Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Self Portrait

Self Portrait (1970)

When reviewing the album upon its release, Greil Marcus asked, “what is this shit?” For the last several years I’ve listened to this album in a very selective way – only hearing the songs that made it onto my iPod. Listening to it all at once, perhaps for the first time ever and at least the first time in close to a decade, a few thoughts occurred to me. One is that hearing this selectively will make you a bit of an apologetic. It becomes easy to make excuses when all one hears is “Copper Kettle.” One forgets how bad some of the other songs were. The other thing I noticed is that, while the songs that suck suck pretty bad, they aren’t the worst in Dylan’s catalog and they don’t lower his stature for me like they did when I first heard them. I still question several of them, but I don’t jump to conclusions that Dylan had lost it or is stupid or anything else generally disrespectful. The fact is, though, that when you release a double-album and call it Self Portrait, people are going to see it as a major artistic statement. In a way, though, this is just that. First, let’s look at its contents, then compare two of the mirrored songs. Of the album’s twenty-four tracks (I hesitate to say twenty-four songs as some songs are repeated), eight are traditional songs in the public domain. Eight are Dylan compositions, including four which were recorded life at the Isle of Wight – only one of which was new (though two had yet to be released by Dylan) – two of which are instrumentals and one on which Dylan doesn’t appear at all but on which a choir repeats the same two lines over and over for three and a half minutes. Six are covers of material popular during the fifties, including a version of “Blue Moon” which borrow Elvis Presley’s arrangement wholesale. The final two are songs by Dylan’s contemporaries, and ostensibly his competition. From Gordon Lightfoot, Dylan takes “Early Morning Rain,” a song that had been a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, whose early hits had either been traditional material or Dylan compositions. The other song by one of Dylan’s peers is “The Boxer,” a song rumored to be about Dylan. Dylan double tracks his vocal (I believe this is the only instance of this in his catalog) to sing it as a duet between his Blonde On Blonde vocal style and his Nashville Skyline vocal style. Compared to Simon & Garfunkel it’s a train wreck, but it isn’t nearly as bad as one might imagine.

One theory is that Dylan was trying to sabotage his reputation. That seems plausible enough. A. J. Weberman was founding garbology, his pioneering study of learning about people by going through their garbage, by digging through Dylan’s to prove his kooky theory that Dylan had been kidnapped by the CIA and been replaced by an Eisenhower clone (if Weberman comes out of the woodwork and comments on my blog, I’ll consider it a badge of honor). In addition to Weberman, Dylan had hippies breaking into his house looking for the meaning of life and probably a little weed. Dylan had five kids living at home with him; he didn’t need to be putting up with that. He describes Self Portrait as his attempt to make something they couldn’t possibly like. On other days, though, he’s defended it. Just because the hippie fans wouldn’t like it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like it, after all. In a way, the album suggests that to create a Self Portrait, one can’t only look to themselves because we can’t be objective about the self. That, I think, is the reason for all the covers, and some of them make perfect sense. Sure, he only put on “The Boxer” to give Paul Simon a light-hearted ribbing, but Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too” is one of the most common blues standards. Dylan adored Elvis, which explains “Blue Moon.” “Belle Isle” goes back to his close friendship with Liam Clancy. One interesting pair of tracks are tracks six and eight, “In Search of Little Sadie” and “Little Sadie” respectively. “Little Sadie” is an old murder ballad about a man who shoots his woman down and goes to sleep “with a forty-four smokeless” under his bed. Cash recorded a version as “Cocaine Blues.” “Little Sadie” is sped up. The vocal lacks any sort of nuanced. It just bounces along almost uncontrollably. “In Search of Little Sadie” is a rehearsal. Dylan is in search of the sound he wants. He changes tempos and keys at least once a verse, sometimes more. The vocal is more rough-hewn, but he sounds more invested. Right at the end he hits on the sound in “Little Sadie.” It’s like a joke. You get the same song twice, and one version is arguably the best track on the album, and the other is a lifeless museum piece, and it is like Dylan is laughing at the listener, saying “I can sound like everyone else,” or, even scarier, “don’t you wish you had heard ‘In Search of insert your favorite Dylan composition here’.” And, of course, I hold no illusions that Dylan was in search of anything on “In Search of Little Sadie.” It sounds like a rehearsal because that’s his intention. He is always aware of how the audience hears, even here, and he builds his performances around expectations. The song was cut to sound like it does. This pair of tracks is a good metaphor for how I feel about the album. It would have made a quality, though not relevatory, single album, but as a double album it feels like both a slap in the face and a brilliant “fuck you” to his fan base.

Best song: Days of ’49 – This song about the California gold rush catalogs different archetypal miners. The take is ramshackle. Dylan runs out of breath and grunts “oh my goodness.” It may not be as pretty as “Copper Kettle” or as controlled in its manicness as “In Search of Little Sadie,” but, because I want to hang out with all these people he describes, it slightly edges out both of those, my other two picks for the tracks most worth salvaging from this album.

Worst song: Wigwam – This song is considered an instrumental, but that’s unfair. The lyrics are “la-de-da-da-dee-dum.” This song was actually a top 40 hit briefly upon its release as the only Dylan single from Self Portrait and gained another wave of popularity 30 years later after being featured in The Royal Tannenbaums. Picking the worst song on this album was difficult – there were many contenders, but the sheer laziness here makes it take the cake for me.

Best outtake: Spanish Is the Loving Tongue – Two versions of this were recorded and released by Dylan. The more well-known one, which is completely horrid, is from Columbia’s revenge album Dylan. The version I have in mind, though, was released as a b-side to a non-album single circa 1971. I think it was “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Stunningly gorgeous.

Notable live rendition: I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know – The original cover of this 1953 hits for the Davis Sisters is choked by the string section. In 1986, Dylan revisited it in concert with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in a more open arrangement. Once the song was allowed to breathe, it was easy to see why Dylan liked it so much.

Rhymes: lips/fingertips (“I Forgot More”); repine/49 (“Days of ’49”); slow/Jericho (“In Search of Little Sadie”); belong/throne (“Belle Isle”) mine/mind (“It Hurts Me Too”)

Images: “Tired horses in the sun” (“All the Tired Horses”); “rampaged against a knife;” “ragshag Bill” (2-3 from “Days of ’49”); “hickory, ash and oak” (“Copper Kettle”); “a pocketful of mumbles” (“The Boxer”)

Axioms: “You can never steal away memories” (“I Forgot More”); “I’m left alone in my misery” (“Days of ’49”); “You can’t hop a jet plane like you can a freight train” (“Early Mornin’ Rain”); “Guarding fumes and making haste – it ain’t my cup of meat” (“The Mighty Quinn”); “I think that its best I soon … forget my pride” (“Living the Blues”)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Nashville Skyline

Nashville Skyline (1969)

For several albums in a row, Dylan had done nothing but grow as an artist. On Bringing It All Back Home, he went electric. On Highway 61 Revisited he shaped a hard-rock sound with a razor-sharp edge. On Blonde On Blonde he blurred that sound until its edges were soft fuzz and the vitriolic was suffused into strange riddles. In the basement with The Band he covered the Carter Family, wrote a slew of new stuff and laid the groundwork for Americana. With John Wesley Harding he made what he himself called the first Biblical rock album and what many critics called the first country rock album. With Nashville Skyline he just kind of took away the rock. After John Wesley Harding, many acts followed in Dylan’s footsteps – the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo just a few months later; Cash, whose career had been sidelined by drugs, had a hit with At Folsom Prison, which rocked for a country album – but Nashville Skyline rarely comes close to rocking. Lyrically, it is mostly filled with lovey-dovey sap. Dylan even cuts a verse from “Girl From the North Country,” sung here in a gorgeous duet with Cash, and sings it in a much brighter tone and in a major key, robbing it of the quality of heartache that so resonates in the version on Freewheelin’. A few of the songs are about love lost, and “I Threw It All Away” is my favorite song on the album most days because the vocal captures the sorrow, but the overdone country backing almost makes it too melodramatic. To me, this album is a pleasant enough listen, but it doesn’t hit me as particularly funny or smart or dramatic, which is how I want my Dylan to be. Just look at the rhymes, images and axioms. Nothing.

Best song: “I Threw It All Away” – Not sure what this one is about, but I am sure that it has one of Dylan’s prettiest vocals in conventional terms.

Worst song: “Peggy Day” – Silly. Just silly. And it takes the soul completely out of “out of sight.”

Best outtake: “Big River” – Charlie Daniels tears up the bass on this outtake from the Dylan/Cash session. The recorded enough to easily fill an album, but only two tracks saw the light of day: “Girl From the North Country” on Nashville Skyline and “One Too Many Mornings” on the Cash documentary A Man And His Music.

Notable live version: “Lay, Lady, Lay” – This song, written as the theme for Midnight Cowboy but finished too late to be included, is directed toward Dylan’s first wife, Sara, as a love song. It must have worked because people ate it up. It became the third most successful single of his career and his last top ten hit. By the time of this performance, taped for a TV special and corresponding live album called Hard Rain, their marriage had soured. It was their anniversary and she had shown up demanding that he sign divorce papers. As she stood fuming in the wings during a rainstorm, Dylan rewrote this song on the spot. The music’s gentleness is completely absent and the lyrics have being a monstrous ball of angst.

Rhymes: love/of (“To Be Alone With You”); mind/shine (“Lay, Lady, Lay”); heard/word (“Tell Me That It Isn’t True”); lime/plum (“Country Pie”); street/seat (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”)

Images: “snowflakes storm” (“Girl from the North Country”); “big brass bed” (“Lay, Lady, Lay”); “dark and rolling sky” (“One More Night”); “the hogshead up on his toe” (“Country Pie”); “whistle blowin” (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”)

Axioms: “Nighttime is the right time to be with the one you love” (“To Be Alone With You”); “His clothes are dirt’y but his hands are clean;” “You can have your cake and eat it too” (2-3 from “Lay, Lady, Lay”); Saddle me on a big white goose;” “Little Jack Horner’s got nothin’ on me” (4-5 from “Country Pie”)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dylan Album Project: John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding (1967)

This failed concept album came out after Christmas but before New Year’s, so it didn’t chart until 1968. While it made a huge splash on the singles chart, a few months later Jimi Hendrix would have the biggest hit of his career with a cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” the most well-known song on John Wesley Harding. That song recounts Isaiah 21:5-9, and much of John Wesley Harding has Biblical origins, usually in books of prophecy from the Old Testament. “Wicked Messenger” and “Drifter’s Escape” have strong Biblical ties, for instance. What Dylan does, though, is reset the song in a young, rugged America. In “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” Christ’s betrayal occurs in a saloon/whore house. In “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” the ghost of St. Augustine appears in a revelation to the narrator, but the song’s structure is borrowed wholesale from the labor ballad “Joe Hill.” “As I Went Out One Morning” finds that song’s protagonist trying to free a Mary Magdelinesque from the chains Tom Paine has wrapped around her. The album is a series of conceits dealing with the nature of sin and redemption, straddling two epochs and holding onto both….. until the last two songs. The album was recorded with Dylan alternately on guitar, piano and harmonica, Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey on drums. It had an understated but powerful, almost scary, feel to it. Then Peter Drake had to come in and put his pedal steel all over the last two songs. “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are two head-over-heels love songs that stand in stark contrast to the rest of the album’s doom and gloom. They also point the way to his next album, the ubercountry Nashville Skyline. John Wesley Harding would have been the ultimate concept album were it not for how it ends, but if you can’t say it was a great concept album, you can say that it killed psychedelia. The Beatles were riding high on Sgt. Pepper’s, experimentation for experimentation’s sake, and Dylan thought they were using the studio to mask lackluster songwriting. They were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck rather than setting up a strong song and then decorating it. Dylan reportedly told Paul McCartney to go back to singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and John Wesley Harding shows Dylan’s dedication to taking a direct approach. The stripped down arrangements are extremely direct and the Beatles postponed the release date of their next project, and by the time The Beatles came out it had ballooned into a double album filled with songs like “Rocky Raccoon,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” that had the stamp of Harding’s influence all over them. Dylan was right, too, in many ways. Sgt. Pepper’s is a great listen, but try to play “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole,” or “Good Morning, Good Morning” with just you and a guitar and it is going to sound like shit. All of the songs on John Wesley Harding are nearly played with just that instrumentation and they are powerful and direct. Certainly “When I’m 64” and “A Day In the Life” are strong compositions, but not everything on that album is up to their level ... it just sounds like it is. It is said if you turn the cover of John Wesley Harding upside down, you can see the Beatles faces carved into the tree behind Dylan. Not only was Dylan just maybe playing tricks with the album cover (you can see the faces, but I think it’s pure coincidence), he was also back to writing liner notes, albeit briefly. This time he wrote, in the style of the album, a short narrative that acts as an allegory for the three wiseman coming to pay their respects to baby Jesus.

Best song: As I Went Out One Morning – This particular selection was agonizing. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is really great lyrically, but not that interesting musically. “Dear Landlord” is one of the most soulfully performed songs in Dylan’s catalog. It is so bare yet so powerful, and Dylan’s piano playing is moving as he pleads with his spiritual landlord to give him a chance to make amends. In the end, though, Charlie McCoy’s bass playing brings me back to “As I Went Out One Morning,” a strange tale indeed. The narrator comes upon a girl who is chained up. She wants free, but he has the feeling she’ll harm him for her freedom at the first chance she gets. She is beautiful, but untrusting. As they talk, Tom Paine rides up and apologizes, saying “I’m sorry for what she’s done.” This is the type of song that gets criticized by Dylan fans as reducing a woman to either goddess or villain, both essentialized notions. One thing that line of reasoning misses on this particular song, though, is that the woman is not the focus of the song – how Tom Paine treats her is the focus. Also, she isn’t necessarily a villain. We expect that she might do something, yet she’s done nothing but stand there and plead for her freedom. Paine sees her as a villain, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it’s so.

Worst song: I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight – For me, it had to be one of the last two songs. This has been memorably covered by just about everyone and is a classic, but it is still one of the most simplistic love songs Dylan has written. “Down Along the Cove,” the albums other pedal-steel love song, has more drive in the performance, so it edges this one out.

Best outtake: N/A

Notable live rendition: Drifter’s Escape – Dylan has had success with a couple songs from John Wesley Harding on the Never-Ending Tour. One of my favorite transformations was a hard rock version of “Drifter’s Escape,” which may have been influenced by the Hendrix version of “Watchtower,” which has been the blueprint for every Dylan live version of that song, which is his most performed track.

Rhymes: be/Eternity; ice/Paradise (1-2 from “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”); speak/unique (“Dear Landlord”); mud/blood (“I Pity the Poor Immigrant”); matter/flatter (“The Wicked Messenger”)

Images: “fiery breath” (“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”); “foaming at the mouth he began to make his midnight creep” (“Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”); “a bolt of lightning struck the courthouse out of shape” (“Drifter’s Escape”); “heaven is like ironsides” “builds his town with blood” (4-5 from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”)

Axioms: “Life is but a joke” (“All Along the Watchtower”); “Nothing is revealed;” “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road” (2-3 from “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”); “you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique” (“Dear Landlord”); “Stay free from petty jealousies, live by no man’s code and keep your judgment for yourself” (“I Am A Lonesome Hobo”)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Basement Tapes

Basement Tapes (recorded 1967; released 1975)

If The Rootabaga Stories, Carl Sandburg’s strange American fairy tales, had a soundtrack, it would be The Basement Tapes. While Rootabaga Stories are filled with characters who go by names like Gimme the Ax and The Potato-Faced Blind Man, The Basement Tapes are populated by Soft Gut and Skinny Moo. It is certainly deserving of the title of Greil Marcus’s book about these tapes – The Old, Weird America – which seems to be the first book-length study of a single Dylan album. The album started after Dylan suffered a serious motorcycle crash that sidelined him for close to a year. When he was starting to feel better, The Band came around to see him. They were still on his payroll, so Dylan decided to be productive by teaching them a lot of old, weird folk songs and having them all play and sing them together, presumably to raise Dylan’s spirits. The playing rolled into writing and over the summer of ’67 Dylan was more prolific than he was at any other time in his career. It is a shame, then, that The Band’s Robbie Robertson, given the role of executive producer, butchered the album. If memory serves, there are 74 songs recorded at the sessions with 105 separate takes. Many of them are covers, ranging from “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” and “Flight of the Bumblebee” to songs by Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield and Elvis. There was plenty of original material though. Despite there being very few songs at the sessions not to feature Dylan, eight of the twenty-four recordings to appear on the official album were cuts by The Band. None of them came from the Basement Tapes sessions (though, for all my griping, I must admit that they are all very good). Two of them were covers of Dylan songs, one was an old folk song and five were originals. They had all been recorded for, and then reject from, The Band’s post-Dylan albums. It may have been Dylan’s call – he had only intended for a few songs from the home-spun sessions to get out as demos. He wanted to keep the songs close to him and only relented to the record company’s pressure to release them six years after they had started being heavily bootlegged. Dylan’s call or not, the eight band cuts make this a missed opportunity. Since then “The Mighty Quinn,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Santa Fe” and “I’m Not There (1956)” have seen the light of day, but there are still at least a half-dozen classics or near-classics stuck in the vault. “I’m A Fool For You” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” are underrated and not releasing “Sign On the Cross” is near criminal. Then you add “Get Your Rocks Off,” “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” and “Silent Weekend” and it is easy to see how a triple album of all Dylan would have still disappointed. A Tree With Roots is the most complete bootleg with the best sound from these sessions, and with four songs, two of which must come from the official album, this can’t help but be a weak offering of the riches available. Perhaps Dylan’s most American album, two of the songs seem rooted in British culture. “Tears of Rage” is based on King Lear while “Too Much of Nothing” references Valerie and Vivian, T. S. Eliot’s two wives. The culture of ex-pat Eliot may be British, but the divorce-tabloid expose of Eliot seems distinctly American in style, and for all Lear’s Britishness, Dylan sets the song on Independence Day.

Best song: Goin’ to Acapulco – Sometimes the things we like most are shaped by experiences, and Jim James cover of this for the soundtrack of I’m Not There is utterly gorgeous, not to mention the best-used song in the film. I’m 99% sure it’s about a hooker.

Worst song: Million Dollar Bash – I don’t really have anything against this song except that it lacks the swagger of similar Basement Cuts, such as “Lo and Behold” and “Tiny Montgomery,” that makes them vastly superior. This cut was chosen for 1985’s Biograph, the first major-artist deluxe box-set to mix older material with unreleased tracks, and when I got that I expected this to be a revelation having heard so much about how great The Basement Tapes were, and I remember it being kind of a let-down.

Best outtake: I’m Not There (1956) – Probably 4/5ths of the lyrics are made up on the spot, but the fumbling perfectly matches the tone of insecurity the sound creates. It is a song about unworthiness, and a beautiful love song. When Dylan gets to a line where he knows what he wants the lyrics to be – “she’s my prize-forsaken angel,” “she’s a long-hearted mystic,” “she’s gone like the rain,” “I believe that it’s rightful; I believe it in my mind” – the haze of yearning clears and the void it leaves in its wake is immediately filled by an untamed desire to just be there for somebody. No one knows for sure about the 1956 – some say it was just a joke and it isn’t on the official version – but I think 1956 is the she; it is the most Romantic (in the Blakeian sense) year of Dylan’s youth – the year Elvis became a star – and unfortunately something intangible in him, and perhaps in the nation, died that year and he’ll never be able to reclaim it.

Notable live version: Down in the Flood – this may be a bit cheating, but in Masked and Anonymous, Jack Fate, played by Dylan, does a show for the gathered actors, including this scorching take on “Down In the Flood.”

Rhymes: snake/drake (“Please Mrs. Henry”); Vivian/oblivion (“Too Much of Nothin’”); bus/puss (“Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”); flutes/shoots/substitutes/roots (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”); sympathize/lies (“Nothing Was Delivered”)

Images: “blow my plum” (“Goin’ to Acapulco”); “I bought myself a herd of moose… round that horn and ride that herd. Gonna thread up!” (“Lo and Behold!”); “old wild shirts and a couple pairs of pants that nobody really wanted to touch” (“Clothes Line Saga”); “sniffing too many eggs” (“Please Mrs. Henry”); “the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse” (“Tears of Rage”)

Axioms: “If someone offers me a joke, I just say no thanks” (“Goin’ to Acapulco”); “Gonna save my money and rip it up” (“Lo and Behold!”); “I’m a generous bomb. I’m T-Boned and punctured, but I’m known to be calm.” (“Please Mrs. Henry”); “Slap that drummer with a pie that smells.” (“Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”); “Remember when you’re out there trying to heal the sick that you must always first forgive them.” (“Open the Door, Homer”)