Sunday, September 25, 2005

Hurricane Dylan & Levee-Busting Soul

We are seeing a lot of Bob Dylan these days, and I say great. There is the Martin Scorsese documentary, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home and the accompanying soundtrack. There is also the latest release in the Bootleg Series -- The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 - Concert at Philharmonic Hall. As well as Dylan's long-awaited autobiography, Chronicles Vol. 1, and the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous.

I have been a fan of Dylan's music, myth and many vagaries since I was a kid. I'm still no closer to understanding the lyrics to my favorite Dylan songs, and I still cringe when I listen to most of his live performances -- his butchering his own masterpieces are like cosmic jokes; like Jesus Christ returning to earth and reading from the Bible at Madison Square Garden in the voice of Elmer Fudd. But my musical tastes have never required singers to sound like Jim Neighbors.

Have you ever heard Dylan -- from 1961, I believe -- reciting his poem Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie as almost an afterthought before an audience at Town Hall, or some such mythic, intimate setting? Hear it here (the best 10MB you'll ever download). This poem set my entire artistic life on its ear, at once shocking it into silence, articulating its unexplored depths, and slapping it back into me like a broken radio that had just been repaired by Thomas Edison himself.

Even during his most fallow periods -- through the born-again Christianity; the lapse into pop with Empire Burlesque -- Dylan has written and recorded great songs. His 1983 album Infidels was the first Dylan album I ever bought; purchased on cassette. I bought it after seeing a 4-star review of it in Rolling Stone. And yes, I was a 12 year old reader of rock reviews in Rolling Stone. For years, Infidels did nothing for me. I had bought it hoping for Dylan's acoustic brilliance, and what I got struck me as overproduced and dull. These days, I have the CD playing all the time. Songs like "Jokerman," "License to Kill," and "Neighborhood Bully" are among my favorite tracks.

When Love & Theft was released in 2001, it was a revelation; again. It was fascinating when some rock critics dug up the fact that Dylan seemed to have taken imagery and actual passages from an obscure Japanese book Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga, as though they had finally found the answer to Dylan's decades of genius. It didn't diminish the album or Dylan's achievement a single bit in my mind. Just indicated to me that Dylan doesn't sit around on his off-hours reading Tom Clancy novels. Good for him.

And now there is the Martin Scorsese documentary on Dylan No Direction Home playing on PBS. Slate has published an article about it that has the feel of a National Enquirer scoop story, in which it's revealed that Dylan's manager approved of all the material shown in the doc. Who cares? Dylan has suffered through his share of unauthorized biographies, one-off supermarket paperbacks about his life, and more bootleg and unauthorized releases of his never-to-see-the-light-of-day recordings and writings. I'm not bothered that the documentary was viewed and approved by his people.


RossK said...

Thanks for the poem link Matt.

Having just finished the Chronicles (really Vol 1) I was struck just how much Mr. Dylan seemed to have come undone around the time that Infidels was made.


Who said the ride should be smooth.

RossK said...

should have been a ? on the end or 'really Vol 1'