Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Next To Last Thoughts On Bob Dylan (Part 2)

Well, yesterday was Bob Dylan's birthday, and I feel compelled to say something about it. Not too compelled, obviously, since I didn't do this yesterday, but I do love Bob and I want to salute not the mere fact that he's made it to 70 years old, but the fact that he did it while remaining a vital creative force. Sure, his voice is truly shot now -- and I say this as a long-time lover and defender of his never-ending croak -- but he still has the ability to shock, surprise, delight, and piss off his fans, and that's something to be grateful for.

I discovered Bob Dylan in 1984, as a junior in high school -- probably the perfect time to discover Bob. I'd been on a decade-long Beatles bender, and my idea of expanding my musical horizons was listening to Beatles solo albums. But at least that had exposed me to John Lennon's serrated Plastic Ono Band LP, so I was prepared for music a little more fierce and complex than the Fab Four's pefectly polished pop. Actually, now that I think of it, George Harrison's overtly religious solo work prepared me for Bob's Christian music, and maybe Paul McCartney's silly love songs prepared me for Bob's country phase. I was going to make a cheap joke about how Ringo's solo music didn't prepare me for anything, but I can't -- I love Ringo, and he's got enough people making cheap jokes about him. His drumming made me pay attention to drumming, and without that I may never have appreciated Kenny Buttrey's drumming on John Wesley Harding.

Anyhoo, I wasn't planning on becoming a Bob Dylan fan, it just happened. A friend at school -- you know, that one kid you knew in high school who "got" Pet Sounds when he was only 14? -- had been bugging me about Dylan, and of course I knew "Like A Rolling Stone," but the light bulb didn't go on over my head until I heard "Positively 4th Street" on the radio (the late, lamented WNEW-FM in the NYC area). The viciousness of the lyrics -- present in "Rolling Stone" but apparently over my head at the time -- were doubled here, and it appealed to my dark, cynical adolescent heart immensely.

I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a DRAG it is to see you...

Wow. I'd never heard anything quite like that in a pop song before -- and I'd done a "poetry" analysis in English class about John Lennon's evisceration of McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" But this was harder stuff, even though it was more vague, less personal -- the emotion was raw, not clever, there were no puns or winking put-downs. This was the real deal. I was sold.

This being 1984, I headed out to Sam Goody as soon as possible to make it official. I always bought albums in pairs -- so I could have something for both sides of a 90-minute cassette -- so I would need two Dylan LPs to be my "first." Deciding entirely based on the weirdness of the song titles, I chose The Times They Are A-Changin' and Highway 61 Revisited. It was a happy accident that I chose these two; God knows what would have happened if I'd chosen two of his more, um, difficult works to start with. Though released only a year and change apart, they couldn't have been more different -- one was filled with dusty, acoustic Guthrie-esque tales of injustice and outrage, and the other was a maelstrom of electric music and surreal lyrics. I'll never forget sitting on the end of my bed, staring at the Emerson turntable on my dresser, blown away by the cruelty of "With God On Our Side" and transfixed by the imagery of "Desolation Row."

Still, my development into a life-long Dylan fanatic was a slow train coming. In the heady rush of new love, I went out and bought "companion" albums for the first two -- The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (to go with the folky Times) and Bringing It All Back Home (the 1965 precursor to H61). They were fine, of course, but in 1985 Dylan put out a NEW album -- Empire Burlesque -- and that's when I first realized that there were people in this world who made fun of Bob Dylan, mocked his singing, his hair, his lyrics, and just his entire persona. [NOTE: I'm not linking every damn album -- just go to Amazon and listen to the samples!] Apparently, he wasn't the ultra-cool poet and philosopher I assumed he still was -- he was an over-the-hill rocker making silly videos who had to be taught how to "sing like Bob Dylan" by Stevie Wonder. ("We Are The World" reference -- look it up.)

Thankfully, the epic Biograph box set gave me a lot to chew on after this unsettling experience, but then Bob followed that up with Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, two of the worst albums ever released by anybody, anywhere. I found songs to love on both of those records -- my fondness for "Under Your Spell" is inexplicable; I still ache when I hear his cover of "Rank Strangers To Me" -- but let's not kid ourselves: it was hard times in Bob-ville. But just when it seemed ol' Bob was floundering straight into oblivion, the universe picked him back up and set him on the right path. His tribute-album cover of Woody's "Pretty Boy Floyd" (1988) was brash and full of life; that same year, his membership in the Traveling Wilburys brought back his sense of humor. And finally, fatefully, he sang backup on a U2 song ("Love Rescue Me"), and Bono urged Bob to think about working with their producer, Daniel Lanois.

The day I bought Oh Mercy was the day I became a Dylan fan for life, for better or worse. I'd read about the recording sessions in March of 1989 -- he was sneaking about in New Orleans, recording with Lanois' crew, who had just done a Neville Brothers album. He had all new songs -- not scraps from the last several years of studio discards. He was singing like Dylan again, only not like Dylan, again (if you know what I mean). The title alone -- Oh Mercy -- was tantalizing and promised great things. The wait for the September release was interminable. I was in college now, in Westchester County, New York. I was at the Galleria Mall when the record store opened on September 18th. The new albums weren't even unpacked yet -- I asked them to find the box with Dylan's new album in it, and they did. I didn't have a turntable at school -- and I hadn't accepted CDs yet -- so I quickly made the practical decision to buy the cassette, so I could listen to it in the car. I was giddy as I jogged back to my tan 1982 Mustang in the parking garage. I started the engine, tore off the plastic wrap, and inserted the tape into the deck.

For some reason, the moment I flash back to -- experiencing the entire moment: the sights, the sounds, the feelings -- is the moment I paused at the exit of the parking garage, poised to turn right and return to my everyday life. The album's first song, "Political World," was playing, and I was dazed by the experience. This sounded nothing like Bob Dylan -- more like U2, really -- and yet it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. The single, "Everything Is Broken," had been on the radio since July or August, but this was the first time I heard the album as a whole. It was amazing, and I hadn't even gotten to "Ring Them Bells," "The Man In The Long Black Coat," "Most Of The Time," or "Shooting Star." The music was lean and spare, but somehow big and expansive. His voice -- that voice! -- had lost all its 1980s whine, and Bob sang everything in a low, menacing grumble. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the beginning of a renaissance that would continue (more or less) until the present day.

Twenty-two years later, Oh Mercy may not be my all-time favorite Dylan album -- on a given day, that honor could go to John Wesley Harding, Blood On The Tracks, or Love & Theft instead -- but it's still my favorite Dylan experience. I didn't know at the time that Bob (incorrigible, he) had left some amazing gems off the album -- "Dignity" and "Series Of Dreams" among them -- but I had the rest of my life to figure that out. Oh Mercy was the beginning of Dylan's career for me, as a fan -- the way someone who was turned on by "Subterranean Homesick Blues" might think of Bringing It All Back Home as his "first" album, and not his fifth. Since then, Bob has thrilled me, annoyed me, perplexed me, and awed me -- all past the age where most rockers are spinning their wheels, recycling their "classic" sound on stage or on CD.

I'll finish by avoiding cliche -- after all, quoting "Forever Young" or "Long May You Run" would be pretty lame, and would suggest that I've learned nothing at all from Bob in 25+ years. Instead, I'll quote one of my favorite (and one of Bob's most recent) masterpieces, "Ain't Talkin'." These lines were probably written about his friends, or his never-ending touring band, but I'd like to think they're about his fans as well:

All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road

Happy Birthday, Bob. Thanks for the company.


  1. Great piece, Sean. Some common experiences there. After my Beatle>Solo Beatle baptism, I wound up buying Bangla-Desh, and that was my first exposure to Bob (circa '82). I was intrigued/horrified by the voice, but had to have more... For years afterwards, whenever I'd make a compilation cassette of Bob for friends, I'd kick it off with George introducing "A Hard Rain...", since that was how I got introduced!

    And I had a similar epiphany with Oh Mercy. Ironically, we did a road trip to see Bob in Berkeley which was (I think!) the weekend prior to the album's release. Of course, Bob didn't do a damned thing from the album. Then, hearing those opening notes of Political World about 48 hours later, it was as though we were hearing yet another artistic rebirth, although perhaps "birth" is the wrong word to describe someone who now sounded like Vincent Price. :)

    thanks for sharing!
    Eric (aka mrjinks at SH forum).

  2. Thanks, Eric! I love Bob's Bangladesh performance, it's one of my favorites of his -- but yeah, it took some getting used to when I wasn't familiar with his voice! Best performance ever of "Just Like A Woman," imo...