I’m participating in an album draft with nine other bloggers, organized by Hanspostcard. There will be ten rounds, with draft order determined randomly by round. My 9th round pick is one of my favorites from the last 25 years.
Most of Dylan’s usual suspects have been selected at this point, but that really doesn’t matter. Time Out of Mind, released in September of 1997, is in my top six or seven Dylan albums, and with Bob the order depends on my mood anyway. It’s certainly my favorite from the latter portion of his long career, which I subjectively define as beginning with this release. It’s also the most “current” album of my desert island picks. I guess I’m just a middle aged dude on the cutting edge…
This album makes the cut for a couple of reasons. While the Beatles, Stones, etc. have always been in my rotation at home, the 1990’s was a decade of Neil Young and Bob Dylan obsession for me. At the time, my exploration into Bob’s music kind of stopped at Desire with the exception of 1989’s Oh Mercy (this no longer is the case). In other words, Dylan was seemingly, maybe, perhaps, done – but wow, what a catalog he’d created! Then came Time Out of Mind, and along with it a new era of excellence from Zimmy. I had become a fan of his current work, not just a second generation fan chasing ghosts down Highway 61.
The other reason, and as always the most important one, is that the music itself is so good from start to finish. Bob made the smart decision at just the right time to step out of his comfort zone and have Daniel Lanois produce it as he had done on Oh Mercy. If Phil Spector is known for the Wall of Sound, Lanois’ trademark is his…his…ethereal…hmm…ambient…uhh…big sound. Did I get that right? I tried. Another important factor is the fantastic group of sessions players on this recording, the core of which became the band he has consistently worked with since – significant considering there was a time when he discarded session musicians like yesterday’s socks.
The first song that pops into my mind is Not Dark Yet, which became more poignant as a result of his hospitalization with pericarditis prior to the album’s release. It was serious. But the entire album is drenched with this vibe, and it worked wonders. Cold Irons Bound is the heaviest track, and the video below was taken from the bizarro 2003 dystopian film, Masked and Anonymous. Following that is a live cut of the album opener, Love Sick. For those who have forgotten or aren’t aware of what happened, I highly recommend watching this performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards all the way through for the surprise about half way through the song. Time Outof Mind won three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, in 1998.
There it sat upon my bookshelf, mocking me in the same way other books I’d intended to read but hadn’t yet gotten around to had done in the past. “What’s the matter lad, reading stream of consciousness sound more craic than the reality of plodding through it?” barked my copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. “You like Monty Python and the Holy Grail so much, when are you going to pick me up and learn about the real thing? You’re one remarkable would-be student of history, Stephen” scolded historian Barbara Tuchman from the binding of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. Then they formed an evil axis with a book on a shelf across the room, Greil Marcus’s rather astounding study of the roots of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, titled Invisible Republic (Picador, 1997) and perfectly re-titled The Old, Weird America in 2011.
While I did end up digesting the former two works, the Marcus volume, much briefer and presumably about a topic I’d be more readily enthusiastic about, remained with a bookmark about 95 pages in. I think at the time I originally picked it up I was more interested in a chronicle of Dylan and the group soon to be known as the Band’s time at Woodstock in the fall of 1967 as they recorded mostly in the basement of the house known as Big Pink. This book ain’t that. With my first attempt I thought this Greil Marcus guy was kind of full of himself, to the point of feeling pissed off because I had difficulty following him. There’s a ringing endorsement of the author and this book by His Bobness right there on the cover, so why am I not “getting it?”
I’m not a fast reader, but I’ve been reading a lot during this rather bizarre moment in our future history, mostly music-related topics. While waiting for my next selection to be delivered by an omnipresent Amazon van and not ready to jump back to fiction, it dawned on me that this is a perfect time to dig back into The Old, Weird America while giving a closer listen to the Basement Tapes, expanded since my first attempt at reading this book as part of the Bootleg Series (I bought the two-disc highlights set when it was released in 2014, which I thought at the time was more than I would ever want to hear of those interesting but sonically poor and hard to understand songs.). I knew better what to expect this time around, and it synced perfectly with the other books I’d recently read on the musical and cultural history of the blues in the Deep South.
We see little mention of Dylan after about page 85. The majority of the book discusses various aspects of American cultural history from the Puritans to 1920’s Appalachia, including the West Virginia Mine War of 1920-21 to moonshiners and gangsters and those who wrote and sang songs about it all. Specifically those whose songs were originally issued from 1926-1933, and were assembled by collector and self-taught anthropologist Harry Smith on his enduringly important six album, 84 track Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) which became a major resource during the American folk music revival of the 1950’s and 60’s. Some of these long lost performers were rediscovered – in some cases searched for and found after decades of obscurity – and put on stage at Newport in the early/mid 60’s.
I’d never heard of most of the artists on the Anthology who were given biographical treatment by Marcus, folks such as Dock Boggs, Buell Kazee, and Frank Hutchison. He doesn’t have much to say about the ones I had heard of, including the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I don’t own the Anthology, but being able to dial up on YouTube any of the songs mentioned made this a fun and fascinating experience. The point of it all, of course, was that Dylan had heard of them, and ultimately incorporated their themes, fragments, and reworkings of whole songs along with his and the Band’s own originals – all maintaining that old, weird vibe – into what would come to be known at the Basement Tapes. The vibe is one of lives in poverty, of lawlessness and survival, and the masks worn by such a society in hardscrabble times and places which made up the Invisible Republic or Old, Weird America. The characters seems tragic, but Marcus explains that they aren’t since there’s an absence of guilt or shame in how they lived. It’s all they knew.
Marcus describes the 78 rpm recordings made by early 20th century banjo pickers and blues men (and women: check out Geechie Wiley’s haunting blues linked at the bottom of the page) as a “democratic event” because they gave a voice to those Americans who weren’t previously heard. Those voices were thrust back into the national consciousness during the Civil Rights Era as they were heard on college campuses and at festivals (as seen on Murray Lerner’s Festival!, which documents the Newport Folk Festivals from 1963-66). Critical to the topic at hand, Bob Dylan, a cultural icon from the 1960’s-onward, is old enough and was in the right place to witness personally the last musical citizens of the original Old, Weird America, and in him they found a major new champion of their tradition.
The Basement Tapes are his and the Band’s interpretation of that world, a time and place that are the origin of song characters and titles such as Stagger Lee/Stagolee/Stacker Lee, Frankie and Albert, Casey Jones, John Henry, the Coo-Coo/Cuckoo Bird, etc. Dylan’s Clothesline Saga, a song where we don’t really find out what has happened, just that something probably really bad has happened, I learned was an answer to Bobby Gentry’s 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe, a song I hadn’t really paid much attention to but which I discovered to also be constructed in the spirit of that old time and place after a ten minute trip down that rabbit hole. The recordings also spawned the bootleg industry as it came to be known. Dylan originally made the recordings for the purpose of giving them to other artists to do proper recordings of, which they did. But this only increased the demand of his hardcore fans for the originals, rough as those recordings were. Thus the first major bootleg release, The Great White Wonder.
There was a spooky alchemy that took place with Dylan and the Band in Woodstock in late ’67/early ’68, and to me the context is simply surreal. Just a year prior, he was an amphetamine fueled, checkered skinny suit wearing rock star who had recorded two of the greatest albums of all time in Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, who went to battle every night against much of his so-called folk purist audience in the U.S. and Europe, burned out, crashed his motorcycle, took a breather, and re-emerged with a completely new sound and, yes, appearance, first in the “Red Room” of his Woodstock house, then in the basement of Big Pink. All at a time when his contemporaries had gone psychedelic, even the Rolling Stones.
Besides on the Basement Tapes, that modern version of the Invisible Republic or Old, Weird America can be heard on Dylan’s next official recording, John Wesley Harding, as well as the first two albums by the Band, Music from Big Pink and the self-titled album. From there it blossomed into what we today call Americana. It’s really that big of a deal. Visually it can be seen in basically every one of those great photos – black & white and color – taken at Woodstock with Dylan and the Band by Elliott Landy. It’s in the clothes they wore and the way they posed for pictures.
It’s also evident in the setting of Richard Gere as Billy the Kid’s portion of Todd Haynes’s 2007 biopic I’m Not There, based on Dylan’s various personas over the years. Further, Dylan and the Band were a major influence on George Harrison and Eric Clapton. Think about that: It can be argued that Dylan and the Band’s residence and output at Woodstock played at least a small part in the breakups of the Beatles and Cream (or at least sped up the inevitable). This stuff is a bottomless pit I’m happy to get lost in, and now that I’ve made it through Greil Marcus’s book I’m going to read the one I probably meant to find the first time around, Sid Griffin’s Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes.
Some crumbs, if you’ve read this far:
-I wasn’t aware that the Basement Tapes as finally officially released in 1975 contains quite a bit of added overdubbing to make the tracks more commercially appealing.
-It turns out I really do like these songs, crudely recorded as they may be.
-I just watched the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band on Prime. Whether you’re a Robbie person or a Levon person (or neither), it’s very well done.
And from the “it all ties together” files:
-I recently read Alan Lomax’s book on the origins of the blues (The Land Where the Blues Began), and in the Marcus book it’s mentioned that it was Lomax, along with Pete Seeger, who attempted to cut the electric chords when Dylan plugged in at Newport in ’65, and,
-Regarding that crazy Dylan 1966 tour of the UK when Levon had quit before they left because he didn’t want to deal with the hostility every night and was replaced by Mickey Jones: Last night my wife and I revisited National Lampoon’s Vacation, which, like many of my generation, I have seen numerous times. I hadn’t in a long while, and I noticed during one scene that a bit part actor strongly resembled either any number of folks I’ve seen in the news lately spewing saliva at medical mask wearing cops in the continuing scenes from our current Bizarro World, OR Mickey Jones. Sure enough, it was Mickey Jones.
And finally, the main idea behind this trilogy of posts: Bob Dylan’s 1978 conversion to evangelical Christianity and the current reassessment of his musical output that resulted from it. What? I’m really going to talk about this? Why?
Having come of age during Dylan’s creative trough of the 1980’s, all I had to go by when I decided it was time for me to explore his music in-depth were the handful of hits I was familiar with from the radio. My first Dylan album was his Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Vol. 1 was out of stock at Streetside Records that day), and even that was challenging for a 15-year-old to dig into. My first Dylan concert was in 1988 when he was arguably still in the nadir of his career. That I’ve reached the point where I now embrace his most controversial and arguably most inaccessible albums seems a minor miracle.
By 1978, Dylan was spent. Having reached peaks of critical acclaim, fame, and fortune, the downward slope included the end of his marriage and negative reviews of his self-produced 1975 tour docudrama Renaldo and Clara (released in ’78), his ’78 live shows, as well as his album, Street Legal. He began searching for answers as many of us do, and as he’s told the tale (abridged here), one night a fan tossed a crucifix on stage toward the physically and mentally ailing star. Something told him to pick it up and put it in his pocket – something he never did while performing. At the next stop, in Tucson, AZ, he had a vision of Christ in his hotel room. From there he enrolled in bible study at the Vineyard Church in California, where a couple of his band members were involved. Thus began a roughly three-year period when Bob Dylan was transformed and his fans were bewildered by the fire and brimstone gospel rock coming at them from the stage and vinyl.
Dylan released the first of his “Gospel Trilogy,” Slow Train Coming, in the summer of 1979. The album had a contemporary gospel sound thanks to the production of Jerry Wexler (an architect of the “Muscle Shoals sound,” including works by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin) and lead guitar by emerging star Mark Knopfler, fresh off the release of the self titled Dire Straits album. His use of female gospel background singers carried over from the Street Legal album and would continue throughout the trilogy and accompanying concert tours. I first heard Slow Train in 1992 and liked it from the start, even if the message in the songs seemed a bit odd for a Dylan record.
The only exposure I had to the second and third albums, Saved and Shot of Love were songs included on his Biograph and Bootleg Series: Rare and Unreleased, Volumes 1-3 box sets, which I immersed myself in one snowy, solitary Christmas break during college. I thought the songs were o.k., but just couldn’t bring myself to add those two records to my collection. To be honest, female backing vocals (gospel or otherwise) just seemed so out of place on a Dylan album, and the production seemed too 1980’s. Furthermore, I had read really nothing positive about that phase of his career, and there were just too many other gems of his (and Neil Young’s) that I wanted to absorb.
However, time passed and we reached Vol. 12 of Dylan’s brilliantly curated Bootleg Series (the title is a misnomer for the uninitiated – these are official releases), The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966. Rumors soon began to swirl on the intergoogle that Vol. 13 would revisit the Born Again Bob era, and I was stoked. Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 was released in November of 2017 and covers his live shows from 1979-1981 where once again, as in 1966, Bob went out nightly to do battle with his audiences who went to his shows expecting to hear one thing but who got another. But this time it wasn’t merely that he wanted to play electric music, he now had a very serious message.
You know we’re living in the end times … The scriptures say, ‘In the last days, perilous times shall be at hand. Men shall become lovers of their own selves. Blasphemous, heavy and highminded.’ … Take a look at the Middle East. We’re heading for a war … I told you ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ ‘ and they did. I said the answer was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and it was. I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation … Jesus is coming back to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years. –Dylan speaking to a concert audience, 1979.
Wow! Just, wow! As with Dylan’s buddy George Harrison regarding the latter’s 1974 tour, 2018 me would love to go back and be in the audience for one of those shows. I find it absolutely fascinating. It takes nerve and conviction to stand before your adoring audience night after night and unload some of the most buzz-killing sermons on the stage-mount ever heard, putting your career and possibly your life on the line. Keep in mind John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan, convinced he needed to eliminate the man he felt was his idol-turned-phony, in December of 1980 while Bob was in the middle of this phase.
I’ve subsequently owned and enjoyed the second two albums in the trilogy for a while now. The music on them is really good, and the production not nearly as bad as I’d allowed myself to believe it was when justifying to myself why I didn’t want to give them a serious listen. I had a pretty good feeling about the impending live archival release as well. Sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I love it. As with live versions of his songs from Desire featured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975, the songs on Vol. 13 are much more powerful and alive than their studio versions. As always, he changed song arrangements from time to time during the tours, each version with a distinct feel. I’ve even gained an appreciation for the backing vocalists – they belong on these songs. Exhibit A:
By the end of the 1981 tour, Dylan began to incorporate some of his classics back into his live sets. His next album, Infidels, was released two years later and was greeted with much positive feedback from fans and critics alike as it was a return to more of a secular, introspective songwriting akin to his mid-1970’s output. Evangelicals and cynics both might say that a three-year period of gospel music and sermonizing which seemed to suddenly end with no explanation suggests Dylan was insincere, but I strongly disagree with such a sentiment.
How do I reconcile my appreciation for this music and this period of his career in general? Despite the enigma that is Bob Dylan, he is human. Many humans search for meaning in life, and for some of us it involves a spiritual seeking that isn’t satisfied in the first discovery. Or maybe even the second or third. Or possibly ever. But like the man sang, we press on. Dylan is also an artist, and as such he expresses himself sincerely. I don’t believe Bob could do otherwise. We may not relate to the message, but it’s real. These songs are an expression of where he was in his life at that time, and I find it very compelling. And as a fan of music in general, I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be another songwriter like Dylan who will produce such controversial material, then survive the media and fan backlash to reinvent him or herself again and again. Springsteen, Neil Young, and U2 have, but only to a musical degree, not one concerning their message. The music industry no longer gives younger artists enough leeway to do so.
A couple of weeks back I attended a theater screening of the hour-long film that was included on DVD in the deluxe edition of the Trouble No More release (I settled for the condensed two disc set). It shows live performances with actor Michael Shannon giving evangelical sermons between songs. About 15-20 of us diehards were present, and I was almost as interested in how the others in the theater audience would respond to it as I would. When it was over, we all applauded. As I was leaving, I ended up in a conversation with a gentleman named Larry, a Dylan fan who graduated from college fifty years ago and who saw Dylan and The Band at the Forum in L.A. in ’74, and a young man named Cade who looked about twenty and who had very recently started on his Dylan journey as a result of Bob being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. How great is that? The three of us – three generations of Dylan fans – talked in the empty lobby for thirty minutes about what we knew and liked and could’ve easily gone on another half hour. One of the many things we agreed upon was that the Gospel Years are very deserving of their current reassessment.
The following clip appeared after the credits rolled, and to me was worth the price of admission by itself. It’s Bob dueting with backing vocalist Clydie King, presumably at a sound check, on a song made famous by Dion DiMucci fifty years ago this August.
1) That Dylan’s touring drummer during these years was Jim Keltner, who was also a friend of George Harrison’s who had been the latter’s drummer on that controversial and much-maligned 1974 tour? He was also the drummer on the Traveling Wilburys albums, which of course included Harrison and Dylan. I wish he would write a book about it all.
2) That Dylan secretly married and had a child with one of his backing vocalists, Carolyn Dennis, in 1986? They divorced in 1992, and they managed to keep it all private until 2001.