Sunday, March 29, 2015

Still Dylan After All These Years

Strange shadows in the stranger night ...

There he is, the inimitable face peering out of yet another magazine cover, announcing an article about his latest album. Only this time it's the publication of the AARP, and the album consists entirely of classics from the American songbook that were all recorded once by Frank Sinatra.

Say what? Yes, it's true. We have entered a time warp where the most shocking thing the perennial iconoclast Bob Dylan can do is to slap us upside the head by crooning songs our parents or grandparents (or even great-grandparents) listened to. Then again, why should we be surprised? He's been doing this for about fifty years, continually evolving and moving on just when we thought we had him pegged.

After reading the article I went straight to Amazon to download the album, Shadows In The Night – $1.00 off with a coupon code for AARP members. Yes, he's giving out senior citizen discounts. And he actually says in the interview that if it were up to him he would give the album away to all their readers. Shades of the old Bob, impossible to say how sincere or sarcastic this was.

At first hearing it may be a shock. He's put together yet another unorthodox band with a unique sound. This one features pedal steel guitar, acoustic bass – often bowed – and a soft horn section. “No drums, no piano,” he brags. And the tempos are so slow that even as a fan I'm tempted to ask them to pick it up a bit. That would probably be a mistake, though. As so many before have done, the album grows on you with repeated listening until you understand the wisdom of it and how it is likely just right.

Dylan's voice is less raspy than on the previous album, Tempest, which was sold in Starbucks throughout the land. But his world-weary vocal cords lend a heartfelt air to the collection of songs about love, loss, and yearning with an ache of spiritual overtones. You can hear inklings of his classic whine in lines like “lift me … to Par-a-diiiiiise.” It starts with the title lyrics to the opening song, “I'm a Fool To Want You,” and ends with a plea to the Almighty in "That Lucky Old Sun:"

Show me that river, take me across
Wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do
But roll 'round heaven all day.
He didn't write this, or any of the others, but he says he knows them deeply because they speak to him, and he certainly imparts his own stamp to them. In all, it's a sound you can spend some time with, perhaps fortified by a bourbon or two to slow you down. Have a sip, settle back, and take it in.

The Long History

I couldn't possibly indulge this way if I weren't willing to get nostalgic. How could I not, after listening to this man since my early teens? I still remember my first encounter with him on the floor of the classroom where my age group met weekly at the Unitarian church. One of us, David P___, who hung out at The Flick, our local coffee house, had brought a little battery powered turntable so he could play the Freewheelin' album for us. The eight or ten of us clustered around it, straining to pick out the words from the tiny speaker.

Words. That's what it was about. At a time when pop music was nothing but shoo-be-do-wop and things even more inane (ie, “The One-Eyed One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater”), before even the Beatles had come along to up the ante a bit, here was this troubadour from the middle ages who'd traded his lute for a guitar and started emitting a torrent of poetry set to song that seemed to be exactly what we knew we wanted to hear, and to say what we knew we wanted to say. What an unexpected wonder.

As Joan Baez would later put it in "Diamonds and Rust:"

You burst on the scene already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You stole into my heart

In a few years my music buddy and I had collected every subsequent album, along with the work of Joan Baez, while simultaneously discovering the literature of the Beats. We went to see Joan when she came to Miami, and got to shake her hand afterwards back stage. Alas, I missed Bob when he did the same, but none of his songs escaped us.

By the senior year of high school I had my own record player on the floor of my own bedroom entertaining some friends with illicit wine and Bringing It All Back Home. The words – he had gone electric, but it was still about the words.

In rapid succession came Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde. Then there was The Motorcycle Accident, and The Change. At the peak of his visionary productivity came this sudden hiatus, followed by the folksy and almost comical John Wesley Harding, and then the country-style Nashville Skyline. What in the world was going on? Nothing new, really. As he had been doing all along, he continued going where he wanted and doing what he wanted to do. There were people he left behind from the moment he struck up "Maggie's Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival with electric guitar in hand and the blues-band army of Paul Butterfield backing him up. Others no doubt fell by the wayside when he wandered into born-again gospel. But for many of us he remained one of the background tracks of our lives, even if he receded further into the background.

In my case my close friend Richard was one of the most stalwart faithful, the one who kept insisting that I listen to each new album, and who continued to find revelations in each one. I confess I stopped collecting them all, but several of them made me sit up and listen again. Like the opening of “Hurricane” on the Desire album: “Pistol shots ring out in the bar-room night” – a line worthy of Jack Kerouac, using one of his favorite poetic devices to co-opt an unlikely noun as an adjective – which goes on to warn you, “Here comes the story of the Hurricane.” On top of that it was a return to a classic protest song, one which was instrumental in the retrial and eventual release of the unjustly convicted boxer. Great stuff.

There are too many other twists and turns in this long career to mention them all in anything shorter than a book. And if you're so inclined there are plenty of books to consume. Amazon even has a page called The 20 Best Bob Dylan Books. But the one I recommend is Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz. This work focuses on the evolution of his work more than his life and places him in context, beginning with the origins of folk music and blues and the hymns of the Sacred Harp, working through union and folk songs, tin pan alley, and so on up to date. What comes clear is that not only did Dylan grow out of this rich American loam, but he was completely aware of it and avidly absorbing as much of it as he could at every stage.

Which brings us right back to the kind words he has for Frank Sinatra, and the deep feeling he brings to the songs of a bygone era in the middle of the last century. Once you understand the context it all makes perfect sense. After all this time, he's still Dylan.

Don't take my word for it ... listen to the NPR review.

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