Monday, November 28, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Street Legal

Street Legal (1978)

After several years of frenzied musical activity, Dylan devoted 1977 to editing Renaldo and Clara. He had, by some reports, over 400 hours of film. He edited it down to four hours. Critics lambasted and it is rarely seen today, and when it is it is often the two hour edit. Dylan had combined cinema verite footage with improvised scenes and then cut it up, creating a series of montages. Editing the film proved a major drain in terms of both time and money, and, wxhausted and with a wounded ego, Dylan faced the prospect of needing to go on the road to refill the quickly emptying coffers. The late 70s were a period of excess, so Dylan hired horn players, backup singers, and set off on a tour where people said he’s gone Vegas, or disco. The early live album, At Budokan, is probably my least favorite Dylan album. All of the arrangements re lifeless. Mid tour, Dylan recorded and released Street Legal with the touring band, and you can see why he chose this approach as it works for several songs on the record. Musically, it was an adventure. Dylan was trying new sounds and arrangements, even if a few flopped. The mixing was awful, and it wasn’t until a late 1990s remix that the album finally started to receive praise and be seen as perhaps a minor classic. By the end of the tour, Dylan was supposedly in much better form and rumors occasionally swirl that release of one of the later shows is imminent as an archival live album. Much of the strange mythology was reportedly influenced by a brief interest in Tarot and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Best song: Changing of the Guard – “Sixteen years” is how this starts out, and many fans see it as a sign that, sixteen years into his career, Dylan was about to change the guard by converting to Christianity. Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite it, though religion certainly seems to be a key theme in the song – “torn between Jupiter and Apollo” and “the wheels of fire,” a reference to Ezekiel, point in that direction, though it is certainly not an explicitly or implicitly Christian song.

Worst song: Is Your Love In Vain? – Often decried as Dylan’s most sexist song (the other contender is 1983’s “Sweetheart Like You,” with the line “a woman like you should be at home – that’s where you belong”), this song is mostly derided for the line “can you cook and sew? Make flowers grow? Can you understand my pain?,” which manages to not only stereotype the woman as simply domestic, but also suggests he is the only one in the relationship capable of empathy. In addition to that, it is kind of cloying in its melody.

Best outtake: Several songs were written and performed on the tour, such as “Stepchild” and “Stop Now,” that either never made it into the studio or the outtakes haven’t seen the light of day.

Best live version: “Senor” – This song emanates fear of the apocalypse along the Mexican border, has often been praised for its live performances on the Never-Ending Tour, rare though they are.

Rhymes: nightingale/veil; organization/elimination (1-2 from “Changing of the Guard”); making laws/ breaking of jaws (“No Time to Think”); oxygen/again (“True Love Tends To Forget”); transition/magician (“We Better Talk This Over”)

Images: “a messenger arrived with a black nightingale;” “the stitches still mending beneath a heart-shaped tattoo” (1-2 from “Changing of the Guard”); “a gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring;” “our hearts are as hard as leather” (3-4 from “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)”); “a lonesome bell tone in the valley of stone where she bathed in a stream of pure heat” (“Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat”)

Axioms: “angels voices whisper to the souls of previous times;” “Eden is burning” (1-2 from “Changing of the Guard”); “Mercury rules you and destiny fools you” (“No Time to Think”); “this place just don’t make sense to me no more” (“Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)”); “sacrifice was the code of the road” (“Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat”)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Desire

Desire (1976)

Still reeling from his divorce from Sara and his impending divorce, Dylan decided to try a few new things and try to reclaim his youthful spirit of authenticity. He cowrote songs for the first time, enlisting Jacque Levy, a playwright mostly known at the time for co-penning the Byrds’ cowboy bestiality fantasy “Chesnut Mare” with Roger McGuinn. He started hanging out in Greenwich Village again, though it was mostly a tourist trap by now. He caught some really early punk acts, drank a lot with people he hadn’t seen before and people he’d just met and started writing cinematic songs in a very different vein than what he had written on Blood On the Tracks. Somewhere around this time, imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter finished writing his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, in prison and sent a copy to Dylan. Carter had a rap sheet about a mile long for crimes he had committed, but claims he was innocent for the triple murders he’d been sent to prison for. Dylan was moved by the book and went to visit him in prison. They struck a repoire and Dylan agreed to write a song for Carter. “Hurricane,” Dylan’s first protest song since 1973’s “George Jackson,” and the first one Dylan actually cared about since probably The Times They Are A-Changin’, would be a major hit and is seen by many as the centerpiece of Desire. In truth, almost everything in it is a major stretch, some of it is completely fabricated, and the amount of untruth just makes the whole thing ring hollow after you’ve heard it about a hundred times. When I first heard it, it was probably my favorite Dylan song for a year and a half after that, but then its star began to sank, and, while it isn’t my least favorite song on Desire, it isn’t in the top three either. Rather than just raise awareness, though, Dylan wanted to raise money for Carter’s defense fund, and so a tour began to stir in his mind. Any cares about Carter, which I doubt had much influence on Dylan anyway, began to fade a bit as the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan’s greatest tour, began to take shape. It was to be a travelling troupe, a gypsy caravan. The show would feature multiple performers and would have a vaudeville feel to it. The idea of this grand tour swelled. There were seventy-five people on the tour, including writers like Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg, a Native American spiritual guru named Rolling Thunder, other folk legends like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Joan Baez, and a fantastic band, including such contemporary luminaries as David Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson and future luminaries as T-Bone Burnett. Guests such as Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young frequented the tour, sometimes just to hang out and sometimes joining in the action onstage. Dylan even decided to make a film based on the tour, which would eventually become Renaldo and Clara. To go along with the grand tour, he wanted a new sound. One day, while walking around the streets of the village, Dylan came upon a street performer, a gypsy violinist named Scarlet Rivera. He hired her on the spot and her sound came to dominate both the tour and Desire, the album that followed it. The cinematic scope of the songs was influenced by Levy’s eye for screenwriting. They were like epics, or else like Eisensteinian montages. The tour had a grand first leg, announcing concerts just hours before playing them, romping though old gothic theatres in the Northeast. A second leg toured the South in early ’76, but the magic was mostly gone. The tour had changed and things had gone sour. Some great music was made, but it was of a different kind: angrier and less open to what is. As Rolling Thunder began, Sara had briefly reunited with Dylan after walking in on him recording “Sara” and being moved, but by the time the second leg was winding up, she was standing in the wings of huge stadiums holding divorce papers. Desire was recorded early on, and while the songs are more polished, less frenetic and certainly less emphatic than they were on Rolling Thunder, they were still great.

Best song: Black Diamond Bay – A strange frame story populated by a stranger cast. This may be based on a short story – its hard to say – but it certainly has the flavor of literary fiction. Human folly plays out and we are to find it is fruitless against a backdrop of apocalypse. Soviet espionage, homosexual midgets, a French poker dealer and a mysterious woman in white: this song has it all. The story is then revealed to be at two removes, being told by a narrator who is imagining the story based on a newscast by Walter Cronkite.

Worst song: Mozambique – Dylan’s attempt at a pop song. This was released as a pop song, but failed miserably. I was tempted to put “Joey,” an epic eulogy of gangster Joey Gallo, who Dylan seems to have confused with the grandfather in the Werther’s Originals commercials, but at nine minutes, I thought “Joey” just might be too painful to anyone listening to a soundtrack of this monstrosity.

Best outtake: Abandoned Love – This song was debuted at the Bitter End club before the Rolling Thunder Revue started, and has never been played live since. One take was recorded at the Desire sessions, but it wasn’t considered complete. It is a beautiful song though. Inventive, jumping melody with intriguing lyrics. This early, unfinished version is better than several songs that made the album.

Best live version: Isis – “Isis” is a great song on the album, but it is a whole ‘nother beast live. On Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan introduces it as “a song about marriage.” That is true, but truer is when, at other concerts on the tour, he introduced it by saying “this is a true story; actually, they are all true.” It certainly is true, if you read it slant. The song, as I read it, is an allegory for Dylan’s marriage to Sara. He falls in love with her, they marry. He is lured away on a journey to find turquoise and gold, which I would assume is that cash cow that the ’74 tour was seen as. He found it hollow and unfulfilling, and realized the time away was ruining his relationship. Like any good writer, though, he reshapes the ending in his favor – Sara takes him back.

Rhymes: middleweights/out-of-state plates (“Hurricane”); who-knows-when/accordion (“Joey”); cantina/Magdalena (“Romance In Durango”); floor/ambassador; night/Cronkite (4-5 from “Black Diamond Bay”)

Images: “a high place of darkness and light” (“Isis”); “your voice is like a meadowlark” (“One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”); “hoofbeats like castanets on stone;” “serpent eyes of obsidian” (“3-4 from “Romance In Durango”); “the remnants of her recent past are scattered in the wild wind” (“Black Diamond Bay”)

Axioms: “I still can’t remember all the best things she said;” “when he died I was hopin’ that it wasn’t contagious;” “what drives me to you is what drives me insane” (1-3 from “Isis”); “you can take your money, but I don’t know how you’ll spend it in the tomb” (“Black Diamond Bay”); “a messenger sent me in a tropical storm” (“Sara”)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Blood On the Tracks

Blood On the Tracks (1975)

If you asked a Dylan fan to suggest three albums, you’d probably get an album from the electric trilogy of ’65-’66, you would probably get either Time out of Mind or “Love and Theft” but maybe Modern Times, and you would get this. Critics tend to lump Dylan albums into periods or moods, and often fans argue over what the best of a certain period is. This is the one album that stands head and shoulders above its competition, and from an objective standpoint it is Dylan’s best album, and from a subjective standpoint it might as well be.

A true masterpiece. I imagine Dylan went out to party with the Band, forgot about Sara for a couple of months while he was on the road and came back to find his marriage in shambles because she was pissed. It was probably a bit more complicated than that. The blood of their relationship is on each of this album’s ten tracks, though, even if Dylan has continued to deny that there is anything on here that relates to him. The lynchpin for Dylan, I think, is that critics were calling the album confessional, and that is misleading. But that doesn’t mean it’s not personal. The songs here are shaded with other things, and it is those things that make it a fantastic album; it is the subject matter that makes it a fantastic breakup album.

Several things were going on in Dylan’s life at the time. He was painting. He was studying with a painter named Norman Raeban who had interesting ideas about the relationship of time to art. Raeban believed art allowed times to intersect and exist on the same plane. Dylan took this idea and you can see it most easily in “Tangled Up In Blue” – is it the story of one couple, seven couples, or any number in between? This technique later allowed songs like “Blind Willie McTell” to take shape. He was also studying open tuning in different ways, supposedly from listening to Joni Mitchell, and this gave the album a unique flavor musically. According to his autobiography, which is mostly unreliable, the songs are all based on stories by Chekov. I don’t know that I can say that for all of them, though he is certainly present in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Then there was the album’s original recording. Dylan called in old friends and people he admired to play on the album, then kicked them all out or insulted them until they left until it was down to him and a bass player. The resulting recordings all sounded a bit the same, so over Christmas, days before the album’s release, Dylan’s brother convinced him to rerecord it using some local Minnesota guys he knew, and nearly all of the rerecorded songs are better, featuring different keys, instrumentation and often quite different lyrics than the original versions. Overall, it is hard not to be amazed by this album.

Best song: Idiot Wind – Holy motherload. This song encapsulates the bittersweet agony of life. It starts with gossip (“… they’re planting stories in the press”), and before the end we have near salvation (“… there’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a box car door…”) and rancid condemnation (“you hurt the ones that I love best and covered up the truth with lies”) before the angst finally turns inward and ends with mutual blame (“we are idiots, babe”). Dylan lays his divorce bare, dissecting it and incinerating it in equal measure.

Worst song: Meet Me In the Morning – Not necessarily a bad song, just kind of boring compared to the rest of the album’s riches. A musically identical but lyrically different outtake was called “Call Letter Blues,” and was far superior. Over the same riff, it let out couplets like “children cry for mother; I tell them mother took a trip. / I walk on pins and needles. I hope my tongue don’t slip” and “my ears are ringin’, ringin’ just like empty shells. / It can’t be no guitar player; it must be combat bells.”

Best outtake: Tangled Up In Blue – The one New York version that is truly better. The more stripped down instrumentation suits the song well. The opening chords that form the signature riff were repeated ad nauseum by Darius Rucker’s buddies in Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You.” Dylan didn’t sue Rucker for borrowing the hook, but he did sue him for copying and pasting most of the song’s lyrics right out of “Idiot Wind.” The song is about Rucker falling in love with a girl as he teaches her to love Blood On the Tracks and features references to three of the album’s songs. This version is superior mostly because of the penultimate verse. The Minnesota version may be more specific – Montague Street as a setting, a slave trader as his profession – but the simply stated, almost blasély stated, though burning just beneath the surface accusations of “he was always in a hurry, too busy or too stoned, and everything that she ever planned just had to be postponed,” coupled with the anger at her for accepting it, in the powerful “she thought they were blessed with objects and material things, but I never was impressed” give this just the edge it needs.

Notable live version: Shelter From the Storm – This song has been notably performed life many times. The most famous life performance is on Hard Rain, the 1976 live album, where Dylan recasts it as a proto-punk song, blasting away at it with just two power chords. The original is all intricate acoustic guitar. This 2007 version is jazzy and disjointed, with a fluid melody that constantly threatens to slip away but never quite does.

Rhymes: employed/Delacroix (“Tangled Up In Blue”); sin/within/twin (“Simple Twist of Fate”); Honolulu/Ashtabula (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”); Wabasha/thaw (“Meet Me In the Morning”); Tangier/hear (“If You See Her, Say Hello”) [Yes, I love it when he rhymes place names]

Images: “those words rang true and glowed like burning coal” (“Tangled Up In Blue”); “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol” (when I first heard this I thought he said “smoke ring around my soul,” which I still think sounds better; “Idiot Wind”); “dragon clouds” (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”); “her reflection in the knife” (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”); “a world of steel-eyed death” (“Shelter From the Storm”)

Axioms: “People tell me that it’s a sin to know and feel too much within” (“Simple Twist of Fate”); “You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to” (You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”); “I always have respected her for doing what she did and getting free” (“If You See Her, Say Hello”); “it’s doom alone that counts;” “beauty walks a razor’s edge” (“Shelter From the Storm”)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Planet Waves

Planet Waves (1974)

The comeback album! At least popularly. This was Dylan’s first album to hit number one on the charts. With critics, it didn’t sit that well. They just saw it as a way to capitalize on his return to the concert arena with his first tour in eight years, a swing through North America with The Band. Interestingly, though they back him on this album, very few of the songs from Planet Waves were featured in the shows. It was mostly an oldies show focusing on Dylan’s electric material from the mid-60s with a smattering of hits from before and after that. While not an unqualified success, the album’s modesty is a strength, and is what keeps songs like “Hazel” and “Something There Is About You” from getting bogged down in nostalgia. Also, two songs hinted at Dylan’s next direction. One was “Dirge,” which I’ll discuss below, and the other was “Wedding Song,” written for and added to the album at the last minute. “Wedding Song” is unaccompanied, probably because it was added too late for the Band to develop an arrangement around it. It seems like a love song at first, but lines like “eye for eye and tooth for tooth, your love cuts like a knife” and “I love you more than blood” have a dark undercurrent to them.

Best song: Dirge – This song slays you. Every line is more damning than the last, which is a hard trick to pull off when you start with “I hate myself for loving you.” Dylan is on piano and Robbie Robertson is on guitar. That’s it. This, along with bits of “Going, Going, Gone” and “Wedding Song” gave a prelude to what would follow on Blood On the Tracks.

Worst song: Forever Young – Version two. The fast version. The version Wyclef Jean raps to in a Pepsi commercial. Or was it Two idea men more known for helping lead hip-hop conglomerates than for their own work. The clichés and platitudes that fill this – written for Dylan’s sons and attempting to combine fatherly warmth with Jewish ethics – are just as interchangeable as Will and Wyclef. At least the slow version is musically sensitive; this sped up version is sloppy and has a less forgiving melody.

Best outtake: Nobody ‘Cept You – The album had to end with a nice acoustic number. This song is pleasant enough. It is what songs like “Hazel” and “You Angel You” aspire to. They both made the cut and this didn’t. It is a simple enough love song. There is nothing special to it, but it isn’t bad either. Near the end of the sessions, Dylan wrote and recorded “Wedding Song” in a fury, and recorded it sans band. It had the acoustic sound he wanted with a lot more attitude, and so it filled the last spot on the album and this got consigned to the dust bin.

Notable live version: Tough Mama – Ever since Dylan and The Band tore it up in ’66, fans had been hungry for more rock. When Planet Waves was put together, it was mostly done put out as a piece of product that would accompany the tour. Not much time was spend on it (though that may be true of many Dylan albums) as art, but rather as trying to cash in on excitement. Given that goal, it is surprising how few of the songs here have a party atmosphere to them. The album only has two songs with the kind of swinging bass lines that one would expect Dylan and the Band to come up with for such a joyous occasion as ‘74’s Dylan comeback tour. The two songs are “On A Night Like This” and “Tough Mama.” “On A Night Like This” has never been performed live, but “Tough Mama” has. The version I have in mind is from the late ‘90s, not the mid ‘70s; no songs off of Planet Waves made it onto Before the Flood, the piece of product Dylan moved as a tour souvenir. This isn’t particularly surprising given that the album hit number one on the basis of advance orders from record stores and then sold poorly. Fans came to hear the old songs. Planet Waves was released ten days into the tour, and about three weeks after that nearly all of the songs on it were pulled from the setlists. Tapers then didn’t have the technology they do now and most of the extant recordings of Planet Waves songs from the tour are in poor sound quality.

Rhymes: Goddess/modest; crotch/watch/notch; crestfallen/a-haulin’ (“Tough Mama”); baton/on (“Something There Is About You”); machine/seen (“Dirge”)

Images: “meat shakin’ on your bones” (“Tough Mama”); “the phantoms of my youth” (“Something There Is About You”); “the hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin” (“Dirge”); “barb wire & thrashing clowns;” “Apache poets searching through the ruins for a glimpse of Buddha” (liner notes)

Axioms: “All that’s gold isn’t meant to shine” (“Going, Going, Gone”); “I’ve gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite” (“Tough Mama”); “I could say that I’d be faithful, but to you that would be cruelty and to me it surely would mean death”(“Something There Is About You”) “In this age of fiberglass I’m searching for a gem” (“Dirge”); “Found Jacob’s Ladder up against an adobe ball, bought a serpent from a passing angel.” (liner notes)