Category Archives: Bob Dylan

Bobby and Neil

My consolation for seeing the summer come to an end is to have not only a new Bob Dylan album to appreciate — Tempest, his best since “Love and Theft” — but a fresh Neil Young release, Psychedelic Pill, coming to banish the stale aftertaste of Americana, a disc that’s already faded from memory only a few months after its appearance. Talk about a banner fall!

Since I started listening to both artists in roughly the same year — 1975, when Blood on the Tracks knocked me sideways, and I had the previous year’s On the Beach and the new Tonight’s the Night and Zuma to obsess over all all in a batch — I’m struck by the difference in the way each man has aged. Dylan, 71, is only about five years older than Neil Young, but for the past two decades his voice has gone from craggy to croaking. Young sounds older, but not in the same way. From Neil Young and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere to Americana, Young’s alley cat yowl is instantly recognizable. Play Tempest after Blood on the Tracks — or even Oh Mercy — for someone untutored in His Bobness and try to get him to believe he’s hearing the same guy.

So what has Neil Young been doing that Bob Dylan hasn’t? Since Young acknowledged in his recent New York Times interview that he’s only just sworn off marijuana, while Dylan has been a heavy cigarette smoker much of his life, maybe this is another argument for legalizing pot. Is there any evidence for dope being easier on the vocal chords than tobacco? Inquiring minds want to know.         

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Summer days, summer nights are (nearly) gone

Yes, the end of the summer is near, and yes, I’m grumpy about it, but at least I can console myself with the prospect of a new Bob Dylan disc to ponder on. The advance word on Tempest has been excellent, but that’s nothing new — Bobcats and critics (to the extent they can be told apart) hail each new Dylan release as “a return to form” as regularly as Big Ben tolls the hours. But the pre-release taster, “Early Roman Kings,” had a nice line of surrealistic humor, and after Modern Times, Together Through Life, and Christmas in the Heart, Dylan has the requisite number of duds to overcome. So I’m optimistic. 

I’m also a bit worried. Plenty of other writers have wondered if the title’s Shakespearean echo is a signal that the magician is getting ready to drown his guitar — with his publisher expecting two more installments of Chronicles, Dylan could hardly drown his book. In his Rolling Stone interview, Dylan made one of his trademark non-denial denials, having his enigma and eating it, too. If Dylan is Prospero, then I guess A.J. Weberman would be Caliban, and Woody Guthrie would be . . . Sycorax? Bob Neuwirth and a host of others have auditioned for the role of Ariel, but the Prospero of Hibbing always keeps aloof . . . jeez, see what a lifetime of listening to Bob Dylan does to your mind?

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The lines of a lifetime

I came to rock and roll fairly late, as a high schooler, and I came to Bob Dylan’s music slightly later, as a high school junior. I was an avid reader of Rolling Stone magazine, where Dylan’s name was used with the kind of reverence reserved for powerful magic spells, but there’d always been something a  little forbidding about him, and I wasn’t sure where I wanted to start.  But then, while listening to the radio, the deejay played “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” after which he recited the chorus: “And then time will tell/ Just who fell/ and who’s been left behind.” I was at the tail end of a long wallow in unrequited love, and the words acted like a stiff breeze on a foggy morning, clearing away murk and letting me see the beauty of what was around me. It isn’t very often that a song does that for you. You remember things like that.

A month later, Blood on the Tracks came out, marking the start of Dylan’s annus mirabilis — i.e., nineteen hundred and seventy five. It was, and is, strong stuff: a grown man and a powerful artist taking stock of past romances, owning up to his mistakes, and teaching himself to walk tall with heartbreak. There was also a surrealistic Western, a howling jeremiad against celebrity, and a multifaceted narrative in which perspectives constantly shifted and doubled back on themselves. It was a great album to start with, and though I’ve ranged back and forth over the man’s catalogue many times, Blood on the Tracks remains the benchmark for all things Dylan. In fact, the beginning of my days as an obsessive bootleg collector began when I learned there was an earlier version of Blood on the Tracks, which led me to Joaquin Antique and a host of other unauthorized discs.

It’s one thing to say you grew up with an artist, but it’s quite another to realize an artist helped you grow up. I sang “Forever Young” to my children when they were infants. I was listening to “Boots of Spanish Leather” when I topped the first span of the Pulaski Skyway and saw the plume of smoke coming off the World Trade Center, and I was in Madison Square Garden a couple of months later when Dylan spoke about how much New York City meant to him. Not a week goes by that I don’t play one of Dylan’s songs or think about one of his lines.

So now he’s seventy years old. There was the starkly beautiful and haunting early folk music phase, the articulate anger and spiky intelligence of the Highway 61 Revisited phase, the oddball Americana of the Basement Tapes, the forays into country and gospel, the long stretch of confusion and artistic uncertainty, and now the elder statesman phase. Each phase carried a bounty of extraordinary songs. Dylan has always been skeptical of the idea that songs can change anything, but I can’t help thinking this world would be a much different place if his songs hadn’t been there to help illuminate the journey. I can say this much for certain: I would be a different person if I hadn’t had Bob Dylan’s art winding through my life and thoughts.

Bobness Day

Radio station WBAI is catering to your Bob Dylan needs today with a daylong Bobfest. What more do you need to know?

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Gray studies

Regular readers of this blog know that I consider Michael Gray the best writer on Bob Dylan walking the planet. I also greatly enjoyed his recent biography of blues master Blind Willie McTell, so needless to say it was a real treat to have Gray drop in at my bookstore for a Sunday afternoon reading and Q&A. A small crowd of fellow Dylan obsessives showed up, some driving in from rather far away (Hunterdon County is a bit of a trek) to hear the man speak.  It was probably all timed to raise the profile of his spiffy new Web site, though I couldn’t say for sure.

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Zantzinger zingers

Via the estimable Michael Gray we learn that the BBC is about to broadcast a half-hour documentary about the wealthy scumheel William Zantzinger, whose 1963 attack on a black barmaid led Bob Dylan to write “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and thus immortalize Zantzinger’s infamy. The doc was produced by Howard Sounes, author of the Bob Dylan biography Down the Highway, a book worth reading chiefly for Zantinger’s amusing explosion over the effect Dylan’s song had on his life. Sounes claims he even located the cane Zantzinger used against his victim.  This is gonna be good.

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Gray study

Michael Gray, who as the author of Song and Dance Man and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is somebody who can get me to change my mind (or at least revisit my opinions) about anything Bob Dylan-related, has listened to Christmas in the Heart and found it good. In fact, he loves it and admires it, which is a reaction just about completely the opposite of mine.

Reading the post, I instantly imagined a Dylanesque take on A Christmas Carol in which Gray, as the Spirit of Dylan Albums Present,  snatches away my earbuds and warns me of the consequences if I fail to join the Perry Como chorus. I then notice two Prada-clad figures huddled at his feet.

“Are these yours?”

“They are man’s. They are Hipness and Snark. Beware the last one particularly — especially in the Internet era, when no blog post can be lived down!”

“Is there no forgetting?”

“Are there no remainder bins? No Amazon Marketplace? No Half.com?”

I am then visited my the Spirit of Dylan Albums Past, who reminds me of the Dylan discs I now love, or at least enjoy, years after I scoffed at them. (“Street Legal, hey? Remember that?”) And then the Spirit of Dylan Albums Yet to Come reduces me to gibbering in terror by pointing to a Sony Legacy catalogue with multi-disc “Bootleg Series” sets of outtakes from Self Portrait and Knocked Out Loaded. No! Noooooooo!

Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll make like Nick and do an Alastair Sim about Christmas in the Heart. So I’ll just congratulate Michael on the 10th anniversary of Song and Dance Man, a book that will continue to dominate the field of Dylan criticism decades from now.

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Friday finds

“Sister Jean”Webster, a former sou chef for one of the Atlantic City casinos, started feeding the homeless from her home and now serves hundreds daily at the First Presbyterian Chuch, across from the Trump Taj Mahal. This marvelous photo essay at Corbis will give you the picture(s). (Thanks Rix.) 

Writers! Get ready for a pep talk from . . . Emily Dickinson.

John L. said life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. Nick D. agrees.

Oscar-winning screenwriter may be Twittering from behind bars.

A different kind of giving thanks.

Resolution: Bring poetry into the 21st century.

You can find the strangest things while hiking through the desert.

After a dry spell, Bat Segundo is posting again.

Now that the initial wave of ridicule has passed, some listeners are having second thoughts about Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart. I’m not one of them, but a lot of people whose opinions I respect are coming around to liking the thing.

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The Thanksgiving Show (with Bob Dylan, The Band, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig)

Since it’s Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for the indispensible Wolfgang’s Vault, which has posted the most complete available recording of The Last Waltz, the all-star farewell concert by The Band on Thanksgiving 1976. Whatever qualms you might have about the film — I refer you to Levon Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire for a savagely hilarious demolition of former bandmate Robbie Robertson’s self-mythologizing ways — there are moments of supreme beauty and artistry, as when Dylan takes the stage near the end of the proceedings.

Aside from the fact that this is a superb performance of one of Dylan’s greatest songs, what I particularly like about this clip is the way you can see drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson watching Dylan as the song ends — wondering what he’s going to spring on them next. Helm’s evident enjoyment of Dylan’s unpredictability is there to be seen in the film, in between the closeups of Robertson and his designer scarves.

And, of course, no Thanksgiving is complete without a viewing of this Warner Brothers classic:

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