathing response to "Gotta Serve Somebody" entitled "Serve Yourself" with the refrain, "You gotta serve yourself/Ain't nobody gonna do for you." Their schism among the 60s icons barely registered by the 1980s, but its curious Lennon seemed so vexed with Dylan.  The lyrics decry any system designed to control thought, much in tone with Lennon's dismissal of Dylan and all ideologies on his song "God." Lennon suggests Dylan praise his mother instead of Jesus.

But even in Dylan's early protest music like "Masters of War" there's a theological component to his lyrics. Slow Train Coming Dylan adopts Christianity as an iconoclastic world view. On 'When You Gonna Wake Up" he sings of "counterfeit philosophies" steering everyone in the wrong direction - away from the teachings of Christ.

"I Believe in You" confronts the struggle to maintain faith in a broken world. Faith promises solace, a theme Dylan would return to again and again, especially on Time Out of Mind.

Slow Train Coming would be Dylan's final release of the 70s, and it really does feel like an end of 70s record.  In America the zeitgeist changed and the pendulum begin to swing back on the 60s.  The loss of John Lennon, the election of Ronald Reagan, and Madison Avenue's use of counterculture rhetoric spelled a brave new world.

I believe Dylan was sincere in his new found faith and he does sound revitalized and more confident on Slow Train Coming, in contrast to the wishy washy Street Legal.  Jerry Wexler's production and the amazing group musicians Dylan brought together created a work of real beauty.