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Self Portrait, Rock Criticism and Me

With the release of Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10, there’s been yet more endless analyses of how awful Bob Dylan’s original Self Portrait album was. I have always been amused by the kerfuffle over this one.

Well, not always amused, I guess. I was 23 years old when Self Portrait was released in June of 1970. It was an exciting, strange time in my life. I can’t remember when I began actually subscribing, but I was beginning to read Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone pretty regularly. A bit later I started a fortnightly ritual: As soon as it arrived, I would roll up a joint and smoke it while I devoured Rolling Stone cover-to-cover.

I had also just bought (and devoured) a paperback copy of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, the first book where someone else articulated the kinds of things I was thinking about the music that had helped changed my worldview. During the spring semester, for a Recent American History class, I had completed a twenty-page essay, titled A Compendium of Rock: The Medium And the Message, after a McLuhan book, The Medium is the Message, that was popular my last years in college. The paper was all about rock music and its importance to me and my generation.

My friends and I were beginning to use rock music as a filter through which we could see the world, enough so that we fancied ourselves a kind of karass, vaguely interpreting a notion from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, another popular tome of the time.

And I was in the midst of my exit from the Lutheran Church-Mo. Synod. I would last another year, through a teaching stint in Roselle, Illinois, that finalized my decision to leave. Crazy as it seems now, less than two years after I started playing guitar, I was heading out to make my way as a musician. That wouldn’t work out so well, and I was almost five years from first being published. And though I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was beginning to think like a critic.

I loved Self Portrait right away. And when I read the reviews, as we’ll see shortly, I was really pissed off. I considered a letter-to-the-editor but chickened out and wound up sending my thoughts in a letter to my friend Frank Kresen, who was in Japan at the time — he had joined the Prince of Peace Volunteers to teach English in Hokkaido. It accompanied a reel-to-reel tape of the album that I copied with some equipment I checked out at Concordia Teacher’s College in Seward, Nebraska. He replied, equally enthusiastically, that the album was a look at Dylan’s darker side as he interpreted the songs of others. But it was our little secret, because the rest of the world seemingly hated it.

Here’s the part of the letter where I write about Self Portrait, which I now realize is the very first piece of music analysis I ever wrote. Reading it again today, many of the elements (literary references, righteous indignation) that became, for better or worse, my style are all in there.

I was sitting here with Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait and the new Rolling Stone review of it, written by the whole staff, who ripped it miserably. Now I’m reading the review of each song as it plays, listening with avid interest because Bob Dylan never ceases to amaze me. Paul Williams, in his book Outlaw Blues (which I got last week, a memorable work), quotes Dylan back in 1966: “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung. The word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound.”

But the musical “experts” at the leading rock periodical still insist on looking to Dylan as the leader, the spiritual god to which we all must lay our alms for the wondrous word on what’s happening. And what say I? Leave the man alone, and accept him on his own terms. He loves country pie and Nashville skyline rags and he seems pretty happy, so why not enjoy him for what he is, and not what you want him to be?

The LP for me, then, is just what it portends to be, a self-portrait of a man musically. The cover tells the story, and the inside photos, including the session- and farm-locale shots, further reflect on Dylan’s tranquility. (Is that his farm he’s standing in front of?)

And the music? Well, for me it’s very pleasant, a pleasing change from a world that looks dismal indeed.

And poor Rolling Stone, they can’t believe that the mighty Allah can blow his lines. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a mess, they say. I disagree totally. So what if the words aren’t right? Dylan’s vocal is superb, and the Band is magnificent. But Greil Marcus is totally disillusioned. Man, can’t you just let it be?

“Living the Blues” is superb, much better than the Great White Wonder (ed. note, the very first bootleg album) version, good feeling and emotion. “Copper Kettle” is magic. Likewise “Belle Isle.” “Kettle” almost takes me back to old Missouri in 1800 and misty lakes and rivers before technology. “Belle Isle” is unusual for Dylan, a knighthood in flower song – maybe he read Ivanhoe or Sir Walter. The only song I really don’t like is “Early Morning Rain.” The vocal sounds lifeless.

But “The Mighty Quinn,” “Minstrel Boy,” and “She Belongs to Me,” all from the Isle of Wight, are very alive and well, thank you. But I suppose Greil Marcus can’t stand mistakes, damn perfectionist.

The Nashville cuts (that is, the country songs that Dylan didn’t write) are great in their own way. I’ve grown to like that kind of music.

So, Mr. Dylan, I say bravo, good job, thanks for giving me some joy. Greil Marcus — go to hell. Try to enjoy some good country music. Don’t impress us with your criticism.

Many years later, in 2002, I wrote a review of Self-Portrait for Stereophile magazine’s annual Records to Die For section. The deal is that you get 100 words each to describe two of your favorite albums — records to die for. For that year I chose a Doug Sahm live disc and Self Portrait.

The only real problems with Dylan’s most misunderstood and unheard album are the timing and the title. Were it released as The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 in 2002, it might not have dismayed critics and confused most of the rest of his audience. Dylan has long claimed it was his response to unauthorized, bootleg recordings, and that description fits — from the scattershot sequencing to the wildly eclectic repertoire. Given the current Dylan penchant for unpredictable covers in his live show, mixing up country ballads, folk standards and contemporary favorites and a sprinkling of his own songs seems downright rootsy. Most interesting is that except for his voice, Self-Portrait isn’t much different from his onstage act today. What goes around comes around. Self-Portrait takes us full circle.

I rest my case.

September 4, 2013   No Comments

You say Grossman; I Say Goldman

A sharp-eared listener (thanks Ginger) caught me calling the notorious manager of Bob Dylan and the Band Albert Goldman during the Levon Helm tribute program on KGNU.

Everybody knows it’s Albert Grossman.

Albert Goldman

Both of them were about the same age; Albert Grossman was born in 1926, Albert Goldman about a year later.  Each had some connection to rock and roll, and both were almost equally reviled for their efforts in that regard.

Albert Goldman was a teacher and an author, and it was his efforts in the latter that earned him the disdain of rock cognoscenti. His biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon dared to look down the subjects, instead of up. Each book had its flaws, but it was his disdain for two pop superheroes that pissed off most who read it. His biography of Lenny Bruce isn’t as reviled. His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.

I would certainly recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley over Goldman’s, but after reading Tim Riley’s exhaustively researched Lennonbio, I don’t think Goldman, though he makes some rather ludicrous assumptions, was that far off the mark about Paul McCartney’s songwriting partner.

Albert Grossman circa 1966

Albert Grossman was once the most powerful manager in the music business, and a model for an entire breed of manager that thrived beginning in the 1960s. He was, as promoter George Wein told author Fred Goodman in Mansion on the Hill, “a strong, one-way street. He was a brilliant man and a good man in his way, but a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And though he was militant about protecting his “artists,” his arrogance generally drove away all his clients, including Bob Dylan, whom he famously managed from 1962-1970.

But the most interesting thing is that both men died on jets heading from the U.S. to London,  Grossman of a heart attack Christmas Day 1986 aboard the Concorde at age 59 and Goldman on March 28, 1994, aged 66.

As it turns out, I walked past Albert Grossman once. It was forty years ago this month. I was in Chicago, May 1972, at a Peter Yarrow/Lazarus concert. After the show I saw this fellow standing near the doors cupping a cigarette in his hand who, as best I could figure, looked like Benjamin Franklin. I wasn’t sure it was Grossman, but since he created Peter Paul and Mary, it seemed right. Years later I began reading other descriptions of him as looking like a certain bespectacled founding father.

May 16, 2012   No Comments

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

April 2, 2011   2 Comments

The Band: Roots & Branches 02-27-11

Here’s the set list for a special Roots & Branches look at one of rock’s most beloved and influential groups. Hope I can get through all these in two hours. I also direct your attention to a piece I wrote about Music From Big Pink that graciously wound up on the unofficial band website.

The house at Big Pink.

“Ain’t Got No Home” (Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry) Clarence “Frogman” Henry The Complete Buddy Holly, Vol. 10
“The Great Pretender” The Platters Rock N’ Roll Era: 1954-1955
“Saved” LaVern Baker Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Disc 4: 1947-1974
“The Third Man Theme” The Band Moondog Matinee
“She’s Nineteen Years Old” The Hawks A Musical History
“Who Do You Love” The Band A Musical History-Selections
“He Don’t Love You” Levon Helm & The Hawks Across The Great Divide [Disc 3]
“The Stones I Throw (Will Free All Men)” Levon & The Hawks A Musical History
“I Ain’t Got No Home [Live]” Bob Dylan & The Band A Musical History
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert [Live] [Disc 2]
“Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)” (Outtake – Demo) The Band Music From Big Pink
“See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” Bob Dylan & The Band Genuine Basement Tapes Vol 4
“Yazoo Street Scandal (Outtake)” The Band Music From Big Pink
“We Can Talk” The Band Music From Big Pink
“To Kingdom Come” The Band Music From Big Pink
“The Weight” The Band Music From Big Pink
“Look Out Cleveland” The Band The Band
“Rag Mama Rag” The Band The Band
“The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” The Band
Stage Fright
“Life Is A Carnival” The Band Rock Of Ages [Disc 2]
“The Last Waltz Refrain [Live]” The Band Across The Great Divide [Disc 3]
“The Shape I’m In” The Band & Friends The Complete Last Waltz
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”  The Complete Last Waltz
“Stage Fright” The Band & Friends The Complete Last Waltz
“Go Back To Your Woods” Robbie Robertson & Bruce Hornsby Storyville
“Ragtop” Danko Fjeld Anderson Ridin’ On The Blinds
“You Don’t Know Me” Danko, Manuel & Butterfield Lone Star Cafe, New York City NY, September 19, 1984
“Atlantic City” Levon Helm Band FestivaLink Presents Levon Helm Band MerleFest Ramble At MerleFest, NC 4/26/08 [Disc 1]
“I Shall Be Released” The Band Live At Watkins Glen
“Acadian Driftwood (Neil Young & Joni Mitchell)” The Band & Friends The Complete Last Waltz
“Theme From The Last Waltz [Live]” The Band Across The Great Divide [Disc 3]
Slippin And Slidin’ [Live]The BandAcross The Great Divide [Disc 3]

February 26, 2011   1 Comment

Dylan Teen Lyric Actually a Hank Snow Song

Here’s a good one.

An Associated Press story carried by major news outlets announces that a few Bob Dylan items are for sale, including a high school yearbook with his inscription and a lyric sheet with a poem, “Little Buddy,” that he wrote about a dead dog at summer camp when he was sixteen years old. Go to Google and you’ll find the story repeated in at least 39 different publications.

The lyric sheet in question, which the story says Christie’s auction house hopes will bring upwards of $10,000 – “the earliest example of Dylan’s lyric genius,” enthuses the Guardian’s headline — makes you wonder whether the infamous auction house or media outlets actually check their items for authenticity.

From the A.P. story: A spokesman for Christie’s auction house marveled at the poem’s genius. ‘It’s a very early example of [Dylan's] brilliance,’ Simeon Lipman gushed. ‘It comes from the mind of a teenager [with] some very interesting thoughts … percolating in his brain.’

That might be — if it came from his brain. Even a simple blogger could have done a Google search and find that “Little Buddy,” the lyric in question, was written and recorded by Hank Snow. It’s a sentimental tearjerker that apparently Dylan copied in his own script and should have made any Christie’s expert, or journalist, suspicious. But apparently it didn’t, and even the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, along with many other organizations, fell for it.

Watch the YouTube clip of the song here.

Broken hearted and so sad, golden curls all wet with tears, ’twas a picture of sorrow to see
Kneeling close to the side of his pal and only pride,
A little lad these words he told me
He was such a lovely doggie and to me he was such fun
But today as we played by the way
A drunken man got mad at him because he barked in joy
He beat him and he’s dying here today.

Now I ask: Does that sound even remotely like Bob Dylan, even at age 16? Doesn’t it make you even a little suspicious? And one more question: And media wonder why we don’t trust them anymore? As Dylan actually did write: When you gonna wake up?

May 20, 2009   No Comments

Things Have Changed … But Not Everything

Dave McIntyre made his performance debut Wednesday at Bob Dylan night at Oskar Blues, Lyons, Colorado.

Dave McIntyre made his performance debut Wednesday at Bob Dylan night at Oskar Blues, Lyons, Colorado.

The Is It Rolling Bob Band made its debut last night at Oskar Blues in the small but musically mighty village of Lyons, about fifteen miles north of Boulder.

It was Bob Dylan celebration night at Oskar, and there were 20 or 21 various combinations of solos to bands, each getting the chance to do two songs written by Uncle Bob. In a little over four hours.

Sharon and Kris and I had gone up in January for Beatles night, and Sharon and Steve were there in December for Neil Young night.

So we put in a bid for Mallworthy (Gil Asakawa, Sharon Meyer, Steve Meyer and me) to play Bob Dylan Night and were selected by intrepid promoter and musician Jami Lunde to perform a (relatively) recent song, “Things Have Changed,” and “I Shall Be Released,” an old favorite that Gil and I have closed our sets on the Boulder Mall with for twenty-five years,

After the selection Gil and Steve both found they would be out of town that night. A flurry of emails later, and Sharon, who plays mandolin, and I were joined by Kris Ditson, a drummer who most recently has worked with Pete Wernick’s Flexigrass, Rob Ober, who lives two doors up the street from me and plays about anything you put in front of him, on bass, and Patrick Cullie, our local connection (he lives about two blocks from Oskar), who has picked with Gil and I in the past and plays a mean slide guitar. I was humbled to be working, if only for two songs, with such talented people on short notice.

We practiced without Patrick once and then Tuesday night we all got together and ran through the two songs a few times each. We figured driving up that since Oskar Blues is the home of Dales Pale Ale, king of craft beers, it wouldn’t matter if we sucked.

It was already crowded when we got there, and with fifty musicians as part of the crowd in the basement, it stayed that way all the way to the end. And it was really noisy.

Watching the talent on this night, all I could think of was that Lyons, a town of less than two thousand, is a little mini version of Austin, Texas, with talented musicians in many genres. The song selection was eclectic and unpredictable. I didn’t take notes, but I’d guess the most popular Dylan album of the night was Blood on the Tracks. Among the highlights I remember was a bluegrass quartet, Steamboat Zephyr, that absolutely smoked its way through “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Odds and Ends,” both from the Basement tapes and perfect candidates for their picking frenzy.

Several solo performers did courageous performances of intricate Dylan songs in a room that was filled with too many people to properly appreciate the subtleties. Everybody cheered loudly as Dave McIntyre, who books the entertainment, sat on the other side of the mike for the first time ever with a mandolin player named Greg Schocket and played spirited versions of “Spanish Harlem Incident” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Schocket later accompanied Lunde for two numbers, included a nice “She Belongs to Me.” Reed Foehl kept the crowd’s attention with great versions of “Visions of Johanna” and “Every Grain of Sand.”

We were 18th on the bill, so I missed a few in front of us getting ready, but the biggest surprise was the debut performance of the Blue Maddies, five or six ladies in various western outfits that included stage manager KC Groves. I can’t remember the first song, but I will never forget the closer, “Boots of Spanish Leather.” As they reached for the high harmonies I had never heard on that song before, I felt like I could have been in Ryman Auditorium fifty years ago hearing the Carter Family. Just one of those moments where it all comes together.

With that to buoy us, the Is It Rolling Bob Band moved onstage and made its way through “Things Have Changed” and “I Shall Be Released.” I seldom work with amplification, but everything seemed to work pretty well, and thanks to a cheat sheet scotch-taped to my guitar, I made it through “Things Have Changed” for the first time without blowing the words. Everybody danced and sang along to the final chorus of “I Shall Be Released” as we sang it a capella.

And you know, for those of us who perform even just occasionally, that’s what it’s all about, folks. Thanks to Jami and Dave and KC and Michael and Sean and everybody else who helps put on these lunatic affairs. Hope we get to do it again sometime.

p.s. There was video shot of our performance. i’ll keep you posted on when that will become available.

February 19, 2009   2 Comments

Elvis Costello Makes Celebrities Fans Again

First it’s Bob Dylan, who finally decided he wanted to be Wolfman Jack and now hosts Theme Time Radio Hour, a program dedicated to showcasing music by artists, most of whom are long dead and most of us have never heard of. Now along comes Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …, a television interview show that seems bent on showcasing large-name artists (Sir Elton John and James Taylor) and lesser-known ones (Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright) in an intimate interview/performance setting. The twist here is that they aren’t talking about themselves. Instead, they are paying tribute to the music and musicians who influenced them.

Elvis Costello and Elton John make like Billy Stewart.

Elvis Costello and Elton John make like Billy Stewart.

Perhaps it is that I share Dylan and Costello and John’s passion for arcane music and great artists who didn’t qualify for stardom. Given freedom from talking about why they are successful (for which most don’t have a clue, anyway) and prodded by the consummate music lover Costello, musicians talk much like the rest of us do in conversations about them. They’re just fans, too, and for me, that fact is far more interesting than anything about their celebrity or success.

Musically, I had long ago lost track of the former Reggie Dwight, but Costello drew me back into his story as he got John to talk about the period when he was trying to develop his act. John talked at length about performers, especially piano players, who caught his attention back then and from whom he picked up a style of playing that brought him more fame than any of those from which he learned. (He dismissed his own success as “luck” at one point.)

John used the piano to show how Laura Nyro’s talent for wandering off the traditional verse/chorus/middle eight/verse/chorus format crept into his piano playing and was his biggest influence. His stories about how hearing and seeing Leon Russell, Carole King and the Band shaped his own direction (which he dates to the album Tumbleweed Connection, where he says he found his sound) ring very true to the music itself.

John, a co-producer of Spectacle, seemed genuinely jazzed telling stories of touring with Major Lance, hanging with Patti Labelle and almost freezing onstage when he spotted Russell in the audience while performing “Burn Down the Mission” at the Troubadour in 1970. He did a short phrase of “Sitting in the Park,” the 1965 Billy Stewart single, which Costello quickly joined in before they discussed Stewart, the gifted, 300-pound vocalist who hit the big time by turning George Gershwin’s somber “Summertime” into a sputtering, falsetto soul masterpiece in 1966 and was killed several years later in a car accident (not by a gunshot, as John says).

And they talked about the sway that David Ackles, a piano player and songwriter with Nyro’s penchant for abandoning conventional verse-chorus formats, held on them both in the early 1970s. I, too, was stricken with Ackle’s 1972 American Gothic album back then.

Listening to it again for the first time in many years, I like it even better. Produced by John’s writing partner, Bernie Taupin, American Gothic still sounds wonderfully contemporary. Hearing Costello’s own interpretation of John’s “Border Song” and watching John and Costello close the program by resurrecting Ackles’ “Down River,” with a band that included Allen Toussaint, James Burton and Pete Thomas, transcended the decades.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello With … is on the Sundance Channel.

December 23, 2008   No Comments

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