Monday, May 23, 2011

Bob Dylan turns 70

I can't even begin to imagine how many countless hours I have pored over my Bob Dylan collection, listening and marveling at the words and sounds. The man is a genre to himself; untouched, unrivaled in rock music history. We should all cherish the fact that he is still with us, still touring, still recording. He could have stopped long ago. Had Bob Dylan fallen by the wayside like many of his contemporaries, we would all be the poorer for it. I wish I could thank him personally for all of the enjoyment and wonder he's provided me, and millions of others.

Rolling Stone magazine recently listed their picks for the best 70 Dylan tunes in honor of his birthday. It was an interesting list, but they seemed to have forgotten nearly everything post-"Blood on the Tracks." I wanted to do a list, but so much has been written and said about Dylan that it's pointless to go back to the old stuff; all of his 60s and 70s essentials have been wrung out and written about and dissected so many times, there's really nothing more to say. And anyway, I have a soft-spot for his later years; in Dylan terms, "later" being since the dawn of the 80s. Although his "later" material will never be as lauded as his 60s peak, and you have to dig a little deeper for the gems, I would argue that there are high points that rival anything he's ever done.

Here are 10 of my favorite Dylan tunes from the last 30 years, in chronological order:

"Every Grain of Sand" - 'Shot of Love', 1981

At the end of his "Christian" period, which was often characterized by heavy-handed and self-righteous screeds, and on a subpar album with mostly filler, somehow Dylan came up with his purest and loveliest expression of religious faith. The version that ended up on 'Shot of Love' was overwrought; the essential recording is the demo. Recorded simply, with Jennifer Warnes gamely singing along despite barely knowing the song, the demo far outshines the finished product. It IS the song. A dog barks in the background, but it doesn't matter. The feeling is there; beautiful, sincere, reverent. Emmylou Harris would later record a stunning version, and it woulld be revisited by other artists as well. But this bare-bones home recording tops them all. This version was ultimately released in 1991 on his "Bootleg Series" box set.

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Unfortunately, like many Dylan tunes (damn you, Sony), this is not on Youtube. It's well-worth the 99 cents to download via, here: "Every Grain of Sand (Demo)"

"Jokerman" - 'Infidels', 1983

The 'Infidels' album was a bit of a return to form for Dylan in the early 80s; it was generally well-received, although the good vibes wouldn't last on subsequent releases. It had a handful of gems, especially the first single "Jokerman". Produced by Mark Knopfler, with its pseudo-Caribbean rhythm and laid back feel, it features some of the most incisive lyrics he'd put forth in years. You never know exactly who he's talking about, here; as often with Dylan, much is up to the listener's interpretation. "A friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame. You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name." Jesus? A church figure? Dylan himself? A politician? God? Satan? All of the above? Some of the above? Who knows. But out of his 80s material, this is some of his sharpest and most engaging songwriting.

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features

"Blind Willie McTell" - 1983

Recorded during 'Infidels' but inexplicably left off the album, and then widely bootlegged, "Blind Willie McTell" was the stuff of legends until it finally saw the official light of day in 1991 on the 'Bootleg Series' box set of rarities and outtakes. It's a stunner; it is widely considered by die-hard fans as one of the best of his entire output. Stark, haunting imagery of the deep south against a sparse backdrop of simple piano and acoustic guitar; the tension so thick its palpable. One of the finest vocals he ever delivered, maybe the finest. Listen late at night; turn off the lights; get some good headphones; turn it up. Utterly spine-tingling.

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is

Sadly, not on Youtube. Download via here: "Blind Willie McTell"

"Man in the Long Black Coat" - 'Oh Mercy', 1989

Fast forward 6 years to his undisputed best album of the 80s, the Daniel Lanois-produced 'Oh Mercy'. After a string of mostly dismal failures, 'Oh Mercy' was a sudden reminder of what Dylan could still produce when the stars aligned. With strong tunes like "Ring Them Bells," "Most of The Time," and "Everything is Broken", among others, 'Oh Mercy' is as strong a collection as anything he'd done. Lanois gave it just the right treatment; sparse, Southern, a bit gothic and mysterious. Dylan's voice was getting rougher, but as always with him it was all in the phrasing, and the meaning he could convey through inflection; perfect example here on this classic, "Man in the Long Black Coat". A dark fable of mystery, once again returning to the deep south and the ghosts there that Dylan loves to visit. Another iconic figure of lore like so many Dylan had conjured throughout his career; we can only speculate about the meaning. Dylan provides only ominous hints and forbidding growls.

Preacher was a talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied

Download here via "The Man in the Long Black Coat"

"Series of Dreams" - 1989

Recorded for 'Oh Mercy' but ultimately shelved until the Bootleg Series box in 1991; "Series of Dreams" is sorta my Dylan anthem. I probably love it more than any of his other songs. My favorite is the demo that showed up on the "Tell Tale Signs" rarities collection in 2008; a bit longer, with different lyrics, and a starker production. I can't really explain how much I love it, but it's one of my top 3 or 4 songs by any artist.

In one, the surface was frozen
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running, and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb

Download the demo here via "Series of Dreams (demo version)"

An edited version of the final studio mix:

"Make You Feel My Love - 'Time out of Mind', 1997

Dylan's next great album came in 1997, once again produced by Daniel Lanois. 'Make You Feel My Love', like many Dylan songs, has been covered by a wide variety of artists; but nobody can match the earnest, raw, naked emotion of Dylan's original. He spends much of the dark 'Time out of Mind' ruminating on aging and death and regret; and yet, here he is hopeful, crooning in his weary voice, still yearning for love. Another timeless song in Dylan's canon.

When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

Download here via "Make You Feel My Love"

"Things Have Changed", 2000

Dylan won an Academy Award for this track from the film "Wonder Boys." As tight and focused as anything he'd done; a wounded and cynical vision of the world. Wry and showing its age. The polar opposite of the romanticism of "Make You Feel My Love".

Lot of water under the bridge... lot of other stuff too
Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through

"Mississippi" - 'Love and Theft', 2001

Released on 9/11/01, "Love and Theft" was born into a time of pain, blood and ash. Somehow it suited the American psyche of the moment. A travelogue through the back roads and woods of America, there was much to admire on "Love and Theft". 'Mississippi' was the pinnacle; philosophical and coy, looking back while still peering ahead. It was covered cheerily by both Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks, and they gamely tried, with the Chicks in particular turning it into a fiery country stomper. But as with 99% of Dylan cover tunes, even the good ones, it missed the point. By now Dylan's voice is harsh; when he growls "Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all", you believe him, no questions asked. "Mississippi" sounds like an Epilogue. To what, i'm not sure.

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin' fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me

Download here via "Mississippi"

'Cross The Green Mountain", 2003

This ambitious epic was recorded for the civil war movie "Gods and Generals". Dylan once again ruminates on the south, and the wounds that still gape bleeding. A late-era classic; some of his loveliest and most powerful imagery. Haunting, surreal, unforgettable. It's an interesting genre exercise for Dylan, and he delivers a thoughtful performance with depth and beauty.

The lights coming forward
And the streets are broad
All must yield
To the avenging God

Download here via "Cross the Green Mountain"

"Beyond Here Lies' Nothin'", 'Together Through Life', 2009

And here we come to 2009, the present day (or as close to it as we can get). Staring down the barrel of 70, Dylan presented "Together Through Life" - and continues to tour, almost compulsively. His voice is shot and many nights the melodies are only faintly discernible through the gravelly croaks. But some nights, and on some songs, the magic peeks through. And voice be damned, it's still Bob Dylan on that stage; he has earned the right to keep going until he damn well wants to stop. Let them pry his guitar and microphone from his cold dead hands, and then he'll be done.

'Beyond Here Lies Nothin' is a grim bluesy construction, for sure. Angry and forbidding; an unflinching gaze into the abyss, with a shockingly violent video. But it's just one song... not long after producing this track, as dark as anything he had done, Bob Dylan was putting the finishing touches on an album of joyful Christmas standards. He doesn't follow my expectations, or yours, or anyone's. That is Dylan, and that is how he's operated his entire career. Will 70 be the end? Why should it be?

And when the end comes, he will have left behind a legacy that will be revered for generations to come. I'd say he must take some comfort in that, and maybe he does.

So Happy Birthday to you, Bob. And THANK YOU.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing description of his music. You have inspired me to listen more closely!

callmekc said...

This is a great list because it covers the period I've completely ignored: post-1970's. Can't wait to check these out! :)