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Friday, 1 January 2010

The Best Bob Dylan Songs of the Noughties

Sorry about the lack of blog entries in recent months. Having been ill throughout the first half of the year, I've had to work hard to catch up with my contract. I do intend to return to the second part of my albums Dylan should perform in their entirety theme, but, being as it's not only a new year, but a new decade, here's my contribution to the list mountain.

The Best Dylan Songs of the 00's

What a great decade this has been for new Dylan songs! Here is my list of the best 10 of them.

1. Cross the Green Mountain

The movie 'Gods and Generals,' a civil war epic, was mostly panned by the critics, but Dylan lavished on it one of his greatest songs. It opens with a dream-vision -- or is it a nightmare?

I cross the green mountain, I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
And swept through the land of the rich and the free

That third line is terrific -- one thinks of the monsters of classical mythology that come out of the sea to devour their prey, such as the Zeus-sent creature who destroyed Hippolytus or the serpents that emerge from the sea to strangle Laocoon and his sons after the priest of Poseidon strikes the Trojan horse.

But also, as the Canadian poet and writer on Dylan Stephen Scobie suggested to me in an email, post-9/11 "something came up out of the sea" is bound to suggest the death that dropped out of the air on that dark day. It would be typical of Dylan to transfer the threat from the sky to the sea.

The song, appropriately for a civil war epic, incorporates memories of Whitman as well as the "poet laureate of the Confederacy," Henry Timrod, to whom Dylan later nods more than once on Modern Times.

On and on the song rolls, stately, magnificent, and epic (that word again), and you don't want it ever to end.

2. Highwater (for Charley Patton)

The most striking track of an album released on 9/11, it seems horrible prophetic of the events of that day, and the science-hating, religious primitivism that dominated in both America and the Muslim world in the first decade of the 21st century. Even the fate of New Orleans seems, in retrospect, to have been foreshadowed in this dark masterpiece (which nevertheless finds time for a flash of humour: "I got a cravin' love for blazing speed/Got a hopped up Mustang Ford/Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard."

Apart from anything else, it's a great blues-based rocker, one of the highlights of stage performances of this decade, especially with the first Charlie Sexton band.

3. Summer Days

A lot of Dylan fans moaned when this exciting jump blues began the inevitable closer of every Dylan show for the best part of the decade. Well, I for one can't get enough of this joyful song that rages against the dying of the light. "Summer days and summer nights are gone/I know somewhere where something's still going on," Bob sings, determined to still have a ball even though he acknowledges his best days might be behind him.

Everybody get ready - lift up your glasses and sing
Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing
Well, I'm standin' on the table, I'm proposing a toast to the King

Well I'm drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, "You're a worn out star"
My pockets are loaded and I'm spending every dime
How can you say you love someone else when you know it's me all the time?

4. Forgetful Heart

This, by contrast, is one of the most haunting and bleak songs Bob has ever written. It's live debut in Milwaukee on the first of July 2009 was Bob's best performance of the year. Like several of the songs on Together Through Life, it seems slight at first, but leaves a deep impression:

All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forever more
If, indeed, there ever was a door

A delicate, haunting gem of a song that Bob performed several times over the summer and fall, alone, center stage, with just mouth harp.

5. Floater (Too Much To Ask)

An extraordinary portrait of a stuck-in-his-ways misanthrope, a rum old boy living in isolation somewhere in a beautifully evoked deep south. The element of alienation and disenchantment with the present is offset by memories of a deeply cherished childhood:

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had 'em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring dancin' Christmas carols on all of the Christmas Eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves

As well as its element of old-geezerish misanthropy, however, the song has its element of reconcilation between the generations:

The old men 'round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don't carry weight
It doesn't matter in the end

And there is the marvellous touch of humour in evoking the awkwardness of modern adolescent lovers and contrasting them with Shakespeare's classic doomed lovers:

Romeo, he said to Juliet, "You got a poor complexion.
It doesn't give your appearance a very youthful touch!"
Juliet said back to Romeo, "Why don't you just shove off
If it bothers you so much."

This is one of the most extraordinary and original Dylan songs, an extraordinary mixture of highly evocative lyricism and colloquial language, mixed with a smidgen of schoolboy humour. It offers something new on each listen.

6. Po' Boy

An extraordinary song, like so many of those on 'Love and Theft', evocative of the deep south. Here Dylan seems to be singing in the person of a black man ("Boy" is of course racially derogative rather than an indication of age) in the pre-war south, "dodgin' them Georgia laws" evoking the whole world of Jim Crow and its petty obstructions. This song more than any other makes us think of the book by Eric Lott from which Bob took the title of his album: Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, an examination of the whole of blackface minstrelsy in American cultural life. The blackface minstrel, in Lott's interpretation, represents not just cultural appropriation ("theft"), but also homage to "what is stolen ("love"). Rock 'n' roll is itself a manifestation of both these aspects of blackface minstrelsy.

But Dylan's song is even more suffused with schoolboy humour than Floater, with nonsequiturs (I say, "How much you want for that?" I go into the store/Man says, "Three dollars." "All right," I say, "Will you take four?"), an outrageous pun ("Call down to room service, says "Send up a room"), and a knock-knock joke. (Knockin' on the door, I said, "Who's it, where you from?"/Man said, "Freddie." I said, "Freddie who?"/He said, "Freddie or not, here I come!"). And there is another humorous reference to Shakespearean characters.

This "po' boy" has the police on his back, he's washing dishes and feeding swine, he's branded by the claws of time and love, he's "ridin' first class trains" (not legally, one assumes), "tryin' hard not to fall between the cars." The amount of detail in this song, as it is in "Floater," is extraordinary. The cultural vitality, but also the social inequality and racism of the south is evoked. The song is scored for banjo and acoustic guitar, with lounge-style jazz chords, and sung with a soft-shoe charm.

7. Workingman Blues #2

Another extraordinary hotchpotch, this song more than any other on Modern Times evokes the world of Charlie Chaplin's last silent picture.

8. Nettie Mooore

An extraordinary song, with a beautiful, wistful melody and very unusual, off-kilter drumbeat.

9. This Dream of You

For some years now, Bob has been trying to write a classic Tin Pan Alley-type song, and here he finally succeeds. Like several of the songs on Together Through Life, this has an agreeable Tex-Mex flavour.

10. Things Have Changed

The song Bob contributed to the movie "Wonder Boys" and which won him an Academy Award for best movie song. In retrospect, it is the bridge between Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. It shares the formers disillusion and cynicism, but looks forward to the latter's lighter tone. "I used to care, but things have changed," the refrain goes. But thankfully Bob has shown many times this decade, not least on "Love and Theft," which ranks with his great masterpieces, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks, and and Desire.

Honorary mentions; any one of the following could have made the list: Mississippi (but I decided it was really a Time Out of Mind, i.e. nineties song), Lonesome Day Blues, Cry A While, Ain't Talkin', Moonlight, Life Is Hard (just pipped by This Dream of You), Tell Ol' Bill.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Freewheelin' Revisited! Which albums should Bob perform live in their entirety?

In recent years several artists have been giving shows that consist mostly of a single album, played in its entirety. Van Morrison not so long ago played Astral Weeks live to critical acclaim, even releasing the result as a cd Astral Weeks Live At the Hollywood Bowl and a DVD (exclusive to Amazon: see inset).

A few years ago Elvis Costello gave a performance of his first and most widely loved album, My Aim Is True, even reuniting with the original musicians.

And in 2002 David Bowie played the whole of Low in one set and then came back to perform his then latest album Heathen in a second set.

Rufus Wainwright even performed the whole of Judy Garland's Judy at Carnegie Hall.

Anyway, you get the idea.I started off by thinking that Bob would never do something like this, then I suddenly realized, he already has -- exactly 30 years ago this month he started the first of two tours on which he performed the whole of Slow Train Coming and the then-unreleased Saved in their entirety (barring 'Satisfied Mind' off the latter, which can be regarded as a sort of 'bonus track.' Also, 'Are You Ready?' only emerged as very a late addition to the second tour, and was then played throughout the third gospel tour, when Bob dropped some songs and added others, some of which remain unreleased to this day).

So once again, Bob was way ahead of the pack. Except of course, the context was different. One album was Bob's latest release and the other would be his next album, and both were informed by his religious belief, giving him a burning desire to perform them to audiences. I cannot see Bob doing a show in which he rattled off the whole of Highway 61 Revisited and then came out and did all of Blood on the Tracks. And even if he did, of course, the songs would be unrecognizable from the versions on the original albums, and the musicians would be different (even if all the original ones were still alive, I can't see him choosing to play with the same people again). And of course, whereas someone like Van Morrison sounds much the same as he did in 1970, Bob's voice has gone through umpteen changes.

So this blog is purely for fun. Tell me which two albums you would pick to be played in their entirety for your fantasy, one-off Dylan live show. Also, who would you like to play with him for these revisited versions (stick to living musicians, please, just to make it a little more plausible)?

I'll go first. These aren't necessarily my favourite albums, I just think that they would make for a fantastic show.

First off, Bob should do the whole of Freewheelin'. Firstly, that will give us a few live debuts -- I don't believe that he's ever performed "Bob Dylan's Blues", "Down the Highway", or "I Shall Be Free" live at all, while there is just one circulating live performance of "Oxford Town" and "Corrina, Corrina" and two of "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" (ignoring home recordings). "Bob Dylan's Dream" hasn't been heard since 1991, and "Talkin' World War III Blues" since 1965.

And this half of the show should at least predominantly solo, because we haven't seen that for a while. Maybe he could be joined by some backing musicians on a couple of songs -- maybe we could even finally get to hear what the rocked up "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" might have sounded like (backing musicians are said to be on this track on the Freewheelin' liner notes! No such version has ever surfaced. There is even a rumored "Dixieland" take!) And while they were out there, they could perhaps play on the live debut of Mixed-Up Confusion... The only other "outtake" from the Freewheelin' album I would include in the show would be the all-time great love song Tomorrow Is A Long Time (strictly speaking, it was not recorded in the Freewheelin' sessions at all, but was demoed in between sessions). But hey, if he wants to debut Rocks and Gravel while he's out there, who am I to argue with Bob?

I even have my running order for this one-off live show (to be performed at a suitable small venue within a 20 mile radius of my house), which departs from the original sequence.

I Shall Be Free (starting where he left off in 1963) -- Bob on guitar. Gets Bob and us relaxed and warmed up. New lyrics with updated references, including to Alicia Keyes and Scarlett Johannson)
Masters of War (Bob on guitar).
Oxford Town (Bob on guitar) -- end of first 'protest' sectoin
Down the Highway (Bob on guitar & harmonica)
Bob Dylan's Blues (Bob on guitar & harmonica
Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance (Bob on guitar) -- concludes blues section.
Talkin' World War III Blues (Bob on guitar) -- Bob brings house down with new final line: "Barack Obama said that! At least I think that's what he said!)
Girl of the North Country (Bob on guitar and harmonica)
Tomorrow Is A Long Time (Bob on guitar, Donnie Heron on violin) [End of the Echo-Suze section]

"Ladies and gentlemen! I want to introduce my current band! That was Donnie Herron you just heard on violin. On lead guitar, Charlie Sexton! On bass, Tony Garnier! On the drums, the best drummer we could find tonight, George Recile! And the other guy who you can never actually hear but who follows me around, Stu Kimball!)

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (Bob on keyboards, the rest as above, except Donnie on pedal steel rather than violin).

Bobtalk: "This next song was my first single. Hands up if you were the guy who bought it."

Mixed-Up Confusion (musicians as above)
Rocks and Gravel (musicians as above) -- OPTIONAL
Corrina, Corrina (musicians as above except Charlie and Bob on acoustic guitars, no drums)

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob on guitar).

Bobtalk: "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen! That song was called "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall", and it certainly is. Goodnight!"

Long, sustained applause.


Blowin' in the Wind (Bob on guitar and harmonica, Joan Baez on backing vocals -- just kiddin'!)

Curtain falls on first part of show, leaving the audience stunned and amazed, especially a certain raggedclown...

Which album will Bob play when he comes back for the second half of the show? Will it be Christmas From the Heart? Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, do let me have your own suggestions for albums* Bob should play in their entirety live, with as much detail as possible. Let your fantasies run wild!

*I was thinking of his own studio albums, but if you think he should sing the whole of Sinatra in the Sands or Kate Bush's A Kick Inside, who am I to stop you? It's your fantasy.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Merry Christmas in the Heart, Everybody!

Right, here we go!

Two boxes of deep-filled mince pies -- check!
Frozen turkey dinner -- check!
Bottle of 'champagne' -- i.e. cheap sparkling plonk -- check!
Figgy pudding -- check!
One cracker to pull with oneself (yes, I am sad) -- check!
One copy of Bob Dylan's new hot waxing Christmas in the Heart -- check!

I'm all set for my best Christmas ever -- i.e. one without relatives.

Yes, just when you thought there was no other major cultural impact for His Bobness to have, having turned rock music from teenage pap into an art form, having made country cool, having brought poetry to the juke box, having messed with religion and women's knickers, having sung a knock-knock joke, and having written a song with Michael Bolton done lots of other cool things, the Mighty Bob has decreed that Christmas shall henceforth be celebrated in October!

The younger generation were quick to heed the call -- behold this similarly entitled offering, released the same day (today):

am reliably informed that this wee leprechaun is the most recent winner of American Idol, cunningly disguised as a diminutive fawn. I know whose voice I prefer...

I think this that Christmas in the Heart is the greatest album ever released on October 13th 2009 (sorry, David Achoochoo fans). And just what the world needs in the middle of a depression -- turning the clock back to good times and partying like it's 1955! It's cheesy, it's cheery, it's addictive and probably very bad for you -- just like Christmas itself in fact!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Michael Jackson: Suffer the Children

Michael Jackson's two outstanding talents were his voice and his dance moves. He wasn't a great songwriter like Smokey Robinson or a great song arranger like Quincey Jones (the latter responsible for much of the success of Jackson's Off the Wall-Thriller-Bad trilogy). But boy, could he sing and dance.

Here's a sentimental favourite of mine:

Here he still looks "normal", but looks are deceptive. If you'd been whipped with a belt from the age of 11 when you didn't learn your dance moves fast enough; if your older brothers had sex with groupies while you, a 12 year old, were in the same room; if those same brothers wondered aloud, when you reached puberty, if you were gay, and your father regularly expressed his contempt and hatred for homosexuals; well, I wonder if you'd be "normal." A psychiatrist who examined both Jackson and his accuser during the Gavin Arvizo trial found that Michael did not fit the pattern of a paedophile, but had himself regressed to the mental age of about 10. No wonder.

Now apparently Katherine Jackson (79), the ghastly matriarch who failed to protect Michael and her other sons from Joe's belt and verbal abuse, wants to adopt MJ's children so she can bring them up as good Jehovah's Witnesses.

Wonderful. Although that is possibly no worse than being brought up in the Nation of Islam (the psychopathic black separatist religion that teaches that whites are, literally, alien demons), to which Jacko was apparently a convert.

Another possibility is that the birth mother of the two oldest children, Debbie Rowe, who gave them away for $5 million, will sue for custody. According to some reports, she is threatening a "tell-all" book about Jackson if she doesn't get custody. The implication must be that she has information that could have incriminated Jackson (during the Arvizo trial, in which she was called as a witness, she broke down and refused to testify, saying that Michael was a better parent than she was).

Other reports suggest that she just wants greater access to the children she gave away for money.

Meanwhile, we're being treated to the nauseating spectacle of Jacko's elder brother Jermaine feigning tears about the little brother he'd spent years trying to shaft in return for money. In 2006 Jermaine (whose own career foundered after the flop of his 1991 record, You Said, which included a song attacking Michael) failed to get his book Legacy: Surviving the Best and the Worst published. In the book proposal, he said that he "feared" (i.e. 'I have no evidence but I'm willing to allege by innuendo') that Michael may have been guilty of child molestation. Naturally, now the hypocritical Jermaine is calling for the family's privacy to be respected...

The idea that this dysfunctional and abusive bunch of chancers and money-grabbers is going to be able to pass their brand of physical, religious, emotional abuse and commercial exploration onto a new generation is the most tragic thing about this whole affair. Michael Jackson is gone, but they can continue their legacy of abuse with his children.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone cares, this is my all-time favourite song:

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

War, the End of the World, and Women on Bob Dylan's Mind in Strasbourg...

War and apocalypse (and, er, women!) were very much on Bob's mind in Strasbourg tonight, it seems... Maybe he knows it was Hitler's birthday yesterday. Or perhaps he was inspired by being in a city that has been fought over by France and Germany more than once. One of the Nazis' first acts on taking the city in 1940 was to raze to the ground Strasbourg's synagogue (pictured), one of the largest in Europe, the Jewish community in Alsace being one of the oldest on that continent. The city was heavily bombed by the allies in 1944.

Let's go through the setlist...

1. Cat's In The Well
2. Masters Of War
3. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
4. Lonesome Day Blues
5. Under The Red Sky
6. Rollin' And Tumblin'
7. Beyond The Horizon
8. John Brown
9. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
10. This Wheel's On Fire
11. Highway 61 Revisited

12. Just Like A Woman
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Like A Rolling Stone


15. All Along The Watchtower
16. Spirit On The Water
17. Blowin' In The Wind

1. Cat's in the Well -- dogs are going to war.
2. Masters of War.
3. [No direct mention of war, but reindeer armies and seasick sailors, an orphan with a gun, and "the dead" feature]
4. Well, my pa he died and left me, my brother got killed in the war
5.[Again, no direct mention of war, but this sinister nursery rhyme is every bit as much about the betrayal of innocence as John Brown; note also that after Baby Blue and a Blues, we now have a red sky!]
6. [No direct mention of war, but "sooner or later you too shall burn "and "early doom" and "long dead souls" hardly lift the mood!]
7. [Some light relief at last, though the song is a tad ambiguous]
8. When John Brown went off to war
9. Are this nasty pair supposed to be Bob's comment on gay marriage?
10. Another sinister song...
11. ...tryin' to create a next world war
12. Just Like A Woman -- No war connection, but as Horace says, cunnus taeterrima belli causa, which I won't translate in deference to any ladies who might be visiting my blog, but you can google it...
13. I need a real good woman to do just what I say...
14. How does it feel? The third "woman" song ends with her downfall. Bob's not only in a belligerent, doom-mongering mood, he's feeling pretty misogynistic too.
15. The end of the world, portents of which were seen in 1 and maybe 10.
16. Quite placid, apart from the "I killed a man" line
17. Too many people have died... This might be the audience's feeling after this setlist!

All in all, one of the most doom-laden concerts Bob's given for a while. Thanks to Bill Pagel for the set list.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Correction: New Dylan Album Is Down in the Groove Revisited!

A Columbia spokesman has now confirmed that nine out of the ten songs on Together Through Life were co-written with Robert Hunter.

The liner notes will read “All music by Bob Dylan except ‘My Wife’s Home Town’ (music by Bob Dylan and Willie Dixon) - All lyrics by Bob Dylan with Robert Hunter except ‘This Dream Of You’ which is lyrics and music by Bob Dylan.”

If you remember, Bob's main reason for going into the studio was to record a song for a forthcoming movie. He seems to have enjoyed the experience enough to have wanted to make a complete album. Or maybe he just wanted to cash in on his recent commercial success.

Quite clearly, he didn't have much other material in the tank, hence the "collaboration." What would be interesting to know is: whether this is a real collaboration, or whether Bob just raided the Robert Hunter notebooks for unused lyrics (presumably rejected as second-rate or unfinished by Hunter himself), as he did with Silvio and the unspeakable Ugliest Girl in the World on the near-disastrous Down in the Groove(1987)* (*liking a couple of songs does not change my view of that album as a total failure as an album).

The sneaky point is that Hunter can write a reasonable pastiche of second-rate Bob (Silvio is like an inferior Up to Me), so that many people have difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

Robert Hunter is of course an accomplished lyricist in his own right, who should not be judged on rejected offshoots of his pen mined for the use of a lyricist whose own muse has deserted him. A genuine collaboration between Dylan and Hunter (i.e. one in which they actually sat down together to cook up a song or songs) could, in fact, be a very interesting affair. Alas, my head tells me that Together Through Life will consist of rehashed cast-off lyrics, no doubt with equally "borrowed" and derivative music (Otis Rush has already been identified as the source of the music for "Beyond Here Lies Nothing", while the great Willie Dixon, the self-styled "poet of the blues" and the most significant blues writer of the 20th century, is actually honoured with a co-writing credit for the music of one song).

Please note, that the title of this blog entry is somewhat tongue in cheek, and of course, I may turn out to be pleasantly surprised by Together Through Life, collaboration or no.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

New Dylan Tracks Are 'Knocked Out Loaded'

Well, it may be unfair to assume that Bob was tight ("loaded") when he recorded these new tracks, but they certainly sound like he cooked them up and knocked them out in the studio without much thought or deliberation. Beyond Here Lies Nothing might as well be entitled "Here Lies Nothing," and for all its (highly derivative) musical charm, I Feel A Change Coming On isn't even as interesting lyrically as the slightly underrated Under Your Spell from one of Bob's least successful albums. The refrain is quite catchy, but most of the rest of the lyrics are trite. Also, I'm a bit fed up with Bob telling us who he's listening to or reading all the time. This is a lazy way of filling in a couple of lines. Still, if that's what he likes, here's a suggestion for his next album:

I'm listening to Britney Spears
I almost forgot the taste of fears

The second line is a near quotation from Macbeth (V.v) , which gives you the impression that something clever is being said, a bit like "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce/Some people say I've got the blood of the land in my voice," but you see how easy it is? I could write dozens of couplets like this, and I'm sure you could too, but it's a cheap trick.

Also, the refrain seems a bit exploitative, tapping into the expectations generated by Obama's "change we can believe in" slogan, while refraining from commenting on those expectations. Again the comparison is with a Knocked Out Loaded song, one of Dylan's very worse, the execrable Got My Mind Made Up:

Well I'm going off to Libya
There's guy I gotta see
He's been living there three years now
In an oil refinery

Lines so bad, and at the same time, so deliberately evocative of an interest he has no intention of satisfying, and therefore exploitative, that I have always taken the easy way out and blamed poor Tom Petty for them!

Musically, I Feel A Change Comin' On is somewhat reminiscent of Handy Dandy, a much better song.

For the benefit of anyone who has problems with streaming audio files, I include below mp3s of these two pre-release songs. If you do download them, please delete them if you don't like them or if you do not buy Together Through Life when it's released.

Also, if you have time and inclination, please click on some of the Google links!

Beyond Here Lies Nothing (pre-release from, 192 kb/s)

I Feel A Change Comin' On (mp3, 192 kb/s captured via soundcard from streaming mp3)