Thursday, March 29, 2012

Down by the old mainstream 2: Dreaming of Dylan

Let's call this the continuation of the Stones rant from a few days ago.

When I get on a kick like I'm on right now, listening to the music that wasn't necessarily my favorite, but was just in the air when I was coming of age, it's funny that I always think of the Stones and Dylan, but not the Beatles. Uncle Johnny Bargas (aka "The Mailman," because he always delivers) opines that Dylan and the Stones were after the same thing in American music, and maybe he's right. I suppose that Dylan and the Stones were in the water I grew up swimming in without realizing it, the same way Hendrix was (although I loved me some Jimi back then).

I think that the Stones (like the Clash) were in love with the romance of a mythical America that they only knew from records, whereas Dylan had experienced some of that first-hand, traveling through the midwest and later, in Greenwich Village, sitting at the feet of people like Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Victoria Spivey. It's the place Greil Marcus calls the "old, weird America," the one Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music sought to capture. (The best Christmas present I ever gave my sister; I was delighted to hear that my nieces actually had favorite songs from it.) Bob was maybe the first guy to connect the dots between Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Elvis (not to mention Rimbaud, Kerouac, Brando, and James Dean), but he also acknowledged Johnny Ray and Al Jolson as musical ancestors.

I never owned a Dylan album until Uncle Johnny made me a mixtape that I still have, around the time I got out of the service in '93. (When I was at an Air Force school in '86, our class leader was a superannuated staff sergeant who had a cassette of Before the Flood in his truck and said that "listening to Bob is like going to church.") It motivated me to seek out a used copy of Biograph, which I enjoyed until I had to sell it to get money to eat after I got shitcanned from RadioShack in '02. Listening to that tape, I realized how many phrases of Dylan's I'd incorporated into my personal lexicon, back when I was striving to be one of those guys slightly older than me that walked around strumming imaginary guitars, who had a line from a song lyric to go with every situation.

An anthology like Biograph is the best way for me to listen to Dylan, since I have no attachment to the sequencing and sense of Moment in any of his "real" albums. I came up hearing his songs on the radio or in other artists' versions and being captivated by his lyrical imagery, but never enough to ever sling out the coin to buy an actual physical artifact: not loud enough; not enough electric guitar noise.

(I do, however, have my old neighbor Robin Sylar's copy of Highway 61 Revisited on the wall in my kitchen. The sleeve, with its iconic photo -- as great as the ones from Freewheelin' and Bringing It All Back Home -- contains _two_ copies of the LP, both beat to shit to the point of unplayability. Hell, if Mick Taylor and Steve Jones could play with Dylan, surely Robin could have, as well; he went to the same school as Denny Freeman, who toured with Dylan in the '00s, and his playing cut a lot closer to the bone than, say, Mike Bloomfield's. But I digress.)

The everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink maximalism of the CD era lends itself well to this kind of listening. While Biograph doesn't have _everything_, it has _enough_ (unlike, say, the Faces' Five Guys Walk Into a Bar, which has _more_ than "everything," but _still_ isn't enough). Listening again after all these years, the only song that was immediately conspicuous by its absence was "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," although on reflection I kind of miss "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," too.

Bob Dylan remade the face of his chosen medium in his own image. How many artists can say that? What he was after was the energy rush of rock 'n' roll, but with lyrics that "[reflected] life in a realistic way," and when he was done with his first great creative outpouring (1962-66), that was exactly what he got (for awhile, anyway). Freewheelin' got the Beatles' attention, and his four-album hot streak (Bringing It All Back Home through John Wesley Harding) got everybody's. Imagine one performer calling the tune and the changes for the entahr "pop" world for as long as a couple of years. The mind boggles.

With each resurgence -- the '74 tour with the Band, Blood On the Tracks, the Rolling Thunder Revue, on up to Time Out of Mind (which sounded to these feedback-scorched ears like just another Daniel Lanois production) -- he's seemed less, um, "relevant," but no matter. His achievement still stands and he can do what he wants. Beyond that: without him, no Uncle Lou, no Neil Young, no Tom Waits, no Leonard Cohen; the inheritors of the role he created do him proud.

Snapshots from memory:

1) Hearing "Lay Lady Lay" on AM radio when I was 12, the first time I'd ever heard a pedal steel guitar (except for the goof one the King Sisters' daddy played on Lawrence Welk).

2) Hearing "If Not For You" when my sister owned New Morning.

3) Hearing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on the soundtrack to some '60s TV show (Mission: Impossible?). The way that song now evokes a whole era, and remains timely.

4) Having to sing "Blowin' in the Wind" in middle school chorus. The chorus teacher, a long-haired hottie who was married to the gym teacher, felt it necessary to explain the song's lyrical content to us and seemed frustrated when nobody seemed to give a shit. I also remember her having to teach the black chorus kids how to emote when we sang "Oh Happy Day," in much the same manner as the Richard Dreyfus character had to instruct the bass drum kid in Mr. Holland's Opus before he went off and got killed in Vietnam.

5) The Arlo Guthrie and Fairport Convention versions of "Percy's Song."

6) Hearing "Mixed-Up Confusion" (from _1962_!), "Tombstone Blues," "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window," and "I Wanna Be Your Lover" on Uncle Johnny's mixtape and finally appreciating Bob-as-rockarolla.

7) Hearing "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" off Before the Flood in the store where I worked when it was new and goofing on the way Bob sang "mi-i-ine!" Comparing that version with the Page-era Yardbirds' BBC one now. Bob and the Hawks win out over Jimmy's electric 12-string.

8) Hearing "Like A Rolling Stone" in my living room (as opposed to over a radio) and realizing how important the tambourine part I'd never noticed before is to the record's impact.

9) My favorite Dylan song: "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." I like the way it sounds like a hymn and lyrically connects music and nature. In awe of the majesty.

10) The way "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is the bridge between Chuck Berry and Chuck D.

11) The way I still prefer Van Morrison's Them-era "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (and the Chocolate Watch Band's) to Bob's.

12) Playing "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" with Pete Bollinger at my Reserve superintendent's retirement party in Shreveport.

13) Seeing Bob in '79 on the "guess what song I'm playing now?" tour. (A wag commented, "Isn't that all of them?") He was the size of my thumbnail, and I couldn't recognize a single song he played.

14) Hearing Tex Edwards sing "Positively 4th Street" with the Nervebreakers at SXSW in 2009.

15) Reading from a copy of Chronicles, Volume 1 that was in the house where HIO stayed when we were in Houston last year. Apparently Bob jammed with Ornette and Cecil Taylor when he was on the set in Greenwich Village in the early '60s. "Cecil can play normal piano when he wants to," Bob wrote.


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