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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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bringing-it-all-back-home-outtake

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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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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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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Simple Twist of Fate

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway; $16.00; 400 pages)

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This begins as an excellent biography of a woman who might have remained unknown but for a miracle of medicine.   “At the age of twenty-one, Henrietta stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.”   Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer but her cells are still alive.   To be exact, only her cancer cells continue to live but they may live for up to 100 years if frozen.   They are the so-called HeLa cells that are used by researchers throughout the world to advance the knowledge of how to fight and halt disease.

Author Rebecca Skloot has taken on the challenge of melding a family’s story with a tale of medicine and law.   The personal story is engaging and quite well done.   The reader will come to feel that he or she not only becomes acquainted with Henrietta Lacks, but also her late daughter Deborah, and her other children and grandchildren.   And, as Skloot gracefully notes, they are quite beautiful grandchildren.

This reader felt the telling was less effective when addressing the medical and legal issues.   That’s because the case is made that Henrietta’s cells were, in effect, stolen from her by Johns Hopkins Hospital.   Yet once you’ve read through two-thirds of the book, you learn that Hopkins explicitly met the medical research standards (and the legal requirements) of the day.   Indeed, it was a different time.   A relation of this reviewer gave consent for a cancer biopsy in 1950 in a northern California hospital.   Only later did the relative learn that her stomach cells were only removed in California; the cell slides were mailed to Johns Hopkins for the medical research and analysis.

There’s also an apparent contradiction in the events.   We’re told repeatedly that Henrietta did not consent to having her cells used for medical research.   Yet, her husband did authorize an autopsy and there’s also a reference to a death-bed conversation during which Henrietta was said to have told a physician that she was pleased that others might benefit from an examination of her cancerous cell tissues.   But even if this conversation never happened, the law at the time was what it was.

The author tells  us that the rights of research subjects were largely unprotected until 1966.   Yes, and this means that a lot of time is spent reviewing and debating the medical morality of an earlier time.   It is a moot point.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah is the appealing figure in this account.   She is the family member who argued – passionately and perhaps appropriately – that one cannot hold yesterday’s medical professionals to today’s ethical and moral standards.   Deborah, in fact, jumps off the pages of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the person who is brought back to life in the telling.

The descendents of Henrietta Lacks have never benefited from the use of her cells, leaving aside the issue of whether they were properly appropriated.   They have not received any money, and although HeLa cells are sold for medical research, the family does not have health care.   This is truly a shame, an injustice, and it is hoped that Skloot’s account will – in highlighting this issue – change things.

Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered, as does Deborah Lacks.   Rebecca Skloot has provided the tombstone that Henrietta’s family could never afford.   This true account is at its best when paying tribute to a woman whose life, in death, has benefited countless individuals worldwide.

It is encouraging to hope and think (and perhaps pray) that this account will result in a better life for the children, beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.   That would be the greatest tribute of all.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   

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Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

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