By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Bob Dylan

Dylan goes Tex-Mex

I’m very excited about this. After Bob Dylan wrapped up his comeback trilogy in 2006 with “Modern Times,” I figured that would be just about it. He’s 67 now, and he’s more than proved his point.

Except that Dylan apparently never thought of it as a trilogy. He’s got a new album of original material, “Together Through Life,” coming out next month, supposedly with a Tex-Mex flavor. (I’ll assume he’s not going to revisit the hilarious accent he unveiled on “Romance in Durango.”) Zimmy says he’s aiming for something different this time:

I think we milked it all we could on that last record and then some. We squeezed the cow dry. All the “Modern Times” songs were written and performed in the widest range possible so they had a little bit of everything. These new songs have more of a romantic edge.

Joel Brown pointed me to this Rolling Stone piece, which describes “Together Through Life” as having “the live-in-the-studio feel of Dylan’s last two studio records, 2001’s ‘Love and Theft’ and 2006’s ‘Modern Times,’ but with a seductive border-cafe feel (courtesy of the accordion on every track) and an emphasis on struggling-love songs.”

I can’t wait.

Last night I was listening to “Tell Tale Signs,” Dylan’s recent collection of outtakes, mainly from the trilogy and 1989’s “Oh Mercy.” It strikes me that Dylan’s so-called comeback is now 20 years old — that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that he staggered around for decades, he actually rediscovered his gift in his late 40s, and has been kicking ass pretty much ever since, with just one turkey (“Under the Red Sky,” 1990) in all those years.

Yes, “Time Out of Mind” (1998), as good as anything he’s ever done, signaled to the wider public that he was back. But if you look at his actual output, you’d have to say that he’s been on top of his game for a long time.

The wonderfulness of “Astral Weeks”

I was excited about the new live version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” until I saw this video of him mumbling through “Sweet Thing” at the Hollywood Bowl. The huge band he’s assembled is terrific. Morrison, not so much. Nor does this New York Times review hold out much hope.

Though I’m not a big Morrison fan and have never seen him live, I love “Astral Weeks.” As I suspect is the case with many people, I came to it well into adulthood — it was never on the radio, either then or now, and Morrison’s numerous top-40 hits didn’t appeal to me all that much. When I finally decided to find out why critics had been raving about it for all those years, I was mesmerized.

Last Friday I listened to it straight through while driving home, the first time I’d done that in a while. What a strange, wonderful piece of work. Morrison is at his peak, both in his singing and his writing. Is it possible that he was just 23 when he recorded it? I’d listen to it just for Richard Davis’ otherworldly bass-playing. Pressed to name a favorite song (not that these are really songs), I’d probably say “Cypress Avenue.” But that’s subject to change.

Trouble is, Morrison has had a reputation for years — maybe decades? — of indifference when it comes to performing live. Don Imus scored a rare interview with Morrison last week, but didn’t succeed in drawing him out of his shell. Far better is this NPR piece, broadcast on Saturday, on the significance of “Astral Weeks.”

Bob Dylan is often lumped with Morrison in delivering uninspired, even belligerently awful live performances. But when Dylan’s engaged, he is as compelling as he’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, check out this riveting video of Bob and the boys performing the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (Steve Greenlee will have to take my word for it, I guess.)

Does Morrison ever rise to such heights anymore? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that if you don’t have “Astral Weeks” in your collection, you should rectify that as quickly as possible. You will be entranced and amazed.

Hattie Carroll’s killer finally dies

William Zantzinger, the subject of Bob Dylan’s song “The Lonely Death of Hattie Carroll,” has died at the age of 69. A truly miserable human being, Zantzinger was caught — many years after caning Ms. Carroll to death — collecting rent from black families who lived in shanties he didn’t even own.

John Donne was wrong.

My Dylan top five

I’m ready with my final list of Bob Dylan’s top five songs. How can I resist? I’ve tried to rank them in some kind of order, but it’s hard to do.

Mind you, I’m not saying these are his best or most important songs. I think most of us would agree that “Like a Rolling Stone,” from “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), is both, but it’s been so overplayed that I usually change the station. (But I’ll listen to the “Royal Albert Hall” version from 1966 anytime, with Zimmy’s barely audible “Play fucking loud!” admonition at the beginning.) Rather, these are the Dylan songs I most like to listen to right now. That could change.

With that caveat, here we go.

1. “Tombstone Blues.” (From “Highway 61.”) Dylan at the absolute top of his form. From start to finish, “Highway 61” features the best singing of his career. You may not like his voice, but he’s got a sense of timing that Miles Davis and Charlie Parker — not to mention Snoop Dogg — could appreciate. On “Tombstone Blues,” Mike Bloomfield’s howling guitar and Al Kooper’s zonked-out organ compete for attention. Similar to “Rolling Stone,” but more unhinged. “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken” anticipates Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now” by 14 years.

2. “Not Dark Yet.” (From “Time Out of Mind,” 1997.) Not a merely a sentimental pick. I’ve found Dylan’s latter-years revival to be as enjoyable as any period of his career. Someone — I think it was in the New Yorker — once described “Not Dark Yet” as the first great rock song of old age, and he was right. The somewhat clichéd lyrics mask a depth and sadness that emerges only after repeated listens. And the instrumental passage, though it may be more Daniel Lanois’ doings than Dylan’s, is as moving as anything that’s ever appeared on a Dylan album. Distant drums, signaling that the Reaper is at hand.

3. “Chimes of Freedom.” (From “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” 1964.) I somewhat reluctantly dropped “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to make room for my only choice from Dylan’s acoustic period. I don’t like Dylan’s early message songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” (Sorry, Esther.) “Chimes” seems like a message song, but it’s actually as poetically obscure as anything he’s ever written — like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but more evocative. “Mad mystic hammering” and “the wild cathedral evening” indeed. Chills, thrills.

4. “Idiot Wind.” (From “Blood on the Tracks,” 1975.) Maybe not the most accomplished song on this, his best album (along with “Highway 61”). But “Tangled Up in Blue” has been overplayed, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is overly mannered and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” wonderful as it is, is just a bit too polite. “Idiot Wind” is a howl of anger and anguish. And the media critic in me can’t help but fall for the opening line: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.”

5. “Thunder on the Mountain.” (From “Modern Times,” 2006.) Dylan the wordsmith is all the way back here, growling over a Chuck Berry beat about everything from Alicia Keys to “suck[ing] the milk out of a thousand cows.” As biting as “Tombstone Blues,” but with a sense of humanity and humor, too. Not exactly linear, but there are some amazing lines that stick with you. One could serve as an epitaph for his career: “Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music’s coming from/ I don’t need any guide, I already know the way.”

What? Nothing from “Blonde on Blonde” (1966)? Sadly, no. A great album, but I’m going to have to give it a pass. (“Visions of Johanna” tempts me, though.) But let’s face it — I could compile Dylan top fives for a month, and come up with something different every time.

Heck, I could do a top five just from songs he never put on proper albums: “Series of Dreams,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Positively Fourth Street,” “Up to Me” and “I Shall Be Released.” How’s that? For most people, those five outtakes would add up to a brilliant career.

I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys

Friend of Media Nation Esther, who blogs at Gratuitous Violins, is playing the Washington Post’s “five favorite Dylan songs” game. Poor Esther’s hung up on the early ’60s, but at least she’s narrowed her list down to five. I’m not sure I could do that.

OK, here are five, listed chronologically rather than by preference. I’m not going to submit them to the Post just yet, as I may change my mind:

1. “Tombstone Blues” (“Highway 61 Revisited,” 1965)
2. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (“Highway 61”)
3. “Idiot Wind” (“Blood on the Tracks,” 1975)
4. “Not Dark Yet” (“Time Out of Mind,” 1997)
5. “Thunder on the Mountain” (“Modern Times,” 2006)

So what am I leaving out? A lot, obviously. I’ve ignored Dylan’s entire acoustic period. “Chimes of Freedom,” from “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964), might be the best piece of poetry he’s ever written. I agree with Esther that the Bruce Springsteen cover version rocks, but I’ve come to like Dylan’s better.

“You’re a Big Girl Now,” also from “Blood,” has been one of my favorites for years.

“Nettie Moore,” from “Modern Times,” knocks me out every time I hear it, but the wordplay on “Thunder” is vintage Dylan.

And, gee, what about “High Water (for Charley Patton),” from “Love and Theft” (2001)? There has never been a verse in popular music quite like this:

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view.”
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care.”
High water everywhere

Not sure how original that is, as Dylan in recent years has leaned on his source material a bit too hard. Still, that is an astonishing passage.

What do you think?

Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Pulitzer notes

A few observations on this year’s Pulitzer Prizes.

1. Mark Feeney’s victory in criticism is one of those developments that’s surprising but deserved. Feeney stands for low-key substance, and it’s nice to see that the Pulitzer judges recognized that. It’s also encouraging that the Globe has kept its Pulitzer string alive while it goes through another wave of downsizing. Editor Marty Baron is groping toward how to define excellence in a very different era. Greats arts coverage is one answer to that challenge.

The Globe’s Beth Daley, who was a finalist, also deserves credit for explaining the effects of global warming in human terms.

2. It’s too bad that Concord Monitor photographer Preston Gannaway won the Pulitzer for feature photography just as she’s leaving for the Rocky Mountain News. Nevertheless, the prize helps enhance the Monitor’s reputation as among the best papers of its size in the country.

Gannaway documented the death of a young mother with cancer, presented in a multimedia production here.

3. Congratulations to my Northeastern colleage Bill Kirtz and his wife, Carol. Their son, Jake Hooker, won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting along with his New York Times colleague Walter Bogdanich for their exposés of the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. Kirtz and I go way, way back — he was my instructor in the 1970s. I wish as much had rubbed off on me as it did on Jake.

4. It’s hard to think of anyone more deserving of a Pulitzer than Bob Dylan, one of the great artists of the past half-century. But I always worry when I hear an announcement like that. Is he sick? Do the Pulitzer judges know something we don’t? Nah. He’s just looking for Alicia Keys.

A good bad movie

Last night Media Nation Jr. and I watched “Masked and Anonymous,” a 2003 movie with an all-star cast that includes John Goodman, Jessica Lange and, improbably, Bob Dylan. I didn’t expect it to be very good, and I wasn’t disappointed. But it wasn’t boring, either.

Much of the writing was so bad that it made some pretty good actors and actresses seem like community-theater wanna-bes. But Dylan himself was weirdly compelling. You wouldn’t call him a great actor, but he projected an understated (very understated) emotional force that gave him real presence.

“Masked and Anonymous” is set in some dystopian near-future. It’s hard to tell exactly what has happened, but there’s been a revolution. The dictator is dying. And a has-been named Jack Fate — played by Dylan — is sprung from a hellish-looking prison in order to perform at a benefit concert.

Perhaps the best line is delivered in one of the DVD extra features, when Goodman laughs and admits that he has no idea what “Masked” is about. It’s that kind of movie. But it looks great, and there’s a lot of music by Dylan and his regular band.

In any event, it’s a damn sight better than Renaldo and Clara, Dylan’s four-and-a-half-hour 1978 disaster, to which I took Mrs. Media Nation back when I was dating her. It’s a wonder she married me.

Page 2 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén