Saturday, 3 October 2020

Bob Dylan - Drifter's Escape (1968-1972)

Always willing to change, Bob Dylan did it again in this period, "going country" as many artists did at the same time, producing some of his most laid-back, unthreatening work.

The Basement Tapes (1967)

I have always had a bit of a problem with this sprawling album of largely "demo" songs being hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, packed full of works of genius. While it is not quite in the execrable category as The Beach Boys' equivalent of studio buffoonery Smiley Smile, not by a long way, I still have difficulty in accepting the album as anything other than a reasonably interesting collection of loose, pressure-off, relatively light-hearted pieces of studio fun. "Open the door, Richard..." is no improvised slice of genius, to me.

Yes, there are some genuinely enjoyable tracks on here. Personally, I really enjoy Apple Sucking Tree in an odd way, with its melodic swirling organ and Dylan's enthusiastically-delivered vocal. The same applies to Please, Mrs. Henry

Another couple of favourites are the lively Orange Juice Blues and Million Dollar Bash (later covered by Fairport Convention). 

The Band's impossibly bluesy Yazoo Street Scandal is good too, but it is much better on Music From Big Pink. Similarly, I much prefer The Band's Tears Of Rage to this one here, which is decidedly lo-fi and Dylan's vocal somewhat more nasal than usual. Speaking of the sound, it has always been "bootleg" lo-fi and no amount of remastering will be able to completely change that. As the title suggests it was recorded in a basement and the sound will be thus adversely affected. For some, this ropey sound is part of the appeal and I can sort of understand that. Not quite for me. Just my personal taste. Played on a decent system, though, it sounds as good as it has ever done under its latest remastering. 

The opener, Odds And Ends, sounds as good as I have heard it, to be fair. An interesting thing to me is also the fact that the sound on The Bootleg Series - Basement Tapes Raw is infinitely better than on the original Basement Tapes. Check out This Wheel's On Fire and You Aint Goin' Nowhere for convincing evidence.

I am writing this as a lifetime Dylan/Band fan (dating from the late sixties) in case you are wondering.

Too Much Of Nothing is ok in a Blonde On Blonde sort of way, but it is nowhere near up the standard of that album, let's be honest. Also, like many of the songs on here, I prefer another version, this time it is British folk group Fotheringay's take on it. 

There is, admittedly, an appeal in the loose, chilled-out enjoyment that is palpable in Dylan & The Band's delivery of fun material like Yea! Hey And A Bottle Of Bread. Yes, it is clear that they all had a great time the studio recording all this stuff and that comes across loud and clear but, personally, I prefer a perfect studio album that was painstakingly recorded, however difficult its genesis maybe had been. 

The sound on Tiny Montgomery is pretty awful, it has to be said. I have no desire to listen to it too often. 

I have to admit a weakness for the take on Long Distance Operator, though. Dylan's This Wheels On Fire is evocative, too. So, there is certainly good stuff to be found on the album, that cannot be denied, despite my other misgivings.

Also, I don't view this album as a treasure trove of "Americana" either, despite the presence of songs like the appealing Crash On The Levee (Down On The Flood) and The Band's Ruben Remus. There is far more of that to be found on The Band's first two albums, or on late sixties material from The Byrds  and Crosby, Stills & Nash. I would much rather listen to all that material before this one. That is not to say I cannot enjoy things like Don't Ya Tell Henry on occasions, however.

The musicians involved on the album have said many times over the years that the material was never intended to be released - they were just trying out a whole heap of songs and styles and having fun doing it. Robbie Robertson has expressed disappointment that the stuff got bootlegged. For me, it will always sound rough and ready, some guys having a good time in the studio, and were it not Bob Dylan & The Band, it would not have garnered 1% of the attention of that it subsequently did. But, because it was them, it does have an interest. Give me Music From Big Pink anyday, though. Sorry.

John Wesley Harding (1967)

John Wesley Harding/As I Went Out One Morning/I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine/All Along The Watchtower/The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest/Drifter's Escape/Dear Landlord/I Am A Lonesome Hobo/I Pity The Poor Immigrant/The Wicked Messenger/Down Along The Cove/I'll Be Your Baby Tonight  

"What I'm trying to do now is not use too many words" - Bob Dylan

John Wesley Harding was Bob Dylan’s somewhat low-key 1968 album release. After the glory that was Blonde On Blonde, from two years earlier, Dylan had suffered a motorcycle accident and had gone low profile for a year or so. He had recorded some material with The Band, but otherwise he had gone to ground, tired of the stresses of being incredibly famous. Briefly, he had had enough of the whole thing and it deemed his muse had deserted him, to a certain extent. He was back in 1968, after The BeatlesThe Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys had produced, or were in the process of producing, works of high quality, so he returned with an almost deliberately low-profile, laid-back album of folky songs. Based around acoustic guitar, a melodious bass, some trademark harmonica and a gentle drum sound, there were no extended works of genius on here, like Desolation Row or Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Just a collection of sensitive, often quiet, reflective songs with a fair amount of biblical references dotted around in the lyrics. It must be remembered that this album was released into a maelstrom of psychedelia and full-on electric stuff from Jimi HendrixCream and the like. To revert back to quieter, tuneful folky, country-influenced material was a huge move.  It also pretty much kick-started the “country rock” genre. Crosby, Stills and Nash were waiting in the wings.

I feel this album has been unfairly overlooked in many ways. It was as ground-breaking as any other album he produced, and more than that, it was simply a good album. It is certainly deserving of a place in any Dylan Top Ten Albums list.

John Wesley Harding was a mid-paced gentle beat song about a Western gunfighter with an addictive bass line that sounds great on the mono recording. 

As I Went Out One Morning also has a simply wonderful deep, tuneful bass line and an insistent drum sound and some mysterious lyrics, together with some trademark Dylan harmonica. 

This continues in the appealing slow paced I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, which saw Dylan in good lyrical form and a delivery similar to “that wild mercury sound” aimed for on Blonde On Blonde. It is one of the album’s best tracks, full of imagery, mystery and intrigue. 

Up next is the iconic All Along The Watchtower. Everyone seems to prefer Jimi Hendrix’s version, even Dylan, but I like the stark, bleak, storm-gathering portentous feel of the original as presented here. It is a great big cynical warning of doom and its contemporary effect cannot be underestimated.

The high quality continues with the album’s big narrative tale , that of The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest. Full of great lyrics, Western imagery and wonderful characterisation. A forerunner, in many ways, of Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts from 1974’s Blood On The Tracks
Again, there is an impressive thumping bass on this one. 

Drifter's Escape is a harmonica and shuffling drums-dominated number, with, again, some perplexing lyrics. 

Dear Landlord is a piano-driven “Mr Jones” style slow, well-delivered ballad with crystal clear sound throughout. Yet again, I have to say that the bass is phenomenal.

I Am A Lonesome Hobo is a superb, bass-driven, lyrically sharp and musically uplifting number, one of the album’s best. Insistent, questioning, wise - Dylan on top form all round. 

I Pity The Poor Immigrant is a plaintive, sensitive song that harks back to the “protest” songs of the early sixties. It would not have sounded out of place on The Times They Are A-Changing.

The Wicked Messenger is an upbeat, rocky number with echoes of the “stream of consciousness” lyrics and electric sound of Subterranean Homesick Blues and Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me

Down Along The Cove is another faster-paced bluesy number slightly reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Them with jazzy hints of Georgie Fame’s Yeh Yeh. It finds Dylan in unusually playful mode, musically and vocally. The most “fun” track on the album.

I'll Be Your Baby Tonight is a gentle, country style romantic number that hinted at the material that would populate future albums like Self Portrait and New Morning.

** Regarding the sound, the album sounds great in stereo,  but it is the only one of the “electric” era Dylan albums that has a very good case for sounding better in mono. The mono really brings the bass to the fore. It sounds great. I prefer Highway 61 and Blonde in stereo. This one, I am not so sure. There is a real power, clarity and attack on the mono version. The bass is just beautiful. The Wicked Messenger is a good example, on the stereo, the descending bass “riff” bit is, for some inexplicable reason, much quieter. Pretty unforgivable, to be honest.

The stereo is more subtle, more melodic, but for me, I think, on this occasion, the mono wins.

Nashville Skyline (1969)

Girl From The North Country/Nashville Skyline/To Be Alone With You/I Threw It All Away/Peggy Day/Lay Lady Lay/One More Night/Tell Me That It Isn't True/CountryPie /Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You  

"Our generation owes him our artistic lives" - Kris Kristofferson
I've always found it a strange little album, Nashville Skyline. Consistent to his seemingly perverse nature around this time, in early 1969, Bob Dylan gave his impatiently waiting fans, who were expecting the next work of genius, less than half an hour’s worth of light country music. The album has to be viewed individually and objectively, in order to get the positives out of it and comparisons with Blonde On BlondeHighway 61 Revisted, or even with the more country-influenced John Wesley Harding are futile. The latter still had songs like All Along The Watchtower and The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest on it, there was certainly nothing like that on here.

Neither was there any of the psychedelic or blues rock that was de rigeur in 1968-69 around. “Country Rock” was starting to become the thing to delve into in the late sixties/early seventies. The Byrds were heading that way, as were The BandCrosby Stills & Nash would put out their eponymous album a month later. As if to emphasise the light-hearted, easy-going country nature of the recording Dylan appeared grinning on the cover, in a cowboy-style hat and holding an acoustic guitar.

Girl From The North Country is a wonderful country duet with Johnny Cash, whose resonant voice adds a real timbre to the song. Dylan’s voice is obviously much weaker, but not to the detriment of the song.

Nashville Skyline is an energetic, finger-picking instrumental that is pleasant enough. 

"Is it Rolling, Bob?” is the voice from the studio that introduces the tuneful and bassy, almost rocky To Be Alone With You. It was a fun workout, but hardly Like A Rolling Stone. People had to get used to the fact that Dylan wanted to do this sort of material now and that was that. 

The best cut on the album, in my opinion, is the sad and yearning I Threw It All Away. A gentle, laid-back piece of country rock.

Peggy Day is another jaunty, pleasant song. There is nothing dark or sombre about this album, despite some of the sad-sounding vocal deliveries. The album simply does not bear to much over-analysis. To me it is simply a pleasurable half hour.

The rhythmic Lay Lady Lay is the best known track. It has an addictive percussion sound and a witheringly endearing vocal from Dylan.

One More Night is spirited and uplifting. Some great instrumentation on it. Who would have thought Dylan would release gentle toe-tappers like this? The album had a charming, laid-back, homely feel, as indeed had Dylan’s crooning-style country voice, affected for this album. This would continue into parts of Self Portrait and New Morning too. Indeed, the sneering, urban drawl of those classic sixties recordings had gone forever, which was a shame but it was what it was.

Tell Me That It Isn't True is underpinned by some lovely acoustic guitar, piano and organ, it was another gentle, harmless melody. Quite how Dylan fans got their heads round this at the time is unclear.

Country Pie is a lively country romp, enlivened by some excellent guitar licks and a entrancing bass sound. It finishes, unfortunately, all too soon. 

The brief half hour was over with the steel guitar backed and wistfully romantic Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With YouKris Kristofferson is quoted as saying that himself and many other artists “owed their careers” to this album, as it opened many more eyes to country music, which previously had been a conservative, closed shop. With the release of this album, it became “cool” to dig country, man.

Travelin' Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (1967-1969)

Session material from 1967-1969

Another year, another release in the consistently excellent Bootleg Series of Bob Dylan's alternate takes and session outtakes. This time it covers material from 1967-1969, which includes the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline albums. Most of the tracks are included in some form or another, apart from Tonight I'l Be Staying Here With You from Nashville Skyline and The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas PriestDear LandlordWicked MessengerDown Along The Cove and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight from JWH.

The Dylan session cuts are lovely, full of gentle, bassy warmth as exemplified on Tell Me That It Isn't True and a beautiful take of Lay Lady Lay. The latter is performed without the rhythmic percussion, leaving just the bass and is totally disarming. Country Pie is excellent too, somehow better than the version that was eventually used. The same can be said of To Be Alone With You. From JWH, I Pity The Poor Immigrant and I Am A Lonesome Hobo are similarly appealing in their understated, warm delivery. All Along The Watchtower (Take 3) is great, with a big rumbling bass line and killer wailing harmonica. It is not to different to the eventual version, to be honest. I just love it anyway. Drifter's Escape (Take 1) is given a more upbeat, military-style drumbeat to the more regular, metronomic one that was eventually used. It is a slightly quicker rendition. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine (Take 2) is slightly faster and probably not quite the equal of the final album version. John Wesley Harding (Take 1) is also a bit more pacy but the actual album take was so good that it takes some beating.

The JWH outtakes are probably not particularly interesting or different, however, in the way that the Blood On The Tracks ones from the previous Bootleg Series release were, but I have to say I enjoyed the Nashville Skyline session versions a lot.

Much of the second half of the box set is taken up with material from the sessions Dylan recorded with Johnny Cash. These are really good, unearthing some impressive and highly listenable songs like I Still Miss Someone and the bluesy country romp of Matchbox. Once more, the sound quality is superb and the bass smoulders in a most attractive, comforting manner. Big River is healthily vibrant with great vocals from both artists and infectious backing. Unfortunately, the pair's rehearsal of Girl From The North Country has an awful vocal from Dylan, particularly when compared to Cash's. It is almost as if Cash is teaching Dylan how to sing, the difference between the two is so clear. Thankfully things improve a bit on Take 1 of the song.

The country-ish Guess Things Happen That Way is a much better duet, full of melody and enthusiasm. The same can be said of the delightful western fun of Wanted Man. Cash's iconic Ring Of Fire is sung solo by Dylan and I really like it. It is given a bluesy makeover that I much prefer to its original country sound. Great harmonica in it too. The two of them do a good job on Cash's classic, I Walk The Line and that is also true of the lengthy Careless LoveArthur "Big Boy" Crudup/Elvis Presley's That's All Right is a pile of fun and really enjoyable to listen to and this vibe continues on Mystery Train.

East Virginia Blues (with Earl Scruggs) was recorded in mono for some reason but it has a winsome country blues, guitar-pickin' appeal. The live material from the Johnny Cash Show is good too. Overall, this is shorter box than some of the other Bootleg Series offerings, largely due to the fact that a) there weren't that many outtakes from the John Wesley Harding sessions in particular and b) much of the session material from the period 1967-69 has subsequently been lost.

The Cash sessions were possibly recorded with a view to releasing a duet album but for whatever reason it never happened, only Girl From The North Country saw the light of day, which was a shame because there was some excellent stuff to be found here.

Self Portrait (1970)

All The Tired Horses/Alberta #1/I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know/Days Of '49/Early Mornin' Rain/In Search Of Little Sadie/Let It Be Me/Little Sadie/Woogie Boogie/Belle Isle/Living The Blues/Like A Rolling Stone (Live)/Copper Kettle/Gotta Travel On/Blue Moon/The Boxer/Quinn The Eskimo (The Mghty Quinn)/Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go/Take A Message To Mary/It Hurts Me Too/Minstrel Boy/She Belongs To Me/Wigwam/Alberta #2 

"At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident [in 1966], which put me out of commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realised that I was workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids" - Bob Dylan   

Bob Dylan, infuriated by the public’s desire for him to produce works of genius every year or so, supposedly released this album in 1970 as a throwaway work of rubbish, just to spite the ever-expectant public. The perceived wisdom is that it is drivel, much like The Beach Boys’ dreadful Smiley Smile. Over the years, however, opinions have softened regarding it. I, personally, have always quite liked it. Taken as an extension of the country style introduced on its predecessor, Nashville Skyline, it is not a bad album at all. Indeed, I consider a better album than the previous one. It is longer and its instrumentation more varied and the song's diversity is far greater. The music played is excellent and the sound quality superb.
All The Tired Horses with its gospel voices and nothing more, is a bit throwaway, admittedly, but Alberta is laid-back and sweetly romantic, very much in a Nashville Skyline way, and I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know is a twangy and appealing country lament. 

Days of ’49, strong, insistent and bluesy, is a historical tale delivered in confident fashion by Dylan, as indeed is the next track, Gordon Lightfoot’s delightful Early Morning Rain. These don’t sound like an artist producing rubbish for the sake of it, to annoy people. He actually sounds as if he is enjoying playing this sort of material, as indeed he had on Nashville Skyline

The intensity in which he attacks the sad tale of In Search Of Little Sadie can’t really be questioned, in my book. Dylan’s cover of the ballad Let It Be Me may have appalled some, but I have always fund it charming and disarming.

Little Sadie is a fun slice of country, acoustic boogie, while Woogie Boogie is the real thing - some upbeat barroom rocking piano. Damn, I am enjoying listening to this again. In many parts it matches the similarly sprawling and country-style experimentation of The Basement Tapes, which is much-lauded by pretty much everyone. Furthermore, everyone loved The ByrdsSweetheart Of The Rodeo, from 1968, so why not parts of this?

Belle Isle is just endearingly lovely. Just take these songs in isolation, if you have to, forget they are Bob Dylan, the composer of Desolation Row and so on. Just enjoy them for what they are. 

Living The Blues is, as would imagine, bluesy. The sound on it is superb, bassy and captivating. Dylan’s vocal is sleepily appealing, as are the Elvis-style “a-ha” backing vocals. The band are top notch. None of this album sounds half-baked or throwaway to me. What the heck, if some embittered “musos” disagree with me, or moaned and griped in 1970 - who cares?

Copper Kettle could easily have been a track from New Morning, to be honest. If it had been, it would have garnered praise. “We an’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792” is a line I have always liked. 

Gotta Travel On has some intoxicating percussion rhythms and some bluesy slide guitar. This is a very Beggars’ Banquet-style song. That album was loved by everyone. If Mick Jagger had wrapped his tonsils around this, it would have been loved, so why not this? It’s great.

The quality does admittedly suffer a little as the double album continues on its way. I have not commented on the live tracks, as I feel they were superfluous to the album. Blue Moon is veering into Elvis territory and also the sort of thing Dylan unfortunately records nowadays. 

Dylan’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer doesn’t work as well as their version and Dylan’s lazy-ish vocal here does him no favours.

Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go is a steel guitar country crooner. 

Take A Message To Mary certainly would not have sounded out of place on Nashville Skyline. Again, though, it is perfectly enjoyable, taken for what it is. 

It Hurts Me Too is a relaxing country ballad. Minstrel Boy is bluesy and somewhat drunken in deliver. Wigwam certainly is a waste of time, a rather discordant brassy instrumental, rather like a New Orleans funeral. 

Alberta 2 is a nice, rhythmic and bassy end to the album, raising the quality back up a bit.

By its end, the album does start to lose its appeal a little. A single album would have been far preferable and could have contained quite a few tracks, as they are quite short. It would not have been criticised as much, take out the live tracks and some of these at the end and you have a reasonable album. Go up to Gotta Travel On (leaving out the Tired Horses), add Alberta 2. That’s thirteen shortish tracks of good quality. It was the adding on of too much sprawling filler that did for this album, not the first half of it.

New Morning (1970)

If Not For You/Day Of The Locusts/Time Passes Slowly/Went To See The Gypsy/Winterlude/If Dogs Run Free/New Morning/Sign On The Window/One More Weekend/The Man In Me/Three Angels/Father Of Night  

"I didn't say, 'Oh my God, they don't like this, let me do another one,' it wasn't like that. It just happened coincidentally that one came out and then the other one did as soon as it did. The 'Self Portrait' LP laid around for I think a year. We were working on 'New Morning' when the 'Self Portrait' album got put together"  - Bob Dylan
Around 1970-72 was the time many artists put out laid-back, contemplative, rustic country rockVan Morrison's Tupelo HoneyCrosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Deja Vu and this, from Bob Dylan. It is a beguiling piece of work. It has been praised a lot, especially in comparison with Self Portrait, which I feel is wide of the mark, slightly. Personally, I much prefer the latter. This album I find somewhat stark and unrealised. It came only four months after the reviled Self Portrait, yet it avoided the brickbats and was hailed as a refreshing breath of fresh air. I am not quite sure why. It has always seemed throwaway and lightweight, to me.

If Not For You (covered by George Harrison on All Things Must Pass and made a hit single by Olivia Newton-John is appealing and country-ish. 

Day Of The Locusts was a bit of a bizarre, staccato song about Dylan receiving an honorary degree, while Time Passes Slowly is very much in the Nashville Skyline country vein.

Went To See The Gypsy is one of the best cuts, a full, bassy, pounding tale of Dylan visiting Elvis Presley in concert in Las Vegas. There is a better version of it on Another Self Portrait, however. 

Winterlude has a waltz beat and sounds like an old country song from the 1940s. 

If Dogs Run Free is quite a rarity among Dylan songs - it is a piano-driven jazzy number with Dylan throatily croaking some cod-philosophy while backed by some intensely irritating "Scooby-doo-dooo, bah, bah, bah..." "scat" vocals. At times, this really is quite awful, yet it has a strange vibrancy of sound about it the gives it a sort of perverse appeal.

New Morning features some excellent organ and bass work and has a lively, upbeat refrain. One of the album's best tracks. 

Sign On The Window is very much a Self Portrait type song - a plaintive piano-driven ballad, featuring some intrusive "woo-woo" backing vocals at times. It has Dylan ruminating about living in a cabin in Utah, catching rainbow trout and having a bunch of kids who all him "Pa". All very relaxed.

The best (and only) blues rocker on the album is the punchy One More Weekend, this is probably my favourite and is a throwback to the mid sixties. It is good to hear him rock and sing about seduction, as opposed to bucolic pleasures, for the first time in a while. 

The Man In Me is not at all bad either - a slow soulful groove. Less of the country, more of the Band-style rock ballad.

Three Angels is a bizarre oddity. Dylan narrates some surreal lyrics about what, I am not really sure. 

Father Of Night is one of Dylan's first devotional songs, a precursor to his 79-82 "born again" material, but, as yet, he had not seen the light.

** A non-album track dating from 1971 is the country ballad, Wallflower, which is an ordinary-enough song not to trouble one either way wondering whether it should have been on the album or not. There is also the version of If Not For You that was recorded with George Harrison. Harrison recorded his own version for his triple album, All Things Must Pass.

Watching The River Flow was a 1971 blues rock single recorded with Leon Russell.


  1. You don't seem to like New morning very much but to me it's like the closest thing to a favorite Dylan album that I have, along with Nashville Skyline. And maybe John Wesley. I never could figure out why I never liked him more than I do. To be honest, my favorite songs by him were the hits and when I played his albums I always hoped that I would find more that I loved as much as those but I never did. His best record ever is Knocking on Heaven's Door as far as I'm concerned. And then after that Lay Lady Lay and If Not for You and 4th Street. And maybe Tangled Up In Blue. I like Changing of the Guards and Mighty Quinn too kind of. But he never made a whole album that I could get all the way through. I really don't know why. I guess people either love him or they don't. heh heh

  2. Yes, I have never been a huge fan of New Morning. It is Dylan's long narrative songs that are my favourites.