Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Friday finds

In search of the origins of Bob Dylan’s accent. That clip above, by the way, is “Sugar Baby” as done by His Bobness earlier this month in Portland. Normally, Dylan in concert lifts his harmonica for the same reason a stripper lifts her skirt — it always gets a cheer from the audience. In this version, the harmonica gets some real quality time. And this post celebrates the top ten wonderfully weird Dylan performances, including a duet with Jack White. I particularly like the rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” from the legendary Toad’s Place show.

A celebrated film critic blogs about his life with books.

Joyce Carol Oates on Shirley Jackson.

Why Photoshop is a mixed blessing.

“I tried writing novels as a young man and I didn’t like my novels very much. And by the way, neither did anyone else. So I went to California eventually to seek my fortune and try and get into the movie business. And I was lucky. I started to make some progress. And then just as I was starting to have stuff produced, the Writers Guild did go on strike. This was back in 1972 or ‘73, I think. And I was sharing digs with a young woman who said, “Well now, since you’re not allowed to write screenplays, you can write that book you are always talking about.” And that book was my fanciful notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which Holmes met and joined forces intellectually as well as narratively with Sigmund Freud. And there really wasn’t any good reason at that point not to try doing it.”

How the use of antique words in fiction can be the equivalent of the Easter Eggs embedded in many DVDs.

“Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California from 1958 to 1967, used to describe his job as providing sex for the students, car parking for the faculty and football for the alumni. But what happens when the natural order is disrupted by faculty members who, on parking their cars, head for the students’ bedrooms?”

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Bob Dylan and the art of the kiss-off

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.

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Friday finds

Prince Valiant

Prince Valiant rides again, through the good offices of Fantagraphics Books. Over at Open Letters, Steve Donoghue  sings the praises of illustrator Hal Foster, one of the few comic strip creators who could really, really draw well.

Is it “goo goo goo joob,” or “goo goo ga joob,” or “goo goo g’joob”? More to the point, where did it come from?

Alexander Portnoy — still sexed up after all these years.

So the Iron Lady wanted to preserve the Iron Curtain. Why am I less than surprised, though considerably disturbed, by this news? What a relief this creep’s viewpoint did not prevail.

A snarky letter to the editor led to a gig writing a  weekly humorous political column for my local paper. After a couple of years, my editor said “you know, you’re a pretty good writer, why don’t you try a novel?” I looked at some of the dreck that was on the market and thought, “Hey, how hard can it be.” Isn’t naïveté a wonderful thing?

What the world needs now is — a collection of Bob Dylan songs done Kraftwerk style.

It may be the best J.G. Ballard adaptation ever filmed. Too bad it doesn’t get shown much outside the festival circuit.

If memory serves, I’ve already bought the white album six times: twice on vinyl, twice on cassette tape, twice on CD. So thanks but no thanks. On the other hand, if I watch every installment of this broadcast, I might end up changing my mind.

Life and art shared with PKD.

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Another turn in the South

Hand Me My

At the start of his book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, Michael Gray name-checks V.S. Naipaul’s cultural travelogue A Turn in the South, and the association is more than apt. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is not a conventional biography of Georgia’s preeminent bluesman; indeed, one of the book’s themes is the near-impossibility of writing such a book, given the nearly medieval standards of record-keeping that prevailed for American blacks in McTell’s time. The book is loaded with hard-won information and useful spadework, but Gray’s narrative is as much about the search as it is about the object. Time and again I was reminded of Naipaul’s accounts of his journeys through India and the Islamic world, and if Gray’s eye is more forgiving than Sir Vidia’s, it is no less piercing for that fact.

If McTell has a reputation outside hardcore blues circles, most of the credit goes to the Allman Brothers Band, which used McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” as a showcase for muscular musicianship, and Bob Dylan, whose song “Blind Willie McTell” — recorded in 1983 but inexplicably shelved for eight years — reminded everyone that there was more to the music than the dark, heavy blues of the Mississippi Delta.

“Blind Willie McTell” was the focus of one of the most passionate and probing chapters in Gray’s magisterial book Song and Dance Man, so it seemed only appropriate when word got around that Gray was writing a book about McTell. In a way, Gray’s method echoes what Dylan did in his song. Read the lyrics:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Note the absence of quotations, or song titles, or even references to McTell himself beyond the simple declaration “I know no one can sing the blues/ Like Blind Willie McTell.” The song uses evocative imagery to create an outline of McTell and leaves you, the newly interested listener, the happy task of filling in the center. Which is what Gray sets out to do in Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, and it’s hard to imagine anyone adding any more details to the picture.

Dylan’s song is so dramatic that listeners going from there to McTell’s recording work might feel some initial letdown. There are no hellhounds on McTell’s trail, no claptrap about meeting the devil at the crossroads or dying young and vanishing into a cloud of brimstone. As Gray notes, McTell

. . . explodes every archetype about blues musicians. He is no roaring primitive, no Robert Johnsonesque devil-dealing womanizer. He didn’t lose his sight in a jook-joint brawl, or hopping a freight train. He didn’t escape into music from behind a mule plow in the Delta. He didn’t die violently or young. Instead, blind from birth but never behaving as if blindness handicapped him, this resourceful, articulate man became an adept professional musician who traveled widely and talked his way into an array of recording sessions.

He never achieved a hit record, but he became one of the most widely known and well-loved figures in Georgia. Working clubs and parking lots, playing to blacks and whites, tobacco workers and college kids, Blind Willie McTell, human jukebox and local hero, enjoyed a modest career and an independent life.

It was McTell’s added misfortune to die just as folk and blues revivalists were gearing up to track down and “rediscover” their favorite bluesmen, at least one of whom hadn’t held a guitar in decades and needed to be retaught his own style before he could perform in front of audiences eager to hear “authentic” music. No such rehab work would have been needed for McTell, and one can only dream of the effect his supple wit and agile guitar technique would have had on the festival circuit.

Gray takes great pains to establish clear lines for McTell’s parentage, and weave them through the fraught history of the South. This makes the opening chapters of Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes somewhat dry, but the context pays off later as we see the culture that produced the man and the music he enriched with his talent.

For anyone involved in a long, difficult research project, the two most important rules are (1) spend a lot of time, and (2), spend a lot of money. In Gray’s case we add (3) burn up a lot of shoe leather. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is a fit title for both subject and author. This book is an odyssey in which the worst monster is not one-eyed Polyphemus but the dull-eyed bureaucrat or bottom-tier functionary whose darkest fear is that he’ll be asked to put out a little extra effort. For example, the  “pudgy and rather dense young black guy” who repulses Gray’s attempts to learn about McTell’s days with the Metropolitan Association for the Blind in Atlanta:

He told me that they “probably” don’t have any archives “on site” because they’ve moved buildings several times and that, anyway, people in the old days knew no better than to throw stuff away — but that, even if they did have any old documents, they certainly wouldn’t tell me. They wouldn’t tell me whether McTell had ever been helped by them, let alone anything else, because of patient confidentiality. “This man would have had to have signed a form to indicate that you were blessed with his permission.” He was unmoved by the snag that Mr. McTell had died some forty-three years beforehand.

Obtuseness is the last refuge of the incompetent. In this passage, Gray gives us a perfect example of what I call the Policy Punt — “It’s against our policy to tell you that” — to which add the Vacation Evasion (“There’s only one person who can tell anything about that, and he/she is on vacation”) and that reliable evergreen, the Fictional Flood (“We used to have those records, but there was a flood in the basement”). As someone who has heard multiple variations of these songs, I appreciate Gray’s criticism of the tunes.

At times, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes threatens to veer into dyspeptic Paul Theroux territory, with passages in which Gray finds himself marooned at strip-mall eateries, decrying “this vast acreage of plastic banquettes and paper cups and fried food and smiling servers paid virtually nothing but their tips . . . and no one seems to care that the food is so gross or that you can’t be a grown-up and have a drink.” Late in the book, however, is a description of a blood-freezing encounter with Georgia state prison guards that leaves you happy for Gray’s escape, and thinking about how it must have been for a black man in McTell’s time, when an encounter with whites could have sudden, life-changing consequences.

At such moments, one forgets the grumping about fast food and the unavailability of good wine, and Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes recovers its appeal as an engrossing, unique book — one that, like the music of its subject, pulls unlikely influences into a unified, distinctive whole.

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Friday finds

Persepolis

Two young Iranians have reworked Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her girlhood in revolutionary Iran, to tell the story of the bloody aftermath of the recent Iranian election. The literary remix, Persepolis 2.0, was done with Satrapi’s blessing.

A town built around books and publishing? I may just have to learn Korean.

A reminiscence about Ted Kennedy that shows his quality as a progressive senator, and why it will be next to impossible to find anyone to fill his shoes. Joyce Carol Oates talks about Kennedy’s unpunished crime and search for reinvention and redemption.

As a big fan of comedian Patton Oswalt, I can only applaud the imminent release of Big Fan, the movie about a big fan of the New York Giants.

Follow David Gill as he negotiates A Maze of Death.

A good reason to pre-order that upcoming Bob Dylan Christmas record.

Reading poetry (and teaching it) in Uzbekistan.

Now I have to put Sunshine Cleaning on my Netflix queue.

Ralph Nader has written a novel? Who knew? As J.D. Rhoades notes, the book sounds like a parody of Atlas Shrugged, which places two big burdens on the work. First, Ayn Rand novels come with self-parody already installed, and second, Nader ain’t exactly the life of the party. (Quite the opposite, in fact, as we saw in 2000.)

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Blue Monday

Driving home from a family occasion last night, I heard a truly awful cover version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” on the radio. This is a gospel song I had previously considered virtually impossible to do badly. With so many good cover versions out there, it takes almost superhuman diligence to find one that makes you glad you don’t spend a lot of time in cocktail lounges.

You can hear Mayfield himself sing the tune up top. Here’s a typically soulful version from the Blind Boys of Alabama:

Strat cat Jeff Beck has a run at an instrumental version:

How about a reggae version from Ziggy Marley . . .

. . . and a concert version from U2, with a little help from some Jersey guy.

And since on this blog, all roads ultimately lead to Bob Dylan, here is a lo-fi but high-commitment version that is one of the buried treasures of the “Basement Tapes” sessions from 1967. 

Moments like this are the reason hardcore Bobcats won’t be satisfied until the bowdlerized official release of The Basement Tapes — larded with outtakes from The Band that were recorded without Dylan, and in some cases much later — is supplanted by a longer, well engineered true-life version that gives a more accurate picture of what happened in that big pink house. After the sustained madness of the 1965-1966 period, Dylan set out to reconnect with his muse — and Curtis Mayfield was one of the songwriters who showed him the way back home.

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Watching the Flickr flow

Baez and BobThis shot of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performing in August 1963 is just one of scores of remarkable photos taken by Dr. John Rudoff, a cardiologist who chronicled the Philadelphia folk music scene in the early Sixties before going to medical school. His collection, available on this Flickr page, includes shots of His Bobness traumatizing the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with his electric guitar. I’m particularly taken with this snap of Son House taken at the festival.

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Blue Monday

Willie Dixon gets a co-writing credit on Bob Dylan’s new record, which is only appropriate: Dixon wrote so many blues classics that when he titled his memoir I Am the Blues, it was simply a statement of fact. Here he is performing “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” for a mid-Sixties television broadcast in Europe.

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Web welcome

Clinton Heylin has a Web site! I assume this is a new development, since he was one of the authors I wanted to blogroll as soon as I started doing my thing on the Intertubes, but could find no Web presence until now. Heylin goes into the Good Writes blogroll section immediately. 

Heylin’s biography of Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades, is the best and most comprehensive work on His Bobness to date, and his history of bootleg recordings is a valuable work of pop culture scholarship. Heylin’s other books include a biography of folk goddess Sandy Denny, a history of punk rock, and valuable books about the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, the Beatles and Orson Welles’ battles with Hollywood. 

Heylin’s latest  book, Revolution in the Air, addresses Dylan’s growth as an artist by analyzing each of his songs in the order of composition — a typically ambitious and opinionated undertaking. Unlike so many writers captivated by Dylan’s work, Heylin eschews hagiography and fannish gushing. This makes him anathema to many Bobcats, but in my book it makes him and Michael Gray the two most reliable and informative writers on Dylan now in print. (Neither man may be pleased by this pairing: Gray’s Bob Dylan Encylopedia occasionally tweaks Heylin for his elbows-out style, buyt c’mon guys, we’re all friends here, right? Right?)    

It will surprise no one except A.S. Byatt and David Hare that the man who has delved so usefully into the lyrics of Bob Dylan also has a book out about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now that I’ll want to read, too.

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Grow old with 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 togerthcover1that 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.

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