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Posts tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

Bob Dylan and Barbara Allen

bob-dylan-1962-2

Not surprisingly, I’ve spent more than the usual amount of time over the last two or three days listening to Bob Dylan, although it wasn’t because I needed to persuade myself that he deserved the Nobel committee’s 2016 prize for literature. Funnily enough, the track I’ve ended up playing constantly is one that he didn’t write: the Anglo-Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen”, which dates back to the mid-17th century. It is said to have been a staple of his repertoire in his early days in the Greenwich Village folk clubs, and he has credited it as one of the traditional ballads which taught him that songs could be more than three minutes long. In that sense it played a part in the creation of “Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Isis”, “Brownsville Girl”, “‘Cross the Green Mountain” and his other epics.

A live performance of the song from his apprentice years is included on Live at the Gaslight 1962, taped in the MacDougal Street basement in October that year, while he was in the middle of recording Freewheelin’. There are three things that give it a prominent place in my list of secret Dylan favourites (alongside “House Carpenter”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Going, Going, Gone”, “Changing of the Guard” and the live version of “Queen Jane Approximately” with the Grateful Dead).

The first and most obvious is his tone, for which only the word “tender” will do, and which is perfectly suited to a tale that ends with the entwining of a red rose and a briar growing out of the graves of the two protagonists. As so often from his performances in this period, you can only wonder at the depth of feeling with which the 21-year-old imbues the song. The second is the artful way he handles the song’s cadences, using his voice and guitar to create tension by stretching and releasing the lines in the way that would become an important factor in some of his best songs (e.g. “It’s Alright, Ma”).

The third is tiny but, to me at least, significant. Most people singing this ballad, including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, begin with the lines “Twas in the merry month of May / When the green buds all were swelling / Sweet William on his death bed lay / For love of Barbara Allen.” Dylan prefers an alternative version, which was also known before the song made its Atlantic crossing, and which usually goes thus: “In Scarlet Town, not far from here, / There was a fair maid dwelling / And her name was known both far and near / And her name was Barbara Allen.” Then he sings the verse with which others open it. I like his way of opening it better: it’s more direct, more compelling.

But he does something else. He changes “Scarlet Town” — which apparently may originally have been a play on the name of the English town of Reading — to “Charlottetown”. It turns out that there are only two places of that name recorded in the Times Atlas of the World. One is in Guyana. The other is on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which turns out to be on the same latitude — just a little above the 46th parallel — as Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace.

They’re 1,350 miles apart, as the black crow flies, but unless somebody can tell me that other singers before Dylan made the same substitution, I’m going to think of it as a conscious choice with an intention behind it. To me, it’s an early example of how he was starting to construct his own songs by reassembling, reshaping and repurposing existing materials, a modus operandi sustained from “Hard Rain” to “Early Roman Kings”. For that reason, I find it unusually moving. And after all, more than 50 years later, on Tempest, his most recent album of his own songs, he included a piece which began “In Scarlet Town, where I was born…”

* The photograph above was taken in 1962 by Joe Alper, whose other images of Dylan can be found at http://www.wallofsoundgallery.com.

 

Bob Dylan’s ‘Fallen Angels’

Bob Dylan walking stickWhen the Great Director pulls back to frame the ultimate long shot of Bob Dylan’s career from start to finish, it will be interesting to see what the perspective tells us about his two albums of standards associated with Frank Sinatra. My suspicion is that last year’s Shadows in the Night and the new Fallen Angels will be seen as parallel works to the pair of albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, with which, in the early 1990s, he revisited the blues.

Those sessions, recorded in the simple solo acoustic format of his first four albums, seemed to declutter his mind. They were followed by Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, which contained some of his most creative post-’60s work. And I was struck, listening to him at the Albert Hall last October, by how the decision to deal with songs written by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin appeared to have influenced his attitude to the business of singing itself.

You don’t mess around with “Autumn Leaves” or “I’m a Fool to Want You”. You sing them properly or you don’t sing them at all. Dylan seemed to accept that imperative, and to be using it to refine his own delivery. His phrasing has always been exceptionally inventive, but he took the opportunity offered by these old songs to concentrate equally on tonal inflection and the meaning of the lyrics. The effect could be heard in concert when he included a handful of his own songs: “Blowing in the Wind”, “She Belongs to Me” and “Tangled Up in Blue” were treated by their author with a new respect for their original characteristics.

Fallen Angels follows the format of Shadows in the Night, employing his regular small band to create a gentle matrix of guitars and double bass plus brushes. With echoes of Western Swing, the Hot Club of France and Hollywood noir, the format allows Dylan to present these songs from an original point of view. If the new album doesn’t quite match the impact of its predecessor, if it feels a little lacklustre by comparison, that may be something to do with the loss of the element of surprise. But in the greater scheme of things, its significance may not be apparent until we see what he does next.

* A note on the packaging: Ever since Columbia’s art department stopped being in charge of the way Dylan’s new releases look, his albums have been characterised by their shoddy appearance and careless annotation (by contrast with the fastidious approach to the Bootleg Series, of course). Fallen Angels is typical in that respect. It’s all very well being a law unto yourself, but it’s impossible to forgive the failure to credit the composers of such jewels as “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), “All or Nothing at All” (Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence),  or “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).

Blue shadows

Bob Dylan ShadowsYou only need to pay close attention to the way Bob Dylan delivers the line about “the sunburned hands I used to hold” to understand the value of Shadows in the Night. For me, his version of “Autumn Leaves” is the album’s most fully realised song: against the subdued but glowing accompaniment of pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars and bowed double bass, out of tempo for all but eight bars in the middle (which include the line quoted above), he immerses himself in Joseph Kosma’s gently falling tune and Johnny Mercer’s beautifully simple lyric and makes the combination, and the emotions they evoke, sound as real as anything he has ever sung.

That’s where he outflanks those who doubt the right of a man lacking in conventional vocal equipment to tackle these songs and to evoke so explicitly the memory of Frank Sinatra. They’re the ones who will point out that Sinatra listened to Jascha Heifetz and Tommy Dorsey and swam lengths underwater in order to develop his breath control, enabling him to deliver those long legato lines without a break. Lacking any of that technical equipment, Dylan brings it off. He makes me see those sunburned hands.

Once that’s accepted, the whole album starts to make sense. As outlined in this fascinating interview with the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, his basic decision was to reject the temptation to overdo the arrangements, even down to the omission of a piano, and to rely on the special approach developed by his excellent touring band over recent years. Thus he gives the album both an artistic focus and a freshness missing from most contemporary assaults on the Great American Songbook.

The thing of sliding gently in and out of tempo is a feature of the album. Although never played for drama (you might not even notice it happening), the device is used to stir the songs’ emotions. The approach requires, and gets, the highest degree of sensitivity from his musicians. On three tracks the simple arrangements for a brass trio (trumpet, trombone and French horn) add another unexpected shade to the palette of muted but glowing colours, reminding me of the effect of the horn chart Booker T. Jones created for the playout of “Georgia on My Mind” on Willie Nelson’s classic Stardust.

Dylan seldom shirks a challenge, and the biggest one here is the re-interpretation of “I’m a Fool to Want You”, a song inextricably linked to the doomed affair between Sinatra and Ava Gardner. It’s Sinatra’s confession of emotional helplessness, and probably no one else should attempt it. But Billie Holiday did, unforgettably, on Lady in Satin, and that’s another obstacle Dylan has to surmount. He chooses to open his album with it, too, as Holiday did hers, thus inviting an even more direct comparison. It doesn’t matter.

For me, the whole thing works — even the choice of “Some Enchanted Evening”, the most obvious example of the kind of sentimental romantic Rodgers-and-Hammerstein ballad the young Dylan was supposedly invented to banish for ever. But these observations on love are never obsolete. And in the end, after the shock of hearing Dylan tackle these chromatic melodies and moon-and-june rhymes, it’s impossible not to be moved as this 73-year-old man persuades us that, like Sinatra and Holiday, he knows all about the sweetness and the pain of which he sings. The sunburned hands. That’s what matters.

In the land of Sinatra and Dylan

In the early days of The Blue Moment, I published a poem called “The Cool School”. Roy Kelly, the poet in question, wrote this new one in San Francisco last summer, several months before the announcement that, on February 2, Bob Dylan will release an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, called Shadows in the Night, previewed on bobdylan.com by a version of “Full Moon and Empty Arms”.

 

AT THE END OF AMERICA

By Roy Kelly

 

At the end of America looking west

and thinking east, surrounded by

the sadness of leaving, thinking of voices

under the vastness of the endless sky

 

that rolls back across days and nights,

successions of darkness and light, so strange

and so ordinary, all the hours and miles to home.

And here fallen cloud like a gorgeous mountain range

 

rearing and roiling on top of this one, its lower

reaches of plump softness already flowing

white and thin, dispersed and sparse down

gullies and ravines as we contemplate going,

 

brooding and musing on a world already gone,

and this one, always coming to pass,

the radio voices always alive in the whenever moment

of listening, even if high school class

 

was where they entered your heart and soul.

And now someone with silver hair

looks back from every reflective surface,

leaving you wondering how he arrived there.

 

Looking west and east, imagining those voices

that began with actual people and are now a myth

that conjures a country and time, the emotional history

of every age their records grew up with:

 

Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, soundings from a cloud

that covers the waterfront of this and last century,

every past and every future in polar voices

that blow in the wind that comes to fly with me

 

at the end of America, looking forward

and back, remembering love’s strange rights and wrongs,

insignificant and wonderful under a continental sky,

and the blessed ordinary magic of songs.

Ben Carruthers and the Deep

Ben Carruthers2The other day I went to hear some tracks from the new album created by T Bone Burnett from a set of lyrics abandoned by Bob Dylan in 1967. Invited to do whatever he wanted with Dylan’s words, Burnett got together a group of songwriters — Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello — and asked them to turn the lyrics into songs. You can read what I thought of the results here, on the Guardian‘s music blog.

It reminded me of another time someone turned a Dylan lyric into a song, to very good effect. One of my favourite records of the summer of 1965 was “Jack o’ Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers and the Deep, produced by Shel Talmy and released that June on Parlophone. The songwriting credit on the label read “Dylan-Carruthers”. This is it.

It’s a terrific piece of work, perfectly pitched between the exhilarating modernist Anglo-R&B sound of the early Animals, Kinks and Who and Dylan’s intense, inventive folk-rock. Great guitars — heavily reverbed arpeggios, slashing rhythm — with watery organ fills and solo, no nonsense from the bass and drums, and an urgent post-Dylan vocal. A beautifully constructed two minutes and 50 seconds. And a wonderful final chord.

The story is that Carruthers, an American actor who had appeared six years earlier in John Cassavetes’ great Shadows, was in London that summer to appear in a BBC-TV Wednesday Play, Troy Kennedy Martin’s A Man Without Papers, playing the lead opposite Geraldine McEwan. He visited Dylan at the Savoy hotel (a sojourn immortalised, of course, in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back), and when he asked him for  a lyric he was rewarded with a piece of paper on which Dylan scrawled a version of the poem that had appeared the previous year on the sleeve of Another Side of Bob Dylan, where it began: “jack o’ diamonds / jack o’ diamonds / one eyed knave / on the move / hits the street / sneaks, leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson / thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay / jack o’ diamonds / is a hard card t play.”

No wonder the backing track is so sharp: the band, created by Talmy for the session at IBC Studios in Portland Place, included two of the sharpest 21-year-old session musicians in London, Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with a bunch of students from the Architectural Association: Benny Kern on guitar, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass player remember only as John. Whiteman later joined the Action, who became Mighty Baby. According to him (on the 45cat website here), it was Kern as much as Carruthers who put the music to Dylan’s lyrics. They also cut a B-side, a Carruthers song called “Right Behind You”, which sounds like Mose Allison taking a stroll down Carnaby Street: here it is.

Benito Carruthers (which is how he was credited on some of his early films) was born in Illinois in 1936, so he was already 29 when he made “Jack o’ Diamonds”. He didn’t make any more records, but there were several further appearances on TV and in movies, including The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He came to see me at the Melody Maker‘s Fleet Street office one day in the early ’70s, and we went to the pub for a conversation of which, regrettably, I kept no record. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles in 1983, aged 47.

I’m biased towards 1965, which I think of as a year of wonders without compare. If you weren’t around then but wanted to know what it felt like, you could do a lot worse than put on “Jack o’ Diamonds”.

* The photograph of Ben Carruthers is a still from Shadows.

The Band: London to New York

The BandThe Band came to London for the first time in the early summer of 1971. At 2.30pm on Monday, May 17 a handful of us gathered at the Inn on the Park, near Hyde Park Corner, where EMI Records had booked the Hamilton Suite, rooms 206-210, for Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson to meet journalists. I talked to Robertson and Danko for a feature that appeared in the next week’s Melody Maker, a few days ahead of their two dates at the Albert Hall on June 2 and 3.

They were enjoyable interviews. Robbie talked about the early days with Ronnie Hawkins, and about their influences. Among the names he mentioned were those of Jimmy Reed, Charlie Rich, Sanford Clark and Billie Lee Riley, which reminded him of his first visit to London, along with Rick, Garth and Richard, for Bob Dylan’s Albert Hall shows in 1966, when they stayed at the Savoy.

“A bunch of people came by the hotel,” he said, “a bunch of rough-looking characters. I don’t know what you’d call them, but they were into pure rock ‘n’ roll. They didn’t like Bob’s music at all. They were into Ronnie Hawkins, and they were giving me this whole story about giving up this Bob Dylan shit and getting back to the real meat of things. They were very sincere, actually. What do you call them? Do you have a name for them?”

“Rockers,” I said.

“Rockers? I told Ronnie about them. I mean, they had people named after his songs, even.”

“Wild Little Willie?”

“Yeah, that was one of the guys. Are they still around?”

They were indeed, a bunch of superannuated Teddy Boys still trying to convince the world that any rock ‘n’ roll that sounded as though it had been made after Elvis went into the army wasn’t worth a teaspoon of oil for a Triumph Bonneville. I happened to know that Wild Little Willie was one of the leading members of their coterie, named after one of Hawkins’s best known songs.

Talking to Danko, I asked why their performance at Woodstock two years earlier hadn’t been included in the subsequent movie. “I just didn’t feel that their sound was together,” he said, “and I didn’t believe it was the sort of film that I’d want to look at myself in 20 years’ time, because I’m sure all that comes back, at one time or another. It was not our PA system. We were using other people’s facilities, which means that we didn’t have any control over it, and if you can’t control it then I don’t consider the people are getting their money’s worth. The Isle of Wight impressed me in 1969. The people there were very orderly. I thought it was like being in a giant high-school gymnasium. But it’s hard. We limit our PA system, like you do in a studio, which cleans it up for the people, so it sounds more like a record.”

They hadn’t brought their own system to Europe, relying instead on a system supplied by Charlie Watkins, the South London amplification expert and inventor of the great Copicat tape-echo unit. According to Danko, Watkins had been to see them in the US, examined their system, and promised to create something equally effective.

He was as good as his word, and those of us present at the Albert Hall still talk about the pin-sharp but very warm quality of the sound, and how they were the first rock band to master the acoustics of a venue that had been notoriously unfriendly to amplified music. As Danko promised, the sound was just like the records, allowing us to appreciate the astonishing quality of their playing. It was one of the great gigs, and three of the songs from the first night — “Strawberry Wine”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Look Out, Cleveland” — were unearthed for A Musical History, the handsome boxed set released by Capitol in 2005. Which must mean that the rest of the concert is in the vault somewhere, and it would be nice to hear it all one day.

After finishing their European dates they spent the remainder of 1971 finishing and releasing their fourth album, Cahoots, and touring the US, winding up the year with four nights at the Academy of Music in New York, where they were augmented by a five-piece horn section under the direction of the New Orleans master Allen Toussaint. Those shows were initially commemorated in Rock of Ages, a vinyl double album released the following year. Now Robbie Robertson has gone back to the archive, unearthed the original master tapes, remixed and remastered them, and put together a new boxed set including three CDs and a DVD, plus a more modest two-CD package.

The latter, for which I opted, includes the Band’s full 25-song set — eight more than could be squeezed on to the two vinyl discs of the original release, and two more (“Smoke Signal” and “Strawberry Wine”) than appeared on the last CD version, plus four songs with Dylan — “Down in the Flood”, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, “Don’t Ta Tell Henry” and “Like a Rolling Stone”, all of which appeared on the earlier expanded CD release.

They sound better than ever, and they sounded pretty good in the first place. It reminds me of the extraordinary finesse and flexibility that became apparent during the Albert Hall concert, not least when — as you see them in the photograph above — Levon picked up a mandolin, Garth strapped on an accordion and Richard settled himself behind that beautiful old-fashioned drum kit. Back at his Lowrey organ, Garth played an astonishing extended solo introduction to “Chest Fever”, known as “The Genetic Method”; a friend of mine claims he played it on the Albert Hall’s mighty pipe organ, but that’s not my memory of it.

Everything about that concert was perfect, except for the interval, when I went for a drink and found myself accosted at the bar by Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s manager and a master of the art of intimidation, who approached me, with Jimmy Page lurking in his  shadow, and accused me of trying to break up his band. That’s another story, but it was a relief to get back to my seat and listen to some more from the greatest combo of their era, functioning at their peak.

* The photograph is taken from the insert to The Band: Live at the Academy of Music 1971. It is uncredited.

Some thoughts on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan faces21.
There are 12 works in Face Value, the new Bob Dylan exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, on until January 5 and free to enter. One room, three walls, four paintings on each wall, identical proportions, symmetrically hung. A dozen faces, any or all of whom could have stepped out of his recent songs. He’s given them names, but we don’t know whether “Ivan Steinbeck”, “Ursula Belle”, “Red Flanagan”, “Sylvia Renard” and the rest are real people, or whether they’re products of the imagination that created Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. “These are conventional people,” the artist says during a Q&A contained in the slender but handsome £25 catalogue. “One of the men is actually a member of the Sydney Yacht Club. One’s a limo driver.” Well, maybe. It doesn’t matter.

This is not my area of expertise, but Dylan seems to me to have mastered the use of pastels — the chosen medium here — quite well enough to bring his subjects to life. The eyes are the key to a portrait, and every one of these characters has a certain regard of his or her own: they’re looking at you, or past you, or through you, or inside themselves. Each has a subtitle, which might or might not be significant: “Slap in the Face” is the line accompanying “Ken Garland”, who has a broken nose and looks like a prizefighter. They could be the 12 Most Wanted, or they could be a jury. They could be devils or they could be angels. Or a bit of both, like most people.

2.

When you add the illustration on the front of Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol 10 to the dozen pictures in Face Value, with which it shares its format, it starts to make more sense. Dylan’s image of himself — if that is what it is — floats between reality and fiction, neither one nor the other.

I bought the four-CD box, mostly because I wanted the disc containing the complete concert at the Isle of Wight in 1969, but I’m glad to have many of the items among the 35 tracks collected on the first two CDs (the fourth disc is yet another remastering of the original Self Portrait, which I didn’t need). As many people have already said, “Tattle O’Day” is a major discovery, a mysterious traditional song beautifully delivered by Dylan with David Bromberg’s guitar and Al Kooper’s piano: the sort of thing that very probably formed the inspiration for the material recorded on the Basement Tapes. There are excellent alternative versions of “Went to See the Gypsy” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, and another lovely voice-and-piano treatment of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue”, a song I’d be happy to hear him sing every day for the rest of my life.

But this version of “House Carpenter”, also with Kooper on piano and Bromberg on guitar, isn’t a patch on the electrifying one he recorded by himself during the sessions for his first album in 1962, with which he began his long tradition of omitting some of his finest work (an omission corrected in 1991 with its inclusion in Vols 1-3 of the Bootleg Series). I don’t like “All the Tired Horses” without its string arrangement, or “New Morning” with banal horns and without Ron Cornelius’s magical guitar solo, or “Time Passes Slowly” done as a homage to Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”. And so on.

A mixed bag, in other words, just like Self Portrait itself back in 1970, from which the two tracks I play most today, as I did then, are Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” and Gilbert Becaud and Manny Curtis’s “Let It Be Me”, both completely enchanting.

3.

As I said, I bought the deluxe edition in order to get the full set from the Isle of Wight in 1969, and therein lies the real revelation. Here’s where the remastering has really helped, dispelling the sonic fog that shrouded over the three tracks that were released in a jumble on Self Portrait and, of course, improving even more on the terrible sound of the audience-recorded bootleg LP version I bought a few weeks after the event itself.

Thanks to the impression created by those recordings, and to the general lack of enthusiasm of the contemporary reviews and word of mouth reports, I’d never regretted not making it to that particular IoW festival, even for Bob. Now I do. It becomes clear that Dylan and the Band were in top form, hitting their marks on every song they play together, finding an excellent balance between the driving electrified Hawks of 1966 and the rustic Big Pink sessions of two years later. And when you hear everything laid out in its proper context, Dylan’s four-song acoustic set is wonderful, with “Wild Mountain Thyme” among his very best recordings of traditional material (or any material, come to that).

I can’t help thinking that three factors militated against a proper appreciation of the set by many of those who were there. First, the audience was exhausted, coming to the end of the weekend and having endured a three-hour wait before the Band’s nine-song set and then a further 40-minute hiatus before Dylan made his appearance. Second, after a weeks-long build-up that took hype to new heights, there was an expectation that the main attraction would be joined on stage by, at the very least, all four Beatles and Eric Clapton; it didn’t happen, of course. Third, the musicians’ self-presentation might not have helped: although John Wesley Harding and Music from Big Pink had made it clear that things were changing, I can’t help feeling that if Dylan had come on in a leather jacket, jeans and Wayfarers instead of that white suit, and performed exactly the same songs in exactly the same way, he might have been given a different hearing.