So, Bob Dylan is 72-years-old today. Bob Dylan being that old is not a problem, I think. He wears his age well. As I believe I wrote elsewhere recently, David Bowie being 66 seems a lot stranger than Bob Dylan being 72, and Bowie is a rather uncomfortable and indeed creepy-looking senior citizen. (No offense intended.)
Bob Dylan, on the other hand, started out old. It’s taken him this long to actually become as old as he sounded on his first album. Arguably, he may still have some ways to go. He might be 80 years-old, singing “In My Time of Dyin’” on that debut record.
But he didn’t remain 80 for very long, and he certainly has not aged in the conventional human pattern. Not long after that first album, he obviously got quite a bit younger (“I was so much older then …” etc.). Around 1965/66, Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde, he was maybe in his late twenties or early thirties. (Although legally and chronologically, he was 24 – 25.)
He made a short foray into his sixties around the time of Nashville Skyline, lazily crooning those old standards he’d just written.
By 1974, and Blood On The Tracks, he had rewound from that and was firmly entrenched in middle age (though his birth certificate asserted that he was 33). Soberly and somberly, he looked back over a life of lost loves and lost chances. Desire, then, and the Rolling Thunder tour, was a mid-life crisis, throwing caution to the wind, dressing silly and hitting the road.
In the mid-1980s, when Bob Dylan was in his early forties, he actually seemed to be that very same age on his records. He sounded just like he was in his early forties! Maybe that was why he felt so apparently disjointed and was dissatisfied with himself and his music.
In the early 1990s, with Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, he sounded at least 20 years older than his actual early-fifties-self, and decidedly more comfortable in his own skin. [Read more →]
This is exceedingly déjà-vu pour moi, but I can’t quite resist responding to a current news story related to Bob Dylan.
Dylan apparently has been in the running to receive France’s highest honor, the “Légion d’honneur,” but according to news outlet France 24 his nomination has run into some trouble due to the discovery by the leader of the relevant committee that Dylan has a history of “drug-taking” and “anti-war protesting.” Actually, for this story France 24 references what it describes as a French satirical newspaper named Le Canard Enchainé, so that gives one some reason to wonder about the veracity of the “controversy.”
In case it is a real controversy, however, it’s worth pointing out that perhaps a fair look at the record would indicate that Dylan likely doesn’t merit disqualification on either count. As far as drug-taking goes, no reasonable person would doubt that Bob Dylan has encountered and used drugs of one kind or another, especially in the swinging sixties, but the fact remains that he has never been arrested or charged, let alone convicted, for even the most trivial kind of drug possession. So although we may be quite certain he has done it, it remains hearsay, legally speaking. And further, he has never been in the habit of talking about drugs or promoting the idea of taking them.
Interestingly, (Sir) Paul McCartney has apparently already received the named award; he, by contrast, has drug infractions on his record, and is pretty much a public booster for marijuana and its related forms.
As for the anti-war protesting: while I’m not sure why this would even be a disqualification in and of itself, the article in question takes it as given that Dylan actually did a lot of that kind of thing. [Read more →]
Happy Easter, again! Today, May 5th, was Easter Sunday for those Christians following the Eastern Orthodox calendar (a not inconsiderable number).
Reaching around in the muck of my memory for a song to reference in celebration of this fact, I thought about the big concepts of Easter, and thought of various songs about “rising again” and the like, but it was only when I thought of the rolling away of the stone that I thought of a song that piqued my own interest, because it is a song that is relatively-little-known but looms large in my own recollection, for one reason or another. Actually for a really simple reason: the song, “Something’s Burning, Baby,” was released on the album Empire Burlesque, in 1985. It was the first album that Bob Dylan released after I had become a fan of Bob Dylan, which I did in the 1983/84 time period, at the age of sixteen. So when Empire Burlesque was released in 1985, I think it felt for me kind of like what Highway 61 Revisited must have felt like for people who were Dylan fans back then. I recall an intense feeling of anticipation in advance of the release date, and a sense of wondering: “How is Bob going to blow my mind anew with this one?” To many, this will seem comical, since mid-80s Dylan is commonly mocked—as it was then—but that didn’t (and doesn’t) matter. To me, it was 1965, and every new song from Bob could not but be a dramatic revelation, a brand-spanking-new tablet carried down from the mountain.
People tend to remember fondly the pop-music they listened to during their teen years, their coming-of-age years. It’s a distorted magnifier, associating the music with their biological intensity of feeling during that time. There are those people—very many, in my perception—who essentially stop listening to popular music in any engaged fashion after that period, and it then becomes only a matter of nostalgia. Oblivious to anything else, if they happen hear a track from their youth (by Depeche Mode, the Cure, Journey, take your pick) they suddenly become enormously animated, singing along and gesturing wildly, as if everyone present ought to appreciate how wonderful that song is. [Read more →]
Yours truly and his better half happened to be watching the classic western movie “Bend of the River” the other night night (directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy), and I had one of those weird Bob-Dylan-fan-déjà-vu moments. A line spoken by one of the characters started a Bob Dylan song going in my head, but I didn’t quite locate which song it was in my mind until after the film was done. The line is spoken by Arthur Kennedy (playing the outlaw Emerson Cole) to Jimmy Stewart (playing the reforming-outlaw Glyn McClyntock), as Cole is leaving McClyntock behind after hijacking the wagons that were bringing desperately-needed supplies to some settlers in Oregon. Previously, the Stewart character had saved the Kennedy character from being hung by vigilantes. Since then, there had been a number of additional violent scrapes, and Kennedy’s character had arguably saved Stewart’s life at least a couple of times. So, after robbing and abandoning him, he says this to Stewart/McClyntock: “I figure we’re even. Maybe I’m one up on ya.”
I wonder if the dear reader has ever seen “Stop Making Sense,” the Talking Heads concert film made in 1984. If not, then you really ought to (and it’s currently watchable via YouTube). If one was around back then, and a fan of popular music, it was pretty much impossible to avoid the hoopla over it, and the movie was an enormous success in theatres worldwide. Looking at it now, it might at first appear amusingly anachronistic. Our eyes are so accustomed to super-glossiness, to computer-generated imagery (that’s CGI to you young folk) and quick-edits that “Stop Making Sense” could seem visually slow and almost muted. But it’s neither one of those things, of-course. It’s a brilliant concert film, undoubtedly one of the best ever made, from the opening with David Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” with just his acoustic guitar and drum-machine track, right to the end, with the band slowly increasing in size as the show goes on, and the whole thing building and building and building and leaving you with the sense of having witnessed pure genius. The filming made the music the center of the experience, and the band are so into their music that it is an unalloyed joy to watch.
I thought of “Stop Making Sense” recently when I watched (not for the first time) the concert film made from Bob Dylan’s performance on April 20th, 1980, in Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada. It too is currently available on YouTube, although the film was never officially released. Whether the failure to release it was due to the dim view that some Columbia execs took of Dylan’s gospel music, or some combination of factors, I don’t know, but the moment passed, although copies of the professionally shot and edited film have been circulating among collectors for all these decades.
I was reminded of “Stop Making Sense” for a few reasons. Firstly, there just aren’t all that many full-length concert films from that era. Film was/is expensive, and you need a lot of cameramen and equipment and it’s a lot of trouble and moolah. (In the digital era it can be done quite a bit more easily, if not necessarily better.) Secondly, the glorious gospel stylings of Bob, his band and his backing singers couldn’t help but remind me of the Talking Heads’ swampy-gospelly-type numbers. In their case, they are painting from the gospel palette with more or less of a degree of artistic distance from its origins; in the case of Dylan and his people, they are just doing it dead straight, and giving it everything they’ve got. Thirdly, you’ll notice watching the Bob Dylan-Massey Hall-Toronto-1980 film that little if any time is spent showing the audience on screen (until the final encore). Much was made of this approach being very important in the making of “Stop Making Sense.”
Am I saying that Jonathan Demme (the director of “Stop Making Sense”) or David Byrne saw the bootlegged “Bob Dylan in Toronto 1980″ and decided to copy some of its style, four years later? It would be interesting to ask them, but nah, I think it’s more likely just a case of great minds thinking alike, with the intent of conveying a concert performance on the screen in the optimum manner.
And the “Bob Dylan in Toronto 1980″ film does succeed. It is galvanizing, from the opening number (“If I’ve Got My Ticket Lord, Can I Ride?”) by Regina McCrary and the other lady singers, through their whole opening set, and from Dylan’s appearance on “Gotta Serve Somebody” through to the final encore, “Pressing On.” Two hours and twenty minutes worth. They leave it all on the stage, most especially Bob Dylan himself. I think that you do not need to share the particular religious beliefs professed in the songs to be left breathless by the performances.
It would have been Bob Dylan’s first official full-length concert film, had it been released in 1980. That honor went instead to the “Hard to Handle” film in 1986, showing Bob Dylan backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Australia. (Curiously enough, Bob’s performance of “In the Garden” from the Saved album was taken from mid-concert and made the opening number of that movie.) “Hard to Handle” is a lot of fun for a fan, but, as I think Dylan himself has acknowledged, he was a little bit lost around that time on stage, and at times it seems like he’s playing the role of a rock star—a role that he’s never pulled off too well. As a film, it’s arguably a little bit pedestrian as compared to the unreleased Massey Hall 1980 show.
The Toronto 1980 film should be released, of-course. I don’t even know who directed the filming and edited the version that is out there, but they did a great job, and they deserve credit. People who’ve seen the bootleg would gladly buy a high-quality packaged version. Marketed right, it could even be suprisingly huge; anyone who thinks that religious stuff doesn’t sell ought to take a look at the rating for “The Bible” series that was on TV recently.
There’s nothing embarrassing about looking back at Dylan during this era. What he did, and how he pulled it off, was amazing. His lack of embarrassment about it is clear enough from his participation in the “Gotta Serve Somebody – Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan” project a few years back and the fact that he still performs a gospel-era song when he feels like it. Even the “gospel rap” he speaks during the Toronto show is unembarrassing; the world hasn’t changed so much since then—only gotten more dangerous—and his advice about needing a solid rock to hold onto seems quite as relevant as ever.
(And, while they get around to releasing this film officially, maybe “they” could also get around to giving Saved the complete remix and remaster which it has needed since the day of its release.)
At least, in these latter days, it’s not quite so difficult for this undeservedly-obscure classic in the history of musical film-making to be shared.
Fred Tackett (guitar)
Spooner Oldham (keyboards)
Tim Drummond (bass)
Terry Young (keyboards)
Jim Keltner (drums)
Opening act and backing singers for Bob’s show: Regina McCrary (then Regina Havis), Clydie King, Gwen Evans, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Mona Lisa Young.
Very recently uploaded to YouTube by “Prism Films” (who I presume owns the footage) is an interview from 2004 with the late Jacques Levy, a lyricist and theater director who is familiar to Bob Dylan fans as the co-composer of many of the songs from Dylan’s 1975 album Desire.
It’s divided into nine clips of roughly four minutes each. Part 1 is at this link. I’ll embed Part 2 below, which is where Levy starts getting into the nitty gritty of the collaboration. That goes through parts 4 or 5, and then he starts talking about the Rolling Thunder tour, where he engaged in the role of director. [Read more →]
Many Christian churches this morning would have featured a reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, including this passage which might have evoked a certain melody in the minds of Bob Dylan fans:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Revised Standard Version)
The phrase “upward call of God” was “high call of God” in the King James.
Of-course the refrain of Bob Dylan’s song “Pressing On” goes like this:
Well I’m pressing on
Yes, I’m pressing on
Well I’m pressing on
To the higher calling of my Lord
And there’s really not much more you can say but that, which is probably why the song is largely just that refrain repeated over and over again.
Killing two birds with one stone on this Day of Saint Patrick, I am embedding a live version via YouTube below from two talented Irishmen, namely Liam O Maonlai and Glen Hansard. [Read more →]
Well, no sooner do I announce that I have become a Welshman than everybody wants in on the act. Now it is being reported that Bob Dylan is considering playing a gig in the city of Swansea, Wales, during 2014, to honor the centenary of the birth of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
This is a little bit of a turnaround for Bob, as he used to push back aggressively at the idea that he took his name from Dylan Thomas. However, he seems to have relaxed about that whole thing, even reading some Dylan Thomas poetry on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show a few years back. Yet, Dylan Thomas might stand as one of the few poets Bob has never actually “borrowed” from (unless I’ve missed it along the way). Their work doesn’t share much in the style department. I take as accurate Bob’s account (I think in Chronicles) that he was set to name himself “Bob Dillon,” but then it occurred to him that spelling it as “Dylan” just plain looked better. And I think we’d have to acknowledge that he was right about that.
Bob may not have been a particular fan of Dylan Thomas’s poetry back then, but that has little to do with whether he is one now. Another intersection of their lives was the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, where Bob Dylan spent a fair amount of time in the 1960s, and where Dylan Thomas, sadly, spent his final days in 1953.
I like them both, both Dylans, and, for that matter, almost anyone named Dylan, because I am, after all, a Welshman now.
If Bob does play Wales for the Dylan Thomas centenary, the odds are very good that he’ll just do the same gig he always does and leave without any special acknowledgement of the occasion. At least half of those attending will walk away going, “What the hell was that?” and some displeased reviews will be written. Should Bob wish to avoid this—although I don’t think he cares to avoid it at all—let me give him some advice, as I have been Welsh now for several weeks and I know a little about these things. [Read more →]
This is an obligatory Dylanosophy post, given the lines in Bob Dylan’s 1983 song, “Union Sundown.”
They used to grow food in Kansas
Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw
I can see the day coming when even your home garden
Is gonna be against the law
Yep, well, that day’s long come and gone, Bob. In truth, it is not especially news that virtually everyone in the United States is burdened by regulations and restrictions that keep them from using their property in ways in which they would choose, while doing harm to no one. People often opt to live in communities where everything is homogenized and sanitized, but sometimes the choice gets made for you. The latest story is really only news at all because the couple in question—in Orlando, Florida—are fighting back against the city which is telling them that they’re not allowed to grow vegetables in their front yard. They (Jason and Jennifer Helvenston) are now launching a protest campaign called “Plant a Seed, Change the Law,” seeking to win back the right to grow carrots and radishes on one’s own land in Orlando.
The city of Orlando is on track to begin fining them $500 a day, beginning Thursday. [Read more →]
“Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan” is on show at New York City’s Gagosian Gallery. It was unveiled last Wednesday and runs, God willing, until January 12th, 2013. I was slightly surprised to hear that Dylan was having another show at the Gagosian. It was little more than a year ago that they hosted his “Asia Series,” which visitors were led to believe had sprung from his time spent traveling in Asia, but turned out to be sourced directly from a bunch of old photographs (taken by other people). I thought at the time that this might be a little embarrassing for the gallery. But, I guess it’s true what they say: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And, indeed, I think that old adage would make a pretty good subtitle for the current exhibition, a display of thirty re-imagined American magazine covers which is part burlesque show and part horror show, with the lines pretty blurry between the two.
In addition, it is quite comic. At least, the missus and I did our fair share of chuckling as we perused the thirty silkscreen-on-canvas creations. The handful of other visitors who were there at the time seemed considerably more somber and I hope we didn’t spoil their visit with our giggles.
The two images being used to promote the show—”BabyTalk” and “Playboy”—are quite typical of what you’ll see if you visit. Is it high art, or is it just humor somewhere on the level of “MAD” magazine? (That’s one magazine cover which is not featured, by the way.) I would say more the latter than the former, but I have neither the credentials nor the motivation to make a definite determination. One thing did occur to me: Whatever these things look like now, they will be quite a bit more interesting if they are exhibited one or two hundred years from now, as a visual commentary of sorts on America from about 1960 to 2012 by the late, great figure of that time, Bob Dylan. (Though that still doesn’t mean they are necessarily great art.)
And I’m not an art critic. Different people will take different things from looking at these works. (How often does an art critic say something like that?) But some of the things that struck me are as follows.
The photos of the women on these magazine covers run from lascivious to pornographic. Male faces and figures are usually battered and covered in blood. Sex and violence is the basic consumer product being highlighted. The porn-flick and the Colosseum. (Even the hoity-toity “Philosophy Today” features a nude woman, albeit a little more classical-looking.) The text of the various headlines then reads like a hierarchy of consumer interest: vanity, gossip, conflict, and a little something cultural or intellectual tossed in like salt and pepper. The names of politicians, celebrities and the references to events in the news (notably wars) are interchangeable and bear no relation to the dates on the magazine covers, conveying a sense of there being a continuum of all the same kinds of stuff repackaged and resold over and over again. [Read more →]