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” 

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)”

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.”