A closer gaze at an oft-overlooked work in the Bob Dylan canon
The thing to remember when considering any Bob Dylan album is that he doesn’t see them the way we do. Every release, no matter how life-changing or monumental it is to the rest of us, is “just another album” to him, a snapshot of songs in the moment, or a dip of the toe in a musical river that never sounds the same way twice. Street-Legal, released 40 years ago on June 15, 1978, is no different in many ways, although it still holds a curious place in Zimmy’s discography.
While it might not have seemed so at the time, Dylan’s second decade as a recording artist was nearly as active as his first. Even in retrospect, his 70’s are so dominated by Blood On The Tracks, widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time, it’s hard to grasp that he released eight studio albums between 1970 and 1979, not to mention three live collections, a few compilations, including the epochal Basement Tapes, and crucial guest spots on George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh and The Band’s The Last Waltz. Street-Legal was his penultimate product of the decade, coming two years after Desire and a year before 1979’s Slow Train Coming.
One thing all the studio albums of that era have in common is how few musicians were repeat visitors to Dylan’s sessions, his restless nature compelling him to continually seek out new collaborators. Street-Legal’s only holdovers were Steven Soles and David Mansfield, who had both contributed to Desire and then became essential parts of the Rolling Thunder Revue, both playing guitar and singing at 57 concerts over the course of two years. Two other Rolling Thunder vets, bassist Rob Stoner, and drummer Howie Wyeth, were on board when rehearsals began for the world tour that preceded Street-Legal. Wyeth was eventually replaced by Ian Wallace, late of King Crimson, but the others stuck with Dylan as he roamed the Far East and Australia in early 1978, including the shows that were later released as Bob Dylan at Budokan.
There were many other new faces on that tour, including sax player Steve Douglas, known for his work in Elvis Presley’s band, guitarist Billy Cross, a journeyman player who had led a national tour of the musical Hair in 1972, and keyboard player Alan Pasqua, whose career to that point had ranged from jazz fusion with Tony Williams to the heartland rock of Eddie Money. There were also three backup singers, making this the first time Dylan used backing vocals in traditional “20 Feet From Stardom” arrangements. Part of the inspiration for this big band may have been the post-Vegas tours of Elvis, whose death in 1977 had affected Dylan to the extent that he didn’t speak with anyone for a week.
When I slogged through Budokan again recently, with its overstuffed arrangements and lack of spontaneity, I felt like I was witnessing someone who was hiding in plain sight, which may have been another motivation for surrounding himself with so many people on stage. After all, Dylan admitted that some of the impetus for the tour was financial, citing the pressures of alimony and the need to recover from self-financing his film Renaldo and Clara, which was a huge flop. Yet, if he really wanted to make money he could have gone on a solo tour and kept more of the fees for himself. My theory is that he didn’t want to be that exposed, and when you listen to his rote, sometimes tuneless and disengaged vocals on Budokan, you can understand why. It’s a wonder he didn’t work up a new arrangement of “I’m Not There”, one of his great lost 60’s songs, as the theme song for the tour, because it sounds like he wasn’t.
These narratives would all be in play when Dylan hit his new Santa Monica studio in late April 1978 to record Street-Legal. But the only new song he had played on tour was “Is Your Love In Vain?”, so what material would he draw on? For the answer we have to look at the utter chaos of Dylan’s life in 1977, when his marriage to Sara Lowndes finally hit the skids for good. While it would be obvious to even a casual listener to Blood On The Tracks or Desire that all was not quiet on Dylan’s home front for some time, it was not until early 1977 that Sara filed for divorce, after Dylan allegedly flaunted an affair and physically attacked her. In the aftermath, Dylan retreated to his farm in Minnesota with his new lover Faridi McFree and, surrounded by his children and the midwestern landscape from which he arose, wrote the majority of the songs that were included on Street-Legal. The onrush of words in a song like “No Time To Think”, as well as it’s sheer length (over eight minutes in the recorded version), gives a sense of the fevered state Dylan may have been in when he sat down to write. There are also hints of the fractured relationships that led him to that point in lines like “The empress attracts you but oppression (read: marriage) distracts you” and “Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss.”
Other songs were likely written on the road, along with a handful he co-wrote with backup singer Helena Springs, such as “Walk Out In The Rain” and “If I Don’t Be There By Morning”, both of which were recorded by Eric Clapton and included on his top-ten album Backless in November 1978. The road must also have been where he and the band worked up the songs for Street-Legal. How else to explain the fact that it only took Dylan & Co. a mere week in the studio to record the entire album? Even the last minute change in bassists from Rob Stoner to Jerry Scheff, another veteran from Elvis’s band didn’t slow them down. Although he’s one of the great session players, Scheff didn’t have much more rhythmic chemistry with Wallace, a notoriously stiff drummer, than Stoner did. For this reason, percussionist Bobbye Hall was critical to creating what little swing there is on Street-Legal.
Even with the elaborate arrangements cooked up by the large band, it’s almost as if Dylan treated the studio time as a pit stop, a place to quickly capture the songs on tape without too much concern for posterity. In theory, the songs themselves could exist outside of the album, either in live versions by Dylan or recordings by others. But that’s not what fans and critics were thinking when the album was released six weeks later. This was the NEW DYLAN and expectations were high, perhaps higher than usual due to the disappointed reaction to Hard Rain, the blistering live album which was his last official release. Those reviews were like love letters compared to many of the initial responses to Street-Legal, some of which were only slightly more kind than Greil Marcus’s infamous “What is this shit?” reaction to 1970’s Self Portrait. Marcus himself hated it and another choice example came from Robert Christgau, the “dean of American rock critics,” who gave the album a C+ and called it a “horrendous product.” Some reviewers in the UK felt differently, with Michael Watts of Melody Maker even calling it Dylan’s “best album since John Wesley Harding.”
Besides the poor reviews, the public was also unmoved and Street-Legal broke a three album run of Number One hits. Dylan would not hit those heights again until nearly 30 years later, with Modern Times in 2006. Part of the negative response here may have been due to the fact that the so-called World Tour hadn’t touched down in America yet. While there may have been news reports about what he was doing, the sonics, especially the backing singers and Douglas’s occasionally egregious sax, would have been completely unfamiliar. Maybe the reviews and sales would have been better if our ears were more prepared, or it could just be due to the intrinsic flaws of the album. But we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, not to mention knowing what happened to Dylan next–getting “born again” and writing some of the best gospel songs of the latter half of the 20th century – so we can listen to Street-Legal with a fuller framework.
While my opinion has changed over time, and may yet change again, one initial impression has remained: the dense, wordy, sometimes needlessly confounding songs Dylan used for Street-Legal are the result of the strategies that had served Dylan so well on Blood On The Tracks and Desire (and Planet Waves, to a lesser extent) running aground. In place of vulnerability and storytelling we often get castle walls and moats built on obscure allusions and metaphors. The first song, “Changing Of The Guards”, at least kicks off the album with energy and a committed vocal from Dylan, although the backing singers are intrusive from the start and Douglas’s sax riff becomes more irritating with each repetition. Despite some well-crafted imagery (“I rode past destruction in the ditches/With the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo”), the lyrics don’t add up to anything much, whether you’re seeking social commentary or emotional illumination. “New Pony”, which could be seen in the bluesy lineage of “Meet Me In The Morning”, is almost too obvious: “Once I had a pony/Her name was Lucifer.” Metaphor alert! By the time Douglas blows through with a cliched bloozy sax solo, I find myself seeking an answer for the question asked over and over by the lady singers: “How much longer?”
“No Time To Think” is at least melodically expensive and, as pointed out above, seems to connect with some lived reality that we can relate to, although the lines made up of just single words strung together (“Socialism, hypnotism, patriotism, materialism”) take telegraphic writing to a new extreme that only succeeds in making Dylan sound supercilious. Though buried in the mix, Pasqua’s barrelhouse piano is a nice feature of the song. Baby, Stop Crying tries for a ballad-like simplicity but shoots itself in the foot with a needlessly busy post-chorus that probably could have been better resolved with a little more work. Dylan’s vocals are good, however, with intimations of actual tenderness, rather than just the word “tenderness.” Apparently Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” was an inspiration for this song but it would take a better musicologist than I to actually hear it.
“Is Your Love In Vain?” is a more well-developed song, probably because it was played a number of times in concert before the album was made, although the arrangement is still overblown. The central question of the song – “Is your love in vain?” – is an odd one, too, leading Greil Marcus to accuse Dylan of sexism, saying it was as if he was speaking “to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD.” I wasn’t even sure who Dylan was speaking to, or if he was actually asking the question of himself. It’s another case of a Street-Legal song not seeming to be worth the effort of interpretation.
Finally, nearly two thirds of the way through, we get “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)”, the first great song of the collection. “Señor”, with its Mexican flavor and stunning, indelible imagery, is so good that it’s easy to imagine it holding its own on Desire. While there are several possible ways to understand the song, with the title character standing in for god, Jesus, film director Sam Peckinpah, or maybe all three, there’s also a possible theme hinted at by the subtitle, i.e. American aggression towards Mexico during the Westward expansion. Dylan himself said it was inspired by a man he met on a train: “He must have been 150 years old… Both his eyes were burning, and there was smoke coming out of his nostrils.” However you read the lyrics, there’s a dark mystery to the chord changes that’s consistently enthralling. Douglas keeps his cool and the vocal arrangement actually enhances the song. Recent events have also made the song newly relevant, especially the final verse: Señor, señor/Let’s overturn these tables/Disconnect these cables/This place don’t make sense to me no more/Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?”
“True Love Tends To Forget” and “We Better Talk This Over” are fairly straightforward (for Dylan, anyway) love songs where he doesn’t seem to be trying so hard. Cross’s fiery slide guitar adds some heat to the former and the melody for the latter would not have sounded out of place on Blood On The Tracks. Pasqua’s piano is also very pretty, interacting with the guitars in sparkling fashion. And no Douglas! The final song, “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)” is also fairly strong, with a simple two-chord structure reminiscent of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and more dynamic range than most of the record, especially at the end when Cross really starts to let loose. The lyrics are maybe a bit self-consciously Dylanesque, but the title phrase grounds it all in simple feeling. There’s little doubt about the meaning of the final verse, either, a snapshot the personal wasteland confronting Dylan as he plotted his next move: “There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived/If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived/I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive/But without you it doesn’t seem right/Oh, where are you tonight?”
Another issue holding back Street-Legal from greatness is the production by “Captain In Charge” Don DeVito, which lacks the warmth and depth of his fine work on Desire. Even a remix in 1999 couldn’t erase the feeling that, despite the high level of musicianship, the album was underproduced. The final result adds up to an album that almost demands a split review, with the first five songs earning three out of five stars, and the rest getting four, for a solid 3.5.
The speedy recording schedule for Street-Legal also means there’s little in the way of outtakes and certainly none of the lost masterpieces Dylan so often leaves on the cutting room floor. Besides the songs Clapton recorded, which are nothing special, there’s also a curiosity called Legionnaires Disease, seemingly a response to a brief epidemic that broke out in Philadelphia in 1976. Billy Cross gave it a decent reading with his own Delta Cross Band in 1981. Another oddity was “Love You Too Much”, an unfinished song Dylan sent to Greg Lake to complete, with the results doing neither artist any favors.
Dylan performed two other new compositions in concert in 1978, “Coming From The Heart” and “Am I Your Stepchild?”, with the first being a treacly ballad preserved in respectable fashion by The Searchers on the British Invasion band’s 1979 comeback album. The second, a tough and funny 12-bar blues, is probably the best of the lot and Solomon Burke’s growling 2002 performance (as Stepchild) is likely definitive. You can find these and the covers discussed below on this playlist, which gives an alternative view of Dylan’s activities that year.
In the end, the songs included on Street-Legal mostly had little life beyond the album. A few were performed throughout 1978, but “Señor”(here’s a great performance from the late 90’s) is the only one that survived the seismic event of Dylan’s born-again phase. After playing only his new gospel material from 1979-80, Señor was added back into the setlist and played another 200 times, through 2011. The one other exception is a singular – and stunning – version of We Better Talk This Over from a concert in Anaheim, CA in 2000 – the first time since 1978 any Street-Legal song besides Señor had been played by Dylan. It’s the one hint from the bard of Hibbing himself that further depths are there to be plumbed in any of these songs.
Covers of Street-Legal tunes are few and far between as well, confirming its outlier status. Jerry Garcia made “Señor” a signature song from 1990 until his death, performing it at least 20 times and building snaking solos out of those smoky chord changes. Patti Smith’s version of “Changing Of The Guards”, from her 2007 album Twelve, is instructive as you can hear her gamely trying to bring sense and feeling to the lyrics – and giving up about halfway through. Jack White and the Dead Weather bludgeoned his way through “New Pony” and there are a couple of good takes on the massive Chimes Of Freedom tribute album, especially No Time To Think by The Belle Brigade. The best covers I found come from more obscure sources, however. Heron, a Brit-folk band going back to the early 70’s, included a gorgeously bereft Is Your Love In Vain? on their all-Dylan album, Jokerman, in 2016, and Michael Montecrossa, an Italian singer, added an epic gusto to “We Better Talk This Over” on the 2004 edition of his annual live tribute to Dylan. Being a Dylan fan has often meant digging for gems and I’m glad I found some while researching this piece!
While Street-Legal’s reputation is probably better now than it was, it still can’t be considered essential Dylan. Instead, it takes its place as a transitional effort, representing one of those periods of uncertainty that often precedes a new phase in Zimmy’s career. As Paul Williams, the editor of Crawdaddy, wrote in Dylan – What Happened? in 1979, “This album is our final clue to what was happening with Dylan in the months before he gave himself up to God.” As midnight fell on June 15, 1978, and the needles had lifted after the first play of Street-Legal, if you listened carefully in the silence you might have heard it: there was a slow train coming up around the bend. And it was gaining speed.