The Poet and His Mistakes



“Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it

Hope I don’t blow it”

That’s Bob Dylan on “I Shall Be Free no. 10”, from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Another Side really is the album where the poet blows it. There are three absolutely awful songs on this album, and now that we’ve reached the end of 1964, I can’t put it any other way – even Dylan was fallible. Perhaps, Dylan was especially fallible.

We spent the day snowboarding in Fernie, BC today, and I had time to listen to every single Dylan 1964 recording I had one last time. I set the playlist to go at the beginning of the day and didn’t skip anything (too much hassle to take off my gloves, unzip the jacket, turn on the phone – hit skip…). One final chance to make an impression.


Here are the three songs that just absolutely do not work.

“I Shall Be Free No. 10”. A disaster. As Dylan moved towards the impressionistic lyrics that would define his mid-1960s period, there was inevitably going to be some trial and error, but there was no need to put it out on the album. This is a potential six way tie for worse verse of all time, but let’s give the nod to this rumination on the greatest boxer of all time:

I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day

I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay

I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come

26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine

Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run

99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you

14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen

That probably only narrowly beats out:

Well, I set my monkey on the log

And ordered him to do the Dog

He wagged his tail and shook his head

And he went and did the Cat instead

He’s a weird monkey, very funky

I get the fact that some of these songs might not have been written while sober, but presumably they were released in the cold hard light of day.

“Motorpsycho Nitemare”. This is a story song in which Dylan is at a farm, pretending to be a doctor, milking the cows and singing about Tony Perkins and Fidel Castro. It concludes:

Me, I romp and stomp

Thankful as I romp

Without freedom of speech

I might be in the swamp

 Finally, “Ballad in Plain D”. This is the worst song Dylan has written so far in this project, and it’s going to be tough to top for worst of all time. Basically a rewriting of the traditional English folk tune about lost love, this song details the final night of Dylan’s relationship with Suze Rotolo. His biographers all point to a knock-down drag-out fight between Dylan and Carla Rotolo, Suze’s older sister. People were called to intervene. It sounds like an ugly scene. It is a ridiculously ugly song. Dylan is abusively uncharitable, mean spirited and self-pitying. It sounds like exactly what it is: the raw nerved ramblings of a bitter and immature twenty-something going through his first real break-up. Even the meter is off in several places. If it was therapeutic to write, it probably shouldn’t have been recorded, and it certainly shouldn’t have been released.

Another Side of Bob Dylan has some great songs (“To Ramona”, “I Don’t Believe You”) but it also has some dreadful ones. Listening to both this and The Times They Are A-Changin’ in quick succession today, it is impossible not to note how much stronger Times is in almost every single respect. That’s the last Dylan folk album and it is Dyaln in total control of his craft. Another Side is his first rock one (although it is not yet rock) and he is not yet sure in what he is doing The birth pangs are pretty pronounced.

(Photo not from 1964, but how could I possibly not use it?)

Bob Dylan’s Privacy



Reading the excellent Tom Junod article on Dylan’s sense of privacy in the new Esquire. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy said what I wanted to say about Newport so perfectly:

“We played with McCartney at Bonnaroo, and the thing about McCartney is that he wants to be loved so much,” Jeff Tweedy says. “He has so much energy, he gives and gives and gives, he plays three hours, and he plays every song you want to hear. Dylan has zero fucks to give about that. And it’s truly inspiring. The joke on our tour was that his T-shirt should say PISSING PEOPLE OFF SINCE 1962. If you dropped people out of a vacuum from another planet and planted them in a field somewhere so that they could study us, and there’s a guy half-decipherably singing jump-blues songs almost in the dark, and there’s people watching him—well, it wouldn’t make any sense….”


Newport Folk Festival, 1964



People get really upset when they go to see a band and they don’t get to hear the hits. Some of them get impatient and  start yelling out the titles, as if the band doesn’t know which songs are the popular ones. They fume if they don’t get the hits at all (I left a Bob Dylan concert once and heard someone in the parking lot complain that he had played only obscure material on a night that he had performed probably eight tracks from his greatest hits albums). Dylan certainly could provoke people this way.

Dylan’s setlists at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1964 were not aimed at pleasing the crowd. It’s wasn’t as bad as the next year, when he would show up with a band in tow, but it was a remarkably hit free show. I am a little confused about what exactly he played and when (I received a dvd of The Other Side of the Mirror yesterday, but am not going to watch it until next week, maybe it will straighten me out), but it is clear that most of what he performed for the crowd were new songs.

On the evening of July 26, for example, has him playing three songs from Another Side of Bob Dylan (which was not yet recorded nor released), “With God on Our Side” (with Joan Baez), and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (which wouldn’t be released until Bringing It All Back Home in 1965). At other sessions during the festival he did another version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, also from Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Listening to the recordings, it is clear that the crowd is appreciative, but they don’t seem enraptured (it’s hard to tell how well the crowd sound was mic’ed though…). Dylan was in the process of not giving them what they wanted. All the biographies agree that the old line folk writers at the magazines were critical of his sets (too personal, not socially engaged, not traditional). Dylan simply advanced the break that was coming. Another Side of wouldn’t cause the inevitable rupture, but it signalled its inevitability and he gives them this material rather than his “voice of a generation” hits.

As for the recordings, a nice version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” with Joan Baez, but an absolutely off-putting “All I Really Want To Do” where he yodels too much to open his set on the final evening. That yodelling has to go, because combined with his refusal to really give his audience what they would’ve expected, it was semi-fortuitous that they didn’t turn on him a year early.

Here he is playing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at an afternoon workshop. I love Pete Seeger sitting there in the background.

Bob Dylan, Poet



You really should watch Bob Dylan’s appearance on the Steve Allen show from February 25, 1964 (shortly after he appeared on CBC’s Quest). Not just for Dylan’s performance of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, but for how utterly, totally bizarre the interview is. Allen introduces Dylan, throws to commercial, comes back, reintroduces him, reads a review, asks him a question, reads one of Dylan’s poems, and then asks him about Hattie Caroll – suggesting that Dylan tell the audience about her, which, of course, is what the song does. Allen seems totally lost: “Well, I imagine the song tells it’s own story,” he says. I think talk show prep left a little to be desired in the early 1960s.

What is striking, though, is how hard Allen pushes him not just as a singer-songwriter or folk star, but very consciously as a poet. Allen calls him a poet, quotes a review that calls him a poetic genius, and then actually reads Dylan’s poetry aloud himself. By 1964 Dylan was self-consciously positioning himself this way, not simply in the way that he was using Rimbaud-ian imagery in his songs, but through the inclusion of things like “11 Outlined Epitaphs” on the back cover and insert on The Times They Are A-Changin’ (my insert, by the way, is gone from my vinyl copy – I had to read the text online).

Dylan wrote poetry earlier – he ended his Town Hall concert in 1963 with “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” and apparently wanted to include that reading on a potential live album in 1964, which became a stumbling block with his label. I have a tough time gauging his non-musical verse. It can be quite evocative, but it mostly leaves me cold in comparison to his songwriting.

There is an argument to be made (and it has been made) that the collapse of poetry as a popular art form owes a great deal to Dylan and Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen raising the stakes in pop music by incorporating poetry into their songwriting. The turn towards difficulty, abstraction, and conceptualism that marked poetry over the past half century can be read as a reaction to the appropriation of lyrical poetry by pop music. As a certain kind of poetry moved into the university’s creative writing programs, popular verse moved into the musical realm. The combination of music and poetry had been one of the goals of the Beats, of course, and when Dylan and his colleagues began to achieve it, it forced the poetic avant grade to move towards non-expressive forms. I’m simplifying horribly, of course, but it is striking how far the cutting edge of poetry in the late-1960s and after would move away from the types of things that Dylan and Simon were able to write.

Every year now Dylan is mentioned as a potential Nobel Laureate for his poetry, by which the critics usually mean his songwriting. It always seems like a long shot to me, but I do think that his impact on the world of poetry has been profound – not simply because people followed his example, but because an even greater number of poets ran from it.

Here is Dylan on Steve Allen found on Facebook – you might need to be registered on Facebook to be able to watch this.

Another Side of Bob Dylan


bob dylan another side

On New Year’s Day I hauled all of my vinyl Bob Dylan albums out of storage. We don’t own a turntable at the moment, but I thought it would be a good start to the year to go out into the garage and track them all down. As they’ve been through a number of moves – and since we don’t actually play them – they’re no longer in any order, and I had to flip through all of the boxes. I was surprised not to find a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan, the second album that he released in 1964. I figured maybe it got lost somewhere along the way.

Three weeks later I know why I didn’t find it: I had never, ever, listened to this album before Sunday when I started playing Dylan’s 1964 output. I am completely positive that there are songs on this album that I had never heard in my life.

I don’t think I was expecting that.

Now I’m trying to figure out why I would have skipped it. The most likely reason is that buying albums in the 1980s was a bit hit and miss, and it’s possible that I never saw it for sale when I was buying the other Dylan albums of the period. Of course, it’s also possible that this was a conscious decision. The album doesn’t have very many of his “big” songs, and the ones that are on here (It Ain’t Me Babe; All I Really Want to Do; To Ramona) are all on Biograph in one version or another. It’s possible that, owning Biograph, I felt no completist need to pick up an album for things like Motopsycho Nitemare.

Having listened to it a few times now, I don’t feel like I was missing all that much. Dylan recorded this in a single day (June 9, 1964) in very few takes (To Ramona and All I Really Want to Do are both the first and only takes recorded of those songs). The good songs here (which would also include Chimes of Freedom) are all really good – but few of these versions are the really great versions. In many ways, this feels like a bootleg that has been released. You can hear Dylan laugh during his performance on two different cuts. The whole thing feels rushed and premature. One of the most remarkable things about it is that Mr. Tambourine Man was recorded (twice) during this session, but was left off the album. That one of his biggest hits was pushed back to the next album (after becoming a sensation for the Byrds) is indicative of how little thought seemed to go into the track selection.

The album is the transition into Dylan’s rock mode. It’s not a rock album – Dylan plays solo on all of the songs (and solo piano on Black Crow Blues) – but the best versions of every one of these songs is a live rock version. The album didn’t do well for him – he was still a folksinger in the eyes of the public – and these songs were far too personal. It never even cracked the top forty. It also contains a high number of duds: Black Crow Blues, I Shall Be Free No. 10 (which is dreadful), Motorpscyho Nitemare (same), and Ballad in Plain D, which might be the worst thing that Dylan ever recorded (I want to say more about that tomorrow). All four of these songs have never been played live, which shows how little faith Dylan had in them.

All in all, it’s a bit of a tough album to sit through. The best parts simply remind me of better versions, and the low points are really quite low. Not sure how my teenage self knew that, but I saved myself ten dollars that I probably would have regretted spending.

“All I Really Want to Do” was the first song on the album. Here’s the version from Newport 1964:

A Ruling From the Eight Year Old



“This isn’t Bob Dylan,” said my son in the car on his way to swimming class.

“No,” I told him, “it’s Joan Baez. She was his girlfriend.”

“Only Bob Dylan. All year. You said.”

“Well,” I countered, “he’s playing the harmonica.”  We were listening to “Silver Dagger”, the lone Baez solo song on Bootleg Series 6: Live from the Philharmonic Hall.

“It only counts if Bob Dylan is singing.”

Sebastian is interested in the Dylan project even when he is flummoxed by it. Later on the same trip he complained that we’d already heard one of the songs and I told him that this was a live version.

“It all sounds the same. Same same same” he said.

“Then why did you complain about “Silver Dagger”?,” I asked.

“Not Dylan. Doesn’t count.”

He’s right, of course, a lot of it does sound the same. But a lot of it does sound different. Listening to the live performances is all about the tyranny of little differences.

Some of the material plays well on repeat, others not so much. On Bootleg Series 6 Baez and Dylan absolutely massacre “Mama, You Been On My Mind”. They are out of sync. They can’t agree on the lyrics. You can hear Dylan telling them to her mid-song. It’s a debacle, but a charming debacle. The audience finds it cute in its spontaneous genuineness. So did I the first time. Third time through I can’t listen any longer. Charming quickly becomes cloying and I thumb to the next track.

Good show generally. Nice to capture Baez and Dylan together on the downswing of their time together in the fall of 1964 (the rupture would come six months later in England).

“Same same same,” says Sebastian.

I can’t find any footage of the Philharmonic Hall show, so here’s Baez’s version of “Silver Dagger”, the first track on her first album.

New(ish) Dylan Album in March




Since I go to every day at least once now, I may be the first to have noticed that Columbia is releasing a new two dvd/two cd version of the Thirtieth Anniversary Concert. I plan to pre-order it, but as I am STILL waiting on the copy of the Complete Album Collection that I ordered in December, I have no faith that it will actually ever arrive. That said, I can’t watch it until 1992, which is some time around August so there’s plenty of time.

I do remember watching this show on television when it aired, though the only thing that sticks in my memory is Sinead O’Connor being booed off the stage following her Pope-ripping incident on Saturday Night Live, and Kris Kristofferson coming out to speak to her (“Don’t let the bastards get you down”). There’s a lot to be said about the relation of that to Dylan’s own Judas moment, but it will have to wait for a few months.

My self-imposed rules don’t allow me to skip ahead to show you a Dylan clip from this show, but nothing stops me from linking to a Bob Marley cover:



The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll



The best song on The Times They Are A-Changin’ is “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the strongest topical song that Dylan ever wrote.

In Chronicles, Dylan notes that this song was a major change in his writing, and that it was influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, in particular “Pirate Jenny” which he wrote out the lyrics for in an effort to understand how it was constructed.

The story was literally ripped from the headlines, as William Zantzinger killed Hattie Carroll in Baltimore on February 9, 1963 and the song was recorded in October of that year. The story is, in some ways, even more disturbing than the song presents it – Zantzinger actually assaulted three staff people at the hotel and his own wife in a drunken rage. The indictment of the Maryland legal system is thorough and well merited, and the song has all the hallmarks of a great tragedy.

The NBC tv show, Homicide: Life on the Streets, which did more to talk about race than probably any show on network television before or since, actually based a three-part series of episodes at the beginning of their sixth season around this song – modernizing the class issues for the 1990s – that was among the best material that that show ever produced (which is saying something given how many great episodes that series produced).


“Hattie Carroll” is a testament to the blunt, direct reportage of the topical song. It takes its power from its truth, and its truth is particularly galling.

Bob Dylan on the CBC



The oddest Dylan piece that I have come across so far is undoubtedly the episode of the CBC’s Quest that aired in February 1964. It is the most complete video of Dylan at the tail end of his folksinger phase that exists. Airing literally a few weeks before the Beatles took over the United States, Dylan still has the Woody Guthrie clothing to go with hisharmonica holder. By March Dylan would have transformed his looks and rented his first electric guitar. This is a true time capsule piece.

A half-hour show airing Sunday nights at 10:30, Quest was intended to showcase cutting edge performers and performances. To today’s eyes it is unquestionably a bizarre show. No announcers, no interviewers, just Dylan performing on a set designed to look like a bunkhouse or a fishing cabin, with a group of men gathered around mostly smoking and ignoring him. You might have thought that someone on the set would have suggested that maybe the singer would look like a bigger deal if, you know, the people there actually seemed interested in him. But, no.

This is an intimate Dylan set. He performs six songs, four of which are (I would argue) major ones. It’s the best opportunity that I have had to see – rather than listen – to him sing and play so far. It’s remarkable how much younger he looks than he sounds.

Most of the performances here hew pretty closely to their recorded versions. “Restless Farewell”, the final song, is probably the most interesting given that it’s one of his least performed songs. He doesn’t belt out the “hards” in “A Hard Rain” like he was doing in concert at that time (not that it would have been appropriate in the setting). The sense of sitting in the room with the performer is palpable. This is probably as close as one can imagine being in one the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village.

YouTube has bits and pieces, but I found the complete thing here. I tried to link to the CBC’s own version (which might not have the annoying time stamp) but, well, I couldn’t get their site to work….

The Times They Are A-Changin’



The only good thing about Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie is the opening credits sequence which is set to “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. If the movie had continued to be that good, it would be classic. Instead, it’s Watchmen.

Snyder uses a ton of shortcuts in that sequence, and the shortest of them all is the song selection. There may be no more anthemic song of the entire decade, but that doesn’t make it any less great. This is Dylan self-consciously adopting the mantle of “voice of a generation”, something that he would almost immediately attempt to cast off. It’s the song that his audience needed him to write.

With the Biblical overtones, its generation gap rhetoric, its address to “senators and congressmen”, and its skilfully crafted couplets this is a song that begs to be used in a variety of contexts. Yet it is not simply useful, it is actually quite beautiful. It’s a minor masterpiece of crafting, and is a song that plays well in a variety of arrangements.

Wikipedia reminded me that in 2010 the hand-written lyrics for the song were sold at auction for more than $400,000 to a hedge fund manager. So, maybe not so much change after all.

Here’s the Quest version from early 1964: