T for Tom

Day 27 – Knocked Out Loaded – 1986

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

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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.

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Day 26 – Empire Burlesque – 1985

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 17, 2016

 

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The eighties were weird, man. I’ve been wondering when it would finally catch up to Bob Dylan. While wandering the woods with reverence to heartland rock, it would prove at some point that even this radio fad couldn’t be escaped, and 1985’s Empire Burlesque would prove the one.

As the record started, my first thought was “what is this shit?,” evocative of Christau’s 1970 review of Self-Portrait. But given some time and an appropriate listen, Burlesque calmly requites itself with other great 80s records of the time as good music wrapped into over-production, though admittedly less great than many of the decades best hits.

This is apparently due to the new direction taken by Dylan in recording the record – rather than complete the whole thing in, say, three days, Dylan scored various songs and takes from July 1984 all the way until March 1985, Los Angeles to New York, backing members changing with each session. Members of the E Street Band and the Heartbreakers contributed, and a total of 28 performers are credited on the album. It’s as night and day with some of the songs, which were all produced by Dylan, as the mix and engineering for each are different. Apparently, Dylan just wanted to write and left the sounds to everyone else. Over the course of a year spent in different sessions for each song, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.

As I look for something to hold onto positively, the vocals are still soaring. We’re still a decade out from the mumbling madman of the west. There are great performances, and a few are the standout solos in “Never Gonna Be The Same” and the drumming in “Trust Yourself,” and the composition of “Something’s Burning, Baby,” complete with horn section. It seems to fit the period of time, but like Bob Dylan always did, still somehow float on the fringe.

There are just certain traits about Bob Dylan that can always be expected. And even in the worst of moments, I can still expect his albums to be worth a listen, more so than many of the best works by lesser artists.


Song: “Something’s Burning, Baby”

This is like something from a post-Gabriel Genesis album, but it seems to hold much more weight as a forlorn love song from Dylan. There are other good songs on the record, but this seems to embody the spirit of the album best.

Day 25 – Real Live – 1984

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 17, 2016

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The live records are starting to become gems, documentations of Bob Dylan in time. Why when before he was shedding some of his skin by changing the faces of all his songs, it’s now a delicacy to hear him hit the heart again every now and then. That’s what I think of when I hear the acoustic version of “Tangled Up In Blue” in the middle of Real Live, this 1984 live record.

Seemingly after numerous changes, and a few years now wandering in the woods, there’s still a man who when you least expect it, does something tender and right. This version of “Tangled” is also the first version on a major release to feature the original lyrics – all the same story, but in third person. It’s interesting then in its contradiction, that the released and famous version on Blood On The Tracks would be a rock’n’roll tune, though sung personally in the first person view. Yet here, in London in 1984, “Tangled” actually gets the musical treatment it deserves – sung heartbreakingly alone by a single man – yet he detaches himself by becoming a narrator, not the man in the story. Just another way to distance himself from the truth.

Sonically, the album is as sure as any live performance since Before The Flood, standing lightyears above Budokan, which I gladly omitted. Featuring backing performances from Mick Taylor (of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Rolling Stones fame), Ian McLagan (of Small Faces fame), and produced by Glyn Johns (producer of every rock’n’roll record ever), it comes together strong and tells a good story.

The album is short but powerful. Comprised of only 10 tracks, it does a good job to reinvigorate Dylan’s famous early past while still featuring standout track “License to Kill” from the most recent LP, Infidels, with strong middle tracks in between.

And yet, I keep coming back to “Tangled,” and the penultimate track “Girl From The North County,” which also gets the acoustic treatment. Neither are too fast, too rapid, or too overblown with his harmonica. The focus on each is the voice and the feeling that the Dylan you love is still alive and well.

Have you ever shaken an old friend’s hand for the first time in a long time? This record feels like that.


Song: “Tangled Up In Blue”

New favorite version of a favorite song.

Day 20 – Street-Legal – 1978

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 12, 2016

 

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There’s a lot of symbolic iconography on the cover of Street-Legal, Dylan’s eighteenth (…18th!) studio album. He stands on the last step of a stoop, looking outward to the street in anticipation of something or someone arriving. And in his hands, folded up and not worn, is the jacket from the cover of Blonde On Blonde. Sea change.

Boasting the fullest, most arranged compositions of his career so far, Street-Legal is woefully pop, verging on Springsteen. It is still unmistakably Dylan, but there’s a full chorus of females backing every word, and the songs take on a nearly church-like build. This too would be relevant as Dylan’s words and themes became intensely more rich with biblical overtones. It would foreshadow the approaching Christianity that Dylan would find following the settlement of his child custody battle, the period that gave us directly gospel albums Slow Train Coming and Saved. But here at least, he was still Dylan’s Dylan.

It is noticeably rushed, jammed into four days of recording while still in court over his children’s custody, and while still cutting film for Renaldo and Clara. The entire record can at times seem like a patchwork quilt, with various styles and musics put together to create something new. After starting with “Changing Of The Guard,” he rolls quickly into a low-rolling blues tune, “New Pony,” before switching again into a waltz, for chrissakes, in “No Time To Think.”

And yet it sounds profoundly confident. The swing and the sway of each of the songs matches the rhythm in his voice that no other Dylan record really hit, save for Blood On The Tracks. As it turns out, the vocals were his most intricate detail during the recording sessions, as a revolving door of singers came and went, even including Katey Sagal of Married with Children fame, before settling on the right set of vocalists. But he had something in mind, and he wanted to find exactly that.

Turns out it he took aim at everything: “Socialism, hypnotism, patriotism, materialism / Fools making laws for the breaking of jaws / and the sound of the keys as they clink / but there’s no time to think.” It’s this rhetoric that soars throughout the record and shows us that even our icons can break. Sometimes there’s just too much on a man’s plate.

Somehow when Dylan had too much, he still made good music.


Song: “New Pony”

Sounds like a badass would.

Day 19 – Hard Rain – 1976

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 12, 2016

 

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We’re only two years removed from Dylan’s first true live record when we’re hit with Hard Rain, the audio version out of a trilogy of documentaries of sorts on Bob Dylan. In a belatedly put-together attempt to document Dylan during his famous Rolling Thunder Revue tour, it was set out to make a film, a fictional film, a live broadcast of an entire concert, and this record. And as the reviews at the time put it, it does come off as unnecessary.

For the perspective of listening to it just three days after the previous, I’m inclined to agree. I do appreciate the overall glam of the entire setlist, and its obvious early on that everything will be played as loudly and rockingly as possible. But what’s missing, and something I feel today just as then, is the overall testament of what made that particular tour such a hit while it was happening.

The Rolling Thunder Revue was a circus event from the outset, a duel headlining gig for Dylan alongside Joan Baez for the first time in 10 years, complete with carnival games and curtains and ringleaders and the whole effect. It was rightly lauded as one of the greatest shows ever in rock’n’roll.

But we don’t get that on the record. There is no presence of Baez playing her own music, and though we get Emmylou Harris in the background throughout, she too doesn’t make the cut for a feature track even after extending what was only supposed to be a single day’s visit to the tour into a week.

I’m thankful that it exists, to put the same live perspective on his newest and greatest tracks from Blood On The Tracks. And even if it comes from my having just listened thru so quickly, I didn’t hear anything that stood out.

The cuts were recorded at the end of the tour, on the second leg that was never originally planned. In between the legs saw the release of Desire, and yet nothing from that highly-acclaimed album made this either.

Hard Rain is good – don’t get it twisted. It’s worth a listening just to see that fantastic cover photo of Dylan’s face. But I didn’t feel like I needed to, and I have a feeling Dylan didn’t either.


Song: “Shelter From The Storm”

The best version of any different version on this album, one that preserved the feeling of the original while still coming off as cool.

Day 18 – Desire – 1976

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 9, 2016

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When I said a week or so back that Dylan likes to put his strongest anthem up front on every record, I keep getting haunted by whether I was intuitively correct or absolutely wrong. Desire does nothing to help this case, as it provides for the first time a song that even Dylan himself couldn’t say wasn’t a protest song. I speak of course about “Hurricane.”

I’m halfway through now with reading Chronicles I, and as a songwriter starts to find structure in a full-length novel, Dylan begins to wax a bit about this and about that. There’s a poignant moment though, and something that he always comes back to throughout the book as he discusses the myriad other songwriters and players he comes across in New York, and that’s his devout faith of the folk song. The particular description I’m speaking of now, he says “to me, folk music gets to the heart of it – that is the whole of life, and that life is lies…” This equation means then that he also believes that folk songs are lies. There is no refutation of this, though he frequently explains cryptically, “it was always only just about the music.” He never meant to protest anything.

“Hurricane” though is different. Telling the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a black boxer who was jailed for the crime of murder, though only specious evidence at best was ever provided by the law enforcement and prosecution. It later became a film some 20 years on, but Dylan was, as he is wont to be, ahead of the curve. There is no mysticism in the lyrics – Carter is named by name, and the song is direct its accusation of the white people involved in keeping a black man in jail. That is something we can all stand against, and Dylan was no less a man to say so.

The rest of the record though, is where the inverse occurs, as the first song again is contrarian to everything that follows. The second track, “Isis,” is one of his all-time bests and tells the mythological modern tale of a sorceress leaving a man divorced and empty and sad. It is probably rightly attributed to his own divorce, and is a continuation of Blood On The Tracks filtered through a rock’n’roll lens.

And that’s the landing point – this is Dylan possibly at his most comfortable. Having now destructed the title of generational speaker, and having now for five years made separatist music, he donned his Rolling Thunder Revue hat, put on some makeup, and took the stars that housed Jimi Hendrix and later Stevie Ray Vaughan – a man solely about his music. For that we get one of his greatest albums, an achievement that wasn’t really hit again until Love and Theft or Modern Times.

It’s no surprise then that the final track is “Sara.” It is the name of his children’s mother, the name of his now former wife.

“Sara, Sara, whatever made you want to change your mind?”

There is no protest. Only a song about life, and this time, for the first time, it isn’t a lie.


Song: “Sara”

For the reasons above.

Day 16 – Blood On The Tracks – 1975

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 8, 2016

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Needing no introduction, I’ve been looking forward to Blood On The Tracks. I can say that in my young adulthood, I went through Bob Dylan purposefully, but I followed the trail set before me. One by one I went from Freewheelin’ to Bringing It All Back Home to Highway 61 and straight to Blood On The Tracks. After those came Blonde On Blonde and the rest, but it was a series of conscious decisions – start with the first, move on to the two most important (which to my knowledge and understanding were like sister albums), and then to the biggest of them all, the least understood, the most enigmatic. The legend of the man persists because of the legend in Blood On The Tracks.

Though Dylan has caustically denied it from the start, Blood On The Tracks is a representation of the dissolution of his marriage, and about looking forward while trying not to look back. From the first mention of Simple Twist of Fate, “They sat together in the park,” over that low and bumblingly sad bass line, that somehow teeters on the verge of acceptance – this song is the strongest crossing of age, wisdom, pain, and forgiveness.

And yet it all happened from a simple twist of fate.

I could go on and on about this record, its power, its strength. But everyone needs to meet it on their own terms. I met it on mine about 10 years ago now, and I keep it there.


Song: “Simple Twist of Fate”

Try not to cry.

Day 15 – Before The Flood – 1974

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

 

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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.

Day 14 – Planet Waves – 1974

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 5, 2016

 

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Now this feels right. It may have taken a bit of fate, but Bob Dylan made right in 1974 with Planet Waves, his first record in full with The Band, as they are known now following their independent departure after years of recording, uncredited, with Dylan as The Hawks.

Mostly electric but all in tune, the album soars. I mean really soars, from the first tip of “One A Night Like This” all the way through revival balladry of “Wedding Song” at the end. But it’s what happens along the way that proves why Dylan was so eternal in the first place.

This whole project came about nearly four years after Dylan’s last true LP and some eight years since he quit touring because one of the old band members, lead singer Robbie Robertson moved into his neighborhood in California, sparking a nostalgic trip into the recording studio. For good old times’ sake. Once the studio was booked, Dylan flew off to New York to spend some time writing, coming back to Malibu with a book of songs that would eventually complete Planet Waves.

Anyone will immediately notice an oddity present in the middle of the record, an oddity that would go on to become Dylan’s most endearing musical charge – that being “Forever Young.” The song is present in two forms, titled the same on the album jacket but loosely published as “Slow Version” and “Fast Version,” giving the listener exactly what each promise. The song had been around a few years now and Dylan demoed it numerous times without settling on a version he liked best. It’s no wonder then that two versions appear, and without seeming incorrect or heavy handed at all. Everyone should know exactly why that is, or learn now if you don’t already.

“May you grow up to be righteous / May you grow up to be true / May you always know the truth / And see the lights surrounding you / May you always be courageous / Stand upright and be strong / May you stay forever young.”

After trying out about a dozen different versions, the slow version was included at the insistence of album producer Rob Frabroni, while the fast version, the last recorded on an extra day when Dylan thought he finally had it, made the record on Dylan’s. Each have their merits, each are timeless.

In its slow form, “Forever Young” is a cry for peace, a hymn for the forlorn and a prayer to the heavens. It hangs with the most important of American ballads, folk songs, and fairy tales. It’s imploring, wishful, and comes off as a beggar on the streets would at the doors of a church. Dylan seems to be singing for the whole world, like a plea, and the audience is urged to fulfill its promises.

In its fast form, “Forever Young” is a celebration. A rejuvenation, a tent revival for one. It comes off as cannon fire celebrating the battle won, or the sight of a single person dancing down a busy sidewalk. It seems like that the misery of the world is a wash to the man whose head is held high, and that infinite youth isn’t just for Neverland. Dylan seems to be singing to an individual, and we could all only hope it was us he had in mind.

Whichever the case, it taps into something real, fruitful, and joyous. Spread the joy.


Song: “Forever Young” both versions

Because one isn’t great without the other, and they were meant to be heard in order.

Day 13 – Dylan – 1973

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 5, 2016

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If you’d never heard of this record, what would be your impression? Full disclosure: I didn’t know it existed before I made this retrospective list. I thought it was just another in a long line of records for the man who made so many. After a listen, it’s a hodgepodge, but still quite good, mixture of feelings from Self Portrait and New Morning.

I found out that was exactly the case.

Dylan left Columbia records in the summer of ‘73, so Columbia pasted this record together with unreleased tracks from both sessions, two from Portrait and seven from Morning. You can hear it, as I did – it starts off in the rebirthed folksy singing and rapid strumming of “Lily of the West” before descending into a waltzing, crooning “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” where Dylan sings into the end, “Adios, mi cora sole.” In between we get more strange cover selections, from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling Love.”

And while I can’t make an attempt at deciphering what Dylan’s intent was, since there was no intent, it does work to fully deepen the mystery of the man during this time and questions he raised heading into musical exile.

The cover tunes and selections really are enough to support the quixotic misunderstanding Dylan had of his own abilities during this time. I started reading today Chronicles I, his autobiography of sorts, and though I made it only through the first chapter, enough was said to affirm my belief of him in the early 70s. He spoke at length of his journey to New York, riding in a car all the way from Chicago, arriving to sling his songs and harmonica at any of the numerous bars and clubs that would have an unaccomplished guitar man sing. He covered meeting Ricky Nelson, Richie Havens, and Fred Neil, and spent a bit of time discussing why he still moved forward away from their influence. It wasn’t until he met and used his friendship with Dave Van Ronk. As he said of Van Ronk, “he got it.” Later as he dissected their differences further, he said of Fred Neil that he didn’t have an interest in recording albums, because Neil “did it for the words and for himself.” Dylan, self avowed, acknowledges that he “only did it for the music.”

So to hear this record now, some 12 years on from when he first arrived to cut tracks, is both beautiful and strange.

Beautiful that the man is always trying new things and continually chasing the better. But strange that the finest American musician ever would at some point cease to possess the very confidence that got him to the top of the mountain.


Song: “Sarah Jane”

Just a fun song. Hard to pick a song from a collection of B-Sides and act like it means something.