T for Tom

Day 8 – John Wesley Harding – 1967

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 30, 2016

 

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I’ve never listened to John Welsey Harding in full. It’s the first along this journey I can say that for, and won’t be the last. But I’m already learning why this is an important turning point – goddamn, what a good record.

It is from the beginning, at the last note of the opening and eponymous track on into the hanging but equal opening note of “As I Went Out Into The Morning,” a piece of work unequal. For the first time, Dylan’s music seems in sync – it isn’t his best or strongest by a single tune, but the whole achieves something beyond ornamental. We’re 18 months on from his rock’n’roll years and even though it’s a return to form, outdated as it was at the time, the act of returning itself is an act of forward progression. When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and His Satanic Majesties Request were the top albums ruling with psychedelia and things unexpected, Dylan did something bold – he gave the people something they’ve already known for years, but in its best form. Recorded at the same time as the now legendary and vaunted Basement Tapes that would surface 10 years later (and upcoming in my retrospective), it’s no wonder that it sounds so good.

The content isn’t as much important. We are listening to a man whose life was changed by a motorcycle accident. For as folkloric as the event has become, its possible that the mere fact of living was inspiration enough.

And if so, it would make sense that his first effort since – his first attempt at making his living again – would be safe, close, at home, and sophomoric. But it was the 60s, and the violent, protestant, changing 60s. Dylan knew this, and creating an album of relatable, passionate frontier music would be the boldest move.

For a man who made an impression so quickly for always changing the game and there forward seeing the game always becoming one of change, he would be the first to strongly step outward by changing not at all.

And I’ll be damned if it isn’t his most enjoyable work to date.


Song: The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

It’s at times sweet, friendly, funny, and prophetic. For all the times he tried to be Homeric, this was his best attempt, and the tune is so delightful.

Day 7 – Blonde On Blonde – 1966

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on June 29, 2016

 

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Just as I was starting to figure him out, Dylan goes and inverts the game again. After six days and six records in a row, I had claimed that he put forth his most honest song as the top track on any record before descending into the surreal. And yet, I should have known that on the next record, Blonde On Blonde, would have the rambling and nonsensical pot-smoking anthem “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” leading off a record that otherwise started, if not cemented, his status as a pop icon.

Dylan for the first time doesn’t play games. When he wants you, he says “I Want You.” When he wants to go his own way, he says “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” When he wants to give you all his time, he says “Pledging My Time.” It’s enigmatic that a man who so often told the truth in riddles speaks, for the first time, without subtext.

This has always been my interpretation of this record, even when I was younger and knew less of the man and his music. Often considered the closing ballad in a trilogy of rock’n’roll records (including the two previous), Blonde On Blonde gets the softest touch and the sweetest legacy; it is, after all, the pop anthem. But for all its beautiful orchestration – the saloon piano on “Temporary Like Achilles” or the roaming guitar on “Fourth Time Around” are some of his sweetest, most well produced musical elements ever – Blonde is a directly pop production, and it remains the single reason why I can’t crown it the highest achievement of a man who otherwise never wanted to be understood.

Dylan went into the studio with The Hawks, his backing band that had been around long enough to get a name of their own. But in the month they spent recording in January, only a single track was yielded. A couple weeks and a trip to Nashville later, and here appears the entirety of this now legendary recording. Maybe the need to produce a few hits preempted the need to be mysterious, but maybe he’s saying just what he wants: I can do hits, too.

The Beatles wouldn’t release Revolver for another two months. Think about that.


Song: Obviously Five Believers

He nailed the blues with “Pledging My Time” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” but I’ll be damned if this song doesn’t get me movin’ every time I hear it. That fucking harmonica man, it just rails through the night.

Day 6 – Highway 61 Revisited – 1965

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on June 28, 2016

 

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Get me that goddamn jacket, man.

Here it is, Highway 61 and “Like a Rolling Stone,” the song that will not and should not die, has been called Dylan’s and America’s greatest song, and continues to maintain relevance 50 years and a world over. When that keyboard kicks in, you just know.

I’m starting to think that Dylan had a business plan that never changed much – put the best, most honest song first, and let the rest rip. It may every well be his own sonic acid trip.

Highway 61 Revisited is as absurd as anything before, and sometimes more. If Dylan’s retelling of the Abraham fable, in which Abraham successfully murders his son along Highway 61 according to God, isn’t enough, the audio cues should clue you in: the title track whirs off in a flurry by starting with a carnival whistle. Midway through the record Dylan drops his most onerous track, “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which belongs more to a concert hall than a rock’n’roll album. And throughout the record, a full chorus of high-flying Korg keys sails over every song. But mostly the additions aim to distract.

Many of the songs on this album are lyrical interpretations of tracks off its predecessor: “Outlaw Blues” becomes “From a Buick 6,” Subterranean Homesick Blues” becomes “Tombstone Blues,” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” gets the full band treatment as “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

For that, Highway 61 possibly becomes the fullest vision of what Dylan may have been too timid to attempt with the half-electric, half-acoustic Bringing It All Back Home released only months prior. The edge is taken off by reducing the mix on the guitars, often just letting the piano and drums lead the way, and the accessory of percussion make it something big, but not eclectic – it fits right in with the busiest of any Beatles album, landing on shelves a mere week after Help! and becoming a key influence for Rubber Soul later that year. Highway 61 Revisited is somehow hip, fanatic, developed, and clean at the same time, and paves the way for a more controlled and tight Dylan that appears on Blonde On Blonde the following year. But my opinion remains unchanged. I never felt like we got the whole Dylan, or that he was somehow hiding a bit in effort to make something more circular.

I’ll take Bringing It… for its daring and vigor, but if there is a single record to point to in Dylan’s career, it is rightfully Highway 61.


Song: Like a Rolling Stone

It couldn’t be anything else.

Day 5 – Bringing It All Back Home – 1965

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on June 27, 2016

 

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I have this one tattooed on my arm. I’ve had a hard time writing about this one now because I can’t take it seriously, for the project. Not because it isn’t serious – the opposite.

It’s the most serious – this was the day Dylan went electric. But – I’ve listened to this record a 1000 times and it is a mantra for me. It is an anthem, unwavering.

The words and the music aren’t as important. The feeling and the knowing that this is a fuck you is. It isn’t more, it isn’t less. We could talk about how he tried to level the anthem by making half of the record acoustic. But that’s the second half. It feels as alien to listen to it now as it ever had the first time, and time again. Especially and even now, when I’ve tried to place it within context of his life and career – there is no context for this.

It starts as it ends: subterranean.

If you want to get it, you gotta go down there with him.

Down on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government.

I will be in nothing less than a trance every time I listen, as before as again.


Song: “Maggie’s Farm”

For this: I’ve got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.

Everything before and everything after have never made more sense than that.

Day 4 – Another Side of Bob Dylan – 1964

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on June 25, 2016

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Another Side of Bob Dylan may be only a part of the artist, but it is all apology. Over a year removed from recording his last non-original song, Dylan could now tell a story in full. That story is the beginning of a disconnection from the public. He saw it coming and took his last sane breath to apologize in album form.

From the outset, “All I Really Want To Do” starts the confession – “I ain’t looking to fight with you / frighten you or tighten you / drag you or drain you down / all I really want to do is, baby, be friends with you.”

It’s in part an apology for being previously misunderstood (and possibly and excuse to himself for failing to provoke political change), but its part a greeting as well. This record is overall sweeter, more delicate, more interior – it feels like Dylan is for the first time speaking from directly from his heart and directly from his mind. These well-springs of honesty were not without their inspirations.

After touring The Times The Are a-Changing, Dylan led a 20-day road trip across America, and at some point took his first dose of LSD. He then nearly immediately flew to Europe for tour, but finished by recording this album, which he tracked most of in Greece while staying with Nico and her child.

This flurry manifests at the opening of the album’s second side. “Motorpsycho Nitemare” is the psychedelic call to arms the 60s was waiting for – a sweating, hysterically mad story of Dylan shape-shifting through a city akin to a Seuss creation. I instantly recognize it as the first appearance of his sing-song rapping that would become iconic on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home in the form of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” (both of which are a personal favorite and something I can’t wait to explore next). It would be copied again and again throughout his career, and I’m seeing now for the first time how Another Side is the jumping off point.

No wonder then that the record closes as it opens. If you didn’t hear him apologize at the beginning when he said who he was and you’ve become confused by where he’s going, don’t look back for him to return. For that, he signs off “it ain’t me, babe, you’re looking for.”


Song: Black Crow Blues

I’ve been listening to Dylan for half of my life, but never before this project have I been so shocked by a piano. After three days of acoustic guitar, this song is a like a gong in Dylan’s pocket, the first time he used something besides his guitar and harmonica. I’d never heard it before, and while it becomes the same lyrical melody he uses next on Bringing It for “On The Road Again,” it’s use here is intrepid and fearless, and sets the tone for a record of a different kind.

Day 3 – The Times They Are a-Changin’ – 1963

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on June 24, 2016
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That eternal jeer.

Bob Dylan can say whatever he wants about his music. We know enough about the man 50-years on to seek subtext for his reasons and public opinions. So when he said in 1964 upon the release of this, his third record, that the songs were “just what the people seemed to want to hear,” we know the opposite is true.

Possibly spurned on by increasing success, Times becomes in full what the predecessors were not: shameless opposition. The first record to have all original music was also his most cohesive and clear to date – the times need changing.

The now ubiquitous opening track of the same name sets the stage for a dark, nearly apocalyptic effort full of tales ranging from slave trades to WWII, all bound by the colorful descriptions of how a country’s decisions are each equally earmarked with mistakes. The use of irony and satire are at the storyteller’s fullest exhibition and evoke the only time we can be certain that Dylan displayed, publicly and through his music, who he thought and hoped to be at the outset.

My immediate impression is a man of confidence. Where before he used metaphor and jolly, there is here no more subterfuge. In discussing our society’s empirical exceptionalism, Dylan maps the history of his own youth filled with doubt and second-guessing, “Oh my name means nothing / My age means less / the country I come from is called the Midwest / I’s taught and brought up there / the laws to abide / and the land I live in / has God on its side.”

After exposing the false historical narrative of the Germans as now forgiven, as if the Holocaust never occurred, and similarly deriding our unnecessary opinion of the Russians as enemy, he traverses throughout the record on what we know about black identity, economic inequality, and individual powerlessness. Each still struggles today, discussed here all of 53 years ago.

But I don’t think he yet felt powerless himself. By now he had debuted with Joan Baez at New York’s Town Hall and appeared on the BBC. His music, in all its forms, was giving him platform.

I suspect he had a combination of being too ahead of his time, and tragically too cynical to see it out. And I know that his next record just a year later is titled Another Side of Bob Dylan. It probably is after all too much a burden to be the only one who sees so clearly, and have no one listen. And so he changes.


Song: With God On Our Side

I mean, seriously: “The First World War, boys / It came and it went / The reason for fighting / I never did get / But I learned to accept it / Accept it with pride / For you don’t count the dead / When God’s on your side.”

The playlist now features each song from the records, including Tomorrow Is A Long Time from his unreleased demos prior to the debut album.

Day 2 – Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1963

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 24, 2016

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I am intimately familiar with this record, as it was the first Dylan record I bought at the age of 15. I just don’t think I knew where else to start, and I remember seeing it featured in Vanilla Sky. At the time I was enamored by seeing this man, then only a boy, walking sweetly down a snow-covered street with his love, thinking it emblematic of an America I never knew, the America that may have last fostered endless possibilities and true love. The record reflects this in melody, in contrast to the doomed first release. But true to title, Dylan already knew what I’m just learning.

Freewheelin’s legacy exists in giving us his most cherished, and closely relatable, protests – Masters of War, Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – which over the years have become the mantel for 60’s nostalgia. Forty years later these tracks were the reason this record was the only American musical recording accepted in full into the Library of Congress National Audio Archive’s inaugural collection. Likewise, Girl From The North Country remains his sweetest romance. For these and others, Freewheelin’s is scattered and scattershot, and only now I recognize the power of the name.

The artist was exploring his music.

I do not think he was exploring any thematics. After offering only two original songs in the first release, the second album contains 11 originals, many of which top 5-minutes in duration. Further, there is little change in Dylan’s fears – we are Talkin’ World War III Blues, and get Bob Dylan’s First Dream. It’s only through his developing craftsmanship as a musician that he grows stronger.

Only the strongest conviction could make a man sing, without subtlety, to his politicians: “the money you make cannot buy back your soul, and I hope that you die.” Think, will you, have you ever heard someone directly sing for someone’s death? How even in the worst moments of political history, we’ve rejoiced with hope as much as we have with mourning? But never before had I heard this kind of curse, in earnest. I believe Dylan said what he meant.

This is all, for me, in hindsight. I was not there when he said it, and can only imagine the power he thought, or had hoped, to wield. I’d never really listened the other 100 times I’d heard him say it, but then I wasn’t engaged with the meaning nor cared to agree. This appears to be the case fifty years over for all those that ever listened. But now as an older man, I’m frightened to hear the words as truth, and more frightened to think that it did little to change the world, then as now.

Dylan knew this before he said it. While there still exists clearly the man who wants to change the world, we’re greeted by Corrina, Corrina and long away the gravity of death-wishing subsides to facsimile, metaphor, satire, and absurdity. Only Bob Dylan can call his closing epic I Shall Be Free and sing Well, I took me a woman late last night / I’s three-fourths drunk she looked alright / ‘til she started peelin’ off her onion gook / She took off her wig said, “How do I look?” / I’s high flyin’, bare naked, out the window… / Well, sometimes I might get drunk / walk like a duck and smell like a skunk / Don’t hurt me none, don’t hurt my pride / ‘cause I got my little lady right by my side / she’s a tryin’ a-hide pretending… she don’t know me…

Freewheelin’ indeed.


Song pick: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

When so much of the world’s music is about making love, it’s exceptional to hear such a lovely melody about being in love instead with ramblin’.

Day 1 – Bob Dylan – 1962

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 22, 2016

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This is the first in what will be a daily entry for a series I’m calling A Dylan A Day, where I’ll be listening to each of Bob Dylan’s studio albums and major releases in sequence. I’m unsure what I’ll learn, but it very possibly might be a discovery about myself. Maybe that’s what I’m hoping.

In My Time of Dying appears quickly, violently early on the eponymous debut of Robert Zimmerman, Bob Dylan. I came into this with early notion of Dylan as poet, author, and storyteller, though gifted already with a guitar, he, as we perceive him, was first a bard. With the fact that he did first appear at the Witmark Studio to record and sell music, songs, tunes, I can’t completely dispel the idea that he never intended to be remembered foremost as a musician. What I do know after a full listen of the first release is that he was a man full of fear.

Half originals, half traditionals, the selection all full of death and dying – Man of Constant Sorrow, In My Time of Dying, House of the Rising Sun, finishing with Be Sure that My Grave Is Kept Clean. He speaks often like Whitman of America, Colorado via train and the mountains. I’m unsure if he had ever seen them before these songs made the record, and surely New York Livin’ is closest to his life at the time. But I could be wrong.

He could actually have always had a heart for the frontier. More though I think the frontier was the fever dream that is shared by many of our greatest artists, dreamt up while filling with the fear of dying young in a dark concrete world of sadness. Whatever he was trying to say though, it seems not enough were listening.


Song: Baby, Let Me Follow You Down

There Is So Much Static

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on June 6, 2016

There is so much static that can fill you in

If you let it.

 

Let it flow and flow and

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech

Quietly as a ringing in your ear.

‘Fore you know it, ten years by,

and still with the static.

 

Like waking up to a floor

Of beer bottles and empty beds

In half-lit motels

On nowhere highways.

 

But if the sky gets wide enough

On drives long enough

To the hills where no one lives

There the static lowers to a dull

Replaced by fresh air.

 

Breathe deep the pines

Sit high on vistas

Stare at the valley below

And swat away the noise like flies

 

The flies they are

 

Brought in with the rain

But this season too will pass

And give way to summer.

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