T for Tom

Day 15 – Before The Flood – 1974

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 7, 2016



This is revitalization. We don’t even need to look past the initial reviews for Before The Flood, chiefly among The Village Voice, declaring it the “greatest live album in rock’n’roll, if ever.” Retrospective reviews have done little to change that early opinion.

As part of his new contract with Asylum Records, Bob Dylan embarked on a reunion tour with The Band immediately recording Planet Waves. I say immediately after recording, because the intent was to release the record and then go on tour for promotion, but the gang hit the road a bit early. Likewise, none of Planet Waves made it into the eventually double-LP here, and I can only suspect that these differences in opinion led to Dylan’s near-immediate return to Columbia records the following year. But in spite of all this, it is rock’n’roll incarnate.

Over the century spanning the history of modern popular music, many opinions of what defines rock’n’roll exist and continue to be debated today. But I think, and I feel, that no one can deny the reverence given to an artist who performs their music on a live stage in a fit of hysteria, beaming the music upward to the stratosphere and beyond. Before The Flood is exactly this. The setlist is comprised of both tracks from Dylan and The Band, respectively, but only eight of the 24 are awarded to The Band, and those come sandwiched in-between, neither leading nor closing the album. This is intentional.

Along the way we’re given the fastest, rowdiest, gnarliest interpretations of Dylan’s classics yet, and classics there were (- each song prior to this stage had already entered the lore of American tradition. “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “It’s Ain’t Me, Babe,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” are among the many songs reworked into a frenzy on this album. Only at the start of the fourth side, after a consecutive string of every song by The Band, do we get a trio of Dylan tracks played solo – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” and “Just Like A Woman” – even these are given a new fit and flurry.

During this time Dylan was quoted often as saying that not only was done with the “Speaker of a Generation” tag, he in fact never owned it. And while we’re quick to accept these fantastic new versions of songs that had been cherished for a decade or more, I’m not quick to deny that this was just another reason for Dylan to say I am not who I used to be. And that’s a familiar refrain throughout the history of rock’n’roll, if not all of literature, poetry, and modern history as know it.

Maybe I have the privilege of immediacy as I continue through this catalog day by day, but Dylan seems to be telling us that nothing will ever be same again. Looking backward this is fine, but at the time it could’ve seemed jarring. But we’re not the artist, and he too isn’t sure he ever was.

All you can do is rock and roll.

Song: “Ballad of a Thin Man”

This is one of the strongest songs in his repertoire, but for me it always rang a little hollow until now. First appearing on “Highway 61 Revisited,” it finally comes to life here in a robust 6/8 swing played as fast as possible, to the point that Dylan just ends up screaming most of the words. Fantastic.


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