Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Get into Dylan

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how to get into David Bowie's music. Since he's not exactly everybody's cup of tea, I thought I'd give readers another option. Actually, I wanted to turn this into a regular feature, but then I realized there's really only about three artists who have catalogs I'm familiar enough with to do these. So, uh, consider this Part 2.

Once again, this is for someone who wants to get deeper into the music. For the curious, there are plenty of greatest hits collections you can check out. So, if you think of Bob Dylan just as that old guy who can't sing, this blog is not for you. However, if you think of Bob Dylan as that old guy who can't sing but you still want to know more, read on.

Pre-listening: Make sure you have heard Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Volume II (Volume III optional). Even though the former is over 40-year-old and the later over 30, they are still the best Dylan hits records, and will give you the basic knowledge of his career necessary to continue.

Step 1: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde

The three albums that changed rock 'n' roll forever. In Bringing Dylan transitions from an all acoustic folk sound to electrified accompaniment. Highway 61 kicks off (literally--listen to the drums) with the legendary "Like a Rolling Stone," rock's first major hit to push past the three and a half minute mark. And finally, Blonde on Blonde, a masterpiece on not one but TWO disks, that takes you from the intoxicating (or is that intoxicated?) "Rainy Day Women #12 & 25" with it's clever pun on "stoned," through the elegant "Visions of Johanna," the desperate "I Want You," the playful "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," and the tender "Just Like a Woman," to the epic swells of Side 4's only song, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

Suggested Viewing: The documentary Don't Look Back. And if you can find a bootleg of the experimental-ish Eat the Document, more power to you.

Step 2: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', Another Side of Bob Dylan

The above may be the three albums that changed rock 'n' roll, but these are the albums that changed the world. If there was an instruction manual on how to be labeled the "spokesman of a generation" this would be it. Freewheelin begins the song "Blowin' in the Wind," a song that would be taken up by people around the world as a cry for freedom. The album contains a few other "protest songs," notably "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," but there are also a few songs in a more traditional folk idiom, as well as love songs like "Girl from the North Country." Most of Dylan's "finger pointin'" (his term) work is on Times--the title track, for example, or "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol" which uses Brechtian techniques to make the listener understand the inequality of the Southern justice system. Another Side tends shies away from topical songwriting, and instead is more personal, whimsical, and, dare I say it, pop.

Suggested Viewing: The Martin Scorsese directed doc No Direction Home. Technically, it probably fits better after Step 1, but this way you're all caught up on the music.

Step 3: John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, The Basement Tapes

Dylan's post-motorcycle accident return to roots music. John Wesley Harding, best known for having the original version of Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower," is atmospheric and calls to mind an uncanny America long gone. Nashville Skyline is a straight-up, un-ironic country album. "Lay Lady Lay" may have been the big hit, but the real highlight is Dylan's revisit of "Girl from the North Country" in a duet with Johnny Cash. Finally, The Basement Tapes are the official release of a former bootleg of the demos made by Dylan and The Band in the latter's basement. A lot were songs written for other artists, others were songs they'd later flesh out and put on their own albums, but there are some otherwise lost gems as well.

Suggested Viewing and Reading: Dylan's performance in The Concert for Bangladesh, and Greil Marcus's book on the basement tapes, Old Weird America, formerly called Invisible Republic, if you find an old copy.

Step 4: Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire

The mid-career renaissance, these three albums could be called the rise and fall of a marriage. Planet Waves, best remembered for the benedictory "Forever Young," celebrates love and family. Desire, with the heart-breaking "Sara," is the desperate attempt to get back together. (It didn't work.) But the real highlight of the three is Blood on the Tracks, which presents all the real emotions involved in a breakup. It's raw, painful, and beautiful.

Suggested Viewing: The film that chronicles The Band's last ever concert, The Last Waltz. Dylan's performance with the band is as magical as ever, but the film is great and deserves a watch on its own merit.

Step 5: Time Out of Mind, "Love and Theft", Modern Times

The late-career renaissance. With 1997's Time and its seeming meditations on aging and mortality (Dylan claims not), Dylan went from being perceived as irrelevant middle aged guy to cool rockin' grandpa. Suddenly, hipsters could listen to Dylan again. (But they'd always been listening to him before he was popular again.) The latter two albums are a bit different from that one in that their certainty that the world is pretty much going to hell in a handbasket (an observation not too far off, given that "Love and Theft" was released September 11, 2001) and distrust of all things modern is complimented by an old-timey sound influenced by rhythm and blues, honky-tonk, and country swing.

Suggested Viewing and Further Listening: Dylan's most recent releases, Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart. Warning: may contain polka. Now would also be a good time to watch the meta-biopic I'm Not There.

Step 6: Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love

The gospel period. Slow Train is the first, and, according to many critics, the best of these evangelical albums. Saved is the most dogmatic, and Shot of Love subtly shifts back to secular music. Although containing some of Dylan's best songwriting, even some hard-core fans find these albums alienating. So I'd suggest moving on to the next Step 7 even if this has put you off.

Suggested Reading: Esteemed literary scholar Christopher Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin, which, despite the title, isn't actually about religion.

Step 7: New Morning, Street Legal, Infidels, Oh Mercy

The overlooked albums. They're not bad, but they've often been ignored when first released and/or since overshadowed by stronger albums. New Morning, Infidels, and Oh Mercy came after periods when Dylan was being particularly difficult toward his fans. The original pressing of Street Legal suffered from a bad mix, so look for the remastered version. Anyway, these four albums definitely deserve rediscovery.

Suggested Reading and Further Listening: You've heard pretty much all the music you need to have the background to read Dylan's memoirs, Chronicles Volume One* by now. And this might be a good time to check out the Traveling Wilburys, too.

Step 8: Bob Dylan, Good as I Been to You, World Gone Wrong

The traditional folk albums. Bob Dylan is his first album, and as such only contains two "original" ("Song to Woody" borrows the tune from Guthrie's "1913 Massacre") compositions. The latter two are from a period in the 1990s when Dylan was trying to find himself musically. The return to basics lead to Time Out of Mind, so it must have worked.

Suggested Listening: Try to find yourself some episodes of Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour. More than anything else, this should really tell you where he's coming from.

Step 9: Bootlegs.

Time to get away from the studio albums. You might want to check out some of the official live recordings, but those have been of variable quality. (As cool as Dylan and the Dead sounds, I wouldn't recommend it.) But, as any true Dylan fan knows, some of his best stuff has never been "officially" released. In fact, Dylan bootlegs are practically a cottage industry. Columbia Records has, over the years, put out a few records with previously unreleased tracks, including The Basement Tapes (to which you will have already listened) and Biograph, which mixes greatest hits with archival materials. But the creme de la creme of "official" bootlegs is The Bootleg Series which has, at present, nine volumes featuring outtakes, demos, live tracks, and more. In fact, three whole volumes (4-6) are devoted to live recordings--the Rolling Thunder Review tour, a concert with Joan Baez, and the infamous 1966 "Royal Albert Hall" (Manchester Free Trade Hall, really) performance. Then there are the other kinds of bootlegs, that often contain even better stuff than the official--um, I mean, that you shouldn't listen to because that's totally illegal. Yup. *whistles innocently*

Suggested Reading: Tarantula Dylan's only published book of poetry (that isn't a collection of song lyrics). Out of print for a long time, it's currently available in bookstores. But it's... kinda weird.

Step 10: Congratulations! You are totally into Dylan.

It's now okay to listen to the lesser works: Self Portrait, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid soundtrack, Dylan, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, Knocked Out Loaded, and Under the Red Sky. As Bruce Springsteen once said, if any new artist had written a record like these, we'd say they were going to be the next Dylan. So, really, they're only bad because he actually is Dylan. Most of these albums have a track or two that's redeemable--even the genuinely awful Self Portrait has a couple of okay live tracks.

Suggested Viewing: If really, really awful is what you're after, then check out the roles Dylan has played in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Hearts of Fire, and Masked and Anonymous, which he co-wrote. It's almost incomprehensible. For completely incomprehensible, search the deepest, darkest corners of the internet (or YouTube) for Renaldo and Clara, which he conceived, directed, and starred in. But hey, the music's good.

*You want to know where Volume Two is? Wouldn't we all like to know....