Saturday, September 24, 2005

Bob Dylan 101

Have you heard of Bob Dylan? Did you know that he is a famous musician? Do you know that a documentary (filmed by Martin Scorsese) about this guy is going to air this coming week?

Well, if you don't know much about Dylan's music . . . which I don't, really, then I present this information, provided to me via
Entertainment Weekly and now provided to you via the magic of Omnimedia.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1063) This is where it all really starts. On his second album, Dylan goes from Woody Guthrie wannabe to his own man, wise beyond his years. With "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and the truth-to-power indictment "Masters of War," he turns protest into poetry.

Bringing It All Back Home (1965) How fitting that the album where Dylan goes electric also turned him into lighting rod, inciting the fury of folk purists. From the opening honky-tonk scat of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan conjures astonishing images and bends words with the might of a circus strongman.

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) This is Dylan at his creative peak--a time when he seemed to be redefining music every few weeks. Kicking off with the monumental "Like a Rolling Stone," the album never lets up. "I'm not going to be able to make a record better than that one," Dylan said later. Well, at least not for a few months . . .

Blonde on Blonde (1966) For Dylan's third masterpiece in just over a year (this one a two-record set), he packed up his harmonica and headed to Nashville, where he feverishly dashed off surreal lyrics in his hotel room like a mad prophet channeling the divine. "Visions of Johanna" just might be his finest moment.

Blood on the Tracks (1975) Written during the bust-up of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, Blood is what they call turning lemons into lemonade. At turns stung, disgusted, regretful, and relieved this is the brutal, brilliant kiss-off every heartbroken lover wishes he could dedicate to his ex.

Time Out of Mind (1997) Death-rattle lyrics and a dog-tired growl--not to mention great songs and spooky production from Daniel Lanois--make this umpteenth comeback sound like an aging man narrowly out-running the hellhounds on his tail.

The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964) It's a veritable Greatest Hits of the Protest Era that just happens to be a single studio album. The title track, "With God on Our Side," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and others all captured the social zeitgeist in such a career-defining fashion that he still hasn't completely shed the socially-conscious-folkie rep he's spent four decades transcending.

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) The other side was this: nasty, emotionally charged, brilliant love songs. Or anti-love songs, mostly, with venom like "Ballad in Plain D" and "It Ain't Me, Babe"--the latter probably directed as much at his soon-to-be-jettisoned trad-folk compatriots as ex-girlfriend Suze Rotolo.

Biograph (1985) The collection that ignited the boxed-set phenomenon remains a great greatest-hits compilation. But the real reason to check it out is the 17 previously unreleased tracks scattered throughout--a perfect introduction to the thrills of Dylan's much-obsessed-over treasure trove of outtakes and unused songs.

The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3: 1961-1991 (1997) Once you get a taste on Biograph, dip into this, the musical equivalent of busting into Fort Knox. Previously swapped, smuggled, and sold illegally, these 58 rarities and outtakes from the Dylan vaults are pure gold, especially the impossibly rare "Farewell, Angelina."

Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (1998) This recording from Dylan's infamous 1966 British tour captures the wrath that fans unleashed over his new electric direction. Between songs, an irate crowd member yells out, "Judas!" Dylan waits a beat and sneers "I don't believe you!" before launching into a loud and angry version of "Like a Rolling Stone."

Love and Theft (2001) Dylan's previous album, Time Out of Mind, was about raging at the dying of the light. This one laughs at the dying of the light, with that same sadness subsumed in a return to his phantasmagorical narratives of the mid-'60s, a lot of Henny Youngmanesque one-liners, and a travelogue through a whole century of American music.

John Wesley Harding (1967) Dylan goes country! After a two-year hiatus, he returned with these dozen rural-roots yarns, which baffled some fans. (You'd think they would have come to expect the unexpected by this point. Oh well.) Instrumental in kick-starting the whole country-rock movement, Harding is also famous for "All Along the Watch-tower," later covered by you know who.

Nashville Skyline (1969) Clocking in at a svelte 27 minutes, Skyline is probably best known as the album where Dylan adopted his "Lay Lady Lay" croon (he claimed it was from giving up cigarettes). His duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From the North Country" feels like a wonderful back-porch lark.

Blood on the Tracks: New York Sessions (unreleased) Dave Matthews and Fiona Apple weren't the first to have early versions of their albums find their way onto bootlegs. After releasing an acetate of his original album to a few radio stations, Dylan rethought the material an rerecorded much of what many consider his finest album with a different band in Minneapolis. But the earlier, emotionally very different, somewhat more subdued tracks survive for enthusiasts who can track them down.

Desire (1976) Dressed on the cover like a gypsy extra from the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dylan returns to political protest in the opening track, "Hurricane," a controversial plea for imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter. Spiced with Scarlet Rivera's yawning fiddle and Emmylou Harris' honey-twang harmonies. It's one of his best '70s albums.

Slow Train Coming (1979) The bard's conversion to evangelical Christianity results in an album that many fans hated to love. The excellence of Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett's production and Mark Knopfler's guitar playing--and some of the most passionate singing in the convert's canon left even the faithless little choice but to give in.

Oh Mercy (1989) Among many debts owed to New Orleans is thanks for hosting the sessions for this comeback disc, with Dylan doing a much-needed handover of the production reins to Daniel Lanois. After several blustery, fallow '80s discs, a contemplative Dylan ended the decade in a lower key and on a high note.

New Morning (1970) A kissing cousin to John Wesley Harding, this was the last of the gentle excursions into Americana that Dylan made at the end of the '60s. "Domestic Dylan" may sound contradictory, but it's there in this, one of his few efforts that really seem to reflect a satisfied mind. Just listen to the suprisingly straight-forward love song "If Not for You."

The Genuine Basement Tapes (unreleased) An official album came out in 1975, but this five-volume bootleg remains the Holy Grail of Dylanania. Recorded with The Band in their basement, it captures 103 tracks of odds-and-sods Americana that are as weird and wonderful as anything Dylan's done. See also Greil Marcus' book Invisible Republic (1997), which serves as liner notes to the complete bootleg set.

Saved (1980) Dylan's second and final album of all-born-again material soured secularists who'd given him a one-time pass on Slow Train. Seen as a sheer black-gospel genre exercise, though, it's Dylan's finest act of cultural appropriation since he went country. "What Can I Do for You?" features that true rarity: a moving harmonica solo.

Infidels (1983) Some fans were happy his "Christian phase" seemed to be over, while others were displeased that the stridency of the religious material was not finding its way into neo-protest songs like the pro-Israel "Neighborhood Bully." Mark Knopfler's production and support from Mick Taylor and Sly & Robbie ensure there's some muscularity to go with the crankiness. Fans still bemoan how this narrowly missed becoming a classic, with great, later-surfacing outtakes like "Blind Willie McTell" inexplicably missing the cut.

Good as I Been to You/World Gone Wrong (1992/1993) Beset by writer's block in the early '90s, Dylan recorded these two albums of oldies--pre-Victrola folk oldies, that is--and his solo acoustic readings of stark murder ballads and lonesome pre-pop blues found his musicality in high gear, even if his muse was on holiday.

Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series Volume 5) (2002) In his most charismatic mode (check out the bizarro white face paint), Dylan opens this rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue show with "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," bellowing the refrain so commandingly, anyone listening would've immediately granted squatter's--or seducer's--rights. A mid-set reunion with Joan Baez sweetens the deal.

Self Portrait (1970) "What is this s---?" Greil Marcus famously wondered in Rolling Stone at the time. Answer: a motley, seemingly random assortment of cutesy curios, covers, and live tracks intended to throw worshippers off the scent of brilliance.

Street Legal (1978) Released just before he found God, this suggests he was profoundly in need of some kind of born-again experience. Cloying female backing vocals fatally sandbag a set of so-so post-divorce material.

Dylan & the Dead (1988) A marriage made in a surprisingly unheavenly place, with each party bringing out the other's sloppy somnambulism. Almost any concert bootleg you could pick up handily beats this (and 1979's At Budokan and 1984's Real Live are almost as lame).

Down in the Groove (1988) Fans debate whether this or 1988's equally undercooked Knocked Out Loaded represents Dylan's studio nadir. Notice we didn't say passionatel debate.

Under the Red Sky (1990) Produced by Don and David Was with a musical cast including George Harrison, Slash, Elton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. What could go wrong? Everything, actually, with Dylan phoning in his weakest batch of material ever, defended by a few stalwarts as "nursery-rhyme-inspired." Mother Goose nearly sued.

The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993) The most memorable moment of this all-star tribute concert--Sinead O'Conner getting booed off the stage--isn't included, though we do get a lot of the respectful classic-rock homage usually reserved for the recently deceased.


Blogger lulu said...

I started watching this last night and was very bored. My lord! If I wanted to know how tedious Greenwich Village was in the early 60s, I would've . . . well, I wouldn't have. Hello? Is Bob around?

And I must agree with a reviewer on Slate who is tired of the Boomer cultural critics who focus almost solely on The Sixties portion of Bob's career. Sure, he made some great stuff and turned the corner between Folk St. and Rock Ave., but he did some great stuff in the 70s, 80, and 90s, too. At least until he sold out to corporations.

Speaking of that, someone who owns at least one Woody Guthrie song sold out to some car manufacturer! Guthrie's song for his dear little girl who died in a fire (at age 5, I think), "Take me for a ride in the car, car", was used to sell some overpriced sports monstrosity. Guthrie (Bob's hero) must be rolling in his grave. We're lucky if he doesn't pull an Uma in Kill Bill and bust on out of there to kick some traitor ass. Actually that would be kind of cool.

I printed off this list of records for Kevin, the biggest Dylan fan I know, and he ranked his fave Bob albums from 1-6. Here they are, in reverse order:

6. Blonde on Blonde
5. Good as I Been to You ("no better Dylan guitar picking")
4. The Bootleg Series ("last thoughts on Woody Guthrie!")
3. Nashville Skyline
2. The Genuine Basement Tapes
1. Blood on the Tracks

Go! Have a listen! Especially to Blood on the Tracks

10:07 AM  
Blogger David said...

I hung in there and watched the whole of part i (part ii tonight!!).

Well, I had it on while I tried to do some work on the laptop.

I maybe know a bit more, but can certainly see how Dylan got tired of all the fawning and adulation.

What must it be like to be loved for almost everything you do (excpet go electric)?

10:15 AM  

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