|Young Bob Dylan|
Whether it's sports, films, books, short stories, or music, there are countless and constant arguments about "the greatest." Who's the greatest baseball player of all time - Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or Hank Aaron? The greatest American novel - "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Gatsby" or "On the Road?" There are no shortage of impassioned arguments supporting each one, and that is the value of these exercises. But the idea of proclaiming one or the other "the greatest" is as ridiculous as those silly award shows that determine the "best"; for example, "best director": Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino? (three great and talented artists who couldn't be more different). And, we're supposed to determine who is "best" - the maker of "Schindller's List," "Raging Bull," or "Pulp Fiction." Labeling one as the "best" is simply meaningless, but arguing your opinion about which one you prefer and why is not only fun and entertaining, but can be valuable, as you'll get another perspective and maybe view something in a new light.
So despite acknowledging it as an empty exercise, I've been thinking about the greatest album ever made. For those young whippersnappers who have grown up in the iTunes/MP3 era, an album is a collection of music released by an artist or group or band on various mediums - vinyl, cassette, eight track, compact disc, blue ray, digital. The best albums revolve around a common theme or highlight an artist or band at a particular phase in their career. Among the albums frequently cited as "the greatest of all time" by critics are "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles, "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys, "The Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd, "Exile on Main Street" by the Rolling Stones, "London Calling" by the Clash, and "Nevermind" by Nirvana. Those are all great albums, but my choice for the greatest album ever is "Bringing it all Back Home" by Bob Dylan.
Everybody has an opinion about Dylan. To some, his voice is terrible, his songs don't make sense, he mumbles, he's weird. To others, he's a great songwriter, a poet, a visionary. Many prefer his early folk and protest songs, some prefer the "electric" Dylan of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blond on Blond". There is the intensely personal anguish of "Blood on the Tracks", the born again Christian phase of "Slow Train Coming", and there is the blues infused senior angst of "Time Out of Mind", "Love and Theft", and "Tempest". It's a career that's going on fifty years now, and as prodigious a body of work as any artist in any medium. Within that body of work, there's a Dylan for everyone.
Dylan's impact on popular music can not be overstated. The only analogy I can come up with is a baseball comparison; Dylan is to popular music what Babe Ruth was to baseball. To understand how profoundly Ruth changed the game of baseball, all you have to do is look at the statistics from 1927, the year Ruth hit sixty home runs. The most home runs another team in the American League hit was fifty-eight. Let that soak in for a moment - in 1927, Ruth hit more home runs than any other team.
So it was when Dylan started his recording career in 1963 that popular music was going through a phase, as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and the other pioneers of rock and roll were in decline, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones hadn't emerged quite yet to move the music forward. There were the great Phil Spector produced wall of sound girl groups, like the Ronnettes and the Crystals, Ray Charles was defining archetypes of soul and rhythm and blues, but rock was still trying to figure out what is was going to be when it grew up. In the meantime, folk music was going through a revival, with acts like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio achieving enormous popularity.
Along came Dylan, originally a folkie, but with an approach to lyrics and songwriting that was as dramatically ahead of everybody else as Ruth's home run hitting was in 1927. While the Kingston Trio was singing "Tom Dooley", Dylan was singing "The Times They Are a-Changing", foretelling the traumatic and tumultuous change that would soon define the 1960s:
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
and don't criticize what you can't understand
your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
your old road is rapidly aging
please get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand
for the times they are a changing
A bit more substance than "hang down you head, Tom Dooley". Compare it to the Beatles, who at this time were singing "I want to hold your hand". The evolution of the Beatles, and of all popular music, follows a line drawn by Dylan in the years 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, popular music, rock and roll in particular, wasn't limited to rebellion and sex. It could be about anything. It could be personal and introspective, it could be about demons and obsessions, it could be angry and explosive. In short, it could be art.
In his first four albums, released in 1963 and 1964, Dylan was very much the traditional folk musician, even if his songs were already more advanced. With love songs like "Boots of Spanish Leather" and protest songs like "Blowing in the Wind", "God on Our Side", and "The Times They Are a-Changing", Dylan became a darling of the folk scene, who took him in as a favorite son. But the leaders of that culture had no way of knowing that there would be no pigeon holing of Dylan, that there would be no limitations or boundaries to his genius. Dylan was going where his muse took him, and that meant expanding and experimenting, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists who had claimed Dylan as one of his own. In "Bringing It All Back Home" in 1965, Dylan became the first major songwriter to mash up folk and rock (other artists, like Eric Burdon and the Animals were already doing rock adaptations of traditional folk songs; their recording of "House of the Rising Sun" was a big influence on Dylan).
What makes "Bringing it All Back Home" a masterpiece and such an important work is it highlights Dylan's genius at its peak. Now, all these years later, with what we know now about him, the album serves as an almost heroic reminder of the unshakable artistic integrity and determination to stretch boundaries and avoid compromise that made him one of the greatest artists of his time.
"Bringing it all Back Home" is a combination of electric and surreal rockabilly jaunts and acoustic and incredibly powerful folk songs. The folk songs, though, were not the traditional stories and ballads, protest songs or aching love songs. Rather, Dylan turned inward and introspective and increasingly surreal. These were songs unlike any others, and revealed the extent of Dylan's impressive genius.
The album opens with the famous "Subterranean Homesick Blues", with wonderful and clever surreal lyrics put to a tight and taut rockabilly beat. Dylan sets the tone of the album here, telling us not to trust anyone, including himself ("Don't follow leaders/ watch the parking meters" and "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"). The famous clip from the documentary film "Don't Look Back" of this song playing while Dylan flips through references to the lyrics and Alan Ginsberg mills about in the background practically invented the rock video nearly twenty years before MTV.
Next is "She Belongs to Me" - the greatest song ever written about the relationship between an artist and his muse.
You will start out standing
proud to steal anything she needs
you will start out standing
proud to steal anything she needs
but you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
down upon your knees
The irony of "She Belongs to Me" is that, contrary to the title, it's Dylan who is the slave to his muse. He belongs to her, and he would forever remain faithful to her, following wherever she lead, often confounding critics and even his own audience.
"Maggie's Farm" follows, written as an angry response to the folkies who demanded he remain true to their ideals. It has become one of the great protest songs against oppression of any sort, having been covered countless times by various artists, perhaps most famously by U2 as a staple of their shows on the 1986 "Conspiracy of Hope" tour for Amnesty International.
"Love Minus Zero / No Limit" is a haunting love song, rumored to have been written for his future wife, Sara. The love Dylan sings about is peace and calm in the tumult his life had become, which is a theme that runs through much of "Bringing it all Back Home". It's one of the lyrics on the album that reads like pure poetry, opening with:
My love she speaks like silence
without ideals or violence
she doesn't have to say she's faithful
yet she's true, like ice, like fire
Dylan has played this song so often over the years that it is obviously a personal favorite.
"Outlaw Blues" is an electric guitar driven twelve bar blues song where he "might look like Robert Ford but feels just like Jessie James".
"On the Road Again" may be the silliest song Dylan ever wrote. It's wonderfully bizarre and surreal, with a great rhythm guitar and harmonica groove.
Well, I woke up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin’
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, do you have to ask?
The milkman is wearing a derby hat, her grandpa's cane turns into a sword, fist fights break out in the kitchen - whatever it does or doesn't mean, it's immensely entertaining.
"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" opens with Dylan breaking into uncontrollable laughter. The song is another parade of surrealistic lyrics, describing Dylan's adventures riding on the Mayflower with Captain Arab (who resembles the Ahab of "Moby Dick"), and his encounter at the end with Columbus. What it means is beyond me, but like most of the songs up to this point, it has a tight, rockabilly rhythm, and it's fun to ride along ...
At this point, on the vinyl of the original record, side one, the "electric side," ends.
Side two is mostly acoustic and solo and is comprised of four of the greatest songs Dylan or anyone else has ever written. It opens with the awe inspiring, intensely personal and immensely moving "Mr. Tambourine Man", followed by the apocalyptic "The Gates of Eden", the intense "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and closes with the bittersweet "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".
"Mr Tambourine Man" was, of course, recorded by the Byrds, whose shortened version highlighted the drug use references and became a big hit. It's true; the song is about a man asking his dealer for drugs, but the entire song with the additional verses the Byrds left out is about so much more. It's about Dylan, the chronicler of the crazy and complex times, the voice of his generation, exhausted to the point of vanishing into himself ("to fade into my own parade") longing only to "forget about today until tomorrow". It's Dylan in crisis, arriving at a crossroads, the expectations raised from his first four albums pulling him one way and the sounds in his head that wanted to explore new directions pulling in the opposite direction. The fear he expresses in his exhausted state is that he will be unable to satisfy either force, and he longs for escape, for rest:
Take me disappearing
through the smoke rings of my mind
down the foggy ruins of time
far past the frozen leaves
the haunted frightened trees
out to the windy beach
far from the twisted reach
of crazy sorrow
to dance beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free
silhouetted by the sea
circled by the circus sands
with all memory and fate
driven deep beneath the waves
let me forget about today
Martin Scorsese has been quoted as saying that the job of the artist is to make the audience care about his obsessions. In "Mister Tambourine Man", Dylan goes a step further, and bares his soul, poetically and powerfully, and takes "song" to where it had never gone before. "Mister Tambourine Man" not only shows Dylan at the breaking point, it also shows him breaking through, answering the question it asks merely by asking it as honestly and as heartfelt as he could. Through the anguish and despair it becomes clear that the only master Dylan will obey will be his own genius. He'd remain faithful to it for the next fifty years, letting it take him places that would sometimes leave even his most faithful fans scratching their heads.
The next song, "The Gates of Eden", is possibly the single most complex and interpreted lyric Dylan has ever written. The lyrics are so vivid, so imaginative, that there is no denying their greatness. His delivery, his voice and the repetitive chords he plays on the acoustic guitar and the melody articulate an urgency that commands attention.
The nine verses of the song present a variety of bizarre characters in surreal settings, from a "cowboy angel" riding on "four legged forest clouds" to "Utopian hermit monks", "savage soldiers", "shoeless hunters", "motorcycle black Madonnas", "silver-studded phantoms", and "grey flannel dwarfs", all searching for some image of paradise that turns out to be false. They are all outside, locked out by the gates of Eden.
The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden
At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden
It's a conundrum Dylan is describing, the search for truth while acknowledging that in our mortal lives truth is illusory. At the end, after describing the fruitless and desperate searches of his bizarre parade of characters in their surreal landscape, it's only his lover who seems to accept, who tells him of his dreams with no attempt to shovel them into "the ditch of what each one means".
"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" contains many of Dylan's most famous lines, including "he not busy being born is busy dying" and "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked". "It's Alright, Ma" is Dylan at his angriest, angry at the hypocrisy of consumerism that is so rampant in American culture. His vitriol is cast against apocalyptic images. The song opens with:
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying
The "darkness at the break of noon" hints that judgement is close at hand, and in that it "shadows even the silver spoon," no one will be spared.
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
Even the most powerful, "the human gods" and the president, and false prophets posing as preachers and teachers, are all culpable, will all stand trial.
His distrust of authority is again clearly stated:
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to
Dylan expands on the "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters" of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and saves his strongest vitriol for those who don't question or challenge these corruption infested institutions:
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in
While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him
It's a defiant Dylan that the song ends with, having taken fate's best shot and saying in effect, "is that all you got?".
My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?
As a reminder, this was a song written in 1965, when the number one hit was Petula Clark's "Downtown", and Perry Como and Mitch Miller were still popular music acts. It had never occurred to anyone before that a song could be a vehicle to explore areas that had been the domain of only poets and philosophers.
The album ends with the song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", on the surface a wistful goodbye to a lover. But dig a little deeper and you quickly realize Dylan is saying goodbye to much more. He's saying goodbye to the folk scene he'd been a part of, he's saying goodbye to the Bob Dylan that scene knew, and he's saying goodbye to the world we'd known up to that point, knowing that things were about to explode and never be the same:
You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin’ through
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
The apocalyptic imagery of "The Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is present again.
Then, in the last verse of the song, and the last verse on the album, Dylan puts the folk-singer version of himself forever to rest:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
He's now the vagabond "rapping at your door", standing in the clothes that he once wore. He then strikes another match and burns the old Dylan down and proceeds to start anew.
It's a pattern he'd repeat many times over the years, each time his genius grew tired and demanded that he try something new, something different. And while other artists fell prey to commercial and critical expectations, trying to please either their audience or the critics, Dylan would remain true to himself. Say what you will about him, there is no denying that he's marched to his own drum. Whether you think he can sing or not, his integrity remains beyond reproach to this day.
And that is everything.
|Old Bob Dylan|