Recommended CDs

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The wind began to howl... Good luck this time, NOLA

Crash on the levee, water's gonna overflow

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous blog entry about Modern Times is that its worldwide official release day was also the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in Lousiana. Meanwhile, President Bush strummed a guitar [right] in California while New Orleans drowned, a lasting symbol of his presidency.

Perhaps the release date of Modern Times was a coincidence; but on the other hand, it does feature a song entitled The Levee's Gonna Break. This is the album's most transparent "borrowing", the song clearly deriving from When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, which was about the Mississippi Flood of 1927, a calamity that inspired several blues songs. (Incidentally, Memphis Minnie's shout-out to Ma Rainey is the model for Dylan's name-dropping of Alicia Keys in Thunder on the Mountain; but Bob was sampling Memphis Minnie as far back as Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, as the outtake of that song released on Bootleg Series 7: No Direction Home shows.) A youtube user has made a very appropriate video to the Kansas Joe/Memphis Minnie version.

The most famous version of the song is the one by Led Zeppelin on their 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV. Dylan's new version is a curate's egg; it quotes some lines directly from the original, and adds some of his own that might refer to either the 1927 or the 2005 disaster:

Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Some people on the road carrying everything that they own

But other lines are unrelated and could be sampled from a dozen blues songs or improvised randomly in a way reminiscent of 10,000 Men on Under the Red Sky. One line seems to allude sarcastically to the plight of the proletariat (in the manner of Joe Hill's "Pie in the Sky When You Die"), thus harking back to Workingman's Blues #2:

Few more years of hard work, then there'll be a 1,000 years of happiness

But the previous lines incongruously refer to Carl Perkin's rockabilly classic "Put Your Cat Clothes On", cat clothes of course being what hepcats (guys) and kittens (chicks) wear; the juxtaposition with the more formal-sounding "evening dress" is amusing.

Here's a fine live version of Dylan's version of the song, from Chatillon, Italy 18th June this year:
It's noticeable how much stronger the song has become in live performance this year.

(I found a youtube clip of this performance, but it's only one minute long.)

How typical that Dylan's new title for the song should use his own favourite tense, the immediate future ("gonna"), which he uses so much (particularly in the Basement Tapes era) that it might well be called the Bob Dylan tense.

An early song that uses this tense is A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. On his visit to the city in 2003, Bob Dylan performed an inspired version of this anthemic song, almost as though he knew what was in store for the city (so it seems with hindsight, which can make a prophecy out of the slightest coincidence). Here is that performance.

They're trying to wash us away

A more recent song about the 1927 flood became suddenly topical in 2005 because of the inevitable parallels between President Coolidge's racist indifference to the plight of Lousiana flood victims and the criminal negligence of the Bush administration. The original version of Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 is on his 1974 album Good Old Boys, perhaps Newman's masterpiece and an essential album in anybody's record collection. Here is Randy singing it at a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:

Incidentally, I am relieved, if not surprised, that Randy sticks to his original lyrics and uses the phrase "this poor crackers land." The contemptuous term "crackers" is similar to the more recent "poor white trash", and nails Coolidge's attitude to the flood victims exactly. Other versions of the song, such as Aaron Neville's, for reasons of misguided political correctness substitute a more neutral term ("farmers") that softens the original song's condemnation of Coolidge.

They say prayer has the power to help (Ain't Talkin')

As I write, people are being evacuated from New Orleans in preparation for the landfall of Hurricane Gustav, expected in the early hours of Monday morning. It is sincerely to be hoped that the city rides out this new storm and the levees hold firm this time. Of all the cities in America, New Orleans is the one I'd most like to visit, because of the richness of its musical heritage, the fame of its cuisine, and the celebrated conviviality of its people. Alas, I do not share Dylan's belief in the power of prayer, but my thoughts are with NOLA right now. If I were to frame a prayer, it might be like Lear's in the storm:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

Friday, 29 August 2008

'Modern Times' is two years old today

Bob Dylan's 32nd studio album was released 29th August, 2006. It was greeted with almost universal critical praise, but how does it hold up two years later? And how have the individual songs fared in live performance?

Modern Times was released at the high point of a tide of critical praise that had been rising ever since Bob's brush with death in 1997 reminded critics, many of whom had been bashing Dylan's work since as far back as the release of Renaldo & Clara, that Dylan would not be always there for them to take for granted, and that we ought to celebrate his achievements while we still have him. With the subsequent release of the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind there began a period in which Dylan's critical stock rose so high that nowadays he is in receipt of praise that is almost as undiscriminating as the critical brickbats levelled at him in the eighties and early nineties. One of the few dissenting voices in the general chorus of praise for Modern Times, Alex Petridis in The Guardian, wrote waspishly: "It's hard to hear the music of Modern Times over the inevitable standing ovation and the thuds of middle-aged critics swooning in awe."

Two years later it is even more apparent that Petridis has a point. A solid achievement, Modern Times must be counted a relative disappointment compared to its illustrious predecessor "Love and Theft", Dylan's finest album since Blood on the Tracks and Desire in the mid-seventies. The quality that "Love and Theft" had in abundance was Dionysian energy: so welcome after the ennui and existential angst that had marked all Dylan's work since Infidels. Indeed, this ennervating ennui really begins with Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight on the album just mentioned:

I wish I'd been a doctor
Maybe I'd have save some lives that have been lost
Maybe I'd have done some good in the world
'Stead of burning every bridge I've crossed.

Fine lines, undoubtedly, but a Dylan who looks back, and especially one who looks back with such despair and disappointment, is an unrecognizable shell of the energetic, questing, Dionysian figure of his best work. By contrast on Blood on the Tracks the singer plumbs the depths of despair, but drags from it the Lear-like rage of Idiot Wind and with Buckets of Rain, learns Lear's lesson of Stoic patience also.

This existential ennui came in Dylan's late middle age at the end of a period of great creative achievement from 1974 through 1983, and from there on becomes the dominant note of his work; think of songs like When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky and Dark Eyes on Empire Burlesque and What Good Am I? , What Is It You Wanted?, and Shooting Star on Oh Mercy, in which Bob basically repeats the same mantra over and over: he knows no answers, he has no hope, he lives companionless in a world apart where "life and death are memorized." All these negative feelings reach their peak of artistic expression on Time Out of Mind, which contains what may be the most negative, nihilist line in his entire output:

Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

When I first heard the line I've marked in bold, I found it so upsetting and depressing that it took me a long time to appreciate the real artistic achievement of Time Out of Mind, which is to state in the starkest form yet the existential ennui that had been overpowering Dylan's work since the mid-eighties. In that sense, it performs the same function as did Watching the River Flow, which faced up to the loss of his muse in the midst of his domestic content with its disarming opening line: "What's the matter with me? I don't have much to say." A Dylan who doesn't care, who is indifferent to love and desire, and who relies on negativity to pull him through is not the Dylan who once declared "this music that I’ve always played is a healing kind of music" and who wrote

Desire... never fearful
Finally faithful
It will guide me well
across all bridges
inside all tunnels
never fallin’.

A spiritual sickness hangs over Time Out of Mind from its opening lines, and it is only reinforced by the album's grim focus on physical decay: scars that won't heal, flesh falling off the singer's face, every nerve so vacant and numb. When he sings "But my heart just won't give in", you get the sense that he only wishes it would. Highlands, which does have its moments of humour and relief, nevertheless leaves us with a portrait of the singer as an old man shuffling along the street, talking to himself, and envying the younger people from whose unselfconscious joys and laughter he is forever banished:

I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They're drinking and dancing, wearing bright colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I'd trade places with any of them
In a minute, if I could

So in the 14 years since Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight, Dylan has gone precisely nowhere: still wishing he were living someone else's life, looking back with regret and despair.

The achievement of Time Out of Mind, as heretofore stated, is to state these negative feelings in unpredecentedly stark terms. But the album marks a dead end: he cannot go forward artistically by simply restating over and over these feelings of existential isolation, of negativity and regret.

That is why "Love and Theft" was such a spectacular achievement. It has an energy and vitality not heard in any Dylan song probably since Jokerman and the brilliant, underrated Tell Me in the Infidels sessions. Gone is the companionless, misanthropic singer of Dark Eyes, Not Dark Yet, and Highlands; the singer on this album shows himself still receptive to feelings of love, friendship, and gratitude:

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

(Of course, these lines are from Mississippi, which was written for the Time Out of Mind album; and that album's atmosphere of bleak misanthropy and spiritual ennui would have been considerably relieved by that song's inclusion, as Dylan intended. Unfortunately, he and producer Daniel Lanois could not see eye to eye on the song's production, and so the song was dropped from the album. The original recording of Mississippi is to appear on the forthcoming Bootleg Series collection of outtakes, Tell Tale Signs.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the brilliant jump blues Summer Days, a song that could not have appeared on Time Out of Mind. In contrast to the despairing resignation of Not Dark Yet, which dolefully accepted that "it's not dark yet, but it's getting there", the singer of Summer Days reminds us of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night":

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But rather than raging against the dying of the light, the singer of Summer Days dances against it, leaping on the table to propose a toast to the King, and declaring that though summer days and nights are gone, that doesn't mean that there is no more fun to be had. The Dionysian energy of this singer is more like the Dylan we know of old, one busy being born rather than busy dying.

The energy, high spirits, and perhaps most welcome of all, the humour of "Love and Theft" made it Dylan's finest album for over 20 years. It sparkles with wit, and contains more quotable lines than any album since Street-Legal. It was perhaps too much to hope that Modern Times could equal this standard. But refreshingly, there is no relapse into the doldrums of most of Dylan's post-Infidels output. Most welcome is the extension of Dylan's musical palate beyond his usual reliance on blues and ballad forms, although there are some disappointingly generic blues shuffles on this album also (a couple of which border on musical plagiarism). Not since the underrated Shot of Love has Dylan dipped so much into the rich waters of American popular music. A particular source is pre-rock pop of the twenties to the fifties. Bing Crosby is a particularly strong influence; "When the Deal Goes Down" is musically a chord-by-chord recreation of Bing's "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day" and "Beyond the Horizon" lifts the tune of "Red Sails in the Sunset." Moreover, Bing's version of "Brother, Can you Spare A Dime?" (played by Bob on the Theme Time Radio Hour show "Rich Man, Poor Man") hangs over Workingman Blues #2. How much love and how much theft lies in all these borrowings has been furiously debated.

One of the most pleasing aspects of "Love and Theft" was its cheerful sexuality, as in the artful suggestion of waning potency in Summer Days:

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't goin' down

or this saucy invitation in High Water (for Charley Patton):

Got a cravin' love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard

And best of all, this allusive third-person reference:

Last night 'cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls
It must have been Don Pasquale makin' a two a.m. booty call

Don Pasquale is the eponymous character in Donizetti's opera buffa, based on the commedia dell'arte archetype of the vain and foolish old man who tries to thwart the young heroine's love for the hero by marrying her himself. With a touch of comic genius Dylan has this stock character paying a "2 a.m. booty call"; and the pounding on the walls suggests that this Don Pasquale is no impotent figure of fun, but a virile figure capable of satisfying his younger lover.

By contrast, the sexuality on Modern Times comes over as idle boasting or even slightly creepy, as in the shout out to Alicia Keys in Thunder on the Mountain and in the unpleasantly sexist line "I want some real good woman to do just what I say" in the same song, in which the singer studies Ovid's Art of Love and proclaims "here's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go." Unlike Don Pasquale who is getting on with it, paying his booty call, the singer of Thunder on the Mountain is just beating on his trumpet, or rather blowing his trombone (a rather obvious sexual metaphor).

Compare also the confident strut of Cry A While on "Love and Theft":

Well, there's preachers in the pulpits and babies in the cribs
I'm longin' for that sweet fat that sticks to your ribs
I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey - I'll die before I turn senile

and the same song's earlier line about feeling like a fighting rooster with the much less convincing boast in Spirit on the Water:

You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time

That corny and dated phrase "whoppin' good time" is the antithesis of Don Pasquale's ultra-hip "booty call" and rather deflates the intended boast. Rather than as the still virile aging stud that the singer intends to present himself as, he comes over more like a paunchy dad trying to dance at his daughter's wedding reception.

Dylan does improve this verse considerably in concert by singing the first two lines as questions, with an implied "Oh yeah?!", invariably getting a reaction from the audience. And this viagra-induced boasting is at least an improvement on the indifference to desire manifest on Time Out of Mind.

Another weakness of Modern Times compared to its predecessor is its rather precious and somewhat stilted lyricism that at times borders on Victorian pastiche, especially in the parlour ballad When the Deal Goes Down and Spirit on the Water. This may be due to Dylan's falling under the spell of the Civil War poet Henry Timrod (reflected in several borrowings from the earlier poet's work). Compare the freshness of these lines from Moonlight:

The clouds are turnin' crimson
The leaves fall from the limbs an'
The branches cast their shadows over stone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The boulevards of cypress trees
The masquerades of birds and bees
The petals, pink and white, the wind has blown
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The trailing moss and mystic glow
Purple blossoms soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll for, love? It tolls for you and me

where the self-conscious poeticism is relieved by Dylan's familiar tricksy rhyming ("crimson", "limbs an'") and the admixture of nursery rhyme and familiar quotation; with

I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

which undoubtedly have a certain charm, but border on pastiche.

Against this, Modern Times has strengths of his own. It is much better sung than its predecessor (though the musicianship is not of a similarly high standard), and its three best songs are outstanding. The first, Workingman Blues #2, is the closest the album gets to evoking the spirit of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. The
song features some of the strongest, most evocative writing of the album, for instance, in this reminder that all of us, rich or poor, walk in the valley of the shadow of death:

The opening lines seem to have an extra topical relevance as the world's economy goes into recession:

There's an evenin' haze settlin' over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's gettin' shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

However, this is no rewrite of North Country Blues or Hollis Brown. Its narrative element is non-linear and its protagonist's situation more complex; whoever the singer is supposed to be, he is hardly the typical working man. Dylan is unlikely to usurp Springsteen's status as the poet laureate of the blue collar worker. It's a complex song full of strong images, memorable lines, and with a rousing chorus.

Even more impressive is Nettie Moore, one of Dylan's great ballads, and a song that he has invariably interprets powerfully in concert. A notable feature of the song, despite its folk ballad form, is its saturation in the language of the blues. The opening line quotes the old song "Lost John":

Lost John standin' by the railroad track
Waitin' for the freight train to come back

while later lines evoke the famous story of Frankie and Albert. The crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil is also evoked. As with many of Dylan's recent songs, it is difficult to say what this collage of recollected and original lines means, but the song is undoubtedly highly evocative.

And finally, the album's closer Ain't Talkin', a mysterious and somewhat sinister epic that returns us to some extent to the atmosphere of Time Out of Mind. The claim that Modern Times was the final album of a trilogy stemmed from his record label rather than the artist himself; in fact, Dylan has specifically denied it. Nevertheless, this dark tale of a man walking, walking, walking, until he reaches the edge of the world (which he appears to doubt is round as men say) brings us full circle to the earlier album, which opens with the words "I'm walking..." and thereafter uses the image of the singer walking "a thousand miles from home" (or rather a million miles) repeatedly as a symbol of his isolation from society. The song begins with a reminiscence of the story of Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Christ for the gardener of the grounds; but this "mystic" garden is a place of violent menace where "wounded" flowers hang from the vine and the singer is struck from behind. The singer himself threatens to slaughter his enemies if he ever catches them sleeping. He is not alone (which separates him from the isolated figure of TOOM, who seems more of an autobiographical than the mysterious narrator of "Ain't Talkin'), but accompanied by a band of brothers who "share my code", a faith that's long been abandoned, as he walks through a world of hostile infidels and "cities of the plague". The song raises more questions than it answers, and when the narrator steps off the end of the world in the song's final lines, we still have no idea who he is supposed to represent. Several lines in the grim discursive narrative are borrowed from Ovid's self-pitying letters from his exile on the Black Sea, the Tristia, but the story seems closer to Homeric epic than classical elegy. Although it raises more questions than it answers, as a performance it is gripping, full of menace, horror, and intensity.

I leave you with videos of these three songs, each of them a classic of the modern Dylan.

Workingman Blues #2 was a song Bob found difficult to make effective in its first year of live performance. It wasn't until the Australian tour of 2007 that the song really came into its own. It is now a regular concert standout. The following video is identified only as "live 2008"; great sound, though poor video.

Here's a fine Nettie Moore from 2006:

And here's my favourite performance of Ain't Talkin' (Melbourne, Australia 19th August, 2007):

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Mystery early Dylan performance (contains mp3s)

Last October BBC radio broadcast "Dream Dylan Live", a show featuring 10 live performances from across the years cobbled together into a "virtual live show."

In truth, this would have been few people's "dream" concert in the sense of the ideal live Bob Dylan show. On the other hand, the show accurately conveyed the impression of "a series of dreams"— random and unconnected performances each making a strong, vivid impression, but offering no coherent raison d'ĂȘtre.

Only two tracks were unknown to collectors. I may have been the first, on a Dylan internet forum at least, to suggest that Blowin' in the Wind and Only A Pawn in Their Game from this programme could have been from Dylan's Carnegie Hall concert of 23th October, 1963.

This suggestion was pure conjecture, no more than educated guess on my part, based purely on the fact that the 1963 Town Hall and Carnegie Hall concerts are known to have been recorded by Columbia; a live album culled from the two shows was prepared for release in 1964, and then aborted, for reasons that remain unclear.

Both 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'Only A Pawn in Their Game' were performed at the Carnegie Hall concert. In 2005, Sony-Columbia released two songs from the Carnegie show on Bootleg Series 7: No Direction Home, and a further six songs on a bonus disc available to purchasers of the Bootleg Series CDs and the Bob Dylan Scrapbook. So it seemed natural to deduce that the two songs donated to the BBC for 'Dream Dylan Live' were among those considered but rejected for release in 2005. (Why not just release the whole concert already? It's a far better performance than the 1964 Halloween Concert released as Bootleg Series Vol.6.)

To my consternation, my conjecture was immediately circulated as fact. Apparently the rest of the Dylan community were thinking on the same lines as I. Nevertheless, in the world of Dylan collccting, things have rarely been as they have seemed. A few months ago, the bootleg label Hollow Horn finally ended Columbia's 45-year striptease with regard to this show (unveiling a track or two every so many years) and released this historic show in its entirety, and in stunning quality. This followed the final release of the even more historically important Town Hall concert a few months earlier.

I've been much too busy to compare the performances of Blowin' and Pawn on the Hollow Horn release with the Dream Dylan Live performances until now. In fact, I just assumed that my initial guess was right.

Well guess what—I was only 50% on target! The DDL Blowin' in the Wind is indeed the Carnegie Hall one. There are at least two fairly conclusive fingerprints that establish this identification. In the first place, Bob sings "How many times can a man turn his back" rather than the more usual "turn his head." And he adds a word in another line: "How many times must a man look up/Before he can really see the sky..."

However, "Only A Pawn in Their Game" is NOT the same performance! This is pretty obvious, because in the Dream Dylan Live performance, after the lines "The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid/And the marshals and cops get the same" Bob forgets the lyrics and sings a garbled version of the rest of the verse!

So we have a bit of a mystery. This is quite clearly a 1963/4 performance, but does not correspond to any known performance. It's not the Greenwood, Mississippi version (the live debut), the Lincoln Memorial version, or the version that was performed live on WNET 30 July, 1963. Nor is it the version from Philadelphia, 28th Sept, 1964. My best guess is that it could be from one of the Newport Folk Festival concerts/workshops. But it's definitely not the 26th July evening performance, which was released last year on The Other Side of the Mirror. So the question remains: what other show from this period was recorded by Bob's record company? I am thinking Royal Festival Hall, London 17th May, 1964, two tracks from which emerged on the "Fantasy Acetate" a few years ago. But for goodness sake, don't quote me on it this time! (It still sounds more like a '63 performance to me, and I'm sticking with my guess of an unchronicled Newport performance...)

Here are mp3s of the two songs discussed above.

Blowin' in the Wind - from 'Dream Dylan Live'

Blowin' in the Wind - from Carnegie Hall (raw files from which Hollow Horn bootleg was compiled)

If I am right, the above two tracks are the same (except that the second has Dylan's highly amusing anecdote as an introduction).

Only A Pawn in Their Game - from 'Dream Dylan Live'

Only A Pawn in Their Game - (raw files from which Hollow Horn bootleg was compiled)

It should be obvious that the above two versions of the same song are different performances. Goodness knows why Bob's people decided to give the BBC a flawed performance when they had the faultless Carnegie Hall one....

Note: mp3s on this blog have each been downloaded over 200 times; no one has yet said thank-you. In lieu of thanks, I would be grateful if a few of you could click on the Google ads on this page. I earn a few cents per click, which enables me to stay on line! Thank you in advance!

I shall be posting mp3s of the other unofficially released Carnegie Hall tracks in due course.