Wolfgang’s Vault has dumped a load of catnip at the feet of Bobcats by posting tracks from Bob Dylan’s 1974 stadium tour with The Band. That’s the same “comeback” tour recorded and released as Before the Flood, which over the decades has gone from being one of my most-played Dylan albums to a third-tier dust collector. And yet it remains a sentimental favorite, because one of the songs opened the way to my first Dylan album purchase, Blood on the Tracks, which in turn started me on what turned out to be a lifelong passion for the man’s music.
The song in question is “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” a kiss-off song from Blonde on Blonde that gets its definitive treatment on Before the Flood. Dylan’s bellowed delivery meshes perfectly with Levon Helm’s martial drumming and Robbie Robertson’s guitar, which snarls and twangs at the same time. As a young music freak going coming out of a pretty intense Sorrows of Young Werther period in the closing months of 1974, I was ready to hear that song, which played one fall afternoon on WPLJ, and for good measure the deejay (either Pat St. John or Tony Pigg, I don’t recall which) quoted part of the chorus:
I’m gonna let you pass
And I’ll go last
Then time will tell just who fell
And who’s been left behind
What a tonic those lines provided! What a morale booster! All of a sudden I realized that I needed to come to grips with this guy Dylan whose name was invoked so religiously in the pages of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. I was still trying to decide what album to start with when the January 1975 release of Blood on the Tracks and the ensuing uproar among critics made the choice pretty obvious. It proved to be a happy choice, needless to say.
I picked up Before the Flood not long after getting Blood on the Tracks, and I came to appreciate that Bob Dylan is the master of the kiss-off song. Along with “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” the album features “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” with its lethal closer:
I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
Add in “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and you’ve got a primer in how to write articulate, smart breakup songs. Instead of sobbing about broken hearts and tormented souls, Dylan backhands the past and moves on. Considering the nostalgia and comeback trappings of the 1974 tour — Dylan’s critical and commercial fortunes had taken a nosedive after the disastrous Self Portrait in 1970 — it’s interesting to see so many songs that all but spit on the idea of nostalgia or regret. The old songs get pretty aggressive makeovers, often to their detriment: the seduction song “Lay Lady Lay” becomes what Clinton Heylin aptly termed “a whorehouse holler,” and the version of “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35” is yet another reminder that some Dylan tunes need to be left alone for good. By contrast, The Band is content to shuffle through its deck of oldies yet again: the playing is as tight and professional as ever, but there’s no mistaking the lack of inspiration that set in after Stage Fright, and these days it’s deeply sad to hear Richard Manuel’s ravaged voice on “I Shall Be Released,” knowing what lay ahead for him.
An audience interested mainly in the past, a singer determined to grow beyond it, and a backup band unable to escape it. Before the Flood is one curious album, all right.