52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWELVE

Week 12: Rock and Roll is Here to Stay

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life? Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Thirteen”

Big Star

Album: Number 1 Record

Ardent Records

1972


“They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?

I’m in love with that song.’”

“Alex Chilton”by The Replacements

 

Martin Scorsese’s masterful documentary, “No Direction Home,” chronicling Bob Dylan’s ascentfrom his early Minnesota roots to his electric rebirth in the late 60s, gives fans of Dylan a rare glimpse into the music that Dylan was influenced by. Combined with Dylan’s own personal memoir of the time, “Chronicles: Volume One” shows the musical cartography of how Dylan’s sound was born.

 

It’s comforting to hear a musician talk about his or her idols. It takes them down to the listener’s level, reminding us that they, too, were once and are avid fans of music. Discovering the musical influences of truly inspired musicians is one of the many joys of carefully listening to music. Art imitates art. Some musicians seem reluctant to trumpet their idols, others come right out and say it. It’s one thing to be turned on to a band or artist by a friend, it’s entirely more satisfying for a song to accomplish this feat.

 

When I first discovered The Replacements, through a completely fulfilling survey of its trifecta of masterpieces–Let It Be, Tim, and Please to Meet Me–one song caught my attention for its unapologetic hailing of one of lead singer Paul Westerberg’s musical heroes, Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton.

Please to Meet Me’s second track, simply titled “Alex Chilton,” explodes into action with crisp snare drum notes and barroom guitar riffs. What follows is more than a simple ode or homage to Chilton, it’s a sermon of praise for an artist that before hearing this song I was completely unaware of.

 

Well, this is not entirely true.

 

During one verse of “Alex Chilton” Westerberg describes Chilton as an, “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” a fitting and painfully truthful description of one of rock and roll’s most unsung voices.

 

Big Star was ironically never a big band. It released only three major records in its 1970s heyday,none of which made much of a splash. It managed to maintain a cult-driven legacy since then, elevated recently by Chilton’s untimely death last March.

 

The band’s song “In the Street” found a second life when power pop band Cheap Trick covered it and it was eventually was used for the opening credits of Fox’s television sitcom “That 70’s Show.” Beyond that, it’s safe to say that most people don’t know Big Star.

 

Thanks to Paul Westerberg I can happily add Big Star to my growing list of the essential pioneers of rock and roll.

 

It’s fitting that Westerberg, a gifted lyricist with a penchant for writing songs that bring to mind the joys of youth, was drawn to Big Star at a young age. Alex Chilton and band also excel at writing great rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. It crafts classic love songs that never tread on being overly sentimental but rather feel nostalgic of the times when the word love and the grasp of how big life is, in general, was thought to be understood but not always fully.

 

Take Number 1 Record, It opens with “Feel,” a rip-roaring plea to a girlfriend who is toying with its character’s emotions. On “The India Song” Chilton fantasizes about escaping the mundane for love, luxury and endless gin and tonics in a mystically portrayed India. “Give Me Another Chance” plays out out like an apology, or rather a plea to be forgiven and taken back for actions that may or may not be unforgivable. Chilton and band mate Chris Bell write innocent love ballads that hearken back to the days of drive-in-movie dates, school dances and the pursuit of meaningful but often naive love.

 

Number 1 Record’s “Thirteen” is widely considered one of Chilton’s best songs by fans and for good reason. The song has been gorgeously covered by the likes of Elliott Smith and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, singers who, like Chilton, reserve chillingly soft-toned vocals for the song.

 

The aforementioned innocence of youth is at the forefront on “Thirteen.” The song brings to mind the nervousness of having a crush and the downright fear that comes when it’s time to ask for a date (subtly emphasized with the music’s gradual increase in tempo throughout the song’s duration and Chilton’s slightly reluctant delivery of its last verse).

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint it, Black”.

Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s “no,” well, I can go

I won’t make you.

 

Lyrics aside (and make no mistake, these are some of the best lyrics ever written–simple, to the point and utterly unforgettable), “Thirteen” is a lasting effort thanks to Chilton’s beautiful vocal performance and his gentle acoustic guitar picking.

 

It name-checks The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” not so much as an homage to a specific idol but rather as homage to rock and roll’s early days when the music presented teenagers an escape.A song like “Paint it Black” must have brought a level of fear to parents or people who hadn’t yet jumped on the rock and roll bandwagon. For those who enjoyed its dark undertones it was something new and unique to rebel to.

 

“Thirteen’s” most impressive feat is that it has the ability to make the listener yearn for these days, back to a time that was much simpler.

 

On The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg sings:

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

 

Big Star’s music can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. It’s perfectly crafted rock and roll. You can fall in love with its songs like you fall in love with sentimental cuts from The Beatles’ canon or say Simon and Garfunkel. Since I was fortunate enough to discover it I regularly return to its records. “Thirteen” is a song that makes you pause and remember; to recollect the past.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TEN

Week 10: Sign O the Times Mess With Your Mind

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Prince

Album: Sign “☮” the Times

Paisley Park/Warner Bros.

1987


What is the definition of a successful double LP? Is it a cohesive package–a collection of songs perfectly paired and organized to tell a story? Should the album have an epic underlying message? Or should it merely be a document of some creative spree, the result of which can’t be limited to a single album?


Why do some of the truly great double albums somehow manage to pull off the feat of piquing interest, despite their long-winded running time?


Consider some of the obvious contenders: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles White Album, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Clash’s London Calling (and later its Triple LP extravaganza Sandinista!), Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. These albums run the length of some major motion pictures, but even after multiple revisits, still demand to be experienced in their entirety.


They don’t hold the same grandiosity of, say Pink Floyd’s slightly overrated The Wall. Instead these albums are effective because of their musical breadth and ambitions. Take as much as we can come up with and release the lot of it. Give the listener the ultimate listening experience. Tear the walls down. A tried and true motto.


There’s something magical about a perfectly executed collection of songs, and it’s even more remarkable when the album is a hodgepodge with no overlying message or theme.


Prince’s Sign “☮” the Times is the artist’s greatest achievement to date. It skates around damn near every musical genre Prince could conjure up, features pop at its catchiest, rock at its most visceral, ballads at their most tender, and a couple of head scratchers thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.


The origin of Sign “☮” the Times goes like this: coming off the massive success of Purple Rain and his mid-1980s Revolution run, Prince was working on three simultaneous projects–Dream Factory (leaked in early production stage), Crystal Ball (a triple-LP that induced panic from Prince’s label) and Camille (a solo-endeavor showcasing Prince’s alter-ego). The projects were either abandoned, and the scraps and highlights from all three records were assembled for Sign “☮” the Times.


On paper the album sounds like a disaster–the result of tensions between band members and label executives. A bastard record of the time. Summed up; this could have easily been career suicide. Instead Sign “☮” the Times is not only Prince’s best effort but easily one of the greatest, and most surprising albums to come out of the 1980s.


I first dove into Prince’s purple prowess with 1984s Purple Rain. Obvious, sure. But what a masterpiece of unrelenting pop music. While some people pose the musical identity question, “Beatles or Elvis?”, I’ve been become more fascinated with the responses I get when asking: Purple Rain or Thriller?


Purple Rain is perfect. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and gives Prince reason enough to scream, “baby I’m a star!” Still Purple Rain is pop, plain and simple, with few genre-bending moments, save of course for the epic, guitar-heavy title track.


There are moments on Sign “☮” the Times that pick up exactly where Purple Rain left off. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” takes the catchiness of Rain’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star,” and tacks on an extended blues-inspired instrumental outro to, you know, up the ante.


“Housequake” takes dance music into the future by running funk and soul through a drum machine and synthesizer (hints of drum and bass genre to come down the line), and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is just as sexually raw as Rain’s “Darling Nikki.”


Fortunately Prince doesn’t stop with what he was already too familiar.


“The Cross” is an epic slow-burner that blends gospel, arena rock and roll, and even a sitar to create a sound that references early Prince records but in a more polished final package.


At just under three minutes, “Starfish and Coffee” is Prince tackling a children’s song, while also embracing the magic of food and unflinching individuality.


The album’s title track is exactly what the title promises, a socially conscious soul number that truly captures the time. One of Sign “☮” the Times’ greatest feats, however, is following the direness of “Sign of the Times” with the silly, bubble gum pop of “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s as if Prince deliberately wants the listener to know that nothing about this album’s ride will seem predictable.


“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” an intoxicating live cut that showcases Prince’s stage routine of the time, accompanied by the Revolution at the top of its game. Carried along by Matt Fink’s driving drums, Wendy and Lisa’s sultry backing vocals, and even a bit of rap and jazz thrown in, the track is easily the culmination of everything heard before it. That the song might be the only time pop music will ever be able to tinker with The Wizard of Oz and live to tell about it (as seen through the song’s intro/outro of uniform “ohhh weee ohhh”) only adds to the song’s allure.


Sign “☮” the Times closes with “Adore,” a slow, sexy R&B tune perfectly suited to cap any evening. The song creeps along with its horn interludes, gospel-inspired pipes, and Prince’s unique high-pitched vocals. Its lyrics are corny at times but miraculously the song manages to feel anything but.



When we be makin’ love

I only hear the sounds

Heavenly angels cryin’ up above

Tears of joy pourin’ down on us

They know we need each other


It’s easy to mock Prince or at the very least, underestimate him. Sure he was a product of eighties glam but the man knows how to write great songs and is a masterful guitar player (his performance at Superbowl XLI remains one of the best in the event’s long-running, half-time show tradition).


Sign “☮” the Times remains one of my all-time favorites. I liken it to Stevie Wonders’ Songs in the Key of Life, in that both albums are thick with content but never bore. Certain songs pack enough energy to get you going in the morning, while others help you ease into the night.


Sign “☮” the Times was also one of those rare surprises for me. I stumbled upon its title track during a downloading sweep of Prince songs, in the wake of an unhealthy obsession with Purple Rain and the song “Beautiful Ones.” “Sign of the Times” was unlike any other Prince song I had heard prior.


It’s dark, timely, and completely honest in its perception of society. In its foreboding meanderings through the front pages of a social world in flux, Prince preaches:


In France a skinny man

died of a big disease with a little name…

You turn on the telly and every other story

Is telling you somebody died

Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it

And we’re sending people to the moon

Some say a man ain’t happy

Unless a man truly dies


The song was visceral in a way I never would have suspected from Prince and instantly made me seek out the album on CD.


Though he is relentless in the amount of music he currently releases every year, Sign “☮” the Times is his last true masterpiece. It captures everything that made Prince a star–channeling the sounds from his early days, carrying through his ascension up the pop charts–and even gives listeners hints of what was in store. I’m convinced that it’ll convert any Prince non-believers, or at the very least give listeners a glimpse into a different side of the man who famously made doves cry. Hell, it even inspired the title of the blog you’re currently reading. Enthusiasm manifests itself in many ways.



Bob Dylan Reviews #10

 

Bob Dylan Reviews

Album #10, Self Portrait

Columbia Records, 1970

 

In Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, he writes in the chapter entitled “New Morning,” “I released one album–a double one–where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.

Bob Dylan’s, Self Portrait, is one of rock and roll’s most notorious album duds. It’s also one of the few albums in the artist’s canon that few people, critics included, have actually sat down and listened to in its entirety.

 

Hype is a funny thing. Coming off an impressive run of nine solid, and universally lauded albums in the 1960s, Bob Dylan released an album that puzzled fans, yet again, but also garnered one of the most infamous reviews of any album in rock and roll. Greil Marcus’ scathing Rolling Stone review of the album opens with, “What is this shit?”

 

Self Portrait is not a great album, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation claims. Self Portrait is, rather, an experimental album, possibly intentionally executed by Dylan to kill some of the spotlight swarming his life.

 

Let’s take a look at Dylan’s current predicament: In 1966, he had survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, that no doubt opened his eyes a bit. He was fed up with the media and his fans labeling him the messiah of rock and roll and a voice of his supposed generation. He seemed completely ready to ditch this built up “false persona” in lieu of a normal life with his family in upstate New York.

 

Nashville Skyline had left listeners and critics, “scratching their heads” as Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume 1. By the end of the decade that made him a star, Dylan was ready to move on. He recalls spreading rumors that he was going to retire from music all together. He took a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and wore a skull cap in front of the press just so he could be written up as a zionist and ultimately shed the baggage of his followers.

 

That Self Portrait’s title alludes to Dylan trying to show the world his true side (or perhaps an imagined-self that would send obnoxious his fan-base and critics alike running) shows that once again, Dylan was eager to send a message to the public.

 

The music on Self Portrait is not bad, it’s just not as good as everything that preceded it.

 

The 24-song collection is comprised primarily of studio B-sides from the Nashville Skyline sessions, covers of traditional and contemporary folk and rock songs, and a handful of live tracks recorded with The Band at the Isle of Wright Festival.

 

What’s striking about Self Portrait is that it’s a mish mosh of songs carrying no overlying message or theme, setting it apart from the previous nine records. Nashville Skyline came as a surprise to some but at least it felt like a concise exercise, channeling a love of country music and showcasing a new style of singing. Had Portrait been released solely as a “bootleg record,” much like the still-ongoing Bootleg Series that would eventually arise, the album might not have incited Marcus and others to impale Dylan and call this album the end of his career.

 

If you look at the year Self Portrait was released, it’s understandable that many fans felt betrayed by Dylan.

 

1970 saw The Beatles’ breakup, not to mention Simon & Garfunkel (but more on that later). Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both bought the farm, and a wave of long-winded progressive art-rock from Europe seemed to be ready to explode. It was a sudden and harsh end of a fruitful decade for rock and roll.

 

Leading up to the release of Self Portrait Dylan had given the public plenty of warning signs that he was an unpredictable artist unwilling to play into the media’s portrait of his place in the world. Why fans and critics would be that shocked by Portrait remains the album’s biggest mystery.

 

Self Portrait opens with the enchanting but bizarre “All the Tired Horses,” which upon first listen must have seemed even more out of left field than Skyline’s introduction of Dylan’s country crooning voice.

 

“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any riding done?” This is how Portrait opens. Sung by three gospel singers and set to swelling strings and a simple guitar riff, the song instantly puzzles the listener, but does so in a surprisingly beautiful way.

 

Some view the song’s sparse lyrics as a nod to the fact that the album is admittedly void of the epic Dylan songs we’re used to. “How am I supposed to get any riding done?” could easily be mistaken for “How am I supposed to get any writing done?” which some see as Dylan saying that he’s done writing the “protest songs” that the masses still expect.

 

At only two lines, it’s also worth mentioning that this song is the only track on side one that is a Dylan original, the remaining songs being covers and arrangements of traditional folk tunes.

 

The cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” is forgettable but feels like a direct spawn of the Skyline sessions.

 

“In Search of Little Sadie” gets things moving at the end of side one, and carries into its sister song, “Little Sadie” on side two. The arrangement of a traditional folk ballad about a man coming to grips with the fact that he murdered a woman in cold blood is actually a perfect Dylan song. It wouldn’t have felt out of place on say, John Wesley Harding.

 

The “Sadie” tracks differ only in terms of instrumental arrangements, and both feature choppy production, again giving the impression that Portrait truly is an officially released collection of outtakes and bootlegs.

 

“Woogie Boogie” is a fun instrumental that again feels like an extension of the Skyline songs, most notably “Nashville Skyline Rag.” The song builds to an eventual onslaught of brass culminating in a rip-roaring sax outro. The song, which was written by Dylan, is the result of an artist no doubt having fun in the studio. It’s an ode to “the blues” that Dylan so often returns to in his career and is an all around standout track on Portrait.

 

“Belle Isle,” another arrangement of a traditional folk song, carries on with the crescendo of strings first heard on “All the Tired Horses” and is one of Portrait’s more tender moments, save for the fact that Dylan’s vocals seem off key. Nevertheless, the tale of a man falling in love with a mysterious Celtic maid on “the banks of Belle Isle” is enough to warrant the song’s beautiful orchestral arrangement.

 

The live version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded a year earlier at the Isle of Wright Festival, is not the best live cut of the song available, but it captures perfectly the time of its recording. The Band’s presence is understood with Garth Hudson’s organ and the backup vocals from Robbie Robertson and company playing a vital role in the late 60s sound.

 

Self Portrait was officially released before the monstrous double album with The Band, Basement Tapes, but many of the songs on Portrait seem to be rejects or leftovers from those fruitful sessions. The version of “Like a Rolling Stone” is also an early sign of how Dylan would often deconstruct and alter his songs throughout his career. To this day no single live version of his hits are the same. His music always seems to evolve over time, taking on new forms–sometimes improving, sometimes causing fans to cringe.

 

The live version of “She Belongs To Me” (taken from the same 1969 concert) is another noteworthy example of this idea. Dylan’s songs take on different lives over his career. It’s an aspect of his music that fascinates some and infuriates others. Still no matter how you feel about it, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t keep things interesting.

 

Self Portrait’s most famous song, that is to say the only one people seem to reference when talking about the album, is “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” one of the album’s more successful covers and easily one of Dylan’s more underrated songs. Period.

 

Again blending strings, backup female vocalists, and a simple, albeit off-key vocal style from Dylan, this song seems to be one of several tracks on Portrait that carries a similar style and mood. Combined with “Belle Isle,” “All the Tired Horses,” and “Let It Be Me,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” takes the tenderness of Nashville Skyline and ups the production ante by adding, dare I say, a Phil Spector “wall of soundesque” level of instrumentation.

 

The song, a cover of a traditional folk song set during the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States is an ode to back-country moonshining. Its a romantic portrait of the love of homemade whiskey and a lawlessness that was required to keep this passion alive during a time when the taxman wanted a piece.

 

Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak
Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them just a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Listening to “Copper Kettle” you again get the feeling that, like many of the other folk songs recorded throughout Dylan’s career, this is a song and a setting in America’s past that Dylan cherishes deeply. It chronicles the kind of simple life Dylan yearned for.

Unfortunately unlike “Copper Kettle,” not all of the covers on Self Portrait end up as successful. The most criticized examples being Dylan’s lackluster covers of “Blue Moon” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”

“Blue Moon” is a rock and roll standard that has been covered by a countless array of different musicians. Perhaps Dylan wanted to join the party, perhaps he just likes the song; whatever the reason, Dylan pulls out his “Lay Lady Lay” vocals but does little else to amp up the performance. It’s not that the version is horrible, it’s just boring, predictable and doesn’t bring anything new to the fold.

On Nashville Skyline Dylan’s crooning, soft-toned vocals work best when paired with “Girl From the North Country.” Here he takes one of his immortal classics and sheds new light on an otherwise familiar sound (this move is aided by Johnny Cash of course). Dylan’s “Blue Moon” sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound like, which does the song a disfavor.

On the other hand, Dylan’s rendition of “The Boxer” is one of Self Portrait’s moments that must have really inspired Greil Marcus to famously open his Rolling Stone review with such a harsh choice of words.

Many of posited that “The Boxer” is one of the Dylan’s more humorous offerings. It has been seen as a parody of a song by one of his contemporaries that he either respects or loathes. Some see it merely as Dylan messing around in the studio, possibly while under the influence of something that toys with one’s judgement. Whatever the reasons are for the song’s existence, the fact remains that the cover just doesn’t work.

For starters, Dylan records a duet with himself, channeling both the scratchy Dylan vocals we grew accustomed to throughout the 60s with the country crooning imagined in Nashville. It’s an interesting move that, in this writer’s humble opinion, backs the argument that this is a song in which Dylan is poking fun at “The Boxer,” a classic song recorded by musicians who have truly beautiful voices at their disposal. Whether or not this is a direct response to something personal between Simon and Dylan remains unknown.

Dylan has always had a very subtle sense of humor. It pops up on songs throughout his career, and most notably during his mischievous probing of the media during his now infamous interviews. You don’t have to look farther than Dylan’s most recent album of Christmas songs set to blues and polka music to realize that behind those serious eyes there is a clever and dark sense of humor.

Self Portrait is hardly Dylan’s worst record to date (many argue that its sloppy follow-up compilation of Portrait outtakes, Dylan, is an even more dismal affair) but it still remains one of his most discussed mishaps.

During the eighties Dylan went through creative slumps that produced songs that make the music on Portrait seem like classic Dylan. What Self Portrait teaches us is that the media does in fact have power over listeners.

During the research for this entry I discovered a fan-made documentary on Self Portrait. What’s most striking is how many of the commentators who bash the album have never listened to the record all the way through. This is, of course, a sign of an unsuccessful album, however, when taking into consideration that Self Portrait contains 24 tracks, it should be assumed that amidst the duds there are some high notes.

Had Self Portrait been released simply as a collection of bootlegs and B-sides more people wouldn’t be as quick to follow suit and judge the songs. Countless magazine lists heralding the supposed “Worst Albums of All Time” place Portrait on a pedestal of disdain. Instead, I feel that Self Portrait is one of Dylan’s more curious moments in his career. How else should he have started a new decade? How does one follow a string of immortal, game-changing albums? Dylan would follow Portrait the same year with New Morning, one of the artist’s most underrated albums to date and one that garners this title because it comes in the wake of Portrait’s dismal press.

Self Portrait enabled Dylan to personally diminish the hype revolving around him, ultimately allowing him to start over and take his music into a new direction. He did this when he alienated fans by going electric, he would later do this during his “born again” years, and in the 90s, when his music and style changed so drastically that he worked diligently to attract a completely new fan base to his music.

David Bowie is often labeled a “the chameleon of rock and roll” for his many musical and physical transformations over the years, but its Dylan who really makes the best use of this career concept. For Dylan, the music always came first. The collection of songs on Self Portrait are exactly the kind of songs you would expect Dylan to release. He is a lover of obscure Americana and folk music (his current radio program showcases this passion perfectly) and he has always yearned to shed his musical skin for something new and less obvious.

Self Portrait is possibly Dylan’s most fascinating career move and is an album that demands to be revisited at least once more by skeptics. It’s not perfect but succeeds at capturing a moment in Dylan’s life and musical career. Sure The Basement Tapes is the better double album, but that documents, first and foremost, one of the truly rare and magical musical pairings in rock and roll.

Greil Marcus is a prolific music writer and his admiration for Dylan’s canon is unprecedented, however, one can’t help but think that his now infamous Rolling Stone review might have been the exact response Dylan was looking for at the time. It’s as if he walked right into the trap which makes Dylan’s persona as trickster and media manipulator, all the more intriguing.

6.0/10

Essential Tracks: “All the Tired Horses,” “In Search of Little Sadie/Little Sadie,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” “Bell Isle”

Bob Dylan Reviews #9


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #9, Nashville Skyline
Columbia Records, 1969

While closely expanding on the country and Americana themes explored on John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s decade closer, Nashville Skyline, took over a year to be unleashed on puzzled fans. At just over 25 minutes, Skyline manages to accomplish a lot despite its brevity, above all reinventing Dylan once again, most notably with his curious vocals transformation.

Those who write Skyline off as merely an experimental foray that gave listeners its sole pop hit, “Lay Lady Lay” are missing what is truly one of Dylan’s most beautiful departures.

Take the record’s opener, a rendition of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s tender ballad, “Girl From the North Country,” that in just three minutes pulls off a multitude of fairly radical makeovers to Dylan’s image.

For starters, “Girl From the North Country” is the first of many re-imaginings of Dylan’s back catalogue, a trend that he continues to carry on today during his touring. Here it is fleshed out on a proper studio record. He takes what many consider one of his untouchables and doesn’t improve on it but rather sheds a new light on an otherwise familiar song. Say what you will about modern day Dylan’s aptitude for singing, he certainly has a knack for surprising loyal listeners with transformative interpretations of his most cherished songs.

Above all major changes to Dylan’s musical persona, “Girl From the North Country” introduces the new voice, a surprisingly melodic croon that sounds like Dylan was channeling Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson, by way of Dylan’s signature nasal howl. In interviews Dylan said that the voice was brought on by his decision to stop smoking. While feasible its much more likely he made yet another deal with the man downstairs.

Dylan pairs his vocals beautifully with Johnny Cash’s virtuosic pipes first as an ABAB duet tradeoff, which culminates in moment where the two (unsynchronized, mind you) share the closing stanza. While critics of this album then, and now spoke of their collaborations never truly working, the moment, even if just for one song, carries the weight of two seemingly parallel universes colliding for the first time on record. The result is an opener that is puzzling while also completely mesmerizing.

The song’s lush production, with dueling guitars, muffled snare drum brush strokes and a subtle reverberation in the microphones puts all of the song’s focus on the duet of Cash and Dylan. On a first listen it would not be uncommon for the, “okay, what has Dylan done this time” head scratching to be completely swept away by the song’s unadulterated beauty.

In typical humorous Dylan fashion, the awe-inspiring “Girl From the North Country” is followed by “Nashville Skyline Rag,” which was not only Dylan’s only album instrumental cut to date but also the album’s most blatantly country track. Its twangy guitar picking, honky-tonk piano and rubber band walking bass, and Earl Scruggs’ 5-string banjo gives the song a playful quality that is reminiscent of Another Side of Bob Dylan’s one-two opening punch “All I Really Want to Do” and “Black Crow Blues.”

The up-tempo and whimsical tracks on the album, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” “To Be Alone With You,” “Peggy Day,” and “Country Pie,” could easily be written-off as throwaways, nothing more than noodling studio filler but really they are the results of Dylan making the kind of enjoyable music he was raised listening to.

“I Threw It All Away” is arguably Skyline’s most poetic offering.

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through ev’ry day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away.

It’s hard to say how much of Dylan’s true voice was present on Nashville Skyline, but the central message of a man who had it all but squandered it away is a common one and arguably one that could be seen as an eerie precursors to Dylan’s divorce and his masterful Blood on the Tracks album that resulted from his heartbreak.

“Lay Lady Lay” is a Dylan immortal. It’s prime fodder for anyone who knows Dylan through any number of compilation albums released. On these said career-snippet records, “Lay Lady Lay” stands out as a bizarre little departure (I’ve even heard of people believing it’s not Dylan singing but rather Cash, proving both their ignorance to both Dylan’s career but also Cash, whose voice is unmistakable for anyone who’s listened to the Man in Black.)

Still on Nashville Skyline “Lay Lady Lay” feels right at home. It’s a simple love song with lush steel pedal guitar notes, a dreamy vocal performance from Bob and even a fairly tender and welcomed cowbell rat-tat-tat. This paired with the album’s most underrated cut, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” form the basic narrative of the best and worst parts of love and/or infatuation.

Lyrics like,

All of those awful things that I have heard,

I don’t want to believe them, all I want is your word.

So darlin’, you better come through,

Tell me that it isn’t true.

Don’t have to be adorned and they hardly carry the weight of Dylan’s past efforts but the feelings expressed here are universal and true.

Nashville Skyline closes with, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which remains one of Dylan’s truly great romantic songs, an ode to the longing of a passionate and brief love affair.

Is it really any wonder

The love that a stranger might receive.
You cast your spell and I went under,

I find it so difficult to leave.

The album opens with a rendition of a classic love ballad, re-imagined with an Americana musical frame of mind and closes with this straightforward love song. It’s fitting that “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” would later get its own drastic makeover during Dylan’s mid 70s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour. That version was a powerful regular that showcased Dylan’s new gypsy-blues sound (which, if this was not a genre before the tour, was imagined by Dylan). For suck a seemingly simple effort, Nashville Skyline says a lot about the evolution of an artist’s career and really the evolution of a song over time.

After the motorcycle accident and Dylan’s flee from the spotlight, Dylan’s music was clearly less about the poetry and more about furthering his exploration of the roots music that he grew up with. He was tired of being of the, “voice of his generation” label that was constantly being hurled at him. While you could argue that he was stuck with this and that there would never be a direction home for Dylan after all that he had accomplished in a truly prolific decade, it’s easy to understand Dylan’s frustrations with his place in the world. But rather than completely void himself from the public eye, Dylan turned his musical attention to what he loved from his upbringing.

Ask any great chef what they like to cook when they’re alone or with family and more often their reply is universal, food they grew up eating. The comforts of tapping into what is familiar is sometimes exactly what an artist of any kind needs to explore during the hard stages in one’s career. Not to completely milk the soul food comparisons, but Nashville Skyline is very much an exercise in restraint and the basics of music that sounds good that equates to the kind of comfort food that Dylan sings about on “Country Pie.”

I don’t need much and that ain’t no lie

Ain’t runnin’ any race

Give to me my country pie

I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face

Dylan’s contributed more during his unprecedented run in the 1960s than most artists even dream about achieving in their careers. He refused to be typecast. He was diligent about playing and writing the music that he wanted to deliver and he did this all in the face of a wide base of critics and fans all eager to see what would come next. What started Dylan’s second decade (the next album entry in this project) is controversial, puzzling, but also extremely fascinating because Dylan played the role of rogue genius.

Bob Dylan Album #8, John Wesley Harding


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #8, John Wesley Harding
Columbia Records, 1967


After a life changing motorcycle accident and a series of underground recordings with The Band, Dylan went to work on his follow up to the rock world altering, Blonde On Blonde. Seven albums into what was already a prolific recording career, and 18 months since the bombshell release of Blonde, it’s safe to say expectations for Dylan were high. 

The motorcycle mishap and sudden rush of fame had left Dylan jaded with his notoriety. He was tired of his constant need to appease the masses–critics especially–and his “voice of the people” label was more of a burden than a luxury. He was tired of being in the spotlight. Tired of the constant nagging of fans, many of which would take pilgrimages to his home in upstate New York. He had a family to be with and the desire to be nothing more than a musician and songwriter.

Taking into account the work on The Basement Tapes (which it should be noted were recorded months prior to the work on John Wesley Harding but was not “officially” released until the mid 1970s) and his newfound outlook on life, it comes as no surprise that Harding is more stripped down and less stylistic than its überhit predecessor.

For fans still grinding their teeth over Dylan’s electric period, John Wesley Harding must have also been a pleasant return to the simpler days of Dylan, his guitar, and his poetry. While folkier on the surface, the music on this album is equally as complex as the electric predecessor. The energy, however, is restrained. 

The record kicks off with its title track, a story-ballad recalling the tale of real-life outlaw John Wesley Hardin. The instrumentation is sparse with a focus on Dylan’s harmonica while Dylan’s croons through the fairly straightforward lyrics. In many ways the song is a return to the Americana country folk of his early years, absent, however, of the blatant protest lyrics. 

“As I Went Out One Morning” features one of the most memorable, albeit simple bass lines in rock and roll–a rubber band twang courtesy of one Charlie McCoy, who previously lent his guitar talents to “Desolation Row.” The song itself follows suit by weaving a tale from history, possibly referencing Tom Paine, an 18th century American revolutionary. When Dylan/narrator opens by singing, “to breath the air around Tom Paine’s” the metaphor could be a slight reference to political protest however many of deemed this song (and subsequently this album) an allegory for Christianity. The story of a damsel in chains wanting to escape and the narrator seeing danger (possibly the temptation of sin) only to be saved by Paine, the song’s savior like figure. 

The trio of songs that follow–“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”–are openly pious with references to biblical figures (Bishop St. Augustine who fell to an angry mob), temptations (Judas Priest) and possibly in “Watchtower,” the Tower of Babylon and the city’s demise. 

“Watchtower” is undoubtedly John Wesley Harding’s most significant song, one that has been immortalized through countless covers, and continues to leave interpreters puzzled to its meaning. Some believe it references modern day musicians struggling with fame (Dylan being the Joker character needing to break away from the spotlight), others believe it to be a precursor to Dylan’s eventual converting from Judaism to Christianity in the mid-70s, as seen in his born-again period. 

What’s most striking about the “Watchtower” of this album is how understated the song is compared to the roaring live anthem renditions that others, including Dylan, would flesh out further down the road. That the true songwriting origins of the song are still up for debate only adds to the song’s allure and easily warrant an entire column based on the song’s controversy. 

John Wesley Harding’s second half is truly Dylan’s first foray into country music. There is a notably voice change on tracks like “Drifter’s Escape” and “Dear Landlord,” and the steel guitar notes on the album’s closers, “Down Along the Cover” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are in-the-moment reflections of the Nashville setting, a sound that would come full circle on the radical departure of Nashville Skyline.

Musically speaking, “The Wicked Messenger” is the album’s stand out track, a fiery blues number that is a lot more complex than it appears. From the piercing harmonica trills to the falling guitar licks and jagged rhythm, the song is the one moment on the album in which Dylan truly lets loose. The song snuck into Dylan’s live sets in recent years taking on a new, more timely fierce blues incarnation that perfectly compliments his touring band of recent. 

If “The Wicked Messenger” is John Wesley Harding’s understated masterpiece, the aforementioned “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” may the one track on the record that is most out of place. Dylan has said that the album’s two closers were the only full songs written and imagined in Nashville. While musically “Baby Tonight” exudes all the sounds of Dylan’s new stomping grounds, it’s blatantly romantic lyrics would have been more welcomed on say Another Side of Bob Dylan. Ultimately the song feels like an after thought tacked onto the album at last minute. The fact that UB40 would later release a cover single of the song doesn’t bode well for its standings in Dylan’s oeuvre. 

John Wesley Harding may be one of Dylan’s most underappreciated albums to date. The average Joe is familiar with the immortal “All Along the Watchtower,” however it’s safe to say most people, light “Greatest Hits” Dylan fans included, couldn’t tell you the album the song resides on, or any of the Harding’s other memorable moments. 

What’s striking is that besides the notoriety of the album’s surprise hit, this is an unexpected and ambitious offering from Dylan during a time when the artist could have very well attempted to blow listeners away, yet again. Unlike his contemporaries at the time who were experimenting with psychedelia (The Beatles unleashed Sgt. Peppers) and budding art rock (Pink Floyd released Piper At The Gates Of Dawn), Dylan once again chose to go back to his roots, while also exploring historical and non-secular motifs throughout his lyrics. It’s classic Dylan without the grandiosity of his prior ascent to mega-stardom. Simply put the album is a concise collection of stripped down country folk songs that paved the way for future musical transformations, some welcomed, others not so much.

9/10

Essential Tracks: “As I Went Out One Morning,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “The Wicked Messenger”

Bob Dylan Album #7, Blonde on Blonde


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #7, Blonde on Blonde
Columbia Records, 1966

Blonde on Blonde has often been called the first truly great double LP. The album (and its subsequent tour) marked the arrival of Robbie Robertson and The Hawks, later to be appropriately named The Band, Dylan’s most fruitful backing band. It also was the culmination of an incredible progression of records in Dylan’s career before his infamous motorcycle accident triggered change, once again.

Still while it’s widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time it is hindered by quite possibly the most jaded and out of place opening tracks in rock and roll history.

“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its funeral procession horns, mournful piano rolls, silly background shrieks and tired “Stone You” chorus, might have worked well tacked on towards the end of Highway 61 Revisited or merely as a B-Side or single but on Blonde feels terribly misplaced. For an album showcasing some of Dylan’s finest moments of musical genius, it’s a shame that this remains one of his easiest to skip over.

Musically the song is straightforward blues, in the same vein as many of the other tracks on Blonde. Lyrically the song was controversial for its intentional and fairly playful embracement of drug use. Add to this background laughs and Dylan’s giggling interruptions, and “Rainy Day Women” is a bizarre departure from the tightly woven songs that follow.

“Pledging My Time” features a funkier side to Dylan’s ever-improving harmonica chops (he’s always been a terribly understated harp player) and is a more refined blues ode to drug use than its predecessor, detailing the hangover aftermath, meeting with the dealer and an eventual overdose.

“Visions of Johanna” belongs on the short list of Dylan’s greatest songs. It’s a forlorn tribute to true love and the pains of knowing that these feeling are no longer mutual. It’s difficult to say who or what the song is referencing, however, its surreal lyrics and mysterious duo of lovers–tempting Louise; absent Johanna–are Dylan at his poetic best. Despite all temptations and desires to rid the mind of a past love, “these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.”

Side one of Blonde on Blonde is closed out with “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” a fairly literal open letter to a former fling (once again, quite possibly addressed to Edie Sedgwick of “Like A Rolling Stone” fame). Lyrically the song doesn’t leave many mysteries to ponder but musically the song is one of few on Blonde recorded with The Band, the troupe that would help take Dylan in a different direction musically during the Basement Tape years. Robbie Robertson taking helm of lead guitar is one of the great musical collaborations and is rooted in this album.

The back-to-back duo of “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Just Like a Woman” are also allegedly aimed at Edie Sedgwick and on a grander scale, the materialistic and shallow New York City socialite scene. The former remains one of Dylan’s finest live tunes and continues in set rotations to this day. The latter’s infamous line, “You break just like a little girl,” set to lulling classical guitar picking and Dylan’s almost satirical crooning vocal style, is one hell of a sting from a former lover. When Dylan later sings, “Till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest” it can be assumed that “Just Like A Woman” also aims to debunk the notion that the elite is any different than the majority. Without her “her ribbons and her bows” the starlit at hand is a naïve child, alone in the world.

The up-tempo, organ drenched “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and the blues ramblings of “Obviously 5 Believers” are snippets of the type of musical arrangements that Dylan would later craft with The Band. Sandwiched between the aforementioned tracks is “4th Time Around,” the unofficial ode to The Beatles (inferred from its similarities to “Norwegian Wood”), which could just as easily be viewed as a satirical parody to Dylan’s Liverpool contemporaries. Genius.

Along with “Visions of Johanna,” “Sad Eyed Lady from the Lowlands” is Dylan at the pinnacle of his songwriting. Covering the entirety of side four upon its original LP release and clocking in at 11:20 this is one of Dylan’s epic compositions, a love song waltz for the ages. It is also the perfect closing track.

During this time few of Dylan’s songs were referencing his then wife Sara, the woman who would truly give Dylan a glimpse into heartbreak and who would ultimately trigger the recording of his other masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. “Sad Eyed of the Lowlands” is far too surreal to be officially about Sara, however, Dylan hints later in the remorseful breakup song “Sara” that he was: Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.

Whoever the song is intended for, the song’s beautiful imagery idolizes the subject at hand. It does so in an appropriately unsappy manner, paying homage to the complexities of his adoration for her. The details, it’s all about the details in this song. 

You don’t get much more romantic than: “your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims” and “your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.”

Blonde on Blonde is a near flawless album. If you take into account its length it’s hands down one of Dylan’s most ambitious LPs. Even the outtakes during its recording–most notably “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–remain highlights in his massive bootleg catalogue.

As a single “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is not a horrible song but as the opener to one of Dylan’s finest albums it falls short of properly setting the stage. Controversy sells but it doesn’t always warrant praise. The whimsical side of Dylan has always been present throughout his records and Blonde is hardly the exception, however, there’s a fine line between whimsical (see “All I Really Want To Do”) and stoner stupid.

In a perfect world “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” which opens side three and would later be used to open Dylan’s legendary tour with The Band (see Before the Flood), would have trumped “Rainy Day Women” as the album’s true opener. Still it’s unfair to fault Dylan for something as simple as a mediocre opening track since the collection of songs featured on Blonde on Blonde are among the best in rock and roll history. There is a short, short list of ambitious double albums that truly work and this towers above the rest.

The album completed one of finest recording runs, ever (unprecedented at the time, save The Beatles), and its musical diversity sums up perfectly the breadth of Dylan’s career thus far. Its Nashville roots (the album was recorded in the musically rich city) would enable Dylan to later branch out to the country realm (see John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline). It gave listeners the first glimpse at his musical possibilities with The Band. To bring it all back home, Blonde on Blonde, along with Highway 61 Revisited, The Basement Tapes, and Blood on the Tracks, is a must own album for anyone even remotely interested in Dylan or rock and roll in general.

9.7/10

Essential Tracks: “Visions of Johanna,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “Just Like a Woman,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Bob Dylan Album #6, Highway 61 Revisited


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #6, Highway 61 Revisited
Columbia Records, 1965

And with the single snare drum stroke, Bob Dylan finished his metamorphosis and released one of two flawless masterpieces. He also managed to change the face of rock and roll. 

Highway 61 Revisited is another example of how history and reputation can get in the way of just how brilliant a song or album really is. It’s easy to take a song like “Like a Rolling Stone” for granted, knowing now how important it is viewed in the history of contemporary music. It’s one of those songs and moments in times that I truly envy those buying the record upon its release, dropping the needle, and getting blown away by the eruption of organ and drums for the first time. 

Enough has been said about “Like a Rolling Stone” to warrant further dissection. It should be noted however, that while this remains one of those immortal anthems that most people know the lyrics to by heart, few take the time to realize how scathing a song it really is. To this end it’s also brilliant. Dylan unleashes his usual piercing lyrics set this time to uplifting, guitar and organ heavy rock and roll. Gone are the straightforward, spoon-fed lyrics of his folk messiah days. Enter Dylan, the rock and roll messiah. 

While Dylan belts out the song as if trying to bring down the house, the story being told is very much a nasty commentary on the privileged, the spoiled, and the ignorant, basically yet another wagging of the finger at society. From riches to rags, top of the world to scum of the earth, Dylan projects. It’s the kind of anger the punks would later embrace, the kind of anger to open your eyes.

Written during or right after Dylan’s soirée with Andy Warhol’s muse/socialite Edie Sedgwick, the song has also been viewed as an unrelenting jab at his former fling. That this troubled starlit would eventually succumb to drug addiction and later die an intoxicated death only adds to the song’s darker side.

Opening an album with a song as audacious “Like a Rolling Stone” sets the bar high for what follows. With Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan delivers.

“Tombstone Blues” is a hodgepodge of nonsensical images set to the kind of hard-hitting blues Dylan had been working towards. Written from a surrealist’s point of view, Dylan takes a simple blues formula, deconstructs it, adds a dose of wild west iconography and creates something completely his own, a world “where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll” and “the sun is not yellow it’s chicken.”

“Ballad of a Thin Man” has garnered a wide-range of interpretations, each holding merit. In the broadest sense the song is yet another chapter in Dylan’s anti-establishment catalogue. It may be the finest scolding of elitist know-it-alls of the world. Possibly aimed at a journalist, easily suited towards crooked politicians, the song alludes to the capitalist machine Dylan lamented about previously on “It’s Alright Ma.” Others view the song as a comment on a closeted homosexual coming to grips with his own identity and society’s intolerance–“one eyed midget,” “sword swallower,” and “give me some milk” all back this analysis. Whatever one infers, the song remains one of his most puzzling.

On the album’s title track, a rip-roaring piece of Americana blues-rock, Dylan makes quite possibly the best use of the slide, penny whistle, while at the same time name dropping biblical passages, alluding to incest (“But the second mother was with the seventh son”), and a final verse that is a frighteningly similar story to the former Bush administration’s “selling of the war,” not to mention the financial gamble of certain timely banks.

“Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues” is a return to the more whimsical side of Dylan. Featuring a funky electric Pianet, a bit more of the honky-tonk last found on “Black Crow Blues,” and Dylan’s first Southwest themed offerings.

At over 11 minutes, “Desolation Row” tends to stand out like a sore thumb in Dylan’s repertoire. It’s also the perfect closer to a flawless record, matching the intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone” with some of the finest lyrical storytelling he’s ever crafted.

For starters the acoustic guitar work on “Desolation Row” is a welcomed departure from the record’s previous electric compositions.  And musically the classical guitar picking chops featured on the song (played by country-blues guitarist Charlie McCoy) are breathtaking, in many ways setting the stage for the more refined songs on Blonde on Blonde and the country exercises soon to come on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.

Lyrically “Desolation Row” is a pastiche of little stories and character studies that is at times surreal but also is on point when referencing a number of Dylan’s literary idols (“Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower”).  Of all of Dylan’s songs this remains one of the few truly puzzling pieces, making it all the more intriguing to close your eyes and get whisked away to.

Highway 61 Revisited is one of the great records in the pantheon of rock and roll. The hype surrounding songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” is warranted and this album’s notoriety is safe. Like all truly complete LPs, it should be listened to in one sitting either through a vintage pair of ear muff size headphones or blaring from the speakers of a fast car driving through the back roads of America, this album’s proper setting.

10/10

Essential Tracks: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Desolation Row”