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Bob Dylan’s Modern Times and Tell Tale Signs


We'll be celebrating Bob Dylan's 70th birthday (it's May 24) early on Roots & Branches April 3.

I just finished Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America,” a series of essays that looks at Dylan’s career, many of them about the later parts of it.  Like Wilentz, I have been fascinated at Dylan’s reincarnation after a period of confusion that lasted through much of the 1980s as a kind of minstrel, performing regularly as well as becoming involved in other kinds of creative expression.

Dylan is marking 70 years next month, so I put together a special KGNU (88.5 FM) Roots & Branches show for Sunday, April 3, 9-11 am MT that will argue that the last twenty years of Dylan’s career will be a period that be considered one of his most fruitful. (Download the show here until April 17.)

Nothing could possibly match the evolutionary path Robert Zimmerman took from the moment he first stepped onto New York streets fifty years ago in January to the release of Nashville Skyline nine years later. But he hasn’t done so bad of late, either.

In Chronicles Dylan relates that he realized by 1987 that he had been coasting, riding the laurels of his legend, performing erratically and releasing albums that seemed little more than pale reflections of his glorious past. He minced few words about his predicament, which coincided with an injury to one of his hands that he feared might end his playing days. “Always prolific, never exact,” he wrote, “too many distractions had turned my musical path into a jungle of vines.”

At the same time he writes that he realized that he would have to change the way he wrote and presented his music. “By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm,” he wrote, “which would give my songs a brighter countenance, call them up from the grave – stretch out the stiffness in their bodies and straighten them out.”

He also describes a musical numerical system, which I still don’t understand, that he says the guitarist Lonnie Johnson taught him. But for whatever reasons, things began turning around for him.

In 20 years, he’s released two albums of traditional songs (Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, four albums of original material (Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life) and eight editions in his bootleg series that includes a couple of three-disc sets. He published the first of a three-part memoir, Chronicles, which offered his own memories of his early days in New York City and two other periods of his life where he felt at a crossroads. He let Martin Scorsese direct No Direction Home, a three-hour-plus documentary on his life to 1966, that included two more albums of outtakes and other interesting material.

He wrote, directed and produced Masked & Anonymous,  an apocalyptic film that starred some of Hollywood’s finest acting talent. He curated and was host of Theme Time Radio Hour for three years, producing 100 hour-long programs that featured his obvious love for all kinds of music and American history and featured his oddball sense of humor. He let Twyla Tharp try to adapt his music for dance.

He plays about a hundred concerts a year, which isn’t an unusual number of shows except, it seems, in Dylan’s case, when it’s called the Never Ending Tour. His paintings are now hung in galleries around the world. He made Christmas in the Heart, a fantastic Christmas album and donated the money to charity. You probably wouldn’t have called Bob Dylan charitable in 1965, but you might today. He seems to have grown comfortably into old age with the same instincts and curiosity intact that have, except for a period in the 1980s, always sustained him.

And his most recent work, as Wilentz relates, recasts him as part of a long American tradition. In many ways, it’s no more than an extension of what he has always done. In Chronicles Dylan relates, as a voracious reader from an early age, how he dug into historical texts in friend’s apartments and the New York City Library. Early on he paid tribute to his heroes by copying them – his own tribute, “Song to Woody,” steals the melody of Woody Guthrie’s own “1913 Massacre.” Today, he finds different ways to connect with music and literature from, as Greil Marcus once dubbed it, the old, weird America, and spit it back out at us in different ways.

I think I make a strong case for his recent success, but the proof is in the music. Time willing, here’s the playlist for Sunday morning. The show will stream from kgnu.org, and I’ll post the link to the podcast Sunday afternoon.

Introduction, Bob Dylan Concert 2009
Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Disc 3.
Tomorrow Night, Lonnie Johnson Bluebird single
Tomorrow Night, Bob Dylan, Good As I Been To You
Money Honey (take 2), Bob Dylan Unreleased
Nashville Skyline Rag, Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline
Love Sick, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Not Dark Yet, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Tryin’ To Get to Heaven (Oct. 5, 2000, London, England), Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Marchin to the City, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Things Have Changed, Bob Dylan, Wonder Boys
Having Myself A Time, Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Disc 4)
Bye & Bye, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Po’ Boy, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
High Water, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone), Articolo 31. Masked & Anonymous
Down In The Flood (New Version), Bob Dylan, Masked & Anonymous
Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking    Bob Dylan & Mavis Staples, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan
Spirit On The Water, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Beyond The Horizon, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Cross the Green Mountain, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Checkers by Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour: Dogs
Sinatra and Kennedy, Theme Time Radio Hour: President’s Day
Dylan GPS rap, Theme Time Radio Hour: Street Map
Life is Hard, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life
It’s All Good, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life

2 comments

1 Sugaree { 04.03.11 at 11:31 pm }

I’m moved to say I agree with pretty much everything in your piece – Dylan’s late period is compelling and engaging in equal measure, but I’d include 1989′s OH MERCY as the start of his artistic renaissance. It’s a magnificent record and superior to either MODERN TIMES or TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE, good as they are. Lanois rescued Dylan from himself, as documented in Chronicles.
I’m writing from Brisbane, Australia, and keenly awaiting Bob’s appearance at the Byron Bay Bluesfest later this month….

2 leland { 04.04.11 at 5:52 am }

Hi Sugaree. You make a good point. I guess I could have started there, too, since Dylan mentions it in Chronicles. Myself, I’m not as fond of Oh Mercy as I am of the ones after that. If I had 2 1/2 hours, I probably would have started there :-) Hope he does a great show in Byron Bay. Cheers, Leland

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