Picking Up Steam: Together Through Life

bob_dylan_-_together_through_lifeI can feel the energy here twisting through the guitar twang and accordion thrums, horn blurts and organ cries of the opening track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” That is, Dylan’s croak informs us, “Nothing but the moon and stars.” But the next track, “Life Is Hard,” is so insubstantial in its slow procession it feels delicate on the ears, hardly registering at all. “My Wife’s Home Town” (Hell, by the way) loosely folds its verses around that intriguing refrain. But then, “If You Ever Go To Houston” features Dylan’s growling, twanging vocals, paired with that crowing accordion and a slide guitar, at their late-career best. “If you ever go to Austin / Fort Worth or San Anton’,” Dylan reminisces, the band loping forward like those outlaws from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, “Find the barrooms I got lost in / And send my memories home.”

This last weekend I found myself in a Fenway bar, hanging out with my grad-school classmates and colleagues. They’re mostly in their twenties (the birthday girl was turning 23), and sometimes they get me to participate in the things folks in their early twenties do: stay out late, chug beer, walk long distances home. Used to be no problem, I’d bounce back with vigor. Not so much anymore.

I only had four beers! (Okay–and a whiskey-sour nightcap). But for godsakes, it took me two days and a hair-of-the-dog to start feeling like myself again. At the bar, though, one of the poets said he’d met Bob Dylan–said, through cryptic nod-and-winks that he knew Bob Dylan, before swearing me to secrecy. I have no reason to doubt him, really, especially because when I expressed concern about Bob coming down on me for copyright issues (none of Dylan’s studio recordings appear on YouTube, after all) this guy told me, “Bob? Shit, Bob doesn’t care.”

I like this image of Bob: a mellow old rock-and-roller who wouldn’t waste a moment concerning himself with rights and records and legacies. I’ve painted him at times as a miserly anti-critic, but you know, when a man’s lived the vast majority of his life in the spotlight, fielding questions and inferences from media types extrapolating theories and inferences (what Kooper called “folly and conjecture”), a certain distrust of critics might be understandable.

But not me, right? My project’s different from the rest, and not just because of my (ahem) unassailable ear and analysis. But because I’d like to think Bob would like me if he met me, even if he thought, like Kooper, that my “thinking is all wrong.”

I’ve said it before. They’re Bob’s songs, but they’re my songs–our songs–too.

From this kinder perspective I attempt to hear “Forgetful Heart” as more than an atmospheric ballad in a minor key; “Jolene” as more than masculine bluster (“Baby I am the king, and you are the queen / … People think they know but they all wrong”); “This Dream of You” as an earnest rendition of Mexicana folk. Because there’s some good stuff here: tunes that evince a master still plying his craft.

Several masters, in fact. Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead shares songwriting credits on all but one track. Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers riffs guitar. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos pumps that alluring accordion. And really, this album ends in a flourish. “Shake Shake Mama” pops with groove-inducing funk behind a AAB rhyme scheme. “I’m motherless, fatherless, almost friendless too / It’s Friday morning on Franklin Avenue.” The penultimate track, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” rings with that Obama-era optimism so common back in 2008 while its strong major progression reinforces that sunniness: “We’ve got so much in common / We strive for the same old ends / I just can’t wait for us to become friends.” That bright-sidedness transitions into the final track, “It’s All Good.” Here, Dylan shrugs off those corrupt institutions he railed against so vehemently with a throw-back phrase and delivery.

Do I get this album? It’s an exploration of American musical forms from yet another angle. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Totally, because the Dylan persona here–raspy and cryptic, playful and good-natured–leans on his decades of wit and confidence. Do I like it? With this cast, these songs, how could I not?

Need a Lift: Modern Times

904be6ba

It’s the first day of the fall semester, and I’m back in the classroom. This morning I had the honor of teaching 42 students over two courses for their first college class. Their eyes were (mostly) bright, eager for the education ahead. They chuckled at my jokes, not yet jaded by rapid-fire exams and up-all-night essays. I felt glad to be the first teacher to usher them into their college existence, even if all we did was go over the syllabus. The fall semester never seems more promising than on the first day.

And yet, there’s a sadness here too. Today marks the undeniably end of Summer 2016, a summer in which I cycled the Erie Canal and hung out on Lake Champlain, spent two weeks home in Orlando and later mourned the Pulse shooting victims from Kansas City. I bumbled around, read books at my leisure, wrote poems and songs, chapters and Dylan essays. Summer 2016–save for the shooting–was a model of what I wish my life could be always.

I’m of two minds today, both in regards to the changing of the academic season and the Dylan album at hand, “Modern Times.” After two stellar, life-enhancing albums in a row, Dylan here seems struggling to recapture that resurgent late-career energy. Right from the billowing intro to track one, “Thunder on the Mountain,” it seems the band is trying to gather steam around Dylan, but while he’s “Wonderin’ where in the world Alicia Keys could be,” the tune just can’t excite him. Besides, “Thunder on the Mountain” sounds a bit too similar to the Grateful Dead jam, “Fire on the Mountain”–and this isn’t the only Dead echo on the album. Track four, “When the Deal Goes Down,” a 3/4 waltz, borrows directly from the Garcia-Hunter composition, “Deal.”

Whereas on “Love and Theft,” Dylan was lifting lines from Twain and Fitzgerald, here he constructs entire choruses around both Grateful Dead tunes and blues-rock standards. The third track, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a Muddy Waters original, echoes Canned Heat’s arrangement from Woodstock, or the one from Eric Clapton’s mid-90’s “Unplugged.” But Dylan spruces up the tune with his own associative lyrics. The effect is of a meandering train starting from the Muddy Waters station but digressing and detouring before looping back around. The same holds true for another Waters tune–“Someday Baby,” a take on “Trouble No More” thundered out by the early Allman Brothers Band. And “The Levee’s Gonna Break”–Led Zeppelin, anyone?

This patchwork structure of borrowed licks and lyrics coupled with original blues-themed phrases seems deliberate and, therefore, uniquely Dylanesque. His work here becomes a mosaic of all the songs he’s heard, the books he’s read, the American musical tropes he’s helped carry. Originality falls under such doubt it no longer matters; turns out in Dylan’s mind, it never did.

These are discussions I’ll have with my students this semester: how to converse with a text; how to incorporate another writer’s ideas in a way that doesn’t squelch your own originality; how to cite sources. That’s the academic mission, to further the conversation while protecting the input of each participant. Dylan’s project is different. Dylan seeks to embody the conversation, to make himself a conduit for all of its participant’s expressions.

Still, on “Modern Times,” the strongest tracks are the ones that seem the most original. Track two, “Spirit on the Water,” is a jazzy love song in which Dylan rightly ponders “What does it matter, what price I pay?” for his lover’s affection. “Workingman’s Blues #2” is a stand out with a strong, descending progression for a chorus in which Dylan commands, “Meet me at the bottom don’t lag behind / Bring me my boots and shoes / You can hang back or fight your best on the front line / Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues.”

But then again, what of the Grateful Dead album, “Workingman’s Dead”? Is the phrasing not too similar? What of the claims that lyrics throughout the album are cribbed from Ovid, from Henry Timrod. That parts “Nettie Moore” date back to the mid-nineteenth century?

This album warrants a scan through SafeAssign, or TurnItIn, our plagiarism databases. But don’t think we can nail Dylan–or Jack Frost as he calls himself under the production credits–for dishonesty. If you don’t get what he’s doing, it wasn’t meant for you.

Do I get it? I have to say, the borrowing makes me uneasy. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Never before have we seen such an amalgamation of music and literature on display, and without apology. Do I like it? Parts feel tired, loose; I wish I could trust it.

It’s about Time: Time out of Mind

IMG_4841

Yesterday I took the Greyhound–our neglected stepchild of long-distance transportation–from Burlington, VT back to Boston. The bus was packed, smelled of blue toilet water, and my seat neighbor and I chuckled about how our row rocked back and forth as much as a foot with every start and stop. It was a six-hour ride; I was stuck in a cramped, smelly limbo. The one redeeming aspect of the ride was that I had the perfect Dylan album for the occasion: Time Out of Mind.

We’ve come a long way since Dylan’s twenties and the furious start to his career, his throttled-back Americana early thirties, the arena rock that ushered in his forties. Even the utter artistic and commercial flops like Down in the Groove and Under the Red Sky of Dylan’s late forties seem erased from memory now as Dylan recasts his original material through that mystified, aging rambler intimated on World Gone Wrong.

Time Out of Mind is, to be sure, a comeback album, a return to form unseen since Blood on the Tracks. It constitutes another reinvention of our protean folk-rock hero. Right from the opening staccato organ bleats of “Lovesick,” soon paired with Dylan’s crisp, filtered rasp, it’s clear this album means to take its time layering keyboard riffs and guitar counterpoints. The second track, then–“Dirt Road Blues”–sets those instruments in motion as they twist and twang over a country beat. Again on track three, “Standing in the Doorway,” the arrangement glides the listener slowly into a meditation on the progress of love lost–“Yesterday everything was going too fast / Today it’s moving too slow”–while time, which has deepened over the decades, comes rife with forsaken love. These soundscapes, created by producer Daniel Lanois, along with these themes Dylan explores persist through these 11 tracks. The unity of sound and sense coheres the tracks with a strength essential to a complete, vital album. And that’s what Time Out of Mind is–a masterwork.

Time Out Mind also constitutes the first celebrated Dylan album release I was conscious of in the moment. I remember standing in the checkout line at Publix in 1997 with my father, born two years after Dylan, who was featured that day on a magazine cover by the register. “I heard Dylan’s latest album is really good,” Dad said, which was a surprise even to me, a 13 year old, because everybody—everybody!—knew Dylan’s beat years were behind him. But the critics agreed. Rolling Stones‘ four-star review called it “a more fully realized version of Oh Mercy,” also produced by Lanois. “The rumor is true,” wrote the A.V. Club: “Bob Dylan, an artist for whom many fans had simply given up hope, has made an excellent album.” For its part, Entertainment Weekly compared Time Out Mind to the Rolling Stones’ more “frantic” Bridges to Babylon, released at the same time (and, fun fact, launching the tour that served as my first concert (Santana opened)). Dylan’s effort, according to EW, proved Dylan “a man out of time, in self-imposed exile from rock trends, and all the wiser and stronger for keeping his distance from their energy-sapping fickleness.”

The consensus: by coming to terms with loss (of love, vivacity, and, perhaps, his audience) and mortality, Dylan had turned his career around. Hell, it won him the Grammy for Album of the Year.

“Million Miles” evokes a smoky jazz club where the instruments don’t as much play as lounge and moan. “Maybe in the next life I’ll be able to hear myself think,” Dylan grows before observing, “I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you.” The conflict seems disembodied, removed from the speaker. Love unattainable is a constant, but one questions if a subject even exists behind the words, or if the album-wide laments serve as scaffolding for metaphysical contemplations. For example, “Trying to Get to Heaven” (“before they close the door”) expresses the futility of existence when non-existing could bring such bliss; yet our deliverance to that great hereafter is wholly beyond our control. The same idea applies to “Not Dark Yet,” which couples a dirge procession with lilting, redemptive guitar licks. “It’s not dark yet,” Dylan maintains, before dropping the tone, “but it’s getting there.” Beyond time, space collapses here too, as Dylan mutters, “There isn’t even room to be anywhere.” These two songs combine with “Standing in the Doorway” to form an exquisite triad of late-life ballads, slow and atmospheric, that recast the Dylan persona, typically caustic and accusatory, as a patient, toothless wanderer resigned to perplexity over the inscrutable trappings of our spectral world. There’s “nowhere left to turn”; “nothing left to burn.” The whole album feels theatrical, like an avante garde stage play. This is Godot in stereo, with Dylan the guitar-slinging tramp. His overriding could be summed as, Heartbroken again, but there’s still time–wait, still time? What is time, anyway, and after all I’ve been through, how could I possibly have more of it? Life is strange.

And so the album’s static mood, its overarching suspension of time and space and scarred hearts, had me forgetting about the time spent in that Greyhound seat–had me doubting the progress of time at all. “Cold Irons Bound,” which won a freaking Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, kept me a constant “twenty miles out of town.” A standard love ballad, “Make You Feel My Love,” proved again Dylan’s straight-up songwriting prowess. “Can’t Wait,” which declares, “I don’t know how much longer I can wait,” reminded me of my cabin fever, my anxiety to get off that bus. But the final track, the 16-minute “Highlands” featuring Dylan swirling between stage sets, including a restaurant in “Bostontown,” sounded utterly displaced, beyond the laws of spacetime altogether. All the while I thought of my father, who seemed to understand this stage of life where experiences circle so fast they leave their experiencers in a vacuum bemused.

Do I get “Time Out of Mind?” I get it, yeah, down deep. Do I need the previous albums to get it? To comprehend the velocity of this comeback, absolutely. Do I like it? More than that, I’ve internalized it–I’ve integrated it into the stasis of my life.

The Past is not Past: World Gone Wrong

IMG_4811

I spent the last week cycling 363 miles along the Erie Canalway bike trail. My buddy Todd and I hauled saddle bags and camping gear over trails paved and gravelled, through post-industrial communities of western and central New York, under interstates and along the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River, and finally, the Hudson. The Canal itself traces the roots of progress and expansion in America. First constructed in the early nineteenth century, the Canal immediately became an essential trading route between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. The rise of the railroads over the following century spurred New York to widen the waterway in two installments. But finally, the interstate spelled its end. Now it’s three eras lay piecemeal through the countryside while the cities it stitches together struggle in our post-industrial economy.

Amid all that cycling, deep in the quiet woods, I played some music from my smart phone. The Band, Wilco, Counting Crows, and even one morning Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong. As with Good as I Been to You, here we have solo Dylan cataloging and preserving classic folk numbers. But right from the opening, title track, these songs take darker, deadlier turns.

“I got blood in my eyes for you baby,” Dylan sings with straightforward malice while his guitar strings rattle and hum. Two songs later, on “Delia,” the refrain, “All the friends I ever had are gone,” accompanies a first-person narrative from Delia’s killer’s point of view. The next track, “Stack a Lee,” pairs quick strumming with the story of Billie DeLyon, Stagger Lee, and the Stetson hat they wager in a card game–a story with as many versions and variations as there are trails through the woods. Dylan’s ends with Billie DeLyon haunting his killer, Stagger Lee, in Lee’s jail cell.

Each of these ten songs proceed with a gravity aided by the scratchy recording quality, the raggedness of Dylan’s voice, the fullness of his guitar playing, and the depth of time they occupy. Like the Erie Canal, World Gone Wrong carves a glimpse of a nation untouched by highways and airplanes, computers and televisions. It reminds us that the past is dark, muffled. When we rip it open, we find the hurts and horrors still ringing. We find humanity soaked in a solution of mortality.

This evocative album deserves a close listen in a quiet room. Dylan seems to be pivoting his persona to a world-weary soothsayer, an image aided by the black-suited, brim-hatted figure on the cover seated in some impressionistic cafe. Do I get this album? I get it in the shadowy corners of my soul. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Again, we get the impression here of a singer who never turned electric. Do I like it? At this style, Dylan is a master.

Good as I Been to You: a Roots Return

IMG_4570

It’s summer y’all. Highs in the 90s. Shorts and tank tops all about the city. Time to relax, to contemplate, to exercise. I’m reading another poem, headed back to the gym, working on myself in mind and body.

I wonder if Dylan conceived Good as I Been to You in the hot summer, too. Here is a return to his folk roots, an album that indulges and solidifies his fundamentals. Gone are the synths, the splashy drums, the wheezing overreaching lyrical and vocal efforts. Hardly a whiff of Christianity lingers in this album. It’s Dylan solo, seeming settled into his most natural state: acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a slew of folk traditionals like “Frankie and Albert” (with lyrical echoes of “Stagger Lee”), “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Diamond Joe.”

One gets the sense Dylan didn’t need to brush up on these songs, didn’t need to rehearse. The mastery of the material with which he performs, the fullness of the arrangements and nuance of the phrasings, reminds us that Dylan plays folk standards like a fish swims in water. After the brutality of the recent albums, Good as I Been to You reminds us why Dylan rose to fame in the first place, before he went electric.

I wonder if his time with the Traveling Wilburys encouraged him to tap back into his roots. Petty obviously feels at home wailing the electric ballad; Lynne producing cascades of rock tones; Harrison playing the wry electric sage. Performing with this supergroup must’ve reminded Dylan of his own strengths. And here we have it–his voice a bit ragged and timeworn but fitting the aged essence of this material in a manner he could only imitate in his first, eponymous effort.

Do I get this album? I do get why, after so much apparent misery within the recording industry, Dylan took to his garage alone and sang what he knew best. Do I need the previous albums to get it? This one reaches back to Bob Dylan, Freewheelin’, The Times, and Another Side, as if we could leapfrog the electric decades of fame and failure between. Do I like it? Things are looking up.

The Struggling Critic: Traveling Wilburys Vol. III

IMG_4567

Did the Traveling Wilburys, during their recording sessions in the early 90s, contend with news of mass shootings and murderous cops, police assassinations and systemic racism? Was the 1992 Bush Sr.-Bill Clinton-Perot election as contentious and divisive as the one we currently face? Were societal ills and social injustices on the top of Dylan and Petty, Harrison and Lynn’s minds? Overwhelmingly, the tracks here–simple, relationship-themed, and inward-looking–would suggest not. At a time when the nation, immersed as it is in the violence through endless news cycles and social media feeds, is engaged again in debates of racism and gun ownership, the apoliticism of “Traveling Wilburys Vol. III” makes it a tough sell.

And yet, in these very pages I’ve faulted Dylan for being at times too polemic, for using his bully pulpit to promote a political agenda. And here I am wishing Vol. III (Vol. II never happened) contained that awareness of the larger struggles facing society. Just as the artist is helpless to create beyond the trappings of their place and time, their circumstances and beliefs, the critic, too, fails to approach their material without influence from the broader world. I can’t help import myself and my desires into my listening.

Do I “get” Vol. III? It’s a decent effort from a group laden with high expectations. Do I need the previous albums to get it? At this point I’m praising the generosity of the other members who took Dylan in at the nadir of his career. Do I like it? God, I’m ready for something better.

Under the Red Sky: Why, Oh Why?

IMG_4447

After the massacre in Orlando, the city where I spent the first 25 years of my life, where my mother still lives just two miles from the Pulse nightclub, I’ve had a difficult time jumping back into the Dylan hypothesis. I tried writing about Under the Red Sky during my week in Kansas City scoring AP exams. I tried in the hotel room, tried by the pool, but I couldn’t focus on the music. All I could do is listen to that first track, “Wiggle Wiggle,” and ask myself the same question I’d asked about the shooting, and about the bulk of those thousand essays I scored: Why? Just, Why?

“Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a gypsy queen,” this album begins. Dylan repeats the word “wiggle” ten times per verse; eight times per bridge. Why? I’ve listened to this album a half dozen times in false starts over the last few weeks (which must be some kind of record for this album), and it took several times hearing it before I realized “wiggle” is a euphemism. But still, I can’t get on board with this corny lead-off track.

The title track comes next, and that juvenile diction develops into nursery rhyme. “There was a little boy and there was a little girl,” Dylan begins, then bakes them in a pie and recruits the man in the moon to observe how “the river ran dry.” There’s nothing insightful or necessarily inventive about these references. These aren’t the grotesque psychoscapes of “Highway 61 Revisited,” but the musings of a man who has lost touch.

As the album unravels through tracks like the upbeat condemnation of contemporary society, “Unbelievable,” and the catchy, soulful “Handy Dandy,” the music emerges as the album’s best feature. The percussion is richly patterned. The keyboards and guitars and occasional accordion link together to form a rich acoustic nest. But Dylan’s suspect songwriting suggests he’s not ready yet to come home to the goodness yet.

Do I get this album? There’s some Christian tracks, a couple kiddie tracks, and some solid musicianship. Do I need the previous albums? There’s an upward trajectory here over the previous 15 years, though it’s been a while since Dylan blew me away. Do I like it? I like being back in the game. Onward!