Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Bob

Dylan is 70! Happy Birthday, Bob. As a die hard fan for a little more than half your life (and at this point, more than half of mine) thank you!

That picture above is unpublished, as far I know. In the early days of the internet, I was in a chat room and one of the chatters emailed it to me. It was the first picture I ever downloaded. At the time, it was a recent picture, Dylan and his band was the opening act for the Grateful Dead. It’s a stadium, rare for the time – the last time he played to this large an audience was when he toured with the Dead in 1987.

Look how sloppy he looks, an un-tucked shirt. On stage especially, Dylan wears very neat, tailored outfits, often preferring embroidered musical notes on nudie-style western suits -- like Hank Williams in those famous kinescopes.

Notice no hat. One of the last tours for that to happen – he has long been wearing a hat with attached wig (a style he first adapted for the film Masked & Anonymous and was most recently seen in the video for It Must be Santa) while performing; the only times he is sans headgear are for very staged promotional photographs. Nice to see originator still sporting a very convincing Jew-fro – was one of the last sightings of the curls in all their unconcealed, unhindered glory.

By the way, this may have been the last time he and his friend Jerry Garcia were together. It was one of the final shows of that tour, after which Garcia checked himself into rehab. Jerry was dead within a month’s time.

Guess what: I’m a Dylan freak. If you think you know a bigger Dylan freak than me we’ve probably not met. I’m not going to analyze Dylan’s work here. By now, you either get it or you don’t.

On the 70th anniversary of his birth, what I want to point out is, it’s great being a Dylan fan. Few things bring me as much pleasure as his music. He constantly challenges his audiences, his songs grow better over time and his lyrics (much of them at least) are literature. Dylan has been one of the most enjoyably satisfying artist to follow.

I’m a music lover, fans of lots of folks, but digging Dylan is a whole other thing for me.

I have seen him over the decades something like 25 times. I own every official record (buying them immediately upon release since about 1975) and lots of bootlegs. I’m a long time contributor to the Dylan Newsgroup (RMD shout out!). Oh, I could go on about how he changed my life and turned me on to literature, blah blah blah. But the fact of the matter is, I love music, especially Rock & Roll, Dylan is a master and he fills my personal soundtrack.

Really doesn’t matter what you think of Dylan, I’m sure you’re a fan of something. Being a fan of Dylan, you never feel ripped off and the disappointments are few, rare and always mild. Can’t say that about the Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson not to mention the New York Yankees or the Jets or Star Wars!

Dylan may have put out uneven records, but even the low points of the 80s have great songs. I’ve never seen him give less than 100 percent at a show. Also, if you haven’t seen him and you care about rock and roll, you really should make the effort, not just to say you’ve seen a legend play his songs – except for only the most recent ones, they will not sound anything like the original – but his band, especially Tony Garnier on Bass and Charlie Sexton on guitar (arguably the best guitarist of his generation) is one of the best touring Rock & Roll ensembles of the current era.

Since I’ve been a “follower” – mid-1970s – no more than three years has gone by without a new release; I am including Live Albums and Biograph – the 1980s Box Set with unreleased gems and the cover albums of the early 90s.

You want that as a fan. I’m the beast that needs to be fed. It’s not like media – a radio or TV program that you experience on a regular basis. Music is a different experience than liking Howard Stern or All Things Considered or even the Sopranos. Media Pop culture fits nicely into a routine, a far different relationship than an artist, especially musician, has with his or her audience. A fan needs steady, but not constant, renewal of their fandom.

On the other hand, when an artist takes too many years between projects, the anticipation level can be too high that the new record inevitably falls short or so diluted by the preceding famine that by the time it’s finally released you are ready to declare any offering no matter how weak a masterpiece. Right or wrong, win or lose, root for the team!

Few other artists are as considerate of their fans – or as savvy. Once in a while, Dylan will license a song, even his image, to a commercial. I consider these chinks in an otherwise near-impeccable armor of artistic integrity. Luckily, they are few and far between and he has so far resisted outright endorsements or corporate sponsorship of tours or shows. He hasn’t put out a line of clothing or cosmetics, even his t-shirt sales are pretty low key (and they’ve pretty lame looking of late).

Dylan puts out music on regular basis. The quality has been high. If that’s not enough – and for a Dylan freak, it is not – there are bootlegs to obtain to stay abreast of his performing career as well as out-takes not released. Columbia has been releasing official bootlegs for two decades now, so more stuff is readily available, and the sound, compared to the bootleg audio, is awesome.

You can be a Dylan fan and not go broke, not feel ripped off. Like a baseball team, he’s just a part of your life that brings you happiness and he releases enough material that you are rarely without an answer to the question, what’s Bob up to?

Did you hear the new Dylan record?

In fact, for the last 15 years or so, the Dylan industry has been remarkably rewarding.

As rock stars go, Dylan has always been more prolific that most. Few have such long careers, nor are putting out such substantial music as a senior citizen. The new records have been supplemented by his two other careers, Dylan Archivist and Cultural Celebrity.

In fact, at his 70th birthday, there may have never been a better time to be a Dylan fan (or freak!) than now!

Archivist –Dylan has always had a shadow career with bootlegs. I had critical bootlegs before I graduated high school and spent many an hour listening to my buddy Dan’s Great White Wonder. In the 90s, the “official” Bootleg Series was launched. Columbia started emptying their vaults. I think it’s up to volume 9. Actually, this harkens back to the 1975 release of the Basement Tapes, but it took more than 15 years for the label to wake up the fact that Dylan is way too prolific to be contained with the typical parameters of a musical career.

Dylan has been famous for leaving great songs off official albums and this is true – Blind Willie McTell has become the most famous example; She’s Your Love Now is a favorite for mine; more recently, on “Tell Tale Signs,” you get, Girl from the Red River Shore, a haunting, sublime song, an out-take from Time Out of Mind (1997).

But these bootleg series, which have included complete concerts and last year’s the Whitmark Demos, from his early folk years, do something other than providing new tracks to discover. Like many artists, to fully understand the scope of the work and to understand the work as well as the life, you must divide the career into periods.

Music is particularly good prey for this form of analysis. Album (s) document a specific sound and the next Album (s) documents a different specific sound. How you can not think of Sun Session Elvis vs Comeback Special Elvis. Capital years Sinatra? Meet the Beatles better than the White Album, discuss.

Dylan’s phase shifts are especially dramatic. Throughout the decades he has applied his songwriting skills and perspectives to an array of genres – folk, rock & roll, country, gospel – and leaving his mark on those genres; Live, he often transforms a previous genre song into what genre interests him at the moment (the original One Too Mornings vs the 1966 Rocking Version; or even more interesting – the original John Brown from the Whitmark release to the Unplugged MTV live album). Even a casual fan will appreciate the augmentation of the canon and the fact that hearing sessions out takes, such as available on the No Direction Home “soundtrack.” gives a deeper understanding of the work that went into the final officially released masterpiece. The live pieces likewise emphasize aspects of the performance style of the particular period— the phrasing and playing in the studio only is part of the portrait of the artist at any given period.

His fans have watched the periods unfold, which is tremendous fun. And, it has also been fun to get a new perspective that time, and the work that didn’t make the final cut, provides. On Tell Tale Signs, there are several versions of Mississippi (Stayed in Mississippi a Day Too Long), a brilliant song. Usually, Dylan versions can be really different (a rockabilly Visions of Johanna with the Band on the No Direction Home soundtrack, or Basement Tapes Ain’t Going Nowhere vs the Happy Traum session), but with Mississippi, it was all about nuance. The versions are fascinatingly similar to each other and the official Love & Theft version, is the agreed upon masterpiece. The best, but only by a hair. Music is about emotions, which are not just at the heart of our humanity but essentially are ineffable. The multiple versions of Mississippi are not just seeing a sketchbook, but you watch an artist get closer and closer to realizing the vision with each performance. Unlike other out-take comparisons, Mississippi is entirely incremental.

Is that the essence of Dylan’s artistry – both the listener and the singer discovers together what a song really means?

Cultural Celebrity – Dylan is one of the last of the 60s counter culture heroes not just alive, but still working. He has a natural charisma. He’s appealing and usually baffling. He has dabbled in film (Eat the Document, Renaldo & Clara), as well acting and soundtrack work, made noteworthy television appearances ( examples: Johnny Cash 1968, Hard Rain 76 TV Special, David Letterman 1984) and even had a weird, barely readable book – Tarantula. He has a habit of showing up and just being, Dylan. Live Aid anybody?

Beginning in the 90s though, with interest in Dylan revived again and growing, Dylan dabbled with increasing frequency beyond the mere releasing of records and touring. The dichotomy inherent in being both icon and working artist energizes him. He both disputes nostalgia and uses it as a starting point.

Masked & Anonymous, his 2003 art-film, directed by Larry Charles and reuniting Walter and the Dude (I rented Lebowski because I dug the Dylan film and now that film is my 2nd (After Shane) all time favorite film). The Martin Scorsese film, No Direction Home, I sone of the better musical documentaries ever made. I’m Not There, a intermittently entertaining but direly pretentious flick with an excellent soundtrack – consisting mainly of musical luminaries like John Doe and Tom Verlaine playing Dylan songs with Dylan’s current backing band. In addition, new (and old) Dylan songs show up constantly in films – Things Have Changed won an Oscar, he’s on the North Country soundtrack, and check out his cover of You Belong to Me in Natural Born Killers.

Chronicles, the memoir which landed on the best seller’s list was not just a rock & roll autobiography, but a top-notch literary memoir, as good as Stop Time by Frank Conroy or Speak Memory by Nabakov. Last year, Princeton Historian Sean Wilentz released Dylan in America, a study of cultural trends in the U.S. masquerading as book about Dylan. This book is first in-depth analysis of Dylan’s 90s & 00s work and and its chapter on the friendship between Dylan and Ginsberg reveals useful insights about the Bard from Paterson his biographers have heretofore avoid. Oh yeah, and there’s that radio show with delightful quips (I like email but I miss the postman) and an unrivaled encyclopedic musical catalog.

I probably left a few things out, but as a fan, Dylan popping up here (the recent kerfuffle about China Set Lists) and there is a blast. He has never been more accessible, more present, yet he is not over exposed. Quality is likewise a priority. Everything he has been doing – new music, archival releases, dabbling with other mediums – has been consistently worthwhile. Even Christmas in the Heart, a bizarrely fascinating album that I can’t quite decide whether it is a new record by Dylan or just an example of his using his cultural celebrity for a good cause (proceeds fight hunger). Bottom line, it is simply a fun Christmas Carroll collection and a welcome addition to my seasonal rotation.

He has something like 40 albums out (more than 500 songs by some estimates). No one can listen to that many records all the time, nor can anyone listen to one artist all the time. I listen to music as much as I am able and I guess a month hasn’t gone by without some Dylan disc finding its way into the rotation. Sometimes it’s all Dylan all the time. Now, I am tending to play his recent releases – I am particularly fond of Love & Theft – and sort of stick to a core of Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde, and New Morning (I just like that record a lot). Recent months, because of seeing the Phil Ochs documentary and a “Freewheeling Time,” the not-half-bad memoir written by former lover, Suze Rotollo I’ve been playing Times They Are A Changin and Freewheelin.

Following an artist with such a back catalog you can go years and years without playing one record of another. A new record comes out, etc. etc. But with Dylan being in the news so much more than he had been and being a font of miscellanea, that random reasons to play a record that has been on the shelf come up.

Rolling Stone published a great list, Best 70 Dylan songs, in honor of his birthday, natch. You read a list like that and say to your self, I haven’t heard that for a while. So, I slipped on Shot of Love and Desire into the CD player. I haven’t played either for these classics in at least five years. When I need the Dylan fix, I play the usual suspects like Highway 61 I’ve been playing that. My point is that as the folk Dylan, whom I avoided for a couple of years, returns, you not only re-awaken a period of the artist, you hear it with fresh ears. Same was true for Shot of Love. Memories that I associate with these records, both of which I got when new, came flooding back along with a new appreciation for the great songs. This morning I played Love & Theft, and I got another shading and I thought about how eclectic both L&T and SOL are.

This type of musical enjoyment may be applicable to any record or artist, it just seems more so with Dylan. Taste in music is completely subjective (which doesn’t stop me from judging yours and shouldn’t stop you from judging mine. But few artists the extensive catalog Dylan has built. Since he has so many records that you forget several for years. You are prompted to re-enter them into the rotation, your appreciation is not just renewed but this re-discovery is another form of the experience of loving music. It is a particularly unique form of enjoyment.

Dylan is ever deepening, and ever growing more complex. I can say the same about the entertainment he brings me as a fan. Happy Birthday Bob, thanks for the music I love the most. Keep on Keepin On!

1 comment:

  1. Great article Tim. You are so right about going years without listening to certain albums and then hearing them in a completely different light. I'm not sure but at some point along the way you and I may have traded some bootlegs. The bootlegs add a whole new level to Bob. We are very very lucky. Happy Birthday to Bob.

    Tom Ryan