Tuesday, October 24, 2006

They're Spoon-feeding Casanova (Part One)

With Bob Dylan’s new album, Modern Times, out for a while now, I’ve been tempted to right a review of it, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t (oh yeah, I’m lazy).

Okay, okay...here’s a one-paragraph review.

It’s not as good as his last two (Love and Theft, Time Out of Mind), but it’s always great to see Dylan having so much fun. He’s obviously laid-back and having a good time, especially in songs like “Someday Baby” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Songs like “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Spirit on the Water” set a pretty languid pace, one that is continued throughout the album. There are no pantheon songs like Love and Theft
’s “Summer Days” or “Honest With Me”, but it’s still a pretty rewarding listen, especially the few peppy songs. I give it an A-.

There you go.

However, having recently finished Paul Williams’ lovely Bob Dylan, Performing Artist: 1960-1973 (a highly recommendable read, by the way...the perfect Dylan book for people who have already read a Dylan book or 20...in fact, the moment I finished it, I bought Books
#2 and #3 in the series...wonderful story-telling and analysis here), I think I’ll rewind 40 years for this Dylan post. It was 40 years ago this past summer that the most historical moment in rock music took place. Actually, it was a series of moments, but it culminated in one historic exchange:

Keith Butler, random audience member: “Judas!”
Bob Dylan (after continuing to tune his electric guitar for a few more seconds): I don’t belieeeeve you. (part of crowd laughs) You’re a liar! (turns to band) Play f---ing loud!”
It is forever recorded on Live 1966, Part 4 of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series.

You could say that maybe the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was more historic, but hell...the Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC generated almost the same frenzy in the late-‘90s. You can say maybe it was Elvis getting censored (shot from only the waist up) on Ed Sullivan, but The Doors kind of marginalized that moment by refusing to censor their lyrics a decade or so later. The frenzy of teenage girls and the censoring of a pop artist have happened plenty of times since those original TV moments, but the circumstances that led to “Judas!” can really never be duplicated. *

But before we can get to the UK in 1966, we have to step back to Halloween 1964, the night Dylan played solo at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (which happens to have also been officially released, as
Live 1964, Part 6 of the Bootleg Series). Dylan is chatty, happy, engaged with the crowd, making them laugh, inviting Joan Baez out for a few songs, and still apparently finding novelty in his role as Bob Dylan, King of Folk Music. He’s released four albums. His second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, brought him fame with the success of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” His third, The Times They Are A-Changin’, showed his complete mastery of the folk music format with songs like the title song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “With God on Our Side.”

However, by mid-1964, he seemed to realize that he was being typecast. Actually, he probably realized it before, but he was enjoying the success that came with the persona of Bob Dylan, Professional Protest Singer. With Another Side of Bob Dylan (worst title ever), he attempted to bring that persona back toward Bob Dylan, Musician. With songs like “All I Really Wanna Do” (“I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me/See like me or be like me/All I really want to do/Is, baby, be friends with you”), “My Back Pages” (“‘Equality,’ I spoke the word/As if a wedding vow/Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now”) and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (“Go 'way from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed/I'm not the one you want, babe/I'm not the one you need”), and the total lack of political protest songs, he tried to shake the mold from which his reputation was formed and find a space where he was able to write whatever kind of songs he wanted to write. But a lot his audience really didn’t come around all that quickly.

At the Philharmonic on Halloween ’64, Dylan was still playing mostly songs that the audience wanted to hear. He opened with “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and played protest classics like “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” (a song he was going to perform on Ed Sullivan until the CBS censors said no; so he refused to play Ed Sullivan) and “Who Killed Davey Moore?” early on. Near the end of his set, he brought out Joan Baez for a few songs (including “With God on Our Side”) and brought the house down. But in the middle of the set, he experimented. Among crowd favorites, he sprinkled in new songs like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Gates of Eden,” which were much deeper and stranger than folk music was supposed to be. But he always quickly won the crowd back by putting, as he called it that night (being Halloween and all), his “Bob Dylan mask” back on and performing how everybody wanted him to perform. A good time was had by all.

Fast forward to roughly six months later. Bob Dylan is on a solo tour of the UK, going through the motions, singing all of his famous protest songs, getting standing ovations everywhere he goes, and basically hating life, being snide with the (usually ignorant) press, and turning into Bob Dylan, Arrogant and Angry, um, Arse (as documented in
Don’t Look Back). He wants to move on from folk stereotypes (at this point, he’s even recorded a new album, Bringing It All Back Home, Side One of which—gasp!—is played with a band of backing musicians), but nobody will let him. He reached folk immortality by age 22, but now he can’t stand folk music anymore. He gets home from the UK, decides “to quit” (he said this in many interviews, though he never really specified what he was quitting...folk music? Music as a whole?), and vents out 20 pages of bile and anger on the typewriter. As you’ve probably read a million times before, that bile became “Like a Rolling Stone” and totally redefined both his music and pop music as a whole.

Within a few months, he’d recorded Highway 61 Revisited, torched the Newport Folk Festival with a 3-song rock set and eliciting some boos along the way (the conventional wisdom is that people booed because they hated the music, though eye-witness accounts seem to agree that the rock music coming out of the smallish folk music speakers made for a loud, too-much-treble mess and nobody could hear his vocals…and that’s why they booed and yelled), brought future members of The Band (then called The Hawks) on board, and went on tour of the US, drawing both rage and reverance along the way (there was enough rage involved that Levon Helm, the Hawks’ drummer quit the tour, eventually replaced by
Mickey Jones, who is now most well-known for being one of the bearded guys on Home Improvement).

Okay, so fast forward to May 1966. Dylan’s on the way back to England. Highway 61 has been out around six months, and a large portion of his hardcore fans are still hoping that this is just a phase that he’ll grow out of, and eventually he’ll get back to making protest songs. Dylan still placated the audience by breaking the concert into two parts—a solo acoustic first set and a full-band second set. No matter what he did...no matter how uninterested he was in some of the solo songs he played, and no matter how phenomenal the full-band performances were, the same thing happened throughout the UK tour: every solo song was greeted with polite and grateful applause, and most full-band songs were greeted with shouts and the dreaded slow-clap.

It is here that I should bring up Eat the Document.

During the 1965 UK tour, D.A. Pennebaker had followed Dylan around with a video camera and captured footage for what would become Don’t Look Back. So they planned the same thing for this trip of the UK. Pennebaker once again followed Dylan and his band around in 1966...only this time, Dylan would be the one who edited it. What would become Eat the Document was intended to be a one-hour show for ABC, though when ABC eventually saw it they quickly determined that there was no way they would be showing it on their network. I think it made the rounds in tiny independent theatres occasionally, but the main way to see this thing is to do what I did—find a second-hand, grainy copy of it on eBay.

The film quality is quite crappy, but it’s not so bad that you can’t tell what’s going on...and in a word, it’s weird. I understand why ABC didn’t want to show it (especially in 1967), but for a Dylan nerd like me, this is a fantastic thing to watch. First of all, the concert clips themselves are worth the price of admission. It’s easy enough to ignore the weird, random footage of Dylan watching a parade or trying to barter with a guy for his girlfriend...the performances are gripping, even with crappy video quality. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Dylan nerd (lord knows I haven’t tried to inflict this video on The Butterfly or anybody else), but I already had so much reverance for this tour that actually seeing clips of it on screen made me all weak in the knees.

Hmm. I think I crossed the TMI line there. Let’s move on.

The other interesting part of ETD is the series of interview clips of fans on their way into and out of the theatre. A few of the fans love the new music and think he’s changing the world. A majority of the fans, going in, are praying that he sticks to the old stuff and ignores the rock music...and are quite pissy about the “rubbish” they heard on the way out. One of the fans interviewed and commenting on the “rubbish” is actually Keith Butler, a.k.a. Mr. “Judas!”, which is pretty cool to a dork like me. Anyway.

So the tour winds through Dublin and Liverpool and Bristol and Sheffield, and it reaches Manchester on May 17. Thanks to Live 1966, you can experience the show moment-by-moment (there’s also some fantastic footage, of this show and of everything from this period in Dylan’s career, on Scorsese’s No Direction Home documentary that came out last year). What’s amazing about this show is, to me technical quality of the performances themselves just wasn’t all that great (lingering harmonica solos in the first set, melodramatic drumming and super-yelled vocals in the second), and yet I’ve listened to it enough to have even the crowd reactions memorized. It keeps your attention, that’s for damn sure. Then again, I’ve played this album on car trips, and my passengers never fail to fall asleep (even my guitar player, who should be just as nerdy as I am!), so maybe it’s only me.

The acoustic set begins with “She Belongs to Me,” one of his better love songs, and to my ears, Dylan couldn’t sound less interested. His harmonica solo is lazy, lingering on one note for way too long, bending it, then returning to it to linger too long again. But the crowd cheers excitedly and respectfully. It’s almost like he’s trying his hardest to antagonize them, but they’re not catching on. Or maybe he’s just stoned.

“Fourth Time Around” follows, and it’s more of the same. Meandering performance, loving response. Dylan perks up for the next couple of songs, “Visions of Johanna” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” “Johanna” is simultaneously one of his most touching songs and one of his strangest. “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” “The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face.” “Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it.” Pretty weird stuff considering that the song is basically about a guy sitting in a room and thinking about a girl...but for whatever reason it worked then and it works now. Dyaln’s vocals are much more restrained on the live version, but that almost turns it into that much more of a love song. As for “Baby Blue,” we may never know for sure where Dylan was coming from on many of his songs—so many of them end up taking on 30 or so different meanings—but this one always struck me pretty obviously as a message to his fans. “It’s all over now...Bob Dylan, Folk Musician and World Saver, is gone. Deal with it...I have.” And because my mind’s already in that place, I always find his performances of this song extra interesting. This one is no different. He’s singing touching lyrics, basically telling the crowd that the guy they loved is gone, and they need to move on with their lives, and they’re responding with nothing but love and affection.

Set #1 ends with “Desolation Row,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I’ve always found “Desolation Row” an anxiety attack set to music, but this performance of it has never done much for me...I guess no performance will top the version on Highway 61, with the two guitars and anxious tempo. I literally get a tightness in my lungs and butterflies in my stomach every time I hear it.

Again, I’ve revealed too much.

All three finishing songs are performed well, but there’s a reason I started this post with the Halloween 1964 show. Listen to “Mr. Tambourine Man” as performed in ’64, then in ’66, and you’ll hear a stark difference in crispness, clarity, and engagement. The songs are great enough to carry the performance half the time, but again...it just sounds like he couldn’t be less interested in being on stage, alone with an acoustic guitar.

Then again, maybe that’s not correct. Maybe he couldn’t be less interested in performing these songs for an audience. Maybe that’s the difference. Maybe he’s as wrapped up in his songs themselves as he ever has been, only he hates that people can’t accept both sides of his music. He’s not “performing” for the audience anymore, he’s just performing for himself. Here’s what Paul Williams said in Bob Dylan, Performing Artist:

And finally a song about a songmaker, song of songs, acknolwedgment of the music’s source, a benediction (as “She Belongs to Me” was an invocation), “Mr. Tambourine Man.” When the words begin and the audience recognizes the song and bursts into loud applause, I imagine I can hear Dylan consciously not pausing, not allowing himself to notice, because to do so would be to feel resentment at their enthusiasm (which he knows will turn to catcalls and hostility when he comes back for the electric set), and feeling even a tiny resentment or reluctance now would cut him off from his extraordinary flow of music that’s happening. So he sings on, ignoring the audience, or rather singing his song straight to the “higher self” of each person there, that part that is able and willing to be open to every note, to hear it for the first time, just as though we really were outside of time and space for this moment.
No matter what, the audience laps up every second of “Tambourine Man,” and you can practically hear the standing ovation at the end. They’re in heaven, and as soon as he acknowledges them, he’s in hell. Maybe it makes him happy to realize that, in a matter of minutes, some of them will be too.

(This post got quite long, so I decided to break it up. So ends Part One.)

* I actually got to witness a mini-version of the “So-and-So Goes Electric” controversy when Dave Matthews went to LA, strapped on an electric guitar, and made Everyday (admittedly his band’s worst album) with pop producer Glen Ballard in 2001. Dave Matthews Band message boards were filled with shock and anger and claims that Dave had “sold out”. I was even at the band’s album release show in Charlottesville that year when, 2-3 songs into the set, he broke out the electric guitar to play a song from the new album. Scott Stadium filled with a weird buzz until Dave broke the tension by faking shock and outrage at the microphone (“Oh my god, what does he think he’s doing?” and the like) and went on with the show. Surprisingly, the world didn’t end. This obviously doesn’t even remotely compare to the Dylan situation, as the crowd only ever responded with applause and appreciation, saving their bile for the Internet, where they could complain anonymously. In other words, no slow-clapping, no shouting, no interrupting the performer with complaints, and no “Judas!”