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.
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 His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.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 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
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
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.
“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
“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
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
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
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.
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
Best Music of 2008 Part Two
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.”
December 9, 2008 4 Comments
“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.
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
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
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.
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