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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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Days Like These

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (Gallery Books/VH1 Books; $26.99; 262 pages)

starting over book

“You don’t have to do it anymore.   You can exist outside of the music.”   Yoko Ono to John Lennon, 1975

“There’s only two artists that I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night stand.   That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, and I think that’s a pretty damned good choice!”   John Lennon, 1980

Before this, only one book took you inside the recording studio with The Beatles, and that was Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick.   Emerick’s book explained the fascinating work performed by sound engineers such as that which led (in some small measure) to the success of the four moptops.   One of the disclosures in HT&E was that the recording sound process at Abbey Road always began with ensuring that Ringo’s drums would sound right and/or unique on each track. (Paul McCartney, who lived around the corner, was the individual who usually tuned the drums used by Ringo and Badfinger’s drummer.)

Now, with Ken Sharp’s book,  we go into the sound studios of New York City circa the winter of 1980, with former Beatle John Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and a new band of hotshot musicians.   Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, would be recorded just weeks before his death (the single “Starting Over” was the track the public heard first), and would be well-crafted enough to preserve his legacy as a musical genius.

This was the happy-husband period for John Lennon who was pleased about everything, even the past:  “He never spoke about the Beatles in a negative way.   Ever.   He only said positive, affectionate things about them…  He was able to look back at their work and realize how great a band they were.”   (Andy Newmark, drummer)

And this was the John Lennon who filled his new album with what some viewed as recordings invading Paul McCartney’s well-marked territory – (silly or non-silly) love songs and songs of domestic harmony and bliss.   John was not at all apologetic about his new-found contentment:  “To work with your best friend is a joy and I don’t intend to stop it…  My best friend is my wife.   Who could ask for anything more?”

“…records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.   I would say Double Fantasy is one of the many excellent records that has gained a certain aura, glow, stature and presence.”   Robert Christgau

The participants interviewed for this book all display a sense of both bittersweet happiness and sorrow at having worked with John Lennon before his untimely death.   “I hadn’t listened to Double Fantasy in a long time.   I recently put it on and as soon as I started playing it, the tears welled up.   It was a real emotional experience for me.   There was a lot of joy doing that record…  When I hear the songs, I see John working on the tracks.   It’s the closing musical statement of his life and it’s filled with great songs.”   (Hugh McCracken, guitarist)

Well said, and this account is a well-written, detailed and loving tribute to someone who simply left us too soon.   Read this book and you will come to know and admire John Lennon’s honesty and his integrity.   By reading this book you’ll also come to discover the background stories of such great songs as “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels”.

Think of Starting Over, the book, as the great lost album notes to the original vinyl release.   It will serve you well.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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