Tag Archives: 1966

Music Review: ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ by Bob Dylan

A retro-review of a classic album..

Thoughts inspired by the music.

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Well, I try my best
To be just who I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

– “Maggie’s Farm”

Many confuse the reality of old with the definition of classic. Old is old. Many of us have, or are beginning to, understand just how much fun that is. A classic maintains its relevance over time. It is not of its time but, rather, for all time.

And, so, the Nobel committee conferred the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Bob Dylan, who has referred to himself as both “a song and dance man” and “just a guitar player.” Bono (the lead singer of U2) said in Rolling Stone that Dylan “busted through the artifice to get to the art.” [Or, perhaps, the heart. -ed.] Many people enjoy any opportunity to suggest that Dylan cannot sing (to which I refer you to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” from Greatest Hits Volume II, “Love Minus Zero” from MTV Unplugged, Blood on the Tracks. the outtakes included on Tell Tale Signs, such as “Girl From the Red River Shore,” etc., etc., etc.) But, people are welcome to their opinion.

And that is the point. The Nobel committee shared its opinion. Allow me to share mine.

When I was growing up, there was this concept called “The Canon.” It was what every educated person needed to read. Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the like. Well, my father was an English major and, like any good son, I could not imagine anything better than being like him. Now I realize I never stood a chance. He remains one helluva man. I can only hope people speak as highly of me when all is said and done as they do of him. Fat chance, but I do my best. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I love you, Dad.

So, I became an English major, and I got angry with business majors and engineers who never read anything. Dammit, how can you get a degree without reading Hamlet? Everybody has to read this stuff during their formal education or they never will. Well, I was wrong. First, you have to allow people to willingly expose themselves to ideas, imagine different alternatives, and see that their reality is not the only reality. Example: I read Moby Dick in my 30s. It was among the most tedious and disagreeable texts that I ever read – voluntarily or by force (Tristam Shandy and Clarissa excluded). Others would argue that it is great literature. Well, put this in front of a 16-year-old kid (it was traditionally a novel included in the sophomore high school curriculum), and don’t be surprised if young adults refuse to read “literature” again.

Recent events have re-energized those who are inclined to take their shots at Dylan. Perhaps some are envious that their ideas do not resonate with the soul to the extent that many of his do. I cannot help that. Let me remind you that Fitzgerald was oft criticized in his time as being “too autobiographical.” Does anyone wish that they had written The Great Gatsby? I sure as hell do.

So what is literature, if not a tool to provoke one to think and feel ideas and emotions that they have not previously experienced via their everyday existence? What is it if it does not spark in one the imagination to move beyond what they thought possible? Emotion sparks thought; rather than the other way around.

Many associate Dylan and 1965 with the Newport Jazz Festival and the instant that he “went electric.” But between March 22, 1965, and May 16, 1966 – 14 months, Dylan released three of the most seminal pieces of art of the 20th/21st century, these being Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Arguably, the thoughts, themes, and ideas that resonate here had not been expressed with this intensity in this time frame and in a manner that so challenged the social mores. No other works exposed the nature of the human soul so candidly since the 1490s (if you get my drift).

In The Mayor of McDougal Street, Dave Von Ronk, who was considered the king of Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the late 50s/early 60s, addressed the hidden sore spot of Dylan’s rise to fame. He said, essentially, that if you are the guy who writes “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” then you are the guy, period. Enough said.

“Hard Rain” was first released on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. And one could turn to “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan to suggest that his transformation from folk-protest singer to humanist-muse was not only in progress, but already completed.

Humans, however, do not tolerate change easily. So Bob decided to discard the subtle and get even more explicitly in our faces.

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The reason why Bringing It All Back Home blew the roof off of it all is “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Bob Dylan never claimed to be a poet but he wrote/sang this: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Include one of the greatest love songs ever written in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – which most people, other than Rick Nelson fans, don’t even know exists: “The bridge at midnight trembles/ The country doctor rambles/Bankers’ nieces seek perfection/Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring/The wind howls like a hammer/The night blows cold and rainy/My love she’s like some raven/At my window with a broken wing.”

Then there’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which includes lines such as, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying,” “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” “I’ve got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” and “While money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

The album ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a brilliant effort in and of itself, but even more poignant when it is revealed to be a bridge to Highway 61.

And so, after this, ridiculously great works such as “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again),” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shooting Star,” “Mississippi,” and many, many more phenomenal artistic creations – most of which the general populace has not had the time to absorb or brain capacity to digest, live in our collective psyche. And Dylan continues to create and perform.

Make of what it what you will. That’s your right. But, while placing poetry against music may have begun a long time ago, everyone in the music industry that followed Dylan has pointed to him as the transformational artist of this century and the pivot point for all that came next. (Rolling Stone magazine labeled Highway 61 as “The album that changed everything!”) And, the last time I checked, music was an art form.

For those who are hung up because Dylan is not a “singer,” in some purist’s definition, ask yourselves this: “How does it feel?”

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Again, for those who argue that Bob Dylan is not a poet, he never claimed to be. But he invented his own language; a language that changed the world. Is inventing a language worthy of the Nobel prize? You decide.

Genius is by definition untouchable by the rest of us, which is why it is genius. Artists possess the courage to attack and slay conventional wisdom, which makes them unique. Bob Dylan ended Bringing It All Back Home with “Baby Blue,” whose final lines are: “Strike another match, go start anew/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Indeed.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel; a story about life, love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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Visions of Johanna

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial. – Bob Dylan from 1966’s “Visions of Johanna”

Cutting Edge 5

Fourteen Months

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It took Bob Dylan, his lyrics, his voice, his imagination, and his various ensembles 14 months to create some of the most unbelievable music and three of the all-time greatest albums in history.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Bob Dylan 1965-66 The Very Best of the Cutting Edge is one of three versions of the recording sessions that changed the music world and redefined art in the 20th Century. Those of you who do not have children in college might opt for the more deluxe versions and spend over $100 for the bells and whistles – and more power to you – but, for most of us, this two-disc version is plenty sufficient to remind us why we originally fell in love with this sound and these songs and why they turned the music world topsy-turvy.

Included here are 36 out-takes, alternate versions, and works in progress that morphed into the second holy trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (“…one of those albums that, quite simply, changed everything.” Rolling Stone), and Blonde on Blonde.

The original working titles, that were at times jokes, are a part of the story, as is the experimentation of enormous talent in the room, as they aimed for the precision of sound and style that was floating around in Bob’s head.

Along the lines of “You had me with hello,” one of the most underrated love songs of all time, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” kicks it off and there is no looking back. The rest is an endless stream of fun. “She Belongs to Me” is a keeper, and it is interesting that, 5 decades later, this is the second song of the most recent set live set lists, and current drummer, George Recile, employs mallets to move the band along, almost as if it is a march. There is so much texture to this music that the sound continues to evolve, seemingly without end.

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Back to 1965.

Some of the drum work of Bobby Gregg, particularly on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is quite interesting, as is some of the guitar work of Robbie Robertson, although The Hawk’s (soon to be The Band) studio work did not mesh with Bob’s perspective for these albums, and none of these takes made it to vinyl.

But one could go on and on. Favorites will be in the eye – or, rather, the ears – of the beholder, and there are many, many to be had. It is all most interesting, and the gems included here are too numerous to mention in a track by track format.

The liner notes are also intriguing. While for the diehard Bob-Heads much of it is familiar territory, the take and telling of the stories is absorbing. Longtime Dylan chronicler Sean Wilentz adds his take, and it goes without saying that Al Kooper must again remind us that he snuck on the Highway 61 album after recognizing his inferiority to guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Kooper was informed that he was not an adequate organ player yet, despite all of this, Dylan instructed producer Tom Wilson to turn that famous organ mix up on the timeless “Like A Rolling Stone.” Listening to the evolution of this song alone, from waltz to classic is probably enough to justify a purchase.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

The reviewer received a copy of this release from Santa Claus.

Mr. Moyer is a public school district superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel. He remains employed and married despite having seen Bob Dylan perform live 36 times.

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(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

1965

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99, 352 pages)

1965 could have been a direct, engaging and entertaining account of that year’s music. Instead, this nonfiction story begins with Acknowledgements, a Selected Time Line, an Introduction, and a Prologue before it actually starts. The ending is, naturally, followed by an Epilogue. And instead of simply discussing the music of the 12-month period, Andrew Grant Jackson proceeds to attempt to cover all of the political and social developments of the time, with far too much attention paid to psychedelic drugs. (Boring, “oft-covered” territory.)

One or two factual errors might be excusable, as Jackson was not alive when these events occurred. But there are far too many in 1965. Jackson writes that the Beatles tried to out-jingle-jangle the Byrds with the song “Nowhere Man.” No, it was George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone.” He lists the Beatles’ “Think For Yourself” as a song about politics and free expression. No, it was a break-up song. He writes that the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” was a remake of “Baby Love” by the Supremes. Not even close. And he cites “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys as a drug song. It was a remake of a West Indies traditional folk song earlier recorded by the rather benign, innocent Kingston Trio.

There are other statements that are questionable. Jackson writes, for example, that the Rolling Stones based their single “Paint It Black” on “My World Is Empty Without You” by the Supremes. Maybe, maybe not. One of the highly doubtful statements made by Jackson is that Brian Wilson based his classic song “God Only Knows” on the lightweight song “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice” by the Spoonful. C’mon, now.

1965 is also plagued with no small amount of repetition. Jackson often makes the claim that specific rock song introductions were based on Bach’s classical music. In a couple of instances, he is likely right, but he goes on to state that this is the case for a large number of songs. Again, this is questionable.

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Every now and then Jackson does uncover something of interest. He may have discovered the song that Paul McCartney heard as a very young boy in the early 50s, which subconsciously inspired him to write “Yesterday.” Well, maybe.

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The book’s subtitle claims that 1965 was the most revolutionary year in rock music. Really? Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde and Aftermath were released in 1966, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed in 1967. I’d argue that these were the most significant, revolutionary years in rock music.

One final point is that Jackson often attempts to connect one type of music to everything else, musically and otherwise. You can love the music that Frank Sinatra recorded in the 60s without tying it to what the Beatles, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones were doing at the time. There are different types of music, and some music is created without reference to the political struggles or happenings of the time.

1965 is a book that had a lot of potential. Due to its strangely formal structure and its errors, the potential was largely wasted.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on February 3, 2015.

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Get Off of My Cloud

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman (Ecco Press, $34.99, 622 pages)

A supreme achiever to whom his colossal achievements seem to mean nothing…  A supreme extrovert who prefers discretion…  A supreme egotist who dislikes talking about himself…

Record company executives often told Andrew Loog Oldham, the first manager of The Rolling Stones, that they would “never get anywhere” unless they dumped their generally mumbling lead singer, one Mick Jagger.   Of course, those executives were wrong and Philip Norman serves up these types of gems while delivering a Behind the Music-style account of the lead singer’s life.

One of Norman’s strengths is that he tends to call things in a supremely honest fashion.   He states that the music of the Stones “sounds as fresh (today) as if recorded yesterday” (something that’s likely up for debate), and he labels the band as the “kings of the live performance circuit” – both yesterday and today.   Still, he admits that the music of the Stones – with one possible exception – never “seriously competed with the Beatles.”   It was in the Winter of 1966 that the Stones released Aftermath which Norman views as one that challenged the Beatles’ Revolver.   Well, not really…  Aftermath was a very good, traditional rock album which, looking back, does not match the daring experimentation of Revolver.   It was if the Stones were content to stay in the present while The Beatles were creating rock’s future.

Norman’s engaging, relaxed style also benefits from a fine use of humor.   For example, in describing the release of the song Satisfaction in Britain, he notes that it “(nauseated) almost everyone over thirty.”   And the Prologue to Mick Jagger is labeled “Sympathy for the Old Devil.”

The problem is, in the words of a Beatles’ song, that “It’s All Too Much.”   Most presidential biographies don’t run 622 pages, and some quite reasonable editing could have reduced this account by a good 200 to 225 pages.   There are words, paragraphs, stories and more that could have been left out without harming the narrative.   More is not always better, and Norman seems to be desperately trying to compensate for the fact that Jagger has refused to assist any biographer, the singer always insisting that he has virtually no memories of events in his distant or even recent past.

What one should expect, after plowing through hundreds of pages, is to find some sense of the subject’s character, his nature,  his essence.   I note three things missing from this overly long treatise on Sir Mick: his mind, his heart, his soul.   That’s a lot that’s missing, and it may be that Jagger is such a clever butterfly that any attempt to capture him and place him under glass is futile.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus.

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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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