“Changing of the Guards”

Standard

Changing_of_the_Guards_cover

“Sixteen years”. Those are the emphatic words that open “Changing of the Guards”, the third and final single from Street Legal. Released in 1978, it was exactly sixteen years since his debut album, and, for me, sixteen weeks into this one-year-one-week trek through Dylan’s life.

I have to say it: I love this song. I mean, I really adore it. Seriously, today I would put it among the top ten songs that he’s ever written. It’s the lead song on an album that most people don’t like. It has all the elements that people deride – the back-up singers, the sax between every verse – and that might be a problem with the way that the song was recorded. But as a song, I think it’s one of the best things that he’s ever done. It’s a full on and complete return to the lyrical complexity that marked his best mid-1960s material. The song, to me, is an absolute triumph.

It’s almost impossible not to read this one in autobiographical terms. Apart from the opening declaration, there is, for example, this verse:

Fortune calls

I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace

Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down

She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born

On midsummer’s eve, near the tower

The whole thing plays out as a reminiscence on his career to date, and also on his relationship to his now ex-wife, Sara. The lyrics are vague, mystical, and quasi-religious, filled with mythical elements (“She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo”). Lyrically, it is a superior piece of work.

What really puts this one over for me are the live performances of it. This is the third straight non-charting single that Dylan would only ever play on his epic 1978 world tour, but he played it incredibly well. It was frequently in the encore, and it was the rousing anthem that was used to send the crowd home happy. Dylan punches those short first lines (“Sixteen years”, “Fortune calls”, and my personal favourite, “They shave her head” (such a bizarre way to begin a verse in any song)) and often creates beautiful segues out of the sax part. I’ve been listening to a lot of the 1978 tour this week already, and this has quickly become the major discovery of the year for me.

The version that is found on Street Legal is far from the ideal way to listen to this song. Here’s Dylan performing it in Nashville (the sound starts after ten seconds or so):

Here’s another way to do it – the inimitable Patti Smith:

“Baby, Stop Crying”

Standard

url

“Baby Stop Crying”, the second single from Street Legal, was also the second mis-step. This is one of only two songs on the album that weren’t written well in advance of the four days of recording that put the whole thing together. It has a bit of a feeling of a last minute fill-in.

The central aspect of this song is the thing that most people seem to hate about Street Legal: the bluesy back-up singers. It was clear from Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue that Dylan was desperately looking for a band that would give him the Phil Spector “wall of sound” vibe, and he put it together for his 1978 world tour. It was with this band that he recorded this album, replete with tenor sax and a power trio of back-up singers (one of whom, Carolyn Dennis, he would marry 8 years later).

It seems like that the vast majority of this song is its chorus, with its endlessly repeated phrase, “stop crying”. It just sort of goes on and on and on in this one. The lyrics to the verses are terribly unmemorable. It is testament to their forgeability that I’ve heard this songs dozens of times, and I still had to read the lyrics to remember that it includes the threatening line: “Go get me my pistol, babe / Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong”.

The whole thing is very slight. The second verse amounts to almost nothing:

Go down to the river, babe

Honey, I will meet you there

Go down to the river, babe

Honey, I will pay your fare

This is yet another Dylan single that he gave up on. Performed about three dozen times on his 1978 tour, he never bothered to do it again.

It’s amazing to me that Dylan and Columbia seemed to have picked the two worst songs on Street Legal as the first two singles. Neither charted in the US, but this made it to number 13 in the UK and to number 5 in Ireland.

The Playboy Interview (1978)

Standard

1345491405_playboy-march-1978

January 1978 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s second major interview in Playboy (cover dated March), this time with Ron Rosenbaum. This is a vastly, vastly superior interview to the one the Jonathan Cott published in Rolling Stone (you can read a transcript here). Dylan is far less cagey, though there are certainly moments, and he reflects a little bit on his past experiences while also discussing Renaldo and Clara.

It is clear from the interview, and the questions that Rosenbaum raises, that Dylan is still regarded as a figure of the 1960s even by the late-1970s. While it is clear that the interviewer is knowledgeable about the changes that Dylan made to his songs during his tours in 1974 and 1975/6, it is still the Village scene of the early-60s that draws his questions. Dylan isn’t that forthcoming about any of it, really. Reading his interviews is always a frustrating experience because of that.

There are plenty of good moments here, including a discussion of the accessibility of Renaldo and Clara that seems a little off the mark. Dylan also discusses his thoughts on Christianity, and I will return to that when he fully turns his attention to the Gospel period. It was clear, however, that at the time of this interview (late 1977) that he was still a skeptic.

The late-1970s highlights of the piece is the discussion of President Carter, who Dylan had met in 1974, and then this question:

PLAYBOY: Would you say you still have a rebellious, or punk, quality toward the rest of the world?

DYLAN: Punk quality?

PLAYBOY: Well, you’re still wearing dark sunglasses, right?

DYLAN: Yeah.

PLAYBOY: Is that so people won’t see your eyes?

DYLAN: Actually, it’s just habit-forming after a while, I still do wear dark sunglasses. There is no profound reason for it, I guess. Some kind of insecurity, I don’t know: I like dark sunglasses. Have I had these on through every interview session?

PLAYBOY: Yes. We haven’t seen your eyes yet.

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 12.42.10 PM

I’m not sure if Dylan and Rosenbaum are talking about “punk” in the way that we assume most musicians in 1978 would be thinking through that term. I take Rosenbaum to mean it that way in the question – in asking about the New York scene and its vitality elsewhere in the interview Dylan claims that the New York scene is dead, and Rosenbaum seems to be sticking up for the new scene in the East Village without actually identifying it as such – but it doesn’t seem that Dylan gets the reference – he segues into talking about Elvis and James Dean.

I think a lot of critics and interviewers wanted to get Dylan’s take on CBGBs and The Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Rolling Stone asked him about the new wave bands, he blew them all off, and Playboy seems to sidle up to it without actually asking. Obviously, those bands owe a great debt to Dylan even if they were rejecting what he was all about, but no one seems to be able to nail Dylan down on the topic. It’s likely he just wasn’t very aware of it – he says in this interview that he mostly listens to bluegrass, after all.

“Is Your Love in Vain?”

Standard

Bob-Dylan-Is-Your-Love-In-V-54642

The first of three singles from Street Legal was “Is Your Love in Vain”. Greil Marcus accused this one of sexism, which is kind of funny given how many more of Dylan songs evince a greater distrust for women. Sexist or not, it’s not really that much of a song, and it actually might be the least interesting thing on the album.

Dylan performed this for the first time on February 28, 1978 at one of his Budokan concerts (it makes it onto 1979’s At Budokan from one of those shows). Like a lot of the material on Street Legal, it was written before the Australasian tour at the beginning of the year, and then recorded in the break before the European leg of the tour. It didn’t really survive past the tour either: Dylan played it 31 times in 1978 (out of more than 110 shows) and then never again. It’s another in a long list of Dylan singles that Dylan seemed to lose interest in.

It’s not a terrible song, but it’s too slow and too deliberate, so it comes off as a bit of drudgery. The lines:

I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings

And I’ve never been too impressed

Seem sort of like an early attempt at a humbelbrag.

Some live Dylan starting to crop on YouTube in this era for some reason. Here are two very different vocal performances of the same song, the first from Goteborg, Sweden from July 1978 and the second from Toronto in October of the same year.

 

The Rolling Stone Interview (1978)

Standard

20130401-bob-dylan-rolling-stone-306x-1364849901

Rebecca asked me yesterday “What weird thing are you going to blog about next year?” and I said “I’ll probably write about Bob Dylan again, but try to do a better job of it”. As we near the point where we’ve passed a third of the year, and a third of Dylan’s career, I find that I miss him when he’s not around. Last week was the slowest one for this blog all year, because Dylan did almost nothing: he got divorced from his first wife, Sara, and fought a protracted custody battle for his children, and he edited hundreds of hours of film into the four hour epic, Renaldo and Clara, which would become one of the biggest mis-steps of his entire career.

The year 1978 is a return for Dylan. He will do three tours – Japan (with Australia and New Zealand), Europe, and the United States and play an astonishing 114 concerts during the calendar year. He releases Street Legal, one of his worst received albums, and three singles that go nowhere. He may or may not become a born again Christian this year (his first Gospel Tour begins in November 1979). There’s a lot going on again all of a sudden, and I find myself looking forward to all of it. I also find myself happy to note that there are only a few remaining “dead spots” in Dylan’s career, like 1982, coming up.

To kick off the year, Dylan sat down for a long interview with Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone (actually conducted at the very end of 1977) dealing with Renaldo and Clara. Since I haven’t yet watched that film, I’ll save the comments about it until I have. The interview is one of the worst Dylan has ever given. I’m not sure that he’s actively trying to be difficult, as he was in the 1960s, or if this is just the way that he really is. I think that there is a general consensus that Dylan’s interviews are mostly put-ons, but reading this one I started to think that maybe he is just really like this all the time. I mean, read Tarantula – his brain seems to fire off in atypical directions.

On the other hand, Cott doesn’t bring much to the whole thing. He has a ton of Dylan quotes laid out in front of him, and some Jewish mysticism and the whole thing just comes across as the worst excesses of the 1970s. For instance, on the death of Jesus (at this point, you have to be attentive to any Dylan Christian references):

“[Jesus was killed] Because he’s a healer. Jesus is a healer. So he goes to India, finds out how to be a healer and becomes one. But see, I believe that he overstepped his duties a little bit. He accepted and took on the bad karma of all the people he healed. And he was filled with so much bad karma that the only way out was to burn him up.”

So, if Dylan was born again by the end of 1977, it was in a particularly strange form of Christianity.

Anyway, it’s a terrible interview. Long and boring and tedious. I imagine it would have made me wary of seeing the film (I’m still wary now…) because the way that these two talk about it is absolutely mind-numbing:

Cott: The poet Robert Bly has written about the image of the Great Mother as a union of four force fields, consisting of the nurturing mother, like Isis (though your Isis seems more ambiguous); the Death Mother (like the woman in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”); the Ecstatic Mother (like the girl in “Spanish Harlem Incident”); and the Stone Mother who drives you mad (like Sweet Melinda who leaves you howling at the moon in “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues “). Traces of these women seem to be in this film as well.

Dylan:  The Death Mother is represented in the film, but I don’t know what I should say or can say or shouldn’t say about who is who in the movie. I mean who is the old woman everyone calls Mamma — the woman who sings, plays guitar and reads palms? She reads Allen’s palm, saying: “You’ve been married twice.” And me, later on I’m looking at the gravestone marked HUSBAND; Ginsberg asks: “Is that going to happen to you?” And I say: “I want an unmarked grave.” But of course I’m saying this as Renaldo.

Uh huh. Right. Listen, I think we’re going to go see The Bad News Bears Go to Japan instead….

But I don’t think this is a put-on anymore.

“Rita May”

Standard

CBS4859FR2

One of the few things Dylan did in 1977 was release “Rita May”, a song recorded during the Desire sessions but left off the album. The song itself is a silly 1950s style rock and roll tune that was covered by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1979, appropriately because it sounds like something Jerry would have sung a quarter century earlier. There’s not much to this one. It is exactly as it promises to be, and that’s about it. Not very Dylanish.

Rita_May-Memphis_Blues_cover

It’s a bit of a poser for me. The cover for the single (above) clearly indicates that it is the b-side of the live version (shortened) of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” excerpted from Hard Rain. The UK single cover (below) indicates the same thing, slightly more explicitly.

Bob-Dylan-Rita-May-478479

However, wikipedia insists that this was a non-album single (not a b-side) and there is this single sleeve that would seem to indicate that. So I’m not sure. One of the things that I find a bit odd about researching Dylan, given the vast mountains of information there is on the web about him, is how contradictory so much of this. Obviously, I could spend some time and figure this a-side/b-side thing out for my own, but it’s not like the song really merits the work. It is a useful reminder of not to trust much of anything that you read on the internet (or elsewhere) for face value, to check and double-check. It is also a good reminder of how much more obscure this kind of thing becomes as you move back in time – this is only thirty-five years ago and it’s not immediately clear, so imagine if it was 350 years.

Speaking of not trusting what you read, wikipedia offers these weasel words: “Some listeners believe that the lyrics of the song refer to writer Rita Mae Brown, who had complained of the lack of opportunities for casual lesbian sex.” To their credit they actually cite Dylan Who’s Who for that insightful bit of guesswork. The fact that a) it’s not spelled “Rita Mae” and b) there is nothing in it to suggest that it is about a militant lesbian. I can’t imagine that Dylan ever thought, as Brown did, that heterosexuality was the root of all oppression. I can believe that he’d sing:

Rita May, Rita May

Laying in a stack of hay

Do you remember where you been?

What’s that crazy place you’re in?

I’m gonna have to go to college

’Cause you are the book of knowledge

Rita May

Dylan’s site says that he only performed this once, in New Orleans in 1976. It’s a good performance, but it’s not on video. So here’s The Killer instead:

The Last Waltz

Standard

54475_10151216041018872_217811581_o

Martin Scorsese is probably something of a genius. Maybe you already believe that, but given his recent run of films it is something that I think must be very much up in the air. Back in the 1970s, though, his genius-ness was not really in doubt, and The Last Waltz is a very nice piece of proof.

The Last Waltz took place on Thanksgiving 1976, which makes it last week’s subject, and the film was released in 1978, which makes it next week’s subject. I’m splitting the difference and writing about this week (1977) because otherwise I almost have to let the blog go silent for a week. Check out Bjorner’s page for 1977. Actually, don’t bother, here is the whole thing:

March     Sara Dylan files for divorce.

March     Dylan provides back-up vocals for Leonard Cohen

September   Dylan leases Rundown Studios in Malibu

October    Allen Ginsberg interviews Dylan

December   Jonathan Cott interviews Dylan

December  Rehearsals for the 1978 world tour start

That’s not much for blogging. So I’m putting The Last Waltz in here even though it’s against the rules. Sue me.

Let’s start with the Dylan section, since this is his blog. Dylan came out and did six songs at the end of the show: “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, “Hazel”, “I Don’t Believe You”, “Forever Young”, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” (again), and “I Shall Be Released”. It was a logical series of songs to play. “Baby” and “I Don’t Believe You” were staples of the Dylan/Hawks tour in 1966, and are seemingly required to be here. “Hazel”, from Planet Waves, is one of the least played Dylan/Band collaborations. Indeed, Dylan’s own site lists him performing it only seven times ever (in 2004 and 2005), but doesn’t list this version for some reason. “Forever Young” is the sort of thing that you probably have to play at a show like this, and “I Shall Be Released”, as the great big group sing-a-long, has an aura of inevitability.

url

Of these six, only the final three make it into the film. Apparently there were backstage negotiations about whether or not Dylan’s performance was even going to be recorded. He thought it would compete with Renaldo and Clara, and so didn’t want the footage shot. They compromised on half with the agreement that the film would only be released after Renaldo and Clara. Of course, Dylan’s film was a complete bomb, and The Band’s film is hailed as one of the most important concert documentaries ever. Probably because Scorsese is something of a genius.

Sticking with Bob just a moment longer, it is a shame that the whole twenty-five minutes couldn’t have been in the film. He and The Band were on fire here. The first version of “Baby” is better than the second, and it bleeds directly into “Hazel” without even allowing a time for the audience to applaud. Dylan strides around the stage full of confidence, and looks like he’s having a great time. This is months after the end of Rolling Thunder, and he is a different performer than he ever had been with The Band before. The universal sense is that he was considerably more comfortable on RTR than on the 1974 tour, and he evinces a lot of that confidence here. The Dylan section is one of the highlights of the whole thing. Even despite the hat.

bob-dylan-last-waltz-1976

A lot of the rest of the film also has highlights. There’s a great deal to like in this film. Greil Marcus’s review of the concert had not been very positive, but his review of the film was effusive. Listening to the bootlegs, it does seem that a lot of the crap in the five hour plus show was jettisoned, because Scorsese is something of a genius. Among the highest points for me are Joni Mitchell doing “Coyote”, a song that she was writing and re-writing on the Rolling Thunder Revue, so one that I had just read a lot about in Sloman’s tour diary. “The Weight” with the Staples Singers during rehearsals, which seems to be just about one of the most profound pop songs ever in that recording. Neil Young, stoned out of his head (apparently they had to rotoscope a chunk of cocaine out of his nostril – now you can do that digitally) looking like he’s going to fall over and then hitting a perfect “Helpless”. Eric Clapton breaking his guitar strap during a solo and having Robbie Robertson effortlessly step in to continue it (my favourite moment in the whole film). And, of course, Van Morrison singing “Caravan” in that ill-fitting jumpsuit and then karate-kicking his way off stage. I could watch that for years. Morrison wrote that song in Woodstock, where Dylan and The Band had lived, and it opens up the mental possibility that he and The Band could have been as productive together as they were with Dylan. Probably the great missed opportunity of the 1970s would have been a Van Morrison/The Band album and world tour.

The Last Waltz was a great idea – perform a final show at the venue where you first performed (under the name), intercut with interviews reflecting on sixteen years together. The show itself opened with ballroom dancing at 5:00 and a turkey dinner served to the crowd. A five hour show followed, including the inevitable superstar extended jam session (cut from the film – Robertson announces it, but the film mercifully ends before they get started). Those things are always awful if you’re not playing in them, and it sounds like Scorsese was a genius for getting rid of that footage.

I hadn’t watched The Last Waltz since high school. For some reason one of my high school English teachers played it for us. He was an aging hippy, which might have been reason enough. He used to talk about his relationship to The Band a lot. Here is the story of The Band and my high school:

Back in the day, when they were The Hawks, Levon Helm used to come to my high school every day to pick up his girlfriend, Cathy Smith. Smith had a relationship with Helm and also with Rick Danko. Sometime a bit later Richard Manuel asked Smith to marry him, and at one point she was pregnant with “The Band Baby” since no one had any idea who might have been the father. After leaving the orbit of The Band she had an extended affair with Gordon Lightfoot. By the mid-1970s she became the drug dealer supplying Ron Wood and Keith Richards. When The Band played SNL in 1976, she met John Belushi. Six years later she would inject him with the speedball that killed him, and would do time for it. Aldershot High, everyone. I studied under the same man who taught John Belushi’s killer. And also Jim Carrey, but that has nothing to do with The Band.

Anyway, given that happy story, we watched The Last Waltz in class. I remember being somewhat unimpressed by it. Watching it again this weekend, I could see all of its merits, and how much influence it has on every rock doc that ever followed it. It’s far from perfect, but Scorsese’s cutting from interview segments to ironic or insightful song performances that are shaded by the preceding commentary is very effective. It’s a really strong film of what seemed to be only a pretty good concert. Some sort of genius.

The Band planned to continue recording but not touring (like the Beatles a decade before them – Ringo was even there, setting a slow tempo for “I Shall Be Released”) but it didn’t work out that way. Robertson went on to have the greatest personal fame, and he seems to have caught the blame from Helm and others. The Band, without Robertson, resumed touring in 1983. I would say that this is a mark against the film, but then I also recall the night that The Who played their final ever show in Toronto and they toured again endlessly too. It’s rock and roll, who’re you going to believe?

Hey! The entire film is available online here!

Here’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”