Our editor looks back at a lifetime of listening to Robert Zimmerman
So Bob Dylan turned 80 years old today, and there are a shit-ton of articles out there on the Internet from self-appointed Dylanologists out there to get your geek on.
I’m writing about Bob Dylan today because I’ve been writing about Dylan since I started writing about music for publication. And I’m no Dylan scholar, but my road to appreciating him spans the entirety of my life as a music fan.
The first time I saw and heard Bob Dylan was on the 1985 USA For Africa charity single “We Are The World,” not to mention all the razzing he got on late night TV and MAD Magazine for his efforts. It was the voice, you see, that initially proved to be my primary barrier to appreciating Dylan as a young youth, especially with everyone making fun of it. Tough sell, that Bob, for me in middle school no doubt.
VIDEO: USA For Africa “We Are The World”
Then came the Traveling Wilburys, released in the thick of my obsession with an album that defined me in 8th grade: George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. And I immediately fell in love with “Handle With Care” when it first hit MTV. Then came Oh Mercy!, the first time I took a music critic’s word on Bob as a high school sophomore after reading Anthony DeCurtis’s review in Rolling Stone. He remained in my periphery during the whole alt rock boom of the early-to-mid 90s via his massively under-appreciated pair of roots-n-blues solo acoustic albums in 1992’s Good As I Been To You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong along with the 1995 MTV Unplugged LP, which really helped me get cool with his back catalog. But not like The Bootleg Series!
The first time I actually wrote about Bob Dylan as a music writer was in college, when I declared Time Out Of Mind one of the best albums of 1997 in my music column for the New Paltz Oracle. But it wasn’t until the fourth volume of The Bootleg Series, Live 1966, that I began covering Dylan for real. I probably haven’t written about another artist over the course of my 25 years more than I have about Bob Dylan, covering him for what seems like almost every publication or website I’ve contributed to through the years, from RELIX to Billboard to right here in the pages of the Rock & Roll Globe.
The following essays and reviews were published by websites long gone defunct or backdated into oblivion, now digitally remastered and remixed to honor the 80th birthday of our man Robert Zimmerman.
Happy Birthday Bob!
The Best of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour Parts 1 and 2 (Chrome Dreams)
Originally published in Interboro Rock Tribune
If you look hard enough, the full episodes of Bob Dylan’s celebrated XM radio shows are available as MP3 downloads. However, it is nice to have some kind of a hard copy testament to the pioneering program, which finds Zimm and his cronies stitching together mosaics of music from all over the spectrum under the auspices of a singular theme, be it time or beer or fathers or mothers or Christmas or eyes or colors or jail or what have you. This two-volume set gets the kitchen sink aesthetic of Theme Time Radio Hour perfectly, with a hodgepodge collection that isn’t afraid to segue Duke Ellington into Chuck Berry into Bing Crosby, or Carl Perkins into Bill Monroe and make it all sound sensible in each other’s company; which is, after all, why the show is the modern airwaves classic that it is anyhow.
AUDIO: Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour “Whiskey”
The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell-Tale Signs Rare and Unreleased 1989 – 2006 (Columbia-Legacy)
Review originally run in Interboro Rock Tribune
Dylan’s last twenty years have been some of the most robust and fulfilling in his near-half century as a recording artist, an era featured in this collection of rare and previously unreleased material from 1989’s comeback smash Oh Mercy! right on through to 2006’s Modern Times. Many of these songs are stripped down to the bone, especially the Oh Mercy! material, revealing the true beauty of the amazing songwriting Dylan was coming up with during this period, arguably on par with his 70s work. And the live material, flanked by Zimm’s amazing touring band, ranks right up there with the Royal Albert Hall and Rolling Thunder Revue volumes of the Bootleg Series in terms of its supreme documentation of Bob’s prowess onstage when he is having a good night. Not sure what it says about the state of affairs for modern music when a compilation of old, unreleased material trumps any new recording that was released in 2008. But at the same time, nothing that was released this past year can touch the majesty of Bob Dylan’s music—new, old or otherwise.
Together Through Life (Columbia)
Review originally run on Jambase
“My band plays a different type of music than anybody else,” Bob Dylan recently proclaimed in an excellent interview with Douglas Brinkley for the cover story of the May 14, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. “I don’t think you’ll hear what I do ever again.”
This is the statement that journalist Douglas Wolk attributed to the justification of the paltry 5.4 rating Pitchfork gave Together Through Life (released April 28 on Columbia), the 33rd album from the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman, to which Wolk suggests that “[Dylan] has never heard a moderately decent blues band in a bar.”
Both Wolk and Pitchfork have had their fair shares of way-off-the-mark misses in their respective tenures. However, for Wolk to cast off Dylan as “Random Blues Journeyman #843” and passive-aggressively accuse him of plagiarizing David Wright’s translation of The Canterbury Tales, not to mention Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Richard and Chuck Berry is not only lazy music journalism, but an insult to a 68-year-old man who has earned the right to pay homage to whomever he wants in whatever context he chooses.
However, critics slamming Dylan are nothing new. Bob has had a full garden’s worth of tomatoes tossed at him throughout his career. Sometimes it was justified, such as his uninspired mid-80s slump with such questionable material as 1985’s hyper-slick Empire Burlesque (although the raw studio sessions that are available on the black market for this album are fabulous), 1986’s maudlin Knocked Out Loaded and 1988’s utterly phoned-in Down In The Groove. Other times, the pans were way off the mark, most notably in reference to Dylan’s 1970 double-LP Self Portrait, which inspired critic Greil Marcus to start his infamous Rolling Stone review with, “What is this shit?”
Yet, regardless of the critical hate (one book even hailed it as the third worst rock album of all-time), the album quickly went gold in the U.S., peaked at No. 4 on the American charts, No. 1 on the British charts and has been historically reassessed as Dylan’s misunderstood lost masterpiece, receiving notoriety amongst such acts as Phish, The Grateful Dead and jazz pianist Jamie Saft, and getting a dose of indie cool credibility after Wes Anderson featured the track “Wigwam” in his 2001 film The Royal Tennenbaums. Dylan’s late-70s “Born Again” phase also received its fair share of ink-riddled razzes as well, in spite of the fact that the trio of albums from that era – 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved and 1981’s Shot of Love – have arguably grown better with age, thus forcing many of the critics who threw horns at Dylan’s short-lived Christianity trip to reconfigure their original sentiments.
However, since the release of his 1989 comeback classic, Oh Mercy!, including Under The Red Sky, Dylan has experienced a creative renaissance the likes of which few artists of his generation have experienced. In the recent years leading up to Together Through Life we have seen seven proper Dylan albums come down the pike and not a dud in the bunch, from his pair of understated, traditional folk song mining gems in 1992’s Good As I Been To You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong to his 1997 gothic blues masterpiece Time Out Of Mind to the blue moon Western balladry of 2001’s “Love and Theft” (considered by many to be Dylan’s single greatest album since Blood On The Tracks) to 2006’s Chess Records-evoking Modern Times. And this is not including the artist’s outstanding archival project The Bootleg Series, now in its eighth volume and counting, nor his 1995 MTV Unplugged album. Given all the momentum he has built up in his near-flawless output of these last two decades, one encounters some critics wringing their hands in anticipation of a creative failure to take the piss out of Dylan.
Well, for those who are forcing themselves to believe that Together Through Life is his Down In The Groove of the 00’s, you better guess again. While this new one certainly does not match the majesty of Oh Mercy! , Time Out Of Mind or “Love and Theft” , Together comes off more on par with the likes of Dylan’s mid-level classics like 1974’s Planet Waves, 1978’s Street Legal or 1983’s Infidels. It’s an album you might not immediately recognize as a Dylan masterstroke but one that will certainly grow into your rotation in the same way those aforementioned understated gems.
Staying in line with the fabric of his recent series of recordings, all of which appear to offer something akin to “Bob Dylan’s Guide to the American Landscape,” Together Through Life focuses on the sounds and imagery of the border towns of southernmost Texas. However, those who might be expecting something akin to the music Dylan created for his soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid better look elsewhere. The music here, produced by Dylan under his Jack Frost moniker, is pure Tex-Mex in the vein of Freddy Fender and longtime Dylan compadre Doug Sahm, played with a loose, ramshackle authenticity by a well-put-together group consisting of Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker guitar maverick Mike Campbell, Los Lobos’ David Hildago on accordion and guitar, Nashville musician Donny Herron (BR5-49) on steel guitar, banjo, mandolin and trumpet and his longtime touring rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile.
Sure, the blues is prevalent across these ten songs but not in the “moderately decent blues band” vein Wolk suggests in his review. And yeah, “My Wife’s Home Town” is a spin on the Muddy Waters arrangement of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” But so what? If you held every act accountable for jacking ol’ Willie for his grooves, you’d have a list as tall as the Williams Tower in Houston, a city Dylan fondly recalls atop Hildago’s Flaco Jimenez-evoking accordion wheezes on “If You Ever Go To Houston.” “It’s All Good,” a sly, wry spin through America on the brink of its final curtain call, where Zimm utilizes the clichéd Trustafarian adage the song is named after as venomously as a hearty “fuck you”, is also a great blues romp a la John Lee Hooker, soaked in tequila and Texas Tea. And “Shake Shake Mama” even takes a direct quote from “Friendless and Blue,” a 1938 song from blues great Lonnie Johnson: “I’m motherless / I’m fatherless / Almost friendless, too.” However, the excellence with which the Together Through Life band helps Dylan deliver these blues is anything but typical. Meanwhile on the lyrical tip, Bob collaborated with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on all but one track here (“The Dream of You”), and manages to capture the road-weary feelings of aging with unwavering grace and candor, particularly on “Life is Hard,” a weepy slow waltz past lost loves as the pain and weariness of senior citizenship grows more prevalent with each step.
Together Through Life might not be Dylan’s best, but it certainly isn’t worthy of a spot with his worst either. Just give it some time and it will surely grown on you, just like Self Portrait and Slow Train Coming have for many people. Dylan’s exactly right when he says that you’ll never hear the kind of music he does ever again. Because regardless of what style or era of music he chooses to pull from with each album, be it Sahm-ian Tex-Mex, Chess Records boogie, Delta-fied folk-blues, electric R&B, born again gospel rock or even abstract hip-hop, ultimately it all sounds like nobody else but Bob Dylan. The man is in a class all of his own. And, at 68 he has earned the right to play whatever he wants whenever he wants.
JOHN WESLEY HARDING AT 50
This piece was assigned and ultimately rejected by the Village Voice and rescued by RnRG contributor Joseph Haynes Kyle on his blog The Recoup. To read the full story, please click here.
In the fall of 1967, Bob Dylan was at a crossroads. Recovering from a motorcycle accident while leaving his manager Albert Grossman’s home near Woodstock, NY, he was sidelined for much of that year with a cracked vertebra and a bad case of road rash. And his absence indeed sparked a litany of speculation as to his whereabouts, the severity of his injuries and whether or not the bike crash even happened at all.
Actually, Dylan himself threw a little shade at the situation in his 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One.
“I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered,” he wrote. “Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses.
But during that period where he was on the mend (or not), recuperating not too far from the pink ranch house where he and The Band recorded the material that would comprise The Basement Tapes, Dylan was indeed cognizant of the music emerging from the year of the Summer of Love and wasn’t exactly thrilled about the direction rock ‘n’ roll was going since reinventing it with his “Thin Wild Mercury” sound of ‘65. Matter of fact, witnessing the game of psychedelic one-upsmanship between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Their Satanic Majesties’ Request prompted Bob to take a drastic directional change as he began to think about getting back into the studio. Rather than competing with his contemporaries by expanding upon the sound he revolutionized on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (not to mention a historic tour of 1966), Dylan booked time with producer Bob Johnston in Nashville and cut a record of acoustic country-folk songs, the sole electric currents running through them being Charlie McCoy’s bass guitar and the pedal steel magic of Pete Drake on two of the album’s best cuts, “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. These are songs that stood in stark contrast of the sneering, sardonic wit of “Positively 4th St.” and “ Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, basking in the rural warmth of his time in northern Ulster County though unencumbered by a specific time or place.
“It was a Puritan drama of morals,” declared Greil Marcus in the liner notes to the 2010 box set The Original Mono Recordings. “It is Puritan in the feeling the music gives off that all the stories it carries are taking place in some small, simple village, where you can still find people who’d known Hester Prynne and Tom Dooley; and in the way, out of all the tales of dark strangers and wicked messengers, jokers and thieves, saints and founding fathers, landlords and immigrants, in the end honesty trumps every value.”
For Dylan, it was very simply the music he felt in his heart after a trying period of reclusion and recovery–a sentiment author Anthony Scaduto, in his 1971 book Dylan: An Intimate Biography, called “an avowal of faith”.
“You see, the album was all I could come up with musically,” Dylan told the author. “It’s the best I could have done at that time. I didn’t intentionally come out with some kind of mellow sound. I would have liked a good sound, more musical, more steel guitar, more piano. More music. At the time so many people were into electronics, and I didn’t know anything about that.”
John Wesley Harding nonetheless inspired many of the very rockers who informed Dylan to pullthe plug on the mercury. The most famous, of course, being Jimi Hendrix, who transformed the album’s signature tune, “All Along The Watchtower”, into a fiery anthem from which nearly three generations of guitarists cut their teeth.
“I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” Dylan wrote in the liner notes to his 1985 box set Biograph. “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
Yet even as this great transitional masterpiece in the Bob canon turns a half-century, these mysterious and mystifying songs continue to inspire songwriters to push the bar of their art form as we look ahead to 2018. And in honor of its landmark anniversary, we spoke to a few of the acts with whom the magic of John Wesley Harding still very much resonates.
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