The Final Word (Seeing Dylan in Cleveland)

2014-11-12 18.58.53
Part way through this project I realized that none of it would make sense unless I saw Bob Dylan perform live this year. For someone who tours as relentlessly as he does, this seemed like it would be likely to happen but I worried a bit that it might not. Dylan began his touring this year with a couple dozen shows in Japan in March and April, ending in Hawaii. Nice places to visit, but I wasn’t flying that far. In June he went to Europe: Ireland, Turkey, Greece, Romania. I was in Europe (London) in July, but Dylan was in Eastern Germany at that time. It was a possible trip but it seemed to be a major logistics headache. In August and September he went to New Zealand and Australia. At this point I started to worry a lot more. Was it possible that he wasn’t going to tour North America this year? The tour finally came in October and November, beginning in Seattle and ending in New York. I actually missed the initial announcement – I had stopped checking his site for a bit around the beginning of the school year because I was busy. Finally, however, I got my act together and tried to figure out where I would see him play.
My plan was to see him only once. I didn’t want to see multiple shows – I figured once would be the magic number. I also wanted, if possible, a direct flight from Calgary and a minimal disruption to my life. The problem was that I had already booked a lot of fall travel for work. Seattle was out because my wife was away that weekend so I needed to stay home. LA was possible but it meant three straight weekends of travel for either my wife or me. Some thought was given to Denver, although I had just been there in June. Minneapolis would have been great – home town show (sort of) – but the three shows were midweek, and, thus, maximally disruptive. Chicago was on a free weekend, but I was travelling each of the next two weeks. Toronto’s shows were on a Monday and Tuesday, and I teach Mondays. They were out.
In the end, the best option was Cleveland. I had to be in Columbus the day after the Cleveland show to give the kick-off keynote at a conference at The Ohio State University, but it seemed very easy to fly to Cleveland a day early and then rent a car and get down to Columbus. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. A minor wrinkle was thrown into the works when the conference schedule was announced and I learned that I was speaking at 9:00 the morning after the concert – which meant either driving to Columbus immediately after the concert in the dark of night and getting little sleep, or getting up around 5:30 and driving to the campus. Since I didn’t know the route, I opted to do the night drive in case things went horribly awry – the thought of desperately trying to find where I was speaking while running out of time was scary to me.
I flew into Cleveland on November 11, arriving late at night – I got to my hotel just before they discontinued room service. In the morning I awoke, did some work, and headed out to see Cleveland. My first stop was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which, Dylan is an inductee.
2014-11-12 11.41.05
I have to say: I did not think much of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s $23.50 to get in, and it’s just a hot mess. It’s like the Experience Music Project in Seattle, which I also didn’t like when I visited it a few years ago. The problem with venues like this is that it is very hard to do a good job with audio in a museum. It can be done fantastically, but you need to really think it through and give over the space. They haven’t done that. You can stand at a wall with a display on “The Motown Sound” and there’s a tv looping a VH1 quality doc about it, but ten feet away is another wall about “New York Punk” and you can hear both at the same time. The sound was generally awful. So then you’re left looking at Jimi Hendrix’s guitars and clothes, which is pretty much all they can show. I did like how inclusive the whole thing was – the Seattle grunge area is not just Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, but about twenty different bands – so kudos on that – but the layout is awful and the sound is atrocious. It’s like they just purchased plans for “Generic Postmodern Museum Building” and built it beside the lake and plunked in the exhibits with no thoughts given at all to sound design. Not recommended. Also, there is very little Dylan material – he is the most significant figure who does not have his own dedicated area and they had maybe two or three pieces of memorabilia for him. I think that is because he has hasn’t given them any. Most of the stuff is “collection of X” where X is the actual person (or a relative if the person is dead). Dylan probably doesn’t like to share. So that was a disappointment.
2014-11-12 13.39.28
So then I went to downtown Cleveland where it was cold and windy and I got a headache and I tried to determine if it was a) lack of sleep, b) lack of coffee, c) caught a cold on the plane, d) low pressure system. I bought Tylenol, coffee and Guinness in that order and it got sorted out.
Cleveland. Well, what is there to say? It’s a weird midwestern town with some great old stone buildings. Sort of half way between Minneapolis (which is bigger, newer, nicer) and Green Bay. It was fine. They have a nice restaurant and bar area that would be fun for 24 hours if I were going with friends to see a Browns game. I mostly just wandered around the downtown area window-shopping. At one point I wondered to myself: Where is Dylan’s tour bus? While walking around the block to find it, I suddenly heard music coming from the loading dock. I stood there in the cold – a storm rolled in the next day – and listened to the sound check. It was super muddled. I mean, you could hear that Dylan was singing but you could never have made out the words. You could hear that it was a blues song, but that was about it. Dylan talked a bit to the band or the sound man, but I have no idea what he said. People walking by me probably thought I was nuts. When that was over I went and stared at his two buses hoping to see him walk out to one, but I didn’t see that.
2014-11-12 17.06.10
I ate dinner at a place beside the State Theatre and chatted with a lot of people who had arrived in town following Dylan from Chicago. I had to sit at the bar because I had no reservation – hadn’t even occurred to me – and that was fine because it was a little more social. People think you’re a hardcore when they find out you’ve come from Calgary to Cleveland to see a Dylan show, but there were people far more hardcore than me all over the place. About a half hour before the show I walked next door.
The State Theatre on Euclid Avenue is really gorgeous. The State Theate is behind the Ohio Theatre (which was running the play Newsies), but in order to have the address be Euclid Avenue you enter and then the lobby is long and thin and more than 300 feet long. Apparently it’s the longest theatre lobby in the world. The whole venue opened in 1921 as the flagship Ohio Loew’s Theatre. It must have been something. Apparently the venue fell into disrepair by the end of the 1960s, and was almost razed for a parking lot in the early-1970s. Eventually it was bought by the county and renovated at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s (you can tell this without looking it up just by reading the names of the donors). It’s in great condition now, and holds about 3,200 people.
2014-11-12 16.53.15
I got my ticket and found my seat, about twenty rows back and on the left side. This was the preferable side to be able to see Dylan face on when he was at the piano, and that was simply fortuitous. The stage had a beautiful set up with a series of lamps that gave the whole thing a very “old timey” feel. The grand piano was on the right, drums centre and the band gathered in a semi-circle.
The crowd was primarily older. The two couples directly behind me were clearly in their 70s (one of the men was talking about his experiences in the Vietnam War) and had seen Dylan many times. The couple immediately beside me were the same, but clearly hadn’t seen him often or recently. There were younger people, to be sure, but they were a small minority (I recently saw Loretta Lynn play live and I think that there was a higher percentage of twenty-somethings in that crowd than in this one). The “young” people tended to be like me – in their 40s – but the typical concert goer was 60s or older. There was also a largish group down front who seemed to be composed of the people following the tour in from Chicago and heading on to points east afterward. I would break the crowd up this ways: Five per cent people who had seen other shows on this tour. Forty-five per cent people like me who had a strong sense of what they were about to see (I knew exactly what I was going to see – I had read the reviews from Minneapolis and Chicago and I knew that Dylan was playing the exact same set every night – so I knew what song was next every single time he played something). Fifty per cent were people who used to know Dylan and were upset by the show. The people beside me were in this category. After a few songs they stopped clapping. They didn’t know the songs. They didn’t want to know. They wanted “Like a Rolling Stone”. They pouted. Even when he did “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the encore they pouted. A sizeable number of people walked out during the show – maybe ten per cent? Those people were idiots, by the way.
If you’ve read anything at all about Dylan’s 2014 US tour you will know that he essentially played the same show every night of the tour. The differences were extremely small. In some earliest shows he played “All Along the Watchtower”, but that got dropped after a short time. In some of the early shows he didn’t play “Blowin’ in the Wind” as part of the encore. By the time he hit Minneapolis the set was set in stone and unvarying. This seemed particular to the US shows, and, to a lesser extent, to the Australia/NZ ones. The shows that he played in Europe had a lot of contemporary-ish (i.e. post-2000) material, but he was still playing “To Ramona” and “Shelter From the Storm” and other older pieces. This was not the case by the time he got to Cleveland. Two things were important: first, the set was always the same, and, second, there were two songs from the 1960s, two from the 1970s, and everything else was post-2000, including several songs from Tempest.
In his 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan said this about Modern Times:
Well . . . the Time Out of Mind record, that was the beginning of me making records for an audience that I was playing to night after night. They were different people from different walks of life, different environments and ages. There was no reason for these new people to hear songs I’d written 30 years earlier for different purposes. If I was going to continue on, what I needed were new songs, and I had to write them, not necessarily to make records, but to play for the public.
This was definitely what this 2014 US tour was about – Dylan needed “new songs” to play for the public. It is, presumably, what so angered my seat neighbours and others who walked out. If you thought you were going to get a greatest hits show, well, you probably haven’t paid much attention to Bob Dylan in a couple of decades. I feel bad for people who buy something and don’t get what they want, although at this point I do think people should have some sense of what Dylan is doing. This is what we heard:
1. “Things Have Changed”. Dylan arrived on stage about a minute after his band did and he stood at the mic at centre stage. They did a lively and spare version of this song that had a western swing vibe. Dylan’s vocals weren’t entirely clear in the passages where the lyrics float by quickly, but he was singing much more than talking through this one.
2. “She Belongs to Me”. A very slow version of this one, again very minimalist. Dylan played harmonica (twice) on this, which brought a big ovation. This was the only song from the 1960s in the main portion of the show. This was an incredibly lovely version of this song, and I thought it was much stronger than the version of “Things Have Changed”.
3. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”. Dylan moved over to the piano at this point. This was a dark version of this, somewhat subdued, but better than the album version. Nice, crisp guitar fills from Charlie Sexton. This was more talk-sung than sung.
4. “Workingman’s Blues #2”. This one foregrounded the slide guitar, and Dylan definitely talk-sung this one in the verses, but he did interesting things with the chorus. I was critical of this song when I wrote about Modern Times, but I did like this version live. The crowd clapped mid-song for this one at the end of the chorus, which was the highlight of the presentation.
5. “Waiting for You”. The most obscure song in the set is this waltz from the soundtrack of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Dylan danced a step or two. Nicely done.
6. “Duquesne Whistle”. First song from Tempest. Dylan was back on piano. This was the first up tempo number that they played. This version was a lot less aggressive than the (great) album version version – a lot of piano and brush drum. Dylan was strongly singing at this point.
7. “Pay in Blood”. And the second from Tempest. Dylan was at the centre stage mic again for this. This was very similar to the album version – certainly the closest to the album version of any song that we had yet heard.
8. “Tangled Up in Blue”. This was the first time I thought that I was going to lose it. This song really got to me. It’s been one of my absolute favourites for so long and it just really, really hit me. He sang this so well. When he drops his voice to sing “I helped her out of a jam I guess” I had never heard him do anything similar to it. The place applauded loudly after “Early one morning” because this was a song that everyone in the venue knew. I had been enjoying the show a great deal up to this point, but this song took it to another level for me. Dylan has, once again, crafted new lyrics for this (though I don’t know when he debuted these new lyrics, or if it was even 2014): the car is abandoned “somewhere in the wilderness”. Third and fourth verses were skipped. The whole fifth verse was changed. The most important part, it seemed to me, was: “She lit a burner on the stove / and swept away the dust / You look like someone I used to know she said / You look like someone I used to trust”. Harmonica solo! What a great harmonica solo! Huge applause. Sixth verse was also skipped. The seventh verse is also changed: “Yesterday is dead and gone / and tomorrow might as well be now”. This was just so amazingly great. So, so great.
9. “Love Sick”. This sounded a lot like it does on Time Out of Mind. Sort of whisper-sung with some menace. Nice, tight version of this. At the end of this the band and Dylan left the stage (smoke break?) and Dylan talked to us for the only time, basically saying “We’ll be right back”
Some people left at intermission, or went to buy a drink. I was sort of in a daze a bit, so I just sat in my seat and waited for him to come back.
10. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”. Dylan’s site notes that he has now done this song live 563 times, making it one of the more stable parts of his repertoire over the past decade and a half. This was a different version than what he was playing a few years ago, although it still has the banjo, so I was happy. The phrasing is quite different though, while the music sounds pretty similar to how it’s always been. I thought this was interesting.
11. “Simple Twist of Fate”. Second song from Blood on the Tracks, and only the third from pre-2000. This was a slightly altered version of a song whose lyrics Dylan has long toyed with. Three nice harmonica solos here too – the second one especially. This was appropriately plaintive.
12. “Early Roman Kings”. Third song from Tempest. Really only the second up tempo song of the evening. This was much better live than it is on the album. It still has the very basic blues structure, but it worked a lot better here than the recorded version – there was more musical variation, and Dylan added quite a bit on piano.
13. “Forgetful Heart”. This one was played very slowly, even more slowly than it is on Together Through Life. Some fiddle, some harmonica, almost no guitar, like one drum beat every twenty seconds. This was fantastic – hypnotic – revelatory. This was one of the best things that they did all night.
14. “Spirit on the Water”. Dylan has also really taken to this song from Modern Times. Not only has he played it more than 400 times, but he has a t-shirt featuring it. I think that this is a song that he sees as really important to the performer that he is now. He played lively piano on this, and sang it in a really upbeat mode. The final verse: “You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin’ good time” was met with howls from the audience, who screamed “Noooooo” loudly at the suggestion that Dylan was over the hill or past his prime. I know I’m repeating myself, but this was great too. Super fun.
15. “Scarlet Town”. Fourth song from Tempest. This one was semi-chanted at us. Quite similar to the album version, really.
16. “Soon After Midnight”. Fifth song from Tempest. This is a crooning song, with some beautiful slide guitar and Dylan on the piano. A lovely version. I think highly of this song, and I thought that this was a wonderful version.
17. “Long and Wasted Years””. Sixth song from Tempest. Last song of the show before the encore. I am not going to lie – I almost cried. Seriously, you try to write a blog about someone for ten and a half months and name it after one of that person’s songs, and then have that same person sing that to you at the end of a tremendous show. I mean, I knew from the set lists that it was coming, but when that descending guitar piece came, well, it was a gut punch. This was one of the best things that happened to me all year. I really felt like the guy from Experiment Ensam – like Dylan was singing this one just for me. It couldn’t have been any better.
Dylan took a while before the encore. He got a standing ovation from most, but some people – including my seat neighbours – sat stoically to show their displeasure at so much Tempest, Modern Times, and Together Through Life.
18. “Blowin’ in the Wind”. This was a really different version of this anthem, making it a lot less anthemic and more fitting with the show that we’d just seen. Dylan played piano and the phrasing was very jazzy. Some fiddle here too. The whole place was standing for this – except for the haters. Huge cheers at the end of the chorus.
19. “Stay With Me”. This will be the third song on the new album, and if it sounds like it did here all will be right with Shadows in the Night.
All in all, I thought that this was a tremendous show. Certainly the best Dylan show I have ever seen. The band was really skilled. It was an interesting use of the band – they were so restrained. Dylan allows them very few showcase moments or flourishes. It is clear how skillful they are, even when they don’t get a real opportunity to demonstrate that. The focus is all on Dylan, and all on the songs themselves.
This is the most consistently unchanging set that Dylan has played since his earliest gospel tours thirty-five years ago. It is clear that Dylan really believes in this sequence of songs – that he feels he has put together an ideal Dylan show for the current moment, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing this same thing again and again. “What I needed were new songs”, he told Mikal Gilmore, and these are those songs.
Over the next couple of days in Columbus I spoke to a number of people who had seen this tour in Oakland and Chicago and elsewhere. Everyone, without exception, agreed that the show had been among the best Dylan shows that they had ever seen. His singing was tremendous, and he did things with his voice that he rarely does. I really felt that we were seeing a Dylan that deeply, deeply cared about the songs he was performing. It was fantastic.
There is no doubt in my mind that going to Cleveland to see Bob Dylan was the best part of this blog for me and that the experience would have been hollow if I hadn’t had the opportunity. I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Dylan this year – learning about him and his music, and trying to come to terms with it. It was at the State Theatre that I really felt that I had accomplished that – it was there that I realized that I “got” what Dylan was doing. Or at least that I got it as much as anyone can get someone as inscrutable as Bob Dylan.
A colleague wrote to me the other day to comment on this project and one thing that he said really struck me. He noted that the one year – one week constraint had the effect of levelling Dylan’s career. He noted that so many Dylan writers construct Dylan from within their own constraints. Read Greil Marcus, for example, who writes as if everything Dylan did in the 1970s and 1980s is a personal betrayal of Greil Marcus, and that then Dylan mysteriously returned to him around 1997. For a lot of music writers, Dylan is 1963 to 1966 and a little bit of the 1970s. By placing no more emphasis on 1966 than I did on 1986 or 2006, I do think I got to see Dylan in a different light – perhaps one that is a bit more dispassionate. I’m surprised by a lot of the things that I thought were the highpoints of the year. Yes, I like 1963 to 1966 too, and I love Blood on the Tracks, but I have a huge affection for some of the early 1970s material and I think that his gospel tours rank right at the top of anything he ever did. I think Infidels (and its outtakes) might be my favourite Dylan period at the moment (the rumours that there is a tape of Dylan playing all of Infidels solo on the piano makes me want a Bootleg Series release of that right now). Going a week at a time means that the dead spots aren’t as deadening.
I also think that listening to so much – and reading so much – in such a compressed time made me pay more attention to the moments of coherence rather than the moments of difference. Dylan is always written about as a chameleon who constantly changes (see I’m Not There for a great version of this Dylan). Yet taking it all in makes me think that he’s been remarkably consistent in his musical interests over five decades. The covers of old pop songs on Basement Tapes Complete fit nicely with Theme Time Radio Hour which fits nicely with an album of Sinatra songs. Marcus, to his credit, was on the right track when he wrote that Dylan was fixated on the music of an “old, weird America”. Listening to him in Cleveland, where the show seemed all of one piece, it was striking how songs written over five decades were able to sound like they were all of the same moment. There seems to be a core Dylan that is sometimes overshadowed by writers who want to suggest that he is ever-changing.
Driving out of Cleveland to Columbus in the dark, I listened to Bob Dylan play on my iPhone. I don’t like to drive with earphones in and I couldn’t link to the car stereo by bluetooth, so I used the tinny speakers of my phone on the seat next to me and I got one Dylan phrase stuck in my head:
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears

I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears
2014-11-12 13.17.29
In this long and wasted year I went to see my own gypsy.
You know what?
It was a great.

A Few Thoughts on Blogging Bob Dylan

Tomorrow morning I will end this blog – four days late. My goal was to write about one year in the career of Bob Dylan for each of the fifty-two weeks of 2014, listening only to music produced or released during that year. When I registered this domain in December 2013 with the intention of writing this blog I had enormous doubts that it would go anywhere. I almost didn’t share news of it, thinking I should write for a few weeks to see if it was even going to work out first. Instead I jumped in head first, and it all mostly worked out.
This, the penultimate post, is the meta-post. I want to reflect a little bit on the blog itself before wrapping up. I’m going to start with the bad and move on to the good, because there has been a lot more good than bad, but I do want to vent a little bit.
Let’s start with WordPress. This blog is run through WordPress. This started off really well. Acquiring the domain was easy, and setting up the page was simple. I downloaded the app and learned how to post. Early in the year adding videos was a real pain. You could really only add YouTube videos and it was complicated. Uploading pictures was slow. The whole thing is definitely not drag and drop, and for a middle-aged Mac user a lot of the solutions to problems were never going to happen. You’d get advice about writing scripts to fix issues and there was just no way. I did like the WordPress notification system, and it rolled out the blogs to FaceBook and Twitter well (though I did learn of complaints about the way other people saw them on FaceBook, and there seemed to be no fix for that). Midway through the year WordPress changed things up and started a new posting window. Things went downhill at that point. Formatting became unreliable. Some posts (maybe this one? – on preview, yes, this one) have no spaces between paragraphs and I have never figured out how to fix that. I’m really disappointed with how the formatting worked over the past two months and that would discourage me from using WordPress again. Also, the app became unusable for me sometime in December – it just stopped letting me log on and rather than being able to fix it I simply deleted it. I don’t think that WordPress has strong enough support for me to recommend them as a blogging tool. In the future I would try something different. They did do an excellent job blocking spam – the blog was spammed more than 15,000 times this year, and they got all but about three of them. Good job there.
Apple also did me few favours. I downloaded many concert bootlegs and imported them into iTunes. It took a long time to figure out the best way of using the metadata in iTunes and I worked out a system that made things easy for me. I think Apple updated iTunes twice this year, and one of those was a major upgrade. Each update made my system work less well as Apple decided I should do things their way. I was able to twice retrain myself on iTunes, but it is not as good as it should be and it has been a frustration. Worse was Notes. I wrote every draft of every post for six months in Notes because it was easy to do so and it synced across my computers at home and work and my phone. Then a new update made me lose access to all of that – the problem is with my AppleID and Apple has never been able to fix it despite three or four long attempts with tech support. A lot of the suggestions amounted to “we could wipe this and start again” and I don’t trust Apple enough to do that. So I lost the early drafts, which isn’t a problem because they’re here on the site. But not good. I switched to EverNote and that has worked mostly well, except for one hiccup where I thought I had lost it all. I’ve gotten back into EverNote in a big way and now the only thing that irritates me is their auto-correct, which is a bully and often won’t let you correct their mis-corrections. They particularly hate the name of Dylan’s video director, Nash Edgerton. They remove the “d” every. single. time.
YouTube worked mostly well, but the recent decision by them to autoplay the next song in the list is killing me. I open all the videos when I’m posting them and that autoplay feature is the worst. DailyMotion is even worse at that though. I had problems with Vimeo for most of the year, but they’re working great now. Yay Vimeo!
YouTube, Vimeo and the rest, of course, are often thwarted by Columbia and Dylan and the lawyers who get things yanked. I’m fascinated by what is up on YouTube and what is not. I wish Dylan would allow more of his stuff to be up there – it would have helped me tremendously by allowing me to link to things I was writing about. I never posted anything myself on line – I only linked. That’s my take on bootlegging, I guess.
The bootleggers, well, god bless them. I am grateful that I was steered right very early on in this project. They perform an invaluable public service. I believe in the code: If they release something that has been bootlegged, buy it. I bought The  Basement Tapes Complete and if you’ve downloaded the bootlegs, buy the album.
I do appreciate Columbia releasing The Complete Album Collection – made my life easier. A Complete Bootleg Series Collection would have helped too.
I bought more than a dozen books about Dylan this year, mostly through Amazon. Also bought about the same number of DVDs. I borrowed most of the art books from the my university library, which is fortunate because I didn’t like most of them and wouldn’t have wanted to pay for them.
I could not have done this blog without the help of Olof Bjorner’s site. Not even close. What an incredible resource. Other sites – ExpectingRain and Bob’s Boots notably – were essential, but Bjorner was absolutely mission critical.
This is the 359th post of the year. I had aspired to one per day. That was tricky during periods of Dylan at rest (late-1960s, for example) but was amazingly easy a lot of the time. Obviously I could have stretched out the post count by talking more about individual songs, but I’m happy with the volume of material that was out there. I’ll miss one per day by about nine posts, which is pretty good. I felt bad every day that I didn’t write something – exactly the same way I feel bad if I don’t work out. I appreciate the discipline that the blog gave to my writing – there are a lot of posts here that were gutted out when I had no desire at all to write them. Write every single day, that’s my motto.
The blog settled in to a steady state of a couple hundred readers, and I am really grateful to you all for that. In the past couple of months I have had the tremendous experience of meeting people on my travels who are readers of the blog that I didn’t know were reading. At a conference in Columbus, Ohio I had multiple people come to talk to me about the blog who I didn’t know were readers – that has been extremely gratifying. In the last few days I’ve received some lovely notes from readers as well – it’s truly appreciated. I especially want to thank those of you who lefts comments. This blog really wasn’t set up in a way to reward commenting, but I did want to leave it open. I particularly appreciated notes of correction – this whole thing has been a learning project for me, so those comments were really important. WordPress tells me that Rusty was the most prolific commenter this year (65 comments) and since he was one of the people who told me that this was a good idea when I was thinking about it, I’m glad he came along for the ride (he owes me a Great White Wonder, by the way, and I’m going to Florida to pick it up). Special shout out to my friend Marc, who said “I should read your blog” to me almost every Thursday morning at hockey and who then said in November – November! – “Hey, did you know that you can have your blog emailed to you?”. D’uh.
A special thanks to Heath McCoy of the Media Relations team in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary who wrote a profile of this project that ran this past summer. That single story spiked the blog traffic by about a thousand per cent for a short while. It settled back into a steady state, but at a higher level than before. We tweeted that story to @BobDylan, but if he read it he never tweeted back. Alas.
The most read single piece was “With Willie Nelson”, which I think was the top of the site piece the day that Heath’s story hit. The unmedia-aided best of was the Dylan appearance on David Letterman with The Plugz from 1984. That one hit my age cohort right in the sweet spot of our youths, and went mini-viral around my own social network.
My wife and son put up with a lot of Dylan this year, and I’m eternally grateful for their patience on this.
I’m not sure how many words I wrote – WordPress doesn’t seem to have an easy way of giving me that stat other than scrolling through every post and adding it all up which is something that I don’t want to do. I would guess more than 200,000 words in total, but that’s just a guess. As an academic, I write a lot in life but I’ve never written this much this fast and put it out there for consumption. There’s a lot of material that I would take back. Posts that didn’t gel because I didn’t have the time. Fitting in daily writing around my job and life and other interests (and other writing!) has been a challenge, but a happy one for the most part. I never felt that the blog weighed on me as a duty, and I constantly looked forward to the next thing. Every week I probably looked forward to something that was coming up. There are posts that I wish I had said more about, but time was always an issue. Writing is a lot of fun for me, and the blog was always a source of stress relief, never stress inducement. I feel like I got better as the year went on, generally. If not, I at least got faster.
My last scheduled post will go up tomorrow and then I’m going dark. I’m keeping the site up for the foreseeable future, and I’m going to look into ways of archiving this as well. I may come back unannounced from time to time, as when a new album emerges next month, but nothing regularly. During the entire course of the year I only broke the “no skipping ahead, no going back” rule one time – that was driving from Cleveland to Columbus after seeing Dylan live. I felt a strong need to listen to some of the songs that I had just heard him play. For the most part, though, I held to the constraints, no matter how occasionally frustrating that has been. I’m looking forward to being free of that constraint.
I had hoped to do a “Bob Dylan’s 100 Best Songs” list or some kind of summation. That’s not going to happen. That’s not tomorrow’s post. I will need a lot more time to digest this year than that would allow. Maybe I’ll come back for that in the future. People keep asking me if this is going to become a book, or a university course or something like that. It won’t be a course for the foreseeable future, and I don’t think it will ever be a book. I think it’s a blog, and that might be all that it needs to be. I’m thinking about it.
Thanks for coming by – this has been a lot of fun. I’m going to go listen some Rolling Thunder bootlegs and then to some Gospel period bootlegs. But I’m not writing about it.

The Basement Tapes Complete

I’ve written now about the Basement Tapes on two occasions. Once during 1967, writing about A Tree With Roots and about Greil Marcus’s book, and once when excerpts from the tapes were released commercially. Then in November 2014 Sony finally released the “complete” Basement Tapes, which was something that Jann Wenner called for more than forty years ago. Sometimes you have to be patient.
There is a lot that can be said about this release. At a base level, the sound quality is much better than any bootleg of this material that I have heard. There are so many versions of these songs: Great White Wonder, the remixed and over-dubbed commercial release, A Tree With Roots, Genuine Basement Tapes, Genuine Basement Tapes Remastered. Now this. This is the best. There is no question about that.
First things first. We’re talking about the Complete set here – which is six CDs. There is also a Raw set of two CDs, which was also released as three LPs, and, bizarrely, as a set of reel-to-reel tapes (limited edition of 100 copies). The reel-to-reel revival is on the horizon, people! I can’t recommend the Raw set. Some fans were upset that the Complete set is not available on vinyl, though it would probably be a dozen LPs and about $300. Other fans were upset about the pricing – the two CD set was $20, but the six CD set was $150. Sony has made gouging Dylan fans an art form.
That said, the six CD set is the only way to go. For one thing, they didn’t put “Wild Wolf” on the two CD set, and that is the best  unheard song here. So that settles that.
I would actually love to know the sales on the two sets. Given how specialized the interest in The Basement Tapes is I might even guess that the six CD set outsold the two CD set. Anyone who really really wants this stuff wants it all – I think that there’s likely to be very little casual interest in a “best of” sampler.
One of the things that is really interesting here is the fact that Sony has given Dylan fans exactly what they want. There seems to have been very little grousing about this release (other than about the price). If you listen to CD 6 here, you know that they didn’t hold much back (this set runs into “sonically challenging” material at the end). They have admitted that there are a couple of tracks that are “pure distortion” that didn’t get included. Sony’s new strategy seems to be just to overwhelm the completists – give them everything if they’re willing to pay. They hired Garth Hudson as producer here, and they got tapes that I’m not sure that even the hardest of the hardcores even knew were out there.
I’m not going to run through the new material here, partly because I don’t see much of it posted to places I can link to it for you. The countrified version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Wild Wolf” are my two favourite discoveries here.
One thing that I found interesting is that there are a couple of promotional videos here. This first one uses Dylan experts like Clinton Heylin and Greil Marcus to give the history of the music and talk about how things have been cleaned up. It’s twenty-five minutes, but I think it is an interesting mini-documentary.
In some ways even more interesting is this video produced by Rolling Stone of Garth Hudson returning to Big Pink. Hudson looks old and not well. In the reporting about this released it has basically come out that Hudson had the tapes for all those years and is the one who had been selling them off because he was in financial hard times. I hope that’s not the case – he deserves a lot better.
Maybe the most interesting thing about this release, though, is the lack of Dylan in promotion. I know that Dylan doesn’t really promote albums – he hasn’t done a talk show interview in fifty years – but there’s just nothing. He sends his proxies to talk about the Basement Tapes, and during his concerts in November he completely ignored the material contained here. It is entirely possible that Dylan still doesn’t understand why people even want to hear this stuff.

Experiment Ensam

I am going to admit that I am petty and mean person. When people started sending me links to the story in November that Bob Dylan had played a concert for “one lucky fan” in Philadelphia I shrugged it off as no big deal. Sure, Fredrik Wilkingsson got a solo performance as part of the Swedish television program Experiment Ensam (in which people are asked to do things alone that are usually done in groups – like go to an amusement park – as a way of gauging the psychological impact of aloneness), but it wasn’t really a concert concert. He got to watch the sound check (Dylan did his regular concert in the same venue a couple of hours later). No big deal. I listened to Dylan’s soundcheck just about ten days before (admittedly, I did so from outside the venue, through a series of doors and I have no idea what I heard). Whatever. Just a sound check, dude. I’m not jealous. I wouldn’t even want to see Dylan by myself. 
So, yeah, no, it’s all a lie.
As soon as the episode was released online I watched it and I have to say: I felt so happy for this guy. Watch it here:
Let’s be clear – this guy really wants this. I know that he’s a genuine Swedish television personality and so he’s used to performing on camera, but this is no act. He looks alternately terrified and over-awed. I think he clearly has an anxiety attack at one point, and when he tells the crew that he has injured his cheeks from over-smiling my jealousy meter went into overdrive. Lucky bastard.
What Wilkingsson is watching is, in fact, Dylan’s soundcheck. I wouldn’t stake my life on it, but I am all but certain I heard Dylan play “Key to the Highway” (the final, unidentified, song here) through those doors in Cleveland. Given that he didn’t vary his set list on the fall US tour, it is possible that he also played the same sound check every day. The songs here are “Heartbeat” by Buddy Holly, “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino (and totally unlike Domino’s version), “It’s too Late” by Chuck Willis, and “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Bronzy. I try to hold onto the fact that “it’s just the soundcheck – lots of people watch the soundcheck every day”. Can’t do it. Lucky bastard.
It’s the whole Dylan spoke to him thing that makes it so hard to take. I can so easily put myself into this man’s shoes. I’m not certain that I would have been brave enough to say anything. Like Wilkingsson, I’m not sure whether or not I would have clapped or not. This is a great portrait of what Dylan fandom does to some people. It’s a portrait of what it might have done to me. I almost teared up in November when Dylan played “Long and Wasted Years” in Cleveland because I could imagine for a moment that I was the only person there. To have been the only person actually there? Well, Wilkingsson handles it really well.
Lucky bastard.

50th Anniversary Collection (1964)

There are a lot of moments that I will recall in the future about this blog. I will probably always remember listening to the entirety of A Tree With Roots on a plane to Singapore, for instance. I will always remember the crushing disappointment I felt the first time I listened, in my kitchen, to a bootleg of the only live version of “Brownsville Girl”. And I will always remember learning that the Eric von Schmidt tape was on The 50th Anniversary Collection (1964).
The 50th Anniversary Collection (1964) is the third, and biggest, dump of Dylan material into the European market in order to extend copyright protection on unreleased material for another two decades. For three years this has become a December ritual. The message boards fill with queries in October – “Will there be a set this year?” and then rumours in November – “Yes, and it will be nine LPs this year” and the detectives set to work, looking at Bjorner’s site and trying to imagine what unreleased material will be on there.
The discussion this year was interesting. Some people don’t seem to “get” these releases. They don’t get that Sony doesn’t care if anyone buys them. There was discussion about whether Sony would release the October 10 show from Philadelphia, which is a very poor quality audience tape. Why, some asked, would they release that? It’s not good enough. But good enough has nothing at all to do with it. Sony is protecting everything. Everything, that is, that they think is saleable.
What has become clear after three 50th Anniversary releases is that Sony does not much fear bootleggers. They put out 1,000 vinyl copies of the 1964 set. The sets appeared within the week on torrent sites and they’re still there. Sony must realize that there are very few casual Dylan fans that are going to bother getting these sets so that they can have the a recording of a show from Philadelphia where the recorder may have been smuggled in in someone’s armpit and left there all evening.
What they don’t want is for anything to fall into the public domain in Europe. It is the PD material that is the problem, because European bootleggers will print that stuff up and sell it on, and and all the rest. It will all be quite legal and it will look like “real” Dylan material and then someone will buy it and it will suck and they’ll be upset and they’ll blame Dylan and Sony, even though they had nothing to do with it. If Sony didn’t copyright the Town Hall show, bad sound quality and all, someone would release it this week legally and annoy a bunch of unwitting fans. So Sony puts it out for the cognoscenti, most of whom don’t even want it – because they already have it, and because they know the quality is poor.
While the presence or absence of this show was being considered in the fall, it also became possible that there might be unreleased music on this set. The 1962 and 1963 don’t have very much material that wasn’t already circulating among collectors. The era has been picked almost completely clean. 1964, however, had some rarities.
In his book, The Dylanologists, David Kinney writes about Dylan tapes that are so rare that even the most inside of the Dylan collectors don’t have them all:
Still deeper below the surface were the tapes that were so underground that the men and women who had heard them had sworn to say nothing about them: Tapes That May Not Be Mentioned. A group of preeminent collectors sitting down for dinner would own recordings they could not even discuss with each other. One estimated that as many as twenty-five of these did not circulate. I twas likely that no single person had everything. Even big-time collectors like Mitch were suspicious enough to worry about who was meeting behind their backs> Some lost sleep over the idea that a fellow collector might own a tape that they didn’t even know existed.
Secret stuff!
Well, I was in Florida visiting my parents in December when this year’s track list was released. My father brought in the local Sarasota newspaper and showed me an article – the Anniversary Collection included the “first known recording of “Mr Tambourine Man”, which had been recorded at the home of Eric von Schmidt – 532 Beach Road, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida. Say what?
Not being so fully immersed in the obscure side of Dylan collecting, I wasn’t even fully aware that this tape was rumoured to exist. Some quick internet surfing revealed that this tape was not widely circulating – or perhaps not circulating at all – and that people were going crazy for it.
The 1964 collection marks a change for Sony. The two previous sets included only things (with a couple of small exceptions) that were known to exist and that had been bootlegged. The assumption was that Sony didn’t want to add new things into the hands of the bootleggers, but were protecting what they knew could be released. This was a shift. They gave out new material – they were protecting what they had in their hands, whether anyone else had it or not.
The Von Schmidt tape wasn’t the only thing either. The holy grail of early concerts was Dylan’s 1964 London performance at Royal Festival Hall on 17 May. This show was professionally recorded with the intention of contributing parts of it to a planned live album that never came to pass. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see how this show was discussed by the experts as something that was known to be out there – maybe they’d even heard pieces or even the whole show once upon a time. Note how Clinton Heylin talks about this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Now realize that this tape hasn’t circulated for fifty years. Do all that and then recognize that Sony just released this for 1,000 people in Europe.
Here’s the thing. I can understand the anti-bootlegging arguments and I can understand the pro-bootlegging arguments, and all that is fine and nice in the abstract. But last night as I was going to sleep it occurred to me that there were Dylan fanatics who dreamed of hearing this their entire life – people who literally died before Sony ever even acknowledged that, yes, yes, they had they whole thing. They just didn’t want you to know, because it didn’t fit into their release schedule. It’s infuriating.
What makes it so egregious is that the concert is just so great. Really, it is amazing. I’ve listened to it three times in the past twenty-four hours and for the first time I sort of get it. I get why so many of Dylan’s fans didn’t want him to go electric and begin writing the way he did in 1965 – he comes across as so fully formed here that he’s wrecking something perfect. I still don’t share that view – not even a little bit – but when I hear this show I begin to understand the point of view. I have some sympathy.
There are a lot of frustrations here. Sony refusing to sell this material to people outside of Europe is one (they only made the collection available to brick and mortar stores – no internet sales allowed, and there are stories on the message boards of Americans buying it online only to have their orders cancelled out from under them). Sony has also cut the stage banter (except for where it is integrated into part of the playing of the song). I guess this means that the stage banter is public domain – maybe someone will release it on CD (they did with Elvis!). There is now a trilogy of great early unreleased Dylan shows – Carnegie Hall and Town Hall from 1963, and Royal Festival Hall from 1964. It would make a great triple CD set.
The Von Schmidt tapes, not so much. Yes, a first “Mr. Tambourine Man” is historically significant, but the sound quality is what you would expect from a home recording at this point in history. There’s a lot of blues jamming between Von Schmidt and Dylan. They conclude with Von Schmidt’s “Joshua Gone Barbados” which is, ironically, also on this year’s Complete Basement Tapes – on shuffle my phone threw up both versions in close proximity, though, sadly, not back to back.
The other great material on the set comes late. There are well-circulated concert performances from later in the year (including Newport Folk Festival), but the fifth LP is all outtakes from Another Side of Bob Dylan, including “Denise” a song that I had never heard. There are alternate takes of “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “I Don’t Believe You”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “I Shall be Free No. 10” (four of these). Since so much of these sessions has been gone over for the Bootleg Series, this isn’t the a-list material. There is an alternate take of “Ballad In Plain D”, my pick for worst Dylan song.
Most of the rest of the set I already had – partial recordings of shows in San Francisco and San Jose, for example.
Of the three 50th Anniversary Collections this one is, by a wide margin, the best. Not just the biggest, but the most revelatory – two “secret” tapes finally seeing the light of day for the typical collector. Also, it has really created excitement for 2015. It is clear that Sony is going to have to do another dump in December, this time of really key material – recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and parts of Blonde on Blonde. Also, there are a ton of concerts (not all recorded, obviously). It could be an enormous set. The 2016 set, covering 1966, would be even more enormous. That set has already been partially compiled by bootleggers as Jewels and Binoculars – it is 26 CDs. Presumably the Sony set might be even more inclusive than that. So for the next two years there could be enormous sets coming. After that, though, a few years of very little. Dylan did no touring after the motorcycle accident for three years, and what recording he did do was released this year as The Complete Basement Tapes. There will be some other material to protect, but they can probably release it as a seven-inch single….
The other thing to consider is the long-rumoured forthcoming contributions to the Bootleg Series. Fans have been waiting patiently for a Blood on the Tracks set, but there is also a sense that a Blonde on Blonde set is probably coming. If it is, it almost has to be this year. Sony can’t dump all of the recordings into Europe over the next two years and then come back in 2017 or 2018 with a curated Bootleg Series of that same material. They will need to get the Bootleg Series of 1965/1966 out this year, and then dump the stuff that isn’t good enough into the hands of the hardcore faithful. Don’t be surprised if we get a 1965/1966 Bootleg Series release this fall.
One final note. There is some dispute about the recording location of the Eric von Schmidt tape. Basically the question is: Did Dylan actually visit Sarasota in May 1964? Von Schmidt’s daughter is quoted as saying she doesn’t believe that he did. We know that Dylan played the Monterey Folk Festival on May 1 and that he left for England on May 9. Would he have gone to England from California via Florida? It’s conceivable, but it also seems unlikely. Could the tape have been recorded in New York? That seems more likely.
Nonetheless, and just in case, I made a pilgrimage to 532 Beach Road (we saw the Christmas lights). Whatever was there is not there any longer – like so much of Sarasota it has been torn down and turned into condos. At least we now have the tapes.
I’m not sure how long this will stay up there, but listen to Dylan sing “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” from the Royal Festival Hall show. This is, in my opinion, as good a version of this song as has ever been sung. Columbia and Sony sat on this for FIFTY YEARS! Rumours have it that the tape was in the hands of a Russian collector who didn’t share it for all this time. But here it is, and it’s glorious:

The Spam I Get


Seriously, look at the time stamp.

Eighty-five minutes after I end my blog Amazon sends me this.

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 10.20.59 AM

At least they’re reading!

But Paul McCartney?! Seriously?! Oh, Amazon, you don’t really know me….

Super Bowl Ad (2014)

Confession time: Though I wrapped this blog yesterday, we’re still going for a couple of days.
It’s all a big misunderstanding. When I decided at the end of 2013 that 2014 was the fifty-second anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s first album and that I would write about one year of Dylan’s life per week I forgot one little thing: There are fifty-three years from 1962 to 2014 if you include those years. Oops. So 2014 is now the encore.
Back in February my Facebook and email in-box were flooded with outraged people asking for my comment on Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl ad. I calmly reminded these people that in my world it was 1967 and Bob Dylan was holed up in his house in upstate New York and so they’d have to wait. Besides, I hadn’t even seen the Super Bowl ad.
That was the truth. We hosted a Super Bowl party this year and I recall nothing of the game other than the Seahawks scored on the opening play and that the Broncos never did a single thing. It was the worst Super Bowl in at least a decade, and we had a house full of drunk people playing ping pong and screaming children playing ping pong and it was all quite chaotic and I didn’t pay any attention at all. I mean, none. I knew Dylan was doing the ad because every advertiser sends out press releases about these things, but I missed it.
So here it is:
Wait, what? Poor Chobani. They shell out all the money to get a Dylan song for their ad, and they get such a nice big bear, and no one is outraged by it or talking about it in the morning. This is about the dozenth tv ad to use a Dylan song (I’ve detailed each and every one this year) and it is one of the better ones, although it’s still not good. I’m not sure how many ads are actually good though, if you know what I mean. It didn’t make me want to eat their yogurt, and I like yogurt well enough. Eat it almost every day!
No, this is the ad that quite upset the whole world (by which I mean Twitter people and columnists for internet magazines):
Ok, so quite a few things to say about this one. First and foremost it is essentially a remake of the Eminem ad from 2011, which was used to introduce the Chrysler 200 (which is ostensibly the vehicle being advertised in this Dylan ad, but I watched it three times before I realized that – it’s very ineffective on that front). Refresh your memory of Eminem:
Frankly, that’s way better than the Dylan ad.
Then in 2012 Chrysler did a similar ad with Clint Eastwood. I don’t recall a fury that Eastwood was selling out (nor Eminem, come to think of it), although, to be fair, the issue of selling out was dwarfed by the perception that the ad was anti-Obama in an election year and that it was a little unseemly for the company to run an ad critical of the president that had bailed them out of potential bankruptcy. This ad seemingly led directly to Eastwood’s appearance at the GOP convention on behalf of Mitt Romney, in what turned into a debacle. Anyway, here’s Clint:
It’s interesting to note how many of the same exact shots are used in that ad and in the Eminem ad.
So, the Dylan ad, which cost $16 million for Chrysler to air, ran at the end of the third quarter. The game was 36-0 at that point and I’m not sure that even people in Seattle were still paying attention at that point, so Chrysler is lucky that the whole world freaked out and started re-tweeting this thing or no one would have ever seen it.
This article collects collects a few of the typical tweets from media types. Let’s get a couple of things straight. This was not the first time Dylan had appeared in ad (Victoria’s Secret 2004). This was not the first time that Dylan had appeared in a car ad (Escalade 2007). This was not the first time Dylan had appeared in a Super Bowl ad (Pepsi 2009). So, really, what was this issue about?
Probably people were bored by a 36-0 football game. And, also, Twitter is ruled by snarky people with no historical consciousness.
As for the ad itself, it’s certainly Bob Dylan’s second-best car ad, but it is his best Super Bowl ad (that Pepsi one was dire). I don’t think it sold a single Chrysler 200, but then again I’m not sure I’ve even seen a Chrysler 200 on the road. The whole “Buy American” thing is odd coming from an Italian car company (Chrysler is owned by Fiat) but at least the 200 is made in Michigan, and I do hope that Detroit is able to find a way to rebound.
The ad also led to a lot of late night chatter, including this from Conan O’Brien. Not great.
OK, the Japan bit was funny.