Saturday, 3 October 2020

Bob Dylan - Making Waves (1973-1978)


This was a classic phase in Bob Dylan's career. For many, it was the best. Anyway, on to the music. After an iffy start, we are soon treated to an all-time Dylan classic.

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)



Main Title Theme/Cantina Theme/Billy 1/Bunkhouse Theme/River Theme/Turkey Chase/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/Final Theme/Billy 4/Billy 7 

"It is every bit as inept, amateurish and embarrassing as 'Self Portrait'. And it has all the earmarks of a deliberate courting of commercial disaster, a flirtation that is apparently part of an attempt to free himself from previously imposed obligations derived from his audience"   - Jon Landau  
I am not sure I agree with Landau's somewhat sour comment above. This is obviously a movie soundtrack album, as opposed to a regular album release, so there are not really quite as many observations to be made. There are some good tracks on the album, though, making it more credible than many think, particularly as it was Dylan's first material for three years.
                                             
The Main Title Theme is an appealing piece of Mexican-influenced guitar and rhythm with some addictive, full bass lines coming in half way through. It is actually a really nice piece. The bongos and acoustic guitar of Cantina Theme are attractive too. A notable thing to this album is just how good the sound is. 

Billy 1 is a harmonica-drenched, Latin-tinged track with some Dylan vocals. Again, it is not a bad song with echoes of the later Romance In Durango

Bunkhouse Theme is a few minutes of slow finger picking guitar, slightly affected by some strange scratchy background noises. 

River Theme is more of the same, but without the noises and Turkey Chase is a lively piece of country fiddle and guitar fun.


The big track on here, of course, is the mournful and solemnly wonderful Knockin' On Heaven's Door. I have always loved it and still do. It has a great bass line to it too, which is continued in Final Theme, enhanced by some fetching flute passages. 

Billy 4 is a fine, evocative song too, telling a tale in typical Dylan narrative style, and featuring some trademark harmonica. Billy 7 is shorter but still an atmospheric song.

The presence of the three Billy songs and Heaven's Door make this more than just an album of background music. It is a worthwhile occasional listen.



Dylan (1973)


Lily Of The West/Can't Help Falling In Love/Sarah Jane/The Ballad Of Ira Hayes/Mr. Bojangles/Mary Ann/Big Yellow Taxi/A Fool Such As I/Spanish Is The Loving Tongue 

"These were songs not to be used - I thought that was understood" -  Bob Dylan
                               
It is time that this long-reviled album got a reassessment. It has long since been withdrawn. I remember it coming out, though, and getting bad reviews. It is now available on the Bob Dylan Complete Works Box Set, which is how I obtained it. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised upon hearing it. Expecting it to be absolutely execrable, I found it to be probably two thirds dreadful, which has to be taken as a positive. It is an album of mainly cover versions recorded as warm-ups for Self Portrait in 1970 and released as part of a legal dispute between record labels in 1973. Something to do with Columbia and Asylum. I can't actually be bothered to research the minutiae behind it.

Anyway, on to the music. Lily Of The West
 is a jaunty, tuneful and attractive Wild West tale and Dylan's take on Elvis's Can't Help Falling In Love is nowhere near as bad as has been said. 

Sarah Jane suffers from poor production, and Dylan's insistence of singing "Sar-oh" instead of "Sarah", it is the only Dylan original composition on the album. The backing singers sound louder that Dylan, so it doesn't really come off. 

The Ballad Of Ira Hayes is a heartbreaking narrative about the Native American-descended soldier who was one of those who raised the US flag on Iwo Jima and died a penniless drunk. It again is the victim of a hissy production.

I have to say that Mr Bojangles doesn't really come off, but it is again, nowhere near as bad as many have said. The problem was with this album was that it was a record label "kiss off" of mostly sub-standard, throwaway semi-demos, when so much unreleased high quality material still lay in the vaults. Personally, I had just got into Bob Dylan at the time, at the age of fourteen, and considered getting this album. I had no real concept of how far down the scale of influence he had fallen from his position of eminence in the sixties. The same with The Rolling Stones and the members of The Beatles. I was fourteen, I loved them all and lapped up what they released with no disappointment or cynicism. I bought Knockin' On Heaven's DoorAngie and Red Rose Speedway and loved them.

Mary Ann is an acceptable country ballad that would have been ok on Self Portrait, but Dylan's cover of Joni Mitchell's iconic ecological anthem Big Yellow Taxi sounds as if he was just having a bit of fun the studio. 

The cover of Elvis's A Fool Such As I is just about acceptable. 

Spanish Is The Loving Tongue is once more very hissy and has Dylan sounding like a slightly drunken restaurant Mariachi singer. The backing singers come "la-la-la" ing in and its becomes a bit of a joke. Actually, I guess the reviewers were correct all those years ago. This was an abomination. It has to be said, in defence, however, that none of it was Dylan's fault.

Never mind, Planet Waves was only two months away.


Planet Waves (1973)


On A Night Like This/Going. Going, Gone/Tough Mama/Hazel/Something There Is About You/Forever Young/Forever Young (fast version)/Dirge/You Angel You/Never Say Goodbye/Wedding Song 

"Cast-iron songs and torch ballads" - Bob Dylan                   
Early 1974's Planet Waves was the bridging album between the folky/country material of the late sixties/early seventies and the acoustic-driven rock poetry that was Blood On The Tracks. It is also as emotionally complex as that album too, no lightweight country pie on here. It is an album that grows on you with each listen, as I listen to it now, I am thinking that the album is better than I had previously thought. The overall sound quality is excellent, by the way, unlike the rather harsh sounding New Morning, but the album itself, as opposed to its hi-fi, is somewhat brutal and tough in its sound, particularly in comparison to the next release, Blood On The Tracks. For this reason it has never been an album that I have particularly warmed to. There are many others that are much more endearing, both lyrically and musically. Many aficionados love it, however, possibly because of Dylan's reunion with The Band for the recording and subsequent tour. It was actually the only studio album Dylan ever recorded with them.

Despite my ambiguous thoughts about it, though, it is definitely Dylan's most confident, "in your face" and confrontational offering since Blonde On Blonde, eight long years previous.
             
On A Night Like This is an energetic, swirling throwback to the days of 1966, with The Band on top form backing Dylan once again and his delivery enthusiastically upbeat. It has an upbeat country rock feel to it.

A beautiful, melodic, deep bass underpins the gorgeous Going, Going, Gone. This is definitely a precursor to Blood On The Tracks, musically, lyrically and atmospherically. It is a dignified, sombre track with a great sound to the backing on it. Robbie Robertson comes up with one hell of a guitar solo to finish the track.

The vibrant, muscular Tough Mama is a Basement Tapes-style bluesy romp, with Garth Hudson's organ blowing and circling around all over the place, like an idiot wind.

Hazel, with her "dirty blonde hair" is a love song from Dylan to another mercurial woman and most entrancing it is too. There are very slight shades of 1983's Licence To Kill in there somewhere, just before the "touch of your love" part. Dylan delivers a delicious harmonica too. He certainly hadn't laid down a track as suitably "tough" as this since 1966.

Something There Is About You has Dylan being nostalgic about the "old Duluth" of his youth. This is harmonica-driven blues rock song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either Blood On The Tracks or, indeed, Desire. Tracks like this remind one that Dylan hadn't really laid down anything this powerful since John Wesley Harding and possibly Blonde On Blonde. Forget all that country twanging and folk odes, this was proper Dylan, although there is a harshness to the song's sound that is to its detriment, for me.

Talking of proper Dylan. Forever Young is next. Uplifting inspiring, heartbreaking. One of my favourite Dylan songs of all time. It never fails to get me all emotional. Superb. I remember seeing Dylan in concert with Mark Knopfler at the Hammersmith Odeon a few years back and Knopfler sang this as the encore, with Dylan sitting regally behind the keyboards. Mark turned to him to deliver the line "may your song always be sung" and the great man, just nodded, like The Queen waving to her subjects. A priceless moment. The faster version of the same song that comes next doesn't do it for me. The slow version is the definitive one, in my opinion. This slightly rockabilly version of it deprives of of its soul, its emotion. It should have stayed on the cutting room floor, maybe replaced by Nobody 'Cept You (see end of the review). Incidentally, on the slow version the only just in his thirties Dylan now sounds, vocally, like a wise old man of much more advanced age.

Only Dylan could title his own song Dirge. Here he is backed by Robertson, while he plays piano. It is a stark, emotions bared song that, at the time people presumed was about his marriage. Robertson's guitar is sumptuous and while the song is stark and bleak, it is no dirge, certainly musically. Listening to it, though, you definitely realise Blood On The Tracks is on the way. Many Dylanlogists have used it to exemplify the beginnings of the relationship angst that would dominate the next album. Opening line of "I hate myself for loving you and the weakness it showed..." helped considerably in such analyses. The next three songs see Dylan in a disarmingly loved-up mood, however, so things had not gone bad just yet.

You Angel You is a most appealing Band-style mid-tempo rocker. "If this is love give me more, more, more" pleads a romantically-rejuvenated Dylan over another magnificent, typically Band organ break. It is the album's most instantly attractive number. 

Never Say Goodbye starts with some searing guitar, fine deep bass too and is a beguiling, romantic slow burner with Dylan clearly in love  - once again, musically, it is very Band-like. It is so good to have this type of Dylan back, so to speak, listening to this. We had missed him.

Wedding Song is a stark, acoustic guitar and harmonica folky love song that is very much in the acoustic part of Blood On The Tracks style.

As I said earlier, personal ambivalence put to one side, there is no real question that this is, by far, Bob Dylan's most credible album since John Wesley Harding. He was now entering a four year halcyon period, the third great one of his career.

** The one notable exclusion from the album's sessions was Nobody 'Cept You, omitted in favour of Wedding Song as Dylan was not happy with the song. It is surprising as the recording is gently appealing, enhanced by some subtle wah-wah guitar and an ambience that looks forward to the feel of Blood On The Tracks. I have always liked the track and it would have easily fitted on to the album, as I said earlier, replacing the fast version of Forever Young, if necessary.




Before The Flood (with The Band) (1974)


Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)/Lay Lady Lay/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/It Ain't Me Babe/Ballad Of A Thin Man/Up On Cripple Creek (The Band)/I Shall Be Released (The Band)/Endless Highway (The Band)/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band)/Stage Fright (The Band)/Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Just Like A Woman/It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding/The Shape I'm In (The Band)/When You Awake (The Band)/The Weight (The Band)/All Along The Watchtower/Highway 61 Revisited/Like A Rolling Stone/Blowin' In The Wind  

This is possibly Bob Dylan's greatest live album and it is also considered to be one of rock music's greatest live albums of all time. In 1974, however, Dylan had been in something of a rut and The Band had seen their better days pass by. Dylan reunited with his old Band(mates) and conjured up a vibrant set of songs dripping in nostalgia (most of them are from the mid-sixties), even in 1974, but also what were often reinterpretations. The instinctive interaction between Dylan and The Band is clear for all to hear. The remastered sound on the latest edition (in the Complete Works box set) is superb.
                                 
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) is an effervescent, rocking opener with Garth Hudson's organ swirling all over the place and Dylan on enthusiastic vocal form. Lay Lady Lay has a typical Band backing. Knockin On Heaven's Door is just perfect. Dylan's vocal is yearning and sad and The Band are just superb. Excellent, crystal clear percussion, drums and keyboards. It Ain't Me Babe is given a radical country-ish rock makeover, with some Cajun undertones. This would develop into a reggae style backing in 1975's Rolling Thunder tour. The seeds of the future pacier renderings of the song were sown here. Ballad Of A Thin Man is just sumptuous, with more addictive backing. The Band are just so damn good on this album.


Now it is time for The Band's brand of retrospective rustic rock. Up On Cripple Creek has a funky, wah-wah guitar and organ backing and a soulful vocal. I Shall Be Released is evocative and plaintively delivered. Endless Highway has a great bass line and another Cajun-sounding organ riff. It rocks, solidly. I have always loved the Civil War-based song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (covered by Joan Baez). Actually I prefer Baez's version, but I don't dislike this one. It is their song after all. Stage Fright has a great drum/piano and organ intro and another slightly funky feeling to it.

Dylan is back now, for an acoustic Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. The solo acoustic numbers continue with the wonderful Just Like A Woman and It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding. He sounds so vocally committed on these tracks. The Band return with the delicious bluesily soulful The Shape I'm In. The melodic When You Awake and the iconic The Weight conclude their solo stuff without Dylan. The great man returns to join them for a barnstorming ending to the album.

All Along The Watchtower is energetically superb, with some guitar that Dire Straits made a career out of a few years later, and an appealing Highway 61 Revisited has a slower, bassier groove than the original. It is again slightly funky. I really like this version. Like A Rolling Stone is positively incendiary, maybe the definitive Dylan live version of the track. He is on fire. Garth Hudson's organ is sublime too, even giving us some playful stuff after the "tricks for you" line. The closer, Blowin' In The Wind is given a rockier backing than usual - a Band groove rather than an acoustic one. It has a great guitar solo in it too.

It is an enjoyable experience listening to this album, with the Dylan stuff and Band performances side by side. Full of variety. No need to recommend it, is there? It speaks for itself.




Blood On The Tracks (1975)


Tangled Up In Blue*/A Simple Twist Of Fate#/You're A Big Girl Now*/Idiot Wind*/You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go#/Meet Me In The Morning#/Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts*/If You See Her, Say Hello*/Shelter From The Room#/Buckets Of Rain#                                                      
* December 1974 sessions (Minneapolis)
# September 1974 sessions (New York City)


"Sometimes he will have several bars, and in the next version, he will change his mind about how many bars there should be in between a verse. Or eliminate a verse. Or add a chorus when you don't expect" - Phil Ramone

This was the beginning of the third classic phase of Bob Dylan's career, for many, after the early acoustic protest years, then the "wild mercury sound" of 1965-67's switch to electric era. Yes, there was the laid-back country stuff, but that didn't really merit "classic" status. This did, however. The foundations laid on Planet Waves were fully built on here on one of the finest "relationship break-up" albums of all time. I remember first hearing it as a teenager in March 1975 and being totally blown away by it. In many ways, it is an album so familiar to me that I find it a bit difficult to review. I know the songs so well. It is far easier to review a new album you have just become excited about rather than what has become something of a "comfy old chair" of an album for me. It is an album I love so dearly, but it is one that has been a companion for so long that I am maybe too set in my opinions. Bear with me though.

Anyway, firstly, whatever format one buys this album in, the sound is pretty much uniformly excellent. I have the current remaster from The Complete Album Collection box set. Those crystal clear, razor sharp acoustic guitar parts (check out the intro to You're A Big Girl); that lovely, melodious, gently rumbling bass; that great drum/percussion sound and then Dylan's voice (and also his harmonica) as good as it ever sounded. Just spectacular sound. 

 

I have learnt, over the years, as many have, that the album was initially recorded as a stripped-back, acoustic and bass creation, and that Dylan re-recorded five songs a few months later, in Minneapolis, using a new, full session band. I remember, when I first enjoyed the album, in 1975, automatically thinking that those five songs were the "fuller", more powerful-sounding numbers, without knowing the reason why. Not that I didn't enjoy the stark beauty of the other five, augmented wonderfully as they are by Tony Brown's sumptuous bass lines. I didn't, back in 1975, know about the album's recording history yet the feel of two styles within the one album was one that came over loud and clear. 

I have to say that the original version of the album has an understated, most appealing atmosphere to it that makes it a serious competitor to the eventual release even for those of us who have lived with the album for so long. I love both of them, but there is a mellowness to the original that makes it a most engaging creation, one worthy of considerable attention which the wonders of digital arranging/customising can facilitate. Oh, and the original Meet Me In The Morning has a great - and most surprising - guitar solo at the end. I am not sure why this was omitted from the final release.

Asterisked above are the "full band" songs from the later sessions in December 1974 and the more acoustic ones from September 1974's New York sessions. Now, more takes from the sessions can be enjoyed thanks to the release of the excellent More Blood, More Tracks box set. There is some seriously good stuff on there - alternate versions, slightly different ones and the like. Also, the five afore-mentioned Minneapolis songs have been newly remixed and have a beautifully warm sound quality to them. It also gives you the experience of listening to these five songs as they were presented on the album's "first pressing", recorded acoustically during the New York sessions, resulting in an album which was an offering that CBS executives thought was way too bleak and it is said that Dylan, in consultation with his confidantes, agreed, as he subsequently re-recorded the songs. (Odd though, considering that Planet Waves had been pretty sparse too, yet a more "commercial sound" was being sought after). As for the said songs - If You See Her Say Hello in its initial form is beautiful, with a deep, warm, melodic bass line; Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts is slower, acoustic and fits in better with the rest of the album, not being in possession of its later, faster country drum beat; Idiot Wind is also more acoustic and its lyrics are clearer, making them possibly more pointed; You're A Big Girl Now has a gentler, more homegrown, slightly country appeal enhanced by some subtle steel guitar and organ backing; Tangled Up In Blue, however, has some slight differences in the lyrics and delivery that make it one that was probably improved in its later form, for me.


Finally on to my second main point, and this is most important to me, I want to make a case for the often-maligned Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts. It is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time. It was the first song I heard from this album, back in 1975 and I bought the album as a result. Ok, I accept that it sits rather strangely amidst the soul-searching, lyrical poetry of much of the album's other material. However, it is a truly great Dylan "narrative poem" in the same style as Brownsville GirlHurricane and, latterly, Tempest (another one that divides fans). I guess you either like Dylan's "story songs" or you don't. Yes, it is repetitive, musically and in the fact that it is verse after verse irritates some people. However, I love the characterisation, the story, the cinematic atmosphere, Dylan's delivery. It is perfect in every way as far as I'm concerned. I absolutely love it and always have done.



Of, course, I love the rest of the album too - the great poetic songs of Tangled Up In Blue, with its marvellous imagery, about "Italian poets" and so on and the lovely Shelter From The Storm; the tortured and tender love songs - the beguiling Simple Twist Of Fate, the sensitive You're A Big Girl Now and the lovelorn If You See Her Say Hello with their spectacular turns of phrase.

Then there is the slow, insistent blues of Meet Me In The Morning and the two folky "short songs" that end each of the old "sides" - the folky blues of Buckets Of Rain and Dylan trying to be thoughtful and sensitive on You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. All marvellous in their own pure, simplistic way. These were not tracks of particular wordsmithery but therein lies their appeal when compared to the poetic shimmering of the other songs.

The thing about the album which is often overlooked is that it is not all made up of embittered, heartbroken "break-up blues", lyrically. There are several lovely, tender moments - You're A Big GirlSimple Twist Of Fate and the winsome country of You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Even the lover's lament of If You See Her Say Hello is a gentle, affectionate song - these are genuinely touching love songs. A song like the simply gorgeous Shelter From The Storm is certainly not a bitter, resentful one, either. It is one that misses better times gone by. 

There is only one truly vituperative number, isn't there, though - lest we forget, the titanic Idiot Wind - Dylan spitting out invective left, right and centre bemoaning his broken relationship, the press and the state of the country/world in general. Even in his criticism though, his use of language is magnificent. I don't have words to describe it sufficiently, I'm afraid. Much as I have declared my love for Lily, Idiot has to be the jewel in the crown.

Another counter to the "bitter, divorce. vitriol..." clichés trotted out about the album is that it ends with two quite tender songs in the reassuring loyalty of Shelter From The Storm and the melodic, unthreatening, almost throwaway country vibe of the short Buckets Of Rain. Nothing about Dylan is clear, though, is it?

This was one of the century's greatest albums. No question. Dylan was finally shedding the burden of his classic 1964-1966 period and proving that he could once again produce a spectacular piece of work. Even at the time I remember feeling that this was an artist re-discovering his greatness. Not all contemporary journalists took that view, though, and notable names such as NME's Nick Kent, who called it "trashy" and soon to be Springsteen champion Jon Landau, who said it had been "made with typical shoddiness", wrote reviews that they presumably felt embarrassed about in later years. It took a few months for its greatness to be slowly acknowledged, which was a noteworthy oddity.

As for me, I'm no journalist but I never tire of listening to it, all these years later. I feel I should have written more about it but for some reason I can't (the same applied to Blonde On Blonde). Maybe Dylan's compositions say all that is needed. Of course they do. 

** The two notable excluded tracks from the album's sessions were the bassy, typical Dylan blues of Call Letter Blues, which was probably too close to Meet Me In The Morning to be included and Up To Me, a song very similar to both Tangled Up In Blue and Shelter From The Storm, just with different lyrics. It is actually a lyrical goldmine in its six minutes plus and is a strong contender in the "great forgotten, not included on albums gems" stakes. Both of these are fine songs, but their similarity to others on the album means that their omission was probably the correct call. The entrancing, mysterious Up To Me will always spark discussion and debate, however. There are around five or six versions of it, I think, all of which have a slightly different feel to them, which adds to its considerable intrigue.




Rolling Thunder Live: The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (1975)


Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You/It Ain't Me Babe/A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall/The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll/Romance In Durango/Isis/Mr. Tambourine Man/Simple Twist Of Fate/Blowin' In The Wind/Mama, You Been On My Mind/I Shall Be Released/It's All Over Now, Baby Blue/Love Minus Zero/No Limit/Tangled Up In Blue/The Water Is Wide/It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry/Oh Sister/Hurricane/One More Cup Of Coffee/Sara/Just Like A Woman/Knockin' On Heaven's Door  
  
This is my preferred live recording from the Rolling Thunder tour. Although it is not one complete concert, neither does it replicate a set list it does sort of play as if it were a concert. The recordings are from a fair few different venues and are from the widely accepted superior first half of the tour. The venues are all indoors, and consequently the sound is much better than the muffled outdoor venue sound to be found on Hard Rain, the other live recording from this tour, from the second half.

The sound is pretty good on here throughout and Dylan and the band are on fine form overall, with an early tour freshness and vitality about them.


Highlights are a slightly reggae-ish It Ain't Me Babe; a rocking, guitar-driven A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; a bassy, shuffling The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; (good to hear those older tracks given a run out); and the Desire tracks, which are all done excellently, augmented by Scarlet Rivera's unique violin. Check out her contributions to Oh Sister and Hurricane too. Isis and Romance In Durango are also delivered superbly, full of attack and enthusiasm. Dylan seems to be enjoying himself immensely. Later in the collection, Hurricane and Sara are equally impressive.

Simple Twist Of Fate is performed in the original, acoustic Blood On The Tracks style, which is nice to hear. Love Minus Zero/No Limit is done beautifully, also faithful to the original. The same applies to Tangled Up In Blue. Dylan is often the great re-interpreter of his material, and while some of the songs on here are given new makeovers, I like the fact that some of them are played straight. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry is played with a verve and vitality as if it were a new track, as opposed to being recorded ten years previously. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm on this album. There is some quality too, such as the intoxicating percussion intro to the beguiling One More Cup Of Coffee.




Desire (1976)


Hurricane/Isis/Mozambique/One More Cup Of Coffee/Oh, Sister/Joey/Romance In Durango/Black Diamond Bay/Sara

"If I had crossed the street seconds earlier" - Scarlet Rivera              

Following on from Bob Dylan's successful Rolling Thunder tour this album utilises the same large group of musicians that had troubadoured around with Dylan the previous year. It is one of his most "collaborative" albums, musicians-wise and began its genesis only a few months after the release of Blood On The Tracks. It is, however, a completely different album in its overall sound, is ambience and its lyrics. Its sound is more upbeat, heavily-centred around the use of a violin and its lyrics not influenced by the previous one's emotional angst.

There is a strange story emanating from the early months of the creation of this violin-dominated 1976 album - apparently Dylan was being driven around Manhattan and saw violinist Scarlet Rivera carrying violin around Greenwich Village in a case. Dylan stopped to talk to her and she ended up playing a huge part on this album, contributing a great deal to the unique sound. Rivera herself has said that if she had been a few seconds earlier or later, the whole thing would never have happened. Such is fate, and, indeed, musical mythology. I would like to think it is true. She says it is.

 
                                   
I am a big fan of Dylan's "story songs" and there are two great ones here - the tale of wrongly accused boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the iconic Hurricane (which also features Emmylou Harris on backing vocals) and Joey, an extremely over-romanticised tale, based on true events, of an Italian-American mobster, Joey Gallo, who met his end in a "clam bar in New York". Apparently the real Gallo was not the kindly, avuncular old chap who didn't deserve to be "blown away", as Dylan's song positively portrays him. Despite that, it is still a superb narrative song though, full of atmosphere.

For many, Hurricane stood as obvious proof that the old sixties protestor had got his fist-pumping mojo back but it stands pretty much alone in this period as a lone, surprising song about injustice. It didn't really represent any sort of change - in fact the opposite - it still remains a bit of an incongruity. Either way, it is just an iconic narrative song, a wonderful tale of Carter's stitch-up by the police and the corrupt, racist nature of the legal system. Again, like Joey, it is overflowing with great Dylan characterisation.

Incidentally, I went to the restaurant in New York's Little Italy where Gallo's shooting took place and posed outside for a photo which I have now, infuriatingly, mislaid.

Other songs with something of an evocative, cinematic quality are the Mexican-flavoured Romance In Durango ("...hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun..." - what a great opening line) and Dylan's heartfelt plea for forgiveness to his wife, (soon to be ex-wife), Sara. It contains the legendary line "staying up for days in the Chelsea hotel, writing "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" for you...". It is one of Dylan's greatest love songs, and contains none of the vitriol contained in something like Idiot Wind from Blood On The Tracks. Whatever irked him enough to write Idiot Wind had long blown away on that very wind and he was now well and truly gushing all over Sara again. 

Also tender in its lyrical content is the rarely-mentioned but touching Oh Sister

Also very atmospheric are the beguiling Mozambique and the very Eastern/Sufi-influenced One More Cup Of Coffee evoke many different images. The latter was, along with the rejected track Abandoned Love, the first material written for the album and was apparently inspired by a visit to a gypsy festival in the Camargue area of south-west France. 

Isis is packed full of all sorts of images too, as are many of Dylan's songs, as we know. This one has its roots in Egyptian mythology and carries hints of Mexican folklore too. Dylan liked a few Mexican references in the seventies, Romance In Durango containing many more. Dylan sings in the first person as the male character in the song, ending when Isis asks him if he is going to say and he replies "if you want me to, yes...". I have always liked the apparently offhand tenderness of that line. 

Black Diamond Bay is a captivating, lively and rhythmic song about an earthquake on a small island and the outside, larger world's general level of apathy and disassociation towards it. It was inspired, apparently, by the often nautically-based work of Jospeh Conrad.

Overall, the album is a tuneful, interesting one, musically, with debts to Middle Eastern music. Mexican music and Caribbean melodies. There is an overall air of summer heat about it, for me. Lyrically it is packed with all sorts of images and characters and it is one of Dylan's best albums for that. The use of violin is a unique masterstroke, but not one that would be repeated. Next up, on Street Legal, it would be the saxophone taking centre stage.


I have to say that the run of albums from 1974 to 1979 - Blood On The TracksDesireStreet Legal and Slow Train Coming is up there with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 RevisitedBlonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding as one of the two great Dylan quartets.

The sound on the edition I have is excellent, it is the one from the Complete Albums Collection but the SACD release from 2004 is similarly impressive.

** There are three songs that were recorded during this album's sessions that didn't make the final cut. Indeed, the very first track laid down for the album was the winsome, violin-driven Abandoned Love that features Scarlet Rivera's talents to the max, together with a nice bass line, acoustic melody and an impressive harmonica at the end too. It is a fine song which would have fitted in well on the album. There was really no need to have omitted it, but that was Dylan for you. Only Springsteen has come close to as many incomprehensible omissions. 

Catfish was a slow bluesy, sleepy number about a baseball player, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, apparently. It would have been a bit incongruous on the album. The slightly folky Golden Looms, however, has more of the album's typical violin and drums sound.



Hard Rain (1976)


Maggie's Farm/One Too Many Mornings/Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again*/Oh Sister*/Lady Lady Lay*/Shelter From The Storm/You're A Big Girl Now/I Threw It All Away*/Idiot Wind

It is what it is, Hard Rain. Maybe messy. Maybe magnificent. Maybe messily magnificent. Despite its remastering for the Complete Works box set, there are still a few problems with the somewhat muddy sound, for me. On the other hand, there is definitely an ad hoc energy about it. Personally, I prefer the Rolling Thunder Bootleg Series from the same period, by far. This does catch an artist and a band just "going for it" in a slightly shambolic but enthusiastic manner though. It is raw and edgy and, as many have commented in the years since it was released, Dylan was going through a bit of an angry, relationship breakdown period and this undoubtedly affected his gritted teeth, committed performance. Of course, it is a vitally important album, chronologically, in Dylan's career. More so than its musical worth, probably.

It is worth noting that the tracks are taken from two concerts - Fort Collins, Colorado and Fort Worth, Texas (the performances from the latter are asterisked * below). So, there is not the continuity of a single show. This adds to the disorganised feel of the album. Another observation is that Dylan wore a biblical style head-dress for the Fort Collins show of the sort worn by children in nativity plays. His appearance was, intentional or not, very Messiah-like.


Maggie's Farm is rocking and ramshackle, full of unrestrained vitality. One Too Many Mornings is enhanced by some excellent violin from Scarlet RiveraStuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again is done vibrantly, with a catchy bass line from Rob Stoner. Dylan is on fine form, vocally, on this too, doing the wordy song justice, thankfully.

Oh Sister again features that lovely violin and a strong delivery from Dylan. Lady Lady Lay is a bit muffled, sound-wise, with a bit of background hiss. Maybe it was chucking it down at the time. Shelter From The Storm is given a slightly reggae-ish makeover on its verses and it positively bristles with an almost punky anger as Dylan spits and bellows out the lyrics. It is a radical re-working of the reflective number we all know from Blood On The Tracks. It is quite visceral in places.



You're A Big Girl Now has a fetching guitar backing and Dylan's delivery is suitably respectful of the sombre, plaintive original. Nice piano on it too. One of the album's best interpretations. I Threw It All Away is the only live performance of it that I have. Unfortunately it is a slightly grating, at times, delivery of one of Nashville Skyline's best songs. Dylan's voice is jarring, as is the unnecessarily clashing guitar sound. Then, of course, there is Idiot Wind. For many, this is the definitive performance of the song. As far as I know it is the only official live cut of the track. It is certainly the only one I have. It is a snarling, incredibly wired rendition of the song, and by far the best track on the album. Not only is an irked Dylan "up for it" but the band are too. When he sings "I can't feel you anymore..." he sounds close to tears. All his raging glory, indeed.

Overall, despite its cultural importance, for me it is nowhere near his best live work. For a lot of people it is, though, and that is fair enough. I can sort of see why, but I can never get past the less-than-perfect sound.



Street-Legal (1978)


Changing Of The Guards/New Pony/No Time To Think/Baby Please Stop Crying/Is Your Love In Vain?/Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)/True Love Tends To Forget/We Better Talk This Over/Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)

"I brought my steel guitar and I had it in rehearsal and every time I'd go to start unpacking it, Bob would go, 'We don't need that.' All of a sudden the instrument that I played all over the place in the previous band, he didn't want to see it, let alone hear it" - David Mansfield

This review is for the fantastic remastering of the 2003 Greg Calbi release and not the remastering that appeared in 2013’s Complete Works box set. For some reason, that remaster is infinitely inferior to the 2003 one, in my opinion. This one blows the more recent one out of the water. It is full, bassy, punchy and brings songs like New Pony and No Time To Think to new life.

Back to the album. Released in 1978, following from Blood On The Tracks and Desire. Hmmm. Tough ask. In many ways, though, this is my favourite Dylan album. As a young punk in 1978 I loved it. I loved the saxophone-based sound, played by Spector (and Mink De Ville) veteran Steve Douglas. I loved the romance of many of the songs and also the urgency in Dylan's delivery. Many find the album too dominated by the saxophone, too sort of poppy in its approach and that it utilises too many gospelly female backing vocalists. They criticise another of my favourites, the same year’s Live At Budokan for the same reasons. Personally, these are some of the reasons I like it. Dylan, heavily in debt due to his mess divorce from Sara, however, was at his most irascible during the hurried recording of the album. You would never have known, though, as it comes over as breezy, accessible and vibrant, surprisingly.

 

Changing Of The Guards is a stormer of an opener - “on midsummer’s eve, near the tower”- then that thrilling saxophone riff. I love this song, its glorious imagery and its celebratory tone. There is a notorious mistake left in the recording at one point when Dylan fails to come in at the right place but it doesn't affect the song's infectious ambience much. 


New Pony is a repetitive, slightly pedestrian but still appealing, familiar Dylan blues and it now sounds great. Check out that guitar sound.

No Time To Think is an eight minute, piano driven masterpiece. Again it is packed with imagery and enhanced, in my opinion, by the female backing vocalists (as I said, I know that there are many do not share that opinion). 

Baby Please Stop Crying was a surprise hit in the summer of 1978. It shouldn’t really be a surprise, as it had a laid-back radio-friendly sound. I remember at the time that it sounded odd hearing Dylan played on daytime pop radio.

The old “side two” began with the beautiful saxophone and yearning lyrics of Is Your Love In Vain? (a track dismissed by many as too poppy and shallow, but not by me) before we progress to another of the album’s cornerstones - Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power) - with its much-quoted line of “tell me where is it you're heading, Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”. Great percussion backing on this and Dylan’s mysterious, questioning vocal. It is the track that most Dylanologists claim saved the album. I can accept that to an extent but there are definitely several other fine tracks on there.



True Love Tends To Forget is another lovely, romantic, saxophone-dominated goodie, again, many dislike it but I, perversely I guess, love it. 

We Better Talk This Over is a melodious, laid back piece of soulful easy rock and the closer, the magnificent Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat), with its insistent Paul Simon-esque rhythms and New York references. I once walked along Elizabeth Street one evening just because Dylan mentions it in this song. Unfortunately, it proved to be just an unremarkable, busy city street. In the song, though, there is a wonderful atmosphere and it is full of evocative images. It is one of my favourites on what is a favourite album of all time. In contrast to 99.9% of Dylan aficionados I feel there is not a duff track on the album.

Regarding popular analysis, many will say that there are deep religious references buried in the lyrics of songs like Señor and possibly Changing Of The Guard and No Time To Think that would provide a pointer to Dylan’s new direction - a shock salvation that would pre-occupy him for the next four years. There was a slow train coming.


** Interestingly, between Desire and the sessions for this album, a track was recorded called Seven Days, that was probably far more likely the first sign of Dylan's increasing spirituality. It is a lively, bassy groove in the Desire style. I can understand why it didn't make this album, though, it wouldn't quite have fitted in.




Live At Budokan (1978)


Mr. Tambourine Man/Shelter From The Storm/Love Minus Zero/No Limits/Ballad Of A Thin Man/Don't Twice Twice, It's Alright/Maggie's Farm/One More Cup Of Coffee/Like A Rolling Stone/I Shall Be Released/Is Your Love In Vain?/Going, Going, Gone/Blowin' In The Wind/Just Like A Woman/Oh Sister/Simple Twist Of Fate/All Along The Watchtower/I Want You/All I Really Want To Do/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)/Forever Young/The Times They Are A-Changin' 

"The fire and brimstone are behind Dylan, but this hardly means the fight has gone out of him: Bob Dylan at 'Budokan' is a very contentious effort—and, for the most part, a victorious one" - Janet Maslin - Rolling Stone

It may surprise readers of this review when I reveal that this is my favourite Bob Dylan live album. For pretty much everyone else, it would seem to be the exact opposite! It was recorded during Dylan's tour to Japan in 1978, where, to please the Japanese audience, he agreed to play quite a few of his "greatest hits". Also, he assembled a large band that interpreted the material in a light, commercial, almost singalong way. There was lots of melodious flute and Phil Spector session veteran Steve Douglas provided some magnificent saxophone, both of those things are to my taste, particularly the saxophone. The way the material is played appals many Dylan aficionados, despising its "crowd-pleasing" nuances. Many prefer the muffled, scratchy intense sound of Hard Rain, an album I personally cannot warm to at all. I do like the Rolling Thunder live material from 1976, however, and, of course, Before The Flood. Despite the excellence of those two, I still prefer this one. Yes, I know, I know.

 
              
Highlights for me are many - a delicious Love Minus Zero/No Limits, a mysterious One More Cup Of CoffeeIs Your Love In VainGoing, Going, Gone, a version of I Want You that is actually close to that done by Bruce Springsteen in 1975, and fantastic versions of Blowin' In The WindKnockin' On Heaven's Door and a tear-jerking Forever Young to end. The latter is the best version of the song I have heard Dylan do - clearly enunciated, emotional and just beautiful. One of his finest live performances. The Times They Are A Changin' is great too. Personally, I love hearing Dylan so keen to please. Give this a listen and give it a bit of a reassessment.

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