Dylan (2007)

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With a career spanning more than five decades, it is no surprise that there is a surfeit of Bob Dylan greatest hits collections. Indeed, there are three volumes of Greatest Hits, there is Essential, there is the mid-career-spanning Biograph, and, in 2007, the compilation Dylan, released as a single CD and a triple-CD. It is probably not too surprising that Dylan would release a second album titled Dylan, since he disavowed the first one (made without his input by a spiteful record company, only last year allowing it to be released on CD, and presumably only for the sake of semi-completeness). I’m not so much interested in the title as in the consolidation of the notion of what is essential in Dylan’s catalogue.
If you look at the previous Greatest Hits volumes, you have three volumes, one of which is a double-album (volume two). Released in 1967, 1971, and 1994 respectively, Greatest Hits includes 46 songs. Of those, seven of the songs were unreleased at the time that they were included (basically almost all of side four from Greatest Hits v2, and two tracks from v3). That makes 39 tracks from 1963 (nothing from his first album made a Greatest Hits) to 1994 that had already been anthologized under the rubric “greatest”, rather than being a form of cynical record company manipulation (“Hey, we know you hardcores have all this – but two unreleased tracks!”). So that’s our starting point.
Dylan, the three volume version (I’m going to essentially ignore the single volume here), has 51 songs – so twelve more in the thirteen intervening years. But, of course, it’s not entirely just an addition of new material. Here’s how it shakes out.
In the period that was covered by the earlier Greatest Hits, we have some new additions:
“Song to Woody” becomes the earliest song, rather than “Blowin’ in the Wind”. This could never have been considered a “hit” in 1967, but by 2007 it is clearly an essential porto-Dylan song.
“Masters of War” is added. It was an inexplicable absence from the earlier Greatest Hits collections.
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (I’ll Go Mine)”. Great song, but is possibly added to Dylan only to promote the Mark Ronson remix that will be used as a sales hook for the set.
“On a Night Like This”, which I think is a bit of an odd addition – I don’t think that this is a better known song than many that were deleted.
“Simple Twist of Fate”. This easily could have been included on Greatest Hits v3, and probably should have been.
“Precious Angel”, “Dark Eyes”, and “Blind Willie McTell” are all promoted to essential songs from the 1980s. Interestingly, “Blind Willie McTell” was originally not even going to be a release, as Dylan cut it off of Infidels (still one of his most bizarre choices of all time). This seems a testament to the influence of the Bootleg Series and, of course, to Dylan’s touring performance selections.
The remaining ten new songs on disc three are all post 1997 (“Things Have Changed”; “Po’ Boy”; “High Water (for Charley Patton”, etc.). In some ways it is interesting that Dylan gives twenty per cent of the set to the most recent decade of his life. The work deserves it, but this isn’t the work that a lot of people know and love. In this way, Dylan provides the kind of service that you’d want a career-retrospective to do.
What about the songs that have disappeared?
Well, from Greatest Hits v1 “I Want You” is gone, which isn’t the biggest loss of all time, but otherwise the whole album is there. Basically, an argument can be made that Greatest Hits v1 holds up entirely – smart choices all around, and a strong early consensus on “important Dylan songs”, with the exception of the miss of “Masters of War”.
Greatest Hits v2 is far, far spottier. Deleted are “Watching the River Flow”, “Stuck Inside of Mobile”, “I’ll Be Your Baby”, “Tonight I’ll Be Stayin’ Here With You”, “She Belongs to Me”, “The Mighty Quinn”, “Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Down in the Flood”. That’s a ton of songs. Of those, three were unreleased at the time and didn’t hold up (though both “Masterpiece” and “Down in the Flood” are good songs). I think that the deletions here are indicative of the fact that Greatest Hits v2 was too broad, covering a relatively thin period for Dylan with a double-album set. While I like almost every one of these deleted songs, it is true that a number of them were in no way “greatest hits”.
Greatest Hits v3 fares much better – only one song didn’t make it, one of the two unreleased songs added to goose sales (“Series of Dreams”). This album, of course, covers twenty-three years and includes a ton of awesome albums (Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Infidels, Oh Mercy….) so it would have been much more difficult to get this wrong.
Remarkably, there is very little movement on the first and second Greatest Hits – one song deleted from each after forty and ten years respectively. That’s a clear consensus. Greatest Hits v2 was a bit of a predictive disaster, however, and looks illogical from the standpoint of 2007.
As an album I’m not sure how Dylan sounds – I don’t own it and haven’t actually listened to it. With only one new track, it is simply things that I have re-arranged. As a list of songs, it is really great. I’ve begun to think about how I will compile my own top fifty or one hundred or whatever at the end of this, and Dylan is a good starting place. There’s nothing here that I would want to delete particularly from his canon, and lots that I would add to it based on my personal tastes, so I guess I’ll have to go to one hundred. I said earlier that I think Biograph is the best single source for a new Dylan listener, but this would give it a serious, serious run for its money, if only because it has two additional decades of great material to draw upon. If you’re looking for Christmas presents for the casual Dylan fan in your life, this might be a good way to go.
I should also mention that my eight-year-old son thinks this is the best Dylan album cover. He just loves the red and the big bold DYLAN.

Bob Dylan Way

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In 2006 Bob Dylan turned 65, and to celebrate, some people in Duluth, MN got together to raise some money and post some signs on the newly proclaimed “Bob Dylan Way”. At first I thought that would be the entirety of this post – you know, maybe also throw up a picture of one of the signs – but then it turned out: Bob Dylan Way has a website.
Awesome. Here it is.
You can learn a lot about this. For instance, there are 30 signs. It’s 1.8 miles long. Dylan is Duluth’s native son (though I’m sure Hibbing has something to say about that) and more. You can even donate money.
I’m putting this here mostly because I’m confused as to whether Bob Dylan Way opened in 2006 or 2007. The website says 2006 (which would make this late) but Bjorner says 2007. Since he is almost never wrong about anything, I put it here. But I have to believe that I missed the week on this one and that the website is actually correct. Consider this another reminder that Bjorner is your best one stop shop for everything Dylan related.
(Also, sadly, WordPress has started flaking on the formatting of these posts again – very frustrating)

Cadillac Escalade Ad (2007)

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Continuing our ongoing series: Bob Dylan’s television commercials, or, The Nation’s Media Critics Freak Out for Nothing During a Boring Super Bowl Blowout, I bring you Bob Dylan’s first ad for Chrysler, the one that came seven years before the great freak-out of 2014. In 2007 he appeared in this Cadillac ad, which also promoted his XM Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. Win win.
Take a look:
Oddly, not a Dylan song but “Held” by Smog (Bill Callahan).
Not much of an ad, not much of a Dylan spot either. It’s mostly just shots of an arid desert with decaying symbols of an old, lost America. Dylan, in black leather driving gloves, guides his Escalade around an oil tanker, gets out and stands in the breeze and speaks his single line. The end. Completely unmemorable, didn’t make me want to buy an Escalade (and I live in a city where lots of people drive them….).
Oh well, let’s move on.

Theme Time Radio Hour

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One of my many returns to Bob Dylan came not in 2006, but probably 2007, and it was around Theme Time Radio Hour. Even while I skipped out on Modern Times, Dylan’s well-received album from 2006, I was aware of the hype around the launch of his radio program on XM Satellite radio and I was very intrigued. Canada was late to the satellite radio revolution, however, with both Sirius and XM setting up subsidiary companies here late. I’ve never subscribed (I note that my car came pre-equipped with an XM button and a free subscription that I never activated). I spent a week in Ontario a couple of years ago where I was doing a lot of daily driving for work and I listened to the bluegrass channel every day and thought it was great until I started hearing a lot of repetition, and then I lost interest. Radio doesn’t much work for me as a listener.
Dylan radio, on the other hand, very much did. While I never subscribed, sometime after the first season concluded I ran across a website that had about thirty shows available for download, so download them I did. Each one was an hour long, and my walk to campus (if I walk) is about 35 minutes walking up the hill on the way there and about 25 minutes on the way back down – it was a perfect length. I had one of those little tiny iPods with a pathetic amount of memory, but it would hold a one hour show and so for a couple of months in the summer I was listening to Theme Time Radio Hour every day.
TTRH was a fantastic show. If Dylan had done nothing at all in the 2000s except this show I think we would have to count it as a serious contribution to our culture. Recording the shows on the road as he toured, he played a really eclectic mix of music and strung it together with bizarre-o facts and weird observations. It really was the type of thing that should be listened to at 3:00 in the morning as you’re driving a highway to nowhere in the blackness. Dylan’s voice was perfect for this role, and his chatter was astonishing.
One of the key attractions was Dylan finally speaking about music. At this point Dylan wasn’t doing much talking from the stage, maybe a joke here and there, but for the most part he was a taciturn presence. His interviews, like the recent one on 60 Minutes weren’t terribly revealing – he didn’t seem to respond to people putting questions to him. But he did seem to open up on his own terms, and the radio show was all about him.
Each of the 100 shows that he broadcast over three years was organized around a unifying theme – flowers, Tennessee, baseball. The songs were presumably selected by Dylan with the input of producer Eddie Gorodetsky – I can imagine Gorodetsky presenting options to Dylan, but I have no idea if that is how the show was arranged. Each episode was introduced from the fictional Abernathy Building with a moody voice-over, and then Dylan would launch into his spiel. A lot of times it was clear that he was sharing the research of a bunch of interns with internet access – filling in data about avocado production in Fresno or the like – but other times it was clear that Dylan was speaking from the heart, particularly when he spoke about music. You can listen to Dylan talk about the importance of drumming on a Buddy Holly song that you’ve heard a thousand times and realize that you’ve never spent one second thinking about Holly’s drummer, and now it’s the only thing that you can think about. Then there were the bizarre personal anecdotes. One that has stuck with me clearly for no good reason was on the “Cars” episode. Dylan plays Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” – an obvious choice because it’s a great song, and it’s one that he himself recorded on Dylan. When the song ends, Dylan notes that he has ridden in a car driven by Mitchell (on the Rolling Thunder Tour?) and that she’s a very good driver. “I felt very safe,” Dylan tells us. What a bizarre comment, but, at the same time, I think it says a lot more about the Dylan/Mitchell relationship (now fractured, at least on her side) than I ever knew before.
Given where Dylan was musically at this point in his career (excavating that “old, weird American” sound of pre-rock, pre-folk) you’d expect a lot of music from that era. You get it, but you also get things that I, at least, would never have guessed, including hip hop. Listening to Dylan introduce The Streets, for example, was a really unexpected pleasure. There was also a good chance on any episode that you’d be introduced to someone that you didn’t know but that you’d think was great – Laura Cantrell, for instance, is someone that I discovered through TTRH and I’m very pleased that I did.
I will say that I eventually gave up on TTRH, probably after about forty episodes. I probably over-binged on them, so that the repetition of elements became a bit cloying to me. Once per week is probably a better pace than every day for something like this. This site seems to have streaming links to every episode, and I plan to pick them up again and probably over-indulge for a little while. It’s a shame that he let it all go.
Laura Cantrell, from the “Flowers” episode:

Modern Times

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I skipped Bob Dylan’s acclaimed 2006 album Modern Times when it was released. Dylan had fallen off my radar again, I had a baby and I just wasn’t in a space where I was listening to any new music. This is another album that I’ve only begun listening to this week as part of the project. I will say that it took me a little bit of time to warm up to it. I listened to it twice on a two hour bike ride last weekend (the album is 63 minutes, which made it excellent for pacing my ride) and didn’t much care for it. On those first listenings nothing leapt out at me – it has a pretty constant tone to it, and lacks the strong ups and downs of some of his other albums. I came home and looked it up, and found myself surprised to see how unbelievably positively it had been received. A new masterpiece, I read. His first #1 album since Desire, I learned. The oldest living person to have the #1 album (at the time). 6.3 million copies sold. Two Grammy awards.
So I re-listened. Actually, I’ve listened to this twice a day (at a minimum) every day this week. On Tuesday and Saturday I had long travel days, and listened to it even more than that. I think that I have listened to this one Dylan album more than any other Dylan album this year. And, yes, now I get it.
Modern Times was not an album that I immediately got. And, indeed, a couple of the songs that I best liked early are the ones that I least like today. It’s an evolving thing for me, and it will probably remain so. I do think that it is worth the fuss.
1. “Thunder on the Mountain”. This opens really well with the piano, guitar, drums starting up as if the album is shutting down. It’s a song that marks Dylan’s new tendency of singing the name of the song as the first line of the song (he does this a lot on Tempest). It also includes the bizarre verse about Alicia Keys. Why, my wife asks, would he be singing about Alicia Keys? It’s entirely possible that he just likes the way that the name flows into the song – it fits nicely. It’s also possible that he’s telling us something that we’re not getting. It is true that she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, for example. Anyway, this is a good selection for the opener as it is probably the song that is easiest to like on the whole album. I can’t imagine anyone not really liking this one.”I recruit my army from the orphanages” is a great line, and so is “I got the pork chops, she got the pie”, and so is “I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams”. This doesn’t add up to a whole lot, but it has so many great individual pieces.
By the way, here’s Keys doing “Pressing On”, from Saved, which was released the year she was born in Hell’s Kitchen.
2. “Spirit on the Water”. This is clearly a song that is important to Dylan. He sells t-shirts with this title on them, and he has played this song a lot on his most recent tour. A slow swinging jazzy number, this is a pretty classic Dylan love song – why can’t you treat me right? but I love you so much anyway, baby. It has a nice closing verse for him to play live now:
You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whopping good time
The crowd yells “No” after both of those first lines, of course. The other thing is that Dylan really sings this one, and does a great job with it. A nice song.
3. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. This is the Muddy Waters delta blues song that has been covered by literally everyone (Yardbirds, Cream, Captain Beefheart). Dylan adds new lyrics to it, but his version owes a clear and direct debt to Muddy Waters’s version. I like this one too!
4. “When the Deal Goes Down”. This one slows things down again, a slow ballad with minimal backing. Another sweet love song, a pledge of allegiance. I’m sort of surprised that this song has been picked up by other singers, because it is quite lovely and is the type of thing that can sound really effective for a piano crooner. I like this one too!
5. “Someday Baby”. I wrote about this at length earlier in the week. A good blues song that was the single from the album. Dylan won a Grammy for his singing on this, which is funny because I don’t think it is the best sung song on the album. I also like this. It’s becoming a theme.
6. “Workingman Blues #2”. On my first couple of listens to this album, this was one of the songs I liked best. Now it is one of the ones that I like least. It’s a sort of sequel to “Sundown for the Union”. It has a very despairing and fatalist take on the state of the American economy, beginning from the observation of declining wages and the outsourcing of jobs, but ultimately suggesting that there is nothing to be done about it. The chorus, which includes the lines
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line

Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues
Is firmly non-committal about what should be done about any of this fate that the singer is bemoaning, as if Dylan thinks that it doesn’t really matter. Musically, too, it is not committed – it seems to take a middle road. This is one of the only songs here that I don’t really like at all any more.
7. “Beyond the Horizon”. Another crooner song, and another pretty good one. This is probably the most minor of all the songs on Modern Times. It’s neither good nor bad, just a bit there. I like the guitar parts here and some of the dark imagery, but it isn’t a really memorable song.
8. “Nettie Moore”. This is my favourite song on the whole album, and one of my favourites by Dylan in the past few decades. I love everything about this one – the phrasing especially. The short Hemingway-esque declarations:
I’m the oldest son of a crazy man
I’m in a cowboy band
Lots of cryptic lyrics here, and lovely little pieces. The chorus, “Oh I miss you Nettie Moore, and my happiness is o’er…” is particularly striking. Great, great song.
9. “The Levee’s Gonna Break”. I don’t think that this is a bad song, but that single repeated guitar note that occurs about every two bars ABSOLUTELY DRIVES ME CRAZY! It’s like a form of torture, like lying in bed and listening to the drip of a faucet – all I can hear is the count in my head to the next identical guitar note. I can’t listen to this anymore. Too bad, because “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” is a great line.
10. “Ain’t Talkin’”. The final, epic (almost nine minute) blues ramble is delicious. Dark and haunted. This one sounds like something from Oh Mercy but without the layers of goop that Daniel Lanois heaped onto that album. This album is produced by Dylan under his Jack Frost pseudonym, and I’m guessing that it is pretty close to the sound that he wants (considering how similar the next couple of albums are, that’s my safe guess), and it is interesting to try to imagine the Lanois albums with this sound. Anyway, this is another great late-night Dylan song about the darkness that surrounds us.
So, after some early skepticism, I find that I’m eight for ten on this album, and one of the songs I would like better with only the smallest change in production. It is a really great album, and it includes one song – “Nettie Moore” – that I would personally rank extremely highly in his catalogue. If I weren’t blogging this year I don’t think I would have ever spent enough time with this album to get this much out of it, so I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity.
Here’s the video for “Thunder on the Mountain”, all about Alicia Keys:

iPod Advertising

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I’m just working this one out video by video, so play along.
In 1935, Sleepy John Estes recorded a song, “Someday Baby Blues”. This is a fairly typical country blues song, with Estes demonstrating his “crying” style. According to Wikipedia, Estes sounded so convincingly like an old man (he was only thirty-six when he recorded this, that by the 1960s many blues music hunters assumed that he was long dead, but he was tracked down, living in poverty, and was able to tour again. Dylan mentions Estes in the liner notes for Bringin’ It All Back Home. Here he is:
In 1941, Big Maceo Merriweather recorded the song as a Chicago blues song as “Worried Life Blues”. It was his biggest hit, and was widely covered. Here is that:
In 1955, Muddy Waters recorded the song, with Jimmy Rogers on guitar. The song was a hit the following year, when Dylan was fourteen years old and listening to the radio a lot. Here’s the Muddy Waters version, which he titled “Trouble No More”:
Just for kicks, let’s note that the Allman Brothers covered the Muddy Waters version and electrified it all up in 1969. Here’s a later live version:
Which brings us to 2006. That year, Bob Dylan released his thirty-second studio album, Modern Times. From that he released a single, “Someday Baby”, taking the title back towards the Estes version but carrying a lot of the Chicago blues sound with it. That song in turn won the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance in 2007 (Dylan did not attend that ceremony, so there won’t be a blog entry for it). So here’s that song:
Good, right?
Ok, so finally the album itself needed to be promoted. And Dylan, being the type of non-sell out sell-out that he is, licensed it to Apple, who used it to help them sell iPods when those were a thing that people bought:
So, to sell an iPod, Dylan had to channel Sleepy John Estes through Muddy Waters and the Allman Brothers. It’s a lot of weight to carry for an ad for an outdated technology.

“Tell Ol’ Bill”

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A final WordPress test and we’ll put 2005 to rest.

I’ve never watched the 2005 film North Country, in which Charlize Theron plays a coal miner in Minnesota who leads a battle against sexual harassment. I actually have a copy of the film on DVD, bought in a bargain bin a few years ago, but it never made it to the top of the To View list. Maybe I should correct that.

The song uses a lot of Dylan on the soundtrack – “Girl of the North Country” (of course, but a Leo Kottke version), and then songs that can be given a really insidious feeling in a movie with this subject: “Lay Lady Lay”, “Sweetheart Like You” and “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”. I’m very curious now to see how these are used.

Dylan did contribute a new composition to the soundtrack as well: “Tell Ol’ Bill”. The song uses a lot of metaphorical language that sounds like it will work well in a film with these themes (“The woods are dark, the town is too”, and so on). The instrumentation is pretty simple and the whole thing foregrounds Dylan’s voice and the lyrics. It really sounds, in retrospect, like a tease for Modern Times – it wouldn’t sound out of place at all on that 2006 album, and I mean that as a compliment.

Okay, let’s see if this works: