Sunday, March 17, 2013

1965-1968: That thin, wild mercury sound

Of all the essays I’ve been working on for this series, this is the one I’ve found hardest to write. Not because there’s little of interest to say about what Bob Dylan was doing between 1965 and 1969 – on the contrary, he wrote, recorded and performed more music during the first 18 months of this period than a good number of other notable artists have managed in their entire careers. I’m certainly far, far from alone in my belief that these three albums, dozens of outtakes and series of phenomenal live performances add up to one of the most remarkable periods of sustained creativity any artist has ever achieved (not to mention the remaining three-and-a-bit years of the decade, during which he recorded two more albums, one of them exceptional, and about 5 hours’ worth worth of rough material, most of it still officially unreleased, which is collectively my favourite thing any musician has ever done). But precisely because it’s such an exhaustively well-documented era in Dylan’s life, there really isn’t a great deal left to say about it. This isn’t, in itself, a problem: the original intent of these pieces was to attempt to explain to a newcomer just why some of us view Dylan with such reverence, not to come up with anything revelatory to someone already familiar with the story. But it does make it a bit tricky to come up with an approach from which I find it satisfying to write. So, all I can offer are my apologies if this all gets a bit music-writing-by-rote, and a promise that I’ll try to do better next time.

Anyway. Where were we?

By the end of 1964, Dylan was in a difficult situation. Already beginning to chafe at the limits of the politically driven acoustic folk/blues form within which he felt pigeonholed, but burdened with a sizeable audience who felt entitled to expect more of the same from their elected figurehead. Privately, he was growing more and more interested in the possibilities of electric rock & roll as a means of expression. Friends who were around him in this period have spoken of his fixation on the British Invasion groups - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and their peers – bands viewed by the earnest young activists of the protest movement with suspicion at best, outright hostility at worst. To their minds, the deafening, amplified instruments and infectious, danceable beat of rock’n’roll/R&B amounted to nothing more than crass commercialism. The sound of selling-out.

Dylan, for his part, doesn’t seem to have shared this scepticism (indeed, his very first single in 1962, before he became known as a solo artist, was a full-band electric rock & roll track called ‘Mixed-Up Confusion’ - an oft-overlooked quirk of history which I skipped over in the previous essay because...well, to be honest because it massively confuses the story of an otherwise fairly straightforward linear musical development, and I didn’t particularly feel like having to deal with it. It’s really just a slight wrinkle in the story, so don’t pay it too much mind). He met the Beatles for the first time in the late summer of ’64, during a visit to the UK, a meeting which holds a central place in the mythology of rock’n’roll. There can certainly be little doubt that the encounter marked a turning point in the development of both artists’ work. The Beatles were already aware of Dylan’s music, with John Lennon in particular being deeply impressed – and somewhat intimidated – by the vivid, introspective lyricism of his American rival. Dylan was similarly awed by the Beatles, hearing in their early pop singles the sound of a new world dawning – the unrestrained sense of release and excitement in their music offering a potential way out of the cage in which he felt trapped.

Their initial encounter was by most accounts an awkward affair at first, both parties reluctant to open up for fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their respective heroes. Fortunately, Dylan arrived with the perfect icebreaker – already an enthusiastic marijuana smoker himself (the drug having played a significant part in inspiring his increasingly surreal, visionary lyrics), he assumed the Beatles were also stoners, having misheard the line “I can’t hide…I can’t hide” in ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ as “I get high”. Passing a few joints around (a moderately interesting piece of pop-culture trivia: the first Beatle to smoke pot was actually Ringo Starr, who happened to be sitting to Dylan’s left when the first joint was passed around. The Beatles were so unaware of the customs of drug culture that Ringo assumed the intent was for him to smoke it himself, and Dylan – too in awe of his fellow musicians to dare to correct the misunderstanding – went along with it, rolling a joint each for the remainder of the band) The rest of the afternoon was spent in a state of some hilarity, a mind-opening experience which all four Beatles would later cite as a key moment in their development of a more introspective, poetic approach to writing. Dylan, on the other hand, left the meeting even more keen than he had been before to embrace the possibilities of a new sound.

Having spent much of the summer of 1964 at a farmhouse he owned in upstate New York, writing many of the songs that would form the core of his next album. Contrary to his folk purist image, he had already experimented with amplified rock music on his first single, the aforementioned ‘Mixed-Up Confusion’ that had featured a full band and an electric rock’n’roll arrangement. But for the new songs he was working on, he would embrace this new form of music with open arms.

The first song on Side 1 of ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, released in March of 1965, was explosive. A two-minute blast of vivid, sardonic and funny observations and soundbites set to a frenetic rhythm heavily reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ served as a powerful shot across the bows of popular culture. Presenting a series of vignettes, spearing the absurdities and pretensions of the counter-culture scene, it remains an astonishing piece of music - over in a little over two minutes, but dense enough to prefigure many of the musical developments that were to shape popular culture for decades to come.

The album as a whole was divided into two distinct halves – the first side comprising electric rock & roll/blues numbers, while the second contained a more traditional-sounding set of acoustic songs, occasionally accompanied by delicate touches of electric guitar. Paradoxically, the lyrical content of the rock & roll side was less radical than the sound would suggest – songs like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ have more in common with his earlier protest material than many listeners at the time were willing to recognize or accept. It was largely the second, mainly acoustic side that contained the genuinely revolutionary material – a set of visionary, surreal masterpieces unprecedented in popular music. The first song on Side 2, the hypnotic ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, is an explosion of pure language, containing many of his most famous lyrical soundbites: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”. “Even the President of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked”. “It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”. “He not busy being born is busy dying”. Buried deep in the song was an important message clearly aimed directly at listeners alarmed by the new direction his music was taking: “So don’t fear / If you hear / A foreign sound to your ear / It’s alright, Ma – I’m only sighing”. It is immediately followed by another of his most famous compositions, the immortal ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, a beautiful paean to the ecstatic, transformative power of art. Recorded the previous summer, but not included on ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’, it was this song more than any other on the album which pointed out the direction in which Dylan’s art was heading. The hazy, magical imagery – “And if you hear vague traces / Of skipping reels of rhyme / Do your tambourine in time / I wouldn’t pay it any mind / It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing” defies any attempt at literal interpretation – many attempts have been made over the years to define what it’s “about” (the theory is usually, unimaginatively and clearly inaccurately “drugs”,), to no particular purpose. Impossible to pin down but richly evocative, and set to one of his strongest melodies, it remains to my ears – and those of many others - one of his greatest achievements.

Upon its release, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ caused an immediate sensation. One of the most important records released in the 1960s, an era hardly lacking in important records. Noted critic and Dylan scholar Greil Marcus has stated that “Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein”, and it’s hard to deny that he has a point. It also set the scene for the next stage of Dylan’s own career, a period of a little over 18 months in which Dylan would do, and achieve, more than most artists manage in an entire career.

Between late 1964 and the summer of 1966, Dylan recorded and released three albums – including one double LP – all of which still routinely appear in critical lists of the top ten or twenty records ever made. He also maintained a punishing touring schedule, living his life in the public eye to an unprecedented degree, including a number of confrontational press conferences and interviews that, it can be convincingly argued, helped to shape the nature of modern celebrity. By turns challenging, toying with, evading and condescending to his audience, the Dylan of this period was a mercurial figure – it should be no surprise that it’s this iteration of his many, many personas that remains the iconic image of him in popular culture. A wild mane of hair, dark glasses and a perpetually stoned, wired, otherworldly quality to his features, this is the Dylan portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the marvellous biopic ‘I’m Not There’, the face that gazes out from books, magazines and best-of compilations, the image by which he is still typically identified. It is also the version of Dylan that, at the time, was greeted by much of his former audience with a level of hostility and bile that is hard for modern listeners to imagine.

In early 1965 he fulfilled his remaining pre-arranged touring obligations, which included a brief solo acoustic tour of Great Britain, where he felt obligated to perform his older songs – to rapturous applause – pretending to be a version of himself which was no longer close to the artist he actually wanted to be. Dylan himself would later summarize this experience: "It's very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don't dig you".This tour is documented brilliantly, if uncomfortably, by film-maker D.A.Pennebaker, whose seminal fly-on-the-wall documentary film ‘Don’t Look Back’ perfectly captures the ugly behind-the-scenes tension. With this out of the way, the time had come for Dylan to publicly launch the next stage of his career. He did this with a brief but violent set at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, aided and abetted by a hastily assembled electric ensemble (using members of the Mike Butterfield Blues Band, also appearing at the festival) with whom he performed only three songs.

The response to this brief set was astonishing. The crowd, largely comprised of the young folk fans who had so enthusiastically embraced his earlier material, seem to have responded to this raw, deafening performance with a hostility and anger bordering on hatred. Stories – probably untrue, but mythically appealing – persist about folk legend Pete Seeger literally attempting to cut the power cord to the stage with a fire axe. Another significant figure in the folk scene, Ewan McColl, claimed in an article published shortly after the festival that “only a completely non-critical audience, nourished on the watery pap of pop music, could have fallen for such tenth-rate drivel.” To modern ears it’s hard to reconcile this with the existing recordings of the set, which reveal a slightly ragged but perfectly respectable set of electric blues numbers. Indeed, some commentators still argue that it wasn’t the performance itself that was booed, but the fact that the band only played three songs – this was possibly true for large portions of the audience, although there’s no denying that the outrage and betrayal were certainly present as well. But what’s important is how the event was perceived by the wider world and by the folk/protest scene itself. Dylan had abdicated his position as The Voice Of Disaffected Youth, and declared war on his former followers in the same breath.

When the brief electric set was over, Dylan walked off the stage in a state of shock. He was eventually persuaded to return and play a brief solo acoustic set as a follow-up (again, the recorded version of the concert offers a fascinating glimpse into a world that no longer exists – the note of genuine triumph in the announcer’s voice as he informs the audience that “Bobby’s…gone to get an acoustic guitar!” is unmistakeable), beginning with a furious, accusatory performance of the bitter, beautiful ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. With an inevitability bordering on the comic, it was greeted enthusiastically by the very audience it was scorning. But the die had been cast.

Over the next 18 months Dylan would play a series of concerts around the world, backed by a group of electric musicians who would later become hugely successful in their own right as The Band, to an unprecedentedly hostile series of audiences. The first half of each show was a solo acoustic performance of dreamlike, magical song-poems, generally met with applause and adoration. Then, following a brief intermission, Dylan and his band would take to the stage for a raging, deafening rock & roll set, generally met with…well, with neither applause nor adoration. The waves of hatred, booing and catcalls directed at the stage night after night were met with an iron-cast self-confidence; Dylan himself never wavered in his conviction that this music was as good as he thought it was, that it was the right thing for him to be doing. History has, of course, proven him entirely correct: the officially released ‘Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” concert (so named despite the fact that it was actually recorded in Manchester – there’s a reason for the misleading name, and it does actually make sense, but I shall decline to elaborate on the subject here), is unequivocally one of the greatest live rock & roll albums ever recorded - but it’s still hard to imagine how it must have felt to be greeted with such disgust and fury on a nightly basis. Several of Dylan’s fellow musicians from this period refused to play with him after witnessing the atmosphere at his concerts, while others still speak of an acute awareness that their lives were genuinely at risk. Dylan himself seemed untroubled by this, although an emphasis on the word “seemed” in this sentence would be appropriate, given that it’s now known that he spent much of this period insulating himself through formidable heroin consumption. But however he felt inside, his exterior persona was one of effortless, sneering cool. His press conferences from this time are works of pure performance art, a quick-witted artist lazily running intellectual rings around the journalists struggling to come up with interesting questions to ask him.

But aside from the concerts, it’s worth returning to the studio albums he somehow found time to write and record in the same period. Looking back, I somehow appear to have written over two and a half thousand words before even getting round to mentioning 1965’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, regarded by many as the pinnacle of Dylan’s career (as recently as 2011 Rolling Stone magazine was still declaring it “the greatest song of all time”). Released as a single in the summer of 1965, it’s over six minutes of pure, revelatory perfection. It opens with a crack of a snare drum recalled by Bruce Springsteen in 1988, as he inducted Dylan into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, as sounding like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind”.

This turn of phrase resonates with me because I vividly recall feeling exactly the same way when I first heard it. It is, so far as I can remember, the first Dylan track I was consciously aware of hearing all the way through – I’d recently turned 15, and went into town to spend some birthday money on a few CDs. I saw the unpromisingly titled “Bob Dylan Greatest Hits” and, knowing that I’d heard his name mentioned as a significant musician, decided to buy it on a whim. I got home, went downstairs to my bedroom, and sat down on the floor with my first CD player (a basic ghetto blaster which is still there in the same room at my parents’ house), and began listening to the album. The first few songs were from his early acoustic period and I found the harsh sound off-putting, skipping forward through the CD trying to find something that would convince me that I hadn’t wasted £8.

‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was track number 9. I fast-forwarded to it because I recognized the name. Six and a half minutes later, I rewound to the beginning of the song and listened to it again. And again. The rest of the album came later, followed by many others but that first listen to ‘Rolling Stone’ remains one of the most important turning-points in my life. Even to a teenager in England, thousands of miles and several decades away from the time and place it was written, there was very clearly something remarkable about this piece of music. The opening line, “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine”…well of course it begins with “Once Upon A Time”. It’s a fairy tale. And, more than any other song Bob Dylan ever released - arguably more than any other song released in the 1960s, the only decade in which something as frivolous as a rock & roll song had a genuine chance of doing so - it changed the world.

According to Paul McCartney, it “showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further”.  Frank Zappa claimed that hearing it for the first time made him want “to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else...” Never before had a song so comprehensively shattered the conventions of what a pop single should be. It was six minutes long, in an era when a single running longer than three to three and a half minutes was unthinkable. It was filled with unselfconsciously literate, densely packed with complex language, in an era when pop music was overwhelmingly oriented towards simple, catchy and repetitive lyrical refrains. It had something to say, a story to tell which reflected fundamental truths about the world in a time when even the foremost writers of brilliant pop music, the Beatles very much included, rarely reached for subjects more ambitious than “boy meets girl”. The effect was immediate, and it was incendiary. It was songs like this, and so many of the others on the follow-up to ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, August 1965’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, that opened the doors for almost every songwriter worth a damn in the decades to come.

His first almost-entirely electric album (only a single track, the eleven-and-a-half minute masterpiece ‘Desolation Row’ which closes the album, is without amplified instruments), 'Highway 61 Revisited' took the formula begun on the electric side of 'Bringing It All Back Home' and ran with it. The other song from this album I’ve included on this playlist – ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ – takes the cruel, sneering contempt displayed in his contemporary press conferences and condenses it into a magnificent work of art. The refrain around which the song revolves, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” is yet another instance of a rhetorical device Dylan made his own in his work of this period, dating right back to the opening line of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’: the use of rhetorical questions to challenge his audience. Song after song throws out question upon question - and plenty of answers, but largely to other, unasked questions. This mysterious “Mr. Jones” is usually assumed to be a particularly clueless music journalist, but he could as easily represent anyone outside of the then-burgeoning counterculture, struggling to understand an alien world. This sort of clueless outsider is a recurring figure in Dylan’s 1960s lyrics, usually skewered without mercy, but with just a hint of sympathy to undercut the cruelty – from the “mothers and fathers” whose sons & daughters are “beyond your command” in ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, to the unfortunate Miss Lonely at the heart of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. These characters may be worthy of understanding, even sympathy, but remain ultimately lost. It’s a lyrical obsession which clearly illustrates just how it must have felt to be Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s – fiercely intelligent, avowedly independent, desperate to communicate his worldview to whoever he could persuade to listen, but surrounded by people who just didn’t get it.

Right. This essay has now cleared three and a half thousand words and it’s almost two weeks overdue, a little embarrassing for what is supposed to be part #2 of a 6-part series. Something, unfortunately, is going to get short shrift, and that something sadly turns out to be 1966’s double album ‘Blonde On Blonde’. The lack of time I’m spending writing about this album should in no way be taken as a sign that it is in any way uninteresting – it may not be so obviously revolutionary as several of the albums that preceded it, serving more to refine and perfect an established form than to create a new one. But suffice it to say that of all the albums he released in the 1960s, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ is the one that Dylan himself would later claim most accurately captured the sounds he had been hearing in his head – “It's that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” 

The two songs from that album that I’ve included on this playlist – ‘Just Like A Woman’ and the majestic ‘Visions Of Johanna’ (the former being Item #1 for the prosecution in the 'Is Dylan A Misogynist' controversy, while the latter may well be my favourite Dylan song from the ‘60s) - barely scratch the surface of the album, which ranges from the drunken chaos of the opening ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (with its wry pun on the double meaning of the refrain “Everybody must get stoned”) to the delicate beauty of the closing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, an eleven-and-a-half minute song that takes up the entire fourth side of the album and which Dylan would later confess was written for Sara Lownds, the woman he married in November 1965 and who would go on to be a central figure across the next decade or more of both his life and his art.

Eventually, of course, something had to give. No one person could continue indefinitely at the punishing pace and astonishing creativity Dylan had been riding the crest of for the past four years. The breaking-point came in the summer of 1966. With a publishing company pushing him to deliver the manuscript of a novel he’d been writing, on-and-off, for several years, and an autumn tour comprising a further 80 shows to which his manager had committed him, a drug habit that was spiraling out of control, Dylan seized the first opportunity that came – a motorcycle crash, widely reported upon at the time and believed by many, in the absence of further information, to have either killed, crippled or in some way incapacitated him – to escape. In recent years it has emerged that the crash was not, perhaps, as severe as it had been assumed to be at the time, but it was enough. Using his recovery as an excuse to withdraw from the world, Dylan holed himself up in his remote farmhouse in upstate New York and went into hiding. With the exception of a brief appearance at a tribute concert to the recently deceased Woody Guthrie early in 1968, he wouldn’t play another concert or release another record for almost three years.

He wasn’t, it turns out, artistically inactive during this period, but so far as his audience at the time was concerned he had disappeared completely. Freed from the public gaze, and with the unbearable burden of being simultaneously the voice of his generation, whipping-boy for the embittered protest movement and rock & roll pioneer finally lifted from his shoulders, Dylan returned to the music he had loved in his youth. The music Dylan and the Band were making while the rest of the world was undergoing the turmoil and chaos of the late ‘60s harks back to another time – a dizzying blend of contemporary covers, ancient traditional songs and original material that sounded as though it could have been written at any point in the previous few centuries. Even doing nothing wasn’t enough to entirely absolve Dylan from the criticism of his peers – as the civil rights movement was reaching its peak and the counterculture clashed, often violently, with the vanguard of previous generations, this resolutely non-contemporary music was sometimes dismissed, when snippets of it began to circulate as bootlegs in late 1967, as “deserter’s songs”.

Committed to legend as ‘The Basement Tapes’ (note: the double-LP album of the same name eventually released in the mid-‘70s is a pale shadow of the real thing, which amounts to at least five LPs’ worth of material and remains almost entirely unavailable commercially), the few songs which escaped into the wider world were still enough to spark yet another sea-change in contemporary culture, even as Dylan himself stayed in hiding – George Harrison obtained a handful of the Basement songs and took it back to Britain, where it circulated among the musicians of the day – the Beatles’ retreat from psychedelia represented by the ‘White Album’ is frequently in direct imitation of the Basement Tapes material, while Eric Clapton was inspired to dissolve his pomp-driven supergroup, Cream, and go his own way. Entire books have been written on the subject of the Basement Tapes, and I’m not even going to try to do them justice here. But they are widely available as bootlegs, and in all their unfinished glory – roughly recorded, performed by musicians who are often audibly drunk and/or stoned, filled with ragged snippets of never-to-be-completed songs – they are easily my favourite collection of Dylan material ever recorded. I’ll leave it at that for now.

The Bob Dylan who would eventually emerge, blinking, into the limelight late in 1968 was almost unrecognizable from the wild-eyed visionary poet-idol of 1966. With a more conservative image, a scrubby beard and short-clipped hair, he seemed to be actively trying to distance himself from his former self. Even his voice had changed, as quitting smoking had taken much of the harsh edge from his vocals, leaving a smoother, almost crooning country music voice in its place. His new music, too, in the form of the concise but superb ‘John Wesley Harding’ album, was drastically different, a more restrained and earthy sound with little of the widescreen mercury of ‘Highway 61’ or ‘Blonde On Blonde’. The lyrics were dense, packed with 18th century imagery and Biblical references. The best-known song on the album – ‘All Along The Watchtower’ – is undoubtedly more familiar from Jimi Hendrix’s frenzied, crushingly heavy reworking. But Dylan’s more sedate original recording has much to recommend it, offering a subtle elegance which I actually find a little more satisfying than Hendrix’s magnificent but somewhat messy, over-the-top rendition. But there’s no doubt that, more than any other Dylan cover, Hendrix’s version of ‘Watchtower’ has completely replaced the original recording in the public consciousness. Dylan seems to have recognized this almost immediately – every live version of the song he has ever played (which, at this point, is well over 1,500 performances) has owed more to Hendrix’s heavy electric interpretation than to the more delicate acoustic sound of the ‘John Wesley Harding’ arrangement.

The final song on ‘John Wesley Harding’, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, is quietly remarkable in its own way – a lovely melody, framing lyrics which openly hark back to the sort of “moon/spoon/June” love song lyrics which Dylan’s arrival had rendered obsolete way back in the early years of the decade. Perhaps recognizing that the iconoclastic, revolutionary style of his mid-‘60s music was always going to burn out eventually, he would progress in a very different direction as he headed into the 1970s.

If he had never recorded another note of music after 1966, Dylan would without doubt still be remembered as possibly the greatest songwriter and performing artist of his generation. His work from this period stands alone, and nothing he has done since comes close to it in style or impact. There was no need for him to continue in that path – as Frank Zappa had predicted, it achieved everything it could possibly have been expected to achieve, and popular music would never be the same. Nobody could reasonably expect Dylan to re-invent his chosen medium for a third or fourth time, and he never did – his days as a world-beating musical pioneer were over. But in terms of pure craftsmanship, there was still scope for him to improve, and to reinvent himself yet again. His greatest achievements as an artist were, arguably, still to come.