Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "W"

1. “What Can I Do for You?” (1980).  If, as Keats wrote, beauty is truth and truth beauty, this song from Saved contains all that anyone need know about Dylan’s having thrown in with the Vineyard Fellowship in the late-’70s.  The melody and the chord progression it glides in on, the voice sighing in the wilderness, the expressive simplicity of the heartfelt first-person lyrics whether original or paraphrasing Scripture--each is without parallel in Dylan’s vast body of work.  Taken together, they could relieve even Mona Lisa of the highway blues.  And then there’s the harmonica.  What was once an instrument for playing skeleton keys in the rain has become a rusty hinge blowing in the wind, setting the chimes of freedom to flashing. 

2. “When the Deal Goes Down” (2006).  More love, more theft--this time for and from both Henry Timrod and Bing Crosby.  Getting old and pledging his love have never suited Dylan better.  “Love is all there is,” he implies in a voice more frailer than the rose poking through his clothes.  “It makes the world go ’round.”  And even though “we live and we die” and “know not why,” love’s enough to see us through when, to quote Larry Elder, the fit hits the shan.  It is not, however, enough to keep Dylan from being haunted by words he “never meant nor wished to say.”  And therein lies the tragedy of this song’s many spoken and unspoken universal truths: Not only is everything broken, but we ourselves have broken or at least participated in the breaking of a lot more of it than we’d like to admit.  So Dylan admits it for us.  Catharsis longa, vita brevisAnd the video is still my favorite Scarlett Johansson film.

3. “What Good Am I” (1989).  Unlike so many of his s-album gospel songs, this deeply spiritual exercise in tonal breath control finds Dylan extracting the log in his own eye rather than going after the speck in his neighbor’s.  It’s a painful operation, as anyone who has ever tried it will attest.  But once it’s over and the eye has had a chance to heal, its capacity for being seen through rather than seen with is immeasurably greater than it ever was before.  It’s almost as if Dylan wishes he’d been a doctor.  Maybe then he’d have saved some life that’d been lost--or at least discovered a cure for the disease of conceit. 

4. “We Better Talk This Over” (1978).  If this song’s rimes didn’t fire so rapidly past on a country shuffle worthy of the Marshall Tucker Band auditioning for Billy Swan, the couplet that goes “The vows that we kept are now broken and swept / ’neath the bed where we slept” might have achieved by now the classic status of a George Jones lyric if not the classic status of these lines from an unpublished, posthumously discovered poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky: “The love boat has crashed against the everyday.  You and I, we are quits, and there is no point to listing animal pains, sorrows, and hurts.”  But the rimes do fire rapidly past.  “Don’t look back,” Dylan seems to be saying as he himself fails--and seems to know that he’s failing--to practice what he preaches.  The hypocrisy weighs on him.  He can’t let go, and he won’t let go unless she does so first because unless she does, letting go doesn’t seem right or possible.  They’ve done nothing to each other that time will not erase, but time passes slowly when you’re lost in the dream of being a magician who wishes he could tie back the bond that both of you have gone beyond because beyond there lies nothin’.   

5. “The Wicked Messenger” (1967).  The instrumentation is largely if not entirely unplugged, but the blues run through this underrated John Wesley Harding gem as surefootedly as they do through anything on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, or Blonde on Blonde.  Question: Is the “Eli” mentioned in Verse One a person or a place?  If a person, that person is most likely the biblical priest and judge to whom Hannah turned over her son Samuel.  “God said to Hannah, ‘Give me your son.’ / Hannah said, ‘O.K.’” lacks a certain something, but, given the reference to the parting of the seas in the last verse, the possibility cannot be ruled out.  Neither, however, can the possibility that Eli is Eli “Cotton Gin” Whitney.  Dylan does, after all, consider America’s participation in the slave trade to be her Original Sin.  Or does he?  So much of his career, after all, based as it is on the music that displaced Africans made to stop their suffering and ease their pain, is a tree with Roots.  And what if Eli is a place?  Is it the ancient Irish kingdom Éli (not likely unless Dylan was tossing Van Morrison a prescient bone), the modern-day Israeli West Bank settlement Eli, Mateh Binyamin (not likely since it wasn’t established until 1984--on September 11 by the way), the Iranian village Eli (not likely, cf. “Neighborhood Bully”), or the unincorporated community of Eli, Kentucky?  At a mere two minutes and one second, it’s almost over before it begins.  But it isn’t really over ’til it’s over, and it’s not over ’til the wicked messenger’s audience tells him not to bring any news unless it’s good.  Interesting: When Dylan himself finally began bringing the Good News, he discovered that his audience only wanted the other kind.  

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait 1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10

My review as published in the September 21, 2013, edition of WORLD magazine: One more look: New installment of Dylan series vindicates Self Portrait.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "V"

1. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): Perhaps the greatest five-verse song ever recorded, certainly the closest Dylan’s lyrics ever came to stand-alone poetry, impeccably enunciated in the voice of a freewheelingly rebellious generation for whom drugs and sex were only pawns in its game.  Who cares whom it was about?  When I interviewed Chris Smither in 2006, he was psyched that he had just recorded a waltz-time version.  He had to excise a word or two to make the scansion work, but he ended up with a truly fine rendition, retaining and savoring such amazing lines as “See the primitive wallflower freeze / when the jelly-faced women all sneeze, / hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeeze I can’t find my knees.’”  Steve “New Dylan” Forbert was Smither’s co-billed act during that year’s tour.  But each time Smither performed “Visions,” it was clear that the “old Dylan” would always suffice.

2. “A Voice from on High” (2002): I’ve typed it before, and I’ll type it again: So much for our hero’s “Christian period”’s having ended with Shot of Love.  Dylan opened seven of his 2002 shows with this Bill Monroe gospel chestnut, which goes like this: “I hear a voice calling.  It must be our Lord. /  He's calling from heaven on high. /  I hear a voice calling, I've gained the reward /  in the land where we never shall die. / He died, and he paid a dear price for me. /  He died on the hill so that I should go free, / and I'll follow his footsteps up the narrow way / and be ready to meet him when he calls on that day.  [...] /  He died on the cross, that old rugged cross / so we would be saved from our sins and not lost....”   This, in other words, is what salvation really must be like after awhile.  Even curiouser: The similarity of Monroe’s opening lines to those from Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” that go “I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling, / must be the mother of our Lord.”  I know, I know, more plagiarism (yawn).

3. “Visions of Johanna” (2013 Live at Adroscoggin Bank Colisée [Lewiston, Maine, 10 Apr. 2013]): A friend of mine (whose sister-in-law leads the Brooklyn, NY, band Wide Right for what it’s worth) heard this recently bootlegged version and said that Dylan sounded “like a ghost whispering into the night.”  And why not?  After all, that’s what Dylan will someday be to everyone of us unfortunate enough to outlive him.  I might’ve described the overall effect somewhat differently--“like the ghost of eccentricity whispering in the bones of our faces” maybe--especially if I’d heard it with my own ears when I caught the Americanarama Tour three months later in Cincinnati.  But by then the song had gone the way of Duke Robillard.

4. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Biograph): In his 1985 Creem review of Biograph, John “Eleganza” Mendelsohn criticized the inclusion of a 1966 live version of this track because it sounded, he said, as if Dylan were performing “from the bottom of a well.”  What Mendelsohn failed to mention: that the well had not run dry, that Dylan might not have been waving but drowning, and that drowning men have exploding consciences too.  Just ask Arlo Guthrie, who recorded “Drowning Man” the same year that Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming, or Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Bierce exactly one hundred years before Dylan recorded “Band of the Hand” with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the last verse of which went “And for you, pretty baby, / I know your story’s too painful to share. / One day though you’ll be talking in your sleep, / And when you do, I wanna be there.”  Johanna would’ve known exactly what he meant.

5.Visions of Johanna” (1966, Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966): Robert Christgau duly noted that Dylan sounded bored with this song and every other composition performed on this album’s acoustic first disc.  I agree.  By the time he performed this version to a European crowd more than happy to prove that the “everybody” who “must get stoned” included the then-twenty-five-year-old singer-songwriter they’d paid good money to see, Dylan’s up-past-the-dawn sleeplessness had clearly ceased to amaze him.  But the stark clarity of this unplugged arrangement captures the durability of the words better than any other so-far-released rendition.  And the fact that Dylan was complaining about Madonna’s not showing up seventeen full years before she actually did just shows how far ahead of the times--and of the times’ audiences--he couldn’t help being.