Bob Dylan’s weird and (mostly) wonderful ‘Shadow Kingdom’

Bob Dylan’s gifts to us these past few years have come with a caveat. His 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” was both welcome and unexpected. But though it had a few good songs, it was also overpraised, as most of his work has been since he revived his career in 1997 with the luminous “Time Out of Mind.” (Yes, the latter stages of his career have been going on for nearly a quarter-century now.)

So, too, with his streaming performance “Shadow Kingdom,” which went live on July 18 and supposedly expired on July 20 — although it still seems to be up for paying customers. As with “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” it did not deserve quite the degree of praise it received, as in this Pitchfork review. But it was pretty good nevertheless, and wonderfully weird in some very Dylanesque ways.

“Shadow Kingdom” features 12 songs from earlier in Dylan’s career, although only one, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which closed the 50-minute set, was from his pre-electric period. Dylan was fully engaged with the material, and he had a first-rate, mostly acoustic band (no drummer) behind him. But though his enunciation was unusually clear and precise, his voice was pretty hard to take at times. I will defend Dylan’s singing during the peak years of his career to anyone. But it’s really been going downhill since “Modern Times,” his last great album, released in 2006.

“Shadow Kingdom” is not a live concert. Rather, it’s a film, shot in luxurious black and white, some of it with actors in an old-timey nightclub, some of it with just him and his fellow musicians. Everyone smokes. There is probably more smoke wafting through the air than at a Philip Morris board meeting, assuming they even allow smoking anymore.

The songs were chosen wisely. I’d describe them as middling Dylan — not his best-known, but not obscure, either. A few got a fairly straightforward treatment, including “To Be Alone with You” and “Pledging My Time.” Others were radically rearranged, such as “Tombstone Blues,” one of the greatest rock-and-roll songs of all time, presented here with Dylan playing the Beat poet narrating over a hipster soundtrack. “Forever Young” is deeply moving.

For an artist who seemed to be washed up in the 1980s, Dylan’s revival during the past few decades has been remarkable. He turned 80 recently, and he looks it and sounds it. COVID has kept him off the road; you have to wonder whether he’ll be up for another tour once it’s safe again.

It’s a shame that “Shadow Kingdom” came and went so quickly. I hope it’s made more widely available, because it’s a fascinating document about one of the greatest artists of the past century. I’m not sure if you can still buy a ticket, but if you want to try, here you go.

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‘Summer of Soul’ is the definition of must-see TV

You may have heard that “Summer of Soul” is the must-see music documentary of 2021. You heard correctly. I saw it last night on Hulu, and it is magnificent. From Stevie Wonder to the Edwin Hawkins Singers, from Gladys Knight and the Pips to the Chambers Brothers, “Summer of Soul” is packed with two hours of great music, the fascinating story of how it came together, and the cultural and political context in which it played out.

The film shows us highlights from six free concerts held in Harlem during the summer of 1969, the same summer that gave us Woodstock. Needless to say, the music was a lot better at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Though there’s too much cutting away from the music for my tastes, director Questlove chose wisely, devoting the longest uninterrupted stretches to Sly and the Family Stone and to Nina Simone. Also transcendent: a 30-year-old Mavis Staples dueting with her idol, Mahalia Jackson, on “Precious Lord,” dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

You might also be interested in this post by journalist Greg Mitchell, who finds that claims of the footage being “locked in a basement” for the past 50 years are greatly exaggerated. It turns out that some of the key performances, including Sly’s and Simone’s, had been available on YouTube for years.

Unfortunately, since Mitchell’s piece was published, Disney has blocked access. Which is all the more reason to see “Summer of Soul.”

Happy Fourth of July!

Next to the “1812 Overture,” this is my favorite Independence Day song — by Paul Simon and Johann Sebastian Bach.

My top 25 albums: Let the arguing begin!

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg. Photo (cc) 1975 by Elsa Dorfman.

A little over a year ago I began compiling a list of my favorite 25 albums. I finally finished last week. It was a fun exercise that forced me to think about the music that has meant the most to me over the years. My only self-imposed rule was to limit myself to one album per artist. Otherwise I’d probably have seven or eight Dylan albums here.

And how wonderful was it to find a photo by my late friend Elsa Dorfman that I could run with this.

If I did this again, I’m sure it would come out differently — but probably not too differently. Here, then, is the complete list, with links to what I wrote about each of them. Let the arguments begin!

  1. Bob Dylan, “Blood on the Tracks”
  2. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”
  3. Miles Davis, “Big Fun”
  4. The Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main Street”
  5. McCoy Tyner, “Enlightenment”
  6. Derek and the Dominos, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”
  7. Carla Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra, “Escalator over the Hill”
  8. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
  9. Al Green, “Greatest Hits”
  10. “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band”
  11. John Prine, “The Missing Years”
  12. Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
  13. Tom Waits, “Franks Wild Years”
  14. Charlie Parker, “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)”
  15. “The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983”
  16. Paul Simon, “Graceland”
  17. Various artists, “The Harder They Come”
  18. Neil Young, “Decade”
  19. Muddy Waters Day at Paul’s Mall
  20. “The Essential George Jones”
  21. “The Beatles” (the White Album)
  22. Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace”
  23. Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
  24. Christopher Parkening, “Parkening Plays Bach”
  25. Mavis Staples, “We’ll Get By”

Album #1: Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’

When I began compiling my list of top 25 albums a year ago, I already knew who it would end with: Bob Dylan, the master, one of the 20th century’s leading songwriters, Nobel Prize-winning poet, still going strong after turning 80 this past Monday.

But what album would I choose? Something from his early acoustic folkie years? Well, no. I prefer Dylan the rocker. His middle period, just after he’d gone electric but before the motorcycle crash that would end the white-hot-genius phase of his career? His mid-’1970s comeback? What about his entirely unexpected return to relevance, when he released three albums from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s that were just a half-notch below his greatest work?

My choice came down to two albums: “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), the greatest rock-and-roll record ever made, and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), his most personal album, a suite of songs about heartbreak and loss that is brilliant in its conception and execution. His singing, always wildly expressive, is at its best on both. So — how to choose?

For me, it has to be “Blood on the Tracks.” You might call this album my gateway drug into the larger world of Dylan’s music. It was released just as I was ready to listen. It’s accessible in a way that few of his albums are, devoid of the obscurantism that characterizes even some of his best work, including “Highway 61.” (That said, I’ve listened to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” one of the anchors on “Blood,” maybe a few hundred times over the years and I still can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, even though it seems fairly straightforward on the surface. I think it’s because it’s all foreground with virtually no background.)

My favorite song on the album, and a contender for my favorite Dylan song ever, is “Idiot Wind,” nearly eight minutes of vitriol dedicated, I guess you’d say, to his then-wife, Sara, from whom he was in the process of divorcing. The story he tells ain’t pretty, and I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman didn’t deserve it. But it is great art. Dylan knows exactly how it’s going to land, so he eases into it with a hilarious shaggy-dog story and ends with a few unconvincing lines in which he attempts to cast himself as co-malefactor. But the middle — oh, my God. If I’m listening in my car, here’s the part makes me nearly drive off the road:

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the
springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

The way Dylan stretches out and twists “slowly” kills me every time I hear it.

Every song on “Blood on the Tracks” is a revelation. It kicks off with “Tangled Up in Blue,” a strange song that mashes several different narratives together, centuries apart, and that serves as a commentary, I suppose, on the ’60s and what he was leaving behind. It would become one of his signature songs, along with “Blowing in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” depict Dylan at his most vulnerable. (Dylan has said “Blood on the Tracks” is not about him. But Dylan himself is a character played by Robert Zimmerman.)

Even the seeming trifles, which close what used to be sides one and two (they made these things out of vinyl, and you’d play them with a needle, and — well, never mind), serve their purpose. “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” anticipates his lover’s eventual departure even in the midst of their relationship. “Buckets of Rain,” which follows “Shelter from the Storm,” itself a kinder meditation on love, gives us a chance to just relax and come down a bit as we begin to process what we’ve just heard.

And then there’s a song that didn’t even make it onto the album — “Up to Me,” which popped up on the “Biograph” compilation in 1985. It sounds a lot like “Shelter from the Storm,” and it would have been a career highlight for almost any other artist.

If you love “Blood on the Tracks,” I’d recommend a book about its making called “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. It tells the story of Dylan’s early attempts to record the songs with studio musicians in New York and his decision to re-record most of it in Minneapolis with local musicians and the help of his brother, David Zimmerman. It was not a great band, despite what Gill and Odegard argue, but they bring a sense of urgency to the proceedings that was missing from the New York sessions.

If you’ve never quite gotten around to Dylan, I recommend you start with “Blood on the Tracks.” It might turn out to be where you end up, too.

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Happy birthday, Bob Dylan!

Bob Dylan, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, is so mindbogglingly prolific that he’s recorded songs that would have made a lesser musician’s career — yet he left them off his albums because they didn’t fit or because, well, he’s Dylan and who knows what he was thinking?

Among his greatest: “Up to Me,” an outtake from 1973’s “Blood on the Tracks” (“In 14 months I’ve only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously”), and “Blind Willie McTell” (left off 1983’s “Infidels” even though it would have the best song on the album).

“Red River Shore” (above), an outtake from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind,” isn’t quite in that league. There’s some awkwardness in the lyrics that Dylan hadn’t quite worked out. Maybe that’s why he didn’t release it at the time; instead, it popped up on “Tell Tale Signs,” a collection of odds and ends from his later years. But it might be my favorite Dylan outtake because of the ancient feel. Even with the electric guitar, it sounds like it could have been recorded 100 years ago.

The collaboration between Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois was magic — and here’s further evidence of that.

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Spike Lee couldn’t anticipate Derek Chauvin’s depravity

Life imitates art imitates life. I was thinking of that on Tuesday as the three guilty verdicts were being announced in the case of Derek Chauvin, who killed — and we can now definitively say murdered — George Floyd.

Last summer, as part of a series of discussions our church was holding on racism, we watched “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s classic 1989 movie about race, police brutality and so much more. It is a great film. We saw it when it first came out, and it was a revelation to view it again more than 30 years later, with its rich depiction of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the uneasy truce between the white pizza shop owner and his Black customers.

But the climactic scene — the killing of Radio Raheem at the hands of a police officer — shows that Lee’s imagination did not anticipate the depravity of Derek Chauvin. Raheem is killed in a moment of panic as chaos erupts at the pizza shop. Chauvin deliberately jammed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes until his victim was good and dead.

Did Chauvin mean to kill Floyd? No one can know exactly what was in his tiny heart. But I’m guessing that the answer is yes. Maybe not before. And certainly not after, if only because he had to realize he’d just gotten himself into a world of trouble. But during, as he felt the power surge through him while Floyd gasped for air and called out for his mother? Yes. He had to know what he was doing. How could he not?

If you’ve never seen “Do the Right Thing,” well, do the right thing and watch it. And think about how little has changed over the past three decades. The Floyd family received some measure of justice, but it’s difficult to imagine what the outcome would have been if not for the video shot by Darnella Frazier. Or maybe it’s not difficult to imagine.

Pulsing throughout “Do the Right Thing” is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The fight isn’t over by any means.

Why you should watch Netflix’s Joan Didion documentary

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo (cc) 2013 by David Shankbone.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at m place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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Revered, yet today largely unheard: The life and career of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington performs for patients Nov. 3, 1954, at the KFG Radio Studio for Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. (U.S. Army photo)

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker are often described as the three founding giants of jazz. Parker’s music comes across as modern and accessible to those of us listening today, though too modern and inaccessible when he arrived in the 1940s. Armstrong seems like an artifact from the distant past. That leaves Ellington, generally regarded as one of the great geniuses of 20th-century music but not often heard anymore unless you seek him out.

I had long wanted to know more about Ellington and his music, so I recently listened to the audio version of Terry Teachout’s 2013 biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.” I learned a lot. But I wish, instead, that I could have listened to a series of lectures with examples from Ellington’s music. A nearly 18-hour biography of a musician with no music felt like a lost opportunity. I also would have liked a more generous telling of the Duke’s life.

One aspect that especially impressed me was that — unlike Armstrong (the subject of an earlier Teachout biography) — Ellington was largely able to elude the racist stereotypes of the day. From the earliest years of his career, Ellington was presented as an artist who came about as close to transcending race as was possible at the time. (And no, it’s still not possible today.)

Part of it was because of his manager, Irving Mills, who deserves a great deal of credit even if he and Ellington eventually had a falling-out. (Among other things, Ellington discovered Mills had lied to him about how much he’d spent on a coffin for Ellington’s mother.) Part of it was because Ellington came from a middle-class Washington family with bourgeois aspirations; Ellington was ever-conscious of acting as a Black role model. And part of it, Teachout acknowledges, is that Ellington was light-skinned.

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My problems with Teachout are three-fold. First, he dwells at excessive length on Ellington’s voracious sexual appetites. Second, he dwells at even more excessive length on Ellington’s habit of lifting what he’d heard from other musicians without giving credit. Music, and jazz in particular, is a collaborative art, and it seems to me that the point could be made without driving it home over and over. It has to be said, though, that Ellington went too far at times, so much so that he broke the heart of his closest collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

Third, Teachout’s analysis of Ellington’s music strikes me as oftentimes pedantic and obscure. Teachout believes that Ellington’s genius was in making three-minute records, and that his longer pieces fell short because he had never studied the European classical composers to learn how it’s done. But is that really a fair criticism? Ellington was a Black composer working in an African American idiom. Maybe his longer pieces came out just the way he wanted them to.

Even so, I learned a lot. Right now I’m listening to “Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band,” recorded between 1940 and ’42 and regarded as the height of Ellington’s career. And Teachout includes a lot of fascinating details, including Ellington’s receiving the Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon at a White House reception at which Nixon sat at the piano and played “Happy Birthday” for the Duke.

In a New York Times review, James Gavin called “Duke” a “cleareyed reassessment of a man regarded in godlike terms.” Despite its flaws, I found it to be a valuable guide to a the life and work of a genius who, today, is known mainly for being well-known. It’s time to listen to Ellington anew.

The philosophical difficulties of Thomas Moore’s ‘Care of the Soul’

Thomas Moore. Photo via YouTube.

The first time I read Thomas Moore’s “Care of the Soul,” nearly 30 years ago, was because our minister was enthusiastic about it. Other than recalling that I didn’t get much out of it, I hadn’t given it much thought in the intervening years.

Then, recently, Matthew Dowd started touting “Care of the Soul” on Twitter. Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist and Never Trump conservative, was until recently the chief political analyst on ABC News. His Twitter feed is surprisingly spiritual and inspirational.

Well, I read it again, and I’m still struggling with it. I’d call it a hard book — not because it challenges and pushes you, which would be hard in a good way, but because it’s difficult to understand and make sense of. Some of it is clear enough — the importance of ritual, of the outdoors, of living a purpose-filled life. But too often Moore, a psychotherapist and former Catholic monk, throws us into the deep end without any preparation.

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His method is to examine psychological problems such as depression and narcissism and try to help us understand what they are teaching us. These chapters are accompanied by extensive discussions of Greek and Roman mythology that are supposed to illuminate our path. But even though I moved through these sections slowly and tried to absorb what Moore was writing, I mainly came away scratching my head.

Other Moore-isms are simple enough to resonate. For instance:

Another aspect of modern life is a loss of formal religious practice in many people’s lives, which is not only a threat to spirituality as such, but also deprives the soul of valuable symbolic and reflective experience. Care of the soul might include a recovery of formal religion in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. One obvious potential source of spiritual renewal is the religious tradition in which we were brought up.

As a skeptic who nevertheless has been attending church for most of my adult life, I found that to be a powerful affirmation. Moore also given some thought to the caricature of religion that is marked by dogmatism and the rejection of anyone who doesn’t believe the right way. He writes: “When spirituality loses contact with soul …, it can become rigid, simplistic, moralistic, and authoritarian — qualities that betray a loss of soul.”

I highlighted this as the quote that best sums up the entire book: “Wisdom is the marriage of intellect’s longing for truth and soul’s acceptance of the labyrinthine nature of the human condition.” Yet, in looking at it now, it strikes me that it’s difficult to make more than aphoristic sense out of it without truly understanding what Moore is driving at. Which brings me back to the difficulties I mentioned higher up.

What’s frustrating is that there really does seem to be deep wisdom in “Care of the Soul” that would make sense if only I could find my secret decoder ring. I’d be interested in knowing whether any of you have tried to make sense of Moore and what you took away from it.