Blonde on Blonde: A Folk-Rock Landmark

IMG_4355.PNG

You guys! This album is on fire, right from the wild curls and checkered scarf of the cover to the 11-minute, mystifying ode to the “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” There’s horns on the first track, “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” a.k.a. “everybody must get stoned.” Horns! We’ve come so far. The snare-heavy drums, the bluesy steel guitar, the jazzy piano, the cozy bass all whip these tracks through build-ups and crescendos, embellishing always the countrified rock rhythm.

It may have been the sunny 50-degree weather portending spring in Boston, or the delicious tostada de chorizo I’d scarfed down for lunch, but I high-stepped down the Brighton sidewalk, driven by this album’s propulsive momentum. Consider this: in the span of four tracks, Dylan hauls out “Visions of Johanna,” “I Want You,” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”; two tracks later comes “Just Like a Woman.” That roster of songs alone could’ve made a hall-of-fame career.

Do I get it? Is it possible not to get “Blonde on Blonde”? I mean, first-rate songwriting coupled with a killer band in a double album that spread its influence like shockwaves through rock and roll. Do I need to have heard the earlier albums to get it? I hope Al Kooper’s New Critical mindset isn’t rubbing off on me, but it feels like this album has fully shaken off Dylan’s folk origins, as well as whatever reciprocal resentments lingered after he went electric. Dylan has settled into a new style here, one more akin to (and influential to) The Beatles, The Stones, and Jimi Hendrix than Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Woody Guthrie. His vocals have eschewed even a whiff of imitation, the expressive nasal draws more self-confident, more natural and idiosyncratic than ever before. The lyrics employ stream-of-conscious wordplay to uncover bits of story, such as when “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule,” and the “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” that “balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine.” This is Dylan synchronizing styles into something complete and undeniably his. Do I like it? GTFO.

Advertisements

Al Kooper’s Refusal and Highway 61 Revisited

IMG_4191(1).JPG

Before I listen to this album today, I email Al Kooper, who played organ on “Like a Rolling Stone.” Kooper lives in Somerville–essentially Boston–and I hope he might be willing to meet up at some point and discuss my Dylan hypothesis. He gets right back to me.
His response is worth sharing in full:

I appreciate your kind remarks however I don’t agree with the way of thinking you’re on in terms of why Bob did this then and thqt [sic] now, etc. A song should be regarded strictly for what it is lyrically, musically and arrangement wise. All the rest is usually conjecture, opinion and folly. I am not the guy you want to wallow around with on this subject.

I totally disgree with your way of thinking. Music & poetry should be enjoyed at face value and if one wishes to study the creator thats another biographical subject altogether.

That’s one way to disprove a hypothesis–undermine its premise out of hand. Still, Kooper’s claim that music stands apart from its context is worth exploring. The New Critics of the mid-twentieth century believed in art as a closed form, penetrable only through close reading and well-honed skills of critical analysis. The Intentional Fallacy occurs when we attempt to conclude upon an artist’s intentions as a means of understanding their work. Sure, authorial purpose doesn’t really matter, and biography is beside the point when either examining or enjoying a text. But this mode of criticism has major limits.

While these New Critics did make inroads into the micro-functions of meaning and significance within language, they had yet to figure out that their mode of analysis relies on a monolithic worldview. That is, while exploring the multiplicity of language, they ignored the multitude of identities, eras, and situations from which a work might be read. Current trends call for inclusivity, not exclusive clubs of brilliant critics picking apart geniuses. Meanings shift and change with time and perspective. The text–whether “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or “The Times They Are A-Changin'”–changes too, after publication, and with each new time it’s read.

When accounting for variables that contribute to the slipperiness of text and perception, of course context matters, including biography, but also the publishing milieu, the immediate audience that influenced the work, the medium itself, equipment, marketing, sales, and more. Dylan may not have meant for his songs and albums to take on meanings outside of themselves, but to claim such hermetic immunity is a cop out, an excuse from full critical evaluation.

Steadfast in my endeavor I walk through the Common and toward the Copley library grooving to the arrangement, rich and full. A mother tosses me a football and I throw it back to her child. It wobbles and he snags it just as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” comes on. What an album. Two songs–“Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Queen Jane Approximately”–proceed with such layering and maturity the acoustic albums seem ages ago. When your weakest tracks are “From a Buick 6” and “Highway 61,” well, you’re doing something right. Dylan has hit his stride here and created one of the best albums in rock history, hands down.

It’s his album, but it’s my album–our album–too. I wrote my high school senior research paper on this album. At that time I learned, and still know, three of the songs on the keyboard: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Desolation Row.” Meaning happens in the track for experts to deconstruct, but it happens in our own lives too, in our minds and our hearts, even if Al and Bob would rather we believed otherwise.

Spotty Brilliance: Bringing It All Back Home

IMG_4178

Standing outside the Boylston T stop, I punch up Bringing It All Back Home, the next album in the chronology. I head down the stairs underground just as the opening licks of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” ring out.

The previous album concluded with “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and apparently Dylan wasn’t kidding. The shift to electric is unsubtle, jarring for a lick or two before the drums kick in, the vocals fire up and we roll down the tracks. “Don’t follow leaders / Watch your parking meters.” I try to imagine what that jolt must’ve been like for fans at that time. “The pump don’t work cuz the vandals took the handles.” It’s a total 180.

The second track, “She Belongs to Me,” showcases what folk music set to electric rock arrangement can accomplish. The tune is sweet and fully charged. “She never stumbles / She’s got no place to fall.” And the third track, “Maggie’s Farm,” announces a new intent, an evolved purpose, gives context to the entire project. “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” Dylan declares. There’s no reconciliation here. Dylan has made a total break, an utter departure.

The first time an unaccompanied folk song seemingly strikes up on track seven, the quick acoustic strumming and opening–“I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought spied some land”–collapse into extended laughter, as if Dylan were actively mocking his former home genre. Take-two features the whole band in a bluesy, playful soundscape.

This is hybrid music, folk-rock. This album breaks new ground.

About the time I detrain, back above ground, we’re back in folk land with the beautifully expressive “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But the folk stuff now contains mind-bending stream-of-consciousness word-riffs like “magic swirling ship” and “tambourine in time.” Some of the lyrics, I gotta say, just aren’t very good.

Let’s play a game. Dylan lyric, or scrawl from my high-school planner:

A. “The lamppost stands with folded arms / its iron claws attached.”

B. “His wicked-eyed pointer will soon turn to ash / as the mail truck silently whimpers.”

–next round–

C. “You never will forget / the lion’s eyes which hypnotize / will pay off your debt.”

D. “While preachers preach of evil fates / Teachers teach that knowledge waits / Can lead to hundred-dollar plates…”

IMG_4180.jpg
My high school planner, complete with scrawl.

Answer: A and D are gems from “Bringing it All Back Home.” B and C are my own 16-year-old attempts to sound as cryptically profound and accidentally meaningful as Dylan when he hits a sour patch.

Note this: amid the at-best inconsistent “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” Dylan sings, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” That’s his commitment to reinvention, to evolution. That’s the ethos right there of this whole project.
Do I get this album? It’s an F.U. To the folk establishment and a new stake in rock and roll. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Absolutely. The context is crucial, the contrast essential. Do I like it? Two songs are among his worst to date, a couple are okay, a few are classics, and three are brilliant. So yeah, it was all worth it.

Another Side of Bob Dylan

IMG_4173

Last night in Boston I saw John Prine for the first time. He sounded great—his voice as warm and familiar as you get on the albums. He’s grown a little wider and puffier with age, but still he danced the cha-cha and strummed fast within his four-piece band (guitars, upright bass and mandolin; no percussion). Watching Prine grin and sing, I realized that guy never said a bad word about anybody in his songs. Sam Stone is tragic, not evil. Vietnam reaped hell on folks, but Prine is content to leave it at that. Prine himself is affable, self-deprecating, imminently lovable.

I was glad to have listened closely to Dylan’s first three folk albums before seeing Prine. I don’t listen to a lot of classic folk, but the Dylan tracks had reminded me how the folk genre allows for war protest, class and union anthems, and place-driven travel tunes alongside love songs, character songs, and first-person introspection and revelation. Within the formal tradition, the songwriter’s character bleeds through. Dylan, after projecting a vociferous persona in his previous album, has lightened up both in voice and form in Another Side of Bob Dylan.

It’s just a theory, but when Dylan opens with “All I Really Want to Do” (“is baby be friends with you”), it feels like a direct nod to the Times album. He’s not so serious; he can be a softie too. In “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” a track in vignettes recruiting such figures as Cassius Clay and Barry Goldwater, Dylan informs us, “Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree / I want everybody to be free.” This is a clarifying phrase: Dylan’s radical politics extend only as far as universal equality. Beyond that, all bets are off.

Another salient nod to Another Side‘s polemical predecessor comes in “My Back Pages,” the chorus crooning, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Remember that gaunt, wizened 23-year old of The Times? This cover features a fresher-faced Dylan staring out of the frame with something like a Mona Lisa smirk.

The songs here are more cheerful, less somber. A jangly piano appears on the second track, “Black Crow Blues.” Dylan believed songs are just floating around out there, and if he didn’t write them down, someone else would. From that view, the songwriter is merely a vessel through which omnipresent streams of chords and lyrics flow. This concept allows him to get away with a certain incoherence that reaps surprising rewards, like this: “Ramona, come closer, shut softly your watery eyes / The pangs of your sadness shall pass as your senses will rise.” Grounded in rhythm and alliteration, these lines show Dylan at his best to date. But the end of this verse, “There’s no use in trying to deal with the dying / though I cannot explain that in lines,” simply confuses me. I wish he’d try and explain what he means, but hey, the song dictated itself to him that way.

Do I get this album? Yeah, it’s a young folk singer still maturing. Do I need to have listened to the previous ones to get it? Yes, because Another Side seems in direct conversation with what came before. Do I like it? It’s great.

In Protest: The Times They Are A-Changin’

IMG_4128.PNG

This is a heavy album, serious. Dylan ain’t playing around. Civil unrest, the Bay of Pigs, social inequality have all made Dylan somber and stormy. “With God on Our Side” takes as its strategy finger-wagging polemics: “The history books … tell it so well… / The cavalries charged, the Indians died / For the country was young, with God on its side.” This critical tone, coupled with slower, deeper strums and longer, more mournful pulls of the harmonica captures Dylan’s disaffection. Given his youth (just 23), this wizened persona unsettles me—the world-weariness must be more performance than measured conclusion. Even the cover photo makes him look gaunt, tired, older than he is.

“Only a Pawn in Their Game” smacks of conspiracy-theory talk. As I ride the Green Line B through Brighton, I can’t help but think of the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Meetings, Bohemian Grove. Sure, corrupt authority and rigid societal superstructures that rely on false divisions and propaganda must be called out for the harm they reap on human beings. But it’s tiresome, to be honest, to have a full album’s worth. These condemnatory protest songs place “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a sub-genre of folk music, which prevents wider appeal.

But the brilliance of the title track, composed in 3/4 time, can’t be denied. Check out the first verse:

Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam

And admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.

This tercet contains an AAA rhyme scheme. Typical of the ballad form, each line contains four stresses. The subsequent tercet offers a variation on both rhyme and number of stresses:

If your time to you is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’

The status quo of the “A” gives way to “B” rhyme, interlocked with the last of four A’s to put added emphasis on the final B: “The times are changing”. This organization is undergirded by the 3/4 time, and the three stresses in each B line, increasing the sensation of inevitable progress.

The structure relies, I’m convinced, on a foundation in formal poetry. He’s well read, and he’s willing to rely on tradition–to work with the master’s tools–to package and push his message of peace, equality, and the uprooting of corruption.

He’s really good—precocious, even—at songwriting form. He’s a great performer. But if he spent his career in this protest mode, he’d be a niche artist.

The First Classic: Freewheelin’

IMG_4127

I needed to return a library book, buy some new walking shoes, get a haircut, and retrieve my bike from work (it rained like hell yesterday), so I cued up Freewheelin’ and got on the train. Within four stops Dylan had me sufficiently moved.

Holy shit this album. When was the last time you listened to it through? Right from the opening “how many roads” Dylan has this surety of voice, provides this critical window into post-WWII society. Unlike the first album, the vocals here are always measured, always expressive, like the contained wail of “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” The lyrics are brilliant. I mean, “Blowin’ in the Wind” didn’t become the voice of a movement for nothing. The compositions fluid and dynamic, lending variety to a collection which contains all but two originals. Even within the album we sense some artistic development–the first accompaniment in the Dylan catalogue a snare drum on “Corinna Corinna.” Compositions range from protest song to lover’s lament to dark humor. It’s wide-ranging; it’s great.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” takes me to a north Florida farm with my friend @toftwillingham having mastered the picking but imploring us, What’s the last verse‽ It’s “So long, honey babe / Where I’m bound, I can’t tell,” Toft buddy. “Goodbye is too good a word, babe / So I just say fare thee well.”

And when “Talking World War III Blues” comes on, I’m heading into Copley Place Mall. Dylan’s post-nuclear fallout pits us floating between our dream worlds and our militant, red-scare society. It’s a lonely continuum, existential and unstable, propelled by a major progression, repetitive, circular. “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours,” Dylan concludes, and I can’t help but search the faces of these mall walkers for a glint of recognition.

Do I get this album? I’d say so. Do I need to have listened to the self-titled album to get it? That helps me see how dramatic a pivot Dylan has made from folk cover act to original artist with a complete songwriting package. Do I like it? Come on, hell yeah.

The Eponymous Bob Dylan

IMG_4125This album is young, bare, green. I listened to it while making a turkey sandwich. The Dylan on the cover sports the soft, pudgy cheeks of a youth still clinging to his baby fat. The tracks feature just his straining voice, his playful harmonica, and his deftly played, richly textured acoustic guitar. All but two of the songs–“Talkin’ New York” and “Song for Woody”–are folk traditionals, such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Pretty Peggy-O.” Though his performance is impressive–even virtuosic–as he embodies a collection of folk songs collected from the New York scene, missing are his trademark turns of phrase and cutting lyrical insight. He hadn’t gotten there yet, and I tried to remember that as I listened.

In everything but the lyrics, we can hear Dylan laying foundations. Listen to the traipsing guitar-harmonica interplay on “Highway 51 Blues.” Listen to him contort his voice to sound strikingly like a train whistle in “Freight Train Blues.” His vocals are all over the place. If he were one of my students, I’d ask him to settle down. The adrenalized performance was only slightly more interesting than my turkey sandwich.

Do I get this album? Yeah, it’s Dylan’s first take on folk music, and he innovates in his performance and arrangement if not in his writing. Do I need to hear the earlier albums to get it? Knowing some Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger would help to recognize just where Dylan is breaking new ground, though I think a Greenwich Village influence on those standards comes through pretty clear. Do I like it? Yeah, it’s pretty good. I’m eager to hear how Dylan expands his style into more original songs.