Another perspective on rock history pt.2 – Bob Dylan
After a late night discussion with the editor of this webzine about all sorts of music, from Swedish guitar titans Georg Wadenius and Janne Schaffer to the cryptic connections between goth-rockers Sisters of Mercy and canadian folksinger Leonard Cohen we eventually landed on the question of why he had such a hard time writing an article about the central pillar of his musical world, Bob Dylan.
Dylan is another one of those artists that I have a very ambiguous relationship with, just as my relationship with Lou Reed and David Bowie. Now I would not go as far as to say that Dylan is in any way even half as important in my audio world as Lou Reed or Bowie but he has still played a significant part on my musical journey. At one point a very significant part if I am being perfectly honest. After a while we kinda decided to share the duties on Dylan, to write about him from our different perspectives.
Now. I never understood the whole idea of the political folk scene in the 60’s, or any politically based music scene of any time really. This is probably the reason why I also never really understood the hip hop scene when it started to make a lot of noise in the early 90’s. I have always been much more into the experimentation with combining rock and poetry that started to emerge in the mid 60’s and it is Dylan in that context that I connected with.
True. Even during his early rock years Dylan was still very political. He always have been, more or less and always will be I suppose. But from the first time I heard him explode in a raging fast paced version of Highway 61 Revisited on an old cassette I had found in a box I bought at a five and dime store I just knew I had to see what the eff I had missed. The year was 1986 right at the end of my randomised purchase period where I bought albums based solely on the covers, titles and maybe even band names and up until then I had basically only heard Blowin’ in the wind by Dylan. Bearing that in mind it has to be said that with very few exceptions during this period I was of the opinion that acoustic guitars were lame. I’m fairly certain even this many years later that I had rejected a few Dylan albums during that period because of this. (I was after all only just 16 at the time and deeply submerged in a bog of goth and post-punk but I was on my way out of it through that experiment with randomness. And in the end I much prefer the version of Blowin’ in the Wind as covered by Neil Young on his live album Weld)
The tape that gave me a different view on Dylan later turned out to be the album Real Live from 1984. A fairly recent release at the time. Real Live also contains a brutally electric version of his early folk song Masters of War which I have to say fit the lyrics so much better than the original version ever did.
With this new discovery pulsing through my head I did what I’ve always done in those situation. I began buying in bulk. So the day after having heard Real Live for the first time I was at my local record-dealers’ browsing through every Dylan record they had available. In my pocket was a note with the songs from the cassette and I just wouldn’t give up until I had found every last one of them. I don’t remember exactly how many records was needed to achieve that but it was more than a handful that’s for sure most of which instantly became favourites. But the one that would really catch me and burn itself into the very core of my musical soul was not among them. I will get back to that in a separate review later but people can go on as much as they want about Highway 61 Revisited or Bringing it All Back Home all they want. but for me the definite Bob Dylan album is the magnificent double album Blonde on Blonde.
Over the next two or three weeks I submerged myself in four of those six albums, (yea, I never really got the whole acoustic folk song thing on Free wheeling or Another Side).
Bringing it All Back Home got me wondering when I read up on the scandal it had caused back when it was released. Sure I know it is a matter of perspective, just as the scandal caused by Stravinskij’s Rite of Spring or Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, but still. Yes he’s added a backing band, so what? It’s still mainly driven by an acoustic guitar and harmonica. I read one story about how Pete Seeger had been trying to cut the cables during one of Dylan’s first shows with a band. That’s quite an exaggerated reaction in my opinion. It’s not like he abandoned his social pathos or politics.
If anything what Dylan does on Bringing it All Back Home is to carry on the tradition of the blues singers of old who whenever they could played with a band rather than on their own. And in all honesty Bringing it all Back Home contains some of his best songs ever. My personal favourites here are Subterranean Homesick Blues, She Belongs to Me, Love Minus Zero, Outlaw Blues, Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and the closing It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. Alright most of it is quite good even the whiny version of Mr Tambourine Man is okay and even though I fail to see what the scandal was about I do recognize importance when I see it.
Bringing it All Back Home changed Dylan’s career on the deepest level, which is of course what he was saying with It’s All Over Now Baby Blue but the real show of artistic courage comes on the follow up Highway 61 Revisited. Here Dylan clearly states that he will not budge, compromise or give in to those who called him a traitor. Instead he flips them the finger and turn up the volume even more and comes out a fully fledged rock artist. The generally acoustic feel that was still present on Bringing it All Back Home is gone. Even Dylan’s voice seems to have adapted to the new style and sound. The most obvious change though lies in the change in lyrical style. Highway 61 Revisited is where he really let it all come out lyrically that is. The lyrics are wild and untamed and yet so perfectly constructed. Had I not already discovered Death is a Star by The Clash I’m sure this album would’ve been my poetic starting point. It sure opened my eyes to T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound. That much is for sure. It also lead me to discover the beats, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. These discoveries I will always be thankful to Dylan for. Just as I am to Syd Barrett for introducing me to Lewis Caroll and Kenneth Grahame.
To name favourite tracks from Highway is indeed a difficult task because there really aren’t any fillers here. It’s one great song after the other. If i do it in reverse instead and try to name one song that I wouldn’t miss if it had not been included then I’d say that has to be From a Buick 6. That’s not to say it’s not a good song but it feels like a bit of a slump in between It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry and the epic Ballad of a Thin Man.
I will not talk about Blonde on Blonde here as I am going to write a separate review on that so let’s fast forward to the ultimate divorce album Blood on the Tracks. I won’t say too much about that either since I have a feeling that there will be a separate article on that too, in response to this article. I will only say two things about it really. Blood on the Tracks is a great comforter when you’ve had your heart ripped out, stomped on and dragged down the street through the filth until all that remains is well … the title of the album. The other thing I will say about it really has more to do with the follow up Desire where he kinda apologise to his ex wife for writing Idiot Wind about her in the song that bears her name. At least that is how I have chosen to interpret the fact that he focuses on the good times they had before times got bad.
The most recent of the albums I bought during that day was Infidels and in all honesty it is without question on of my all time favourite Dylan albums. All the way from Jokerman to Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight it is one fabulously great song after the other. Neighbourhood Bully is perhaps my absolute favourite political song ever, rivalled perhaps only by Sonic Youth’s Youth Against Fascism.
There are a few things that make this album quite intriguing. one of these have to do with the people Dylan approached as producers before settling on Mark Knopfler: David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello. All of those three unmade albums would have been very interesting to hear, especially the Bowie and Zappa versions.
The other is the Jamaican rhythm duo Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass who I always felt were responsible for that naturally flowing swing that runs through the album.
Infidels also marks a return from a more religious period of Christian conversion and three evangelist albums. Whether the title in any way refers to some sort of disappointment with believers who are more concerned with following the word of televangelists than of god I don’t honestly know but it seems a logical idea.
Soon enough I went looking for more Dylan albums but in all honesty I have found only two albums after these initial five that has caught my attention enough to incorporate into my record collection. Desire is the first of them. And then well … I’m sure there are stuff out there that I might like but I stopped looking after having drawn 5 losing tickets in a row after Desire, until the fourth instalment of the bootleg series Live 1966 – The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is another was released in -98.
There it is then Bob Dylan from my perspective.
During a late night discussion about blonde on blonde with former editor of Fokusera I must give Down in the Groove the benefit of a doubt and return to it a few more times after which it possibly becomes the eight Dylan album to make the cut.
Av: Nicklas Ekström, Landskrona