Lately folks have been sending me Bob Dylan links they come across on the Internet. Martha shared with me Rolling Stone’s article on the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde, sparking a discussion about Smokey Robinson’s influence on Bob post-Highway 61 Revisited. After my tepid review of Hard Rain, Todd sent me the Wikipedia page for a recently released bootleg from the same era, saying, “This is the one you should try.” Nora put me in contact with both an article detailing Dylan’s lifelong passion for welding (who knew‽) and a quiz asking “What Dylan Album Are You?” Turns out I’m a “respectable” “Planet Waves,” Dylan’s “often overlooked and underrated 1974 album.” Even my mom got in the game, posting a live “Forever Young” video, the theme song to “Parenthood,” to my wall.
Just goes to show, Dylan means a lot of things to a lot of folks.
Meanwhile, after Empire Burlesque, Alec expressed surprise that I hadn’t given up on the project entirely, as the 80s, in his opinion, are “not a very listenable period.” Now, I’ve found at least one gem on every Dylan album so far. Even Knocked Out Loaded scored with “Brownsville Girl.” But on the whole, “listenability” is perhaps the most holistic measure of music–a yes-or-no question hinging on enjoyment value–and the albums I’ve been dabbling in these last few weeks, to be sure, are suspect on this front. Would I listen to Shot of Love or Empire Burlesque on a jog, or on the train, if not for this hypothesis? Those chances are slim.
In my last post I floated the idea that Dylan’s 80’s nadir is due in part to the recording industry having worn Dylan down by synthesizing and over-processing his sound. Lest I get run down too, I decided to treat myself to a departure from the studio. Dylan and the Dead, a live compilation from the 1987 tour featuring Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, features Dylan and his deteriorating vocals as the front man to the Dead’s mellifluous, highly improvised backdrop. The combination creates a study in paradox and juxtaposition that heightens the intrigue of Dylan’s own material.
The Grateful Dead readily take up the groovy funk of “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train Comin’.” They shift into guitar rockers and rock balladeers on “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” “I Want You” and “Queen Jane Approximately” recall the psychedelic sixties while “Joey,” slow and repetitive, allows for a bevy of instrumental interplay. Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir cast their familiar vocals into the refrain—“Joey, Joey / What made them want to come and blow you away?”—while the two drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman, fill out the backbeat. Phil Lesh’s bass doesn’t have a lot to do on these three- and four-chord songs, while Brent Mydland’s own scratchy voice and metallic, synthesized keyboard compliments Dylan well.
The reviews for this album were awful, but you know, I’m a deadhead, and my fandom requires some measure of sympathy and understanding for the band onstage. Polish is for the pop charts. These guys are after experimentation, reinvention, and transcendence, and it takes a lot of nonstarters and dead ends—not to mention the odd sour note and dropped lyric—to get there. As far as I’m concerned, this album is the jam.