Though the great Wattstax show held in Los Angeles in 1972 is often called the “Black Woodstock,” the Harlem Cultural Festival lays claim to the distinction of having actually taken place right around the time of the hippie Woodstock up at Yasgur’s farm. With a lineup that boasted Nina Simone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and Sly & The Family Stone (the only performer to bridge the two festivals, as far as I can tell) you’d think there be a hell of a documentary film about this event, and boy would you be wrong. Even though 50 hours of footage were shot, nothing has been released beyond a few scraps, such as this segment from Nina Simone’s blazing performance, which turned up a few years ago as a DVD bonus on The Soul of Nina Simone. Can somebody explain this to me?
Some time ago, B.B. King did a show at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, a couple of miles from the Jersey shore. It was an uninspired, lazy performance by a musician who knew his place in history was secure, and was content to let his large backing band handle all the heavy lifting while he soaked up the spotlight, doing the occasional lightning-fast guitar run or solo that verged on near-inspiration to remind the audience (an undemanding assemblage of white blues buffs) that they were in the presence of B.B. Goddamned King and they’d better not forget it — even if King himself was willing to do so.
What made it all the more galling was the memory of King’s set at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, only a year or two removed, that had fairly boiled with restrained power. But, like any veteran player, King knows when he has to put out and when he can coast, and on that night, the Shore got the coast.
That King performance came to mind more than once as I took in the new Bob Dylan disc, Together Through Life. It’s a very listenable record. Unlike Modern Times, which started wheezing and stumbling halfway through its opening number, Together Through Life maintains its shambling, offhanded charm through all ten songs, though it does falter more than once. “Life is Hard,” reportedly the songwriting assignment that kicked off the album’s creation, achieves poignance not through its rather indifferent lyrics but through the ordeal of Dylan trying to sing them with the tattered remnants of his voice. “My Wife’s Home Town” might be alternatively titled “Henny Youngman Sings the Blues” — the home town, you see, is Hell — but the joke would have a lot more sting if the song’s structure and arrangement didn’t simply replicate the original Muddy Waters version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” with Dave Hidalgo’s accordion filling in Little Walter’s harp parts. I know that Dylan has spent his career borrowing from the world’s stockpile of blues readymades and twisting them to his ends, but time and again on Together Through Life Dylan treats them like store-bought racks on which he can drape his lyrics like so much wet laundry. Like B.B. King in Red Bank, he’s coasting on past glories instead of forging new ones. To hear Dylan transform old-school blues on Highway 61 Revisited is to be reminded of the old line, “Talent borrows but genius steals.” Dylan is undoubtedly a genius, but Together Through Life is not a work of genius.
That doesn’t mean it’s a piece of junk, though. The overall atmosphere of regret and wistful yearning is very attractive. “It’s All Good,” the sardonic closing track, is an old codger song, but the kind of codger who will introduce himself at the bar and then whisk your girlfriend off for aVegas weekend while you’re in the men’s room. Like Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, Together Through Life is a panel in a series about how a keen, still fitfully inspired artistic intelligence copes with old age and diminishing powers. If “Me Against the World” was the theme of Dylan’s initial burst of Sixties albums, “Grow Old With Me” will serve as the name for this long sunset of artistry.
But I can only wonder at the response of those who have not grown old with Dylan, whose first contact with him will be this extremely minor work backed up with major marketing power. I didn’t mind B.B. King flaking off his Red Bank show too much, because I have memories of Live at Cook County Jail and My Kind of Blues to fall back on. Anyone who listens to Together Through Life without the benefit of having first heard Blood on the Tracks or Blonde on Blonde might end up writing Dylan off as another Baby Boomer nostalgia trip.
That would be a crying shame. Together Through Life probably shouldn’t be anyone’s first Dylan album, but it definitely shouldn’t be anyone’s last.