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Posts tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

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.