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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

One of the human foundation stones of modern popular music, BOB DYLAN is quite probably the most talented, most misunderstood, most covered and certainly the most written-about songwriter and performer of recent history. His early work inspired The BEATLES and furnished countless songs for US counterparts The BYRDS, while his politicised folk and flights of poetic genius gave voice to the fledgling counter-culture. Famously booed by outraged Luddites when he swapped an acoustic guitar for an electric one, DYLAN courted controversy as casually as he wooed the gypsy women in his songs. His mid-60s albums set the bar before he went into seclusion up in Woodstock, eventually emerging the following decade with arguably the best work of his career.
Robert Allen Zimmerman (to give him his correct title) was born on May 24, 1941, Duluth, Minnesota, although he was raised from the age of six in nearby Hibbing, where he was taught guitar and harmonica. Inspired by a host of folk, blues and country luminaries, including WOODY GUTHRIE, JESSE FULLER and HANK WILLIAMS, Robert left his local university at the turn of the 60s, changing his name to BOB DYLAN (his surname procured from the poet Dylan Thomas). Bob subsequently took the long trek to New York, where he almost immediately impressed the folk hierarchy of Greenwich Village; he played his first gig at Gerde’s Folk City supporting JOHN LEE HOOKER on April 11, 1961; harmonica session work for songstress CAROLINE HESTER followed. In turn, her employers at Columbia Records, through A&R man John Hammond Snr., signed him in October ’61, his rugged aura and his love of the dying GUTHRIE (whom he’d visit in hospital on a regular basis) signified a true folk spirit.
Simply titled, BOB DYLAN (1962) {*8}, his eponymous debut album, gained sparse attention outside the insular folk scene at the time, although his live work attracted critical appraisal – Robert Shelton of the New York Times was an early patron. The record itself showed Bob at his most organic and angst-ridden, although there was only room for two worthy originals, `Talkin’ New York’ and the poignant `Song To Woody’. Up to now, not many had heard traditional folk-blues fare such as `In My Time Of Dyin’’ (certainly not LED ZEPPELIN), `House Of The Risin’ Sun’ (JOSH WHITE was the inspiration for the Animals’ synonymous chart-topper), or the likes of BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON’s `See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, REV. GARY DAVIS’ `Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’, JESSE FULLER’s `You’re No Good’, BUKKA WHITE’s `Fixin’ To Die’ or Curtis Jones’s `Highway 51 Blues’; note that the more folk-orientated `Man Of Constant Sorrow’, `Pretty Peggy-O’ and JIMMIE RODGERS’ `Freight Train Blues’ were also choice pieces on board – note that there was no `Corrina, Corrina’ (his first 45), which found its way on to his next set.
On the back of this considerable debut, Zimmerman unleashed THE FREEWHEELIN’ BOB DYLAN {*10}, and, after PETER, PAUL & MARY lifted a million-seller from it, `Blowin’ In The Wind’, the set gained enough respect to give him a US Top 30 entry. The record also saw a pronounced development in DYLAN’s songwriting dexterity on tracks like the cutting `Masters Of War’, `Oxford Town’, `A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, `Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and `Talking World World III Blues’. While his untrained, nasal vocals could be something of an acquired taste, his voice communicated the lyrics in a way that lent them greater depth and resonance. In Britain the LP entered the charts in May ‘64 and, after initially peaking at No.16, it surpassed this feat a year later by hitting pole position.
DYLAN really hit his stride with THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’ (1964) {*9}, an album that represented his most pointed protest writing. On subsequent albums, DYLAN shied away from direct missives like `Only A Pawn In Their Game’ and `With God On Our Side’, two tracks testing authority and religion in equal measures, while `The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ and `Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ levelled their fire against injustice.
ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN (1964) {*9} was contrastingly personal in tone, `I Don’t Believe You’ and `It Ain’t Me, Babe’ venting DYLAN’s spleen on matters of the heart rather than the soapbox. The lyrics also began to assume an air of enigmatic suggestiveness, `My Back Pages’, `All I Really Want To Do’ and `Chimes Of Freedom’ boasting striking, lucid imagery which The BYRDS would later complement with their incandescent, chiming guitars and ringing harmonies.
Influenced by the British R&B boom (especially The BEATLES), DYLAN stunned folk purists with the half-electric/half-acoustic BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME (1965) {*9}. The newly plugged-in DYLAN was a revelation, and with the likes of the stream-of-consciousness `Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (ditto `Maggie’s Farm’) the album influenced in turn the bands DYLAN had taken his cue from. The acoustic tracks on the second side, such as `Mr. Tambourine Man’ and `It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, rank among DYLAN’s finest, the former giving the aforementioned BYRDS their breakthrough hit.
While the folk faithful dissed DYLAN at that summer’s Newport Festival, he wowed the rock world with the masterful `Like A Rolling Stone’ single, and followed it up with the seminal HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (1965) {*10}. A free-flowing hybrid of blues, folk and R&B that used such esteemed musicians as AL KOOPER, MIKE BLOOMFIELD, Charlie McCoy and Paul Griffin, rock music had never been graced with such complex, expansive lyrics, evident on so many classics ranging from `It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ and `Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ to the 11-minute finale, `Desolation Row’. Although it irked many of the purists, many newcomers to DYLAN’s fanclub came via garage-rock cuts like `From A Buick 6’, `Tombstone Blues’ and the rollicking title track.
It was around this period that he would be the subject of an esteemed D.A. Pennebaker docu-film, Dont Look Back, a movie (released in ’67) featuring DONOVAN, BAEZ, et al.
Backed by members of The Hawks (who’d supported DYLAN on his recent tour and later became The BAND) plus a posse of crack Nashville sessioneers, DYLAN recorded another rock milestone with BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966) {*10}. A double-set that harvested new influences from the burgeoning country/rock establishment (guitarist ROBBIE ROBERTSON had replaced Mike), there were fourteen tracks here, some of them hits, several of them sheer class: `Rainy Day Women Nos.12 & 35’, `Just Like A Woman’, `I Want You’, `Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’, `Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’, `One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)’ and `Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’; `Visions Of Johanna’ was DYLAN at his most lysergic, casting surreal lyrical spells with hypnotic ease, while his ode to his new wife, Sara, was by way of epic closing cue, `Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’.
After a motorcycle accident that summer, from which he sustained severe neck injuries, Bob went into semi-retirement, looking after his family and holing up in Woodstock with The BAND. These sessions from June-October ’67 eventually saw the light of day (after a time as 1968 bootleg `The Great White Wonder’) in 1975 as THE BASEMENT TAPES {*9}, a classic double album of experimental roots rock. Long before its belated release, some wee devils stole all his best tunes via hits `This Wheel’s On Fire’ (by JULIE DRISCOLL, BRIAN AUGER & The Trinity), `Too Much Of Nothing’ (PETER, PAUL & MARY) and `You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ (The BYRDS), while the odd gem came through `Million Dollar Bash’, `Lo And Behold!’, `Please Mrs. Henry’, `Tears Of Rage’ and `Tiny Montgomery’.
Upon his return to the music scene (and after the death of GUTHRIE in ‘67), DYLAN’s vocals were slightly altered and his music had taken a distinct turn towards country-rock on JOHN WESLEY HARDING (1968) {*8}. Reflective and searching, the record was almost biblical and quasi-allegorical in its tendency to parable figures in songs such as `John Wesley Harding’, `The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’ and `I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’, while there were at least two further DYLAN jewels, `All Along The Watchtower’ (revamped gloriously by HENDRIX) and `I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (subsequently rehashed by UB40 and ROBERT PALMER respectively).
NASHVILLE SKYLINE (1969) {*8} was stone country, a break from folk music, even featuring a bittersweet duet with JOHNNY CASH (`Girl From The North Country’). DYLAN’s crooning larynx had glutinous but effective overtones on pick of the bunch `Lay Lady Lay’ (his return to the Top 10), `Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ (a Top 50 hit), `I Threw It All Away’ (another minor hit) and `Country Pie’ (soon to be covered by The NICE) – all ’n’ all, 10 songs packed into 27 minutes.
If there was ever an album to alienate and provoke an entire fanclub, the sprawling double-album of SELF PORTRAIT (1970) {*3}, a bootleg-esque record which presented his listeners with apathy and self-derision on a hotchpotch of leftovers, re-treads, poker-faced covers and even instrumentals. One can’t describe the feeling towards listening to Bob the bard play-out renditions of Rodgers & Hart’s `Blue Moon’, Gilbert Becaud’s `Let It Be Me’, Boudleaux Bryant’s `Take A Message To Mary’ (and `Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)’), Cecil A. Null’s `I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’, Albert F. Beddoe’s `Copper Kettle’ and Paul Clayton’s `Gotta Travel On’; and why cover GORDON LIGHTFOOT’s `Early Morning Rain’, SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `The Boxer’ and FRANK WARNER’s `Days Of ‘49’, and sit them alongside `The Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)’ (a hit for MANFRED MANN a few years back) and a woeful, nonsensical rendering of `Like A Rolling Stone’? – no one knows.
Rush-released to compensate his fans for the abomination that was “Self-P”, NEW MORNING (1970) {*7} was something of a back-to-basics comeback set for Bob, although many fans and critics alike were now aware of their guru’s shortcomings and self-indulgent tendencies. Opening with `If Not For You’ (a subsequent hit for OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN), the album expanded on the near-horizontal approach of his late-60s sets, although DYLAN was again short of hit single material; Columbia probably didn’t want to chance their arm on `One More Weekend’, `Went To See The Gypsy’ and `Winterlude’.
Apart from a couple of minor hits, `Watching The River Flow’ (featuring LEON RUSSELL on piano) and the anthemic political song for `George Jackson’, DYLAN played it low-key for a couple of years, although he was one of the draws to benefit GEORGE HARRISON’s Bangladesh project.
It was clear Bob was busy doing something. It became clearer still when director Sam Peckinpah released his outlaw tale, PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973) {*7}; DYLAN was given a fairly unimposing role as Alias, the Kid’s laconic sidekick. Backed on the OST by the likes of ROGER McGUINN, veteran fiddler Byron Berline and even “Stax” hero, BOOKER T. JONES, DYLAN crafted a work of gentle regret and quiet power, largely instrumental but all the more effective for it. It’s no coincidence that `Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, still one of the grizzled troubadour’s most fully realised, best-known and most-covered (if always butchered) songs, is located here, and its air of resigned, lullaby-like fatalism blows through the rest of the score like sad-eyed tumbleweed. Not least in the reprise of `Final Theme’, where the melody is followed through and developed on flute and harmonium, a desert reverie (like `Billy 4’) every bit as fervent as Peckinpah’s tortured devotion to his subject matter.
Ever so slightly perturbed at Bob’s desertion to David Geffen’s Asylum imprint, Columbia petulantly dispersed an outtakes LP, DYLAN (1973) {*2}, not recorded from his halcyon days of the 60s but from the lamentable nightmare that was 1970’s Self Portrait, much to the annoyance of Bob and his fans who had to cope with covers – and we’ll keep this brief – of JONI MITCHELL’s `Big Yellow Taxi’, JERRY JEFF WALKER’s `Mr. Bojangles’, PETER LA FARGE’s `The Ballad Of Ira Hayes’ and ELVIS fodder `Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and `A Fool Such As I’.
Thankfully, Asylum’s chart-topping PLANET WAVES (1974) {*7} restored some decorum to the messy label wrangles, its amiable and soothing tones going a long way to propitiating DYLAN’s long-lost and loyal fanbase. `Forever Young’, `On A Night Like This’, `You Angel You’ and `Something There Is About You’, were striking but modest songs marking a new phase in Bob’s recent rollercoaster career. Never one to stand on ceremony, and reuniting the great man centrestage with Messrs The BAND, BEFORE THE FLOOD (1974) {*8} was just what the doctor ordered in its timely, nostalgic, live-concert swagger. Sure, this was a joint effort (credited to BOB DYLAN/THE BAND), but DYLAN was at his sardonic and mischievous best on revamps of all his greatest hits, including a rollicking (post-HENDRIX!) take of his own `All Along The Watchtower’; there were several BAND-only cues none better than `The Weight’ and/or `The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’.
With his lean spell well and truly buried (at least for now), DYLAN returned with two harder-edged, mid-70s rock classics; he’d also patched things up with Columbia.
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975) {*10} was the bard’s best set since “Blonde…”, a truly intimate, yearning and bittersweet recording that was penned at a traumatic time for Bob while his marriage crumbled beneath him. With session players such as Paul Griffin, Tony Brown, Buddy Cage and bluegrass veteran Eric Weissberg behind him, every track was meticulously crafted, confessional in all the right places and an insight into the emotions and flaws of the great man. If one was only afforded a few songs, one would probably pick several anyway, such as `Shelter From The Storm’, `Simple Twist Of Fate’, `If You See Her, Say Hello’, `You’re A Big Girl Now’ and `Tangled Up In Blue’ (a relatively minor hit for such a classic song); the lengthier `Idiot Wind’ and `Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts’ were both pleading and playful.
With his “Rolling Thunder revue” now in full swing, DYLAN managed to extract an equally effective set, DESIRE (1976) {*9}, although it didn’t please every critic at the time, many wrongly comparing it to its colossal predecessor. Co-penning the majority of the songs with Jacques Levy (and backed by singers EMMYLOU HARRIS and RONEE BLAKLEY plus fiddle from Scarlet Rivera), the subject matter was diverse, with topics ranging from Bob’s paean to imprisoned boxing contender Ruben Carter (`Hurricane’) to the deeply emotional plea to his estranged wife (`Sara’) – who divorced him in ’77 – to the haunting `One More Cup Of Coffee’. Other modern-day DYLAN jewels included `Isis’, `Mozambique’, `Oh, Sister’, and the Mexicali-fuelled `Black Diamond Bay’, but maybe on reflection the let-down track could’ve been the 11-minute `Joey’ or the “Pat Garrett”-esque `Romance In Durango’.
A second Rolling Thunder revue kicked off that spring, although JOAN BAEZ, RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT, ROGER McGUINN, JONI MITCHELL and ARLO GUTHRIE left only guitarists MICK RONSON, DAVID MANSFIELD, T-Bone Burnett and co. to pick up the pieces. HARD RAIN (1976) {*5}, was the album released from these recordings, a rather unnecessary piece of history, much like the subsequent 4-hour docu-movie, Renaldo And Clara, released in 1978. Ill-conceived as a kind of art-house part-acting/part-concert movie, it was an unmitigated failure, pulled from screens before it had even finished its limited run. The movie had also been a serious drain on DYLAN’s finances and dampened his enthusiasm for further celluloid experiments. Bob’s contributions to The BAND’s Last Waltz movie (directed by Martin Scorsese) came off somewhat better than his own posturing.
Professional in his choice of laid-back session men (MANSFIELD was still in tow), DYLAN released his 16th album proper, STREET LEGAL (1978) {*6}, a competent and slick record highlighted by hit single `Baby Stop Crying’, plus `Changing Of The Guards’, `Is Your Love In Vain?’ and `Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’. And then surprise, surprise, another live album, a double-set recorded in Japan, AT BUDOKAN (1979) {*4} – enough said.
Onwards and on through to his 80s work, DYLAN mellowed into more spiritual themes as a result of his newfound Christianity. 1979’s Top 3 set, SLOW TRAIN COMING {*6}, embraced God and religion via `Gotta Serve Somebody’, `Precious Angel’ and `I Believe In You’; MARK KNOPFLER and Pick Withers from DIRE STRAITS gave a helping hand. Pedestrian albums SAVED (1980) {*4} and SHOT OF LOVE (1981) {*4} continued on his “born again” quest, although most pundits were howling “boring again” as both sets barely breached the Top 40.
Returning the bearded one to a more secular mood, INFIDELS (1983) {*7} was his best effort for several years, most critics agreeing (for once) that the old DYLAN was back; examples being the first three salvos, `Jokerman’, `Sweetheart Like You’ and `Neighborhood Bully’. Significant and a tad less subtle than his previous concert effort, REAL LIVE (1984) {*5} found his tracking back to `Masters Of War’ to the most recent dirge, `I And I’; oh, and ex-Stones guitarist MICK TAYLOR backed him.
EMPIRE BURLESQUE (1985) {*6}, with its slick production and the attendance of SLY & ROBBIE, TAYLOR (again), RON WOOD, AL KOOPER, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, et al, was another attempt to weave or deceive the public; however on reflection tracks such as `Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love)’, `Emotionally Yours’ and `When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’ have stood the test of time.
Helped by everyone from TOM PETTY & The Heartbreakers, Carole Bayer Sager to playwright Sam Shepard (the latter co-wrote the 11-minute `Brownsville Girl’), KNOCKED OUT LOADED (1986) {*4} was probably an appropriate title, suffering as it did a humiliating exile from the Top 50; two covers were featured, Junior Parker’s `You Wanna Ramble’ and KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s `They Killed Him’. In 1987, Bob once again dabbled in celluloid, agreeing to take on the part of a jaded rock star in the forgettable Hearts Of Fire; his contribution was a few tracks, overwhelmed by shady hard-rock efforts from co-stars FIONA and Rupert Everett.
Helped along by collaborative ex-GRATEFUL DEAD lyricist, Robert Hunter (and others of that band), DOWN IN THE GROOVE (1988) {*4} was a record to appeal to punk thirsts rather than whingeing folk-purists courtesy of the guest appearances of Steve Jones and Paul Simonon (ex-SEX PISTOLS and The CLASH respectively); the LP was notable for the inclusion of a handful of old-timey blues covers, `Let’s Stick Together’ (penned by Wilbert Harrison), `When Did You Leave Heaven?’, `Sally Sue Brown’, `Rank Strangers To Me’, `Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)’ and `Shenandoah’. To document his time (from 6 live dates in July ’87) let loose with the GRATEFUL DEAD, both DYLAN & THE DEAD (as the title suggested) (1989) {*2}, produced one of the worst albums in history; one can only pray for help towards the end of `Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. Unsettled and wishing to re-invent himself somehow, DYLAN took the opportunity of joining rootsy supergroup outfit The TRAVELING WILBURYS, alongside ROY ORBISON, GEORGE HARRISON, JEFF LYNNE and TOM PETTY; their first album, `Volume One’, smashed the Top 3 late in ’88; Roy died soon afterwards – `Vol.3’ nearly hit Top 10 a few years later.
The DANIEL LANOIS-produced OH MERCY (1989) {*6} “saved” DYLAN’s hide and came close to capturing the magic of old through songs like `Political World’ and `Man In The Long Black Coat’, matching the spiritual imagery of `Ring Them Bells’ and `Shooting Star’.
DYLAN’s first solo release of the new decade, the featherweight Don Was-produced UNDER THE RED SKY (1990) {*3}, was roundly lambasted as his weakest effort since Self Portrait, while with GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU (1992) {*5}, DYLAN again confounded fans and critics (and maybe even himself) by cutting a whole album of grizzled if endearing public-domain folk-blues songs. The nasal approach was apparently on full-throttle via `Black Jack Davey’, `Frankie And Albert’ and `Sittin’ On Top Of The World’; a ramble through six minutes of `Froggie Went A-Courtin’’, was indeed asking too much.
DYLAN then confounded fans and critics all over again with another volume, released almost a year to the day after the last one. WORLD GONE WRONG (1993) {*6} was more than just a replay however, with a carefully chosen – if largely obscure – set-list interpreted with craft and obvious devotion; a Grammy winner for Best Folk Album, one should check out his arrangements of traditional fare like `Stack A Lee’, `Jack-A-Roe’ and `Delia’.
For fans of the man’s rockier material, it seemed there was little respite as DYLAN released his own, inevitable chapter of MTV UNPLUGGED (1995) {*4}. There were few surprises, with most of the material drawn from his mid-60s golden period (`John Brown’ from 1963 included), although a few more 70s classics wouldn’t have been unwelcome.
Bob finally emerged with a collection of original songs in 1997. A Grammy album-of-the-year, TIME OUT OF MIND (1997) {*7} marked the first chapter in one of his sporadic (in fact one of the most significant) periods of creative rebirth. Dark, disillusioned pre-millennial blues shot through with portentous, burbling Hammond organ and a lingering sense of emotional impasse and encroaching old age, the record contained DYLAN’s most naked songwriting in years; example the 16-min+ `Highlands’.
LOVE AND THEFT (2001) {*7}, was even more rapturously received although it was a completely different beast altogether. For the first time in decades – certainly since the 70’s – rock’s greatest living songwriter sounded liberated, inspired to stretch out and kick back in terms of both writing and performance. `Summer Days’ was possibly his most effervescent, carefree song since `Mozambique’, while closer `Sugar Baby’ was in the tradition of his finest album bookends.
That he proceeded to compromise all these achievements with a starring role (as… an aged rock star…) in a failed movie could be viewed as either mystifying, or reverting to type. MASKED AND ANONYMOUS (2003) {*4} received short thrift from critics, and DYLAN’s performance can only be described as inscrutable. Even more so when his barely noticeable acting is contrasted with his considerably more compelling stage presence, especially with such a cracking band behind him. Yet again the soundtrack was his saving grace, with great live performances and a sprinkling of inspired covers from around the globe. It seems fair to conclude that Bob’s relationship with film – at least beyond the realms of the soundtrack – has been an uneasy one.
Following on from the revelatory Vols.1-3 THE BOOTLEG SERIES: RARE & UNRELEASED (1991) {*8} and Vols. 4 and 5 (THE “ROYAL ALBERT HALL” CONCERT (1998) {*9} and THE ROLLING THUNDER REVUE (2002) {*8} respectively), more bootlegged Bob finally made the official discography with the release of Vol.6: BOB DYLAN LIVE 1964 – CONCERT AT PHILHARMONIC HALL (2004) {*7}. The concert in question – bootlegged as `Halloween Masque’ – was his Halloween acoustic concert at Carnegie Hall. As a context for fans who’d never heard the unofficial version, it would’ve more usefully been dug up prior to the “Royal Albert Hall” double disc (the aforementioned Vol. 4), predicting that show’s iconic break with tradition, and roughly split between material from Another Side Of and Bringing It All Back Home. Still, it was another painstakingly presented package, and another vital archival document given its due and its rightful place in the UK Top 40/US Top 30.
NO DIRECTION HOME – THE SOUNDTRACK (2005) {*7}, aka Vol.7, continued to bootleg the bootleggers, while Vol.8 TELL TALE SIGNS: RARE AND UNRELEASED: 1989-2006 (2008) {*7}, looked like being the last in the classic series.
Meanwhile, DYLAN was again at pole position courtesy of MODERN TIMES (2006) {*8}, a rousing, organic blues-rock record that was heightened by his lyrical prowess and a sense of mortality. Opening salvo, `Thunder On The Mountain’ (name-checking ALICIA KEYS) was one of the big guns here, while `The Levee’s Gonna Break’, `When The Deal Goes Down’, `Spirit On The Water’, `Rollin’ And Tumblin’ and `Beyond The Horizon’ were electrically-charged slices of storytelling genius.
But could Bobby keep it up? Of course he could, although he sounded a tad croaky. Well, he was now 68 years young and looking every bit as wrinkly as old retainer KEITH RICHARDS. Making amends somewhat from his past DYLAN misdemeanours, the aforementioned Robert Hunter was back at the helm for TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009) {*7}, a comparatively basic set of dually-composed, bluesy ballads that borrowed slightly from past horizons; WILLIE DIXON’s `I Just Want To Make Love To You’ for one was modernised into `My Wife’s Home Town’, others such as `Shake Shake Mama’ and `If You Ever Go To Houston’ sit nicely as timeless creations – nostalgic-like for this day and age and coming full-circle back to when DYLAN was an up-and-coming folk-blues minstrel.
Although a Jewish lad at heart, the festive period was always something he and his kinship celebrated, and when CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART (2009) {*4} turned up, it was no big deal. With royalties benefitting the UN World Food Programme and other charities, the Top 40 album served a purpose rather than giving his own disciples something fresh and satisfying – one’d had that in his previous set. If one was curious enough to sit through traditional fare and “Santa” ditties all year round, then Bob was serving you well here.
More in line with the DYLAN we all loved, was his much-anticipated TEMPEST (2012) {*9} set. To have a Top 3 record on both sides of the Atlantic at the age of 71 was a feat in itself. For it to be an album that garnered so much praise by everyone from the Rolling Stone to the NME was another. A truly dark album in places drawing from the eternal themes of love, struggle and death, Bob delivers a croaky cocktail of tales, none more graphic than the chorus-less, 14-minute oratorio that was his “RMS Titanic” title track – it marked 100 years since the cruise liner had sunk. Penned with the help of former GRATEFUL DEAD wordsmith Robert Hunter, the old-timey and swing feel of opening rocker `Duquesne Whistle’ was another reminder of DYLAN’s ancestral timelessness. Sentimentality and predictability was hardly the man’s forte, but even the simple `Soon After Midnight’ and its raucous counterpart `Narrow Way’ were colossal. But for his understandably grit ’n’ gravel OAP vocals (which one can get used to after several spins), his picturesque medieval tales of love and lust shine through on `Scarlet Town’ and his modern-day classic `Tin Angel’. As a postscript finale to this magical album (one of his greatest ever), DYLAN leaves us a tearful ode to the life of JOHN LENNON, `Roll On John’. One just hopes our Bob can roll on for years to come.
If one didn’t know it by now, Bob was ageing fast and seemingly settling in by the fireside – so to speak – with pipe and slippers. While not totally stepping into the footsteps of crooner Crosby, Sinatra was surely an inspiration for his pet pop project SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (2015) {*4}. Garnering mixed reviews from fans old and new, nostalgia, jazz and a pre-rock’n’roll era was the order of the day, while sentimentality rode into town on his take of “The Great American Songbook”. `Some Enchanted Evening’, `Autumn Leaves’, `That Lucky Old Sun’ and `What’ll I Do’, were croakingly crooned beyond belief by the former folk singer. Not everyone’s cup of cocoa, but by today’s low standards the 10-song set still managed to top the charts. One prayed hard for another “Tempest”, while times were a-changing.
Pity then that Bob continued his showcase sojourn toward the American songbook catalogue on the Top 10, Jack Frost-produced, FALLEN ANGELS (2016) {*6}. As smooth as scorched silk and dividing his fanbase and critics alike in his quest of giving easy-listening immortality, rather than himself, a Sinatra-inspired DYLAN croaked the covers like there was no tomorrow. From `Young At Heart’, `It Had To Be You’ and `On A Little Street In Singapore’, to tie-ups `Melancholy Mood’, `That Old Black Magic’ and `Come Rain Or Shine’, the former folk star brought a humbling and a heartbreak to the art of sophistication.
In stark contrast to his recent foray into nostalgia, nostalgia, it seemed, reared its ugly head when a Swedish jury awarded Bob – as long-standing songwriter – the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, worth $1.1m. The decision kicked up a viper’s nest of controversy: musicians were mostly in favour, novelists such as Irving Welsh, not so much. DYLAN, himself, was said to be shocked at the news. Maybe they thought he’d reject the award (like Jean-Paul Sartre in ’64), but that wasn’t the case. One thing that was a given, was that a plethora of singer-songwriters/musicians would be thinking they’d be up next. Maybe poet Bob should have an evening reciting his best works without any musical accompaniment, or maybe there should be a special, separate Nobel prize for musical merit, or maybe the very rich Mr. Zimmerman could give 11 struggling author nominees $100,000 each of his prize fund to compensate for their loss. There’s no doubting DYLAN is the greatest living songwriter, but painting words on a canvas does not make him a Van Gogh, a Picasso or a Matisse, in the same way as writing words to music does not make him a Chekhov, a Tolstoy or a Twain (incidentally, non recipients of the “idealistic” Nobel).
Subsequently carrying the nostalgia can, three-fold, by way of TRIPLICATE (2017) {*6}, DYLAN served up a relatively-poor-selling third instalment of lamplight covers. His loyal folk-rock fans might baulk at the very notion of one foray, but a trilogy; and this, an hour-an-a-half long! Possibly, a stretch too far. That said, Bobby’s breezy larynx counted for a lot among his re-interpretations of the Great American Songbook. One might recognise great-grandpappy standards such as `Stormy Weather’, `As Time Goes By’, `Sentimental Journey’, `These Foolish Things’, `You Go To My Head’ et al, but once the spotlight faded along with the flat pink champagne on ice, DYLAN’s disciples prayed for the day he would again write one last great set of songs.
Putting archival bootleg and rare live performances sets aside, DYLAN fans were crying out for fresh-penned material from the bard. Then, almost out of the blue, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, his first original song since 2012; the near-17 minute long `Murder Most Foul’ (his longest since `Highlands’), hit his YouTube streaming channel on March 27, 2020. Concerning the assassination of JFK, many listeners correlated Bob’s gritty spoken-word lyrics in response to the day’s troubled times. Indeed, the labyrinthine track pulled no punches; its metaphoric message one of unity, not division.
Nigh-on three months on and available on disc two of ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS {*9}; a blues set with JIMMY REED in mind, the thought-provoking track captured a melancholy and mustachioed Bob at his most profound. The album itself – disc one at least – was a slow-burner in many ways, dripping blood, sweat and tears with every listen. Opening shot, `I Contain Multitudes’, was similar in formula, with a more sentimental bent that name checked Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and “them British bad boys” The Rolling Stones. In essence, an out-and-out blues-driven record that, at times, hardly stretched beyond derivative traditional licks (`False Prophet’, `Crossing The Rubicon’ and tribute `Goodbye Jimmy Reed’), the set nevertheless stepped from the breeze with graveyard-shift songs, `My Own Version Of You’ and `Black Rider’; plus the gospel/spiritual `Mother Of Muses’ and `I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’. The wondrous album – and a half – certainly laid to rest any misconceptions that the near octogenarian was past his best. And in `Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, the parting shot gave the impression that the redemptive, rambling bard might be contemplating his resting place.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-LCS-GFD // rev-up MCS Sep2012-Jun2020

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