Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

7. Blonde On Blonde (1966)

"Okay, we're gonna play some new stuff now" is a phrase that has struck fear into the hearts of many a gig-goer down the years, for understandable reasons. However, when reading about the reactions Dylan and his new backing band The Hawks faced during the 1966 world tour, I was shocked at just how furiously some audience members welcomed this new "thin, wild mercury sound". It seems unimaginable these days that folks not only booed and catcalled when faced with this material, but large sections of them actually walked out - and this happened night after night, in country after country.  It must have depressed the hell out of those on stage, and it's not surprising that Bob was in no hurry to resume touring after his motorbike accident in June of that year.

Following several abortive attempts to record in NYC with The Hawks, the vast majority of Blonde On Blonde was made in Nashville with Hawk Robbie Robertson, organist Al Kooper and a host of top-rate sessioneers including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy who'd appeared on Highway's Desolation Row.  As a result, the album is smoother and musically more accomplished than anything he'd put out before, with the long, late-night sessions adding an enchanting sleepiness to many tracks.

This is particularly apparent on the love songs.  Dylan hadn't been very preoccupied with women on Highway, and he makes up for it here.  On the gorgeous Visions Of Johanna his infatuation is set to a laid-back Stax groove the MGs would be proud of.  This is the first time his oft-impersonated elasticated vowels have really come to the fore, and I must admit that they did induce a few giggles the first couple of times as I got used to their stretching and contracting.  I'm over it now, and it has become one of my very favourite tracks.

I was surprised to find out that I already knew the equally smitten I Want You, but then realised it must be on the 2007 "Dylan" compilation CD we have knocking about the house somewhere. Although it has a poppy, upbeat sound, and is apparently written about his new wife, to me it's always had a yearning quality that suggests an unrequited love.

Another surprise to me, this time when reading about the album, was the view that Just Like A Woman is somehow misogynistic.  I'd never thought of it that way at all; to me it's about how someone who seems confident and together still has vulnerabilities, rather than a load of sexist accusations.  Perhaps this is because the version I'm most familiar with is sung by a woman; Nina Simone's on her Here Comes The Sun covers album.  Also, the gentle way in which Bob performs it here rules out any callous intent as far as I'm concerned.

Long-winded album closer Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands was also written for his new bride Sarah.  I'm sure they are meant as compliments, but what exactly are "your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs", not to mention "sheet-metal memory"?  It's a beautiful song, but for me doesn't have the same emotional pull of the other love songs, perhaps because of the inferior melody, or maybe just the sheer length of it - although 11-minute songs don't usually put me off.

Elsewhere, women get a rather more merciless treatment, particularly on the highly entertaining 12 bar blues of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, which mocks a dedicated follower of fashion as well as giving us a searing guitar solo from Robertson.  There are three breakup songs; One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) which is the the only non-Nashville recording and has some lovely tumbling piano from Paul Griffin, the rather less apologetic Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) and my favourite; the weary Temporary Like Achilles where Bob is the one being dumped.

A late-night wooziness seeps out of the drunken Vaudeville of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, and reminds me of Something Happened To Me Yesterday from the Rolling Stones' Between The Buttons album from the following year.  I very much doubt that it's a drug song as some hear it, as there are several, more convincing possible interpretations of the lyrics (although the same can't be said for the Stones track!).  Whatever he means to say, Dylan is clearly having a good time, as are the other musicians, who not only were encouraged to have a few drinks (and whatever else), but also to swap their instruments around, resulting in a gleefully clumsy brass section, my favourite of which is the Flumps-evoking trombone (confused non-UK readers see here: ).

Bob meets the British invaders head-on with their own sound on Obviously 5 Believers, with its Merseybeat rhythms and a Stonesy harmonica riff courtesy of Charlie McCoy.  This transatlantic cross-pollination is more marked on 4th Time Around, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Norwegian Wood both musically and lyrically, and seems to be a gentle dig at Lennon's more Dylan-inspired songwriting efforts rather than out and out mickey taking.

Blonde On Blonde is heavily blues-influenced, and the slow, lazy Pledging My Time is the bluesiest song of all, with squealing harmonica squeezed into every available space. Absolutely Sweet Marie has its share of pervy blues language, including references to "beating on my trumpet" and "your railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it".

My favourite song on the album - at least at the moment - is the wonderful country rock of Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; nine verses of surreal shenanigans from a cast of characters that includes Shakespeare, the rainman, a French girl, a preacher with "20 pounds of headlines stapled to his chest" and Ruthie with her enticing "honky-tonk lagoon".  Robertson's guitar flourishes and Al Kooper's spiralling organ lift an already great song to the heights of classic status, but the best part is Bob's final "Awww, MAMA!" which makes me grin from ear to ear, (tricky when you're trying to sing along) and usually moves me to play it a second time before moving on.

Blonde On Blonde is an album that's often cited as being Dylan's best work of the whole of his vast catalogue.  I can't yet comment on this, but I'm not surprised to learn that it stands at no.9 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Album of All Time.  I don't know what's coming next in the BobBox, but it has a lot to live up to.

What does Blonde On Blonde mean to you?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

***BobBox price check***

When I bought this box set back in February it had plummeted in price to £89.36.  Since then (on amazon UK) the price has risen to over £150, crept down again and continues to fluctuate.  With those tempted to buy the set in mind, I'm adding a UK price check to the end of every blog post: - £145.43 (free postage)
Discogs - from £110.29
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 31/03/2015

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

6. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

If 'Bringing It All Back Home' was Bob testing the waters of this new electric, literate rock, Highway 61 Revisited sees him gleefully diving right in.

Highway is essentially seven really great songs sandwiched between two staggeringly, thumpingly, magnificent ones. There can't be many people who've never heard opening track Like A Rolling Stone before, and this is the only one here with which I was already familiar.

The words are directed at someone who's suffered a loss of innocence, an undoing of sorts; who this might be in real life, if anyone, I don't know, but boy do I feel sorry for them!  Not for their circumstances, but for the way Bob lays them absolutely bare.  At times his voice sounds like it's performing an exorcism rather than a putdown, and the band contribute layer upon layer of wonderful, textured din-making.  Al Kooper's famous organ riff manages to make an already brilliant song transcendent, and the track as a whole has an unstoppable momentum, feeling to me as if once the engineer has faded them out, the guys just keep on playing and playing.

The clattering urban Tombstone Blues is followed by the loping piano of It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.  Whereas at the start of this journey through the box set it rather got on my nerves, I'm now fully on board with the harmonica thing, and the latter has a great break at the end.  Next is some fun garage-rock in the shape of From A Buick 6, with its Nuggets-y guitars and talk of a "graveyard woman/soulful mama".  It provides some short, sharp relief before Dylan lays into another poor soul on Ballad Of A Thin Man, this time the terminally uncool Mr. Jones (probably a symbol for the wider media) and his attempts to understand the prevailing counterculture.  The atmosphere transmitted by the boomy bass and spooky organ make me imagine Bob sitting alone at a cobwebbed piano in a once-hip derelict lounge club, broken bottles and debris strewn about the floor and smashed mirrors behind the bar.

His acid disapproval is present yet again on Queen Jane Approximately, where accompanied by surfy, slightly discordant guitar he's willing a woman to "come see" him once her superficial world inevitably comes crashing down.  No-one can sneer quite like Uncle Bob, especially in 1965 it seems!

As well as the garage-rock sound, 'Highway' is notable for the abundance of keys; pianos, electric piano and electric organ are all frequently employed, giving the album real depth and a cohesive feel.  I particularly like the organ on the title track, which along with the siren whistle give it a raucous, driving energy.  The highway is painted as the solution to everything.  This could be referring to the fact that US Route 61, which runs 1400 miles north to south (also known as the 'Blues Highway') acted as an important route for African Americans traveling away from the Deep South, meaning that the road was indeed a solution to many folks' problems.  It of course has its most northern point close to Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, so perhaps has a particular resonance for him.

There's an ace piano/organ intro on next track Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.  I also love Bob's more soulful singing here, and the way he extends the last syllable at the end of every other line, so that as he describes a rather crappy trip to Mexico (putting it mildly), we get "faaame"... "claaaim"... "sooon"... and "mooon" as a weary, er, crooon.  Sorry.  At the end of the song he decides to head back to the comforts of NYC.  This would have made a great album closer and I'm sure that at this point many artists would be quite happy to rest on their laurels, but no - Dylan ain't finished yet - he hits us with this:

Just when we think we know where we are, he once again pulls the rug out from under us with an acoustic number.  I've listened to Desolation Row a lot over the past week or so; it's certainly the one that's been in my head most often as I fall asleep at night.  The narrator and his 'Lady' look out upon a cruel, twisted world from Desolation Row (not sure whether this is a place or a disposition) on to a gigantic cast of characters fictional and real that includes Nero, Ophelia, Cinderella, Cain and Abel, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound.

It's a world in which I become completely immersed at each listen, pulled in as much by the beautiful interactions between Bob's guitar and Charlie McCoy's gorgeous counter-melody as by the surreal, chaotic scenes.

Highway 61 Revisited displays more cynicism than celebration but is no less enjoyable for it. Kicking off with a barnstormer and concluding with an epic 10-verse ballad is a good start, but the whole album is well sequenced and there's not a duff track in sight (although the astounding bookends can make some of these others seem weak, but only by comparison).

I'm excited to find out which direction along the highway he's going to take next, but at this stage if asked "How does it feel?", I would have to say: Marvellous, Bob. Bloody marvellous.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

5. Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

As stated in the previous post, Bringing It All Back Home is one of the three Dylan albums I already owned before buying this huge box set, as I found a vinyl copy last year at a car boot sale (1980s Nice Price reissue, record VG, sleeve G, £4 since you ask), so although I was in for no surprises, I was still very much looking forward to listening to it.

It was his fifth album release in four years, coming just seven months after Another Side - a normal work rate for the first half of the 1960s, but almost unimaginable today.  Just as astonishing is that it was recorded over only three days; astonishing that is until we remind ourselves of the time taken to record Another Side.

Despite the cover photo where Bob is looking every inch the rock star, surrounded by carefully arranged props (including a hot chick), I'd imagine that the opening track still startled a few hippies out of their sandals when they heard it, as I dare say the last thing his watchers were expecting was a song they could DANCE to.  The terrific Subterranean Homesick Blues with it's nicked Chuck Berry riff and tornado of counterculture references fills my head with reels of pimps, bent cops, junkies, hookers and pushers, before reminding me that although the school/job/square life might offer a better alternative, both have their indignities and comforts so you might as well do what you want - which is just what Dylan was now beginning to do.

Side 1 is Bob and his band; a fully electrified - and electrifying - set of songs which showed that rock 'n' roll could be about more than boy meets girl/girl dumps boy (although there's some of that too).  The musicians provide loose, energetic accompaniment on rollicking blues-rockers Outlaw Blues and On The Road Again.  On the wonderfully sneery one take wonder Maggie's Farm it's made pretty clear that he is now lost to the the folk set that he saw as tying him down.

Tender moments come with the gorgeous Love Minus Zero/No Limit and She Belongs To Me. Both seem to venerate some bewitching woman, but the latter is not blind adoration as her frailties are also described.  One great line from this is "She's a hypnotic collector, you are a walking antique".

One of my favourite moments on the album is the false start (staged?) at the beginning of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, where his girly chuckling sets the tone for the surreal rambling adventure that drops various historical and literary references into one of his long, mischievous tales.  It's also a right toe-tapper.

Although much of the album can be heard as a kiss-off to his former self, with Side 2 he seems to be hedging his bets somewhat, as apart from some accompaniment from a guitarist providing some lovely counter melodies, plus a bit of bass in ..Baby Blue, it's an all-acoustic solo affair. Three of the songs on this half were transformed into powered janglers by The Byrds, but here the electricity is in Dylan's vocal performance, from the gentle trickle of Mr. Tambourine Man to the sour, metallic charge of Gates of Eden.  I'm not about to attempt to analyse the lyrics of the more abstract songs - I'm certainly not that way inclined and I think to try would be to miss the point of this blog.  I relish the sounds made by words such as "The lamppost stands with folded arms, Its iron claws attached, To curbs ’neath holes where babies wail, Though it shadows metal badge", and appreciate their curious juxtapositions without wanting them tediously 'decoded', although I understand how others could (hello Dylanologists!).

The language, as well as beguiling, adds a particular texture to the songs, which on the acoustic numbers demands my attention more forcefully.  It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) is one of Bob's most quotable songs so far, and despite the disillusioned, unsettling lyrics, one I find oddly reassuring, even optimistic.  Mind you, when it's going round in my head (as it has been a lot lately) it more often than not morphs into Wake Up Little Susie.

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue is another pleasing kiss-off album closer.  As he sings about "reindeer armies" and "the empty-handed painter"  I'm as bewitched and bewildered as ever, but when he gets to "The carpet, too, is moving under you" I get the feeling that the rug is about to pulled out from under out feet entirely with the next record.

What is this album to you?  Whether you've heard it 3 or 300 times, do leave your thoughts in the comments below.  Hopefully I'll be back in a couple of weeks with Highway 61 Revisited - I say hopefully as my laptop is about to fall apart and I'm trying to sort out a new one.  Fingers crossed!

Monday, 2 March 2015

4. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)

I really liked this one.  From the opening track it's clear that the lightheartedness and sense of humour missing from The Times They Are A-Changin' are back.  All I Really Want To Do has yodelling, unsuppressed laughter and even a cough is left in.  I suspect that this song was cut towards the end of the 6-hour plonk-fuelled single recording session on the 9th of June 1964, as it's the most (enjoyably) sloppy, but cheek and wit are also present throughout such tunes as Motorpsycho Nitemare and the talking blues of I Shall Be Free, No. 10 ("I'm a poet, I know It. Hope I don't blow it!").  But even away from the deliberately absurd songs, such as break-up number Black Crow Blues (where Bob pounds a piano for a change) it seems as though he's made a conscious decision to throw off the shackles of being the 'voice of a generation' and leave the overt, what he called "finger pointing songs" behind.  That's not to say there's no politics here - they're just dressed in less specific, more poetic language.

It's at this point where I must admit that before I heard this album I was somewhat familiar with several of the songs, mainly because perversely, I already owned The Byrds Play Bob Dylan without knowing the originals.  Chimes of Freedom is an undoubted highlight.  Not only is the imagery pouring out of him over these astonishing seven minutes (my favourite line is "Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales"), but the melody is incredibly uplifting, making it his most hopeful-sounding song yet.

Another stonker, also memorably covered by The Byrds is My Back Pages, where again he seems to be rejecting the "Lies that life is black and white" and entering a new phase.  I can hear anger, but like Chimes of Freedom it's passionate, vivid and an absolute TUNE.  Here he is in 1992 busting it out with a few mates.

This new, more personal stage includes plenty of relationship songs, such as the beautiful To Ramona, a probably futile attempt to comfort and advise a lover, and Spanish Harlem Incident, whose lyrics I found as captivating as Bob's spellbinding gypsy gal.  I hated the mean, overlong Ballad In Plain D, an eight-minute bitchfest which I wasn't surprised to learn he later wished he'd left off the album.  He becomes the dumpee in I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met), and reverts to dumper in closer It Ain't Me Babe, another of my favourites here, of which I'd only heard the Johnny and June version before.  It's clear that the "it's not you, it's me" message could easily apply to the folkie fans of his protest records.  He's moving on alright.

This is almost certainly (almost!) my favourite Dylan album so far, due to the killer combo of the colourful, often bewildering lyrics and some properly belting tunes.  I realise it marks an important transition, and I'm pretty excited, because the next album out of the box is one I already know, since I found a vinyl copy at a car boot sale last summer.  Things are about to get really interesting.

What do you think of this album?  What does it mean to you?  Tell me in the comments below.