Bob Dylan Album #5, Bringing It All Back Home


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #5, Bringing It All Back Home
Columbia Records, 1965

Then came the alienation. A kind of reverse protest from fans when Dylan “went electric.” To be fair to his dissidents one couldn’t of asked for a more elegant transition from one style to another than with Bringing It All Back Home.

With two radically different sides–the first electric, the latter a return to the acoustic/harmonica formula that so many adored–the though the songs were stark reminders of the end of an era–Dylan proudly proposed to listeners, and now for something completely different. A brilliantly conceived concept that was years ahead of those living in Dylan’s then tired past. Still for those naysayers who cringed at the opening electric blues lick of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan went ahead and turned in three of his finest acoustic tracks to date on side two of Bringing It All Back Home’s.

Knowing now the direction that Dylan was going with his music, Bringing It All Back Home’s is a perfect transitional album and a worthy precursor to the bombshell of Highway 61 Revisited. Even the record’s cover, the first truly iconic image in Dylan’s career, alludes to tossing out the old, bringing in the new. Dylan is framed within a distorted lens surrounded by remnants of his older self–record sleeves from influences like Robert Johnson, a magazine cover featuring a new President, Lyndon Johnson, and even a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan hiding in the corner.

Upon its release, however, the twangy guitar riff that erupts into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” must have been somewhat of a shock to the anxious listener placing the needle on the groove of record number five.

It could be wishful thinking to link the free form rants on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with that of early rap music, however, it’s safe to say that both R.E.M (with “End of the World”) and Billy Joel (with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) owe a great deal to this firecracker of an opener.

“Look out kid / You gonna get hit,” is a punch-to-face commencement of Dylan’s radical new direction. For the first time in his recording career Dylan’s songs went from musically simple to fast, crowded, and loud with the addition of an electric rock band. Still beneath the garage rock is still Dylan, the poet.

“She Belongs to Me,” which rightfully follows “Subterranean,” couldn’t be more different from its brethren on side one but is key for showing the more tender side of Dylan’s instrumentation choices. It’s been said that the song is a loving ode to his contemporary (and sometime musical partner) Joan Baez, and what a loving homage it is. When Dylan sings in his harmonious voice (an early sign of where his vocals were headed on the crooning of Nashville Skyline) “She can take the dark out of the nighttime
 / And paint the daytime black” it’s a startling reminder of what a stunning wordsmith he is how even an electric guitar can radiate beauty.

Of course Dylan carries on with “Maggie’s Farm,” a protest anthem set to electric blues guitars and swinging cymbal crashes. Much has been written about the lyrics to this song, which remains another of Dylan’s immortals. His repetition of certain verses throughout is in synch with traditional blues structures and it is widely agreed that Maggie’s farm is a reference to Dylan’s old persona as the protest poster child. In the opening stanza Dylan sings: “I got a head full of ideas
 / That are drivin’ me insane / 
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor” possibly referencing a fire inside of him to stir things up and tear down the house with his music but a public facade holding him back. The song could be viewed as his official departure from the folk/protest scene.

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” floats along on guitar harmonics, Dylan’s whimsical vocals and lyrics like, “she’s true, like ice, like fire,” and is on the short list of Dylan’s most ga-ga romantic songs.

The latter side of Bringing It All Back Home opens with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a decent song later made immortal (like many of his songs) by Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. The surreal song references Dylan’s experimentation with drugs (though he often says he never wrote “drug songs”) and the escapism that comes with it. “With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, / 
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Since the song is more recognized from its covers–both The Byrds and Sonny and Cher–the original is easy to overlook but Dylan is at his most abstract in its lyrics.

The real gem on side two is “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a magnum opus of poetry and a true sign of the times. The song features some of Dylan’s most puzzling and philosophical verses of any of his songs, with fifteen verses dissecting society’s ills in America and, in reference to the now infamous line “That he not busy being born / 
Is busy dying,” Dylan’s views on Capitalism’s hold over our lives.

An entire column could be written about this song’s breadth of lyrical brilliance and its links to future dissident genres–punk for example, or how about socially conscious rap–and each verse could be studied and pondered over. And people do.

Throughout the song Dylan wags his finger at the pitfalls of materialism (“toy guns that spark
/ To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark”), media manipulation (“Advertising signs that con you
/ Into thinking you’re the one”), the immoral marriage of church and state (“principles baptized
/ To strict party platform ties
/ Social clubs in drag disguise”) and the money line on greed (“money doesn’t talk, it swears”). Dylan later closes:

And if my thought-dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

There is some hope buried between the fleshed out maladies. His notion that life needs to be lived, despite the temptation to get lost in suction of the political and social machine that is capitalism., offers a bit of solace in an otherwise desolate song.

In a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, Dylan commented on the magic that occurred while writing “It’s Alright Ma” and how that magic is gone. It’s one of those songs that’s so hypnotic, so well-written it amazes even Dylan himself, who, after 500+ songs in the bank, still marvels at it.  

It’s crucial to note the song order on Bringing It All Back Home. Besides the obvious separation between side one and side two, Dylan carefully follows an A-B-A-B formula on the electric half. The surreal lyrics and barn dance guitar work of “Subterranean” are followed by the gentler jazz guitar of “She Belongs to Me,” while the traditional blues found on “Maggie’s Farm” are followed with “Love Minus Zero/No Limit’s” soft guitar and tender lyrics. As if Dylan intends to blow your mind then take things down a notch. It’s one of Dylan’s more angry records disguised as an exercise in rock and roll. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is the nail in the coffin, a harsh blow to the psyche that is then followed with another warm sounding ballad, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

While on it’s surface the song could be perceived as another breakup song, referencing the end of a passionless love affair, however, the song, like all of its predecessors on the album, is about moving on. It’s as big as F-U to the critics and disgruntled fans of the electric change as “Maggie’s Farm:”

“The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Strike another match, go start anew”

 Carefully positioned as the albums closer it really heralds the message of ending one era and starting something new, truly bringing it all back home.

9.5/10

Essential Songs: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

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Bob Dylan Album #4, Another Side of Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #4: Another Side of Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1964

It’s fitting that Another Side of Bob Dylan was released immediately after the scathing political anthems of The Times They Are A-Changin’. In danger of being completely typecast as that radical, protest songwriter, Dylan truly gave listeners another side to his musical persona by expanding his musical prowess (one more step closer to the electric circus that would follow) and returning to some of the humor and playfulness found on Bob Dylan

Throughout Dylan’s career he has tried desperately to move away from being labeled by his critics and fans. It’s part of the reason his canon is so varied and his path so curious. If The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ were the albums that established Dylan as a voice not to be reckoned with, Another Side of Bob Dylan was a cue that listeners had only heard a taste of what was yet to come.

The record opens with “All I Really Want To Do,” a lighthearted guitar/harmonica number that completely sheds the rebel folk singer skin of the album’s predecessor. When Dylan croons and yodels his way through the lyrics, “No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you, /
Frighten you or uptighten you,
/ Drag you down or drain you down,
/ Chain you down or bring you down. /
All I really want to do /
Is, baby, be friends with you,” he could very well be referring to the women in his life but more likely it’s a plea to his listeners to shatter their messiah like view of him.

“Black Crow Blues” is in many ways a throwaway track if it were not for Dylan’s newfound penchant for the piano. Playing a saloon style honky-tonk, with a hint of train howling harmonica licks, Dylan returns to the straight blues of his musical upbringing but does it in a manner completely his own.

With “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages,” Dylan returns to the protest anthems of Times but does so (as seen in “Pages”) with a fair amount of resentment for the political folk movement that he helped jumpstart. 

“Chimes” is a wonderfully weaved, albeit fairly general, testament to the underdogs of war and social unrest. An ode to “the gentle and the kind,” “the guardians and protectors of the mind,” “the mateless mother and mistitled prostitute” and “the lonesome-hearted lovers,” its no wonder the song remains one of Dylan’s most trumpeted live songs not to mention most covered from artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen to the Senegalese Afro-Pop star Youssou N’Dour.

A song like “My Back Pages” must have come as a bit of shock to the loyal followers of Dylan’s former political outlook. The song, while heralding his days in the rebel limelight, expresses a fair amount of doubt towards his prior beliefs and facade. “Ah, but I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now” is one of the most poetic realizations of his place in the world that Dylan has ever written. It’s that rare moment of self-aware maturation.

By recording an album like The Times They Are A-Changin’ at the tender age of 22, Dylan was ambitious and helped to motivate an entire generation of young minds but he realizes with “My Back Pages” that his political angst was without merit (“Using ideas as my maps”) and that despite his supposed romantic enlightenment he was a bit naïve. In many ways the song debunks his self-built myth of being THE rebel voice of his generation and is a subtle precursor to his electric transition that would ultimately estrange many of his followers–focusing less on guitar/mic formula, more on the music. The song remains the most important and poetic on the record, and is one of his many career-defining moments.

The remaining songs on the LP juggle between the somber and the humorous. “I Shall Be Free No. 10” is a bizarre follow-up of sorts to Freewheelin’s closer, “I Shall Be Free.” Like its sister song, “No. 10” is a hodgepodge of nonsensical lyrics with Dylan name dropping everyone from Cassius Clay, who will get “knocked clean right out of his spleen” if he doesn’t run, to Barry Goldwater. The song starts off as a testament to just how normal Dylan really is (“It ain’t no use a-talking to me / It’s just the same as talking to you.”) but quickly unravels into one of the weirdest songs in Dylan’s catalogue.

“Motorpsycho Nitemare” is the first of many story-songs, a comical romp of seduction from a raging farmer’s daughter and the car breakdown from hell. At 8:17 “Ballad In Plain D” is one of his longest compositions and continues the remorseful love entanglement between Dylan, Suze Rotolo and her “parasite sister.” This is clearly Dylan at his most callous, albeit somewhat remorseful. He repents: 

“Beneath a bare light bulb the plaster did pound


Her sister and I in a screaming battleground.


And she in between, the victim of sound,


Soon shattered as a child ‘neath her shadows.”

 During this epoch in his career Another Side of Bob Dylan may be the unjustly ignored of this string of releases. The record’s sole memorable single is its closer, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a painfully sad tale of rejection, which would ultimately become a heartbreaker’s weapon of choice for gently telling someone, no. The remaining tracks make up one of Dylan’s most complex albums to date one that showed great strides in his artistic evolution. Setting down the guitar in lieu of a piano was just a hint of the more radical changes (and fan alienation) to come, and his refusal to play into the title as “voice of his generation,” showed ambitions far beyond most musicians in his heyday.

9.3/10

Essential songs: “Chimes of Freedom,” “My Back Pages,” “Motorpsycho Nitemare,” “Ballad in Plain D.”

Bob Dylan Album #3, The Times They Are A-Changin’


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #3 The Times They Are A-Changin’
Columbia, 1964

Then came the protest album. If The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan gave listeners just a taste of the politically charged Dylan, Times was its stark, full-blown activist aftermath. 

Opening with the timeless title track, Times is one of the most somber and personal albums Dylan has ever recorded. Just look at what was happening in the world during its recording. The assassination of President Kennedy left the country in shock, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech helping to bring the civil right’s movement to the forefront, the military beginning its long road in Vietnam, and the space race was underway. It’s safe to say the country was in a state of flux. For Dylan, however, the order was “rapidly fadin.’” 

Unlike Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changin’ was a true solo project, one of the more intimate recordings of his career. Dylan wrote all the music and lyrics, played all the instruments (which was nothing more than an acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica). 

Lyrically Dylan meanders between dismal tales of an unlucky South Dakota farmer slaying his family with a shotgun (“Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the assassination of a civil right’s pioneer Medgar Evers (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”), and a straight from the newspaper, racially charged murder of a 51-year-old black woman (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”).

With “Hattie Carroll” Dylan even manages to build a level of suspense (more effective during the song’s heyday when few people knew about the slaying) as Dylan’s vocals and the rhythm of song ascends and descends. When the murderer, William Zanzinger’s light six-month sentence is finally unveiled in the song’s finale, Dylan’s slight hesitation and guitar pause alludes to the kind of courtroom gasp one would expect with such an immoral outcome. 

“With God On Our Side,” arguably the record’s most disturbing view of the world, is a harsh warning for the theological rationalization of war throughout the United State’s history. The haunting stanza, “One Push of the button / And a shot the world wide / And you never ask questions / When God’s on your side,” alludes to an escalation of the horrors of war rooted in religious fundamentalism that makes the song as poignant as ever, especially after the events during the Bush administration.  

While most of the tracks on Times are as bleak as they get, Dylan managed to let a couple of his more tender songs sneak on the record. “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings,” two of Dylan’s most underrated gems to date, are both soothing ballads of a forlorn couple in love and give a fairly compassionate, albeit candid look at the pitfalls of long distance separation. Most likely written after his previous girlfriend Suze Rotolo (featured on Dylan’s arm on Freewheelin’s now infamous LP cover photograph) left for Spain, both songs offer a well-needed break from the dismal societal woes that are referenced during the rest of the record. Though the sting of separation is never more present than when Dylan sings, “I got a letter on a lonesome day / 
It was from her ship a-sailin’, / Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again / 
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.”

“When the Ship Comes In” feels like a traditional anthem for the common sailor, the kind best suited for a drinking hole congested with seafaring folk, glasses of beer and shots of whiskey. That the song is supposedly a metaphor for an embarrassing moment when Dylan was turned away from a hotel for his disheveled appearance only adds to the song’s allure and quirkiness.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ is Dylan’s first official masterpiece. Whereas Freewheelin’ struggled with a somewhat disproportionate second half, Times is a near flawless record, and arguably one of Dylan’s most personal. It is said that a number of the songs were written in all-night coffee shops during the country’s seismic sea change.  Tracks like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” paved the way for future political pleads like Desire’s “Hurricane,” while the album’s closer “Restless Farewell,” was the perfect bookend to an exercise in anger but also a call for change. The album would ultimately paint Dylan as a voice of his generation (a label he later tried desperately to shed) but as a piece of 60s era social criticism, it doesn’t get much better than this. 

9.5/10

Essential Songs: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “When the Ship Comes In,” “With God On Our Side.”

Bob Dylan Album #2, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #2 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1963

It’s easy to take for granted songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times Are a Changing,” and “Like A Rolling Stone” since they remain Dylan’s most widely known. With “Blowing,” Dylan couldn’t have written a better opening song to what would ultimately be his most fruitful, decade-long run of albums. It is also the proper introduction to Dylan the poet, prolific songwriter, political activist, and romantic.

The first side of Freewheelin’ definitely outweighs that of its latter half. The opening trio alone, consisting of “Blowing,” “Girl From the North Country,” and “Master of War” remain three of Dylan’s finest achievements. Add to this the one-two punch of the record’s two blues tracks, “Down in the Highway” and “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” Finally side A ends with the apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song that has remained a steady part of Dylan’s live repertoire and has seen many different incarnations over the years, most notably circa his Rolling Thunder Revue days. When Dylan sings “Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten / Where black is the color, where none is the number,” it’s clear this young songwriter from Bleecker street is a voice to be heard.

Originally envisioned as a blues record entitled “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” Freewheelin’s second half features the majority of the album’s exercises in simple, folk style blues.

With the exception of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” which, combined with “Girl From the North Country,” shows Dylan’s knack for writing emotionally triggered love songs, side B at times feels like a more polished/original extension of Bob Dylan

Whereas Bob Dylan consisted of only two original songs amidst a collection of covers and traditional folk songs, Freewheelin’ is Dylan breaking out of his shell. Only two traditional covers–“Corrina Corrina” and “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance”–are featured on the record and are ultimately the album’s two forgettable tracks. The remaining eleven songs introduce a confident and assertive Dylan whose songs range from tender to poignant, tragic to playful. 

The album’s closer, “I Shall Be Free,” returns to a bit of the humor found on Bob Dylan but maintains Freewheelin’s political timeliness. Opening with the line, “Well I took me a woman late last night / I was ¾ drunk, she looked alright” and eventually culminating with a fictionalized phone call with President Kennedy asking, “Bob, what do we need to make the country grow? I responded, Brigitte Bardot,” it’s obvious that Dylan’s tongue is in his cheek. 

Freewheelin features some of Dylan’s finest songs and would have been a monumental debut for this rising musician. Many of the tracks would receive various makeovers throughout his touring years. “Girl From the North Country” would later be re-released as a crooning duet with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline, not to mention a musical doppelganger on The Times They Are A-Changin’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” “Hard Rain” transferred flawlessly to Dylan’s gypsy electric phase in the early 70s, and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” remains a staple encore set piece for Dylan’s current Never Ending Tour.

As a whole entity, the album’s overall focus is never truly defined but rather the collection of songs seem to be introducing audience to a new side of Bob Dylan (a rebirth formula he would ultimately use again, and again). The two covers feel tossed on last minute, while a number of B-side tracks from the album (later released in the Bootleg Series 1-3) would have been right at home on this release. Overall we get Dylan the bluesman, Dylan the romantic crooner, and for the first time in his career, Dylan the activist, a role that would play a crucial role in his following release, The Times They Are A-Changin’. 

8.5/10 

Key Tracks: “Blowing in the Wind,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “I Shall Be Free.”

Bob Dylan Album #1, Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #1 Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1962

All of the greats get their start somewhere. For Bob Dylan, who recorded his self-titled debut in 1962 at the ambitious age of 20, it was a promising start indeed.

Preluding the stellar lineup of masterpieces that soon followed Bob Dylan–starting with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and carrying on until his rewriting of rock and roll with Blonde on Blonde–Dylan’s premiere album is easy to overlook. Mainly comprised of straightforward covers of contemporary and traditional folk tunes, a handful of originals, and one ode to his idol (Song to Woody), Bob Dylan was less an exercise in genius or unrivaled creative masterstroke (the brilliance would come soon after) but more the perfect groundings to what would ultimately be an expansive and unprecedented career. After all, despite the many musical transformations over the years–acoustic to electric, political to spiritual, soothing vocals to sandpaper crooning, etc. etc.–at the core of Dylan’s music is an adoration of traditional folk and blues. 

In terms of vocal prowess Dylan comes across as young, fairly untrained but confident nevertheless and his interplay between the verses and his choo-choo train harmonica shows an early mastery of the harp. Songs like “Pretty Peggy-O” and “Gospel Plow” come off as simple, casual and almost playful as Dylan interrupts the choruses with quick hoots, yelps and giggles. Whereas Dylan’s take on the traditional “In My Time Of Dyin’” and “House of the Rising Sun” are more refined, with a tilt towards the blues. On other songs, particularly the album’s sparse opener “You’re No Good,” it’s clear Dylan’s singing out of his range, in many ways paying homage once again to Woody Gutherie.

Musically the songs rely on the purity of a man and an acoustic guitar. The picking is proficient but hardly grandiose (again, Dylan would unleash his true guitar chops later). The recording sessions of all 17 tracks (only 13 would make it to the final album) took roughly three afternoons to record and cost a meager $400. Dylan has often said that it only takes him two or three listens of any song to master it and by the time Bob Dylan was recorded the artist had already been playing the coffeehouse circuit and sitting in with a number of his contemporaries, becoming fluent in the folk repertoire with every song he learned. 

The album only has two original tracks, with the timeless “Song to Woody” being the most famous. As a result the album only reveals a taste of the real Bob Dylan, enough of course to land him a five-record contract with Columbia and enough to prompt the album’s more personal follow-up The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.

A handful of the songs on Bob Dylan would be added to his live rotation during the early 1960s, and post his1966 electric transition only five of the thirteen were played in concert, including a driving, blues rendition of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” with his fiery backing band, The Band (then still The Hawks).

Bob Dylan would not be the go-to album for someone unfamiliar with Dylan to embark on his massive canon. Like David Bowie’s self-titled debut (which was also a melting pot of covers and influences), the album is in many ways merely a glimpse into the music of his childhood, the songs that inspired him to pick up the guitar and step up to the mic. The true Bob Dylan wouldn’t be unleashed till the follow-up but for understanding his career spanning progression the album is a necessary reminder of his roots.

7.5/10

Key Tracks: “In My Time of Dyin,’” “Talkin’ in New York,” “Gospel Plow,” “Song to Woody.”

Tell Tale Sign of More to Come


It’s safe to say that Columbia Records, and or any other music conglomerate to arise, will be releasing and re-releasing the music of Bob Dylan forever. A musician of this magnitude will always sell records, no matter how they are packaged. New material will always be absorbed, critiqued and ultimately revisited and no matter how many Deluxe or Special Edition versions of Dylan’s back catalogue are reissued, the spruced up discs will undoubtedly be coveted by hardcore fans.

Today marks the release of another piece of Dylan’s growing sub catalogue of “official” bootleg recordings, with Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8. This hearty serving of unreleased live and rarity tracks taken from Dylan’s late 80s to present day recordings is yet another piece of the puzzle in unraveling this musician’s wildly varied, epic career.

While the collection of songs all warrant further listening, with many of the cuts actually besting the official album release (see not one but two superior alternate versions of “Mississippi,” officially released on 2001’s Love and Theft, with a third set to be released on a third special edition companion disc) this eighth Bootleg Series outing ultimately begs the question, what’s in store for future volumes in the series.

The previous seven Bootleg releases chronologically jumped around a bit, with the initial three-disc Vol. 1-3 edition spanning from Dylan’s earliest works up until 1989s Oh Mercy (a truly remarkable, often forgotten LP that is covered more extensively on Tell Tale Signs). Still Vol. 4-7 mainly encompassed the artist’s 60s decade (Live 1964 and Live 1966), with the Rolling Thunder Revue extensively covering Dylan’s acclaimed mid 70s gypsy rock, multi-artist tour (a much more accessible time capsule of this legendary tour than the original Hard Rain live LP release). 

While not entirely sequential in their nature (Live at Royal Albert Hall 1966 was released before The Concert at Philharmonic Hall 1964) it does seems like Tell Tale Signs jumps ahead towards the latter end of Dylan’s career, passing over a largely misunderstood chapter in Dylan’s life.

Dylan’s ‘Born Again’ years are often overlooked when perusing the artist’s canon. Encompassing three official album’s–1979s Slow Train Coming, ‘80s Saved and ending with ‘81s Shot of Love–this radical epoch in Dylan’s life is just aching to be reexamined and for many discovered.

To be fair Dylan briefly covered his spiritual years with The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. A rough outtake of Shot of Love’s haunting “Every Grain of Sand,” featuring a female backup singer is the highlight of three outtakes featured from this era.

Considering the Shot of Love sessions alone produced roughly 50 other unreleased outtakes and instrumental cuts and both Train and Saved had their share of studio experimentation, an official release chronicling this era would be interesting to hear. Even Dylan’s live sets from his non-secular years, which focused solely on the new material at hand, ignoring his classics, have yet to see an official release (the Real Live LP of the time was a return to the classics tackled in less than desirable style.

Dylan’s “Born Again” years never receive the credit they deserve. Train was decently received by critics and was propelled to mass success by the track, “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won Dylan his first official Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. The LPs true highlights are heard in “Precious Angel” “I Believe in You” and “Slow Train,” a sequential trio of tracks that showcase Dylan’s lyrical strength with just a hint of Dire Straits’ front-man Mark Knopfler’s unique melodic guitar pickings as an added bonus (Knopfler also served as producer).

Saved was quickly dismissed for being too polarizing for Dylan’s more secular fans (its heavy gospel overtones were not for everyone) and Shot of Love, while returning to the roots rock and roll of earlier Dylan was still heavily Christian in the eyes of most of its listeners. Still, if one overlooks Dylan’s then newfound love of Christ and the lyrics spawned from this conversion, the artist was still making some of the most beautiful music of his career, and once again showing another side of the Dylan most thought they knew. 

With 32-studio albums behind him and countless other live and B-Sides recordings collecting dust in the closet Dylan never seems comfortable staying in one genre or style. His legacy will always be rooted in his folk and traditional Americana upbringing, with later accolades for his rallying lyricism. More importantly though Dylan success comes from his willingness to shed all preconceptions and follow new directions.

His “Born Again” years are undoubtedly rooted in American Gospel music with a focus on the call and response, sermon style songwriting. Flash-forward to his current return to Americana and blues inspired folk and its easy to see a natural progression throughout his career, one that benefited from his “Born Again” recordings.

Tell Tale Signs is a treat for fans of Dylan’s recent works, and unlike other artists’ who simply release outtakes to profit off tracks that were rightfully scrapped, the majority of Dylan’s B-Sides are often radically different giving each song an entirely new feel. The stripped down piano version of “Dignity” accentuates the song’s brilliant storytelling while the previously unreleased track (and first single) “Dreaming of You” is one of those rarities you wish had seen an official release during its incarnation.

With every Bootleg Series release fans and newcomers alike are granted a glimpse into truly ‘Another Side’ of Bob Dylan. Tell Tale Signs is a welcome release but one can only hope that Dylan is willing to revisit some of his forgotten years, perhaps in conjunction with his upcoming follow up to the autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1, an equally rewarding look behind some of Dylan’s most popular and underrated albums (the chapter on New Morning alone was worth the read).  For now we can revisit Dylan’s not too distant past. 

Why The Stones Still Matter

ImageMartin Scorsese has always been a bit of a rock and roll film director. He uses pop music and good old-fashioned rock and roll with the same care and finesse as most filmmakers do with their actors. For Marty what you hear has always been as important as what you see. Fans of his films will know that one of his favorite musical muses is without a doubt The Rolling Stones, with “Gimme Shelter” serving as his own unofficial personal trademark. This past week marked the opening of Scorsese’s newest film, Shine a Light, an admirable ode, if nothing else, to the band he has always loved and reminder of why the band is still important. 

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega if he’s a Beatles Man or an Elvis Man? There is a large population out there who would answer this question with a third response: Stones Man.

The Rolling Stones have long been considered one of the best rock and roll groups in the history of, well, rock and roll. Sure it’s music is pop at times but at its core the Stones is a true rock and roll band in the pure sense of the term. Its music has always been rooted in rhythm and blues, propelled by hard hitting guitar riffs, powerful yet concise drumming, and a lead singer’s on stage theatrics that, no matter how ridiculous they may seem, never fail to capture the groove of the music.

The Stones have had their share of critical highs and lows–for every masterpiece in the repertoire (and there are quite a few) there is undoubtedly a dud filler album, primarily from the early 80s to present day. In the past decade or so the vocals have been hindered by their age (and in the case of Keith a lifetime of cigarettes and all things bad for you) but all these grievances aside the Stones still know how to rock. On stage, as a whole entity their sound still remains unprecedented.

Shine a Light is by no means the greatest concert film ever made nor was this Scorsese’s goal for the film (one could argue that the director mastered this feat with the immortal classic, The Last Waltz). The film is not a historical documentary of one of the biggest bands in the world nor does it chronicle any specific part of its career similar to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction HomeShine a Light sets out to do one thing–showcasing a band doing what they’ve always done best. 

The concert at the Beacon Theater in New York, which Scorsese captures in the film, is hardly unique or as truly memorable as say the Altamont disaster, that tragic show that was dissected in the must-see Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme ShelterShine a Light was filmed over a two-night performance during the bands Bigger Bang Tour, backing the less than memorable recent record of the same name. 

Sure the Presidential Clinton family was present for the final night’s gala. The show featured three successful guest performances from Jack White (“Loving Cup”), Buddy Guy (the heavy Muddy Waters cover, “Champagne and Reefer”) and a surprisingly soulful Christina Aguilera (seriously if you ignore her pointless pop albums and celebrity stardom this singer actually has some stellar pipes on her. Then again she was born during one of the Stones’ many dull periods) lending her talent to the Let it Bleed classic “Live With Me.” These moments seem like nothing more than added bonuses when really the concert plays out as nothing more than a document of a band that has been doing their thing for over forty years, and somehow continues to do it well.

While primarily focusing on the Beacon concert Scorsese chops up the concert’s setlist with career spanning footage of the band, everything from TV interviews to early stage performances. Through the sparse but enlightening grainy reels from the band’s past Scorsese manages to tell the story of not only who these musicians are but also what continues to drive the members to perform well into their AARP years. 

ImageThe three original members–the mad man leader of the pack Mick Jagger, space cadet and guitar riff master Keith Richards, and the mysterious backbone drummer Charlie Watts–are each given a spotlight. We see the group’s rather innocent early days, their God like rise to stardom, and a little bit of the 80s aftermath (the funniest clip taken from what appears to be a Japanese TV interview featuring a giggly and possibly inebriated Jagger).

There is a specific moment in the film when Scorsese slips in an amazingly true to life comment from Keith that truly sums up what the Stones represent. When asked who is the better guitar player, Keith or Ronnie Wood, Richards jokingly replies something along the lines of, “well the fact is neither of us are any good but when we play together we’re better than the rest. 

In my mind this sums up what Scorsese set out to do with Shine a Light. Critics and fans may complain that this film is 30 years to late and that the Stones have been out of its prime for a long time (the band’s last truly standout record was 1981s Tattoo You, the last masterpiece was ‘78s Some Girls, which gets its dues in the film’s set list). Scorsese no doubt realizes this but he also knows that despite the bands faults the Stones still remain an untouchable force in rock and roll. Shine a Light is about ignoring that band’s shortcomings and simply having a good time. 

There is a reason the film was catered to fit the larger than life IMAX experience, the filming required multiple cameras or that the surround sound mixing was obviously handled with care. Scorsese uses Shine a Light to recreate what its like to be there with Mick and the gang as they rip through an entire career worth of classic sing-a-long rock and roll anthems (whatever band can write a song about a slave trader’s sexual desires as heard in “Brown Sugar” and turn it into a classic that everyone knows). The film shows that that despite the waning vocals, the group’s physical appearance (skeletal remains with baseball glove weathered skin), and the nonsensical ramblings of Mr. Richards who himself is surprised to have survived this long, these veteran rockers still know how to let it loose.