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”)

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