“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”



I’ve made it a tradition already of starting each Sunday morning with a comment on the new album of the week, or the first of them when there was been two releases. I’m breaking that today because I need to give Blonde on Blonde more time to soak in. You see, despite the fact that Rolling Stone called it the ninth greatest album of all time (one slot behind The Clash’s London Calling, one in front of The Beatles’s White Album), I was never a huge fan. Based on my memories alone, I’d have dumped down around the tenth best Dylan album. So I’m going to take some time to re-appraise.

Why the low regard? I think a lot of it has to do with the lead track and first single, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”. Oh how I hated this song when I was young. Oh how I hate this song today. (Actually, though, I wish I did like it so that I could justify buying this t-shirt which is clever where the song is dumb).


Hitting number two on the pop charts, it is an epic drudge (though the single version was shorter than the album version, though not really any less dull). What is there to hate about this song? Let’s try everything:

The lyrics. Repetitive, boring nonsense. While fiddling around with the Basement Tapes Dylan would craft a lot of nonsense lyrics, and these anticipate that trend. “Well they’ll stone ya…” ad nauseum, building to the big chorus: “Everybody must get stoned!”. Only a stoned person could care about this song.

The brass band. Tuba, trombone, that damned tambourine. Oh how I can’t stand that tambourine. It’s all played out in a simple F progression in slow motion that drones on and on forever.

The chatter. Oh the sounds of happy cavorting people in the background, mixed low. Awful. Self-indulgent. Repulsive. All the fake laughing and singing and carrying on to remind us all of how fun it is to be stoned. It’s all so forced.

That this song was a hit is, to me, the greatest indictment of the 1960s possible. Seriously, there are a ton of great songs on Blonde on Blonde, but it starts with this and it just puts me in a bad mood every time. I’m thinking of deleting it from the 1966 playlist on my phone in the hopes of not hearing it again this week.

Here, at least on Lester Flatt and Earl Scrugg’s version you get some great banjo picking:

The Playboy Interview



I read it for the articles.

Dylan’s longest interview to date was conducted by Nat Hentoff, jazz critic for the Village Voice, for Playboy in March 1966. It’s surrealist Dylan at his best, or worst if you don’t like it. He says a few things that seem straight, but most of it is bent. It would be a frustrating read for anyone looking for genuine insight into the man. By this point, just before the birth of his first son, Dylan had erected the entire edifice of obstruction around himself. Lies and obstruction had become his calling cards.

Take this exchange:

PLAYBOY: Do you ever think about marrying, settling down, having a home, maybe living abroad? Are there any luxuries you’d like to have, say, a yacht or a Rolls-Royce?

DYLAN: No, I don’t think about those things. If I felt like buying anything, I’d buy it. What you’re asking me about is the future, my future. I’m the last person in the world to ask about my future.

This is a man who was five months married by the time the interview saw print, and already a father of two (Sara, his first wife, had a daughter from a previous relationship). Dylan kept his marriage from his friends – there was no way that he was sharing it with Playboy readers.

The interview, which can be found here, is worth reading in its entirety. Dylan is in a sparring mode with Hentoff (who wrote the liner notes for Freewheelin’). On Hentoff’s first love, jazz Dylan offers this surreal riff:

DYLAN: I mean, what would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a glass eye, a Charlie Mingus record and a pocketful of feathers? He’d say, “Who are you following?” And the poor kid would have to stand there with water in his shoes, a bow tie on his ear and soot pouring out of his belly button and say, “Jazz, Father, I’ve been following jazz.”

At other times, Dylan seems to be speaking honestly (or at least you could read him as doing that). His explanation that he was sick of his folk songs is quoted in almost every biography for its truth content:

DYLAN: Anyway, I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing. I don’t mean words like “God” and “mother” and “President” and “suicide” and “meat cleaver.” I mean simple little words like “if” and “hope” and “you.” But “Like a Rolling Stone” changed it all.

This seems honest and true simply because you can hear it and see it and judge it for yourself in the videos from Newport and in Dont Look Back. It confirms an assumption, a bias that is already built in. On the booing at Newport and Long Island and elsewhere on his fall tour of the United States:

DYLAN: I was kind of stunned. But I can’t put anybody down for coming and booing: after all, they paid to get in. They could have been maybe a little guieter and not so persistent, though. There were a lot of old people there, too; lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their parents, and well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And just when everything’s going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory. There were a lot of people there who were very pleased that I got booed. I saw them afterward. I do resent somewhat, though, that everybody that booed said they did it because they were old fans.

On his break from topical songs, Dylan is a cross between honest and mysterious. By the end of 1965 Joan Baez had already opened her school for non-violent resistance and had stopped paying her income taxes to protest against American militarism, but Dylan had firmly broken with the cause:

PLAYBOY: Do you think it’s pointless to dedicate yourself to the cause of peace and racial equality?

DYLAN: Not pointless to dedicate yourself to peace and racial equality, but rather, it’s pointless to dedicate yourself to the cause; that’s really pointless. That’s very unknowing. To say “cause of peace” is just like saying “hunk of butter.” I mean, how can you listen to anybody who wants you to believe he’s dedicated to the hunk and not to the butter?

Yet for all that honesty, Dylan could still be confounding, and hilarious.

DYLAN: do know what my songs are about.

PLAYBOY: And what’s that?

DYLAN: Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.

PLAYBOY: Can’t you be a bit more informative?

DYLAN: Nope.

Poor Nat Hentoff, having to play straight man for all that.

By summer Dylan will have had his motorcycle accident and will retreat from the public eye. After the Royal Albert Hall shows in May (the real ones, not the ones mistakenly labelled as such) there would be no more live performances by Dylan until 1969. Hentoff offers us one of the last glimpses of Dylan before he turns his attention to his family and cuts off the world.

Of Booing and Bootlegs



When I was thinking about spending all of 2014 listening to nothing but Bob Dylan a few people urged me on. One was my friend Rusty, whose enthusiasm for the idea may have been what sealed the deal for me. The one piece of advice that Rusty had was “I’d be inclined to limit the project to official albums and  find some sort of principle for selecting from the boots.  I mean, “Great White Wonder” or the Broadside stuff is too important historically to leave out, but you don’t want to have to trudge through a bunch of repetitive live shows with dodgy sound, either.”

I should have listened to Rusty (that goes for most things, of course).

Driving to and from Nakiska today I listened to a series of Dylan live performances from the fall of 1965. Specifically, his Long Island show from August, his Hollywood Bowl show in LA from September, and his show in Berkeley in December. Each of these shows was half acoustic and then half electric. The first thing that one notes is that the booing of the electric sets was out of control in the months after Newport. The Long Island crowd is having none of it. The revisionists who try to suggest that the Newport crowd was simply booing the mix are completely out to lunch – these crowds hate hate hated Dylan’s electric performances.

Yet the other thing that you notice is that some of these bootlegs are amazing and some are, charitably, pretty much trash.

The Long Island set is pretty tough to listen to, particularly the electric set because it is taken from a crowd recording, while the Hollywood Bowl show (a soundboard recording) is nearly perfect. The Berkeley show, released as a bootleg titled Long Distance Operator (since it is the first and perhaps only live recording of that song), is a really difficult one to listen to – another crowd recording at a time when the technology really wasn’t there for that.

I’d love to read a good history of the manufacturing and distribution of bootleg albums in the pre-internet days, because the subject is quite fascinating. I’m sure that there must be a Grateful Dead scholar who can explain the whole system and its relationship to head shops, music shops, the underground press, underground comix and all the rest – but I haven’t read it yet. Would absolutely love to.

In the meantime, I’m using Bob’s Boots to guide some of my listening, but even that is proving somewhat problematic – they give a really good score to the Berkeley show, although mostly for the quality of the show itself, not for the recording.

There is a fourteen CD Italian bootleg that covers 1965 really thoroughly. Nick Hornby mentions it in 31 Songs, but I discovered it too late to really be helpful for this week, as I head into 1966 starting in the morning. It seems that I’ve missed the audio recording of the Nat Hentoff Playboy interview (published in February 1966, I’ll read it next week). Oh well, Dont Look Back…

Here’s a copy of “Freeze Out”, the 1965 version of “Visions of Johanna”, that was recorded in New York for Blonde on Blonde. The version on the album was recorded in Nashville in February 1966, as was the vast majority of that album. This is the kind of thing that you get from the bootlegs that makes the hunting so worthwhile. Since this is the best song on Blonde on Blonde, more on this song next week.


“Like a Rolling Stone”



Rolling Stone called it the greatest song of all time (Pitchfork called it number four). Greil Marcus wrote a 200+ page book about it. How can I sum up “Like A Rolling Stone” in a single blog post?

I’m not even sure what to say about it, frankly. I read the Marcus book this morning and he does a great job talking in tremendous detail about the shifts in musicality across its six minutes, the subtle differences in each verse, and the huge impact that the song had on American pop music. But even the great Greil Marcus is left in the end noting that the whole thing was a fluke. If Al Kooper hadn’t shown up… If he hadn’t been too intimidated by Mike Bloomfield to play guitar… If producer Tom Wilson had thrown him out of the studio…. If Kooper actually knew how to play organ… So much random chance coming together to produce the greatest song of all time.

All the key parts are well known. Dylan “vomiting” out the lyrics at the typewriter, more than twenty pages and then culling from that something usable. The improvised organ playing of guitarist Al Kooper. The snare snap that announces the song’s arrival like a bullet.

What I didn’t know is that the single was released dual sided: split in half. Marcus notes that this wasn’t the first six minute pop song (he cites Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” and the Isley Brothers’s “Shout”), but it was the first to be such a success at that length. DJs initially played only the first side, but because that side ended after the first line of the third verse, listeners could tell that they were missing out on something, and demanded the whole version. The song was released at a time when The Beatles and Rolling Stones were escalating the pop music stakes, with Dylan arriving to trump them both. Decades later, of course, the Stones would even have to take their shot at covering it.

Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads is good, but not great. His digressions are often the best material in the book, and they are frequent. Marcus noted one of the things that I had noted myself, but since he wrote it first I can’t plagiarize him: Dylan was 24 when he wrote this song, and by that age he had written every song that will be mentioned in the first paragraph of his New York Times obituary (“Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, and “Like a Rolling Stone”, probably in that order). Nothing that he would ever do after would ever be as important. That must be quite the thing to have to live with.


One of the amazing things about the song is that no one else does it justice. There were lots of contemporary covers (Marcus reports that Dylan and Al Kooper would buy them to listen and laugh at them) and they were all terrible. There are better versions of a lot of Dylan’s songs than Dylan’s versions, but that’s not the case for “Like A Rolling Stone”. It’s simply the perfect mesh of singer and song.

The music video from last year is awesome, by the way. If you haven’t seen it you really need to. I don’t think I can embed it, so click on the link.