It occurs to me, listening to this track, that I'd never really gotten into the whole late 60's-early 70's singer-songwriter deal. Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, John Denver - you got a couple good songs in there, but it was just never my cup of tea. And hearing Dylan's runthrough of "Early Morning Rain" doesn't exactly change my mind. The RS review has particularly harsh words for this particular track; references are made to the "mawkish" quality of the actual song, the "stiff-formed-vowel" vocal, and an extremely uninteresting and generic backing track. And I'm absolutely with them - calling this song "cookie-cutter" might be an insult to cookie cutters. Perhaps if the song wasn't so bleh (to quote Patton Oswalt, "feelin' kinda sorta") to begin with, some of the lesser qualities of the track could be overlooked. Sadly, that's not the case.
A couple of readers have suggested that Dylan was highlighting the music that he was into on this album (which I'm inclined to believe), offering up the cornucopia of covers as a way of saying "hey, this kind of music is what I liked then and like now, so this is just an homage". That's kind of nice in that a) it does seem like a cool thing for Dylan to do and b) it alleviates some of the blame for the fact that the album's so bland, but it does raise a few questions, especially when it comes to a track like this. Dylan has basically been considered the first singer-songwriter from the moment the term "singer-songwriter" came into existence, and it's pretty safe to say that guys like Taylor and Lightfoot would not have had the careers they did without Dylan pointing the way. So why, then, does Dylan feel the need to highlight a brand of music that is basically, well, his brand of music, only with all the edges buffed away to make mass consumption all the easier? Look, I have nothing against "Leaving on a Jet Plane" or "You've Got a Friend"; those are all fine songs for what they are. But it's entirely disappointing to hear Dylan, who relates to those songs the way The Godfather relates to, I dunno, Analyze This or something, try his hand at what basically amounts to a pale imitation of his best work. If you like this song, I don't know what to tell you. To me, it's one of the things that makes this album such a failure - a cover version with no reason to exist, performed in a way that gives it even less of a reason to exist.
(Author's note: You might want to stop reading here - the next three paragraphs get REAL thorny. Apologies in advance; believe me, I gave myself a headache writing this out. Hey, points for honesty, right?)
I found myself really puzzling over the section attached to this song - to me, it's one of the stranger bits of the review. We do have to remember that this album was made in a period of seclusion for Dylan, in which he seemed to have no interest in the outside world (although he almost certainly kept up with it; this is a bright guy, after all) and attempted to create art with no real bearing therein. This isn't impossible to do - Nick Drake's final album and Emily Dickinson spring to mind - but it is a lot harder if you don't have those bearings in the real world, with any particular idea of what's going on around you. The funny thing is that you don't really get too much of that in Dylan's Electric Trilogy; even an album like Blonde on Blonde was becoming far more insular as Dylan started to disappear into his own navel. To be honest, the only real reason people think of much of that music as being part of the revolutionary 60s was that it was released during the revolutionary 60s. I do believe that songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" owe something to the changing times, and that Dylan was just as much a creature of his era as vice versa. But Dylan gave up real social protest in 1964. The music that RS crowd revered was no "Only A Pawn In Their Game"; so much of it was invested with meaning it was probably never meant to have. Marcus suggests that music can only be made in times before and after revolution - so what do we make of Dylan's music, supposedly the benchmark of a musical (and, arguably, cultural) revolution?
It's the last sentence, though, that really sticks in my mind: "but in the midst of it all artists sometimes move in to recreate history. That takes ambition." Aside from the fact that the sentence is somewhat confusing (in the midst of what? Revolution? The pre-revolution decadence? The post-revolution deluge?), you have to ponder if that sort of artistic movement really does, indeed, take ambition. Unless I'm missing something, what Marcus is suggesting is that these artists will dip into the past during times of great cultural foment, both to remind us of what has been and to show us what might be (those who do not remember the past, etc., etc.), and that requires some doing. In that, then, I am inclined to agree with Marcus to a certain extent - if Ridley Scott's Alien, released during Reagan's second administration, really is an allegory of the Vietnam War, then that gives it extra layers and displays ambition. The flipside to this coin, though, is that recreating history can also breed a certain amount of laziness, the whole standing on the shoulder of giants deal. For every great piece of art that draws on history, there are any number of others that fail miserably.
I assume that the whole rigamarole is in regards to what Self Portrait is - essentially a pastoral album, one made up of covers, older folk songs, and more contemporary "light" music. Not only does it not make any effort to recreate history, it more or less sinks into history, tethered to a certain era as firmly as the Pet Rock or a high-top fade. You could argue that the revolution, in all its ill-defined glory, had ended by now, with the Silent Majority fully in charge, and with a counterculture grasping for leadership and for something to tell them "it's gonna be all right, maaaaan". And Self Portrait is most assuredly not that album. That had to have pissed Marcus et. al. off to no end. I assume I'll be returning to this point as these posts go on, but it's still going to remain as valid then as it is now. Great albums transcend their era, after all. When you've tied music inextricably to its release date, you suck a lot of life out of it. Self Portrait had its life sucked out from the very beginning. Read more!
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
So what we've got here is Bob playing something that might appeal to his nature, an old folk song about a rambling old vagabond's misadventures during the Gold Rush era. That, right there, touches on three of Dylan's favorite things - Americana, tales of a roving ne'er-do-well, and his overwhelming love of gold (okay, that might be King Midas). It seems like a slam dunk on paper, and Dylan does his level best to live up to that billing, giving the tune a dramatic minor-chord acoustic arrangement (which makes it sound quite a bit like "As I Went Out One Morning", actually) and some really brassy horns on the chorus. And, for the first few verses, the song works really well, as Dylan puts quite a bit of oomph in his vocals and the band reacts in turn. If nothing else, this gave us the straight-out dumbest moment in the RS review, where Marcus suggests that Dylan, in singing "just like a roving sign", might have been deliberately avoiding singing "just like a rolling stone" in his take (I mean...really, Greil?), and that bit of comedy is worth something, I think.
The problem with this song, unfortunately, is that it overstays its welcome; the damn thing is five and a half minutes long, after all. I found myself thinking of Dylan's 1967 songwriting era, encompassing the Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding, and how Dylan had carved out a new songwriting style that waved its flag in the name of brevity. You listen to those songs, precious few of which even approached the four minute mark, and it's easy to marvel at Dylan's economy of songwriting, and of how he told stories and painted pictures and established vivid characters with startlingly few words. Now, "Days of '49" does this pretty well; it makes sense that Dylan would be drawn to a song that so strikingly tells tales of characters meeting their doom in the good ol' days or what have you. But every good storyteller needs to know when his story's been told, and at nearly 6 minutes the story's been told way too long. YMMV on this; I just sort of lose patience near the end, and judging by the way the band kind of staggers to the finish, I'd dare say they did as well.
This particular song's section is devoted to a small snippet of conversation between GM (Marcus, I'd assume) and JW (who I'd also assume is Jann Wenner), talking about this particular album and its lack of ambitiousness. Wenner suggests that it might be a good thing that Dylan's releasing something without any ambition to it, which I don't particularly understand, and never really have. Perhaps somebody can shed some light on that for me. Then, after Marcus suggests the obvious, the two of them reach a consensus on what Self Portrait actually is...a "friendly" album. And this statement, which I can only believe is meant as a putdown, is something worth thinking about. Because, let's face it, this really IS a friendly album. There's none of the acidic quality of his Electric Trilogy, nor some of the rougher edges of his immediate post-crash work. Self Portrait is the smiling face of Bob on the Nashville Skyline taken to its logical extreme, with a showman's eagerness to please thrown in, and with everything polished and spit-shined and cleaned up in a way a regular visitor of Branson, MO could love. For a Dylan fan - hell, for a music fan - that's an unsettling prospect.
And that plays directly into the era that music had descended into when Self Portrait was released. When Marcus says that "what we need most of all is for Dylan to get ambitious", not only is he playing directly into the "Dylan uber alles" attitude that led him to seclusion in the first place, but he's speaking for a generation that was losing heroes left and right and was starting to feel like the revolution was over before it really began. The dark side of the 1960s, the one the boomer generation tends to gloss over, is what I've talked about more than once on this blog - the idea that the hippies and peace lovers ultimately lost, that it was Nixon in the White House instead of McCarthy or RFK, and that a well-written tune really couldn't change the world after all. That's a sobering prospect, to say the least, and it's small wonder that hearing Dylan sing an album of standards and covers would've been even more sobering. Talking about peace and love is fine and all, but ultimately action is what counts (and, unfortunately, the flower power generation only got so far where that was concerned, but that's a subject far beyond the ken of this humble blog), and putting a smile on your face only takes you so far. That's what Marcus and Wenner are bummed about - Dylan, at a time where many were long past smiling, refused to take that big grin off his face.
And, right there, another piece of the puzzle that is this godforsaken album falls into place. One wonders how the cognoscenti of 1970 would've received an album full of brazen electric garage rock from Dylan, even if the lyrics were far below his mid-60s standards, and even if it was apparent that he was just putting this music out to placate those that so badly wanted placating, that just wanted Daddy Bob to say everything would be all right. Instead, they got an album of happy pablum, of Dylan strumming his way through "Blue Moon", for the love of Jesus, and seeming like he could give less than a damn about the fanbase that idolized him and pined every day after his public disappearance for him to return, like some kind of drugged-out MacArthur. And the lashing out and crushing reviews and disdain become that much more explainable. I'm not saying they're wrong that this album sucks - okay, "sucks" might be harsh, but that's as far as I'll bend - but you wonder how much of that anger is directed towards something that Bob didn't intend to be there. And, for that, this collection of harmless tunes deserves a little bit of sympathy, forty years on. Read more!
Sunday, July 26, 2009
I'd stated not two posts ago that I'd considered this song to be one of the highlights of an album not really noted for them; I made that statement based mainly on my memories of having heard the album some time back (this really isn't part of my regular rotation, as you might have guessed). Upon listening to the track again, I now believe I was mistaken. The RS writers pegged it pretty well as "a slick exercise in vocal control" - not that there's anything wrong with those, but it's not exactly something you would expect out of Bob, who has earned something of a reputation of not particularly giving a damn about how his vocals sound. If nothing else, the word "slick" aptly sums up what this track is all about, as everything sounds like it's been burnished to a glossy sheen with Pledge or something. Some might suggest that this is the perfect environment for Dylan's country croon; I think that taking that voice out of the more down-home rustic environment of Nashville Skyline and plunking it into (for lack of a better term) a huge wankfest does it no favors. It all adds up to a strange bit of business, a song that is more easily admired than actually liked.
Of course, that's not to say that people might actually admire this song - it's technically well played, sure, but that doesn't really mean anything. But what makes the song so difficult to like is what many Dylan detractors feel is a real weak point for Bob's music - the fact that he keeps you at an emotional distance. I don't really see how that's the case with much of his classics, but it certainly applies here; between the glossy production and Bob's droll vocal performance, there really isn't much genuine feeling that you can glean from this song. Seeing as how so much of music's appeal lies in feelings and emotions, that constitutes something of a problem. There is a lot more of that rote playing throughout the album, music with a certain amount of skill but not too much feeling, and that drags the album down more than the actual material Bob chose to record does.
This sort of leads, then, into the 3rd section of the RS review, where an unidentified person discussing how his feelings about this album make him question his feelings about Dylan's previous music, perhaps wondering if he'd overrated those songs and albums all this time. As part of this discussion, he plays the Isle of Wight version of "Like a Rolling Stone" again and ponders just what a trainwreck it is by comparison to the original. Now, while there's an element of this piece that feels just a little bit too pat (if anybody REALLY believed this music was comparable to what Dylan was up to in the mid-60s, he'd probably need his head examined), this does raise an interesting debate about what exactly music means to us and how we perceive music. We are, after all, talking about one of the most notorious albums ever released; there isn't a shortage of issues to discuss here.
In the opening section of that 3rd part, the anonymous speaker asks two questions. The first one is "was the mid-60s stuff not that good and this stuff is just as good?" Now, most of you would obviously answer "of course it is", and I'd be right there with you. There is, however, probably a very tiny minority of the population that would disagree, and would take songs like "It Hurts Me Too" and, well, this one over "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" and "Gates of Eden" and all those classics we know and love. Now, does this necessarily make them wrong for feeling that way, or make their opinions on music any less valid? Of course not. Still, I would assume that most people that listen to music and really, deeply care about it (for better or for worse) would probably agree that the Electric Trilogy knocks this album into a cocked hat. That cannot be a coincidence.
That leads into the second, and more interesting, question that was asked - "was it some sort of accident in time that made those other records more powerful, or what?" We all can surely concede that timing plays a major part in both making and breaking bands - think of how perfectly suited Nirvana was to break out as hair metal began to give way to alternative music, or any number of indie bands that toiled in obscurity during their time only to receive great acclaim after their careers ended. And I also believe that context has a huge part in determining the fates of certain albums and singles. As great as those Electric Trilogy albums are, it doesn't seem like a stretch to suggest that their reputations have received a boost from the mere fact that they were released in arguably the most fertile period in the history of popular music, and that their impact might not be as major if they hadn't influenced so many other artists (not that it's Dylan's fault in that regard). And a lot of the argument for Self Portrait as misunderstood comes from taking the album out of its environment (as an aside, the RS review should be read as entirely of its environment, the post-Altamont era where rock stars began dying off and the hippie era began to fall away) and listening to it outside its massive dead cat of a reputation. I don't buy those arguments, myself - quality and lack thereof transcends generations - but they're still there to be made, all the same.
What makes the experience of that anonymous friend so noteworthy is that, by worrying if one bad album tarnishes a host of good albums (it doesn't), he calls in to question the notions of what a good and bad album actually are. Ultimately, much like beauty itself, those questions are left up to the individual person. It's really kind of incredible that so many people can reach a consensus on anything that has its merit called into question, let alone something so artistically inclined as a piece of music. And it is the minority that isn't part of that consensus that makes debating music or film so much fun, trying to figure out if The Conversation is Coppola's real masterwork or if Dylan's truly great run was in the mid-70s instead of the mid-60s. Sometimes it's nice to have what you believe is true to be called into question. That way, you can know for certain just how true what you believe actually is. Read more!
Thursday, July 23, 2009
NB: From now on, I will be posting a link to the Greil Marcus Self Portrait review at the top of every post of this series. Take a look at it; it'll help with the posts. Trust me.
Perhaps I'm wrong and I've already forgotten something, but I believe this is the first studio track where Dylan has other singers offering backup vocals behind him. This will soon become more common in Dylan's music (especially on the next album, New Morning), but here it's a bit of a shock. That's really the only shocking thing about this number; apparently a traditional Bob adopted as his own (if GM's review is to be believed), "Alberta #1" is a sleepy little number that mainly showcases Bob's post-country singing voice and some quiet harmonica work, but not too much else. It's a fine song, if I can damn it with faint praise. I do find its presence here interesting in the sense that on an album named Self Portrait (I'm going to make much of this in the future, if you didn't already suspect as much), Dylan's chosen to include a traditional song he's now stated as his own song, much as he did on his first album. That's a sly bit of self-awareness right there.
So in the second portion of this review, Marcus relates a tale of a (possibly, maybe even probably) apocryphal radio DJ who's spinning the record and not getting anybody calling in to hear more cuts off what is usually a huge draw in a new Dylan album. Eventually he ends up conducting a poll of his listeners to determine whether or not the album deserves to be played any more that night. Whether or not the story's true, there probably were a few DJs who played this album (back in the days when you were allowed to do this sort of thing) to a rather baffled audience, and found themselves just as baffled by the lack of feedback about the whole thing. This was BOB DYLAN, after all, and not only was his new album a big ol' mishmash of...well, who even knows what to call this stuff, but there was nothing that really hit you the way any of his classic songs did, especially when coming out of transistor radio speakers. His best songs of the Electric Trilogy era practically leaped out of the speakers, grabbed you by the collar, and dared you to listen to them. These songs, on the other hand, sorta leaned back in a rocking chair, lit up a pipe, and said "well, you can listen if you wanna, no big whoop". That doesn't really work for the radio.
What I like most about this particular anecdote, though, is how it portrays something that basically never happens in radio anymore. I had a chat with one of my friends about a week ago, after one of my favorite DC radio stations flipped formats to sports talk, where we debated whether or not radio was a dying industry. Whether or not it is (I believe it is, he felt quite the opposite), there's no denying that the industry has changed in ways that clearly are not for the best, and that the tribulations of the music industry have a lot to do with that. There are some readers who might remember, or may have even heard, when a few Northeast radio stations played the acetates of Glyn Johns' original mix of The Beatles' Get Back, the album that would eventually become Let It Be. And these were major stations, by the way, stations that played popular music and basically decided to air an album that had yet to see official release. I'm not saying it's a good thing to broadcast bootlegs like this, but if it'd happened today the stations would've received massive FCC fines and may even have faced license issues, not to mention the fact that the album would've been chopped up over several long commercial breaks, live reads, traffic reports, and so on. That, basically, is what modern radio is today.
Much in the same way that the "event album" has more or less disappeared with the rise of file sharing, the splintering of popular music, and the decreasing in outlets for music videos to really boost the album's exposure (I mean, putting your song in a commercial just isn't the same thing, I'm sorry), the idea of radio as a way to really break an album is more or less disappearing as well. Popular music radio has always been single-driven, of course, but there were still outlets where entire album sides could be spun for those that couldn't afford record players or just wanted to hear an album before plunking down a few bucks for it, and there were still DJs committed to playing music in this format and giving artists the attention they deserved beyond a 5-second backsell en route to another 40 straight minutes of classic rock or whatever. That was the environment where an album like Self Portrait could be spun the whole way through at night, and where the DJ could talk to his listeners about what they were hearing. That sort of thing builds a communal experience. That communal experience is going the way of the dinosaur, I believe, or at least when it comes to music.
It doesn't really matter, in the end, whether or not Self Portrait was worthy of the airing that that DJ gave it that night, even compared to the worthiness of Dylan's classic albums. What does matter is that there was a forum for that album to be aired, and for people to call in, ask for a track to be re-aired, and maybe share a thought or two about what he or she was hearing. Maybe that will come back some day, beyond the fringes of college radio or outside the grip of major commercial entities that only care about ad revenue and sticking to the playlist and so on. I'd like to believe that this will happen. I'm sure I'm just being naive. Read more!
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Much the same way that peanut butter is inextricably linked with jelly, Bob Dylan's magnum anti-opus Self Portrait is now inextricably linked to its infamous review in Rolling Stone, with Greil Marcus' thoughts on Dylan weaved together with actual thoughts on the songs themselves. Thanks largely to Marcus' opening gambit "What is this shit?", coupled with Rolling Stone's nascent reputation as a cultural juggernaut (as opposed to whatever the hell it's supposed to be today - "wow, the Jonas Brothers AND PJ O'Rourke! Finally, all my dreams have come true!"), the reputation of Self Portrait was more or less instantly cemented to what it is today; i.e. a black mark on Dylan's impressive canon. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who go against the grain in this regard and hail Self Portrait as either a masterpiece (like Ryan Adams does) or at least not as bad as everyone says. And while they may be correct in that it's not the worst album ever recorded (that would be Metal Machine Music, lest you're wondering), it's simply not worthy of any type of reputation reconstruction. Simply put, it's not so much a terrible album as just an album. That isn't a good thing.
As you also might expect from a trainwreck that has assumed legendary proportions, people have spent vast amounts of time trying to figure out exactly what the hell these 24 (!) songs are all about. Eyolf Olstrem, proprieter of my beloved Dylan Chords website, put together a mini-essay that touches on some of the theories as to how this album - a double-album, let's not forget - came into being, and noted Dylan writer John Howells compiled a selection of quotes from Bob and some of the musicians on the album in order to piece together the mystery. Obviously, there's no real point in doing so, much as there's no real point in trying to get the answer out of Bob (he ain't telling), but the fact that there are people still willing to try says a lot. This is, plain and simple, a baffling album, all the way around.
It remains more baffling when you actually hear the album. What's really mind boggling to me isn't the fact that the album is godawful, so much as the fact that it honestly could have been so much more. Leaving aside "All The Tired Horses", a great (yes, I said "great") song that really does defy any kind of reasoned analysis, you can find some actual gems amongst the half-baked covers and sleep-inducing morass found here. "Copper Kettle", the Isle of Wight tunes, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know" (perhaps that's just me) - certainly for our iPod generation, there are a few cuts that I'd stash on my player without any second thoughts. The problem is that, in the presence of such mediocrity (and I mean that in its most basic sense - most of the songs are neither good nor bad, just there, kinda like a dust bunny or something), those gems lose their luster, becoming part of the furniture and little more. The really worrisome thing is that, perhaps, the really good songs were the mistakes all along.
For this series of posts, I'm going to try something a little different, if for no other reason than to possibly retain some sanity and not dedicate 20 posts to simply saying "what the hell can I say about this?" over and over. The review that Marcus et. al. wrote for Self Portrait can be found here. If you haven't read it, I absolutely urge you to - not only is it a nuanced and intelligent piece of work, not only is it less a screed or a complete takedown of the album than a concerned and well thought out look at a man at an obvious crossroads, but it's as fine a piece of musical criticism as we'll see in this or any other decade. It's also staggeringly pretentious, which makes it so much fun to take shots at. And with that in mind, I will be using that review as the baseline for MY reviews - not for all the posts (well, maybe - depends on how much will I lose as we go along), but for the majority of them. I'll talk both about the song in question, the RS crew's response to the song, and whatever Marcus is going on about for that particular song/number. I think this might just work.
Now, I can see you people either scratching your heads at just how meta all of this is ("he's reviewing a review? What?!"), or getting annoyed at how lazy just piggybacking on somebody else's work might be. And I don't blame you. But as I said at the start, the album and the review are more or less joined at the hip now, both of them actually helping to inform and explain the other, giving the album a life and a vitality it surely would not have if Rolling Stone had just opted for a simple "this album sucks" review. And I believe it's worth exploring both of those pieces of work, in order to get a clearer picture of both Self Portrait itself and the era that led to that fateful review. What the hell - if nothing else, this'll be more interesting than going on about Nashville sessions and what have you. To quote AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, "that doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth the time to figure it out — you're not going to find an answer, anyway — but it's sort of fascinating all the same." Indeed.
Of all the songs on this album that actually do receive any sort of publicity, "All The Tired Horses" is by far the most (in)famous. We're talking about a song on a Bob Dylan album in which Bob Dylan does no singing whatsoever, the actual vocalists sing a grand total of one lyric, over and over and over, (never has the "written by" credit meant so very little), and the single acoustic guitar is overwhelmed by a grandiose string section and some piercing organ work. Little wonder that the song has attracted so much attention - I can't think of a weirder environment for the tune to show up than in Manhattan* indie venue The Cake Shop (dig the one Self Portrait defender in the comments!), where a charming and off-key singalong morphs into a blast of shambolic rock noise. To be honest, the clanging cymbals and shaky strummed chords fit way better for the song than the operatic arrangement Bob devised for the tune. But that's just me.
As I wrote above, I consider this to be a great song; I don't consider it great in the same way "Like A Rolling Stone" or "All Along The Watchtower" is great, of course, but it is great all the same. What makes it great to me, given my puckish sense of humor, is just how bloody-minded the whole damn thing is. This, after all, is the leadoff to an album titled Self-fucking-Portrait, for the love of Jesus (has Bob ever blown more of a wicked raspberry to his fans than that album title?), the table setter for an astonishing twenty-four tracks that Dylan fans in 1970 had to have been waiting for with the same enthusiasm as every other release, and what do we get? A group of ladies singing that one cryptic (or entirely banal, depending on your point of view) lyrics, billowing strings, and a sense that either Dylan's having himself a heck of a laugh or...well, Dylan's having himself one heck of a laugh. Could you imagine hearing this album for the first time back then and thinking "wait, this is what the whole album's gonna be like?" That must've blown a mind or two back in the day.
That lyric has attracted so much attention both because it's the simplest/dumbest/funniest one Dylan's ever wrote (and it's really only funny in context), and because it's one of the most basic examples of Dylanology you could possibly imagine. See, when he - excuse me, the ladies - sing "how'm I supposed to get any riding done?", they actually mean "writing", you see, and this album's mostly covers and all, and the originals are all not that great, so...boom! Self-analysis! Self-portrait! Mystery unlocked! I, of course, would like to think that Dylan did that on purpose, a way to send the Webermans of the world hunting for some MacGuffin, the same way that Lennon wrote "I Am The Walrus" to make the fringe Beatles fans geek out. Sadly, I'm pretty sure that's not true, and that the strict poker face Dylan maintained all throughout the album (that's one of the reasons this album has its reputation, I think - if the WHOLE thing was played for laughs that'd be one thing, but Dylan approaches so many of the tunes in a straightforward way that the only humor is of a black kind) was maintained here. I mean, think of if Dylan really did mean "riding" and the song's about, uh, horses. How terrible and pointless would that be? Better to make the myth come true so we can print that myth, right?
The song, like all the good songs on this album, works better in complete isolation, perhaps shuffled between The Clash and Aimee Mann or something, or on a YouTube video like the one I posted above. Freed from the constraints of the album and its all-encompassing reputation, the strengths of this track are so much easier to digest. Much like "Good Night", the lullaby finale to The Beatles' masterpiece (also a track with lush orchestration and simple lyrics), "All The Tired Horses" is a gently beautiful piece of music, something that can lull you to sleep with a smile upon your face. And as much as I appreciate the fact that it holds pole position on the album that it does and that Dylan was clearly challenging his listeners with this song (though not in the way he had before), I think it might be better to think of the song as that kind of beautiful lullaby, as a gorgeous little tune with no aspirations other than to be a gorgeous little tune. Would that the rest of this album sounded like this song, so we could think of the whole thing as gorgeous little tunes.
*I'd originally written "Brooklyn" - my friend Jeff did/does sound work for them, and he lives in Brooklyn, so that's where the mistake came from. Read more!
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Special note: this post also encompasses Bob Dylan Songs #136, #141, #145, and #146. Four songs knocked off the massive mountain that is Self Portrait. Hooray!
PS: This sucker is LONG. Just a heads up.
And there we were, all in one place...a generation, lost in space...
...and freakin' Bob Dylan passed up our massive festival of peace and love to perform on a tiny ass island in freakin' GREAT BRITAIN two weeks later!
We've heard about why Bob Dylan chose to perform his first live show in three years, his first appearance in front of a concert audience since his self-imposed hiatus, and yet the very fact that Dylan stepped on that stage in Wootton with The Band is something of a mystery. Wikipedia tells us that Dylan was swayed by playing in the area of England where Lord Alfred Tennyson penned his immortal prose, and as a man of artistic and pretentious leanings, that seems easy to believe. Dylan's also made no secret of his disdain of the hippie community and his reticence to perform at a show basically in his backyard (in fact, it's been intimated that the site was chosen with Dylan in mind), and that almost certainly played a part in the proceedings as well. But that still only begins to tell the tale of Dylan's Isle of Wight '69 concert, a part of his mighty career that has been almost pushed into the shadows, a massive bit of history rendered practically obscure today.
About 150,000 people were there on that night in August when Dylan stepped back on the stage, performed a rather perfunctory set (the bootleg length comes out to less than one hour - remember, he was headlining this baby), and immediately retreated once again for five more years. That retreat might seem obvious in retrospect, given how the performance was received and is regarded these days (along with Dylan, perhaps, still in "family first" mode and only doing this performance with the strict agreement that it'd be a one-off), but anecdotal evidence suggests that Dylan was pleased with his performance after the show. Not everybody in that audience shared his opinion - there was booing when Dylan ended his set so early, and as I've stated, reviews of the show even immediately after were mixed at best. Still, there had been plans of an official live release (which is why Self Portrait has a few tracks from the show - might as well flesh that baby out with some stuff from the vaults), and it's hard to imagine The Band would've said no to a full-scale tour afterwards, even in the Nashville Skyline style of that particular show. It certainly would've been interesting to see how Dylan would've handled the rest of his catalog in that format.
Instead, no tour ever materialized, Dylan moved away from the country format for good, and we have only a fascinating one-off to make us wonder what might have been. So, forty years after the fact, I think it's worth popping on the show, giving it a thorough listening, and finding out for certain just what the 1969 Isle of Wight show was all about. Who knows, maybe a few of those myths and legends might be proven false...or absolutely true. All comments are made more or less in real time - I haven't heard this concert in years, and am listening more or less blind for a fuller experience. Here goes nothing...
TRACK 1: SHE BELONGS TO ME (BOB DYLAN SONG #146)
0:00 - Applause. You can't really tell how big the crowd is.
0:22 - The song immediately kicks off, much more up-tempo than usual. Dylan's country voice is right there, even more jarring than on Nashville Skyline, by dint of Dylan singing a non-country song. For whatever reason, the song starts with the 2nd verse - either that's just how Bob wanted it, or the tape had a cut there. Either way, a weird beginning to the show.
0:53 - Not that I'm some sort of voice coach, but Dylan's pitch is just all over the place. That's not surprising, given that it's hard to unlearn years of singing songs in a particular way, but worth noting.
1:29 - An off-mic shout leads into a Robertson solo. The Band have acquitted themselves nicely to this style (no big surprise), with Helm's drumming and the Manuel/Hudson combo standing out in particular. All the same, does anybody really think of "She Belongs To Me" as the type of song suitable for a good ol' down home jamboree?
2:15 - Levon Helm's shouting always puts a smile on my face.
2:18 - An indicator of the kind of mood the gang's in tonight - somebody yells "one more time!" and Dylan/Helm repeat the "for Halloween buy her a trumpet" refrain. A very showmanlike move, wouldn't you say?
2:37 - Amidst audience applause, various Band members say "nice to be here", then Dylan steps up with his only bit of interaction with the crowd - "Thank you very much. Nice to be here. Sure is." It's no "I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask" or "this song's dedicated to the Taj Mahal", I can tell you that much.
TRACK 2: I THREW IT ALL AWAY
0:09 - A smattering of appreciative applause as Dylan sings the first lines. What are you people doing? This is a collection of trite cliches! Stop applauding!
0:37 - Interesting - Dylan repeats "I threw it all away" at the end of the chorus and the band plays a quick little extra bar of music. The tapers give an odd little chuckle at this.
1:28 - No repeat of the above moment after the 2nd chorus. Even more interesting.
1:50 - Dylan's being really experimental with his vocal patterns in the middle eight, messing around with the tempo of his singing and sort of playing around with what key he's in.
2:16 - It should be mentioned that this song is being played at a slower tempo than on the album, allowing for a more dramatic performance all around. Robertson's guitar is being deployed all over the place, most notably in the final ending sequence, where the more gentle acoustic (or mandolin?) being played is replaced by some choice soloing. It sounds pretty darn good, all in all.
TRACK 3: MAGGIE'S FARM
0:13 - After a quiet acoustic strumming from Bob (who, I think, had an acoustic all performance long, which is another noteworthy fact in and of itself), the song kicks to life in skronky bar-band fashion. For those of you that ever heard the Woody Guthrie tribute performance, that's basically how this song sounds - it would have fit in perfectly next to "Grand Coulee Dam".
0:41 - A nice little touch - after Dylan sings an iteration of the "I ain't gonna work with Maggie's (x) no more" line, Helm and Danko join in with "no more, no more" refrains. It would've sounded terrible in any other arrangement, but here it works really great. One wishes this had shown up on Self Portrait instead of...well, we'll get to that later.
2:08 - Dylan forgets a line in the "Maggie's ma" verse. Unfortunately, we'll get to THAT later as well.
2:27 - Here's where the song really roars to life - Hudson's organ plays with circus-like intensity, and Robertson matches him step for step. I have to say, The Band can really bring it when they want to.
3:16 - This is one of my favorite performances of the whole show, and one reason to me why this iteration of Dylan would've made for a great tour. We all loved those Woody Guthrie tribute performances, right? How much different are those than what Dylan's doing here? If the '68 Dylan/Band duo would've been great out on tour, wouldn't this version have done just as well?
4:00 - Dylan tunes up the acoustic for a short solo set.
TRACK 4: WILD MOUNTAIN THYME
0:00 - Eric Clapton had some very nice things to say about this show, saying that it was fantastic and "you'd have to be a musician to understand it"; I'm not sure if that's true, but Clapton was a noted fan of this era, so who knows. One thing's for sure - this performance gives a lot of truth to that statement.
0:20 - I just adore the way Dylan sings "wild mountain thyme" here. This is by far Dylan's best vocal performance of the show; hell, I'd say it's one of his best vocal performances of the 60s. He does this song absolute justice.
1:20 - This performance is proof positive, if you ever needed it, that Dylan has great respect for his predecessors. We all know how much Dylan revered ancient folk music, but never really got to hear it before (unless you count him ripping off all those melodies, of course). Well, here he is, performing an old English folk tune, singing it as respectfully as he can, turning in a gorgeous rendition.
2:33 - Very appreciative applause. Dylan threw them a bone, and they loved it.
TRACK 5: IT AIN'T ME, BABE
0:52 - Dylan plays around with the arrangement here - holding a note or two longer than usual, throwing in a few odd chords after the "you say you're looking for someone" part. Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't quite sound right. Sometimes experimentation doesn't always work for the best.
2:06 - One of the main criticisms of this show is that Dylan's just mailing it in, that he sounds sleepy at times and downright lazy and preoccupied at others. While I think that's more a by-product of Dylan's country style and something that a) isn't really that bad and b) would've been worked out with more performances in this vein, I suppose it's this performance that could lend that criticism credence; it's a little disappointing to hear Dylan flatten out his delivery after the last track. He's not singing badly, by any means - but there's no real spark here.
2:13 - Dylan, almost like he forgot the chords, plays some weird bit of business on the acoustic. What was that about?
3:05 - A funny ending, as Dylan sings "it ain't me you're looking...for" and stretches that last word out. Maybe I'm wrong, but it kinda sounds like a vaudeville moment, something you might hear at the end of a barbershop quartet performance. I'm thinking of Bugs Bunny singing "good evening, friends" by way of reference.
TRACK 6: TO RAMONA
0:05 - More applause for this song - but how strange is it that this song made the setlist? Don't get me wrong, I like the song just fine, but it's sort of like when "Spanish Harlem Incident" showed up at the Philharmonic Hall show. An idiosyncratic choice, to say the least; then again, would you expect anything less?
1:10 - It's kind of gratifying to hear Dylan bringing a manner of vocal tics to this performance, as though he's trying to make this version of the song truly his. If you get my meaning.
2:19 - And as this song ends, without any hesitation Bob leads right into...
TRACK 7: MR. TAMBOURINE MAN
0:00 - ...which gets the most recognition applause so far.
1:10 - Dylan more or less plays this song the same way he would when he'd air it out on Tour '74, playing the song up-tempo and letting the words cascade so quickly that they almost trip over each other. Whether you like that is entirely up to you; I'm still marveling over Country Dylan having these words coming out of his mouth.
2:05 - A quick word about Dylan's sartorial splendor - for this show he came out wearing a cream suit (not unlike the Armani beauties the '96 Liverpool side sported before the FA Cup, for those readers across the pond), with a thin beard and short hair. A pretty cool ensemble, to be sure, but probably not what anybody was expecting or hoping for. No wonder so many think of this show as a letdown - from the moment he walked out, he was setting everybody up for that.
3:03 - The song ends here. I'll repeat - "Mr. Tambourine Man" ends here. The Band now comes back out for the rest of the set.
TRACK 8: I DREAMED I SAW ST. AUGUSTINE
0:21 - Dylan plays this song slowed down, giving Robertson another venue to spin off some laid-back guitar work. We get several feedback squalls - I wonder if the, um, unique microphone setup had anything to do with that?
2:10 - In lieu of talking about a fine, but otherwise unmemorable performance, I'd like to point out just how remarkably eclectic Dylan's setlist was this night. Sure, we got a smattering of the big hits, but take a look - five songs from his last two albums (compared to six from the Electric Trilogy - and one of those was "Mr. Tambourine Man"!), nothing from before 1964, a Basement Tapes song nobody's heard yet, a folk cover, "Minstrel Boy" (!), more songs from Another Side than Blonde on Blonde, and so on. For a one-off show, Dylan was not afraid to dig into his catalog and play what he wanted to, rather than what he felt should be played. Contrast that with just about every other tour since (including Tour '74, which basically took the opposite tack of this show). Perhaps knowing it was just the one show gave Dylan the sense of freedom to experiment this way.
TRACK 9: LAY LADY LAY
0:12 - One of the big disappointments of the concert; the gentle, light-hearted version on the album is replaced with something more leaden and ham-handed. I can't really put my finger on why - Helm does a good job replicating the quick-step drum arrangement, and the organ's out in fine force. But for whatever reason, what sounded joyous on record sounds thudding here. Maybe it's the chorus that hurts it; everyone opts for too much noise, instead of a lighter touch, and the song suffers for it.
2:10 - Case in point - the middle eight. Dylan almost howls his way through the lines, and the Band, all banged-out bar chords and lumbering rhythm, gives the song no sympathy at all. It's kinda hard to hear. The burst of feedback at 2:19 is no help, either.
3:21 - The song finally staggers to a close. Not a good outing; the '74 versions, while nothing like the single, are polished enough to actually sound better.
TRACK 10: HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED
0:05 - Already a surprise - Robertson cranks out wicked solos to replace the police whistle from the original version. The Band's coming out swinging here, that's for sure.
1:12 - This is where the "bar band" style fits in best; Dylan somehow manages to adopt his croon into something more vicious, Helm & Co. roar out the last line of every verse with gusto, and the group cranks out a particular acidic brand of rock here. This is about as much fun as this concert got.
2:31 - Hudson's organ really gets a chance to shine here. A few more hip-swingers like this, and we'd have a lot less complaints about this show.
TRACK 11: ONE TOO MANY MORNINGS
0:05 - About as mellow an arrangement as we ever got for this song; none of the slow-boiling energy of the 1966 version, none of the quiet longing of the album version. Dylan draws out the "thousand miles behind" line in a way he never would again. Not much to say about this version - it's not bad, but not great.
2:00 - While we're here, I'd like to mention that 3 of the 4 Beatles were actually in the audience; Paul, who was definitely persona non grata after the Get Back debacle, was not there. Harrison waxed rhapsodic about the performance; John's more measured quote has entered legend - "he gave a reasonable, if slightly flat performance; still, people were acting like they were expecting Jesus, or Godot, to appear". I think that's still the prevalent view regarding this show - the expectations were way too high to ever be met, and Dylan going the country route wasn't going to help matters. Again, it's worth wondering if a full tour of this type of show would have helped matters, or if Dylan hadn't chosen such a massive venue to try this style of music. Alas, we'll never know.
TRACK 12: I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT
0:00 - If you're still reading this, congrats.
0:01 - The song starts mid-line, which is probably just a terrible edit. It sounds like somebody might be playing an accordian; perhaps it's actually an organ with a different tone. Either way, it sounds really good in the context of the song.
0:58 - Robertson plays a type of solo here that sounds like the rippling notes he'd use for the Tour '74 "LARS" solo, and will do the same later. Kind of interesting.
1:35 - Just a note from the video - look at how Dylan's playing his guitar. Is he even making contact with the strings?
2:00 - Aside from the group stirring to life during the choruses, this is a rather lugubrious reading of this song. Considering how late it was when Dylan stepped on stage (it went from August 31st to September 1st as the show progressed), couldn't he have whipped out a few quicker numbers? It's not like The Band wouldn't have been suitable for it...
TRACK 13: LIKE A ROLLING STONE (BOB DYLAN SONG #136)
0:01 - Yes, the peak moment of the show, when Bob busts out his big hit (and why it didn't close, I'll never understand). So how does this version stack up to what everybody had to have been thinking about - either the 1966 version or the original? Read on?
0:34 - Bob blows the "you used to laugh about" line. Not a good sign.
0:48 - The backup vocals sound out of place; strange, since they sounded fine in '74, but they definitely do here. The arrangement sounds close to the single version, although the mid-tempo trot is definitely different, and The Band sound like they've only had perfunctory rehearsal (which they may very well have had). The "bar band" thing works for fun rockers, not for majestic pieces of work like this one.
2:04 - Another blown line. Jesus, Bob, it's "LIKE A ROLLING STONE", for Pete's sake!
3:05 - And now we skip the "you never turn around to see the frowns" verse. I mean, is he TRYING to annoy the crowd at this point? At least he doesn't blow any more lines here.
3:47 - Here's an odd moment - Dylan sings the word "refuse" and sounds almost exactly like Van Morrison. Hmm.
4:53 - And that's it. Not a total travesty, but certainly not worthy of inclusion on any album, even one like Self Portrait. You'd have thought rehearsals would've made the performance less ramshackle and allowed Bob to remember all the lines, but apparently not. I feel vaguely dirty.
4:56 - This was the end of the first set, right? That, at least, would make some sense.
TRACK 14: I'LL BE YOUR BABY TONIGHT
0:14 - Well, if Bob & Co. wanted to wash the bad taste out of everyone's mouth, they do a darn good job with this version. The backup versions now sound more fun than misplaced, the mid-tempo arrangement suits the song perfectly, and Dylan's country vocal is maybe what the song should have had all along. The perfect song for all the hippies in the audience to discreetly light up a doob.
1:25 - Dylan and Helm sound like they've having way too much fun with the "bring that bottle over here" line. That put a smile on my face.
2:46 - As the song wraps up, it's worth wondering how more Nashville Skyline songs would've been received. Would the reputation of this show have dipped further? Or would more people have appreciated hearing the songs in a live context that would've allowed them to stand out? It's interesting to ponder.
TRACK 15: QUINN THE ESKIMO (THE MIGHTY QUINN) (BOB DYLAN SONG #141)
0:01 - Everybody comes charging out, guns blazing. I've gone on record saying this version is my favorite "Mighty Quinn" out there, and I stand by it. The low-key original has a lot to go for it, but what it has is nothing compared to the high-octane performance here.
1:27 - Dylan's "whoa, guitar!" shout before another pointed Robertson solo might be the most emotion he summons throughout the whole show, other than the whole of "Wild Mountain Thyme". By the way, if you never hear this show, I urge you to at least seek that track out. It is a beauty.
2:26 - It really is great that a spot of prime real estate was given to a Basement Tapes track, of all things. Not only is the version fun as heck, but it's a sly wink to the more in-tune cognoscenti in the audience. You have to love that. Of the four songs from this show on Self Portrait, this might be the one I'm most glad made the cut.
TRACK 16: MINSTREL BOY (BOB DYLAN SONG #145)
0:01 - Some really great harmonies on the choruses, I should point out.
0:35 - You wonder who the "Lucky" is that Bob's singing about here; not only is the song called "Minstrel Boy" (like a singer, you know?), but he mentions a "Mighty Mockingbird" and even goes into first person at the end ("...but I'm still on that road"). Was this song written to deliberately tease us poor souls?
2:44 - This is a pretty good song, make no mistake. It has a sweet chord progression, a fantastically sung chorus, and some really interesting lyrics about loneliness and burdens. And somehow, it makes sense that it's on the grab bag that is Self Portrait - the song really wouldn't have fit anywhere else. Too bad it had to be a jewel in a dung heap.
TRACK 17: RAINY DAY WOMEN #12 & 35
0:01 - A definite crowd-pleasing way to end the show; the song cuts off at 1:01 on every version, so I can't really say much more than that. Everybody has a grand ol' time singing the lyrics, the Band rides shotgun behind that now-famous riff, and that's pretty much that.
Talk about a work in progress. You could see that Dylan and The Band hadn't quite figured out what would work and what wouldn't; there was too much emphasis on slow songs, not enough thought into what older songs would work in the country vein, and moments that were outright painful. On the other hand, when things clicked, they really clicked - Dylan proved he could adopt that croon in a different environment, the raucous rockers were energetic and fun, and some of the arrangements were quite inspired. This could have been the start of a very special chapter in Bob's career. Instead, we just have the first chapter of a book never written. Such is life.
Thanks for reading, if you made it to the end. Coming up next - the weird, wild, and not particularly wonderful world of Self Portrait. We'll soon see what stern stuff I'm made of, won't we?
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Author's note (boy, I've had a lot of those recently, haven't I?): Keep reading below the post for two special announcements, one regarding the next post, and one regarding the blog's future.
Maybe it's those opening bars, with the pedal steel guitar coming together beautifully with a really cool piano line. Maybe it's the oddly thick guitar notes played all throughout the song. Maybe it's the funky middle eight, that pedal steel soaring to great heights and Dylan hitting the high notes in a way that suggests that some real skill does go into his vocal performances. Or perhaps it's just the way the song written, a few simple chords arranged perfectly into a gorgeous and fitting closer to the album. Whatever the reason, "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" stands as my favorite song on Nashville Skyline, one of my favorite closers to any album, and a song that I would put on a Dylan mixtape for somebody trying to explore further into Dylan's massive body of work. It's a sentimental favorite, what can I say.
For one thing, "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" boasts probably my favorite musical arrangement on the album, on an album that's chock full of fun musical moments (even "Nashville Skyline Rag", with its fun banjo work, has something to be said for it). That pedal steel, an instrument that almost immediately conjures up country music whenever you hear it, is used here to devastating effect, swooping between Dylan's lines and adding extra emphasis when he's not singing. And the piano adds an extra sweet counterpoint, like a musical flourish at the start and end of the track. People tend to make a lot about how simplistic country music tends to be, and while I don't disagree with many of the complaints (modern country music, in particular, doesn't seem to have much going for it), there is still a great deal to like in the best of country, just like in the best of any genre. And one thing that I've always enjoyed, even with crappy country music, is its differences in instrumentation, with pedal steel guitars, violins, banjos, and other things you don't always hear in music coming to the forefront. It's almost like hearing a different language, and that's always cool.
The other thing that I've found interesting about this song, especially as I get older, is the actual subject matter of the song. What Dylan's singing about, and I never really thought of it when I first heard it, is a tale of a man who is apparently visiting some town or whatever, has fallen in love with a woman there, and now has decided to give up his train ticket (I always liked that "if there's a poor boy on the street" line) in order to stay with his newly beloved and do all sorts of things not actually mentioned in the lyrics. That's a take on the love song you don't always hear; it's not a tale of a devoted relationship, nor is it simply about a one-night stand with some girl the narrator will never see again. Instead, you have Dylan singing about actually having what was supposed to be a one night stand, and becoming so enamored with the woman in question that he's prepared to chuck everything in his life ("throw my troubles out the door") in order to just stay with this woman. That's kind of sweet, isn't it?
It's somewhat educational to compare the album take of this song with the version played on the Rolling Thunder Revue's first leg, as heard on the official Live 1975 album. Whereas this version aims for a sort of modest declaration of love, the RTR's version comes on far more strong (as evidenced by the "you came down on me like rolling thunder" line, which Dylan always sang with a great deal of panache) and packs a more overwhelmingly sexual punch. Of course, the arrangements have a lot to do with that, as the 1975 version swaps out the pedal steel and piano for roaring guitars and Scarlet Rivera's bewitching violin (along with a lot more shouting), and Dylan had rewritten the lyrics to give the song a totally different energy. The narrator in this new version is more insistent of his desire ("you got to understand/that tonight I'll be staying here with you...get ready!") and seems a lot less innocent ("I could have left this town by noon/by tonight I'd been to some place new"), almost like Dylan was inserting his current touring incarnation into the song rather than the random traveler/businessman/whoever of the album version. It's the same song, but with a whole other meaning behind it.
We can be thankful, then, that Dylan kept that sexual energy latent or completely absent in the album version. The kind of blatant come-hither aura that permeates the RTR's version (and the RTR in general, really) would have been incredibly out of place in the pastoral setting that Nashville Skyline resides in. Instead, we have a take that still exudes joyfulness, but in a much more innocent way. It's a charming ending to a charming album, maybe the most charming Bob ever recorded.
First, a word about the next entry in the blog. I'm already starting to break out in hives thinking about starting up the Self Portrait series, so before I delve into that album I'm going to do something rather more fun. We all know about Dylan's performance at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival with The Band, an unexpected and often overlooked moment in his career. Recently a new version of the concert tape surfaced in the trading community, a definite step up over the barely listenable Frankenstein's monster that was the original version. And, in the interest of giving more attention to a strange part of Dylan's canon, I'm going to be listening to the show and writing up my own running diary, to be posted on this site. I urge all of you to download the show, pull up the diary on Monday, and follow along with me as I give you my thoughts about a truly unique show. Join me, won't you?
And now, a word about me. I would say about 99.99% of the readers of this blog don't know me personally, and so none of you would really have an idea as to what I do when I'm not writing this blog. Well, starting in August I will be attending the University of San Diego School of Law, giving up three years of my life in the hopes of "making something of myself" (he says with a wry smile). I bring this up not just because it'd be cool to meet any readers from San Diego, but also because I'm not entirely sure how this will affect this little project I've undertaken. Now, lest you think I'm saying goodbye a mere decade into Dylan's career, fear not - I will still be making posts and reading comments and so on. This blog is not going away. However, whether or not I'll still be posting at the same clip...that I don't know. I might be going to one entry a week, maybe one entry a month. Okay, definitely not one entry a month - I'd like to finish this project before I pass on. But the chances that I continue to provide the same amount of content every week seem slim. At any rate, I wanted to let you all know in advance. I'm still continuing the blog, and I hope you still continue reading and commenting.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
I was sorely tempted to just post live videos of "Country Pie", much like I did for the "Nashville Skyline Rag" post, but it was probably pushing it to do it the one time. Besides, Lord knows that there are times where I have to dig deep to find things to talk about with some of these tunes; "Nashville Skyline Rag" really doesn't inspire much outside of "hey, an instrumental", so it seemed better to just have a little bit of fun. "Country Pie", essentially, serves the same function as "NSR" does; a lighthearted piece of music, essentially the equivalent of what you'd play at a hoedown or hootenanny or some other word for country-music dance, and a bookend for the end of the album the same way that other song works as bookend for the start. The major difference is that "Country Pie" has lyrics, which allows it to fall in for more scrutiny, certainly way more than it deserves. "NSR", just a quick two-minute banjo showcase, ultimately gets taken off the hook. "Country Pie", which might as well be an instrumental for the depth of its lyrics (although "Lil' Jack Horner got nothing on me" is worth a smile), doesn't get let off that easy.
This is stepping on something I'd like to get into more in-depth down the line, but one of the topics Greil Marcus gets into in his infamous review of Self Portrait is the idea of Dylan's past work giving him the freedom of creativity. As Marcus puts it, Dylan basically created an entire legend out the body of work he created between 1965 and 1966, music that "defined and structured a crucial year" - you would think Dylan's tremendous acoustic work beforehand would fit in to that legend as well, but never mind. And, by dint of that legend, Dylan basically has been afforded the privilege of being able to record whatever he wants to, essentially trading on the goodwill afforded him from his previous work, regardless of whether or not it has any merit. To quote again, he "doesn't have to do good, because he has done good. One wonders...how long he can get away with it". And while he's not talking about Nashville Skyline, you can certainly imagine him tossing it in along with the rest of Dylan's "disappointing" post-1966 output (it'd be nice to ask 1970 Marcus what he thought of John Wesley Harding, but that would probably bring on another judgmental rant, so perhaps it's best that can never happen). Songs like "Country Pie", a little lark to say the least, probably don't help matters.
Now, I can certainly fill up an entire post talking about this little bit of sermonizing Marcus saw fit to give us (to be fair, it was a different time that Marcus wrote that in), but I'd prefer to save that and just concentrate on this one song, one that I happen to like and consider a fun ol' time. A song like this one, surely, would be considered by 1970 Marcus to be another instance of trading on goodwill, Dylan simply having himself a goof because he can. And, of course, he's absolutely right. To which the obvious rejoinder, one that you might actually have in your mind right now, is "so what?" The great thing about those fantastic albums, the ones that made Dylan the man that he was in 1969, was that they didn't have any ambitions of turning Dylan into some sort of Greek god or giving him a reputation as Jesus with a six-string (and the fact that they did clearly made him uncomfortable); you never got the feeling that Dylan set out to deliberately make music that would cause the earth to move. And those albums had their share of less-than-amazing music, like all classic albums do - not to mention songs clearly meant to put a smile on the listener's face like "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" or "Absolutely Sweet Marie". Dylan has a sense of humor about himself, and a showman's desire to entertain. "Country Pie" showcases both of those traits, but does it in a more direct way, and thus is not worthy of praise. I don't see how that works.
One of the more surprising moments of Dylan's latter-day touring career was in around 2000 or so, when for whatever reason "Country Pie" started getting semi-regular airings on stage. Usually clocking in at a brisk 2 and a half minutes or so, the song generally works as a chance for the band to strut its stuff (Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, in particular, get to whip up some fiery guitar solo) and get the audience movin' and groovin'. Not only is that a cool thing - it's not exactly as though Dylan's catalog is chock full of dance songs - but it illustrates what a song like "Country Pie" can be under the right circumstances. I've written any number of words about Nashville Skyline being an album that shows that Dylan can appeal to our heart and feet, just as much as he could appeal to our brain. To close this post out, I think I'll let Dylan and His Band do the work for me.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Author's note: My original post was accidentally deleted, so I'm more or less stitching this together from memory. With any luck, it's better than the original.
One of the more gratifying aspects of Dylan's career, so diverse and full of albums that sound remarkably different from each other, is that any number of his albums can grab your attention for long periods of time and not let go until you've fully exhausted the joys of that particular song cycle. While this type of obsessive listening can lend itself to adverse results (for a while I'd pegged Desire as Dylan's best album, whereas today I don't even consider it the best representation of that era in Dylan's career), on the whole that sort of nonstop listening can prove to be truly rewarding. As you might expect, I bring this up because I spent the first week or two after my first time hearing Nashville Skyline cueing it up again and again, pulled in by its hit-and-run brevity (one can make too much of this, but let's face it - this album is great at 27 minutes and would be interminable at 54), the catchy tunes, and that (in)famous croon. How can it not be such a weird standout, especially if you start with the Electric Trilogy or BOTT like just about everyone else?
A song that caught my attention from the first time was this one, "Tell Me That It Isn't True", a song that I still enjoy to this day. It has one of the best intros on the album, a gently rising guitar line backed up by some really nice organ work (the organ playing throughout is a real standout on the album, understated yet always well-deployed). Some of the best lyrics of the album can be found here, with Dylan's narrator quietly pleading for his woman to affirm that the rumors of her infidelity are false and that she really is faithful to him. And the band arrangement, gently adding emphasis to Dylan's singing (mainly aided, again, by that organ), is as good as it gets here. For an album that boasts a strong internal consistency as one of its strengths, in that the songs all suggest each other without sounding like each other (if that makes sense), this is one of the songs that helps hold that consistency in place. It's not a stone cold classic like "Lay Lady Lay", but it's well worth the listen.
It occurs to me, as the Nashville Skyline series winds down, that one of the main talking points of this album is also one of the most ultimately irrelevant. I'm talking, of course, about Dylan's voice on this album, the high-pitched singing style he'd adopted for these ten (well, nine) songs alone and would only adopt once more, for his shambolic joke of a cover of Paul Simon's "The Boxer". It's always been debated as to where that voice came from - be it a side-effect of quitting smoking, or a conscious reverting to his singing voice from 1960, or whatever it is. But I think that concentrating on where the voice came from kind of obscures the main question - why that voice came to be. I touched on this earlier, but that question seems to have an obvious answer, as well as an important one. I'll put it like this - imagine a song like "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", with its vicious barbs towards some poor fictional (?) woman, and imagine it in the smooth Nashville Skyline voice. Now take "Tell Me That It Isn't True" and try to hear it in Dylan's sandpaper and grit snarl from Highway 61 Revisited. It just doesn't sound right, does it? Just as the lyrical styles are so very different - if "Tell Me That It Isn't True" had been written in 1965, the woman's infidelity would not even be a question - the voices Dylan used to sing those lyrics matches so very well. You want rough edges for 1965 Dylan's poetic slings and arrows, and you want baby skin-smooth sounds to match 1969 Dylan's charming, folksy words.
For an album that, lyrically, appears to have no preconceptions or hidden motives, it also shows a remarkable amount of self-awareness on Bob's part. He knew perfectly well that nobody would accept the Dylan that sneered his way through "Positively Fourth Street" singing songs about laying in a big brass bed or throwing his suitcase out the window. And he also knew that his regular voice had no antecedent in country music's already-rich history to that point, and any country fans that picked up this album would be instantly turned off if they heard "I Threw It All Away" in even the less-rough vocalizing found on John Wesley Harding. So Bob reached into his bag of tricks, pulled out a vocal style that he'd either never or very rarely tried before, and used it to his absolute advantage. It is that singing style that stands as the absolute hallmark of this album, and that is because the singing style works so very well. Kudos to Dylan for taking that chance, and making it work for him. Read more!
Thursday, July 9, 2009
"One More Night", like the other songs on this album (with the possible exception of "Girl of the North Country"), is the type of song that could have been recorded by any great country artist and would have sounded just fine. Note that I didn't say "any country artist" - there is enough poetry and rhythm in the way Dylan stitched the lyrics together to make it virtually impossible for some hack to write and perform the song the way Dylan did on Nashville Skyline. But the original point still stands; this is a song that paints a universal sentiment, more or less removing what we'd consider Dylan's own original voice from the equation. It's this removing of his voice that is usually the bane of contention when it comes to this album, where Dylan's usage of the occasional cliche and the more common impersonal phrase gives the album more distance than it should have, the equivalent of a great painting of some random landscape or a bowl of fruit or something. One wonders just how personal, say, "Gates of Eden" or "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" actually were, but that's a whole other post.
Let's assume that Dylan wasn't recording this album purely for any financial/career-linked considerations, and that he was genuinely interested in following that thread he suggested at the end of John Wesley Harding to its logical conclusion and exploring a genre of music that legitimately interested him. The question, then, is one that's been puzzling for a full four decades: why did Dylan choose to completely hide his writing voice? Putting aside the thorny issue of what exactly that voice actually is, we can reasonably state that whatever that voice is, it isn't anywhere to be found on the nine songs with vocals found on this album. Did Dylan really believe that there was no way to record a country album with any sense of "authenticity" (whatever THAT means) or "legitimacy" without sticking strictly to songs of love and the absence thereof? Why not any songs about growing up poor or running from the law? He's made up those stories before - would anybody really have called him out if he penned a few ditties on those subjects? And, most of all, why has Dylan "dumbed down" his approach to lyricism, giving us an album that could very well have been written by one of the country artists I mentioned in the initial post for this album, rather than the Bob Dylan we know and love?
Roger Ebert, who has been keeping up a blog that suggests he may have missed his true vocation when he decided to become a film critic, has posted a couple entries related to the steaming pile that is the second Transformers movie and his evisceration of a review for that particular dud. The most recent entry is a spirited discussion about our current cultural divide, where the educated and intellectual are derided nonstop for being "elitist", "snobby", and so on. Although Ebert stops just short of saying this, he also advances the notion that the great majority of the general population is of average intelligence and below, and tends to confront those in the other part of the spectrum with fear and disgust. He's right about this, of course. He also challenges people to keep their minds open and curious, to seek out higher forms of entertainment, and to never simply settle for big explosions and cheap jokes about poop or doing it. He's right about this, as well.
But there's something of an undercurrent to this argument that I think deserves some discussion. I'm not talking about the insanely trite "it's just entertainment" excuse that people have been chucking at Ebert; if you are willing to settle for lowest common denominator in that which stimulates and entertains you, where else will you be willing to lower the bar? I'm talking about the idea that the masses do need to be entertained, and that occasionally they will not want to be entertained by something that shakes us to our very core and makes us question God or the meaning of life or what have you. For most people, life is hard. Life is a constant struggle of doing work you probably don't like, living in a relationship that isn't always perfect, maybe having kids that give you migraine after migraine. The vast majority of Americans deal with traffic jams and 401(k)s, with going to McDonald's because they're too tired to cook, and with paying insane bills just so they can TiVO some Food Network show and watch it on Saturday when they have an hour to spare. And, these days, most Americans are dealing with a painfully crippled economy still struggling for signs of recovery. These Americans are, I'm sad to say, just not going to be appeased by The Seventh Seal or, yes, even by Blonde on Blonde, and the odds are good they never will be. Do they not have a right to be entertained?
Look, I think Michael Bay peddles a particularly odious brand of filmic garbage (no wonder Ebert, a man who has dedicated his life to great films, hates that movie so much), most music people download for ringtones tends to suck big time, and a certain amount of artistic power has to be present in even the lowest forms of entertainment for that entertainment to have any merit at all. I also think that too much can be made of this. People sometimes just want to laugh, just want to hear music that makes them happy, and so on. We don't have to make too much out of those impulses. Now, if ALL they want to do is just laugh or just listen to happy music or whatever, there's a problem. But emotions don't always have to be deep or thought-provoking.
That brings me to Nashville Skyline, an album that has sold its fair share of copies and somehow managed to entertain despite not reaching the same dizzying intellectual heights that Blonde on Blonde has. People like this album just fine, without pondering why Dylan's used such a nondescript lyrical voice or why the album wanders between all of two separate themes. And that, to me, is okay. Dylan, in recording this album, didn't worry about any snobs-against-the-slobs cultural war or being taken to task by people who'd already grasped what "It's Alright, Ma" is all about and now feel almost let down by an album that doesn't force us to approach it with that much brainpower. He wrote a bunch of songs that sounded good to him, recorded an album that he wanted to record, and that is that. A piece of art that simple doesn't need to be twisted around like some kind of Rubik's Cube. We can let it just be what it is.
Author's note: for the readers of this post that come via Expecting Rain, please note that if you go to the main page, below this entry is an article I wrote yesterday about Michael Jackson and what might appear to be a tangential, but I think is quite interesting connection to our man Bob. I invite you all to read and comment. Read more!
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Author's note: For the purposes of this mini-essay, let's take it as read that the author has a)listened to his fair share of Michael Jackson, just like everyone else, and b)has any number of MJ-related life anecdotes he could share if pressed upon. Those types of articles have been done. This, I hope, is something a little different.
I, like many of you, have read more than his fair share of tributes to Michael Jackson in the two weeks since his untimely passing, and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that you can sort of see the music - his reason for his all-encompassing fame, let us not forget - being shunted aside by discussions both of that head-spinning global fame and the subsequent descent into tragic human cartoon leading up to his death. That's not to say that there haven't been celebrations of his music; we are talking, after all, about a musician who boasts a catalog of chart-topping hits and utterly classic pop songs that place him on the highest echelon of all-time artists. But, in the end, there is really only so much to talk about when it comes to those great songs, whereas any speculation about his sordid private life or the circumstances of his sudden passing generate far more ink with far less effort. There's only so much you can say about how awesome "I Want You Back" is, but when it comes to those molestation accusations, there isn't enough paper in the world - just read all those (admittedly excellent) Vanity Fair articles about him, which could be the foundation for a book all on its own.
In fairness, the flipside of that coin is that there's so much speculation about Jackson's private life because what we know about it (or think we know) is astounding enough to warrant attention. When it comes to writing about his music, though, what is there to say? You can just cue up "I'll Be There" or "Rock With You" and everything that needs to be said is right there in the track, in Jackson's splendid voice (a constant all throughout his career) and in the ebullient production he made sure to surround himself with. The man's discography defies belief - how many bands can boast even ONE #1 single, let alone the slew that Jackson has to his credit? And it isn't the kind of chart-topping success that we'll all be embarrassed of in twenty years, like the inexplicable success of MIMS or something. Not only did Jackson record a staggering array of great songs, but he also has two unimpeachable classics in his repertoire - Off The Wall and Thriller, albums that basically stand as the pinnacle of what pop music can be. And Thriller, in particular, completely redefined what it meant to have a hit album; you could easily argue that Thriller changed the record industry, plain and simple.
And therein lies a huge problem. Much the same way that Jaws and Star Wars changed Hollywood forever by introducing the summer blockbuster (the ramifications of which we're still dealing with today, and not in a good way), Thriller changed the game in terms of how albums were presented to the public, in terms of marketing and consumption, and basically introduced the idea of album as full-blown media event. That the music on the album is top-notch almost seems secondary; let's not forget, though that the music IS top-notch, and all those records didn't move on hype and fancy-schmancy videos alone. Still, the public would forever brand Jackson as the ageless goose laying golden 45-shaped eggs (well, until they branded him as something entirely different), and that would be the image that would pursue and (to some degree) haunt Jackson for the rest of his life.
There's a tragedy, and some irony, to this - Jackson, by virtue of recording the most successful album any person has ever recorded, was trapped by that success, encased much the same way that Han Solo would be encased in carbonite in the second Star Wars movie. Now, I'm not going to suggest that Jackson ever had a plan to branch out in different directions, that he would ever (ahem) record a country album, or that his brand of synthetic R&B/pop/disco/ballads/etc. was ever going to change before Thriller rendered that option moot. What I am saying is that Thriller DID render that option moot, and Jackson knew it. Every album, from there on out, started to resemble what happens when you Xerox a Xerox - it may be close to the original, but it's not the original. Take a look at the tracklisting to The Essential Michael Jackson, which very cleanly splits his career to pre- and post-Thriller, and try to tell me the second disc is in any way superior to the first. Sure, it's got its share of good to great songs, but unless you're a big fan of treacly Messiah-complex ballads, you're better off with the first disc.
And that brings me to where I can only assume you suspected I was going; with our man, the one and only Bob Dylan. Let's think of Bob Dylan at the crossroads in 1966, after Blonde on Blonde basically coalesced what we all consider the "Dylan sound" and his career had been derailed by the locked-up brakes of a Triumph motorcycle. At this point in history the music industry hadn't become the major-label beast of Jackson's career and the media hadn't become quite as pervasive as it would in the 1980s (to say nothing of today), so Dylan could basically go away and take a year off in peace. He wasn't beholden to a litany of commercials, music videos, tour appearances, and any number of public forays. And, most importantly, he didn't have a slavering public demanding more Billboard smashes (well, he did, but surely not to the same degree as Jackson did) and a blind rehash of BOB. It was this environment that allowed Bob to stretch out mentally and reconsider his current path, to have a couple doobs and roll some tape with The Band, and to shift his career in a new and completely unexpected direction. In other words, Dylan had an environment ripe for creative growth and change, one Jackson would never get the chance to experience, and he leapt at that chance.
Pop music, at the risk of being painfully obvious, is a completely different animal from what Dylan was cranking out in those halcyon days. We're not talking about much in the way of spreading your wings creatively - so much more comes in the craft of the music and the production than in the lyrics (Dylan's everlasting forte). I mean, have a look at some of Jackson's lyrics - he wrote his share of clunkers, that's for sure. Then again, so did Bob. We have hints of the depths that Jackson could plumb on occasion; considering how many of his songs dealt with fame and obsession and darkness, perhaps "hints" is selling things short. And it could have been something truly exceptional to see Jackson really dig deep, maybe with the help of an outside writer, to find some really interesting and thought-provoking things to say about his fame and the way his life was being scrutinized non-stop. Instead, we get "Leave Me Alone", a song so immaculately produced that it really takes the truly strange music video and a perusing of the lyrics to fully comprehend how goddamn dark that song is. Jackson had a whole second career, one where he could have been the foremost commentator on our celebrity culture and on the gasp-inducing pressures of fame, and it slipped right through his fingers. That, to me, is a great shame.
Perhaps it's pointless for me to suggest that the greatest pop artist of this or any other generation should have eschewed doing what he knew how to do just so he might have the "experimental album" tucked away in the recesses of his discography. And it might be unfair to say that just because arguably our greatest musician ever could take a different tack in his music, so could Jackson. This may very well be true. And yet it's hard not to listen to something like "Smooth Criminal" or "You Rock My World" and not wonder if maybe these songs didn't have the same immediacy as, say, "Wanna Be Startin' Something", that the flag had already been planted and there was no real need to just stick another flagpole on land already claimed. Now, those late-career songs have given many people great joy, and I can't possibly argue with that. But he has plenty tunes that gave people joy, recorded years before, and with far more artistic merit. When a man passes away, it's all too easy to wonder what might have been, or how the story could have been different. And we've had plenty of thought given to the side of his life that does the man disservice. I think it's worth thinking differently about the part of him that stands as the reason he entered our consciousness in the first place. Read more!
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Note: I could make up an excuse for why I forgot to do "Peggy Day" in its correct chronological order, but instead I'll just ask for a mea culpa on this one. Hey, one mess-up out of 120 songs ain't bad, right?
You know, as much as I've made my opinions known about the people that have ragged on this album, a song like "Peggy Day" kind of makes me think those fellows might have more of a point than I'd originally want to concede. Sure, the song is a pleasant trifle, with some neat chord changes and a fun bump-'n-grind finale that has Dylan channeling Elvis (if not for the first time, surely the first time on vinyl). But "pleasant trifle" doesn't really begin to describe how slight this tune is - the lyrics are, well, not the most complicated I've ever heard (children's album...hmmm?), and it's not really a good thing when it feels like Bob's actually padding in order to hit the two-minute mark. As an album filler and part of the aesthetic of the album, "Peggy Day" isn't too bad. As an actual song worthy of being judged for its merits, well...
It kind of says something where people give Bob some stick for writing a song with lyrics so slight that they don't even work well for a quickie country tune. I realize that what I just wrote will sound like a massive insult to country music fans (of which I know a few, both of the modern variety I don't care for and the Cash/Haggard variety I can get behind), so I hope I can elaborate a little bit. There is nothing in our human experience that says that all music needs to be extremely complicated in either its lyrical content or its production values - if so, all we'd be listening to is prog rock or something like that. And you don't even need to have music reach the level of Dylan's lyrics on Blonde on Blonde or the musical interplay Radiohead reaches to touch somebody on an emotional or intellectual level. Country music, which generally doesn't get too complicated in its lyrical content or overly ornate musically, can easily reach the emotional and intellectual heights the best of music has to offer. Think of "Mama Tried", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Lost Highway", and so on.
Now, with that being said, when somebody talks about "country music" certain expectations are usually raised. Some of them are based on our own biases, which is unavoidable; some of them, like the subject matter ("There's A Tear In My Beer", etc.) are often accurate. And that is where a song like "Peggy Day" gets into trouble - by virtue of the fact that it's SO simplistic, so willing to completely buy into the pickin' and grinnin' model some people find distasteful, and so bereft of the qualities that makes the great country music songs so great (other than a certain uncomplicated charm), it speaks to the ingrained idea many people (including myself, on occasion) have about country music. And that's not entirely Bob's fault - nobody said his little country album had to change the world, or even change the way we think about country music. Even the most cursory listen to the album shows that Bob was more interested in adopting to country music and its genre qualifications, rather than make country music bend to what we consider Dylan's music. But it's one thing to immerse yourself in a musical genre, and something else entirely to play to the expectations of that genre. And that's not a particularly good thing.
In the end, I'm not going to say that I haven't tapped my foot to "Peggy Day" or that I automatically skip past it whenever I take Nashville Skyline out for a listen on the ol' iPod. It's not an actively bad song, and I get quite the kick out of when the song goes into that little shimmy at the end. But I can never shake the feeling that Bob probably scribbled out the lyrics on the back of a napkin or something and slapped the tune together as quickly as he could in order to get that running order up to ten songs (seriously, the only way the album could have been any shorter would've been for Bob to make it an EP). And that feeling, I assume, turns off people when it comes to this album - not just the idea that Bob recorded a country album, but that he recorded it so quickly and haphazardly that a song like this, cutting-room material for any other album, instead made the final cut. That may not be a fair assessment, but it is an understandable one. And that kind of assumption is what makes Nashville Skyline an album far more discussed and debated than it might actually deserve. Read more!
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Even if you had no prior knowledge of Dylan's career before hearing "Lay Lady Lay", it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that this was the first and biggest single off of the album. That famous intro (the swelling organ, the wandering pedal steel, and what suspiciously and awesomely sounds like a cowbell), combined with the catchiness of those deceptively rote verses and the little guitar lick we all know from the chorus, adds up to a song that sounds like it would be right at home being played by DJs coast to coast. It also wouldn't surprise you to know that this song has taken a spot on just about every Dylan compilation there is, often as the only Nashville Skyline representative, including (somewhat oddly) the pole position on Dylan's sprawling and always-interesting Biograph. And you might not even be surprised to learn that "Lay Lady Lay" was Dylan's last Top 10 hit in the US and one of the biggest singles of his career. That's the kind of song it is; both gently unassuming and almost astoundingly commercial-friendly.
The one impression that's always lasted with me in regards to this song is just how beautiful it sounds, especially in the context of a career not always noted for care and craft when it comes to studio arrangements. I know that "Lay Lady Lay" was recorded as quickly as any other number of Dylan hits - in a session that lasted all of ten days, there probably wasn't too much attention paid to any one song. And yet I can't help hearing the song and feeling like Dylan wanted this song to sound as immaculate as possible, from the burnished sheen of the organ to the way he pushes himself vocally on the middle eight. In a way, that actually makes the song more endearing; nominally it's a track about a man beseeching his woman to spend a night with him, but in its recorded version it takes on a more dignified air - what could've sounded like cheap come-ons instead sound like gentle, emotional pleas. I'm not sure that would've happened without the studio band's fantastic contributions.
One wonders what a blow this song must have been to all those Dylan fans that were expecting him to continue to be their birds-nest-haired hero after 1966; not only did it come on a country album, for the love of Pete, but people are BUYING this tripe and requesting it on the radio! Given Dylan's other top-tens ("LARS", "Positively 4th Street", "Rainy Day Women"), "Lay Lady Lay" is the obvious anomaly, both in its date of release and its sound. But what's interesting (and probably was infuriating back in those heady days of 1969) is that "Lay Lady Lay" sounds the most like a radio single, whereas the other songs sound like great songs that just happened to be played on the radio. There is a difference. I'm reminded, thinking of the chart success of this song, both of William Goldman's famous maxim about Hollywood - "nobody knows anything" - and the judge who made a ruling on pornographic materials by essentially saying "I know it when I see it". These are two diametrically opposing viewpoints, and yet they both can work when it comes to a song that becomes a big hit. We never know why a song can blow up on the radio and Billboard charts, but when we hear it somehow it becomes more apparent. "Lay Lady Lay", when you hear it, just sounds like a song that should be coming out of transistor speakers.
Dylan, surely, knew this as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Bob Dylan wrote "Lay Lady Lay" so he could get one of those fancy schmancy gold records to hang up on the wall of his den or something. But Dylan knows what's what when it comes to music, and it's no surprise that "Lay Lady Lay" has played a prominent role in his live career when he returned to the stage. He gave the song an airing during the Isle of Wight concert (one of a whopping six post-crash songs out of the 17-song setlist), and also included the song as a mainstay of the Tour '74 setlists (one of far less post-crash tunes, along with "Forever Young", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", "All Along the Watchtower", and a few random Planet Waves tunes). And every tour since, more or less, has had at least one airing of the song (including the 1976 version, which I consider an abomination; that's probably not the majority opinion). Hey, even Dylan likes to satiate the masses sometimes.
It is with the release of this song that we see the end of Bob Dylan as a singles artist, somebody capable of ruling the radio for a few weeks with a song that you can't spin the dial without hearing. That's not a bad thing, of course - it's not like Dylan hasn't kept commercial appeal, with his mid-70s resurgence and his 2000s back-to-back chart toppers - but it's still something that we don't really think of when we're assessing Dylan's career. Not only is Dylan one of the defining artists of his generation (if not every generation), but there was a moment where his tracks rubbed shoulders on Billboard and Cashbox and Melody Maker and the NME with the Supremes and the Hollies and, yes, the Beatles. Yeah, it was a different time, but it's still funny to imagine our hero pushing product (like he did by appearing on The Johnny Cash Show) and having his 45s advertised in magazines. Ah, nostalgia. Read more!