Bob Dylan (2)

First post here:

Dylan started out as every bit the folkie. Heavily influenced by artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, he actually visited Woody in the hospital as he lay dying of Huntington’s Disease. But what people sometimes forget – or conveniently overlook – is that he was also influenced by Little Richard and later, The Beatles.

Of the latter he said, “”I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid… I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.” And as I mentioned in my second Beatles post, ironically the Beatles believed that Dylan was where music had to go.

So the folkies may have been shocked when Dylan famously went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. But they shouldn’t have been. (Legend has it that Pete Seeger was so outraged by Dylan’s electric “Maggie’s Farm” that he took an axe and tried to cut Dylan’s power. No one is really sure if this is true. But if not, it should be.) As I mentioned in my first post, someone in England – at a live concert – yelled out “Judas!”

And no Dylan post is complete without listening to Dylan’s breakthrough song, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Rolling Stone magazine called it the greatest song of all time. I don’t necessarily agree.  But then again I do if you catch my drift.

Of it, Bruce Springsteen said:

“The first time I heard Bob Dylan …. on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind … The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock’n’roll for ever and ever.”

Like a Rolling Stone

Later in the ’60’s, Dylan had a motorcycle accident, went away for a while and came back closer to the folkie he used to be. During that time he worked with The Band on what became – for want of a better word – an Americana sound. A lot of people by the end of the ’60’s had gotten tired of long jams and wanted something simpler.

In 1967, Dylan released an unusual album called John Wesley Harding, which was basically a stripped-down non-electric album. (By contrast, The Beatles had put out the massively produced Sergeant Pepper only a few months before).

Jimi Hendrix was a total Dylan fanatic and went looking through the album for a song to cover. If I recall correctly, he picked “All Along the Watchtower” not because it was a great song per se but because he could figure out a way into it. Hendrix’s version is so outstanding that everybody now plays his version, including Dylan. But I still very much like the simplicity of the original. There’s a plaintiveness in this version that is lost in the other:

All Along the Watchtower

I am here going to jump ahead a few years, past “Nashville Skyline,” past “New Morning.” Those are good, but for me, largely inconsequential albums. (Despite critics – Rolling Stone mag! – who at the time, treated every Dylan song as if was a Big Thing, true or no). For me, Dylan started to get interesting again when in 1975 he put out Blood on the Tracks. This album coincided with the breakup of his marriage to his wife, Sara. His son Jakob said, “When I’m listening to Blood On The Tracks, that’s about my parents.”

I think some of the songs while good are unfortunate in retrospect. Dylan is a master with words and too often, in my opinion, he reverts to the caustic putdown. “Idiot Wind” is an example of a song that frankly I could live without. (Never marry a songwriter!). But songs like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Shelter From the Storm” are great and long-lasting.

He woke up, she was gone
He didn’t see nothing but the dawn
He got outta bed and put his clothes back on

Pushed back the blinds
Found a note she’d left behind
To which he just could not relate
All about a simple twist of fate

When Dylan came out with the album Desire, in 1976, a friend of mine said, “We’ve got Dylan back again.” This because it included the terrific “Hurricane,” about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who the “the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.” It’s a tour-de-force of (not entirely accurate) storytelling, protest and call for social justice. Carter got out of jail as much because of this song as anything else. He said ‘fuck it’, moved to Canada and stayed there for the rest of his life. (Carter died in 2014. That’s a picture of Dylan visiting him in jail on top of post).

Notable on this song is an instrument that I don’t believe Dylan ever used before, a violin. The player is a then-unknown woman named Scarlet Rivera. Rumor has always had it that Dylan needed a violinist, saw her crossing the street in Greenwich Village and randomly asked her to play. This, unlike so many other mythologies around Dylan, is absolutely true. In fact, he drove up in an ugly green car and told her who he was. If it had been thirty seconds later, she would have disappeared into a basement.

Anyway, here comes the story of Hurricane:

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell

That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world


Next: Final Dylan post

2 thoughts on “Bob Dylan (2)

  1. Dylan is such an important one for me. My favourite album is Blonde on Blonde, though there are too many to count. Basement Tapes is wonderful as well.


  2. Yeah, you’re right. Too many to count. That whole axis of albums around “Blonde on Blonde” was very tasty. As bloggers, it’s a challenge sometimes to pick out which songs from a 50-year career to feature. I’m sure I get it wrong as often as I get it right. But as long as people will sometimes listen, that’s all we can ask.


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