T for Tom

On Plans

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on December 2, 2017

The least flawed. 

I remember when looking up from the television in my dorm room when the voice called out. The door was open because that’s how I listen to music, but also because that’s how I wanted people to hear my music, to acquiesce. The voice was female and in a split second the mind wanders, who is this, what does she look like, will she like me, what am I wearing, what do I say, before computing the question “Have you heard the new album?” and, not knowing that one existed, answering with “Oh, when did it come out?”

Transatlanticism had been playing through the speakers, loudly, out into the hallway of the 11th floor of the Jester East dormitory, a building that housed 4,000 underclassman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time in 2005 when that total was more than the population of my hometown. The album by Death Cab for Cutie had come out just two years prior, and in my adolescent state of education in the sweet, sweet, late teenage years, I had selfishly neglected to listen to it: it was adored by some people within my realm of influence that I frankly didn’t like, and rejected it on the basis of keeping myself at arms reach. Now, just three months after graduating high school, I myself could acquiesce and consume this album on my own, for in that short period of time I had already moved away from home, moved into a place of my own, and started a new life. This day, the day the girl called into my room from the hallway of our co-ed dormitory, was only two weeks into that new life, and this was a moment I remember: things are different now.

There weren’t any decorations on the walls of my cubed room yet, and I don’t think I was wearing a shirt. I was playing with the cords that connected the stereo resting on a steel tower that contained as a totem pole the refrigerator I shared with my roommate, the television I brought from home, and on top the speakers that I was using to blast indie music throughout the hall. It wasn’t much, but it was home now, and it didn’t keep this girl from stopping on her way to her own room.

She was beautiful, was my first thought. And she’s asking me a question in fondness, in bonding. I don’t know this person, but we have shared musical tastes, which is enough to call out to others, it seems. It was such a surreal sequence to be in a place for the first time, here among strangers, and have simple, friendly conversations for the first time. As before I had rejected a piece of music because I disliked the people who recommended it, here I didn’t the girl and could take her suggestions swiftly, and she was gorgeous.

“It came out a couple days ago,” she said. “Come down to room 1156 and I’ll let you borrow the CD.”

The serendipity that swelled inside of me couldn’t be matched, the thought of this person so casually opening their self to me, just to share a piece of music that we had in common. In the few minutes that passed between throwing on a shirt and walking down the hallway, all sorts of ideas can pop into your head: does she study the same degree I am, is she involved in my groups, will I see her again, what’s her schedule like, will we become friends, am I going to hang out with her right now, would she like to get lunch tomorrow, and more. But I rounded the long corner and came to her door a few ways down, which was propped open also. She saw me in the threshold before I could speak and had the CD ready on her desk. She rose to pass it to me. “Just bring it back whenever you’re done.” She started to turn, but caught herself. “Oh, sorry, I’m Elisa by the way.” She quickly turned and began busying herself as if nothing could bother her, and these things just happened. I took the gift back to my room and set about adding the album to my digital library.

The album was called Plans, whose monument to time I still adore. Plans. They never seem to go the way we imagine.


That was September 2, 2005, a Friday. I took the CD back to Elisa that day and we crossed paths a few times more throughout the semester and the year we spent on the same floor of the L-shaped hallway, the males on one bend and the females on the other. A few people toward the middle took the effort to become the party-room for the entire floor and I was always invited every time they passed by continually open doorway, music playing out. But by then I had made friends of my own and extended the reach of my influence beyond those I was coincidentally living near. But that day always lasts, and probably definitely because of the album, its themes, and its body of work.


It starts with a single, hollow chord rasping away from a static filled organ, like a church hymn rising slowly in low-fidelity. Soon another chord rises higher, and the third starts quickly with after with a mood that is both familiar and warm, a rush of emotion starting instantaneously: this sounds like all the things I’ve ever head before with all the things I could never imagine, at once. A chance at something new. Knowing the name of the opening track, Marching Bands of Manhattan, places an even larger emphasis on the sublime. Like marching bands in Times Square, we hope for the same grandeur in our own existence. Plans.

Coincidentally for me, this came at exactly that time my life resembled such assembly. The album remains for me, by definition, the least flawed I’ve ever heard. From start to finish, there are no moments of complaint. Death Cab for Cutie was, unbeknownst to me at the time, an already decade old band that was just finding their footing in the mainstream, and I think looking back creating an entire sub-genre of music that now fills record stores and radio waves. But where Transatlanticism opened the door, Plans made everything possible. It is canon.

Plans encapsulates through its lyrical and musical combination the truest centers of both crescendo and nuance. It manages to both swell rapturously and remain rooted in the heart at the same time, balancing a growth of emotion so intense that we are super-welmed, while sounding throughout like our favorite song that we’ve heard thousands of times. It can manage to give us new emotions upon every listen while continuing to bring up the same old memories. I believe its longevity persists for the purpose that our lives are the same in each moment: all the time unknown ahead with all the time behind following still. Plans does not deviate from your existence. It is the least flawed.

Song to song, upon every listen and even now as I write this, I restructure my favorite moments. Halfway through the album with the playing of Your Heart Is an Empty Room, begins a description of a room burned down and the ashes still smoldering. And just as we hear that the room is our own heart, a rising, hopeful two-note echo emerges from the guitar that replaces any tension with a sound that defines our new beginning. That simple, two-note rapture is one of my favorite moments in the album, and it defines the ability of each, or the album in total, to rise up so ceremoniously, and yet be actual nothing at the same time: compositionally the rhythm and the melody do not change, and yet you feel moved. There are many more moments like this on the album. It is Death Cab’s burst of light into the darkness, and their hope for the future.

And just as Plans fractures near the end, asking, “who’s going to watch you die?” we are greeted again with crescendo, again with nuance. I simply cannot understand how someone, this band and its members, can find such a way to do so much with seemingly so little. Waiting for the crescendo at the end of What Sarah Said, we are swept away in the rising fortissimo of the end. And yet, again, compositionally, nothing really happens. Instead of climbing the mountain, we are merely swept away to some unknown end, as if choosing to drift out to sea. And it feels like home.

Before the end, we are imposed: “I’m not who I used to be.” That is the way it goes of making plans.

And so, Plans remains the least flawed in all its individual moments and in each in total sequence. The same can be said for all the lives still living with plans of their own.


Looking Back On Bob Dylan

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Prose by johnsontoms on August 2, 2016

2016-06-22 13.25.28.jpg

If we just look at the man’s best work, we can easily ascribe him the traits of a Titan. Like legends, myths, and even gods, they transcend above the level of relation to become superhuman. These are the immediate significations of Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and surely are deserved.

But looking back at it all, if you can find the time to go through every one of the pieces of work, the artist is reduced to their human qualities. Bob Dylan, like Picasso or Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Newton or Einstein or Plato or Johnny Cash, is a human being; he experiences the same range of love, hate, bitterness, regret, happiness, success, and learning that should be welcome to any modern human being lucky enough to live a full life. It’s what they do with those emotions, spread out over time, that separates the legends from the men. But we are all surely men.

  1. Bringing It All Back Home – 1965
  2. Blood On The Tracks – 1975
  3. Blonde On Blonde – 1963
  4. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1966
  5. Modern Times – 2006
  6. The Basement Tapes – 1975
  7. Highway 61 Revisited – 1965
  8. Another Side of Bob Dylan – 1964
  9. John Wesley Harding – 1967
  10. Tempest – 2012

Bob Dylan’s greatest albums stand alone above the rest of the crowd. They are the works of genius that will live on forever, and for their greatness the remainder of his output will succeed in longevity as well. Ranging from the direct to the surreal, Dylan finds a way to syphon from life its truest and most mysterious meanings, leaving us with a direction that can be found in Guernica or the Mona Lisa or Newton’s Laws.

And like the best, his work is symbolic and derivative of his own life. Henry Miller wrote the best essays and novels I’ve ever read, because they are subtracted from his own life. And his most cherished, Creative Death, succeeds in discussing the merits of the greatest works of art: that those who create for us the finest pieces of beauty are utter disciples of the balance of life and death, together – “that life leads only to death cannot be avoided…” that “to seize all of life we must seize all of death.” This can be found by working with the experiences that are befallen to us as individuals.

2016-07-12 02.39.16.jpg

Bob Dylan took his life as an insignificant Midwesterner and established a prose for the whole of the country, and eventually the world. If he had a more succinct set of experiences, or a more stressful existence, his art might have been more pointed. And for it he was able to speak to the general mass, and tackle the significant issues at large. It wasn’t until he himself had struggles, those of being famous and in demand, that his music lingered into the abstract. But even still, his music progressed and changed and bettered itself – the mark of a genius is his ability to practice and improve. Nothing more.

  1. Oh Mercy – 1989
  2. Shadows In The Night – 2015
  3. Saved – 1980
  4. Infidels – 1983
  5. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – 1964
  6. Desire – 1976
  7. Self-Portrait – 1970
  8. Time Out of Mind – 1997
  9. Before The Flood – 1974
  10. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – 1973

He was never the greatest instrumentalist, and never mastered his guitar or his harmonica. But he knew that it wasn’t important, so long as he continued to say and be the person that could stand on higher ground, even if he was misunderstood. For all the mystery he presented, it was his confidence and assuredness that brought about our affection and zeal. Even as he struggled with his fame, he never struggled with his release, manifested through his music.

As his personal hardships increased relative to his fame, the music became the focus. But like those masters before him, he couldn’t forego his strongest subject – himself. Even as he moved onto Nashville Skyline and New Morning and into the gospel years, we saw Blood On The Tracks and Desire. The only thing he knew how to do and to do well, was speak from the heart.


His progression as a human being worked to expel the things he could devote his attention to, moving from the world while a hopeful and impassioned youth on into the personal issues of middle age and fatherhood. And even while the public demanded for works that spoke to them when it meant they needed a savior, we found out over the years that what we needed most, was music that described the things we all went through – heartbreak.

It could be heartbreak from love, or heartbreak from life, but the recognition that this life will not serve you your dreams, is the source for all our troubles. And so it is that “Simple Twist of Fate” can make most anyone with a heart cry. Again: life and death cannot be separated.

  1. Hard Rain – 1976
  2. New Morning – 1970
  3. Love and Theft – 2001
  4. Nashville Skyline – 1969
  5. MTV Unplugged – 1995
  6. Planet Waves – 1974
  7. Fallen Angels – 2016
  8. Together Through Life – 2009
  9. Bob Dylan – 1962
  10. Street Legal – 1978

For as much as he changed, I can say that one thing remained constant – he never really wrote a bad song. I’ve put together a full order of the albums, by my liking, and I can say with absolute assurance that anything above 30 is a great record and worth a listening. Those ranked 31-40 aren’t even horrible, but simply don’t measure up to this otherworldly standard.


You’ll notice that those albums at the bottom all came between 1970 and 2000, with none before or after those dates. Most even, from 1980 to 2000. It was the only period that Dylan didn’t write music for himself. Having come out of his divorce, losing his children, and losing the faith of his fanbase, he tried to write music that people could like. This, of course, was a complete contradiction to everything before, and proved to be his weakest material. Bob Dylan never did anything because people liked it. In fact, quite the opposite.

  1. Real Live – 1984
  2. Slow Train Coming – 1979
  3. Empire Burlesque – 1985
  4. Good As I Been To You – 1992
  5. World Gone Wrong – 1993
  6. Under The Red Sky – 1990
  7. Shot of Love – 1981
  8. Knocked Out Loaded – 1986
  9. Down In The Groove – 1988
  10. Dylan – 1973

In his late age, he resurrected like a phoenix because he tapped into death – there was nothing left for him, in old age, except his music. And somewhere, though I don’t know the circumstances, he set about to keep the ideas together. Most of those records from 1997 on are near the top of this list, and some within the top 10 and top 5. By then, his heart had been broken. And he knew that only life could exist because it would end on down the line.

That’s the lesson to take from a full retrospective of a man’s work. Like studying all the paintings of Rembrandt, it takes a full read on his life and his habits and the circumstances that the artist goes through. What you’ll see is that no one is any different than you and I.

But the greats – they find the time to be great. Bob Dylan used his time only in that way.

I am extremely glad that I spent this time studying and listening to a true inspiration. Where others failed before him to represent the entirety of life, Bob Dylan never failed to discuss life as whole – one of success and tragedy, both. There was never anything to hide with him. I can only hope that I might show the good and the bad. Anything more fantastic is false, but anything more negative isn’t hopeful enough.


There’s a lot to say about spending 40 days listening to a single record by a single artist, chronologically until complete. But I won’t spend all the time in discussion of the act, and simply relate a few things.

It’s at first exciting, then overwhelming, meddlesome, exhausting, and rewarding, in that order. I started out looking forward to what I would learn, before realizing how it would impact my habits every day, until I let my daily habits get in the way of my goal, before sticking to my guns and dealing with the trouble I’d awarded myself, only to become extremely pleased and thankful to myself for having done something creative, if not important.

Even more, I think I’ve learned more about myself than I could have Bob Dylan. That’s something I can recommend, if you can deal with the rest.

Day 40 – Fallen Angels – 2016

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 31, 2016



This has been the most beautiful, surprising, and peaceful way to end this retrospective. Fallen Angels and Shadows In The Night, both. One follows the other, and neither is forsaken for it.

Fallen Angels, like Shadows, consists of 12 tracks, all but one of which was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra. The difference this time around, and immediately noticeable in mood, is that the tracks selected for Fallen Angels were all written by Johnny Mercer. What’s that mean? Think of this record as Dylan’s Nat King Cole to his own previous Sinatra.

It’s lighter, airier, has more bounce. It’s like coming out of the fog. When the two records are played in sequence (as I have), you can really feel the air let out of your clinched lungs. It’s a sigh of relief.

Additionally, the music is once again supreme. I think that’s the greatest indictment on these two records, and why they stand out so well. It’s music that sound anachronistic and out of time. And yet, this album is only five months old, recent, fresh, modern. This is new music. And what it proves is that no one makes music like this anymore. To hear Bob Dylan do it sounds to my ears like the first time its been done. That of course is false.

Like any of the previous, oh say, five records, there’s a sure tip of the hat to the past. But with Angels, its not even a tip – this is straight up mimicry. But for his voice, which is extremely unique if not downright blasphemous at times, and the tender touch that his band gives the music, it emerges like something never done before, even though its pulled right out of 1960.

I don’t think it was meant to be anything special or ornate or gigantic. It’s meant to be exactly what it is, and that’s a little bit of time spent singing the songs that people used to cherish.

These are the songs that should live on forever. Bob Dylan was just the first to notice, and now stands as the catalyst by which the songs, and he too, become infinite.

What a career.

Song: “Skylark”

If you can find it, “Skylark” is the sweetest, most tender track from the album, with a beautiful guitar solo to end. But Fallen Angels isn’t available on Spotify.


Day 39 – Shadows In The Night – 2015

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 30, 2016



What fantastic design.

I am full of regret that I had glossed over Shadows In The Night upon its release, because it’s incredible. I mean truly beyond belief, unbelievable that at the age of 73, Dylan can resurrect his voice and outdo Frank Sinatra at his own game. Shadows consists of ten songs all originally recorded by Sinatra, but on the strength of the arrangements and the performance of the band (again), it comes out on top. Moreover, it speaks for his age, his wisdom, and seems like something he’s been destined to do ever since he reincarnated as the Phoenix some years ago.

As a fan of Frank Sinatra’s early years spent with Nelson Riddle, before moving on to swing and jazz, this album truly speaks to me. The selection of the tunes and the treatment that each is given jerks at the strings of the heart and pulls on the wisdom of time.

This album is about the voice, as it should be, and seems like a terrible idea. This was the reason that I just, honestly, never listened to it. Even though I purchased Tempest upon release and cherished it for its languishing tales, it was the coarsest performance of his dwindling vocal abilities yet. The idea of that same voice, like a slow crawl across a concert floor, doing covers of Frank Sinatra was just too much for me to consider. But its done with finesse, class, and sincerity.

It sounds like Bob Dylan is actually speaking for himself again, in the same way that “Sara” closed off Desire, and how Blood On The Tracks is all truth. It can only make sense. He’s 28 years into the Never Ending Tour and continues to shell out albums like its passing out candy for him. But at the age of 75 after a life lived hard, there comes a moment of introspection that must make him wonder, how much longer? How much deeper and further can I go before its over?

These questions can only lead to here, to Shadows In The Night. Like Frank Sinatra Sings Only For The Lonely, these are the albums that must be listened to in quiet, mostly alone, with only your thoughts and, worse, your memories to keep you company. It’s the sound of life gone by, the reflection. Naturally, the cover features Bob Dylan sitting in the Thinking Man pose facing left – staring back.

And really, nothing makes me cry like songs like these. Empty, hollow, with only a drooping trombone and the occasional trumpet spur to greet our ears, I feel older just with a listen. But I also feel better.

I am not alone as I go through this life: there are always shadows in the night to walk alongside.

Song: “What’ll I Do?”

It’s hard to pick a single song off this record, some for their similarity, some for they’re all great. I find this one to be most on point, “what’ll I do when I am wondering who is kissing you?”

Day 38 – Tempest – 2012

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


Another bit of speculation led to people thinking that Tempest might be Bob Dylan’s last record, because Shakespeare’s last play was titled “The Tempest.” Bobby struck this down saying emphatically, “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain “Tempest”. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.” Whatever, man.

Of course he’s written more records since, but Tempest comes as a charge, a dark reach into the ether. Furthermore, I can say that it’s the strongest collection of stories he’s written since the start of his career.

Chief among them is the title-track, a thirteen-minute screed on watching people react to the sinking of the Titanic, “some nobly, some horribly, when put to the ultimate test.” It can rightly be called an allegory for today’s fate, as it sings and swims over the waltzing melody, like a carnival eulogy for fools. There are other great stories among the songs, and it feels again like he’s gotten hold of that chord inside him whereabout he wrote such classics as “Bear Mountain Picnic” and the “The John Birch Society Blues.”

For the strength inherent in tapping into his best work, we’re given a surprisingly great album. The split opinion of all the critics ranges from “among his best work” to the “best album of his late career.” I can see both sides of the argument.

Like Modern Times, the sound is direct and on point – the voice comes through strong, even though it sounds like leather these days. Where Together Through Life had just a bit too much arrangement going on, there’s only the sweeping dancehall tunes to greet us on this harrowing record.

It’s another achievement in art and sound, as well, as the duotone photograph on the cover depicts the face of the Moldau goddess of the Pallas-Athene Fountain in front of the Vienna congressional hall. More interestingly, it’s an edit of a photograph he found on someone’s personal Shutterstock, and not a professionally contracted work of photography. Nonetheless, the striking cursive TEMPEST across the top with a beautiful, subtle yellow script of his name in a simple Times New Roman font. It carries that fateful feeling, like the stories within.

And that’s the summary of life, according to Bob Dylan. Storms and shelters.

Song: “Pay In Blood”

I had put “Duquesne Whistle” here because it gets me dancing, but “Pay In Blood” is the best track that symbolizes Tempest, and it’s a damn good song. The drop groove heading into the chorus gets me every time.

Day 37 – Together Through Life – 2009

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



With his legend solidified and his status certain, Bob Dylan returns again to the true source of his complexity, lost love. Together Through Life features ten songs about heartache, longing, and spite. And while some things come back around, some things are still new.

And by new, I mean there’s an accordion on the entire record. The whole thing. But its not out of place, as the whole album carries a saloon feel from the bard on the stool singing to the sad, lonely crowd. And in spite of its weight, there’s a feeling of resignation, as though the end is near or arrived and life will carry on anyway.

It’s a fitting feeling after all, having reestablished himself so well in the previous ten years. Here on out it feels like Bob Dylan is going to keep carrying on. With what, we can’t be sure, but we’ll know he’s going to keep doing it.

This time there are backing performances from members of the Heartbreakers again, and all but two of the songs were co-written with a member of the Grateful Dead. But what I enjoy most in this late stage career move, is the combination of art and sound.

There’s a photo on the album cover of two lovers intertwined in the backseat of a car, the male without a shirt on staring out the back window. The picture was taken off the cover of a collection of short stories, but borrowing is unimportant and even less surprising by now. It could mean a lot of things, but pictured in black and white it gives a representation of the past, ghosts of loves before. You can see in it the feeling that for awhile everything was right, and good, and together in place.

We hear the stories then and are implied to “say hello to Mary-Ann” if we ever go to Dallas, and tell “her sister Lucy [he’s] sorry” if we ever go to Houston. Travelin’ isn’t new to this story teller, or any American storyteller for that matter. Some people just can’t stop moving.

And for all the places it goes, it never loses touch with gratitude. There’s not one song that doesn’t leave you with the feeling of satisfaction, and I’m left wondering if he actually made it together through life with someone, or was just grateful that he got to try. Unimportant, I guess.

Song: “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”

This sounds like old love, and talks like life: “I feel a change comin’ on, And the fourth part of the day’s already gone.”


Day 36 – Modern Times – 2006

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


Modern Times coasts near to perfection. I want to get that out of the way, to let you know. In case you’ve never listened to it, go now and do so immediately. A couple facts to back that up: it was Bob Dylan’s first number-one-charting record in 30 years since 1976’s Desire, and went number one in a total of 11 countries, including Germany, Canada, Australia; it sold over 4-million copies in the first two months after release, and has sold over 6-million copies total; and Dylan won his 7th and 8th Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Rock Vocal Performance (no seriously, he won for his voice). It remains one of his highest acclaimed albums, and is worthy of all praise. I’ve been waiting for today ever since I started this retrospective, and finally I can see it for more than the record I already loved – Modern Times is validation.

It hits you like lightning from the start, as the “Thunder On the Mountain” kicks off with a booming, rolling introduction of guitar and drum before giving way to that outlaw country rhythm. It sounds like the prairie, but feels like triumph. Within the first opening seconds, listeners can immediately tell – something’s different here. But man, it’s confident.

Where Dylan was trying to recreate something with both Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he manages to recapture something with Modern Times – quite possibly the spirit of America. This album is notably the first record to feature original artwork not including his face since Knocked Out Loaded, and the blurred taxi itself speaks volumes for how in-touch this record is, with one foot planted squarely in the past and the other moving forward. Iconography like this reinforces the power of the industrial imagination, and even if you don’t believe in the American Dream, it can make your own dreams possible if you embrace it well enough. This is our music, after all. And when you can imagine tales of the frontier west told through cowboy folklore, the idea of a bright light bright city future isn’t far off. The contradiction that naturally exists in filling a record called Modern Times with songs like “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder On the Mountain” feels right – we got to where we are by looking up from where we were, the quintessential mobility narrative.

Most of the album reimagines traditional tunes in foot-shuffling ways, including “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Nettie Moore,” and “Spirit On The Water.” By simply reworking the songs into a two-step, Bob Dylan makes his most commanding vocal appearance since Saved, drifting and swooning easily in and out, high and low through the stories of rainy days and dark skies. “Spirit On The Water” is one of my favorite songs he’s ever sung.

And where the previous records failed, Modern Times succeeds in spades. The sound, as compositionally different as it can seem from his rock’n’roll hits, still comes at you like a Dylan record – his voice upfront with a band that plays to it, and not the other way around.

Every time I hear it I think of that image on the front, and it just all makes sense. Then again, New York exists as an idea to me, having never been there. But if I were to go, I hope it would feel like Modern Times. The kind of New York that exists in the finest American literature, where the people never sleep and the music plays loudly and everyone moves in all directions under dark nights and lamplights and dances to jukebox tunes of jazz in smoke-filled rooms built with American dreams and moving fast into tomorrow. That’s Modern Times.

Song: “The Levee’s Gonna Break”

This song always sounded like the slow motion of a big city at night, which goes hand in hand with the album art.

Day 32 – World Gone Wrong – 1993

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 23, 2016


I’m watching No Direction Home as I write this now, and I can’t help but be repulsed by all these pasty, old, baby-boomer whites eulogize their childhood. There’s a little bit about Bob Dylan, sure, but he’s the only talking about how different he was from their own interpretation. Pete Seegar, Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, Maria Mulraud, even Suze Rotolo, pinning him down the same way all the articles ever did – the speaker of his generation. All the while he’s sitting there talking about the music and denying that he ever had any intention. Joan Baez gets it right, and is the only one, when she quotes a story whereby Bobby sits there with Joan and says “all these years later these people are gonna be writing about what I mean when I don’t mean anything.” Another equally good one comes from Van Ronk, stupidly talking about himself and not Bobby D, but he says “writing about things going on doesn’t make you political.” The rest of the people in this video can get fucked.

Scorsese, who directed this, failed in a big way – he paints a visual story in the same way that everyone got it wrong. There’s a point where Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, & Mary, looks excitedly at the camera talking about the Washington Protest and says, matter-of-factly, “that was the moment when history changed. History actually changed at that moment.” … The only thing that changes is Bobby, and the music along with him. Isn’t that it, the music? The takeaway here is that Bob gets booed off stage after stage in 1965 and ’66, and all the way he’s talking nonsense about what it is, to appease and to piss off all the people who booed and jeered. But nowhere does Scorsese acknowledge why – because Bobby was ahead of the Beatles doing Revolver, ahead of the Stones doing Aftermath, ahead of the Beach Boys doing Pet Sounds, and people just weren’t used to it yet. The target changes but the protest never left.

Following Bob Dylan, in this retrospective, shows me that the spirit of the artist can be broken. We’ll never hear him admit or commit that he did want to make a difference, but we know that his heart was broken, early and quickly. History never changed, it’s just one long line of misery. Brighter lights maybe, but disillusion always. If you thought at any moment that the world changed, it’s personal nostalgia as if you were involved in the fictional mechanics.

But Peter Yarrow was just the man who will always be remembered for covering a song of Bob Dylan’s. The great mind moved on, wrote some songs about this, wrote some songs about that, and after awhile banged out a record of acoustics about a world gone wrong that nobody would listen to.

Song: “World Gone Wrong”

“I can’t be good no more once like I did before.”

Day 30 – Under the Red Sky – 1990

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 22, 2016



The progression leading to Oh Mercy and followed by Under the Red Sky is something like five steps forward, one step back. We’re still way ahead of the entire previous decade, but it feels like our hopes have been left disappointed.

Released in 1990, Under the Red Sky again features a number of prominent guest appearances from Elton John, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Bruce Hornsby, David Crosby, and even Randy Jackson. The music, in spite of its slick production, still results in a record, which audibly, is worth a full listen. The Vaughan brothers give “Unbelievable” and rocking blues depth that Bob Dylan hasn’t really sunk to before, skirting the distortion lows and swinging rhythms of the drums, Texas style. George Harrison drops a beautiful guitar solo in the middle of the title track, and you can hear Elton John peering over a number of tracks with a soaring organ – so much that at the beginning of “Handy Dandy” it sounds like they’re reprising “Like a Rolling Stone.”

But that summarizes what makes Under the Red Sky so damn confounding – it may be the first time that we can say Bob Dylan’s music outshone his writing. Just hear some of the titles: “Wiggle Wiggle,” “Handy Dandy,” “Cat’s In the Well.” Legend has it that the dedication of the album to “Gabby Goo Goo,” his four-year old daughter, prompted the record that turned out to be nearly all nursery rhymes. Seriously: “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup / Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop.” It’s nonsense, I’ll even call it dumb. But what I can’t figure out, is why he would make such great music and give it such shit words. I don’t know.

The man is 27 albums into his career at this point, so it could either be running out ideas or just getting bored. He’s three years into his “Never Ending Tour” at this point, playing on average a show every other day (which is still going on today, seriously, look it up), and probably just rushed out a record in between legs of the tour. In fact, that’s exactly what he said at the time.

But George Harrison? Stevie Ray Vaughan? Elton John? These musicians deserved something so much greater, to record with the Bob Dylan. They made a good album. I’ll dance, but I won’t listen.

Song: “God Knows”

What starts as a groovy rock’n’roll ballad builds up to a certifiably anthemic SRV guitar solo. Approved.

Day 27 – Knocked Out Loaded – 1986

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 18, 2016


There’s a knee-jerk reaction to do something different every time Bob Dylan is faced with adversity. After wearing a metallic sport coat on the cover of 1985’s Empire Burlesque, there’s a noticeable return to the frontier with Knocked Out Loaded the following year. But where Dylan still shines through the false pretenses of Burlesque, there is somehow little to celebrate on its successor.

The entire album just feels contrived and forced, as if he had something to prove so madly that little exhaustion was spent on the music itself. There seems to be an erringly forced pretentiousness pervading throughout, as if he isn’t capable any longer of summoning the west but merely trying to for posterity’s sake. In fact, it’s always felt that way for my generation.

We do know Dylan personally, in fact, as the man of Modern Times, the celebrated 2005 album that cemented his status as American icon. Times is certainly a definitive Dylan record, and one I cherish. It showed for the first time that nearly any genre of music that had been done before, Dylan could do better. And while that moniker has become his modus operandi, it fails his legend in the true aspect that it matter most – even if Dylan could do everyone else’s music better, he exists to be his own man.

That feeling is, for the first time, lost in Knocked Out Loaded. Even if you didn’t like Self-Portrait, it was at least his middle finger response to the critics. Even if you can’t stand the gospel trilogy, it is an unmistakably unique adventure never before seen by the likes of anyone. Loaded just seems like his attempt at saying, “I’m Still Here,” which we all know was never true.

Surprisingly, there’s nearly twice as many musicians present on this album than on Burlesque, which at the time had the most of any Dylan record. A total of 53 artists including returns by The Heartbreakers, The E Street Band, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, including appearances by Tom Petty himself and T-Bone Burnett, among the chorus of others. It gives credence to the large, layered sounds of every song. It creates a contradiction then, when seeing the cover art depicting a wild west fight – a place and time when very little was needed to compose a song.

That isn’t to say that all the music is inherently bad. There are good moments. With Sam Shepard, he wrote “Brownsville Girl,” a bumbling 11-minute song about a girl from Brownsville that reminded him of a Gregory Peck film. It talks of Corpus Christi and all things Texas and Mexico, but has little in the way of melody. But for 11-minutes, it’s the closest thing to Dylan we’ve seen in some years, in terms of story.

Otherwise, Knocked Out Loaded is void of much soul. Sometimes when you’re lost, you can’t throw all the answers together and hope for one to come out clean.

Song: “Brownsville Girl”

It’s a really good story, and it’s feeling is upbeat. It’s the one time he seems genuinely energized by his own music on this album.