Sunday, May 30, 2004

Things I Should Have Said Earlier About Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall

It's wonderfully unsettling, as if you're hearing these decades-old, highly familiar songs for the first time, which in a way you are. It was mostly fresh material then -- several cuts from Bringing It All Back Home wouldn't be available in stores until the next year -- and so is the audience response. When Dylan sings the great goofy lines of "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," the laughs are genuine. The audience is a little astounded and spooked and aroused by the blatant sexuality of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)." Dylan's phrasing is rich with purpose and the words are sung with perfect clarity; he wants to be heard, and you get this feeling on this deeply intimate recording (one of the most intimate live recordings I've ever heard) that the audience is hanging on every single word.

That, however, only covers the music; Dylan's between-songs stage patter isn't serious at all; it's a looser, funnier, funkier. Granted, he's aware there's a divide between a person and a performer -- "It's just Hallowe'en," he says at one point. "I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I'm masquerading." -- but this is the pre-Don't Look Back Dylan, before he had absorbed a little too much of his own myth and became surly Mr. Moody Mug with the shades and the cigarette, and two years before he alienated his base by going electric (well-documented on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert. ) On this night, he and the purists and anyone else with $4.50 for a ticket were all on the same page, or at least thought they were. This is confident singing, but there's also a certain amount of nerviness to it; between (and sometimes during) songs he seems bent on reminding everyone that it's just a song and he's a regular guy. With a Bob Dylan mask.

In the intro to one of his most portentous social comment numbers, "Who Killed Davey Moore?" he says, first: "This is a song about a boxer. It's got nothing to do with boxing, it's just a song about a boxer." He strums the guitar a little. "And, um, it's nothing having to do with a boxer, really." More strumming; he gets giddy. "It's got nothing to do with nothin'." The audience laughs along with him. "I just threw all these words together, that's all." Then, as if aware he had maybe downplayed it too much, he announces: "This is taken out of the newspapers, and nothing has been changed, except the words."


Two Dylan CDs I Bought Yesterday

The last time I listened to Nashville Skyline was in college; I had borrowed it from a buddy and I listened to it on another buddy's stereo. Taped it, too, in my primitive fashion -- the tape is still around somewhere, I think -- but I don't think I ever much listened to it. I bought it yesterday -- along with Planet Waves, more on that later -- and the big revelation, or the big reminder, is that it doesn't really sound like him. His voice is much sweeter, presumably because he had temporarily quit smoking. It's also a much lighter record, as they say; it's not the Dylan with the world on his shoulders; "Masters of War," "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" were all very much in his past. Now his thoughts were more along the line of "Love to spend the night with Peggy Day" (which, by the way, is pretty lame next to "Pretty Peggy-O" from his first LP) and "Love that country pie."

There is one great song here --"Lay Lady Lay," one of the most seductive songs ever recorded -- and three good ones: "I Threw It all Away," "Girl From the North Country" (an earlier song from Freewheelin', sung here with Johnny Cash), and "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here." Otherwise, they don't really have the urgency of his best work -- the kind you hear in spades on the 1964 discs -- and urgency brings out the best in him.

"It could well be what Dylan thinks it is, his best album," announced Paul Nelson in his original Rolling Stone review; sounds like they were taking hits off the same bong. Thirty-five years later, in the issue before the last, Anthony De Curtis gave it five stars. I give it three. Some classic stuff, but not a classic record.

Planet Waves was released several albums later, in 1974, and it's a spotty record as well, but it certainly has more spark and spontaneity. He's backed by the Band, which is not, to my way of thinking, his best band, but the one which he is most comfortable with. It's not remotely at the level of inspiration they achieved with the Basement Tapes -- in fact it's probably the least of their collaborations together -- but it comes close to evoking the same spirit, the same loose, funky feel, with playing that's often a good deal more inspired than Dylan's songs. "Cast-Iron Songs and Torch Ballads," the cover promises, and in fairness it does have the spirited "On a Night Like This," a good version of "Forever Young" (inexplicably followed by a alternate, shitty one) and the lively "You Angel You." Women been on Dylan's mind in the making of this disc, with elegies to women both soft ("Hazel") and hard ("Tough Mama"); wives, apparently, too, in the haunting and fascinating "Wedding Song," which I'd love to believe was something he wrote for Sara after they went to a couple's retreat. On this record, we hear Dylan at his lamest ("In this age of fiberglass, I'm searching for a gem") and his best ("I love you more than ever now that the past is gone.") A game effort.

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