Sunday, June 21, 2020

Kat's Korner: Bob brings it all back home one more time

Kat: The passage of time has a way of turning on musicians.  For example?  Paul, George and Ringo have all faced some variation on whether or not they're still loved.  Only John Lennon escaped having to answer the Beatles' question ("Will You Still Love Me When I'm 64?") and he only escaped because he was assassinated at the age of forty.  

Bob Dylan's 79.  And, seven months ago, I wonder what the consensus would have been if these lyrics were thrown at him:

Ah you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal

How do you feel, Bob, how do you feel?

Bob's had his legacy . . . and little else for a few years now.  Some will say he last turned out a musical statement that mattered in 1989 with OH MERCY while some might argue it was 1997 with TIME OUT OF MIND.

Those were albums that were produced well.  They weren't albums that mattered.  

His 80s work is largely ignored or trashed but its his 80s work that really stands out and begs for a critical reassessment:  INFIDELS, EMPIRE BURLESQUE, KNOCKED OUT LOADED and, yes, even DOWN IN THE GROOVE which some have labeled Dylan's worst album ever.

These albums have fire and passion on them.  

Bob was in a period that Diana Ross was also in.  Each album brought some excitement upon release and then it didn't match the sells that had been hoped for and it was discarded as a mistake while everyone just knew the way Bob or Diana should record.  He needed this producer, she needed the producer, it would be the answer blah blah blah.  

In the process, some strong work got ignored.

With OH MERCY, Bob finally worked with a producer the slack jaws had been demanding (Daniel Lanois) so it didn't really matter that it was a weak album, that it lacked passion and that the songs were pointless, it was time to praise.

Yes, it sounded well, it sounded like an elevator ride, in fact, it was so smooth but I've never listened to OH MERCY since the year it came out.  EMPIRE BURLESQUE and KNOCKED OUT LOADED?  They've never left my playlists.

I will allow that they're erratic, no question.  But, again, they are full of passion, blood pumps through each track.  They are great albums.

And, in the many years that passed, I accepted that we weren't going to have anything like that again. 

Bob had been house broken and trained, he'd only now do what the critics insisted he must.  He'd never be original again -- not frustrating, not exceptional, just obvious.

Now comes ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS.  If the magnificent "Murder Most Foul" hadn't come out in March, I would have snickered at the title.  Bob had stopped being rough -- let alone rowdy -- in 1989.  

That is Bob Dylan's first number one song on the BILLBOARD charts as a performer.  (He topped CASHBOX with "Like A Rolling Stone" but that track only made it to number two on BILLBOARD.)

It's a great song and a theme he's explored for years -- including with Kris Kristofferson's "They Killed Him" on KNOCKED OUT LOADED.  Kris wrote it and recorded it as did Johnny Cash and Bob -- it details the murders of JFK, MLK, RFK, Jesus and Ghandi.  

"Murder Most Foul" is a great song that resonates and, if you ever doubt it, just check out Ruth's "How NYT ensures people do not think about what Bob Dylan is saying" and  Jefferson Morley's piece at COUNTERPUNCH about how THE NEW YORK TIMES tried to avoid acknowledging it.  Of course they would, what is THE NEW YORK TIMES but the club bulletin for the hidden assassins and robber barons?

Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin' high
Good day to be livin' and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, "Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?"
"Of course we do, we know who you are"
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
Was a matter of timing and the timing was right
You gotta pay debts, we've come to collect
We're gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We'll mock you and shock you and we'll put it in your face
We've already got someone here to take your place
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone's eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl
Rub-a-dub-dub, it's a murder most foul

Bob closes the new album with that track and, goodness, is it ever a closer -- a 16 minute and 54 second masterpiece.  It stands with the best of Dylan's work.

And the nine tracks that precede it?

He's sloppy and alive -- that's the Dylan I love.  Not the one pruned and cleaned, washed and scrubbed to within an inch of his life.  This is Dylan rough and rowdy and it's wonderful.  

On "My Own Version of You," he sings, "I'm saying to hell to all things that I used to be" but, to me, it seems like he's reclaiming them, the passion, the lust, the anger, the distrust, the wounds and the scars, the love and the hope.  Dylan's good at wordplay, always has been, but when he's all in the head, he really doesn't reach anyone.  When he pulls in the heart, he pulls us all in.  

That's always been most obvious when he tries a love song.  If the heart's not in it, we don't buy it.  You'll buy "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You."  In "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)," Bob sings, "Say it to me, if you got something to confess" and it's worth remembering that Bob's at his best when he's working the confessional.  He may not like the spotlight and may hide behind "you" a great deal but his strongest songs tend to be the ones where -- regardless of the device he's using in terms of voice -- he's speaking from the heart.

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I'm sittin' on my terrace, lost in the stars
Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars
Been thinking it all over and I've thought it all through
I've made up my mind to give myself to you

I saw the first fall of snow
I saw the flowers come and go
I don't think that anyone ever has ever knew
I've made up my mind to give myself to you

I'm giving myself to you, I am
From Salt Lake City to Birmingham
From East L.A. to San Antone
I don't think I can bear to live my life alone

My eye's like a shooting star
It looks at nothin' here or there, looks at nothin' near of far
No one ever told me, it's just something I knew
I've made up my mind to give myself to you

He's selling the words the same way Sam Cooke sold "You Send Me." He's committed to them and delivering.

"Mother of Muses" is built around a musical motif similar to the hymn "Softly and Tenderly (Jesus Is Calling)" and finds the singer struggling with his deeds and his life:

Take me to the river, release your charms
Let me down a while in your sweet, loving arms
Wake me, shake me, free me from sin
Make me invisible, like the wind
Got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roam
I'm travelin' light and I'm a-slow coming home

There's not a bad track on the album, there's not one that could have been left off.  ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS is the album you need to play for a friend.  It can be frustrating if you're a Dylan fan, trying to explain to someone unfamiliar with him -- and, yes, there are people who are unfamiliar with him.  You use words, gestures and emphasis to try to explain how, at his best, he's a genius and they look at you like you're having a fit or speaking a foreign language.  You don't need to go through that this year.  Just sit them down, play this album and watch them nod in comprehension.