Tag Archives: Together Through Life

Separately through life

Music scholar and Dylan expert Michael Gray has finally commented on Together Through Life, and it turns out he likes it even less than I did. In fact, I’ve come to think my own comment on the disc may have been a little too forgiving. Since Gray has just wrapped up his speaking tour “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues,” which kept him marinated in Dylan’s best work for an extended period, it’s a wonder he didn’t get the bends while making repeated trips between the pressurized creativity of Dylan’s peaks and the lightweight doodling of these recent discs.

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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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The speed of hype

Thirty  some-odd years ago, if somebody had told me that Bob Dylan would be following up his masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, with an album of songs mostly co-written with the director of Oh! Calcutta! . . . well, I might just have held back from buying the record, or even taken a pass. Lucky me – I knew next to nothing about Desire, which I snapped up as soon as it hit the racks at the Sam Goody in the Garden State Plaza, and thus ensured myself a nice stretch of time in which I could get to know the songs and judge them for myself.
 
That’s why I’m not terribly upset by the news that Dylan’s upcoming disc is largely a songwriting collaboration with Robert Hunter. A lot of Bobcats are very upset about this. Yes, Hunter’s fingerprints are on “Silvio” and “Ugliest Girl in the World,” but he also co-wrote all of American Beauty, including “Ripple,” my most favorite Dead song ever. I’m not quite ready to dismiss Together Through Life as, in the words of one blogger, Down in the Groove Revisited. Especially since the freakin’ record isn’t even out yet.
 
The Internet has made a lot of great things possible, but it’s also exacerbated one of the worst aspects of our hype-sodden culture: our ability to screw ourselves out of the chance to experience a new work of art with clear ears and fresh perceptions. It’s not simply a matter of fan sites and gossip sites getting ahold of things in advance; the record company is happy to use the Web to increase the already appalling speed of hype.  I’m not pointing fingers, either — I’ve had plenty of lapses on my resolve to avoid reading or listening to anything more on Together Through Life until I could bring the actual disc home and listen to it.

Maybe it’ll be great, maybe it’ll be terrible, maybe it’ll be off and on. Dylan has released many albums that fall into each of those categories. But I’ve promised myself to step back from the hype and, to the extent it’s possible, simply approach the record on its own terms. I owe myself that much, and if you’re a Dylan fan you might want to consider doing yourself the same favor.

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Friday finds

space-shuttle

This image of the recent space shuttle launch is just one of a collection of great Twitter images gathered here that show the launch from all kinds of perspectives. The backyard photos have a real Ray Bradbury “Rocket Summer” feel to them. And as long as we’re watching the skies, here’s a nifty slide show on the history of the telescope.

William Zinsser on writing (and rewriting) On Writing Well.

Are you ready to learn the secret of the mother of all funk chords?

“All real narrators are unreliable.  That is a great strength: it is realistic.  Another is that one can hint at things left hidden.  A third is that you can reveal in Chapter 19 something that was hidden in Chapter 9.  Please don’t ask for examples.”

You’ve heard the band, now drink the wine.

I’ve already linked to this post once before but I’m doing it again because I think the writer has really captured something about this band’s greatness.

I’m sorry. I know I should be open-minded about such things, but really . . . this is just so sad.

Alex Ross has heard the upcoming Bob Dylan album and the word is good: “There’s a fantastically chilling, end-of-one’s-rope number called ‘Forgetful Heart,’ which has this Kafkaesque image: ‘The door has closed dylan-through-lifeforevermore / If indeed there ever was a door.’ But the sadness of the scene is lightened by sweet-sounding arrangements (mandolin, accordion, and violin fill out the band) and by flashes of wit (“Down by the river Judge Simpson walking around / Nothing shocks me more than that old clown”). Some up-tempo, old-time rockers also keep the night terrors at bay.” Allan Jones agrees: “Together Through Life gets in your face immediately – with the wallop of the cheerfully-titled ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin”, which is driven by spectacular drumming and massed horns, a trumpet prominently featured – and over the course of its 10 tracks doesn’t back off, doesn’t appear to even think about doing so, Dylan’s voice throughout an unfettered roar, a splendid growl.” And Bill Vogt is taking a trip down memory lane with the bootlegs in his life.

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Bobbin’ along

I love the things I’m hearing about Together Through Life, the new Bob Dylan disc coming out next month: that its production is simple and spare in the manner of the old Chess records sessions; that the music has a strong border cafe flavor, with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos featured prominently on accordion; and, above all, that it is very different from that snifter of chloroform called Modern Times, the huge success of which is a triumph of marketing savvy over artistic commitment. As Michael Gray notes, the interview posted at Dylan’s official site gives the impression that His Bobness doesn’t think all that highly of the record himself.

What a stroke of good fortune for Gray to be rolling out his lecture tour, Bob Dylan & the Poetry of the Blues: An Evening with Writer Michael Gray, just as a new album is generating fresh excitement around Dylan’s work. Gray has several U.S. engagements scheduled: I’ve got my ticket for the Nyack appearance. Seeing the way his itinerary skips back and forth across the Atlantic, Gray should probably rename it Subterranean Jetlag Blues, or maybe No Sleep Til Hammersmith.

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