Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Freewheelin’ = 50 Years Old

Man! It’s hard to believe that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is officially a 50 year old record as of today – 5/28/13. That’s half a century! The world sure has changed in those years – the music biz as well. All the hopes and fears and paranoia-trips found on those grooves……..sound today like, as in the words of the great Robert Calvert song – “Only the dead dreams of the Cold War kid……….”

But – Bob Dylan. Really? AS IF somebody else needs to spew forth more blather about Bob Dylan, right? Now, I have just about every legitimate Dylan record ever released, saw him a couple of times in concert and I really enjoy what he’s done over the many stages of his career. But I am no AJ Weberman. If I saw Bob walking down the street I’d leave him alone. I mean, unless he stopped me to ask what time it was or something. I’m not into any star trip crap. The guy’s had enough accolades from everybody under the sun – he’s just another person to me. But I like his work. And I like how he’s handled his professional career. Aside from his influence on music, I’d have to say that is one of his great contributions to modern civilization.

What am I talking about here….? Dylan gave a pretty good example of what a real human being does through life if they’re in it for the long haul. His first records are tentative…….his approach to his art changes from acoustic to electric……he hits a peak and strikes a chord in the mid-60s then retreats. Have you seen the No Direction Home film? Right at the end of that where Dylan is babbling like a strung out idiot in Italy at the end of his European ’66 tour….there……THERE is the reason. If that doesn’t look like a guy having a nervous breakdown on camera I’d have to say that was the best acting job I’ve seen Dylan or anyone else perform in the last 100 years of cinema. Watch that guy in the clip closely.

Now, find some pictures of Dylan in the late 60s. Short hair. Domestic-looking. Swamped with kids and his young wife. Put on a little weight. Looks like some young professional who likes to spend his spare time reading the Wall Street Journal, doing the New York Times crossword everyday and singing in the church choir on Sunday religiously. WHAT HAPPENED to this guy??? Real easy answer – he stopped living the hype and started living for his family. He says as much in his Chronicles Vol. 1 book. In recent years he has also owned up to making bad records on purpose to shake his image of a counterculture icon. Certainly his post-Blonde on Blonde output reflects a desire to break with pop culture……..the spare folk sound on John Wesley Harding, the overt country twang of Nashville Skyline and the bizarre crooning of Self Portrait. Not that he stopped writing hit songs (Quinn the Eskimo), he just stopped being a popular performer.

For a time, anyway. Starting round about 1990 or so, The Bobness commenced the Never Ending Tour as a way of life that’s pretty much kept on trucking in one form or another ever since. And he’s been putting out great records again. And radio shows (none of which I’ve heard, sad to say) for satellite radio. And a book too. And movies about him and not about him. Bob isn’t taking the easy road. Seems to me the only artist who is out-doing Bob in the ubiquitous-ness sweepstakes is Neil Young and I’ve long given up on trying to keep up with HIM. And, for that matter, I’ve missed a few Bob releases here and there (the Christmas Album, some Bootleg Series releases and even the new Tempest album).

    Aw, but so what? Well, amidst all the swirling Dylan hoopla I have a real simple recommendation for you. It’s called BOB DYLAN’S GREATEST HITS. Yeah, the single-LP release from 1967 put out when Bob was supposed to be recovering from his motorcycle accident somewhere between Woodstock and Middletown, New York. Vinyl copies had a cool poster included, even well into the 1970s (musta printed a crap-load of those things…..). Quite an iconic image indeed. One I became familiar with as a child since my older cousins proudly displayed their copy on the wall of their shared bedroom where we all used to gather to spin records during family visits.

But my recommendation is not just any common release. Before you dismiss this great LP as being obsolete, grab a limited-edition gold compact disc from Audio Fidelity. Mastering engineer genius Steve Hoffman has created the ultimate version by using many first-generation masters of these songs. The result showcases Dylan’s vocals – you could swear he’s in the room right in front of you. Spooky-realistic! Hoffman’s version is definitive – period.
My first copy of this album was a used LP I bought from a flea market – without even the outer cover! But it was not my first Dylan experience. That honor goes to Side Five of The Concert for Bangladesh – I had saved up to buy that classic 3 LP set when I was 12 years old. That was the first time I really heard Dylan and it made an impression. So I found a loose copy of the Greatest Hits album at a flea market for a quarter not long after. Listening to the gold CD tonight it brought me back to listening to my old beat up LP which had a quick skip during the intro to “Rainy Day Women” leading off the record.  Any time I hear this song I expect to hear the skip just as I’d heard it on my crappy old LP – isn’t it amazing how first impressions, especially childhood first impressions, can stay with us many years down the line?

 Listening to the tracks included on Greatest Hits as they flowed from one to the next -  I found myself especially impressed with the song “Positively 4th Street”. This song does away with the standard verse-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-verse and out formula. In fact, there’s no chorus at all. And none of the verses rhyme. But the melody is the glue and it’s rather strong stuff at that! A good example of how Dylan balanced the challenging nature of the lyrics with a catchy, feel-good backing music track. This song is one among a handful of Dylan songs that break from the standard lyric mold he used most frequently and to perhaps greatest success with “Blowin’ in the Wind”: verse after verse followed by the title as the couplet ending each verse – like this:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Read more: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/blowin-wind#ixzz2Ud4394RV

My cousin Jimmy hipped me to the Secret Bob Dylan lyric progression formula many years ago and now I’m passing it onto you. Anyway, “Positively 4th Street” doesn’t fit this mold – you can play the Bob Dylan game of discovering which tunes feature the formula and which deviate. That’s if you can stand to listen to Bob Dylan at all.

I’m sure some of my close comrades are aghast at my admission to being a Dylan fan. I’m just as surprised these days myself. I’m not really much of a lyric guy and I prefer people who can really sing, generally. Yet, Dylan did keep his music within the basic parameters of American roots-based stuff and some of his imagery in the lyrics is funny and interesting. Plus he did manage to put into song the kind of sentiments that many people may have thought or felt, but never would sing about in a public way before. Even so – when it comes right down to it, you either like him or hate him.

Well, even if you don’t like Bob’s music, you have to admit he had a funny way with words – like in this very revealing clip:

Anyway – Dylan managed to catapult himself into that MYTH territory pretty early on in his career. Through bad and good albums, with years of inspiration and lack of it, if you could hang your hat on the Dylan myth – even just a piece of it – he’s given his audience a lot to think about with some pretty good background music along the way.

Along with the aforementioned Greatest Hits, I’d have to give a big thumbs up to the Basement Tapes album (with the Band) along with his more recent “Love and Theft” as really essential Bob (and including, of course, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”).
For worst Bob album – I won’t even vote the obvious “Self Portrait” for this category. I’m picking the ’75 quasi-comeback-attempt album “Desire”. Critics love this album – I can’t stand it. Sloppy, plodding music with a severely under-rehearsed band (they’d finally catch their groove on the Rolling Thunder Tour the same year – better to seek out live stuff from this edition of the Dylan band).
Sorry - I really hate this Dylan record. Sucks big time!
 For the “it has no right to be as good as it is” category – “Street Legal”. Seriously. It’s Bob full of piss and vinegar and weird abstract angst venting spleen about some unknown……whateverthehellyankedhiscrankthatyear. Bob is really at his finest when he’s insulting somebody who’s done him wrong in the most oblique ways that not even the target of his rage has a clue what he’s singing about. “Street Legal” definitely hits that mark, intentional or not.

Don’t forget to burn your bird, return your dog and clip your cigarette……….and keep it rolling, Bob.

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