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Category — Bob Dylan

Theme Time Radio Hour: Another Side of Bob Dylan

Best Music of 2008 Part Two

Cardboard Bob stands in my office next to my black velvet painting of the desert. Who knew he wanted to be Wolfman Jack?

Cardboard Bob stands in my office next to a black velvet painting of the desert. Who knew he wanted to be Wolfman Jack?

A big part of 2008 for me was my introduction to Theme Time Radio Hour, the program hosted by Bob Dylan. I have been up early many days this year, letting the dog out, and while perusing the news on the web with my first cup of coffee, firing up an episode. The program, now in its third season on satellite radio, is a series of one-hour programs, each based on a theme – divorce, birds, hair, baseball, presidents, women’s names, smoking, with Dylan as your disc jockey. You get the idea.

“Your place for themes, dreams and schemes,” he often cackles, and he seems barely able to contain himself as he eagerly shares little-heard gems that he seems to have discovered throughout his life. If you didn’t know it, Bob Dylan is a major-league record nut. He tells a caller that all the music on the show comes from his own personal collection, and that he likes music “that was made 70 years ago and music that was made last Tuesday.”

Those are attributes I can really admire and appreciate in a DJ. According to “Inside Dylan’s Brain,” a Vanity Fair article that serves as a kind of a thesaurus for the first two seasons, more than fifty percent of the music he plays is from the nineteen fifties and earlier. He plays show tunes, novelty songs, soul and R&B. He talks with great enthusiasm about calypso and reggae, sticks up for rap and cowboy music and plays the Replacements, Green Day, the Ramones and Run DMC alongside Dinah Washington, Muddy Waters and Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Genres have no place here.

And he’s funny. “I don’t usually like to tell people what I’m doing, but I am talking to a couple of car companies about possibly being the voice of their GPS system,” he says, introducing Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue” on his latest theme, Road Maps. “I think it would be good, if you’re looking for directions and you heard my voice saying something like ‘Take a left at the next street. No, a right. Know what, just go straight.’”

If you have read Chronicles Part One, you’ll know the world Dylan creates from a place he calls “the Abernathy building.” He seems to revel in history, pop culture, show-biz and political intrigue, rumors and gossip. He offers perspective on Nixon and the Checkers speech, Kennedy and his women, Sinatra and the Mob, Sinatra, Kennedy and their women. He likes Willie Nelson’s voice before he became the Red-Headed Stranger. When it comes to the Three Stooges, he argues Larry is the smartest and admits that he’s s Shemp man. He talks with equal aplomb about Edith Piaf and Paul Winchell, the ventriloquist who came up with the idea for the artificial heart. He is, he says, proud to live in America, “the only place where Slim Gaillard could sing an ode to matzo balls and gefilte fish.”

Dylan answers email, takes callers’ questions and includes conversations and soliloquies with Tom Waits (who ruminates on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, among other things), Elvis Costello, Jack White, Marianne Faithful, Richard Lewis, Jenny Lewis, Luke Wilson and Penn Gillette, among others. I mean, how cool is to hear David Hidalgo explain that Don Santiago Jimenez, the father of Flaco, is the godfather of tejano music, the first one to sing lyrics over polkas?

Dylan honestly sounds like he’s having the time of his life. “We’ve told the Percy Mayfield story a couple of times here,” he says introducing the original demo of “Hit the Road Jack” on the Road Maps show. “If you haven’t heard it, go download some of our shows illegally.” Did I mention he was funny?

After reading Chronicles and listening to a bunch of Theme Times, I think I know why people might get frustrated interviewing Dylan. If I ever got a crack at him I wouldn’t ask about him any of his songs. But you can bet I would bring up that Womack brothers’ acoustic demo of “Across 110th Street” that he says “shows how funky two acoustic guitars can be.”

Hear Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, on Sirius/XM and at Croz.FM. Read the first installment of Best of Music 2008.

December 9, 2008   4 Comments

Tangled Up in “Tangled Up in Blue”

“Tangled Up in Blue” is surely one of Bob Dylan’s most durable and fascinating songs. Released as part of the Blood on the Tracks set in 1974, it  has been resurrected many times onstage, with widely different lyrics, arrangements and interpretations.

Kemper Arena is where the old Kansas City Kings NBA franchise played. It was an awful venue for Bob Dylan in 1978.

Kemper Arena is where the old Kansas City Kings NBA franchise played. It was an awful venue for Bob Dylan in 1978.

My iTunes lists eighteen different adaptations, including the one from Blood and many onstage performances (Real Live, Rolling Thunder tour (he was already changing the words and locales in this early live take), Garcia Plays Dylan, various bootlegs). Billie and I heard an especially stirring live version at New York’s Felt Forum in January 1998. That one, a high-stepping acoustic hoedown, is familiar to anybody who has seen Dylan onstage in the last decade and a half.

But one interpretation has eluded me. We saw Dylan in November of 1978 in Kemper Arena in Kansas City. This was near the end of the year-long world tour with a large band that included T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, a horn section and several back-up singers. Although Billie stood in line for hours, our tickets were in the nosebleed section, and we spent the night mostly trying to figure out what song he was playing.

I couldn’t make out the words, but I do recall one distinctive song that night: “Tangled Up in Blue.” I have labored over the years to find a similar version. It wasn’t on the live album recorded earlier in the year in Japan. It wasn’t on an expensive bootleg of another Los Angeles show. More than thirty years later, my patience has been rewarded with an audience tape recorded about five weeks after the Kansas City show, on December 10, 1978, at the Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina. (The YouTube video incorrectly lists it as October 10. More interesting videos from the same source here.)

This is definitely close to what I remember. I have always described it as a cabaret ballad. Especially in concert, Dylan has a habit of letting his voice slide up to the end of phrases, emphasizing the last syllable, ie. “tangled up in BLUE.” This time he crescendos downward, accentuating “TANGLED UP in blue.”

I had no way of knowing what was happening in his private life. According to his biographers, Dylan began attending services at a fundamentalist church in California in early 1980, soon after this tour ended. His next album would be Slow Train Coming, and by the time we saw him perform again in January 1980, he sang only songs from Slow Train and Saved, the second of his religious/gospel albums, and his audience had dwindled away to nothing.

At the end of each verse, the organ and horns wheeze out the melody line like a tired and sad clown. It sounds like it was recorded from inside a calliope.

I don’t like to read things into lyrics, but the changes he makes here seem to offer a bit of insight into his state of mind at the time. In this version, the woman who bent down to tie the laces of his shoes is wearing a dress made out of stars and stripes, and instead of offering him a pipe and reading from a “book of poems,” the woman quotes from the Bible, specifically Jeremiah 13, verses 21 and 33.

For the record, the thirteenth chapter of Jeremiah  in my King James Version is some kind of weird prophecy that involves burying a linen cloth and the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah 13:21 reads: “What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee? for thou hast taught them to be captains, and as chief over thee: shall not sorrows take thee, as a woman in travail?”

As for verse 33, well, there are only 27 verses in Jeremiah 13. But you can’t deny that Dylan sings the lines “and everyone of those words rang true, and glowed like burning coals, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you” like he just discovered what they really meant.

And, like all Dylan phases, the colorful, mysterious woman of “Tangled Up in Blue” passed into history, and the song became a bluegrass romp.

November 26, 2008   3 Comments

Bob Dylan Exhumes His Back Pages On Tell Tale Signs – Disc One

Not long before Bob Dylan headed for New Orleans to record the album that became Oh Mercy in 1987, he was at a major crossroads in his life. For years, he admits, 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 didn’t mince 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 in Chronicles Volume One, “too many distractions had turned my musical path into a jungle of vines.”

At the same time, he became aware that he would have to change the way he would write and present 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 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.”

Whatever the hell that means – and he also writes about a musical numerical system that Lonnie Johnson taught him in the 1960s that guided the changes — his career slowly began turning around. Oh Mercy and Under the Red Sky, the next two studio albums, though unsteady, were improvements over Empire Burlesque, Knocked-Out Loaded, Dylan and the Dead and Down in the Groove. He followed those with two appealing albums of old songs, Good as I Been to Ya and World Gone Wrong that took him back to the basics – voice, guitar and harmonica. On the latter, he adapted songs written in the 1920s and 1930s to the present-day. Then all hell broke loose as he followed those four baby steps with three of the finest albums of his career, Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft and Modern Times.

The eighth edition of Dylan’s Official Bootleg series is the back-story to this rather remarkable period, glimpses into an artistic mind. It’s of a piece with Chronicles, his startling, revealing memoir, and his radio stint as host of Theme Time Radio Hour, an alternate universe of cultural tidbits, history and the vast ocean of music, new and old, upon which Dylan continues to gain sustenance. (“I like music that was recorded seventy years ago, and music that was recorded Tuesday,” he says on one of the shows.) The three discs are a mishmash of alternate studio takes or live recordings of songs already released, some original songs and cover versions left off his official albums and miscellaneous tracks from soundtracks and tribute albums.

Besides the quality of the material, the recordings provide a in-depth look into Dylan’s working habits in the period following his reawakening as a writer, singer and performer. Anyone who finds the work he’s done in that period compelling will find Tell Tale Signs equally engaging. For someone like me, who plays Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times more than any of his other albums these days, it is a treasure trove.

The full package includes three CDs and 39 tracks. That’s a lot of material, so we’ll just look at the first disc on this post, and write about the others as I digest them. There’s plenty to go around.

1) “Mississippi”: Each of the three discs comes packaged with a studio version of this song that appeared on Love and Theft. The three versions here were recorded years earlier, during the Time Out of Mind sessions, in different keys and with varied arrangements. Of the three, I like the lazy, acoustic-blues version that opens the first disc. But hey, take your pick.

2) “Most of the Time”: I much prefer this version with just acoustic guitar and harmonica over the official release or the other outtake on the third disc, but I think I can hear, conceptually, why he would choose the version he did for Oh Mercy.

Uncut magazine has a series of interviews with engineers and other insiders talking about Tell Tale Signs. Here’s one from Malcom Burn, who worked on the Oh Mercy album. Read the entire interview here.

“I remember, one night, we were going to do “Most Of The Time” and he sat down with his guitar, and I actually recorded this, I still have it somewhere, and he said, ‘Well, we could do it like this’ – and he played the entire song, just him on acoustic guitar and harmonica, the archetypal Bob Dylan thing. He actually referred to himself in the third person, ‘That would be like a typical Bob Dylan way of doin’ it.’”

And then he did it another way, and he played it like a blues, really slow, and I recorded that, too. And then there was the version that we ended up doing on the record, which is quite spacious and has that real Dan Lanois imprint all over it.”

The “archetypal Bob Dylan thing” is the version on Disc One. The really slow blues take is on Disc Two. See for yourself which you prefer – they’re both pretty darned good.

And it shows again what we know about Dylan’s approach to album creation. Even though he had a great acoustic take, he wanted a certain sound, so he did the song different ways until he got the one he wanted. It doesn’t mean he thought the others were inferior, just that they didn’t fit into the sound he heard on Oh Mercy.

3) “Dignity”: Two different versions are included in the set. This one is a short demo with Dylan singing it and playing piano. You get the feeling that, though this song was conceptually a great idea, he never seemed to get it the way he wanted, which is why it first appeared on Unplugged.

4) “Someday Baby”: Like “Mississippi,” this one, which showed up first on Modern Times,  demonstrates how Dylan can shape a set of lyrics and chords into completely different musical arrangements and make it work.

5) “Red River Shore”: Maybe it’s because we just watched the Jack Nicholson film The Border on cable, whose soundtrack features Freddy Fender, Ry Cooder and John Hiatt, but this one reminds me of “Across the Borderline.”

Since “Blind Willie McTell,” a major Dylan song that was left off the Infidels album (Dylan said once that he didn’t think he got it quite right) and didn’t appear until the first Bootleg Series almost a decade later, it has become sport for Dylan fans to decide whether his choices for release are good ones. It’s good, clean fun, and Dylan allows you to play that game to your heart’s content on Tell Tale Signs. Here he offers two distinct versions (the other one is on Disc Three), each worth consideration.

6) “Tell Old Bill”: This bleak lamentation comes from a soundtrack for a little-known 2005 film called North Country, which also featured “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “Sweetheart Like You” and “Do Right to Me Baby.” It shows the kind of timeless sound Dylan envisioned in the memoir and has been using since. Whatever he did, it’s working.

7) “Born in Time”: Playing the Which Version is Better? Game described above, I find this one far superior instrumentally and especially vocally to the original on Under a Red Sky and Eric Clapton’s stab at it on Pilgrim.

8 “Can’t Wait”: It’s hard to argue with the official version on Time Out of Mind, but this slowed-down, more bluesy version is pretty good, and there’s another take for your consideration elsewhere on the set.

9) “Everything is Broken”: Another version of the song that first appeared on Oh Mercy.

10) “Dreamin’ of You”: The only reason he might have left this off Time Out of Mind is that he purloined some lyrics for other songs.

11) “Huck’s Tune”: This break-up song comes from a soundtrack for the film Lucky You.

12) “Marchin’ to the City”: Another unused song from Time Out of Mind. This beautiful version is pure gospel. A second recording on Disc Three, with an altered set of lyrics, sounds more like Booker T and the MGs. He might have not used this song because it sounds a lot like “Can’t Wait.”

13) “High Water (For Charlie Patton)”: This live version from an Ontario concert Aug. 23, 2003, is  a tidal wave of kinetic music energy that can generally only be produced onstage, with each member of the band contributing to the cacophony. It’s like you’re in the middle of the flood, with every instrument screaming and begging for mercy. “Throw your panties overboard,” indeed.

More on the other discs as I digest them.

October 13, 2008   No Comments

How I Didn’t Wind Up on the Cover of Bob Dylan’s Saved

A friend of mine, Jason Bennett, a talented songwriter who lives in Colorado Springs, recently got a call from The Bob Dylan Radio Hour, a program hosted by Michael Tearson on the Sirius Satellite Radio network, asking for a couple of his recordings for possible inclusion on a upcoming show.

Excited, and deservedly so, Bennett sent an email blast to his mailing list. Like me, he is a fan of Bob Dylan. Though we have never met, we have been exchanging emails for five years now, dating back to when I was a disc jockey on KCUV-AM and we were Colorado’s Underground Voice!

Bennett had misunderstood and thought the call was from Theme Time Radio Hour, the XM satellite program hosted by Bob Dylan. Which is understandable and which is what he said in his email.

Bennett is still waiting to hear if “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” or his cover of Dylan’s “Shooting Star” will be heard on the Sirius show.

But it was the mass email about being on Dylan’s program that brought on a heavy case of déjà vu.

It all started when I got a phone call the first week of April, 1980, from Rose Ricciardella, managing editor, pop product, for CBS Records editorial services. She told me that Bob Dylan wanted to print five reviews, including one I had written, on the inside sleeve of his new album, due in the late spring. Would I be interested?

At the time I was working at The Kansas City Times, as a news clerk who also wrote about music (this was just before most newspapers began employing full-time rockcrits). I had reviewed the first show of Dylan’s three-night stand at the Uptown Theater in late January. The dates were part of a tour of small theaters in support of his divisive Slow Train Coming album. He had sold more than 10,000 tickets in Kemper Arena not two years before, and this time he couldn’t sell half that number for the three nights.

Dylan played no songs except from the gospel bookends Slow Train Coming and Saved. There was no “Like a Rolling Stone,” no “Masters of War,” not even in encore. To say many paying customers were disappointed would be putting it mildly. Some fans I knew were heartbroken.

His excellent band of southern soul veterans and gospel singers took these songs, pardon the pun, to a higher level. I had never seen a performer of his stature play a concert that the audience, to put it mildly, wasn’t expecting. It was a full-blown gospel show, and easily the gutsiest performance I had ever seen, in my mind comparable to the then-bootleg recording I had of a 1966 English audience taunting him for doing what came natural to him, in that case switching to electric guitar.

But I digress. Would I want my work on the cover of a Dylan record? Does the pope … ? All I asked Ricciardella was where I needed to sign. Dazed, I checked the legalities with the attorney at The Kansas City Times, who gave his approval. Ricciardella sent a letter a couple days later that gave CBS “permission to reprint the article on Bob Dylan” and promised two copies of the album when it was released. I sent it back.

Between then and June 20, when the album eventually titled Saved was released, I told every one of my friends and relatives to go out and buy the new Dylan album and see a big surprise on the inside cover.

The big surprise came, when the album came out sans the review, or any review, for that matter. Instead, the sleeve contained a line drawing of Dylan playing harmonica onstage. Everybody hated the album.

Visibly upset, I called Ricciardella. “Bob changed his mind.” Sigh. I didn’t get two copies of the record, either.

Answering the inevitable phone calls from my friends who bought Saved was as humiliating as it sounds, my first real taste of crow – and certainly not the last.

I have tried to stay true to the second thing I learned, with varying degrees of success: Keep your yap shut until after the album comes out.

Only later did it really dawn on me that Dylan, probably sitting there in the dumpy, old President Hotel in downtown Kansas City, where he stayed those nights, had actually read and liked the review that I wrote in 35 minutes on a typewriter for the next morning’s edition. Somehow, today, that’s more than enough.

Oh, and I need to mention that Bennett’s new album, Slow It Down, Take a Step Back, which is well-titled and which he says is about “rain, fog, love, the first hundred miles, too much paperwork, being a daddy and shooting stars,” comes highly recommended, too.

Here’s the image that replaced the reviews on the inside cover of Saved.

saved.JPG

And just for kicks, here’s the review:

Dylan Uptown Theater 1.28.80
Published: KC Times 1.29.80

By Leland Rucker
A Member of the Staff

There have been a lot of questions concerning Bob Dylan’s state of mind the past couple of years. Stories have appeared that he is now a “born again” Christian, and his latest LP release, Slow Train Coming, confirmed that suspicion. But a record is only a piece of vinyl; it’s the live presence that shows what a performer is all about.

For those expecting a run-through of old hits, there might have been disappointment. Likewise, those thinking he would try to convert the audience Billy Graham style might have been disillusioned. But for those interested in a magical musical experience, the results were spectacular.

The tone of the show was gospel and blues, from the black female vocal quartet that opened the show to the last inspirational rock song. As in the past, when Dylan gets involved in an idea or concept, he does so with complete abandon.

Regina McCreary began by telling a story about a woman trying to ride the train to see her son one more time, which became an analogy for the whole show. This led into a soulful rendition — complete with letter-perfect harmonies — of a song with a chorus that went: “If I’ve got my ticket can I ride/Ride up to heaven in the morning.”

The foursome, in sequined outfits that sparkled in the spotlights against the sides of the theater, proceeded to do a six-song gospel set accompanied only by their tambourines and pianist Terry Young. Their final number, the well-known folk song “This Train” served as an apt introduction for the main event.

Dylan began with “Serve Somebody,” also the opening cut on Slow Train Coming. Dressed in a black leather jacket, white shirt and black pants, with his tousled curls and wispy thin beard encircling his face, he looked no different than he did ten years ago.

As expected, he performed all the songs from Slow Train Coming, plus several new ones. There were a few calls for oldies, and it takes a rare performer not to fall back on familiar melodies in concert. For me, this was a wise move; Dylan has performed and recorded his older songs enough times by now to not continue to have to rely on them.

In a sense, Slow Train Coming is not really that distant from Highway 61 Revisited or The Times They Are a Changing. There is the same reliance on apocalyptic ideas, though they are now flavored with more Old and New Testament images instead of the street-wise lines that characterizes his older material.

Besides, everyone looks upon Dylan as more than just another musician anyway. Slow Train is actually “Desolation Row” tempered with experience and faith instead of youth and chaos.

The railroad image works for the music as well. Dylan’s musicians this time are the cream of the studio crop, and they make music that thunders like shiny wheels on steel tracks. Jim Keltner and Tim Drummond provide the bottom end, while Spooner Oldham, Fred Tackett and the girls’ pinpoint harmonies produce the frills behind Dylan’s sometimes petulant, often whining nasal drawl.

At its strongest moments, during “When You Gonna Wake Up,” “Precious Angel,” “Slow Train” and a few of the new numbers, it was as turbulent and moving as anything Dylan has ever produced. Only on the silly reggae number, “God Gave Names to All the Animals,” did the set lose its spirit. The rest had all the qualities of a gospel revival tent show. Dylan even got into the spirit of things by dancing, playing harmonica and clapping his hands.

Actually all the mention of Dylan’s conversion and/or personal beliefs is purely academic. Put quite simply, he is making some of the best music of his entire career. Judging from the abundance of new material, he is obviously enjoying it, and the enthusiasm is contagious. The audience cheered wildly from beginning to end, especially at the recognizable cuts from Slow Train, and I heard no boos or catcalls throughout the more-than-two-hour performance.

As he says, “there’s either faith or unbelief, there’s no middle ground.” Dylan has found his ticket to heaven, and his slow train this night was a sight to behold.

May 8, 2008   4 Comments