Biograph is a box set compilation spanning the career of Bob Dylan, released on November 7, 1985 by Columbia Records. Consisting of 53 released and unreleased tracks from 1962 to 1981, the box set was released as both a five-LP set and a three-compact disc set. Biograph reached #33 on the Billboard 200 in the US and has been certified platinum by the RIAA. I first got the vinyl box-set in 85, since then I’ve sold the vinyl box and got the cd box set.
Biograph is widely considered to be the first modern box set. Even if I think I had a Springsteen 12inch collection on vinyl before Biograph. That set lacked the scope and packaging of the Dylan set, and Biograph kind of set the standard for box sets to come.
Before Biograph, an artist’s history was usually told through their greatest hits, either a single- or double-album (Decade by Neil Young was an exception), with a few new songs.
The recordings on Biograph are a mix of rarities, hit singles, and album tracks. They are not presented in chronological order (but in a well composed order), 18 of its 53 tracks had not been previously issued, and three more had only been previously available on singles.
“What is most remarkable, having spent almost half a year listening to nothing but Dylan, is how incredibly well this thing is put together. Not just the selection of live tracks – which is superlative – but the organization of the material. The jumping around in time might not work were it not done so incredibly well. Songs are put in dialogue with each other (to use an annoying art world term) in ways that allow you to hear them afresh. This is basically ten sides of Dylan, some of them repeating. Because that’s who Dylan is.”
“Historically, Biograph is significant not for what it did for Dylan’s career, but for establishing the box set, complete with hits and rarities, as a viable part of rock history. Following Biograph, multi-disc box sets for veteran rockers became accepted and almost the norm, but that doesn’t discount this set’s strengths as a summary of Dylan’s career, using the familiar and the rare to draw a fully rounded portrait of his strengths as a songwriter, musician, and record-maker in a way that conventional choices alone couldn’t achieve. Certainly, the chief attraction of this set, even years after its initial release, is its smattering of rarities that aren’t just rare, but revealing — ranging from forgotten rock B-sides and singles to demos, alternate takes, and unreleased songs that rival official releases. But Biograph is really remarkable for weaving these songs into a fabric that reveals the true trajectory of Dylan’s career, offering as much to the curious as it does to the dedicated.”
– Thomas Erlewine (allmusic)
The set comes accompanied with a 42-page booklet, containing rare photos and liner notes by Cameron Crowe, who interviews Dylan about each of the tracks (included at the end of this post).
Track listing (cds, the 97 cd release has by far the best sound):
Track Listing – Disc 1
1 Lay Lady Lay
2 Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
3 If Not for You
4 I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
5 I’ll Keep It With Mine
6 The Times They Are A-Changin’
7 Blowin’ in the Wind
8 Masters of War
9 Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
10 Percy’s Song
11 Mixed Up Confusion
12 Tombstone Blues
13 Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar
14 Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
15 Like a Rolling Stone
16 Lay Down Your Weary Tune
17 Subterranean Homesick Blues
18 I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
Track Listing – Disc 2
1 Visions of Johanna
2 Every Grain of Sand
3 The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)
4 Mr. Tambourine Man
5 Dear Landlord
6 It Ain’t Me Babe
7 You Angel You
8 Million Dollar Bash
9 To Ramona
10 You’re a Big Girl Now
11 Abandoned Love
12 Tangled Up in Blue
13 It’s All over Now, Baby Blue
14 Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
15 Positively 4th Street
17 Jet Pilot
Track Listing – Disc 3
1 Caribbean Wind
2 Up to Me
3 Baby, I’m in the Mood for You
4 I Wanna Be Your Lover
5 I Want You
6 Heart of Mine
7 On a Night Like This
8 Just Like a Woman
9 Romance in Durango
10 Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)
11 Gotta Serve Somebody
12 I Believe in You
13 Time Passes Slowly
14 I Shall Be Released
15 Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
16 All Along the Watchtower
17 Solid Rock
18 Forever Young
Liner notes / Interview (typed in by user, Tell_tale over at The Expecting rain forum):
The first glimpses of Bob Dylan come from friends and classmates in his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Most of them had a frame of reference that didn’t stretch much farther than the small, gray mid-western mining town where they lived. Young Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman on May 24 , 1941 looked mighty different around Hibbing. The explosive film Blackboard Jungle had touched his life and so had the late-night rhythm and blues stations from Chicago. When most of the other kids in Hibbing were still riding bicycles, Dylan was thinking about leather jackets and motorcycles. He hounded the local record store for the newest singles from Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf. John Lee Hooker and others. Soon Dylan had formed his own bands, The Golden Chords, The Shadow Blasters, Elston Gunn & The Rock Boppers. When he took the stage for a high school talent show, fellow students were shocked at the slight kid who opened his mouth and came out wailing with a fully-realized Little Richard howl. He would not be long for Hibbing, Minnesota.
“My family settled in Hibbing I think in about ‘46 or ‘47. My father had polio when I was very young. There was a big epidemic. He lost his job in Duluth and we moved to the Iron Range and moved in with my grandmother Florence and my grandfather who was still alive at the time. We slept in the living room of my grandma’s house for about a year or two, I slept on a roll-a-way bed, that’s all I remember. Two of my uncles, my father’s brothers, had gone to electrical school and by this time had gotten electrician licenses. They had moved from Duluth to up here where they operated out of a store called Micka Electric, wiring homes and things… my father never walked right again and suffered much pain his whole life. I never understood this until much later but it must have been hard for him because before that he’d been a very active and physical type guy. Anyway, the brothers took him in as a partner, my uncle Paul and my uncle Maurice, and this is where he worked for the rest of his life. Later, they bought the store and started selling lamps, clocks, radios anything electrical and then much later TV’s and furniture. They still did wiring though and that was their main thing. I worked on the truck sometimes but it was never meant for me. This was not a rich or poor town, everybody had pretty much the same thing and the very wealthy people didn’t live there, they were the ones that owned the mines and they lived thousands of miles away:”
“I always wanted to be a guitar player and a singer.” Bob Dylan said recently on a break from sessions for a new album. “Since I was ten, eleven or twelve, it was all that interested me. That was the only thing that I did that meant anything really. Henrietta was the first rock n’ roll record I heard. Before that I’d listen to Hank Williams a lot. Before that, Johnny Ray. He was the first singer whose voice and style, I guess, I totally fell in love with. There was just something about the way he sang When Your Sweetheart Sends A Letter… that just knocked me out. I loved his style, wanted to dress like him too, that was real early though. I ran into him in the elevator in Sydney, Australia late in ‘78 and told him how he impressed me so when I was growing up… I still have a few of his records.”
After high school graduation in 1959, Dylan traveled first to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. He enrolled in classes at the University of Minnesota but ended spending more time in the nearby Bohemian district known as Dinkytown, where he played in a coffee house, The Ten O’Clock Scholar. Dylan was taken in by the artistic community and it was there that he first became acquainted in the rural folk-music of artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Roscoe Holcomb, and the great Woody Guthrie. “By that time, I was singing stuff like Ruby Lee by the Sunny Mountain Boys, and Jack O’Diamonds by Odetta and somehow because of my earlier rock n’ roll background was unconsciously crossing the two styles. This made me different from your regular folk singers, who were either folk song purists or concert-hall singers, who just happened to be singing folk songs. I’d played by myself with just a guitar and harmonica or as part of a duo with Spider John Koerner, who played mostly ballads and Josh White type blues. He knew more songs than I did. Whoa Boys Can’t Ya Line ‘M, John Hardy, Golden Vanity, I learned all those from him. We sounded great, not unlike the Delmore Brothers. I could always hear my voice sounding better as a harmony singer. In New York, I worked off and on with Mark Spoelstra and later with Jim Kweskin. Jim and I sounded pretty similar to Cisco and Woody.”
“Minneapolis was the first big city I lived in if you want to call it that,” remembered Dylan. “Icame out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the beat scene, the Bohemian, BeBopcrowd, it was all pretty much connected… St. Louis, Kansas City, you usually went from town to town and found the same setup in all these places, people comin’ and goin’, nobody with any place special to live. You always ran into people you knew from the last place. I hadalready decided that society, as it was, was pretty phony and I didn’t want to be part of that…
also, there was a lot of unrest in the country. You could feel it, a lot of frustration, sort of like a calm before a hurricane, things were shaking up. Where I was at, people just passed through, really, carrying horns, guitars, suitcases, whatever, just like the stories you hear, free love, wine, poetry, nobody had any money anyway. There were a lot of poets and painters, drifters, scholarly types, experts at one thing or another who had dropped out of the regular nine-to-five life, there were a lot of house parties most of the time. They were usually in loftsor warehouses or something or sometimes in the park, in the alley wherever there was space. It was always crowded, no place to stand or breathe. There were always a lot of poems recited – ‘Into the room people come and go talking of Michelangelo, measuring their lives in coffee spoons’… ‘What I’d like to know is what do you think of your blue-eyed boy now, Mr. Death. T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings. It was sort of like that and it kind of woke me up… Suzie Rotolo, a girlfriend of mine in New York, later turned me on to all the French poets but for then it was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti – Gasoline, Coney Island of the Mind… oh man, it was wild – I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness that said more to me than any of the stuff I’d been raised on. On The Road, Dean Moriarty, this made perfect sense to me… anyway the whole scene was an unforgettable one, guys and girls some of whom reminded me of saints, some people had odd jobs – bus boy, bartender, exterminator, stuff like that but I don’t think working was on most people’s minds – just to make enough to eat, you know. Most of everybody, anyway, you had the feeling that they’d just been kicked out of something. It was outside, there was no formula, never was ‘main stream’ or ‘the thing to do’ in any sense. America was still very ‘straight’, ‘post-war’ and sort of into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies, puritanical, very claustrophobic and what ever was happening of any real value was happening away from that and sort of hidden from view and it would be years before the media would be able to recognise it, and choke- hold it and reduce it to silliness. Anyway, I got in at the tail-end of that and it was magic… everyday was like Sunday, it’s like it was waiting for me, it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley, Pound, Camus, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, mostly expatriate Americans who were off in Paris and Tangiers. Burroughs, Nova Express, John Rechy, Gary Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Pictures From The Gone World, the newer poets and folk music, jazz, Monk, Coltrane, Sonny and Brownie, Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Christian… it all left the rest of everything in the dust… I there knew I had to get to New York though, I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.”
Dylan mapped out his strategy. Then performing as a solo guitarist and singer, he was playing at a St. Paul local coffee house and pizza parlor called The Purple Onion. The Purple Onion was located next to the main highway heading out of town. It was owned by Bill Danialson, who took a liking to Dylan and occasionally allowed him to sleep in the back room. It was a particularly heavy winter in the Midwest and Dylan’s plan was to play at the club until the snow subsided enough for him to hitch-hike East. It never happened.
Recalled Dylan, “I just got up one morning and left. I’d spent so much time thinking about it I couldn’t think anymore. Snow or no snow, it was time for me to go. I made a lot of friends and I guess some enemies too, but I had to overlook it all. I’d learned as much as I could and used up all of my options. It all got real old real fast. When I arrived in Minneapolis it had seemed like a big city or a big town. When I left it was like some rural outpost that you see once from a passing train. I stood on the highway during a blizzard snowstorm believing in the mercy of the world and headed East, didn’t have nothing but my guitar and suitcase. That was my whole world. The first ride I got, you know, was from some old guy in a jalopy, sort of a Bela Lugosi type, who carried me into Wisconsin. Of all the rides I’ve ever gotten it’s the only one that stands out in my mind. People hitch-hiked a lot back then, they rode the bus or they stuck out their thumb and hitchhiked. It was real natural. I wouldn’t do that today. People aren’t as friendly and there’s too many drugs on the road.”
It would be several months before Dylan actually arrived in New York. He stopped first in Madison, Wisconsin and fell in with the folk and blues community there. Then he moved on to Chicago, where he had some phone numbers to try and ended up staying there for a couple of months. Eventually Dylan got a ride to New York with a couple college kids. “They needed two people to help drive to New York and that’s how I left. Me and a guy named Fred Underhill went with them. Fred was from Williamstown or somewhere and he knew NewYork.”
Dylan and Underhill were dropped off on the New York side of the George Washington Bridge and immediately took a subway to Greenwich Village. It was the worst New York Winter in 60 years and the snow was knee-deep. “Where I came from there was always plenty of snow so I was used to that,” said Dylan, “but going to New York was like going to the moon. You just didn’t get on a plane and go there, you know. New York! Ed Sullivan, the New York Yankees, Broadway, Harlem… you might as well have been talking about China. It was some place which not too many people had ever gone, and anybody who did go never came back.”
The frail-looking Dylan was a voracious learner. Once in New York, he was at the center of allthe action. It was chance to actually see and sometimes meet the artists he’d come to admire,
including Woody Guthrie. Dylan listened to everybody and took it all in. “I was lucky to meet Lonnie Johnson at the same club I was working and I must say he greatly influenced me. You can hear it in that first record, I mean Corrina, Corrina… that’s pretty much Lonnie Johnson. I used to watch him every chance I got and sometimes he’d let me play with him. I think he and Tampa Red and of course Scrapper Blackwell, that’s my favorite style of guitar playing… the
harmonica part, well I’d always liked Wayne Raney and Jimmy Reed, Sonny Terry… ‘Lil Junior Parker, ‘told you baby, bam bam bam bam, once upon a time, bam bam bam bam, if I’d be yours, bam bam bam bam (foottap) li’l girl you’d be mine… but that’s all right… I know you
love some other man’… but I couldn’t get it in the rack like that or adjust the equipment to an
amplified slow pace so I took to blowing out… actually Woody had done it… I had to do it that way to be heard on the street, you, now, above the noise… like an accordion… Victoria Spivey, too, oh man, I loved her… I learned so much from her I could never put into words,”
Dylan soon developed a style that would synthesise many different folk influences. At the time it was a bold move. Even the stodgiest standards sounded different Dylan’s way. Some purists didn’t appreciate the irreverence. “I could sing How High The Moon or If I Gave My Heart ToYou and it would come out like Mule-Skinner Blues.”
“There was just a clique, you know,” said Dylan, “Folk music was a strict and rigid establishment. If you sang Southern Mountain Blues, you didn’t sing Southern Mountain Ballads and you didn’t sing City Blues. If you sang Texas Cowboy songs, you didn’t play
English ballads. It was really pathetic. You just didn’t If you sang folk songs from the thirties, you didn’t do bluegrass tunes or Appalachian Ballads. It was very strict. Everybody had their particular thing that they did. I didn’t much ever pay attention to that. If I liked a song, I
would just learn it and sing it the only way I could play it. Part of it was a technical problem which I never had the time nor the inclination for, if you want to call it a problem. But it didn’t go down well with the tight-thinking people. You know, I’d hear things like ‘I was in the Lincoln Brigade’ and ‘the kid is really bastardising up that song’. The other singers never seemed to mind, although. In fact, quite a few of them began to copy my attitude in guitar phrasing and such.”
Performing first at Village clubs like the Gas Light, The Commons, Café Rienzi and later Gerde’s Folk City, Dylan had a quirky stage presence, equal parts humor and intensity. He also took several jobs as a guitarist or harmonica player. One session was a record date with noted folk artist Carolyn Hester. Rehearsing for the Hester session at the house of a friend, Dylan first met the distinguished Columbia Records producer and talent-scout John Hammond (Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and later Bruce Springsteen). Hammond kept young Dylan in mind.
Dylan was soon to receive one of the most important reviews of his life, possibly the last one that meant as much. Noted New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton had raved about Dylan’s
shows at Gerde’s Folk City, in an unprecedented review, for Dylan was merely the opening act and not the main headliner (“… there is no doubt he is bursting at the seams with talent”) Nineteen year old Dylan read and re-read the review, showing it to friends and re-reading it again. By the next morning, Dylan was fresh and ready for his Hester session. The crinkled review was still in his hand. It was only the second time he’s worked in a major studio, the first being a short stint on harmonica for a Harry Belafonte record earlier that summer. Hammond signed Dylan that afternoon.
“I couldn’t believe it”, said Dylan. “I left there and I remember walking out of the studio. I was like on a cloud. It was up on 7th Avenue and when I left I was happening to be walking by
a record store. It was one of the most thrilling moments in my life. I couldn’t believe that I was staring at all the records in the window, Frankie Lane, Frank Sinatra, Patty Page, Mitch Miller, Tony Bennet and so on and so on. I, myself, would be among them in the window. I guess I was pretty naive, you know. It was even before I made a record, just knowing that I was going to make one and it was going to be in that window. I wanted to go in there dressed in the rags like I was and tell the owner, ‘you don’t know me now, but you will’. It never occurred to me that it could have been otherwise. I didn’t know that just because you make a record it has to be displayed in a window next to Frank Sinatra, let alone they have to carry it in the store. John Hammond recorded me soon after that.”
Dylan’s first album was recorded in a matter of hours. The session was over when they ran out of tape and Hammond estimated the entire cost at $402. These were, indeed, the good old days. All of the material was recorded and it’s important to note that Dylan would maintain that spirit of studio spontaneity for the next twenty years. Most of the music included in this collection was recorded in two or three takes.
“You didn’t get a lot of studio time then,” he said, “Six months to make a record… It wasn’t even conceivable. My early records, all the way up to the late seventies, were done in periods of hours. Days, maybe. Since the late sixties, maybe since Sgt Pepper on, everybody started to spend more of their time in the studio, actually making songs up and building them in the studio. I’ve done a little bit of that but I’d rather have some kind of song before I get there. It just seems to work out better that way.”
Much was made in subsequent years of the fact that Dylan had only one of his compositions (Song To Woody) on that album, “I just took in what I had,” he explained, “I tried a bunch of stuff and John Hammond would say, ‘Well, let’s use this one’ and I’d sing that one and he’d say. ‘Let’s use that one’. I must have played a whole lot of songs. He kept what he kept, you know. He didn’t ask me what I wrote and what I didn’t write. I was only doing a few of my own songs back then, anyway. You didn’t really do too many of your own songs back then.
And if you did… you’d just try to sneak them in. The first bunch of songs I wrote, I never would say I wrote them. It was just something you didn’t do.”
The first album was released just before Dylan’s 21 birthday, and it sold an unremarkable 5,000 copies. While the executives fretted over whether their “rising young star” was still a sound investment, Dylan was taking large steps in finding his songwriting voice. His live show strengthened and deepened as he added more of his own material. He was able to take an audience from laughter to thoughtful silence in a handful of sharply chosen words. Dylan’s
second album featured Dylan compositions and it was a success.
Along with the applause, remained the traditionalist doubters, as always. Blowin’ In The Wind, first published in Broadside Magazine in 1962, did much to silence the opposition. It was an indisputably strong song, simple and timeless from the first listening. It would become the fastest selling single in Warner Brothers history in the hands of Peter, Paul and Mary, and the first to bring a new social awareness to the pop charts. To this day it’s Dylan’s most covered
composition, from Bobby Darin’ to Marlene Dietrich. When folk music found it’s largest audience it was because of this song.
The songs that followed during this period stung and inspired and often took their stories directly from newspaper or word of mouth accounts. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was the actual story of a Baltimore maid mistakenly murdered by a drunken socialite. The socialite escaped with a six-month sentence. Dylan wrote of the brutal injustice with a masterful touch, never did it approach the heavy-handed. It was exactly this delicate quality that made Dylan’s social commentary so original and his imitators so obvious.
“When I started writing those kinds of songs, there wasn’t anybody doing things like that,” said Dylan. “Woody Guthrie had done similar things but he hadn’t really done that type of song. Besides, I had learned from Woody Guthrie and knew and could sing anything he had done. But now the times had changed and things would be different. He contributed a lot to my style lyrically and dynamically but my musical background had been different, with rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues playing a big part earlier on. Actually attitude had more to do with it than technical ability and that’s what the folk movement lacked. In other words, I played all the folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. This is what made me different and allowed me to cut through all the mess and be heard. People with no definition of feeling and that sort of thing, and there were too many of them… I remember when protest song writing was big, Phil Ochs came to town, Tim Hardin was around, Patrick Sky, Buffy St. Marie, but there never was any such thing. It was like the term ‘Beatnik’ or ‘Hippie’. These were terms made up by magazine people who are invisible who like to put a label on something to cheapen it. Then it can be controlled better by other people who are also invisible. Nobody
ever said, ‘Well, here’s another protest song I’m going to sing.’… Anyway, the guy who was best at that was Peter LaFarge. He was a champion rodeo cowboy and some time back he’d also been a boxer. He had a lot of his bones broken. I think he’d also been shot up in Korea.
Anyway, he wrote Ira Hayes, Iron Mountain, Johnny Half-Breed, White Girl and about a hundred other things. There was one about Custer, ‘the general he don’t ride well anymore’. We were pretty tight for a while. We had the same girlfriend. Actually, Peter is one of the great unsung heros of the day. His style was just a little bit too erratic. But it wasn’t his fault, he was always hurting and having to overcome it. Johnny Cash recorded a bunch of his songs. When I think of a guitar poet or protest singer, I always think of Peter, but he was a love song writer too.”
His work made a subtle, if pointed shift with Another Side of Bob Dylan. “Tom Wilson, the producer, titled it that,” noted Dylan. “I begged and pleaded with him not to do it. You know,
I thought it was overstating the obvious. I knew I was going to have to take a lot of heat for a title like that and it was my feeling that it wasn’t a good idea coming after The Times They Are A- Changin’, it just wasn’t right. It seemed like a negation of the past which in no way was true. I know that Tom didn’t mean it that way, but that’s what I figured that people would take it to mean, but Tom meant well and he had control, so he had it his way. I guess in the long run, he might have been right to do what he did. It doesn’t matter now.”
Wilson recalled at the time, “I didn’t even particularly like folk music. I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane and I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. This guy played like the dumb guys but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted. I said to Albert Grossman, who was there in the studio, I said, ‘if you put some background to this, you might have a white Ray Charles with a message.’ But it wasn’t until a year later that everyone agreed that we should put a band behind him. I had to find a band. But it was a very gradual process.” Wilson takes the credit for Dylan going electric. “It came from me.”
The album, recorded in two nights, proved that Dylan was never simply a revolutionary or even a political singer in the conventional sense. These were songs about the politics of love. Throughout all the styles, periods and influences of his work, one of Dylan’s only constants has been the love song. At composing them there are few as talented. He’s approached the subject from all sides, from It Ain’t Me, Babe and To Ramona to Lay Lady Lay and Sweetheart Like You.
So strong was Dylan’s impact on the folk stages of America in the early sixties that when he chose to move back to his original high school roots in rock and roll, even to dress differently, there was an almost immediate uproar. For some time press conferences, articles and interviews were filled with pointed questions like, “Does it take a lot of trouble to get your hair like that?”
“How do you feel about selling out?” and “How many folk singers are there now?” (Dylan’s chain-smoking replies were, “No, you just have to sleep on it for about twenty years”, “I don’t feel guilt”, and “136” respectively). Asked about his music, he said, “It’s mathematical… I use words like most people use numbers. That’s about the best I can do.”
The songs were, as he once said, about objection, obsession or rejection. They had also begun to cry out for instrumentation. While touring England, Dylan had met and heard the new wave of English pop bands, from The Beatles to The Animals, The Pretty Things, Manfred Mann, The Stones, The Who. By January, Dylan was recording his breakthrough Bringing It All Back Home album. Half the album would feature a hard-edged rock and blues backing, the other half form-bending solo acoustic music. The Byrds own electrified hit version of Mr. Tambourine Man, taken from a Dylan demo tape, had become a single. Dylan was reaching a level of popularity beyond even his own expectations. But there were still many folk purists in Dylan’s audience and all signs were pointing to a showdown.
It would come in the Summer of 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival. Never one for complacency, Dylan had shown up at the folk music capital of the world in a black leather jacket, plugged in his Fender electric and began the prestigious Sunday night showcase performance (the bill included Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary) with an earsplitting Maggie’s Farm. Dylan, fresh from having recorded Like A Rolling Stone, blasted through the set with a vengeance. The reaction, by most accounts, was somewhat less than generous. The purists booed.
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Dylan shrugged at a San Francisco press conference in December ‘65. “They certainly booed, I’ll tell you that. You could hear it all over the place. I don’t know who they were… they’ve done it just about all over… I mean,
they must be pretty rich to go some place and boo. I mean, I couldn’t afford it if I was in their shoes.”
Typically, the controversy fuelled one of Dylan’s most famous periods. At this point he was writing whole batches of songs in long, all-night sessions – in coffee houses, homes of friends, on napkins and tablecloths. Dylan was firing on all cylinders. The prolific artist was even coming in with songs he’d written on the way to the studio. Within minutes they became records with only one criteria – feel. A story from Al Kooper’s fine book Backstage Passes helps recall the atmosphere. Then-guitarist Kooper, an early Dylan fan, had wandered into the empty studio where a session was due to begin. He asked producer Tom Wilson for a spot in the band and Wilson advised Kooper to be there, guitar in hand, when Dylan arrived. Dylan soon appeared with guitarist Michael Bloomfield in tow and Kooper was casually switched to organ.
Kooper did not play organ, but the musician kept quiet and improvised when Dylan counted off his newest song, Like A Rolling Stone. After the take, Wilson objected to the organ playing.
Dylan asked that it be turned up. The next take, released five days later, bumped off The Beatles Help to become Dylan’s first number-one single. At almost six minutes, it was then the longest hit in history.
Country artist Johnny Tillotson stopped Dylan in the street to tell him Like A Rolling Stone had gone to number one. Dylan was amazed. It was less than five years from the day he’d stared in the window of the record store on 7th Avenue and the weight of that fact didn’t escape him.
Perhaps only Elvis Presley before him had been able to stir up public emotions and at the same time redefine popular music. Before Dylan, Chuck Berry had been one of the only popular artists to sing his own songs. After Dylan, singer-songwriters were no longer akin to ambidexterity – interesting, but not necessary. “I didn’t know it at the time but all the radio songs were written in Tin-Pan-Alley, the Brill Building,” Dylan recalled. “They had stables of songwriters up there that provided songs for artists. I heard of it but not paid much attention.
They were good song writers but the world they knew and the world I knew were totally different. Most of all the songs, though, being recorded came from there, I guess because most singers didn’t write there own. They didn’t even think about it Anyway, Tin-Pan-Alley is
gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now. They’re almost expected to do it. The funny thing about it though is that I didn’t start out as a songwriter, I just drifted into it. Those other people had it down to a science.”
Dylan’s concerts in the mid sixties grew to be strange and mysterious affairs. With Mike Bloomfield off touring as part of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Dylan had settled on a new band featuring drummer Levon Helm and a stunning new blues-and-rock guitarist, Jamie (Robbie) Robertson. (Called Levon and The Hawks, the group would years later rename themselves and go on to their own success as The Band). Dylan himself was exploring the inner-limits of his songwriting ability and the outer limits of his stage presence. The result was an amazing series of performances in 1965 and 1966.
Dylan onstage and the tumultuous ‘66 tour of the British Isles are well documented in this collection. Following wrestlers and carnivals into halls where rock had never been before (or
since), every stop was another drama. Another show on the same tour was released in underground circles as The Royal Albert Hall Concert and it’s still a cherished recording. The show actually took place in Manchester but an amazing bit of audience-and-artist dialogue (Audience member: “Judas!” Dylan: “I don’t believe you… you’re a liar.”) was taken from the Albert Hall concert days later. These concerts with Bob Dylan and The Band are now thought to be highlights in rock history but they booed at the time.
Remembers Robbie Robertson today, “That tour was a very strange process. You can hear the violence, and the dynamics of the music. We’d go from town to town, from country to country and it was like a job. We set up, we played, they booed and threw things at us. Then we went to the next town, played, they booed, threw things, and we left again. I remember thinking, ‘This is a strange way to make a buck.’”
“I give tremendous credit to Bob in that everybody at the time said, ‘Get rid of these guys they’re terrible’: They said it behind our backs, and they said it with the group standing right there. Dylan never did anything about it. He never once came to me and said, ‘Robbie, this is
not working…’ The only reason tapes of those shows exist today is because we wanted to know, ‘Are we crazy?’ We’d go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of the show and think, ‘Shit. That’s not bad. Why is everybody so upset?’”
(It’s an interesting footnote to music history that along an early English tour, Dylan would visit the home of John Lennon and the two would pen a song together. “I don’t remember what it was, though,” said Dylan. “We played some stuff into a tape recorder but I don’t know what happened to it. I can remember playing it and the recorder was on. I don’t remember anything about the song.”)
Lennon would later comment on their relationship. “I’ve grown up enough to communicate with him… Both of us were always uptight, you know, and of course I wouldn’t know whether he was uptight because I was so uptight, and then when he wasn’t uptight, I was -all that bit. But we just sat it out because we just liked being together.”
Back in the States, Dylan had reached household name status. Not only was he an unlikely hit- singles artist, Bob Dylan was now a culture hero and a conversation piece. He was a genius. He was a sellout. He was a poet, he wasn’t a poet. He was straight. He had to be on something. It’s conceivable that the artist himself never scheduled a moment to reflect on all the commotion. He continued writing and touring, even while recording Blonde on Blonde in
Nashville. It has remained as one of the most artful albums in modern music, and one that came closest to Dylan’s truest musical intentions. He told Ron Rosenbaum in a ‘78 Playboy interview, “It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time.”
Those present for the Blonde on Blonde sessions remember it as an unlikely setting for greatness. Compared to the circus-quality of the live shows, this was a twilight zone of complacency. While struggling songwriter and then-janitor Kris Kristofferson cleaned the
ashtrays, Dylan recorded with a band that was made up of traditional Nashville studio musicians and several New York favorites like Robertson and Kooper. “Blonde on Blonde was
very different from what we were doing out on the road,” said Robertson. “This was a very controlled atmosphere. I remember the Nashville studio musicians playing a lot of card games.
Dylan would finish a song, we would cut the song and then they’d go back to cards. They basically did their routine, and it sounded beautiful. Some songs pushed it somewhere else, like Obviously Five Believers where we had four screaming guitar solos.”
“The sessions happened late at night,” recalled Kooper. “The afternoons were mostly for songwriting.” Dylan sometimes worked on his hotel piano, other times at a studio typewriter. Songs like Visions Of Johanna (original title: Seems Like A Freeze-Out) and Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands would make it to acetate stage and Dylan would often take the discs with him on the road to play for others. “How does this sound to you?” he would ask. “Have you ever heard anything like this before?” Usually they hadn’t.
Dylan’s singing – once the quality Woody Guthrie liked best about him – had also gotten more expressive. Part rocker, part wounded romantic, part cynic and part believer, he had learned to make records now, and the rush was felt on radios all over the world. Like A Rolling Stone, Positively 4 Street and I Want You were classic singles as well as songs. John Lennon said in a Rolling Stone interview in 1970, “You don’t have to hear what Bob Dylan’s saying, you just have to hear the way he says it.”
More than a few artists, from Bruce Springsteen to David Bowie, have been saddled with the phrase “the new Bob Dylan” at one time or another in their careers. But for Dylan himself, there weren’t many examples to look at. As his momentum doubled and redoubled, the still somewhat frail Dylan charged forward. He amped and pushed himself to the limits of personal stamina. He worked constantly, rarely ate, rarely stopped. Like James Dean before him, Dylan left behind a wake of peers who stood in awe of his talent and in fear for his safety and health.
Late in July of 1966, their worst fears nearly came true. While joyriding in Woodstock, the back wheel locked on Dylans Triumph 500. He was thrown from the seat and drilled into the pavement, suffering a concussion, a number of facial cuts and several broken vertebrae in his neck. It could have been much worse. Amid macabre Deanish reports that he was either dead, paralyzed, cryogenically frozen or retired, Dylan quietly recuperated for several months. It was much-needed time to regroup but long after the wounds healed, he would still be working to regain his personal equilibrium.
While Dylan laid low at his then-home in upstate New York, The Band was recording at the nearby basement tape studio they had dubbed Big Pink. Dylan was writing a wide range of new
songs and the idea was to record them at a leisurely pace, possibly as demos for other artists. The sessions stretched through several months of the down-time, and over the period Dylan and The Band recorded a large group of songs that ran from the seminal I Shall Be Released to the jaunty story-telling of Million Dollar Bash, to a number of songs too bawdy to even record. There new characters, new rhythms… and when what Robertson called “a tape of a tape of a
tape of a dub of a tape” slipped out, the world soon had it’s first bootleg album. This, of course, didn’t much please the victims of the theft. Even though the mood of The Basement Tapes, as they were called, was forbidden and exciting, (Neil Young for years kept a mastertape copy and played it during the breaks in his own sessions often) the songs stayed on the shelf until 1975.
“The bootleg records,” Dylan commented, “those are outrageous. I mean, they have stuff you do in a phone booth. Like, nobody’s around. If you’re just sitting and strumming in a motel, you don’t think anybody’s there, you know… it’s like the phone is tapped… and then it appears on a bootleg record. With a cover that’s got a picture of you that was taken from underneath your bed and it’s got a striptease type title and it cost $30. Amazing. Then you wonder why most artists feel so paranoid.”
It would be a while before Dylan officially re-emerged on record with a quietly thoughtful Nashville album called John Wesley Harding. In his recuperation period, he had watched his own influence take rock in an explosive new direction. Rock was more topical and meaningful, the form had been stretched and now studio techniques were changing too. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Rolling Stones answered with Satanic
Majesties and now the pop world was waiting on Dylan. Dylan was waiting on Dylan, too. Did he feel confident about meeting the challenge?
“Not really,” he smiled, “I didn’t know the studio like those guys did. They had obviously spent a lot of hours in the studio figuring that stuff out and I hadn’t. And not only hadn’t I, but I didn’t really care to and I’d lost my (studio) contacts at that point. I’d been out of commission for a while. All I had were those songs that I’d just sort of scribbled down.”
“We recorded that album, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Lots of times people will get excited and they say, ‘this is great, this is fantastic.’ But usually they’re full of shit. They’re just trying to tell you something to make you feel good. People have a way of telling you what they think you want to hear – anytime I don’t know something and I ask somebody, I usually know less about it after I ask than before. You’ve got to know or you don’t know and I really
didn’t know about that album at all. So I figured the best thing to do would be to put it out as quickly as possible, call it John Wesley Harding because that was one song that I had no idea what it was about, why it was even on the album. I figured I’d call the album that, call attention to it, make it something special… the spelling on that album, I just thought that was the way he spelled his name. I asked Columbia to release it with no publicity and no hype because this was the season of hype. And my feeling was that if they put it out with no hype, there was enough interest in the album anyway, people would go out and get it. And if you hyped it, there was always that possibility that it would piss people off. They didn’t spend any
money advertising the album and the album just really took off. People have made a lot out of it, as if it was some sort of ink blot test or something. But it never was intended to be anything else but just a bunch of songs, really, maybe it was better ‘n I thought.”
Nashville Skyline continued Dylan’s string of albums recorded at the CBS studio in the country music capital of the world. His voice, sweetened by a brief break from cigarettes, Dylan produced one of his biggest single hits in April of 1969. Written for the movie Midnight Cowboy, Lay Lady Lay missed the deadline for inclusion on the soundtrack. The producers used Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ instead. Dylan released Lay Lady Lay himself and it is that love song that became one of his longest lasting hits. “I don’t know what made me sound that way. Today I don’t think I could sound that way if I wanted to. Clive Davis really wanted to release that song as a single. Actually I was slightly embarrassed by it, wasn’t even sure I even liked the song. He said it was a smash hit… I thought he was crazy. I was really astonished, you know, when he turned out to be right.”
Dylan’s next release was 1970’s Self Portrait, a double album of standards and several live tracks from his concert at the Isle of Wight. Criticized as trivial at the time, now revered by critics looking for an argument, the album seemed to make a simple statement – he enjoyed singing other people’s material – but it also further signaled that Bob Dylan had no responsibility toward the vocal few who still demanded to know why he stopped writing “protest songs.” One man, A. J. Weberman, had even become famous for going through
Dylan’s garbage for “clues”.
“Self Portrait,” Dylan explained recently, “was a bunch of tracks that we’d done all the time I’d gone to Nashville. We did that stuff to get a (studio) sound. To open up we’d do two or three songs, just to get things right and then we’d go on and do what we were going to do.
And then there was a lot of other stuff that was just on the shelf. But I was being bootlegged
at the time and a lot of stuff that was worse was appearing on bootleg records. So I just figured I’d put all this stuff together and put it out, my own bootleg record, so to speak. You know, if it actually had been a bootleg record, people probably would have sneaked around to buy it and played it for each other secretly. Also I wasn’t going to be anybody’s puppet and I figured this record would put an end to that… I was just so fed up with all that who people thought I was nonsense.”
It would be his last work of the sixties, a decade that Dylan had largely spent in a spin-cycle of touring and recording. He had become a part of everybody else’s sixties experience but did he
feel like he’d had one of his own?
“I never looked at it that way,” answered Dylan. “I didn’t even consider it being the sixties. People who were in it, it never occurred to anybody that we were living in the sixties. It was too much like a pressure cooker. There wasn’t any time to sit around and think about it. Not like what we’re living now is the eighties where everybody says, ‘These are the eighties and ain’t it great.’ In the sixties they didn’t say that. Nobody wanted to say that. There were a lot of people who jumped on the bandwagon who didn’t know it existed before. As far as I know, they’re the only ones who made a big deal about it. People like to think of themselves as being important when they write about things that are important. But for people who were active, it didn’t matter. It could have been the twenties. Nobody really figured it out until the late sixties that something happened. I remember Joe Strummer said that when he first heard my records, I’d already been there and gone. And in a way that’s kind of true. It was like a flying saucer landed… that’s what the sixties were like. Everybody heard about it but only a few really saw it.”
Dylan soon released New Morning, a confident album of originals. It was another critically heralded return for a man who’d never really left. He’d simply learned to work at his own pace, a pace that tended not to interfere with the raising of his family.
Dylan spent the next few years in New York, popping up only occasionally with performances like Concert for Bangladesh or a single like Watching The River Flow or George Jackson. In 1973, Kris Kristofferson talked Dylan into joining him on the Durango, Mexico set of the late Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. Dylan ended up not only scoring the movie, but turning in a clever performance as Alias, sidekick to Billy the Kid. Knockin’ On Heaven’s
Door, one of Dylan’s most successful singles was released from the soundtrack album. The film featured Peckinpah’s trademark violent and unpolished beauty, and the music fit it perfectly.
The project seemed to signal a new period of activity. “I think he’s getting ready for something,” said co-star Kris Kristofferson at the time. “He sat down at the piano the other night. He had that look in his eyes…”. Said Dylan, “actually, I was just one of Peckinpah’s pawns. There wasn’t a part for me and Sam just liked me around. I moved with my family to Durango for about three months. Rudy Wurlitzer, who was writing this thing, invented a part for me but there wasn’t any dimension to it and I was very uncomfortable in this non-role.
But then time started to slip away and there I was trapped deep in the heart of Mexico with some madman, ordering people around like a little king. You had to play the dummy all day. I used to think to myself, ‘Well now, how would Dustin Hoffman play this?’ That’s why I wore glasses in that reading part. I saw him do it in Papillon. It was crazy, all these generals making you jump into hot ants, setting up turkey shoots and whatever, and drinking tequila ‘til they passed out. Sam was a wonderful guy though. He was an outlaw. A real hombre. Somebody from the old school. Men like they don’t make anymore. I could see why actors would do anything for him. At night when it was quiet, I would listen to the bells. It was a strange feeling, watching how this movie was made and I know it was wide and big and breathless, at least what was in Sam’s mind, but it didn’t come out that way. Sam himself just didn’t have final control and that was the problem. I saw it in a movie house one cut away from his and I
could tell that it had been chopped to pieces. Someone other than Sam had taken a knife to some valuable scenes that were in it. The music seemed to be scattered and used in every other place but the scenes in which we did it for. Except for Heaven’s Door, I can’t say as
though I recognized anything I’d done for being in the place that I’d done it for. Why did I do it, I guess I had a fondness for Billy the Kid. In no way can I say I did it for the money.
Anyway, I was too beat to take it personal. I mean, it didn’t hurt but I was sleep walking most of the time and had no real reason to be there. I’d gotten my family out of New York, that was the important thing, there was a lot of pressure back there. But even so my wife got fed up almost immediately. She’d say to me, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ It was not an easy question to answer.”
Much in music had changed over the previous few years. Bob Dylan could now look around to see a world of rock megatours, chartered 747’s, mega-platinum artists, rockers on the cover of world news magazines and more. Dylan, who first left Minnesota at a time when rock and roll was still a forbidden entity, was about to venture back at a time when it had become the biggest business.
In 1974 he reunited with The Band and began recording a batch of new songs in Los Angeles. First titled Ceremonies of the Horseman and later re-titled Planet Waves, the album (and the first single, On A Night Like This) set the tone for a high-spirited return. Dylan’s first coast-to-coast US tour was announced. The seats sold out in hours but the event brought on board a number of new questions. What would Dylan be like? Could he match the intensity of his early days in huge arenas? Would he mean as much?
The questions were dispensed with in short order. Dylan appeared at full strength, with an adrenalin charged voice and powerful backing from The Band. The concerts were cheered like victory parties. Remembers Robbie Robertson, “We were hoping to do an extremely different kind of show. But we rehearsed and eventually settled on a show that wasn’t dissimilar from our last tours (in ‘65-’66). But this time when we played, everybody loved us. I don’t know if we needed it but it was a kind of a relief.”
All the while, Dylan had some problems with myth-making proportions of the tour. “I think I was just playing a role on that tour,” he said. “I was playing Bob Dylan and the Band was playing The Band. It was all sort of mindless. The people that came out to see us came mostly to see what they missed the first time around. It was just more of a ‘legendary’ kind of thing.
They’ve heard about it, they’d bought the records, whatever, but what they saw didn’t give any clue to what was. What got it to that level wasn’t what they saw. What they saw you could compare to early Elvis and later Elvis, really. Because it wasn’t quite the same, when we needed that acceptance it wasn’t there. By this time it didn’t matter. Time had proven them all wrong. We were cleaning up but it was an emotionless trip.”
“Rock-and-roll had become a highly extravagant enterprise. T-shirts, concert booklets, lighting shows, costume changes, glitter and glamour… it was just a big show, a big circus except there weren’t any elephants, nothing really exceptional just Sound and Lights, Sound
and Lights, and more Sound and Lights. That’s what it had become and that’s what it still is. It is like those guys who watched the H bomb explode on Bikini Island and then turn to each other and say, ‘Beautiful, man, just incredibly beautiful.’ That’s what this whole scene had become. The only thing people talked about was energy this, energy that. The highest compliments were things like, ‘Wow, lotta energy, man.’ It had become absurd. The bigger and louder something was, the more energy it was supposed to have. You know, like knock me out, drive me to the wall, kick my brains in, blow me up, whip me ‘til it hurts, that’s what people were accepting as heavy energy. Actually it was just big industry moving in on the music. Like the armaments manufacturers selling weapons to both sides in a war, inventing bigger and better things to take your head off while behind your back, there’s a few people laughing and getting rich off your vanity. Have you ever seen a slaughter-house where they bring in a herd of cattle? They round them all up, put them all in one area, pacify ‘m and slaughter them… big business, brings in lots of bucks, heavy energy. It always reminds me of that. The greatest praise we got on that tour was ‘incredible energy, man’, it would make me want to puke. The scene had changed somewhat when we stepped into that picture. We were expected to produce a show that lived up to everybody’s expectations. And we did it. It was utterly profound.”
“What they saw wasn’t really what they would have seen in ‘66 or ‘65. If they had seen that, that was much more demanding. That was a much more demanding show. People didn’t know what it was at that point. When people don’t know what something is, they don’t understand it and they start to get, you know, weird and defensive. Nothing is predictable and you’re always out on the edge. Anything can happen. I always had those songs though and so I always figured everything was alright.”
When the tour was over-commemorated by a cover in Newsweek, the same magazine that once questioned his authorship of Blowin’ In The Wind, Dylan responded in surprising style. Just as he had cultivated his most public performing style yet, he reversed himself, contacted several acoustic musicians and told his label he was going to record some “private songs.” He wanted to do them quickly, in a small way.
He began recording what is often recognised as his finest album of the seventies, Blood On The Tracks. Reportedly inspired by the breakup of his marriage, the album derived more of it’s style
from Dylan’s renewed interest in painting. The songs cut deep and their sense of perspective and reality was always changing. This was acoustic soul music and clearly not the work of an artist intent on staying in arenas touring on the strength of his own myth.
“I’m not concerned with the myth,” Dylan said in a 1977 interview, “because I can’t work under the myth. The myth can’t write the songs. It’s the blood behind the myth that creates the art. The myth doesn’t exist for me like it may for other people. I’d rather go on, above the myth.”
After Blood On The Tracks, Dylan stayed in New York. He recorded one of his most successful albums, Desire, with a new group of musicians led by Scarlet Rivera. Dylan had seen her playing on a street comer and invited her to join the band. Her violin helped characterize Hurricane, the unreleased Abandoned Love and many other songs from this period.
Dylan also began popping up, in clubs around Greenwich Village, on some of the same stages where he started out. More than a few visitors in the Village, accustomed to seeing the early photos of a long-gone Dylan still pasted in the windows, did a triple take when they actually saw Dylan back again on stage. Slowly, those club performances grew to include others like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson and others.
Those shows built into the Rolling Thunder Revue, a bicentennial tour of small to mid-size halls that was documented in a TV special, a number of books and later in Dylan’s own film Renaldo and Clara. In what was now Dylan’s third or fourth wave of popularity, even candidate Jimmy Carter was campaigning for president with a speech that quoted Bob Dylan.
By the time of Renaldo and Clara’s release, Dylan was already past it. He had relocated to a converted rehearsal hall in Santa Monica, California and was rehearsing musicians for a band he could both tour and record with. The resulting eleven piece group was one of his biggest and most precise. They toured the world in 1978 and also recorded the underrated Street Legal album. The sound of this period was something close to the dense precision of Blonde on Blonde, with a measure of gospel-blues added. Street Legal defined Dylan’s work for the next several years. Said Dylan, “The critics treated this record spitefully… I saw one review that accused me of going ‘Vegas’ and copying Bruce Springsteen because I was using Steve Douglas, a saxophone player… the Vegas comparison was, well you know, I don’t think the guy had ever been to Vegas and the saxophone thing was almost slanderous… I mean I don’t copy guys that are under fifty years old and though I wasn’t that familiar with Bruce’s work, his saxophone player couldn’t be spoken of in the same breath as Steve Douglas who’d played with Duane Eddy and on literally all of Phil Spector’s records… I mean no offense to Clarence
or anything but he’s not in the same category and the guy who reviewed my stuff should have known it… anyway people need to be encouraged, not stepped on and put in a straight jacket.”
After his world tour, reports would soon circulate that Dylan had become a born-again Christian. The next album told the bigger story. Dylan was inspired with religious thought but he’d also struck a smoldering studio groove with celebrated rhythm and blues producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. This partnership produced one of the most finely recorded albums of Dylan’s recording career. Slow Train Coming was both a critically praised and successful work. Dylan received his first Grammy and the album went platinum. It also won the Dove Award for Inspirational Album of 1979. The follow-up album Saved, with it’s Biblical inscription on the outer sleeve, fared less well. Religious themes have had a place in his music from the beginning, but for a time the media searched these songs for clues to his commitment.
Although the messages might have been too much for pop music mentality, the meaning behind the songs did not fall entirely upon all deaf ears. “Yes mon,” said Bob Marley,… “that is a good verse too, a revelation, a link-up with a Rasta, as Haile Selassie is the Conquering Lion of the house of Judah. And me like his song Serve Somebody quite a bit as well… I glad him do it, too, y’know, because there comes a time when an artist just cannot follow the crowd. If you are an artist like Bob Dylan, you got to make the crowd follow you. I can tell you that it doesn’t mean anything to him that people might not like what he is doing. Him still do it. And that is the most important thing. Him still do it.”
Shot of Love, a somewhat more secular LP recorded in Los Angeles, was produced by Dylan and Chuck Plotkin (with the help of Bumps Blackwell on Shot of Love).
The range of influence was wider, the music was technically improved from earlier days but the feel could have been 1966. This was raw Dylan, live in the studio, scrambling to get to the
heart of his new songs. “People didn’t listen to that album in a realistic way. First of all, Shot of Love was one of the last songs Bumps Blackwell produced and even though he only produced one song I gotta say that of all the producers I ever used, he was the best, the most knowledgeable and he had the best instincts… I would have liked him to do the whole thing but things got screwed up and he wasn’t so called ‘contemporary’… what came out was something close to what would have come out if he was really there… also Clydie King and I sound pretty close to what’s all the best of every traditional style so how could anybody complain about that… and the record had something that, I don’t know, could have been made in the ‘40’s or maybe the ‘50’s… there was a cross element of songs on it… the critics, I hate to keep talking about them, wouldn’t allow the people to make up their own minds… all they talked about was Jesus this and Jesus that, like it was some kind of Methodist record. I
don’t know what was happening, maybe Boy George or something but Shot of Love didn’t fit into the current formula. It probably never will. Anyway people were always looking for some excuse to write me off and this was as good as any… I can’t say if being ‘non commercial’ is a put down or a compliment.” The next album, Infidels, was a critical and artistic success that also ushered Dylan into the video age with Sweetheart Like You and Jokerman.
“I don’t feel like I know what I’m going to do even next week, or not do.” Dylan said of the future. “Mostly I just write songs, make records, and do tours, that takes up most of my time, so I just expect it to go on that way. I started a book awhile back called Ho Chi Minh in Harlem. I’d probably like to finish that. Maybe write some stories the way Kerouac did, about some of the people I know and knew, change the names – New developments, new ideas? I guess I’d like to do a concept album like, you know, Red Headed Stranger or something, maybe a children’s album, or an album of cover songs but I don’t know if the people would let me get away with that … A Million Miles From Nowhere, I Who Have Nothing, All My Tomorrows, I’m In The Mood For Love, More Than You Know, It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie… I guess someday I’d like to do an album of standards, also, maybe instrumentals, guitar melodies with percussion, people don’t know I can do that sort of thing. I can get away with a lot more in a show than I can on record… I mean I’m aware of sythesisers and drum machines but they don’t affect my stuff to any great degree. There’s a great temptation to see how false you can be. I can see where pretty soon the human voice will be synthesised, become totally unreal. You know, like put in Paul Anka and get him sounding like Howlin’ Wolf or vice versa.
I guess it don’t matter but it’s irritating, it’s a cheap substitution for reality, stimulating little boys and little girls with sex in a bottle, it’s all got the soul of a robot, your mind thinks its true but your heart knows it’s wrong. Too much chaos on the airways for the senses to take, assault on the all too fragile imagination as it is… fill up everything, put in every color, clog it all up… if you wanna make things clear, you’ve got to leave other things out… like that’s why
the old black and white movies look better than color movies, they give your eye and your imagination something to do, well, that’s one of the reasons, same thing with the old music and the new music… probably too much progress or something, I don’t know.”
While Dylan had often deflected artistic inquiries in the past, on this day he was almost earnest in his observations. Bob Dylan’s perspective in the mid eighties is a valuable one, one he
seemed inspired to have gained.
“No, I really don’t have a plan. You know what I mean, if you’ve heard my records and know what was going on at the time I turned them out. A lot of the styles and lyrical dynamics that I use I feel I have invented myself or stumbled into accidentally. Either back in the sixties or even in the late seventies or eighties using certain combinations that have never come up before, so I work mostly in that area. I can’t stop doing it just because a whole lot of other
people have taken certain elements of it and used it for their own thing. I mean Muddy Waters didn’t stop playing just because the J. Geils Band started making records. I noticed that George Jones didn’t roll over just because Merle Haggard appeared. It’s actually quite complimentary to witness your own influence in someone else’s success. But I don’t know, I guess it can be taken the other way too… look at what happened to Lefty Frizzell. Link Wray invented heavy metal music but who knows it? T-Bone Walker is really the essence of city blues, can wipe B. B. Jones off the map but who can tell you that? Isn’t Bessie Smith rock n’ roll? People forget. You have to know there’s always someone else that’s gonna come along
after you. There’s always going to be a faster, bigger and younger gun, right? Pop music on the radio? I don’t know. I listen mostly to Preacher stations and the country music stations and maybe the oldies stations… that’s about it. At the moment I like Judy Rodman, I’ve Been Had By Love Before, more than anything happening on the pop stations. I don’t think of myself really as a pop singer anyway, so what do I know.”
For a man often credited with helping to define rock, Dylan was careful to point out that he was never owned by it.
“The thing about rock n’ roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough, Tutti Frutti and Blue Suede Shoes were great catch phrases and driving pulse rhythms and you could get high on the energy but they weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings…
My Bonnie Love Is Lang A Growing, Go Down Ye Bloody Red Roses even Jesse James or Down By The Willow Garden, definitely not x stuff. There is more real life in one line than there was in all the rock n’ roll themes. I needed that. Life is full of complexities and rock n’ roll didn’t reflect that. It was just put on a happy face and ride sally ride, there was nothing even resembling Sixteen Snow White Horses or See That My Grave Is Kept Clean in even the vaguest way. If I did anything, I brought one to the other. There was nothing serious
happening in music when I started, not even the Beatles. They were singing Love Me Do and Marvin Gaye… he didn’t do What’s Going On until the ‘70s.”
What did he think of the new music?
“Nothing is new. Everybody just gets their chance – most of it just sounds recycled and shuffled around, watered down. Even rap records. I love that stuff but it’s not new, you used
to hear that stuff all the time… there was this one guy, Big Brown, he wore a jail blanket, that’s all he ever used to wear, summer and winter. John Hammond would remember him too – he was like Othello, he’d recite epics like some grand Roman orator, really backwater stuff though, Stagger Lee, Cocaine Smitty, Hattiesburg Hattie. Where were the record companies when he was around? Even him though, it’s like it was done 30 years before that… and God
knows when else. I think of Luke the Drifter as rap records and as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is king. You go see him and in the audience there’s people just standing up and arguing away with him about
every kind of thing… politics, sex, outer space, whatever, he answers ‘m all back, never breaks stride, all in his poetry, his shows are like prize fights and he always come out on top, all this and a fifteen or twenty piece band just blasting away … Calypso King… Mighty Sparrow… he’s fantastic. Rock n’ roll, I don’t know, rhythm and blues or whatever, I think it’s gone. In its pure form. There are some guys true to it but it’s so hard. You have to be so dedicated and committed and everything is against it. I’d like to see Charlie Sexton become a big star, but the whole machine would have to break down right now before that would happen. It was easier before. Now it’s just rock, capital R, no roll, the roll’s gone, homosexual rock, working man’s rock, stock-broker rock, it’s now a highly visible enterprise, big establishment thing. You know thing’s go better with Coke because Aretha Franklin told you so and Maxwell House coffee must be OK because Ray Charles is singing about it. Everybody’s singing about
ketchup or headache medicine or something. In the beginning it wasn’t anything like that, had nothing to do with pantyhose and perfume and barbecue sauce… you were eligible to get busted for playing it. It’s like Lyndon Johnson saying ‘We shall overcome’ to a nation-wide audience, ridiculous… there’s an old saying, ‘If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song’ and that’s pretty much still true. I think it’s happened and nobody knows the difference. In the old days, there’s that phrase again, you paid the price to play. You could get run out of town or pushed over a cliff. Of course there was always someone there with a net. I’m not trying to paint just one side of a picture. But, you know, it was tough getting heard, it was radical. You felt like you were part of some circus side-show. Now it’s the main event. You can even go to college and study rock and roll, they turn out professors who grade your records. There’s enough dribble, magazine articles, proclamations, declarations, whatever, written about it to keep you guessing for a lifetime but it’s not in reading and writing about it, it’s in doing it… the best stuff was done without the spotlight before the commentaries and what not… when they came to define it I think they killed something very important about it.
The corporate world, when they figured out what it was and how to use it they snuffed the breath out of it and killed it. What do they care? Anything that’s in the way, they run over like a bulldozer, once they understood it they killed it and made it a thing of the past, put up amonument to it and now that’s what you’re hearing, the headstone, it’s a billion dollar business. I don’t know, I guess it’s hard to find flaws with this. Used to be they were very much afraid, you know, like hide your daughters, that sort of thing… Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry… they all struck fear into the heart. Now they got a purpose sort of… to sell soap, blue jeans, anything, it’s become country club music… White House… Kentucky Fried Chicken… it’s all been neutralised… nothing threatening, nothing magical… nothing
challenging. For me I hate to see it because it set me free, set the whole world on fire, there’s a lot of us who still can remember, who’ve been there. What I’m telling is no lie but then again who wants to hear it? You just get yourself worked up over nothing.”
Dylan considered the thought.
“The truth about anything in this society, as you know, is too threatening. Gossip is King. It’s like ‘conscience’ is a dirty word. Whatever is truthful haunts you and don’t let you sleep at
night. Especially anybody who’s living a lie gets hurt. You get a lot of ugly reactions from people not familiar with it. A lot of times you don’t even bother. Not that I’m an expert or anything but I’ve always tried to stick that into my music in some kind of way or at least not
to leave it untouched. The old stuff stayed in your head long after it was over, you know, even something as simple as ‘to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him’, it became monumental in some kind of way, now it’s just blabbering noise and after you shut it off
you’ve forgotten about it and you’re glad – Some Like It Hot. Oh mercy! Spare me please!
These things are just hooks, fish hooks in the back of your neck… nothing means anything, people just showing off, dancing to a pack of lies – lotta people gotta be dead first before anybody takes notice, the same people who praise you when you’re dead, when you were
alive they wouldn’t give you the time of day. I like to wonder about some of these people who elevated John Lennon to such a mega-god as if when he was alive they were always on his side. I wonder who they think he was singing to when he sang ‘just give me some truth. ‘
Everything is just too commercial, like a sprawling octopus, too much part of the system. Sometimes you feel like you’re walking around in that movie Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and you wonder if it’s got you yet, if you’re still one of the few or are you ‘them’ now. You
never know do you? When people don’t get threatened and challenged, I mean in some kind of way, they don’t get confronted, never have to make decisions, they never take a stand, they never grow, live their lives in a fishtank, stay in the same old scene forever, die and never get a break or a chance to say goodbye. I have views contrary to all that. I think that this world is just a passing-through place and that the dead have eyes and that even the unborn can see
and I don’t care who knows it. I don’t know, I can go off on tangents… things that got nothing to do with music… The great folk music and the great rock n’ roll, you might not hear it again.
Like the horse and buggy. Sure, a horse and buggy is more soulful than a car but it takes longer to get where you’re going and besides that, you could get killed on the road.”
Sitting across from Bob Dylan on this afternoon, one could see his influences very clearly. His speech sometimes flecked with the country-isms of his youth, a leather jacket draped on his shoulders, a sharp hand gesture with a cigarette barely holding its ash… for all the years of who-is-Bob-Dylan analysis, the answer seemed obvious. He still is, as he always has been, a lone figure with a guitar and a point-of-view.
“Basically, I’m self taught. What I mean by that actually is that I picked it all up from other people by watching them, by imitating them. I seldom ever asked them to take me aside and
show me how to do it. I started out as a traveling guitar player and singer,” Dylan reflected. “It had nothing to do with writing songs, fortune and fame, that sort of thing. You know what I mean. I could always play a song on a concert-hall stage or from the back of a truck, a nightclub or on the street, whatever, and that was the important thing, singing the song, contributing something and paying my way. The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has
always been somebody like Jimmie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original. He was combining elements of blues and hillbilly sounds before anyone else had thought of it. He recorded at the same time as Blind Willie McTell but he wasn’t just another white boy singing black. That was his great genius and he was there first. All he had to do was appear with his guitar and a straw hat and he played on the same stage with big bands, girly
choruses and follies burlesque and he sang in a plaintive voice and style and he’s outlasted them all. You don’t remember who else was on the bill. I never saw him. I only heard his records. I never saw Woody Guthrie in his prime. I think maybe the greatest of all those I ever saw was Cisco Houston. He was in his last days but you couldn’t tell – he looked like Clark Gable and he was absolutely magnificent… I always like to think that there’s a real person talking to me, just one voice you know, that’s all I can handle – Cliff Carlysle… Robert
Johnson, for me this is a deep reality, someone who’s telling me where he’s been that I haven’t and what it’s like there – somebody whose life I can feel… Jimmie Rodgers or even Judy Garland, she was a great singer… or Al Jolson… God knows there are so few of them, but who knows? Maybe there are just enough. I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing… I’ve seen it happen. It’s important to stay away from the celebrity trap. The Andy Warhol fame- for-a-minute type trip. The media is a great meatgrinder, it’s never satisfied and it must be fed but there’s power in darkness too and in keeping things hidden. Look at Napoleon. Napoleon conquered Europe and nobody even knew what he looked like… people get too famous too fast these days and it destroys them. Some guys got it down – Leonard Cohen, Paul Brady, Lou Reed, secret heroes, – John Prine, David Allen Coe, Tom Waits, I listen more to that kind of stuff than whatever is popular at the moment, they’re not. just witchdoctoring up the planet, they don’t set up barriers… Gordon Lightfoot, every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever. Pop culture, what is it? IBM, Calvin Klein, General Motors, Mickey Mouse, and that whole kind of thing, conformity to fashion, ideas, conformity to other people’s
opinions, conformity in the mirror, lots of singers who can’t even deliver live on stage, use tapes and things… Van Gogh never sold but a few paintings while he was alive, incredible, as far as he was concerned he was a failure. I don’t think for a minute though that he’s having the last laugh cause that’s not what I think it’s about. Artists should remember that – There’s a tremendous hypocrisy in this thing.”
From the demos, to the songs, to the hits and the never-heards, this is a collection of music that anyone should take the time to listen to in sequence. And when the last notes of Forever Young disappear, consider this: Dylan’s influence continues to be heard all around us, from his own work to the music of artists like Springsteen, The Clash, The Pretenders, U2, The Blasters, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and many others. Fan sponsored publications like Telegraph and Wanted Man pour over set lists from twenty years ago, as well as Dylan’s movements of today. To many, Dylan’s life is already the stuff of myth. To Dylan, it’s a life only half begun. Just listen to the fire in his impassioned vocal on the USA for Africa single of We Are The World. A hero to many, Bob Dylan has his own definition of the word.
“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom, someone who’s not afraid to jump in front of a freight train to save a loved one’s life, to draw a crowd with my guitar, that’s about the most heroic thing that I can do. To play a song to calm the king, well everybody don’t get to do that. There’s only certain things a King wants to hear. And then if he don’t like it, he might send you to the gallows. Sometimes you feel like a club fighter who gets off the bus in the middle of nowhere, no cheers, no admiration, punches his way through ten rounds or whatever, always making someone else look good, vomits up the pain in the backroom, picks up his check and gets back on the bus heading out for another nowhere. Sometimes like a troubadour out of the dark ages, singing for your supper and rambling the land or singing to the girl in the window, you know, the one with the long flowing hair who’s combing it in the candlelight, maybe she invites you up.
Maybe she says ‘Sing me another song, sweetness, sing me that song about the cat and the fiddle, the knave and the long sea voyage’ or maybe she don’t. You gotta be able to feel your dream before anyone else is aware of it. ‘Your parents don’t like me they say I’m too poor’…
Gotta learn to bite the bullet like Tom Mix, take the blows, like the song says. Or like Charles Aznavour, ‘you must learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served’ but that’s a hard thing to do. You got to be strong and stay connected to what started it all, the inspiration behind the inspiration, to who you were when people didn’t mind stepping on you, it’s easy to say but the air gets thin at the top, you get light-headed, your environment changes, new people come into your life…”
Bob Dylan stood and walked to a nearby window, he stared out at a small courtyard. A cat shrieked from an over-hanging balcony. Dylan was restless and ready to go. I asked him he viewed his impact upon modern culture. He shrugged.
“In the big picture, on the big stage, I’m not too sure, to take yourself seriously or to take seriously what other people are thinking, you know that could be your downfall. I mean it’s a weakness. I know I’ve done some important things but in what context, I don’t know, and also for who. It’s hard to relate to fans. I mean I relate to people as people but people as fans, I’m not sure I know what that means and don’t forget John Lennon was murdered by a so-called fan – I know it gives them all a bad name but so what? I don’t think of myself as a fan of anybody, I am more of an admirer, so why should I think of anyone as a fan of me? If they like you, they do and if they don’t, well that’s their business – nobody owes anybody anything. And anyway fans are consumers, they buy products and the company tries to please the consumers. That type of thing can rule your life. If the fan don’t like you he becomes somebody else’s fan, like the Paul Simon song, Got To Keep The Customer Satisfied – I’m not gonna live and die behind that – I’m not selling breakfast cereal, or razor blades or whatever. I’m always hearing people saying how ‘Dylan should do this and do that, make an album like he did in the sixties. ‘ How the hell do they know? I could make Blonde on Blonde tomorrow and the same people would probably say its outdated… that’s the way people are. As far as the sixties go, it wasn’t any big deal. Time marches on. I mean if I had a choice I would rather have lived at the time of King David, when he was the high King of Israel. I’d love to have been riding with him or hiding in caves with him when he was a hunted outlaw. I wonder what he would have been saying and about who – or maybe at the time of Jesus and Mary Magdalene – that would have been interesting huh, really test your nerve… or maybe even later in the time of the Apostles when they were overturning the world … what happened in the ‘60’s? Wiretapping? What was so revolutionary about it? You know, there was a time when people thought the world was flat and that women didn’t have souls… you can say how ridiculous and how could they have been so stupid but nevertheless people did think it to be truth just like right now a lot of what’s thought to be truth will later be proved false… actually I’m amazed that I’ve been around this long, never thought I would be. I try to learn from both the wise and the unwise, not pay attention to anybody, do what I want to do. I can’t say I haven’t done my share of playing the fool. There was never any secret. I was in the right place at the right time. People dissect my songs like rabbits but they all miss the point. I mean have you ever seen ‘something’s happening but you don ‘t know what it is do you, Mr. Jones’ played over the war in Lebanon? Or the Aids epidemic. Or Mengele’s bones? Sometimes I think I’ve been doing this too long. I can understand why Rimbaud quit writing poetry when he was 19… How would I change my life? Yeah, well, sometimes I think that I get by on only 50% of what I got, sometimes even less. I’d like to change that I guess… that’s about all I can think of.”