Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Soul to Soul Our Shadows Roll

Bob Dylan played The Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo on Friday night, an intimate little place that appears to be better suited for a production of Macbeth than a rock concert. It's in these little places that Bob usually shines, when the sound doesn't fly around up in the rafters only to be left to die. The audience is usually more attentive, as well, & since it only holds about 3000 people, you're not usually distracted by the endless amounts of people talking through the show, playing with their cell phone or getting up to get another beer. I imagine being surrounded by professors, English & history majors. Bob Dylan has something to say about the English language & American history, too.

His show on Friday was, in a sense, a history lesson, although not a linear or chronological one. His greatest strength as a songwriter has always been to marry the universal with the personal, to take a simple idea & layer it with meaning. It's never occurred to me before Friday how uniquely American Bob Dylan is, & how infused with the American landscape & history his canon is. His vision of America is one that exists outside of or in spite of 24 hour cable news channels, Walmart, strip malls, facebook & subdivisions. It tells of an America that contains the age old struggle between men & women & all of the infidelity, the heightened & diminished expectations that goes with it. The second song, It Ain't Me, Babe wonders how much does a person have to invest when they enter into a relationship, & the conclusion is maybe you'll never get everything you want out of a relationship. In looking for everything, you are forgetting what's really there. In "Beyond Here Lies Nothing", he paints a picture of a love that leads you blindly down a dark path of trouble.

There are two songs about floods, first, "The Levee's Gonna Break". The Levee's Gonna Break was written the year after Hurricane Katrina, but could be talking about either Katrina or The Great Mississippi Flood. Bob seems to be saying there have been floods in the past, & there will be floods again. On this night, he closes the song with the opening sarcastic line, "everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make."

The second flood song of the night, Highwater (for Charley Patton) was written months before September 11. There's a little more going on with this one, the historical references to musicians, scholars & cultural places of interest where science & religion & political ideologies meet, fly by quickly. We'll start with the musicians referenced, obviously there's the great blues singer Charley Patton who's song High Water Everywhere is the precursor to this song. "I believe I'll dust my broom" comes from Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar on Highway 61 (we'll talk about that later), "the cuckoo is a pretty bird" comes from the Appalachian folksinger Clarence Ashley. "12th street & vine" is a place that Big Joe Turner, one of the earliest people to play rock & roll most likely walked. Vicksburg, MS was effected by the Great Flood of 1927, & was where people met who were displaced by the flood. Clarksdale, MS was also effected by the great flood & was where Bessie Smith died of a car accident, also on Highway 61 Revisited. Bertha Mason was a creole character from the novel Jane Eyre. George Lewes was one of the early proponents of Darwinism, "they got Charles Darwin trapped out there on highway 5" alludes to the Scopes Trial of 1925, that place in American History where science, religion & political ideology collided. Months after the song was written, the phrase "I want him dead or alive" was uttered countless times by George W. Bush in reference to Osama Bin Laden.

In addition to being one of Dylan's greatest songs of the last twenty years, it was one of the highlights of the evening. It's current stop start arrangement, with brief harmonica breaks in between, creates an incredible tension in the song that didn't exist before.

Highway 61 Revisited, written 36 years before Highwater, refers to the Highway that goes from Duluth Minnesota where Bob Dylan grew up all the way down to Mississippi. The song deals mostly in mythical characters doing all kinds of things on Highway 61. One can imagine Robert Zimmerman hearing all of the great blues musicians from Mississippi hundreds of miles away down Highway 61 & dreaming up the mythical character of Bob Dylan.

Workingman's Blues #2 is the perfect example of Bob Dylan having a pulse on what happens in America where one man's millions is just as important (if not more) as another man's next meal. Again, though, this song written in 2006 before the economic crisis hit, could have also been applicable 70 years ago. You can easily imagine "Low wages are a reality if we want to compete abroad" being uttered in every corporate board room & factory across this country. The people who say something like this know how it effects them personally, but they don't know what it means to the low wage worker. I don't believe Bob Dylan's ever really "worked" a day in his life like he sings in the song, but somehow he gets to the heart of what it means for a man to work. Work is identity, & without it he is "forced into a life of crime". He's played it the last three times I've seen him in concert, & I can see why, it is extremely poignant. Believe it or not, there's some hope tucked away at the end. They say that poor people have an incredible sense of resiliency, & Dylan gets to the heart of that too. "I got a brand new suit & a brand new wife, I can live off rice & beans." Just before he sings this verse in concert, he steps out from behind his organ to the center of the stage. It's an incredible piece of performance art as he inhabits the character of the worker as if to say "here I am, I've got nothing to hide, what else can you do to me that hasn't already been done?".

Only in America does a line like "we drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west" as Dylan does in Tangled Up in Blue. Performances like these are what keep me coming to Bob Dylan shows. Despite the roughness of his voice, & often laxidasical performances, he still can bring out a performance like this. He brings his best to the first verse, & the crowd reminds him of how good a performer he can be so it builds on through the rest of the song. It's a personal tale, but it could belong to anyone, & now thanks to performances like this, it does.

There's one song that pulls all of these songs together, When the Deal Goes Down. It combines all the joys & sorrows, the despair & the hope, the faith & cynicism of all of them & condenses it into a poetic, bittersweet little song. The song is at once my grandmother's chair, the blanket my sister quilted for my unborn daughter, & my wife at home. "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours they keep us so tightly bound". It is all the struggles & joys of a life lived together, a beautiful song & a fitting capture of Bob Dylan's patriotic rhapsody.

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2. It Ain't Me, Babe
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
4. Just Like A Woman
5. The Levee's Gonna Break
6. Tangled Up In Blue
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. If You Ever Go To Houston
9. High Water (For Charley Patton)
10. When The Deal Goes Down
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Workingman's Blues #2
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man

15. Jolene
16. Like A Rolling Stone

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Step One: That Thin Wild Mercury Sound 1965-1966

I had a friend ask me where he should start with Bob Dylan's music. That's a pretty loaded question. The great part about listening to Bob Dylan's music, is that every five years or so is a completely different style from the five years that proceeded it. It's almost like listening to a completely different artist, with a different songwriting style, different backing musicians, & most importantly, a different voice. How one musician's voice can sound so different from year to year might be a mystery, unless you understand that said musician is constantly searching for something different. With that thought in mind, the journey begins...

We'll start with 1965-1966 for many reasons. First of all, it's this period that comes to mind when people think of Bob Dylan, it's him at his most energetic, his most prolific, his most sarcastic, & from all accounts, it was when he was the most self-destructive. Most people know the cliches, those who don't know anything about Bob Dylan have probably heard him snarl the words "How does it feel" or "everybody must get stoned (insert your worst Bob Dylan impression here)". The majority of his most well known songs come from the albums Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, & Blonde on Blonde which were all released in these two years, along with a host of outtakes, unrecorded songs & live performances. It was as if writing a song came just as naturally as breathing. Images fly by quickly, & it's hard to keep track of 'em all, images of characters both biblical & mythical, gambling boats, train whistles, prostitutes, old folk singers, legends, veiled references to people in his own life & people in the news all ride on the same wacky bus of his mind. Some of it means something, some of it is just clever wordplay & some of it is pure nonsense. If these songs have some deep meaning in your life, good for you, but don't hold too closely to the meaning you have in your mind because there's a 99% chance you got it completely wrong. That's what these songs do, they allow you conjure up anything in your mind. Many years since I first heard these songs, I still hear them in new ways that hadn't occurred to me before.

It's fitting that we start with track one side one of Bringing it All Back Home, as Subterranean Homesick Blues was the song that hooked me. I had bought Greatest Hits Volume One through one of those cd clubs, & for the most part, I was underwhelmed by the songs at first. The songs seemed to me to be rather one dimensional, except for Subterranean Homesick Blues.

I had no idea what this song was about, but the language used was just so damn cool, & there was such a swagger to it. No matter that the melody is almost a direct copy of Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business. There's just something about the line "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" that just makes you question just about everything you ever thought you knew. I spent lots of money buying cd's looking for another song that sounded like Subterranean Homesick Blues & I never found one, but in the process every other song from this period revealed itself to be a masterpiece all on it's own. The rest of the songs that make up Bringing it All Back Home stand on their own as well, including one of Dylan's most famous songs covered by everybody, Mr Tambourine Man, one of his greatest love songs Love Minus Zero/No Limit & one of his greatest poetic lyrical masterpieces, It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding). This song exhibits Dylan's command of the language with his uncanny ability to manipulate it to mean something new. More than any other song in his canon, this one could stand alone on the page as a brilliant poem without ever being performed.

By the time Bringing it All Back Home was released in 1965, Bob Dylan's reputation as the folk music revival's biggest star was still spreading. As everyone from Peter, Paul & Mary to Stevie Wonder to Bobby Darin covered Blowin' in the Wind, Bob Dylan became known as a protest singer, singing for causes like equal rights. This reputation never caught up with him, though, as Bringing it All Back Home takes on a completely different sound & a completely different songwriting style. This album is the first one where Bob Dylan played electric, which was considered a slap in the face by some of his folk musician peers & by many of his fans. There was a strange combination of boos & cheers at most of Bob Dylan's concerts in 1965 & 1966 until a motorcycle accident forced him to quit. This tension can best be heard in the album "Live '66", Bob's greatest live album, & to my ears the greatest moment in rock & roll history.

It wasn't as though what Bob Dylan was doing playing electric guitars was completely new. Blues, country & rockabilly musicians were plugged in for a long time. It's just that no one with these kind of lyrics were playing this kind of music. In fact, up to this point no one had lyrics like these. No one. But they were rooted in early folk music. Listen to Penny's Farm by the Bently Boys.

Even the infamous Maggie's Farm from the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan first went electric in concert sounds alot like early Johnny Cash records. Dylan may be a thief, but he sure does steal from the coolest of stories. Whoever thought to bring people like Woody Guthrie & Hank Williams together with Allen Ginsberg & Arthur Rimbaud? It's a boiling hot cocktail of all sorts of influences & sources, some legal & some not.

Highway 61 Revisited starts off with Bob Dylan's most famous song, Like a Rolling Stone. It's often hard for someone who has heard this song so many times to hear it with new ears & remember how brilliant it is. Forget all the accolades (Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #1 on it's list of the 500 greatest songs, go figure), it is 6 minutes full of cynicism, revenge, wit & anger. He said it began "as a long piece of vomit". Every lyric is a landed punch in a quick fight. The original intent of this song is obviously a put down to a girl who thought she had it all together. Like most of my favorite songs or pieces of literature, it asks (literally) how it feels to have what you thought you always wanted & realize that it doesn't fulfill you in the way you thought it would, or in the case of this song, it actually does you harm. When played in concert over the past 10 or 15 years, the song takes on an anthemic quality to it. When Bob Dylan sings the words "How does it feel?", the lights shine on the audience, who obviously cheer along. It's either a cruel joke, or it's a feeling like we've all been on our own with no direction home at one point or another & at least we're still here to sing about it.

The rest of the songs on Highway 61 Revisited don't let up on this energy, & to my ears is Bob Dylan's greatest album. The last song on the album is Desolation Row, a song I could listen to daily, I love it that much. Somebody can attempt to explain it, & they might be right, but it's just a guess. It would be like trying to explain Picasso's Guernica, it's best to just let the images wash over you & see if you're better off by the time you're through.

Bob Dylan had a habit of hiring the greatest musicians available & giving them absolutely no clue of what was going to happen when they showed up for an album session. Thelonious Monk once said that the real feeling from a song comes from the first time you play it, so if you don't capture it that first time around, you may have lost it. I think this was the feeling that happened when Bob Dylan brought his musicians into a Nashville Studio at 4 in the morning to record Blonde on Blonde. He wanted to create songs that would happen in sort of a combustible way. When the final song of the album was recorded, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, the musicians expected it to be a three minute song, it ended up being 11 minutes long, so each verse builds & builds as everybody thinks it will be the last verse. The rest of the songs that make up Blonde on Blonde have that late summer night feeling, a party that has perhaps gone on too long. Everybody has had a good time, perhaps too good, & some sinister things occur as well.

Blonde on Blonde has the best SOUND of all three albums, the embodiment of That Thin Wild Mercury Sound. The songwriting isn't quite as solid, although Visions of Johanna & Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands rank up there with his best. Blonde on Blonde also produced several great pop songs, including I Want You, Just Like a Woman & everybody's favorite (but mine), Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.

These three albums produced some great one liners, that are great all on their own.

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." from Subterranean Homesick Blues

"She can take the dark out of the nighttime & paint the daytime black." from She Belongs to Me

"I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you be be just like them. They say sing while you slave & I just get bored." from Maggie's Farm

"There's no success like failure & failure's no success at all." from Love Minus Zero/No Limit

"Don't ask me nothin' about nothin', I just might tell you the truth."

"Well I rapped upon a house with a US flag upon display. I said 'could you help me out, I got some friends down the way.' The man says 'get outta here, I'll tear you limb from limb'. I said, 'you know they refused Jesus too', he said, 'you're not him'" from Bob Dylan's 115th Dream

"Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swinging madly across the sun, it's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run, & but for the sky there are no fences facing." from Mr Tambourine Man

"The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die
And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden" from Gates of Eden

"For them that think that death's honesty, won't fall upon them naturally, life sometimes must get lonely." from It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

"Money doesn't talk, it swears." from It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

"Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you. Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you." from It's All Over Now Baby Blue

"When you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose." from Like a Rolling Stone

"The sun's not yellow, it's chicken." from Tombstone Blues

"Don't say I never warned you if your train gets lost." from It Takes alot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry)

"Something is happening but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

"Up on housing project hill, it's either fortune or fame. You must pick one or the other though neither of them are to be what they claim." from Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

"Everybody is either making love or else expecting rain." from Desolation Row

"Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial. Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while." from Visions of Johanna

"Name me someone who's not a parasite & I'll go say a prayer for him." from Visions of Johanna

"I wasn't born to lose you." from I Want You

"I'm trying to read your portrait, but I'm helpless like a rich man's child." from Temporary Like Achilles

"To live outside the law you must be honest." from Absolutely Sweet Marie

"Don't waste your words, their just lies." from Fourth Time Around

"Well the farmers & the businessmen, they all did decide, to show you where the dead angels are that they used to hide. But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side? Oh how could they ever mistake you?" from Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Stay tuned for Step Two: Out Here a Thousand Miles from My Home 1961-1964