Going back in the archives to find something on Bob Dylan to post on his 73rd birthday. This was written in advance of the best Dylan show I will ever see- Nov. 1995 at the Austin Music Hall- when he called up such Austinites as Doug Sahm, Ray Benson, Charlie Sexton and, maybe, opening act Ian Moore to jam.
In a conversation about Bob Dylan in the late ’60s, John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine, “I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. I’d be completely free-form in the book, but when I went to write a song I’d be thinking `dee duh dee duh do dooo, do de do de doo.’ And it took Dylan to say `Oh, come on now, they’re the same thing.”’ Bob Johnston, who produced Dylan’s magical ’65-’72 period, underscored Dylan’s importance this way: “Before Dylan came along, songs were all about `moon’ and `June’ and `I’m just a fool for you, baby.’ I mean, Pat Boone was the top dog of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Then came that nasal voice, and you wanted to laugh when you first heard it, but then you started listening to what that voice was saying, and you didn’t laugh. You changed and started noticing things, like all the black maids waiting to catch buses to the rich part of town. Or you looked beyond the daily Vietnam body count on the news and saw the faces of dying youths. You started asking questions.
Bob Dylan is the most important musician of the 20th century because he changed a generation’s way of thinking and forged a literary style of rock that is still vital 54 years after Robert Zimmerman boarded a Greyhound bus in Minneapolis, and Bob Dylan stepped off in New York City.
He took his name from poet Dylan Thomas, but in his early days on the Greenwich Village folk circuit, Dylan was styled after Woody Guthrie, whom he’d often visit in the hospital where the pioneering protest singer was wasting away with Huntington’s disease. Steeped in the folk tradition of stealing out of respect, young Dylan did Guthrie right down to the Huck Finn cap and the penchant for talking blues.
From the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac, Dylan found an undercurrent of jacked-up expression to tap into. But on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the 22-year-old established himself as a major talent in his own right with such moving compositions as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” In his nasal, stretched-out voice, Dylan wiped the likes of Frankie Avalon, Boone and Bobby Rydell off the face of the earth.
Critics often trace the roots of punk back to the Velvet Underground, but that band’s leader, Lou Reed, was a cheesy pop songwriter until Dylan came around to meld poetry with popular music. The song that probably triggered the punk- rock tradition was “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which was inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” What Dylan brought to Berry’s rapid-fire wisecracks was a streetwise swagger and a sound as exuberant and dangerous as a bus speeding downhill with arms sticking out of all the windows.
The year was 1965, when Dylan was booed by the folk Nazis of Newport because he came out with an electric band and snarled holes into the kumbaya night as he spit out “Johnny’s in the basement/ mixin’ up the medicine/ While I’m on the pavement/ thinkin’ ’bout the government,” as the band plugged into the audience’s hostility and flailed away, unflinching. That was a great punk-rock moment, nine years before the Ramones first counted off “1-2-3- 4” at that bar in the Bowery called C.B.G.B.’s. Rage and release are the cufflinks of punk, and Dylan’s early rock material remains some of the most snarling music ever made. The lyrics didn’t always follow some apparent meaning, but just hearing them, you know exactly what they’re about.
The generation whose voice was Dylan’s has grown old and had kids and sought comfort where adventure once reigned. And for a while, Dylan did, too, performing infrequently from his alleged 1966 motorcycle accident until his born-again Christian period in the late ’70s. As evidenced by Dylan’s 1984 appearance on the David Letterman show, backed by L.A. punk band the Plugz, the singer-songwriter has opted for a rawer sound during his last 30 years of almost nonstop touring.
Sometimes Dylan’s stripped-down approach works great, as with 1995’s “MTV Unplugged” segment and subsequent album. With an ever-changing repertoire (“Drifter’s Escape,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway” seem to be the only constants) and a solid, unflashy band in drummer Winston Watson, bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist John Jackson and steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, this season’s edition of a Dylan concert is purported to be a winner.
This is good news to fans who’ve followed Dylan’s inconsistencies lately. Like Frank Sinatra, who was tagged for forgetting the words of his signature tunes on his latest tour, Dylan has good days, when his dark genius shines through, and he has bad days, when the audience is forced to play “name that tune.” Such standards as “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Just Like a Woman” have been rendered almost unrecognizable with Dylan’s mumbling and aimless rearranging.
But then, as with Sinatra, there’s no denying the powerful presence of Dylan, even on an off night. He’s Bob Dylan, whose music touched and helped change the world, and to many fans, that’s enough.
Throughout his startling career, Dylan has often been two people simultaneously: the folkie and the rocker, the hedonist and the moralist, the Christian and the Jew, the imitator and the original, the gypsy and the sofa lump, the center of attention and the pained recluse. And now he’s the living legend who plays the kind of joints that Natalie Merchant plays. But that’s how he seemingly wants it, plugging in with his overachieving garage band and rolling down Highway 61 one more time.
Off the road, he’s just another schlub at home, taping Larry Sanders and cooking spaghetti. But on the stage — any stage — he’s Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the rock era. On tour, he gets to be Bob Dylan all day long, and can you blame him for wanting that?
Dylan: The essential recordings
1. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). Dylan’s self-titled debut consisted mostly of reworked traditional numbers, but this follow-up was filled with powerful originals such as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Masters Of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All hail the new songwriting genius.
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964). More future classics including the title track, which still serves as the anthem of the turbulent ’60s, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965). Dylan goes electric on the first side of this album, offering up “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm,” among others, but then ends the album with a string of his greatest acoustic songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” If you can afford only one Bob Dylan album … you need to find a better-paying job.
4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965). The title track is perhaps Dylan’s most electrifying number, and this album ends with what could be his darkest tune, “Desolation Row.” This is a record of extremes, with the classic first track, “Like a Rolling Stone,” leading into the snarling “Tombstone Blues.”
5. Blonde On Blonde (1966). This double album generally is regarded as Dylan’s greatest recorded triumph, but that’s mainly because it had twice as much music, because everything Dylan did during the amazingly prolific ’65-’66 period was absolutely brilliant.
6. John Wesley Harding (1968). It was the height of ’60s freakdom. The Beatles just had made “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” while the Stones were working their bit of weirdness with “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request.” Meanwhile Dylan bucked the trend by making an album of acoustic moral parables. You’ll find “Drifter’s Escape,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on this one.
7. Blood On the Tracks (1974). Dylan’s latterday masterpiece opens with the enduring “Tangled Up in Blue” and just keeps on rolling through material such as “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Don’t call it a comeback!
8. Infidels (1983). After his puzzling, yet not altogether meritless born-again period, Dylan launched this return to Philistine-like prowess. “Neighborhood Bully,” an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, rocks hard, while “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and “Sweetheart Like You” are tuneful emotional workouts.
9. Oh Mercy (1989). Producer Daniel Lanois gave Dylan a textured bedrock sound that inspired such groove-oriented tunes as “Political World” and “Everything’s Broken.” Never before has a producer’s stamp been so evident on a Dylan album, but one can’t argue with the results.
10. The Bootleg Series (1991). This three-disc set shows that Dylan’s throwaways and unused tracks are better than almost anyone else’s keepers. It’s amazing that “Blind Willie McTell,” recorded 10 years earlier, never made it on an album until now.