Tell Tale Signs

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I have a strange relationship to Bootleg Series v8: Tell Tale Signs, Bob Dylan’s only release of 2008. On the one hand I think I like pretty much every single thing on it. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I like it as an album. It’s something that has been semi-vexing me all week.
The album was released in two versions – one with two CDs, and one with three. Both cover moreorless exactly the same material: 1989-2006. There are alternate versions and outtakes from four Dylan albums (Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, and Modern Times) but completely ignores the albums Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been To You, and “Love and Theft” which are from the same period. So that’s a little bit strange. It also includes a couple of the singles that wound up on movie soundtracks and which I’ve written about over the past few weeks.
There is a lot of great material here, particularly alternate versions of songs from Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind that have been Daniel Lanois-ized. The albums also have some interesting live versions that I hadn’t otherwise come across, including a version of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” from 2003 in Niagara Falls, and the AP Carter song “The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore” from France in 1992. It really is a bonanza of fine material.
So what’s my problem? As I say, I’m not even sure. One hint might be that there are three different versions of “Mississippi” here, one on each of the CDs. This strongly appeals to the completist in me, but the arrangement of the material – which jumps around a lot in time – does not. This may be a side-effect of listening to a year’s worth of material at a time, but a CD that moves from 1992 to 2002 and then back to 1992 has somehow annoyed me.
As this projects heads into its final month, I’ve started wondering how I’m going to continue to listen to Dylan. One thing that I imagine that I’m going to do is begin to curate my own playlists much more. I have dozens of them – one per year from 1962 to 2008 now (I’ll do 2009 tonight). Those aren’t that useful – there’s too much material in a lot of them. So as I move through and delete things that I don’t want, I will likely begin to group years together as well (Born Again period; mid-1980s; early-1970s; Rolling Thunder era). I can’t imagine that I’d ever have a grouping that is this broad – seventeen years. To me, this Bootleg Series release simply covers too much material – too many eras of Dylan that seem distinct to me. It seems like this album, even while it gathers great material, tends to flatten Dylan’t “comeback” era more than I would like it to. That’s likely why I don’t like it as an album.
I didn’t pay any attention to this release when it came out in 2008, and I’m sort of glad about that now that I learned that the two volume edition was priced at $18.99 and the three volume (which came with a 150 page book) cost $129.99. Holy crap! And record companies wonder why the practice of piracy took off around this time.

Drawn Blank (2)

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I’ve previously written about Bob Dylan’s collection of sketches, Drawn Blank. I called the book “average”, “mundane, and uninspired”. So, imagine my surprise to have to revisit this work in 2008* all over again.
In late October 2007, The Drawn Blank Series opened a five month run at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in Germany, and an almost 300-page catalogue of the show was published. The paintings were new versions of the material that I previously wrote about. Those pencil and charcoal sketches were transferred “by a special digital process to deckle-edged paper and painted by Bob Dylan using watercolours and gouaches applied in different thicknesses and to varying effects”. During the course of 2007 Dylan painted 322 such works and the museum chose to display 170 of them. Unsaid is that Dylan’s first museum show was of work that he had not created when it was scheduled, and given the lead time of hanging, that he did those 322 paintings in about eight months (given the October opening). Let’s also note that during those eight months Dylan performed three distinct tours comprising 67 shows (Europe, USA, Australia). He didn’t tour in the first couple of months of 2007, and it is certainly possible that he painted all 322 paintings during that time, at a rate of about five per day. I have no idea, but that wouldn’t surprise me.
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What we’re looking at here is a transfer of old work to new paper, and then Dylan would do multiple versions. So there are three versions of “Guitar Player” here, all with different color schemes. Dylan is working over copies of earlier works, and he seems to be working quickly. His sketches are quick, and the paints applied to them are no less so. He uses large swaths of colour, generally sloppily applied.
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Last week I wrote (a little) about Dylan and Warhol, and Warhol is an obvious influence here. There is a big difference between Dylan’s gouaches and Warhol’s silk-screens, but the effect of using the same mechanically-produced image and overlaying different colour schemes is quite similar. Unfortunately, Dylan doesn’t have Warhol’s colour sense at all. There are a lot of muted pastel colors here that I find really unattractive – colours from a Florida motel of the 1980s. Some of the paintings are quite garish (actually, that can also be said of a lot of Warhols…) and I find them generally unpleasant.
The catalogue, which is epic, includes three essays defending and explicating this work. I feel sorry for the authors, because this is sort of thin gruel to build an essay around. Frank Zolnner is reduced to platitudes (“Drawing is a form of remembering…”), while Diana Widmaier Picasso compares him to Picasso (her grandfather), Munch, and Matisse. Jens Rostock, who produces the best essay here, reaches for a wide range of comparators – Botticelli, August Strindberg, Oskar Kokoschka, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Bowles, Jean Cocteau – none of which sheds much light on the actual work, partly, I think, because the work itself does not much lend itself to a fulsome discussion. The role of these critics is to situate Dylan in relation to the history of western art, which is a challenge with work that seems so rushedly casual. I hate to be cynical (well, no I don’t), but it is tough to see this as anything other than Chemnitz hoping to cash in on Dylan’s musical celebrity with a hastily convened art project. The critics do well to survive with their dignity intact.
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Post-Chemnitz, the Dylan show toured to London (and, I believe, elsewhere). Prints are now sold on his website, and they are not inexpensive. I know someone who has one, but I actually haven’t seen it. It’s not something that I am looking to add to my own collection.
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*This, it turns out, is a belated entry. I had incorrectly noted the Drawn Blank paintings as a 2008 project, as that is when they were shown at the Halcyon Gallery in London (that’s an installation view of that particular show directly above), but they should have been written about last week. I regret this error, I suppose.

“Dreamin’ Of You”

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Bob Dylan’s 2008 album release was The Bootleg Series v8: Tell Tale Signs, about which more in a couple of days. To promote the release, Dylan produced a new music video for the song “Dreamin’ of You”, a song recorded during the sessions for Time Out of Mind but previously unreleased. As a song it is only fair – it wouldn’t have greatly improved that album, and it is not a great lost classic. As a video, however, I quite like it.
Ever since Dylan started making music videos in the 1980s, they have mostly sucked. Dylan’s music videos have done very little to push that medium forward, and can be pretty generic. There have been a few that have been alright (“Unbelievable”, with Molly Ringwald, isn’t terrible), but it has never seemed that Dylan cared enough to work with the kinds of filmmakers that might push him into interesting territory.
This video, which uses only archival footage of Dylan, seems to me to be a turning point. He will release two videos in 2009 (more next week, of course) both of which are good, and in 2012 he will release his best video ever. Something happens (in a nutshell: Nash Edgerton) to turn Dylan around on the whole video thing.
This video isn’t perfect, but, as I say, it is his best one up to this point in his career. It features Harry Dean Stanton almost exclusively. Stanton, who has a long association with Dylan going back to Renaldo and Clara and who performed live with him at the Chabad Telethon, is an interesting surrogate for Dylan here – you can just watch his eyes in this video and that would be enough to keep most people entertained.
The video hits the theme of the album squarely on the nose. Stanton plays a bootlegger driving through the desert (always the desert with Dylan), collecting his vinyl and his DAT tapes and checking set lists. Stanton hunts Dylan, and he catalogues him. He’s a bootlegger, and the video even throws in a shot of Great White Wonder. One really effective moment is the flashing montage of changing concert posters that record the passage of the Never Ending Tour – almost all of which is available as bootlegs.
The best moment in the video is when Stanton lip-synchs Dylan:
I’ve been dreamin’ of you
It’s all I can do
And it’s drivin’ me insane
Dylan sings the song (presumably) to a woman, but putting the words in the mouth of the bootlegger, Dylan essentially sings back to himself. It’s kind of creepy, actually, and a sly shot at the bootleggers that Dylan has always shunned.
The other great moment is Stanton stamping Bootleg Series v8 across his tape box.
Prior to this, Dylan hasn’t much cared for music videos, it seems to me, and maybe he didn’t have much say in this one either (again, he didn’t bother to show up for it). Yet this one says something – it has an actual point of view – and it seems to spark a renaissance in Dylan videos that we’ll get into next week.

GOP?

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In 2008, Bob Dylan was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Not for Chronicles, but, as the citation indicates: “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” Well okay then.

Dylan, almost needless to say, didn’t bother to go to the luncheon – that’s a picture of his son Jesse accepting the award on his behalf. Dylan was touring Norway at the time of the banquet.

I figured that I would probably pass on even noting this event in Dylan’s life. There’s not much to say about it other than to note that The New York Times seemed gobsmacked by it, and they got a good quote from Jonathan Lethem.

Then it occurred to me. While I had previously noted that Dylan was halfway to EGOT – the mythical winning of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, a feat accomplished by the likes of the late, great Mike Nichols – did this trifecta – Grammy (multiple times), Oscar, Pulitzer – put Dylan in a whole new aspirational category? GOP?

As it turns out, no, it doesn’t. There are dozens of people with the Grammy and the Oscar – that’s not a particularly uncommon combination, particularly for people who do soundtracks. Even a quick perusal of wikipedia gave me Stephen Sondheim, who won a Pulitzer for Sunday in the Park with George, Frank Loesser (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), and two Pulitzers for Oscar Hammerstein (Oklahoma! and South Pacific). I’m sure that there are others out there.

Still, that’s first rate company.

I’d rather have a Pulitzer than an Emmy any day.

“Huck’s Tune”

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In 2000 Bob Dylan won an Oscar for “Things Have Changed”, the song he contributed to Curtis Hanson’s film, Wonder Boys. Hanson was on a nice little run there for a while. Having come out of the thriller genre in the 1990s (Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), he transitioned to a higher class of film in 1997 with L.A. Confidential (still a thriller, but a high end one) and then moved to Wonder Boys (not much of a thriller, only the dog gets shot). He followed that with the wonderful 8 Mile (for which Eminem deserved an Oscar nod himself), giving him three really good films in a row. Then he did In Her Shoes, a Cameron Diaz star vehicle, and it all seems to have fallen apart. In 2007 he did Lucky You, starring Eric Bana as a professional gambler, Drew Barrymore as the (strangely brunette) woman who loves him, and Robert Duvall as his estranged father. Now, I haven’t seen Lucky You, but I saw the last ten seconds of it while trying to find a video of Dylan’s contribution to the film, “Huck’s Song” (which plays over the closing credits). Watch the first ten seconds of this clip and then tell me that you’d actually watch this movie:
So no Lucky You for lucky me. The song itself is perfectly fine. It’s certainly no “Things Have Changed”, but it recalls the type of contributions that Dylan had more recently made to Gods and Generals and to North Country. It’s a nice ballad, with some nice slide guitar, but it doesn’t really have a chorus or a hook, and so it is not entirely memorable.
The song itself will be collected on Bootleg Series v8 in 2008 so you don’t have to buy the Lucky You soundtrack. Here’s a fan-made video that has better sound quality than the clip up top:
PS. I guarantee that Lucky You ends with Eric Bana getting rivered to finish second in a huge poker tournament, but that’s ok with him because he wins the love of a good woman and restores his relationship with his dad, which is all that matters. What do I win if that’s correct?

Mark Ronson Remix

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In 2007, to promote his new 3 CD greatest hits album, Dylan, Bob Dylan allowed Mark Ronson to remix one of his songs. It tells you how absolutely out of touch with popular music I am that I did not know I was supposed to put “legendary producer” in front of Ronson’s name. He had previously remixed Lily Allen and Radiohead and Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. Hell, he DJed Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes. Big name. Although his fame seems to be more limited to the UK, where he was a much bigger success than in the US.
Dylan is clearly not much of a fan of remixes – witness the fact that I haven’t yet written about one and we’re close to the end of this blog. He let Ronson loose on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (I’ll Go Mine)” from Blonde on Blonde. This is that version:
I’m not sure that I have a ton to say about that. It’s not that good, and it’s not that bad, it just sort of is. Ronson foregrounds the horns and fiddles around a bit, but it’s not very imaginative at all. If I were a Ronson fan I’d probably be disappointed, and as a Dylan fan it does no damage and it makes no improvements. It just sort of sits there.
I do, however, want to mention this article by Owen Adams in The Guardian. This is, quite literally, the worst piece of music writing I’ve read in conjunction with this blog. Just utterly horrible. Adams writes about the song a week before it is released even though he had never heard it! He makes all kinds of snide remarks, questions motives for no reason, uses douchey nicknames for people he doesn’t know (“The Zimmerman”; “Bobcats”) and just generally acts like an ass. So it really pleasing to see him prognosticate:
“There is no way Ronson will just do a little tinkering and maybe adjust the levels a little – he’s obviously going to completely rework it, probably adding a string orchestra or two, and a funky beat.”
Yeah, well, good to be completely wrong there Owen.
What is it about Dylan that brings out this kind of lunacy? Is it just Dylan, or am I just noticing it about Dylan because of this project? Who writes a review of a song that they haven’t heard one week before it’s released and confidently dismisses it? What kind of paper runs this kind of drivel?
This has been my entire philosophy of music writing this year: Listen to song. Write blog post. How on earth is that difficult?
Anyway, I listened to the Ronson mix. It is pretty much a great big nothing. Oh well.
Here’s Ronson talking with Ronnie Wood about the remix project. Kind of a nothing interview too, come to think of it:

I’m Not There

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I think I’ve been waiting for I’m Not There more than I’ve been waiting for any other single in this blog. I anticipated that I would write a huge, sprawling post on the greatness of this film. When I first saw it, when it was released in 2007, I thought that it was absolutely brilliant. When I watched it again last night, I thought the same again. Indeed, I was so impressed by it that I’m not even all that certain that I have a lot to say.
I will say this: I wish I had made it.
For me, there is a certain very small set of cultural texts that I so admire that I really wish that I had made them. They seem to hit my aesthetic and cultural interests so squarely that I find myself thinking “I couldn’t improve upon that” or “I wish that my brain worked in such a way that I could have made that, that I could have been the one to communicate that”. I don’t think it’s a form of jealousy, because I always feel it in a rueful manner. Certain of the films by the Coen Brothers do this to me. Certain of Chris Ware’s comics. Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was the last thing in text that did it for me. Last night I, again, had that feeling about I’m Not There.
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Strangely, I’ve never had it about an entire Dylan album. I don’t think that I’ve ever wanted to be Bob Dylan, and I’m not even sure that I’d want to meet Bob Dylan. I admire a lot of what he’s done, and he can even hit me on an emotional level. But there is always a little bit of distance there.
With Todd Haynes it is less. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I wasn’t cool enough – or Hamilton wasn’t cool enough – to have known about Superstar when it came out in 1987, so I wasn’t there from day one like all the hipsters. I saw Poison as a film student, and Safe, and Velvet Goldmine in the 1990s. It was Far From Heaven in 2002 that put him over the top for me. That’s when he went from “really interesting, I should see that” to “my god, this man is an absolute genius”. Of course, a lifetime of watching Sirk films as a film student is great prep for loving a film like Far From Heaven.
Similarly, a year of listening to nothing but Bob Dylan is great prep for loving a film like I’m Not There.
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Every single bit of the film is just great. Not just great, but great great. The attention to detail is really amazing. When Christian Bale, as Jack Rollins, plays in front of that truck, it is like watching Dylan photos brought to life. The use of material from Eat the Document – particularly the John Lennon bit – was actually eerie. There are parts of the film that I could talk along to, because I’ve heard Dylan give the press conference answers that come from the mouth of Cate Blanchett and Ben Whishaw. Fantastic.
The thing that amazes me about I’m Not There is that there is no single genre of filmmaking that I dislike more than the Bio Film. There are so few of them that I can stand to watch (Raging Bull, ummm, I’m running out of others….). A film like Walk the Line, to pick an example that explores territory that Haynes could have explored here with a very similar subject, is, for me, painful to watch. Yes, it has some great performances, but there is so little drama to it – it’s a rote ticking off of boxes in the life of this Great Man. When I watched Walk the Line I wished that the scene where Johnny Cash and Elvis and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis are drinking in a parking lot was the whole film. I wanted to hear from those guys – those young guys – about what they wanted to do with their lives, with the full awareness of what they did do. The rest was just so much bumf.
Haynes gets rid of (almost) all of the crap that clogs the arteries of the Bio Pic. The specifics of Dylan’s life can be rendered dramatic – and then they booed him at Newport! and then they called him Judas! and then his motorcycle crashed (and all three of those things are in the film) – but that also seems like the least interesting thing about Dylan. Scorsese got drama out of No Direction Home, but only of a limited sort. Haynes goes for something much, much bigger. He actually wants to tell us something about Bob Dylan, not about the life of Bob Dylan. It’s a big distinction.
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The film is, of course, most famous for the fact that it takes six actors to play Dylan. Each is charged with a part – a private part, or a public part, or a part that might never have existed. The casting of Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody is the first masterstroke of the film. There are so many embedded layers to that decision – from Dylan’s desire to take on the persona of his idol, to the very falseness of it, to the depiction of his youth and naivete on the subject. “We’ve had the union since 1939”, one of the hobos says about Woody’s union songs in 1959; “sing about your own time”, he’s told.
Ben Whishaw probably doesn’t get enough attention for his strong performance here. He has the least showy role – sitting on a stage, smoking, as Arthur Rimbaud (about whom Haynes had made an earlier film), quoting Bob Dylan endlessly. I think he’s great here, although he isn’t asked to do a lot more than mimicry.
Christian Bale’s is a strange performance, but I love the connection between the young, politically committed Jack Rollins and the older, religiously committed Pastor Jack. It’s a harrowing vision of what Bob Dylan might have become in another lifetime. Heath Ledger, who plays an actor playing Jack Rollins, is strong here too. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s combination of Sara Lowndes and Suze Rotolo generally upstages Ledger in most of their scenes together – not an easy task. I actually would have loved to have seen a film just about her character.
I love all the Richard Gere parts, and not simply because Days of Heaven is one of my two or three favourite films of all time. Everything here from the loss of his dog to the confrontation with Pat Garrett/The Thin Man, to the passing giraffe, is just done so well. The mythological Peckinpah hero simply ties together so many parts of the Dylan mythology, and even though I didn’t like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the use of the characters here is a wonderful reflection on a man hiding from his fame.
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Finally, Cate Blanchett as Dylan at his zenith. So, so great. It’s hard to watch a lot of this material – the cruelty, the vanity, the self-importance, the preening. The drug-addled Dylan is one of my least favourite Dylans, and it is tough to watch it literalized here. Again, this could have been the whole film. I’m reminded that Factory Girl, which was roughly contemporary with this, featured a Dylan surrogate named Quinn who torments Edie Sedgwick to her death (Dylan threatened to sue). That wasn’t a good film, but it made me want to see a film that was simply about the night Bob Dylan tested for Andy Warhol. Now that would be a great film about two very different (though somehow related) ideas of the 1960s.
When I first watched I’m Not There I thought it was a great Todd Haynes movie. Last night I thought it was a great Dylan piece. Haynes brings elements into contact with each other in a really knowing way. There is such great richness here. When Robbie Clark has an affair with an actress in London, cheating on his wife Claire, Haynes gives the actress the name Louise, and plays “Visions of Johanna” over the scene so that we think:
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near

She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The film is replete with moments like this one, where the subtext of Dylan’s songs adds tremendous gravitas to this film about his songs. I think it was wise of Haynes to hold off, then, on “Like a Rolling Stone”, playing it only over the closing credits. The song itself is so cinematic, so rich, that to use it in the narrative would be too much like playing with fire. Additionally, I really like the way that Haynes uses songs from later in Dylan’s career. While the film doesn’t go much past the end of the 70s with Pastor Jack (unless Billy the Kid is Dylan’s future, set in the past? Could be), it does use songs from much later (“Man in the Long Black Coat”) and uses them really well. Haynes has a deep, deep understanding of the Dylan catalogue. As proof, let’s note that the title track had not been officially released until this soundtrack appeared, and not on a Dylan album until a couple of weeks ago with the release of the new Bootleg Series. I knew the song, as I’m sure Haynes did, only from the depths of A Tree With Roots or another complete basement tapes bootleg. It’s a tremendous song, by the way, and an outstanding choice for the title and the theme.
Certainly the most jarring part of the film is the very last piece – when the “real” (and I think that this film makes me want to always question that term) Bob Dylan arrives on stage, blowing on his harmonica. This is Pennebaker filmed material from 1966, “Mr. Tambourine Man”. After this magical tour de force Dylan seemed so alien in his real body up on that stage, powerfully present yet also more distant (despite the close proximity of the camera) than the fictionalized versions of himself. It’s a gut punch of an ending, I’ll tell you that.
Dylan himself had little direct involvement in the production of the film, though he did like it. He told Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore, in 2012, “Yeah, I thought it was all right. Do you think that the director was worried that people would understand it or not? I don’t think he cared one bit. I just think he wanted to make a good movie. I thought it looked good, and those actors were incredible.” I guess that’s as close as you’re going to get to a rave from someone like Dylan. Me, I like it a lot better than that.