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The Freewheelin Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

1963

I can remember pretty vividly the first time I listened to The Freewheelin Bob Dylan straight through.  It was a Saturday, sometime in the Spring, in San Francisco.  I was living on Waller St, a block down from Buena Vista Park.  I was going on a walk that day, like I did most weekends, accept this time I was going to go exploring a bit more.  I would walk up those long steps to Buena Vista Park, and hike to the top of hill.  From there I'd make my way over to Corona Heights, soak in that view, and then up to Twin Peaks and maybe Mt Davidson after that if I felt up to it.

I was tired, probably a little hungover, and as usual, had a lot on my mind.  Didn't like my job, was growing more sick of San Francisco with each passing day, and things between my lady and me had soured somewhat.  I needed time alone to think about things, and that's why I always went on these therapeutic hikes throughout the city.  Walking helps clear my mind, and fulfills some restless internal need in my spirit to explore, to seek out, to find something.  I figured the more you keep moving, the more you keep walking, the more likely you are to run into something, anything really.  I didn't know what I was searching for, but it was something.  A new path, a new direction, something to get excited about.  I was de-sensitized to everything, haven lived in SF going on 4 years, it had lost its luster.  The combination of hipsters, yuppies, tourists, homeless people, Muni, work, near constant 50 degree temps, fog, and living from paycheck to paycheck had worn me down.  Things that used to impress me didn't anymore.  I was jaded, burnt-out, uninspired, weary and worn out.  I needed to rediscover myself again, rediscover the guy who had an adventurous spirit, the same spirit that had motivated me to move out there all by myself 4 years early.  The guy that wasn't shackled by his job, bills, and his relationship. 

I was looking to regain a sense of freedom again.

But I could only do that in bits and pieces though, when I had time, which meant the weekends.  So I'd go on these cityhike walkabouts, usually though Golden Gate Park, or maybe the Presidio.  Today I'd be taking a different path, figured I'd change it up.  And I had loaded The Freewheelin Bob Dylan onto my iPod, so I was good to go.

I had always liked Dylan, but never really delved into his albums/songs.  I liked him the same way I liked Johnny Cash, that it was old, ancient sounding music.  Spare sounding.  Quiet music.  Timeless.  I knew "Times They Are A'Changin", and I knew "Like A Rolling Stone".  I used to think "that's the same guy?" because they sounded so different.  I was interested to understand how Dylan went from an old-man sounding folkie to a folk-rock hipster in the span of a few years.  And I'd heard songs like "Lay Lady Lay" and I would be like "wtf, that's Dylan??".  As I would find out over the coming months, Bob Dylan is all about changing his sound and trying to shed away his audience/fanbase.  He's always in a constant state of becoming, the true halmark of an artist.  I was about to open up another world of music, music that sounded like I had waited my whole life to hear.  There was before I listened to Dylan, and after I listened to Dylan, and I wasn't quite prepared for how profoundly his music would have an effect on me.

So up the steps I went to Buena Vista, I hit play, and "Blowing In The Wind" came on.  I knew this song.  I liked this song.  It has a timeless quality to it, and it was particularly soothing that morning for a guy who was going on a hike to do some soul searching.  The words really spoke to me, particularly on that morning.  I think the lyrics to that song are relatable to just about anybody, and I think the poetry of that song will be around for a long time.  Far after I'm gone, and long after my grandkids are gone.  It's special, it's beautiful, it's wise, it's timeless.  A great start to the album.

As I made my way into the Park, "Girl From the North Country" came on.  I was in the forest somewhat now, winding my way up the steep paths.  Buena Vista, like so many other parks in San Francisco, is beautiful.  It adds a sense of serenity to everything, and when the first few soft, light on their feet cords of "Girl From the North Country" started playing, it fit the surroundings perfectly.  It was quiet, damp, and beautiful.  Then Bob starts singing.  His voice sounds aching, yearning.  He's singing about a beautiful girl that he is in love with, a girl from the "North Country".  The song is so quiet, beautiful, and soft, yet Bob's voice is coarse and full of heartbreak.  The song ends with a long, yearning harmonica note from Bob that was incredibly intense to for me to listen to.  I'd never felt so much emotion, so much feeling from a harmonica.  It's gripping.  As Bob sings, he sounds so in love with this girl, a girl who it sounds like he will never see again.  It also sounds like they may not have even had a relationship together, like its a crush that he never was able to reel-in.  I could immediately relate to the song, and was completely sucked in by it.  There was a certain purity to the song that resonated with me.  Whoever that song was about, Bob really loved that girl.  Being that my relationship at the time was on the rocks, I wanted to feel that kind of love again, something pure, something unconditional, so listening to that song struck an emotional cord with me.  To this day, it's probably my favorite love song of all-time.  It's simple, beautiful, and emotionally gripping.

I kept walking, and "Masters of War" came on.  It's important to listen to an album like this in a quiet setting, where you can truly listen to the words.  The lyrics to this song literally stopped me dead in my tracks.  I'd never been a fan of war, the military, and I had been particularly opposed to the Iraq War, although that was getting to be old news at the time.  I understand that sometimes wars are necessary, but most of the time they're not.  They're about money, and a lot of innocent people get killed.  And most of the war-mongers are typically cowards, that wouldn't have the guts to kill a man if they had to.  People are so desensitised to the violence they see on their TVs, the glamorization of violence, that they can't possibly comprehend what it must be like to be in a real war time scenario.  Standing over your buddy holding his intestines as he takes his last breath, seeing a kid who's arm just got blown off, and feeling the sensation of a bullet entering/exiting your body, blood everywhere, people screaming, crying.  War is hell.  I can't say I've experienced any of that, but I sure as hell have an appreciation for it, what people have to go through in those situations.  And yet the people that make these decisions, that send people into harm's way, often for their own political/economic gain, well to quote Bob "sit back and watch, while the death-count gets higher".  The entire song is so on-point.  Truth is a fuzzy concept to me, very relative.  "Masters of War" sounded like the closest thing to "truth" I had ever heard in a song.  It's blunt, righteous, and wise.

I had stopped to rest on a bench while Masters of War was playing, really listening to it.  I decided to skip back to the beginning of the album, to re-listen to "Blowin In The Wind", "Girl From the North Country" and "Masters of War" over again, to really soak them in.  All are incredible songs, "Blowing In The Wind" is so peaceful and wise, "Girl From the North Country" is so beautiful and emotional, and "Masters of War" is intellectually stirring and affirming.

After I'd heard those songs again, I pressed on, hiking to the top of Bueva Vista, which was much more exhausting than I had planned.  "Down the Highway" was playing.  This sounded like an acoustic blues song.  Folk-blues if you will.  It sounded like a man who was lost, lonely, searching for something - "walking down the highway, with my suitcase in my hand".  "I'm bound to get lucky baby, boy I'm bound to die tryin".  The attitude of the song was "fuck it".  It's a loner song, the song of a rambler, a gambler.  "Well I've been gambling so long babe, lord I ain't got much more to lose."  This song also resonated strongly with me.  It reminded me of myself a few years earlier.  Didn't have any expectations, didn't care what happened to me, just wanted to see what would happen if I hit the road.  I could relate, and I wanted that feeling back again.  That sense of freedom.

I was now walking through the Ashbury Heights neighborhood, walking those windy residential streets, when "Bob Dylan's Blues" came on.  This was a funny, hokey song.  A very blue-collar sounding song.  I liked the message of rejecting materialistic things: "I don't have no sportscar and I don't care to have one, I can walk anytime around the block".  For a man who got around the city walking most everywhere, I could relate, and I liked it.  It's a funny, goofy song, full of Bob's early youthful charm.

I believe I was still walking through Ashbury Heights when "Hard Rain" came on.  I had decided to keep pressing on West, as I saw a forested hill across Cole Valley and wanted to hike into those mountains, if I could.  The fog was still hanging on them.  They were about a half mile a way, so I figured I'd keep pressing on that direction, hopefully run into a trail when I get to the woods.  Listening to "Hard Rain" was an intense experience.  I mean, it's almost too overwhelming, and thus is not one of my favorite Dylan songs, but that doesn't take anything away from it.  The guy sounds like a prophet on this song, a wise old man telling a sad story of a post-apocalyptic world.  But he tells it in such a stirring, surreal way.  It's intense.  It really painted a picture in my mind of what that world might look like, and it's sad, but beautiful.  He paints the picture with metaphor and poetic visual images.  It's beautiful to listen to.  It's certainly understandable how a song like that really resonated with people back in the 60s, during the Cold War.

The next song "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" was an emotional kick in the gut.  My relationship with my lady at the time was unfullfilling.  I loved her, but I wasn't in-love with her, and at times, my mind wondered about other possibilities.  But when I thought about those possibilities, I usually started feeling sad or guilty.  I'm sure I'm not the first person to be in that type of situation.  Listening to "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" was quite an experience.  It's a breakup song, and it was as if I was singing it.  It fit absolutely perfectly to my current situation, and effectively articulated what I could not about my relationship.  There were so many lines on it that were directly applicable to my current situation that it was emotionally overwhelming to listen to.  It spoke to me, directly to me, it was incredible, but also sad, like any breakup song is.  In a lot of ways, it's cold as ice, and Dylan's "fuck-it" attitude was impressive to me.  "I ain't a-saying you treated me unkind, you could have done better, but, I don't mind, You just kind of wasted my precious time, but don't think twice it's alright".  Wow.  Not just that line, but again, the entire song resonated strongly with me.  Easily the best breakup song I had ever heard, and this one will forever be a bittersweet listen for me.

By this time I was approaching the forest, and was pleasantly surprised to find a trail that went up the mountain, so I pressed on.  It was then that "Bob Dylan's Dream" came on.  This was another emotional song.  Incredibly sentimental, this song reminisces about days passed, with old friends.  At the time, a lot of my friends had moved on from SF, or I had left them back in Texas years ago.  This song spoke to me, I could completely relate to it, being a bit of an "old soul" myself.  It's a sad song, and Dylan sings it like he's a 70 year old man looking back at his life, but he was only 22 at the time.  The guy was wise beyond his years, and he really knew how to write songs with a strong emotional resonance.  That song made me sad, but it also made me feel kind of good too, thinking about old times.  It made me think about people I hadn't thought about in years, wondering what they were up to.  I'm a sentimental fellow, and "Bob Dylan's Dream" is probably one of my favorite sentimental songs ever.  Makes you think about life, reflect on it.  How today's actions will eventually become yesterday's memories, and how thoughts eventually fade away over time.  Sappy, yes, but I'm a sucker for that stuff.

The next song "Oxford Town" gave the emotional intensity a break for a bit.  It's a topical song, with a pointed message, but it's delivered in a very laid-back way, which makes it a pleasure to listen to.  Bob just sounds so wise on this song, like an old man observing the scene from a far, and telling you a story about it.  "Oxford Town around the bend, came to the door and he couldn't get in, all because the color of his skin, what'd you think about that my friend?"  I think we all know what to think about that.  Another great song.

By this time, I'm in the woods, climbing up to the top of Forest Knolls, enjoying the scenery and serenity of the hike, when "Talkin World War III Blues" comes on.  This is just a fun, goofy song that is an absolute pleasure to listen to.  This song always brings a smile to my face.  Bob's rural charm really shines through on this one, as he tells a funny story about a "crazy dream" he'd had in which he's walking around in WWIII.  You might expect this one to be a weighty song, but it's light on it's feet and has a great sense of humor.  Again, it sounds like listening to a sly old grandpa telling you a funny story as a kid.  It has that feel/charm to it, and it ends with a great line "Half of the people can be part right all of the time Some of the people can be all right part of the time But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time...I think Abraham Lincoln said that...I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours...I said that".  Folksy charm.

After that is the incredibly relaxing and mellow folk-staple "Corrina, Corrina".  By this time I was getting tired of hiking, so I had come across a small field of grass on top of the mountain, and I decided to lay down to take a rest, as I just let the sweet sounds of "Corrina, Corrina" pass through my brain.  It's a beautiful, relaxing song that fit the mood comfortably.  Then "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" came on, and it was the first song that I wasn't immediately impressed with.  It's goofy and hokey, and kind of funny, but ultimately it just doesn't measure up next to all the other great songs on that album.  A little too herky-jerky.

The finale was "I Shall Be Free".  This is a funny one, and it's full of Dylan's classic folksy-charm.  The guy is just having fun, singing a goofy song, teasing his girlfriend.  It's hard not to smile during this song.  After a lot of emotionally draining songs, the Freewheelin Bob Dylan ends on a light-hearted, charming note.  It was kind of a relief for the album to be over, as it was an intense listening experience.  "The Downward Spiral" by NIN is also an intense listening experience, but in a completely different way.  "The Freewheelin Bob Dylan" was a much more personal experience.  It's quietness made it even more intense to me, and obviously the songs struck a highly sensitive emotional cord with me.

This album really helped me a lot over the coming months.  When you live in a crazy busy city like San Francisco, sometimes it's hard to find peace of mind.  I grew up in a very quiet, rural area.  A lonely, isolated area, where some days all you can hear is the sound of the wind blowing.  This album kind of took me back to that, a quiet, simple, existence.  It was my escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.  I didn't listen to anything else for the next few weeks. 

This album also planted some seeds in my head though, some ideas.  As I continued to explore Dylan's 60s music up to Blonde On Blonde, I couldn't help but become more and more disillusioned with my current situation, and within a year's time, I ended up quitting my job, breaking up with my girlfriend, and moving half-way across the country by myself to Chicago.  It sounds crazy, but I think Bob Dylan's music had a lot to do with that.  I can't say for sure if I would have made all those drastic changes had I not listened to those old records.  Maybe I would have, maybe not, but they definitely had a very strong influence on me.

And it all started with The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.  This album, and a some of Dylan's subsequent albums, had a profound effect on me, and helped me rediscover myself and what I was about.  It could be argued that Dylan made better albums after this (I myself hold Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in very high regard) but I don't think he made anything as pure as this one ever again.  This is a timeless album, it's wise beyond it's years, and no album as so many songs packed on it that resonate with me on such a personal level.  Musical tastes come and go, but I can see myself listening to this album well into my twilight years, when I'm old and gray.  I can only imagine how intense the memories will be for me then, as they are quite emotional for me listening to this album today. 

Simply put, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan is my favorite Dylan album and had a profound effect on me.  It's a listening experience that I still enjoy as much today as I did when I first heard it out in San Francisco, all those years ago.

9.9

The Times They Are A'Changing

Bob Dylan

1964

The Times They Are A'Changing has quite a reputation.  If Bob Dylan wasn't characterized in the press as a "protest signer" prior to this album and the infamous title track, then he had certainly cemented himself into that genre by the time this record hit the shelves in early 1964.

What's fascinating about all of this is the fact that Dylan worked so hard to distance himself from that movement over the coming years.  His musical style evolved so significantly over the next 2-3 years that you would be hard pressed to recognize the man due to his change in delivery, material, and overall sound. 

Given that, it makes The Times They Are A'Changing even more interesting, since Dylan delivers most of these songs in such a "fire and brimstone" manner.  He sings these songs with conviction, a conviction that certainly a lot of people were able to relate to during the tumultuous times these songs were recorded in.  Beyond that however, a lot of people can still relate to these songs today, as the title track has been exploited for just about any political faction/cause that's come about in the past 40+ years.  These are powerful songs with pretty pointed messages, messages that Dylan would deny even existed in the coming years.

After this album, coupled with his breakout album The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, it seemed very clear who Bob Dylan was: a throwback folk-singer who wrote left-leaning protest songs.  Topical songs, political songs, whatever you want to call them.  Dylan had made his own bed, but he didn't want to lie in it.  I think when he realized the profound effect his music was having on the masses, when he realized that people were holding him up on a pedestal, calling him a prophet, a saviour, it freaked him out, and understandably so.  Especially after Kennedy was assassinated, that sent the whole country into a state of shock, and certainly further polarized people, added additional fervour to the politics of the time. 

Bob became the poster-child for the so-called "protest movement" and probably felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He was initially setting out to write thoughtful songs, some topical songs, and after the tremedous success of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, he felt the need to deliver what the people wanted, what he was known for at the time.

So thus here we have The Times They Are A'Changing.  Everyone knows the title track, which again has been used and exploited as a rallying-cry for pretty much every political movement imaginable since it was released way back in 1964.  Is it brilliant?  Yes.  Inspiring?  Yes.  Tainted?  Also a yes, from my prospective, and a tad bit over-rated as a result.  But overall, certainly a powerful, wise song.  It's a classic.

The next song "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" is kind of like listening to a horror movie unfold.  It's dark, it's bleak, and it's compelling.  There's no specific message to get out of it, it's just a story of a poor rural farmer who can't support his family due to drought and lack of money.  He ends up killing his family and himself.  It's a dramatic song, but it sounds so spare and quiet, which makes it even more chilling.  You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone writing songs like that back in 1964.  It's powerful stuff, and it's dark, hard-times mood are a good reflection of the album as a whole.

Then we have "With God On Our Side" probably one of the most political songs Bob ever wrote.  I would imagine it would be hard for even him to deny that.  It's certainly a witty song, a powerful song, which forces the listener to see things from other prospectives whether they want to or not.  It's brilliant in that regard, and seems to condemn traditional viewpoints about America, war, and nationalism, and the warped nature of how God can be intertwined into those concepts to justify war and other atrocities.  Simply put, it's dead-on, in the same vein as "Masters of War", but not quite as blunt.  The song ends with an anti-war line, pretty bluntly, so sorry Bob: this right here is an anti-war song.  And a pretty damn good one at that.  Nothing to be ashamed of.

The next track is the very quiet and soft "One Too Many Mornings".  Bob and the Hawks would deliver a rousing electric version of this track a few years later, but the original has a much different sound.  It's a somber song, with a resigned tone.  It's a thoughtful song, an introspective song, a song that you might not think much of upon first listen, but upon further listens, reveals it's depth.  It also has one of the best lines on the entire album: "There's a restless hungry feeling that don't do no one no good, and everything I'm a'saying, you can say just as good.  You're right from your side and I'm right from mine, we're both just one too many mornings, and a thousand miles behind".  Well said.

"North Country Blues" is next, another doom and gloom tale similar to "Ballad of Hollis Brown".  It's a sad, down-on-your-luck, hard-times tale.  Nothing brilliant here, but nothing bad either.  Very reflective of Bob's material at the time.

"Only A Pawn In Their Game" follows, and gets back to the more "topical" songwriting.  It's a good song, but I wouldn't consider it great, mainly because Bob can't seem to ever get a good rhythm going on his acoustic guitar on this particular song.  He also comes across as somewhat rambling and preachy on this one.  Not that he isn't making some good points on this song, in fact there are some damn righteous ones, but the overall delivery comes across as somewhat jagged sounding this listener's ears.

The next track is "Boots of Spanish Leather" which is really the only love song on the entire album.  Although not at all a bad song, it pales in comparison to some of the other relationship-centric songs on The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, but it is sung from the heart.  Like most of the other songs on the album, it's somber and weary in tone.  Again, nothing brilliant here, but nothing bad either.

"When The Ship Comes In" is a refreshing change of pace and tone from much of the doom and gloom that proceeds it.  This song not only has a quick, light-on-it's-feet pace, but it actually sports a positive message.  It paints a glorious picture of the day the "ship comes in" which is a metaphor for finally getting your dues.  It's a happy sounding song, and is motivational to listen to if you've ever dreamed of a brighter tomorrow from a dark place.  One of the best songs on an album full of heavy, topical songwriting.  This one is just fun and uplifting.

And then we get back to more topical songwriting with the "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol".  This one is a topical song in every sense of the word, as it was written specifically about the killing of Hattie Carrol in 1963 by a wealthy tobacco farmer.  It's commentary on the racism that was prevalent throughout the mostly segregated southern US at the time.  Very topical, but similarly to "Pawn In Their Game" isn't particularly easy on the ears.  So while it has some pointed lyrics, it doesn't particularly flow that well.

The last song "Restless Farewell" ends the album on a somewhat underwhelming note.  As mentioned about a few other songs, it's not particulary great, but it's not bad either.  Some pretty good lyrics, but not a particularly memorable song in my eyes.

So overall, The Times They Are A'Changing, while certainly a good album full of some classic songs, is not in the same league as The Freewheeling Bob Dylan for one main glaring reason: it lacks the charm and freshness of it's predecessor.  It also comes across as preachy at times, and some of the songs are sorely missing quality melodies to help bring them to life. 

Again, I think at the time this album was recorded, Bob did probably feel pretty strongly about the songs he was writing.  He was very much indebted to Woody Guthrie's style, and he wanted to convey that type of authenticism in his music.  He was writing about the times he was living in, and he was writing thoughtful, challenging songs, and he was receiving accolades left and right for it.  So when it was time to record this album, that was his style.  In fact, some of the songs on this album were recorded just a few months after The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, after he had enjoyed the success of that album.  Was still enjoying it, in fact, still probably soaking it all in.

And by the time this album was out, he had twisted so many wigs that he was becoming quite a phenominon.  So over the coming years, he would start to deviate from this style of folk music and his image as a "protest singer".  That transition would start, somewhat subtlely, on his next album: "Another Side of Bob Dylan", and we would never hear this type of direct, pointed, topical song writing out of Dylan again.

8.7

Another Side of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

1964

As the title suggests, Another Side of Bob Dylan is a bit of a departure from Dylan's prior album "The Times They Are A'Changin".  Most notably is the near absence of any "topical" or "protest" songs that Dylan had become notorious for at the time.  The majority of the material found on Another Side of Bob Dylan is more relationship-centric, or introspective, and in that respect has more in common with "The Freewheelin Bob Dylan" (although it's not in the same league as that album).

There are other changes as well.  Dylan's appearance is slightly different on the cover of the album, especially compared to "The Times They Are A'Changing".  He looks like he's 40 years old on the latter album cover, and sounded like he was 70, whereas on Another Side of Bob Dylan, he looks younger, and he sounds younger too.  It's subtle, but Dylan's vocal delivery is slightly more high-pitched and nasally sounding, sounding less like a 70 year old lung-cancer patient, and more like a snarky and occasionally playful 23 year old poet.  There's also some subtle changes going on musically as well, as Dylan incorporates a piano into his repertoire on "Black Crow Blues".

The album kicks off with the hokey and somewhat sappy "All I Really Want to Do".  This is a playful song, as Dylan has to keep himself from laughing at one point, and he even does a mock-yodel a few times during the song's chorus.  The differences between the start of The Times They Are A'Changing and Another Side of Bob Dylan couldn't be more different, and "All I Really Want To Do" sets the tone for the album, assuring that Another Side of Bob Dylan would be a more lighthearted affair.

The next track, the aforementioned "Black Crow Blues" sports a piano and a ragtime vibe to it.  This was a significant departure from Dylan's sound, and probably raised a lot of eyebrows at the time.  This is a good song, a unique song.  It's got a loose, playful feel to it, and it's interesting to hear Dylan experimenting with different styles of music for the first time on record (there would be plenty more of that to come on subsequent albums).

Up next is my personal favorite song on the album "Spanish Harlem Incident".  Bob tells a story of a gypsy fortune-teller he encounters in Harlem, a place he feels understandably out of place.  This song has a certain innocent wonderment to it, as it sounds like Bob is discovering certain aspects of the city for the first time.  I personally can relate, as this song will always remind me of my first few months in San Francisco, during that initial wonderment phase where you are constantly discovering new things about the city everyday.  A fairly simple song, yes, but it has a certain weary warmth to it that makes it special.

The next song is probably the most epic sounding on the album, the classic "Chimes of Freedom".  Personally, it's hard for me to wrap my little head around this song.  It sounds so majestic and sweeping, the lyrics full of vivid symbolic imagery.  Bob tells a story of taking shelter during a thunderstorm, and then proceeds to interweave images of all the downtrodden outcasts of society alongside images of flashing lightning, tolling bells, etc.  It's absolutely beautiful to listen to.  A stirring song.  It's also always kind of represented Dylan's "swan song" to the topical songwriting of his past in my opinion.  A farewell to that style.  His songwriting would evolve out of the stratosphere on his next few albums, but this is one of the last songs where he is still championing the poor, the downtrodden, the have-nots, while at the same time taking the next step in his songwriting by incorporating more symbolic lyrical imagery.

Up next is "I Shall Be Free No. 10" which kind of picks up right where the original "I Shall Be Free" left off on The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.  Only this one is better in my opinion.  It's funnier, more charming, and more playful at the same time.  This song provides the type of light-hearted comic relief that was desperately missing from The Times They Are A'Changing in my opinion.  A song that always brings a smile to my face, sometimes a chuckle, and features a great line "Well I'm just average, common too, I'm just like him and the same as you, I'm everybody's brother and son, I ain't different than anyone...Ain't no use in talking to me, it's just the same as talking to you".  A light-hearted example of Dylan trying to separate himself from his popular image at the time as a "prophet" or "genius".  You have to admire his modesty.

Speaking of modest, "To Ramona" follows, which is one of the more average songs on the album.  Would have to put this one in the "not great, but not bad" category.

Bob then gets back to some quirky comic relief on the following song "Motorcycle Nitemare".  This is a goofy tale, sung somewhat half-hazardly by Dylan, but it is an entertaining and leisurely song to listen to.

The next song on the album may not sound like much at first, but it is rather telling if you are carefully listening to the words.  "My Back Pages" seems to be an indictment of Dylan's own self, of his prior "topical" or "protest" material.  It's incredibly fascinating to listen to, especially considering the metamorphosis the singer would go under the next few years.  You can hear him essentially rejecting his earlier political idealism, his earlier style.  The chorus of the song pretty much sums it up "Oh but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now".  It's interesting how a man who seemed to have such conviction in his material less than a year earlier had now apparently had a change of heart.  But Dylan was looking to grow beyond the traditional folk music style, and had become increasingly frustrated with the current scene at the time, a scene that associated him as it's "spokesperson".  Dylan was in the process of checking-out, of leaving that style behind, forever, a move that would enrage and baffle many in the folk community over the coming years.  Those looking for an explanation should look no further than "My Back Pages" a historically important and telling song from Dylan.

Next up is the playful "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)".  This is a funny relationship song, full of charm, and light on it's feet.  Dylan and the Hawks would transform this song into an incredibly awesome folk-rock version a few years later, making the original sound somewhat underwhelming.  Nonetheless, it's a pretty solid, light-hearted, and amusing song.

"Ballad in Plain D" follows, which is a long, slow song that tends to drag on a bit.  This song is about a fight Bob had with Suze Rotolo that ultimately ended their relationship.  If it weren't for that context, this would probably be one of the weaker songs on the album, but knowing the background of the song makes it an intriguing listen, especially considering Suze inspired so many great love songs out of Bob on The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.

The album finishes up with the classic "It Ain't Me Babe" a cold-as-ice breakup song in the same vein as "Don't Think Twice It's Alright".  While not nearly as good as that song (in my humble opinion) "It Ain't Me Babe" seems to be more well-known and popular for whatever reason.  It's certainly a very good song, and a great way to close out a good (if somewhat uneven) album.

Another Side of Bob Dylan is a fascinating listen.  It's moreso a "pivot" album than a "transitional" album in my opinion.  At the time the album came out, a lot of people in the folk community were upset about the absence of any pointed "topical" songs, but that was exactly the point.

It wasn't completely clear at the time, but Bob was shedding his "protest singer" skin on this album, attempting to broaden his range.  He altered his voice slightly, so he sounded less like a wise old man and more like a youthful kid.  He stayed far away from any topical songs, choosing instead to look inward, in the process writing introspective, relationship-centric songs.

Bob was on the cusp of something great, of taking his songwriting and his music to a completely new level, but he wasn't quite there yet on Another Side of Bob Dylan.  He was about to enter into an explosive creative period that spawned some of his greatest, most incredibly complex songs of his career.  If people thought he had twisted some wigs with his "topical" material, nobody was prepared for what was to come on his next 3 albums, whch were arguably the 3 best albums of his career, and certainly amongst the top albums of the entire decade (or of all-time for that matter). 

8.7

Bringing It All Back Home

Bob Dylan

1965

At the beginning of 1965, pretty much everyone familiar with Bob Dylan thought of him as a folkie protest singer.  Sure his last album Another Side of Bob Dylan had strayed somewhat from his standard topical songwriting, but who was Dylan trying to fool on that album?  The guy was the "spokesman" for the protest movement, a man who wrote stripped-down folk music, songs with a left-leaning message, that painted the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong.  A noble, wise protest singer.  That was Bob Dylan.

Funny thing was, Bob Dylan himself didn't see it that way, and he was out to evolve not only his image, but also his material and musical style as well.  And while Another Side of Bob Dylan was subtle in these changes and merely hinted at a change in direction, Bringing It All Back Home kicked the door wide open, so that by the time the album is over, most people were left gasping in awe of Bob's new direction, both in terms of sound, and his striking lyrical evolution. 

The opening song is the infamous "Subterranean Homesick Blues", and it's clear from the outset that this was not the "wise old man" sounding protest singer here.  Instead we have a quirky, fast-paced song with an electric backing band while Dylan rattles off a collage of quirky rhymes touching on everything from parking meters, weathermen, manholes, gas pumps, etc.  Dylan delivers these lines so fast that you might miss their significance upon first listen, perhaps tapping your foot along to the energetic rhythm of the song, but make no mistake, there are many clever references in the song.  It's impressive to sit back and listen as Dylan throws all these abstract hipster-esq rhymes together that somehow seem to fit into one quirky, cleverly written word puzzle collage.  Some have said this could be considered the first rap song of all-time because of Dylan's flow, and that certainly has some merit.  Whatever the case, this is a historic song, as it is Dylan's first folk-rock song to be heard on record, effectively inventing a new style of music in the process.  .

Quite a way to start the album, but just as soon as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" begins, it is quickly over, as the song clocks in at slightly over two minutes.  It is followed by the absolutely beautiful "She Belongs to Me" one of my personal favorite love songs of all time.  In contrast to the opener, "She Belongs to Me" sports a laid-back, delicate melody.  The lyrics are adoring of the woman in the song, as she has clearly cast her spell over Dylan.  This song sounds like a beautiful warm summer day, with a refreshing breeze blowing through a glorious meadow of flowers and grass.  It sounds like being in love, or at least, that's what this song will forever remind me of.  It's a very sweet song, and there's something about it for me personally that strikes a deep emotional cord.  Again, one of my personal favorite love songs of all time. 

The next song is the classic "Maggie's Farm".  This song has kind of a loud, sloppy, hard-rocking sound to it, and the lyrics are pretty hilarious.  A lot of people have linked the lyrics "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more" as being directed to the folk community and the associated protest movement at large.  It's Dylan's way of rejecting that idealism and that style.  Whatever the case, it's an attention-grabbing song, full of sly sarcastic lyrics with a humorous slant.  Certainly a classic. 

Bob then shifts gears again back to his soft side again with "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" another very beautiful love song.  It could be argued that this song is as good or better than "She Belongs to Me" but it's not in the same league in my book.  Just a personal preference.  Regardless, it's still an incredibly beautiful, delicate sounding song.  Bob's lyrics about his girl are pure poetry, and the melody is an absolute pleasure to listen to.  Another special song.

Then we get back to the hard-rocking material again with "Outlaw Blues" which is probably one of the best straight-forward hard-rocking songs on the album.  You can tell Dylan is really feeling the adrenaline rush of performing with a rousing electric band as they rock away behind him.  It's a cool song.

Up next is the goofy "On the Road Again" which adds to the somewhat quirky vibe of the first half of the album.  It's got a playful, funny vibe to it, as Dylan sings about "frogs inside his socks, Napoleon Bonaparte masks, Santa Claus" etc.  He's tossing around characters left and right and throws them together to make a quirky little song.  Not the best song on the album, but entertaining nonetheless.

Speaking of entertaining, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" is easily the funniest song on the album, as evidenced by Bob and everyone else in the studio losing it within the first 10 seconds of the song, prompting the classic "take 2".  This song is a ton of fun, very entertaining, and the backing band is shit-hot throughout the entire thing. Probably the funniest song Dylan ever wrote.  It's infectious, and ends the first half of the album on a rollicking, good-times note.

The first half of the album is a strange yet enthralling listening experience, as it is very quirky and playful in most parts, but also features two absolutely beautiful love songs to balance out all the hijinks.  Certainly entertaining, and certainly a new version of Bob Dylan nobody had ever heard before.

Then there's the 2nd half of the album, which is starkly different from the 1st half in terms of mood, subject matter, and sound.  Bob Dylan may have put to bed his traditional style of "topical" songwriting, but that didn't mean that he couldn't still write some pointed, complex material.  And not only that, but his style of songwriting was becoming more and more surreal, dreamlike, and in many cases, mind-bendingly brilliant. 

All of those adjectives could be used to describe the 4 bohemoth compositions found on Side 2 of Bringing It All Back Home. 

Side 2 starts off with my personal favorite Dylan song of all time (and that is really saying something) "Mr. Tambourine Man".  I'm not really sure where to start on this one.  Like all my favorite Dylan songs, it strikes an emotional cord with me, only this one has always been extra special.  This one has always been different.  I always think of this song as a song to God or something.  I equate Mr. Tambourine Man as a metaphor for God, or at least the concept of God.  It's one of those songs that I would want to hear on my deathbed.  It seems to have an all-encompassing, sweeping energy to it, a peaceful yet sad energy.  The song sounds majestic to me.  The melody is soft and beautiful, but Dylan's vivid lyrics always seem to take me somewhere.  Listening to this song is almost always an emotionally draining experience to me.  I can't listen to it casually, I just can't.  This song gives me a sense of inner-peace that few other songs can.  Again, it's difficult to explain, it just has that effect on me.  I find myself weary most of the time.  Life can be exhausting, and there's a lot of hard work that you have to put into it if you want to get the most out of it.  There's a lot of difficult things I've had to go through, in my childhood, growing up in the wrong place, staking out on my own many a times.  There's been a lot of lonely, sad times in my life, just like anybody's life really, but this song seems to capture all that pain, all the struggle and the strife, all the ups and downs.  It seems to capture it magically, and make everything seem peaceful.  It helps put my often restless mind at ease.  It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it makes me cry, all that.  It's just such a beautiful song.  It sounds like a song you'd listen to at the end of a very long journey, and I equate that with the journey of life.  I don't necessarily believe in the traditional, religious concepts associated with God, but when I listen to this song, I do.  It's a comforting feeling, a warm feeling.  This song sounds like Mr. Tambourine Man is offering an escape, an out from the pressures of the world.  A exit to a better place, a magical place.  Heaven perhaps, or the concept of heaven...that's why most people believe in religion anyway, because they don't want to die.  It's certainly an appealing idea, but it doesn't seem based in reality, or at least the reality my limited senses as a biological primate on this particular planet has awareness of.  Perhaps that's what makes this song so emotional for me, as it sounds like he's seeking relief from Mr. Tambourine Man, to take him to heaven, and that is certainly an appealing concept, but it's also a sad concept because it probably doesn't exist...but it might.  I love every word of this song, but the last verse is always the one that gets me.  Probably my favorite verse in all of music:

"Take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you"

It's like being set free.  It's beautiful.  Not only my favorite Dylan song, but probably my favorite song by any artist of all-time.

It's hard to follow-up my favorite song of all-time, but Dylan does it quite well with the following track "Gates of Eden".  This is a wicked song.  Bob himself described this song as a "sacrilegious lullaby in D minor".  Bob is not speaking in direct, black and white terms on this song.  He's speaking pure poetry, surreal, existential poetry full of wickedly cryptic imagery.  There are multiple meanings to be taken from this song, but to me, he seems to be condemning blind belief in an afterlife, or the idea of an afterlife, which "Eden" seems to represent in this song. Each verse tells a tale of various characters and what he seems to characterize as their meaningless trivial pursuits, as each verse ends with "Gates of Eden".  "It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden", "all accept beneath the trees of Eden" etc.  He seems to be suggesting that life is meaningless if you are living soley for the afterlife.  That if you are living strictly for the afterlife, you have wasted the only true reality that we know, which is existence in this world.  There are many interpretations that could be made from this song, it's incredibly dense and cryptic.  Dylan delivers each verse in a most mysterious, evil way.  It's wicked, and a bit of a mind-F.  One of his most compelling songs.

Speaking of mind-F, the next song "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" is simply jaw-dropping.  Bob spits his poetry like a machine-gun spraying a labyrinth of thoughts and ideas as his bullets, systematically shredding apart the hollowness of society, it's traditions, institutions, commercialism, American culture, and all the hypocrisy that goes along with it.  It's absolutely incredible to listen to.  "Darkess at the break of moon, shadows even the silver spoon, the handmade blade, the child's balloon, eclipses both the sun and moon, to know too soon there is no sense in trying".  It gets better: "disallusioned words like bullets bark, as human gods aim for their mark, make everything from toy guns that spark, to flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark, it's easy to see without looking to far that not much is really sacred".  And that's not even the half of it.  The lyrics are incredible.  It's Dylan's natural philosophical evolution from his political idealism from a few years earlier.  It's like he's realized there is no right or wrong per-say, but rather the entire system is completely bullshit.  That human nature is completely full of shit.  It's a grim vision, a realization that most people who have given the absurdity of life thoughtful and thorough analysis usually realize at some point in their life.  Like a lot of people, he realized it, but nobody had ever articulated it so well.  It's not the end of the road philosophically, but it's an import realization.  You move on from it, can't live your life disillusioned constantly, and Dylan eventually moved on from it.  But man, it is still incredibly awesome to listen to, in the moment.  Certainly one of Dylan's great lyrical magnum opuses.  

If your brain hadn't exploded yet from the barrage of epic compositions that makeup Side 2, the album comes to a close with the classic "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".  This song is less intellectually amazing, but incredibly powerful on an emotional level.  This is one of Dylan's most powerful breakup songs, but it's not neccessarily specific to breaking up from a relationship.  Many people see this song as a "breakup" from the folk scene, as Dylan's swan song from that movement.  For me personally, this song really spoke to me back when my relationship was on the rocks.  "Strike another match go start a new, and it's all over now, baby blue".  When I heard those lyrics, along with all the other gut-wrenching lyrics in this song, it was like Dylan was speaking directly to me.  This was one of those songs that played a major influence in me moving to Chicago, breaking up with my girlfriend, joining Second City, re-evaluating everything.  It has that intensity to it, and it's difficult for me to listen to all these years later.  It's such a sad song, it's heavy, but it is certainly fantastic.

And on that gut-wrenching note, Bringing It All Back Home comes to an end.  The first time I heard this album, I had an experience similar to listening to The Freewheeling Bob Dylan for the first time.  It spoke to me, particularly the love songs on Side 1 and the sprawling incredible compositions on Side 2.  I can see how many people think this is Dylan's best album, because it has the best of both worlds so to speak.  It's got the raucous electric folk-rock, tender love songs, and probably his most intense and complex lyrical compositions ever put together back-to-back on Side 2.

Dylan had evolved far, far beyond the simplicity of his earlier folk rock material.  Lyrically he was on an entirely new level, a level not heard before by any popular artist.  He was in uncharted territory, and coupled with his new electric backing band, the possiblities were endless.

Bob had just scratched the surface of those possibilities, and he would further explore them on his next album, an album that would further expand on the sound and ideas found to Bringing It All Back Home to their next logical progression.

9.8

Highway 61 Revisited

Bob Dylan

1965

After the juggernaut of an album that Bringing It All Back Home was, it was pretty evident to most people we were dealing with a different Bob Dylan here.  Both his music and his style had evolved considerably in only the span of a couple of years.  He wasn't writing stripped-down, topical folk songs anymore.  He had "gone electric" inventing a new genre of folk-rock in the process.  And when he was playing his acoustic guitar, his voice had changed from the "wise old man" sound of his earlier days to a more youthful, higher-pitched, nasally tone.  And his material had ascended to a new level of surreal artistic poetry not ever heard before from a popular recording artist.

So what would he do for a follow-up to the incredibly complex and groundbreaking Bringing It All Back Home?  As it turns out, he would continue to push through the boundaries he broke on that album, further exploring his newly created folk-rock sound, featuring his electric band on all but one track on the album.  And he would delve deeper into his new-found creative lyricism, using complex imagery and symbolism to paint surreal pictures to accompany the punch of his hard rocking band.

One thing that sticks out to me about Highway 61 compared to his prior album is the improvement of the rock sound of Dylan's backing band.  On Bringing It All Back Home, the electric sound worked, but it also felt kind of raw, like an experiment (partly because it was a bit of an experiment).  It was a little rough around the edges on some songs, whereas on Highway 61, the backing band sounds a lot smoother and more melodic on the majority of the songs.  The result is one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.

Case in point is the classic opener.  The song that everyone knows, the song that opened up a new audience to Dylan, and the song that Rolling Stone listed #1 in their "Greatest Songs of All-Time" countdown.  That song would be "Like A Rolling Stone", and while it may not be my personal favorite Dylan song, it is certainly very high on the list.  This song sounds like freedom to me.  The sweet joy of freedom.  And I'm not talking about plastic freedom, like someone waiving a flag, or the pledge of allegiance, I'm talking about personal freedom.  Individual freedom.  The freedom you feel when you're driving down the highway with the wind blowing in your hair.  The feeling of, well, to quote Bob "to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home".  That kind of freedom.  The song has such an uplifting sound to it, mainly because of the organ, but it's just got such a raw feeling of jubilation.  But Bob's lyrics are also somewhat vindictive, a bit sarcastic in this song.  The lyrics are actually about someone who used to have it all, used to be popular, someone that was probably a bit spoiled at one time.  And now this person "don't talk so loud...don't seem so proud, about having to be scrounging for your next meal...how does it feel?"  So it does feel a bit vindictive, but the actual music sounds very uplifting, like he's enjoying seeing this person being put in their place.  For me, it just brings back some intense memories of my move out to San Francisco, by myself, many years ago.  I took this song as a challenge, to see how it "would feel" to be on my own, like a complete unknown, with no direction home.  The alternative, the status quo, was not acceptable, so it was do or waste away somewhere I was never meant to be in the first place.  Life is what happens (to quote Lennon) so let's see what happens.  Go make yourself.  In the end, this song resonates with a sense of victory for me, that I was able to make it work, and that my life has turned out for the better for it.  I think a lot of other people can relate to this song too, and I'm sure it's inspired others to seek out their own destiny somewhere new, wherever that may be.  So cheers to this song, in all it's glory.  Fantastic.

So how to do you follow-up a song like that?  Bob and his shit-hot band did so by uping the tempo with the incredibly awesome "Tombstone Blues".  It's rare for me to want to turn up the volume on a Bob Dylan song, to blast it loudly.  It's also rare for me to want to speed on the highway to a Bob Dylan song, or even, you know, dance to a Bob Dylan song.  But this song makes me want to do all of those things, because it is that badass.  Guitars are wailing, drums are banging, organs are singing, folks are jamming.  This song has it going on (you know, in a 1965 folk-rock way).  Not only that, the lyrics also want to make my head explode, which is an incredibly awesome combination.  Bob Dylan is simply bringing it on this song.  He is channeling some wickedly awesome surrealist poetry here.  He sounds primed, and with his band wailing away behind him, the man sounds unstopable.  It's like he's evolved to a new-level, that's he's completely re-invented himself, and it's awesome, and he knows it.  The guy is just bouncing off awesome lines left and right, it's just flowing out of him, and it's challenging powerful stuff.  You can't comprehend it all at once, it takes multiple listens.  You'll find yourself laughing one moment, then confused the next, just trying to keep up with him.  The man was clearly on a new level, and it's exciting to listen to.  And the music, the backing band, is bringing it.  One of my favorite, dare I say, "jams" Dylan ever participated in.  Awesome.

Up next, the Dylan and the band take things down a notch with "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry".  This song is like butter on a roll.  It is smooth, laid-back, has a nice easy-going rhythm, and the music is downright soothing to listen to.  And Dylan actually sounds laid-back on this track, down in the groove, chilled-out, which is kind of refreshing to hear after the intensity of the two opening tracks.  This song is just an absolute pleasure to listen to, and always brings a smile to my face.  It's a sitting in your rocking chair on your front porch with a cold beer after a long hot summer's day type of song.  Just a great song, the guy was mastering multiple music styles, as this song shows.

"From a Buick 6" follows, which is probably one of the weakest tracks on the album.  Mind you, when we're talking about Highway 61 Revisited, that's not really saying anything.  This is a hard rocking, somewhat sloppy sounding song in the same vein as "Outlaw Blues" from Bringing It All Back Home.  It's loud and somewhat abrasive sounding at times, but it is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

Then we have the borderline psychadelic sounding "Ballad of a Thin Man".  This most striking thing about this song is it's bluesy, eerie sound, largely due to Bob's piano and the accompanying organ.  And the lyrics?  They are downright wicked and trippy, telling the story of an uptight conservative journalist who's world is turned upside down after he enters into several strange and frightening scenarios which he cannot understand.  In a nutshell, it sounds like somebody slipped Mr. Jones some of the "brown acid" in this song.  It's simply fantastic to listen to, as Bob had just about had it with the press at this time.  He was dealing with people that were "well read" and book-smart, but yet couldn't possibly comprehend the other realms of consciousness that Bob was experiencing around this time.  It's like his fantasy of taking some know-it-all in a suit and tie, and seeing just how much they really know when they're forced into an alternate reality, or forced to use parts of their brain that would otherwise remain forever dormant and useless.  In that sense the song is somewhat sinister, but it's also brilliant.  It's forcing someone to expand their mind, someone who is so self-assured, so "smart" so "successful" and watching as they're unable to cope with a new "reality".  "And you know something is happening here, but you don't know what it is....do you, Mr. Jones?"  Fantastic.

Up next is the biting "Queen Jane Approximately".  This song is somewhat harsh, both in subject matter and in sound.  This song deals with a subject "Queen Jane" who is characterized as having it all, or being somewhat spoiled.  She's probably beautiful, gets everything handed to her, and in this song, Bob is warning her of her inpending fall from grace.  She think's she's "miss thang", and rather naively so.  Bob is saying once it all comes crashing down, once you realize that you're not all that, "won't you, come see me, Queen Jane", as if she'll ultimately be crawling back to him.  This song is somewhat egotistical and bitter on Dylan's part, but considering the waves the dude was making at the time, certainly understandable.  Bob is flat out taunting her here.  Sounds like she's treated him badly, and Bob is relishing the moment when she'll come crawling back.  A vindictive song.

Then we come to the festive sounding title track.  I say festive because there is a goofy siren/whistle that is prevelent throughout the majority of the song, giving it a bit of a whacky, playful sound.  The star of the show on this song though is, as usual, Dylan's lyrics, as he slings around a headspinning array of goofy stories staring God, Abraham, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, and other seemingly random characters.  Each character is ultimately connected to or referred to Highway 61 in the song.  The actual U.S. Highway 61 connects Bob's home state of Minnesota down through the Mississippi delta region in the deep South, a highway that Bob had always felt a connection to.  To him it's like a major artery to America's heart and soul, as as a result connects all types of people to it, from all walks of life, from all across the American heartland.  It's an interesting song, a fun sounding song, with many interpretations to take from it.  Certainly a classic.

Up next we have what is my personal favorite song on the entire album "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues".  This is a slow-dancing song.  This song has a certain beautiful weariness to it, something romantic about it.  The lyrics are about Bob being lost in Juarez, getting into shenanigans with cryptic characters, and ultimately going back to New York City after he'd "had enough".  But what really makes this song magic to me is the music, the rhythm of the band.  It has that classic, kind of doo-wop sound to it.  It sounds soulful, swooning.  The guitar and piano interplay off each other beautifully, and Dylan's harmonica adds an extra layer of soul to the mix.  In terms of the actual music being played, it's probably my favorite Bob Dylan song in that regard.  The background music actually overshadows Dylan's lyrics for once.  I actually like Dylan's singing on this song more than the lyrics.  He sounds tired, weary, but again, soulful.  When I hear that opening piano and guitar to open the song, I start swooning.  Then the drums come in, and it's slow-dancing time.  Then Bob starts singing, and I find myself in a state of bliss.  It's one of those songs that's kind of difficult to explain why I happen to love it so much, but, it is what it is.  My favorite song on the album.  (barely - with apologies to "Like A Rolling Stone").

Highway 61 Revisited closes out with the 11 minute epic "Desolation Row".  This song actually kind of harkins back to Dylan's original folkie persona, as he tells a long story with his acoustic guitar.  He goes for kind of a spaghetti-western sound on his acoustic, which gives Desolation Row it's distinctive vibe.  Dylan actually sounds kind of warm on this song, kind of inviting, which is surprising compared to the somewhat taunting tone found on the rest of the album.  He sounds tired and laid-back.  The song itself is a lot to digest, as he intertwines a cast of characters from throughout the ages, some biblical, some fictional, with the Titanic, circuses, beauty parlors, etc.  It's dense, but the melody itself is easy on the ears, and Dylan's pace is restrained, allowing the listener to soak it all in...if they can.  I particularly enjoy how he portrays the average American in the song, be it the "fortune teller" the "good Samaritan", the "nurse" etc.  The story of Ophelia always sticks out to me:

"Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row"

To me, that sounds like a lot of 22 year old girls that live in rural areas, just kind of stuck there, waiting to die basically.  Again, Bob is pointing out the sadness of investing everything in the idea of an afterlife.  That's just one of the many verses in this song.  Like any Dylan song, there are numerous interpretations to be made, but because "Desolation Row" is so long, you could probably write a book about it.  It's certainly a grand a sweeping song, and further evidence that Dylan was operating on a level nobody could touch at the time.

And so after the long-winded epic that is "Desolation Row", Highway 61 Revisited comes to an end.  It's hard for me to personally say whether this album is better than Bringing It All Back Home.  I would say the band is better, the instrumentation is better, the melodies are better.  The music sounds better.  Although it doesn't have the 4 back-to-back behemoth compositions that make Bringing It All Back Home such an intense listening experience, Highway 61 does seem overall slightly more well-rounded, and again more fully realized musically.  Everything was really clicking on all cylinders for Bob Dylan on this album, and many critics and fans consider this album to be his artistic peak, his zenith.

But Bob wasn't quite done yet, and on his next album, he would expand his sound and lyricism to it's absolute limit with a sprawling surreal masterpiece that would wrap up the most creatively amazing period of his career.

9.8

Blonde On Blonde

Bob Dylan

1966

After Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, everything had changed for Bob Dylan.  He had essentially recreated himself, much to the shagrin of the folk community he originated from.  The man had evolved, in every sense of the word, and it had all happened very quickly.  The level of incredibly complex and groundbreaking music was pouring out of him at a fever-pitch.  He and his band were making music the likes of which had never been heard before, infusing folk music with rock-and-roll and the blues, coupled with Bob's surreal complex poetry to create a mind-bendingly amazing concoction.

It's enough to make your headspin.  And so on the heals of two of the greatest rock albums of all-time, Bob Dylan headed down to Nashville with his band The Hawks (who would later become The Band) to record a sprawling double-album, an album that would build off the themes of Highway 61 and push Dylan to the limits of his creative abilities.

But Blonde on Blonde isn't necessarily all about making your head-explode, as evidenced by the opening track "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35".  Bob was living an exhausting lifestyle at the time that involved a lot touring, press interviews, partying, and likely other indulgences that go along with that.  "Rainy Day Women" reflects the druggy, decadent atmosphere that surrounded Dylan at the time.  The song has a weary, mardi gras sound to it, full of brass instruments and what sounds like a drunken marching band parading through the streets at 2:00 in the morning.  And Dylan's voice has changed somewhat too, taking on a wearier, druggier, huskier sounding tone.  When Bob sings "everybody must get stoned" your first thought is probably pot, but he could also be talking about getting stoned the Old Testament way.  The guy was in hot water with the folk community for going electric and changing his style (not that he cared), the press was still trying to call him the "spokesman" for the protest movement, and most middle-America conservatives hated the guy.  This was also a very claustrophobic time for Dylan, the pressures of fame were really tightening their grip on him.  It was constant "go, go, go".  Make amazing music, get booed at concerts, have frustrating press interviews, get mobbed everywhere you go.  So this song he's talking about getting stoned pretty much wherever you go, so I think there are some connections to be made with being under attack from all directions.  Then again, the guy was probably literally stoned most of the the time himself, so, it could be more cut and dry than I make it out to be.

Whatever the case, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" is a festive way to start out the album.  Up next is the incredibly bluesy "Pledging My Time".  This song sounds like straight-up old-school blues.  It's sultry, and cool as F.  The way Bob uses his harmonica on this song sounds like an electric blues guitar solo, which is incredibly awesome.  It's got a raw, carnal sound to it.  Being a fan of the blues, I really dig this song and the way Bob channels the rawness of a blues guitar solo with his harmonica.  Very cool.

Then we have what I would consider to be the best song on the album, and one of my personal favorite Bob Dylan songs of all-time "Visions of Johanna".  A lot of critics consider this song to be Dylan's epic composition, and although there's a lot of competition for that title, I would have to agree.  First, the music itself.  It sounds eerie, yet warm, somewhat bluesy, comforting, and distant all at the same time.  The organ is what really gives this song it's certain spiritual, ghostly quality.  The first line sets the tone for the song "Ain't it just like the night, to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet?".  Then the eerie sounding organ comes in, ever so faintly.  It's ominous, and it gets your attention.  "We sit here stranded, but we're all doing our best to deny it".  Dylan sounds resigned to this.  He sounds weary.  He sounds trapped.  There are several layers of this song, it's incredibly dense, complex.  That said, one of the main themes I personally takeaway from this song is a feeling of resignation towards a city.  The feeling of being jaded by it, being burnt-out by it, and being exhausted by it's decadance.  At the time I heard this song, I was pretty much through with San Francisco.  It had worn me down.  Bob makes a lot of references that conjure up images of a vast cityscape in this song.  "In this room the heat pipes just cough".  My apartment at the time had heat pipes that "coughed" and they kept me up some nights.  Some nights not, I just got used to it.  "The all night girls, they whisper of escapades out on the D train".  SF doesn't have a D train, but it has the N Judah, the 38 Geary, the 24 Diviz, BART.  It reminded me of long, disorienting nights throughout the city, hopping on trains, buses, cabs.  It used to be so new, exciting, and fun to me, but at the time, I was over it.  It bored me.  It seemed like an endless game, played every night, with different people.  A city is like a revolving door, people come and go, they come to play, especially in San Francisco.  "Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously.  He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously...He's sure got a lot of gall, to be so useless and all, muttering small talk at the wall, while I'm in the hall".  This line reminded me of myself when I had first moved to the city, but moreso it reminded me of the type of people I used to hang out with that I was increasingly unable to relate to anymore.  Hipsters, drug addicts, philisophical types.  Pretentious people, wrapped up in their own self-importance.  Folks that didn't seem to have any responsibilities, any goals, any ambition, and that were proud of it, apparently oblivious to the fact that it would all catch up to them someday.  I had to work everyday, bust my ass just to pay the bills, and I was tired of being surrounded by what I perceived to be spoiled rich-kid hipsters, obsessed with being cool, style, etc.  I couldn't relate to it anymore.  Maybe I was bitter, or maybe I was just over that whole scene.  So these lines, in particular stuck out to me.  But the main character of this song is Johanna.  Johanna seems to be this unseen, ghostly presence, or an idea, a concept.  I personally perceive Johanna as God, or the idea of God, or perhaps the idea of perfection.  Johanna seems to be this supreme being, that renders everything else meaningless in her wake.  But she is absent, she can't be seen, you can't grasp her.  At the end of every verse, the Visions of Johanna "conquer my mind" "have taken my place" "kept me up past the dawn" "make it all seem so cruel" "are now all that remain".  I think Bob is searching for some truth in Johanna, some meaning to make the absurdity of life meaningful.  He's haunted by this concept, and to a degree, so am I.  "Name me someone who's not a parasite, and I'll go out and say a prayer for him."  I think this song is a rejection of self-importance, of want.  He's taking a step outside of the box that everyone lives in, he's trying to make sense of it all.  Johanna appears to watch over the scenes taking place in each verse, like a ghost.  "Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.  Voices echo off the walls this is what salvation must be like after a while".  Bob finishes this verse with "these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel".  In the grand scheme of things, it's all irrelevant.  It doesn't matter.  Nothing matters.  But surely there's more to everything than that?  That's the paradox of this song, that's the vibe I get.  This song transcends a lot things to me.  Space, time, reality, it's magic, yet it's very subtle.  It's existential pain and bliss at the same time.  It's Dylan's artistic peak as a songwriter.

Oh, what?  That's only the 3rd song on the album, and I've already had a transcendent spiritual experience from one of his songs?  Great, what's next?  That would be the soaringly beautiful "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)".  This is kind of a bittersweet breakup song, but thanks to the beautiful piano and organ and overall melody, it makes this song sound uplifting and liberating.  Although it's a breakup song, it has such an uplifting sound that it makes it all seem OK and hopeful.  The song conveys the sad yet exciting feeling of the possibilities that await you after a breakup.  It's kind of like a sincere, fond farewell followed-up by riding off into the sunset to move onto the next exciting chapter.  A feeling I've been able to relate to a time or two.

Then we have the very light-on-it's feet "I Want You".  This is a merry sounding, happy little song.  It was one of the singles released for the album, and it sounds borderline poppy for a Dylan song.  But as usual, the lyrics are dense, chalk full of a parade of colorful characters (the guilty undertaker, the drunken politician, the queen of spades, the dancing child with his Chinese suit).  It's all over the map, as Dylan crams in as many surreal images alongside these charactors as he can in the song's brief 3 minute span.  This song sounds happy and free, with a really beautiful melody.  Another one of my favorites.

Up next we have the sprawling, awesomely complex "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again".  The most impressive thing about this song is, surprise surprise, Dylan's lyrics.  The man was simply in the zone here, with his surreal lyrics painting bizarre vivid images over the course of an epic 7 minute mind-F of a song.  The song has kind of a disorienting, claustrophobic feel to it, with a recurring theme throughout the song of being "stuck", or the fact that he "can't escape", or having to "pay to get out of going through all these things twice".  The lyrics themselves are entertaining enough, but the music is quite awesome as well.  It's got a somewhat uplifting sound to it, thanks largely to the organ and the steady beat that propels the song forward.  The organ that accompanies the chorus sounds downright intense, borderline psychadelic.  It's just an incredibly cool song.  The lyrics are bizarre, the music is kind of all over the map but ultimately the song has a great melody and a steady, light on it's feet tempo that keeps the song flowing.  It's a very good microsm of Blonde On Blonde's sound as a whole, which could best be described as mind-bendingly awesome.  

"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" follows, and is probably the most blues-inflected song on the entire album.  It's got that classic, raunchy blues rhythm.  It's fantastic, and it's got kind of a sultry feel to it.  Dylan's mojo was at the top of his game at this time, and you can feel it on this song.  The guy was the coolest cat on the planet, and this song's quirky coolness grooves along with a confident swagger in the rhythm.  A great song, and and staple at most Dylan concerts.

Up next we have another one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs, the classic "Just Like A Woman".  This song has a deceptively tender sounding melody to it, giving it a very sweet and beautiful feel.  Simply put, it's one of the most beautiful sounding songs Dylan ever wrote - musically.  His harmonica has a swooning, romantic sound to it, and after each time he says "but she breaks, just like a little girl" you hear the beautiful enchanting guitar which really accentuates the tenderness of the song.  Then the organ comes in which sounds so pure, almost holy feeling.  But underneath all these beautiful melodies and tenderness lies some pretty gut-wrenching lyrics on the part of Bob.  This is another one of Dylan's classic breakup songs.  It's incredibly impressive how the guy could write such beautiful love songs and gut-wrenching breakup songs at the same time.  That's part of being in love I guess.  It can be beautiful, full of happiness, or it can be painful and sad on the flipside.  Anyway, Dylan sings this song with contempt for the girl half the time, the other time seemingly praising her.  It's an interesting dichotomy.  This one has special meaning to me, and is an emotional listen.  The song conjures up a ton of mixed feelings, which is fitting, because Dylan seems to cancel out every sweet line in the song with something either condescending or callous.  It's a complicated emotional song, but most of all, it's incredibly beautiful to listen to.  Again, one of the most beautiful melodies in any Dylan song, and another highlight on an incredible album.

After that tender yet bittersweet song, Dylan sticks with the breakup theme on the raucous, festive sounding "Most Likely You Got Your Way (And I'll Go Mind)".  First, the music on this song is awesome.  It's uptempo and has an infectious head-bobbin, foot-tapping rhythm.  Dylan wails away on his harmonica like he's celebrating a victory, which is fitting, as this is a breakup song.  But this song isn't particularly sentimental about it.  He sounds downright confident that the breakup is the right thing to do.  He sounds fed up, and confident in himself, as evidenced by the ice-cold chorus: "I'm just gonna let you pass, and I'll go last.  And time will tell, just who fell, and who's been left behind, When you go your way and I go mine".  Ballsy.

Up next we have the very slow and lazy sounding "Temporary Like Achilles".  After all the awesomeness that precedes it, this song sounds fairly underwhelming upon first listen.  It's a laid-back song, with kind of a slow-waltzy thing going on.  Although this isn't one of the best songs on the album, it's honestly a nice break from the action in my opinion.  Just a chill little song, with a pleasant melody.  A nice "stroll through the park" type of song.

Then Bob ups the tempo somewhat with the next track "Absolutely Sweet Marie".  This song is driven by a steady drum beat and a joyous sounding organ.  It's a pleasant sounding song, like a simpler, less catchy, and less complex version of "I Want You".  A quality song that doesn't stand out amongst all the greatness found on the album, but overall a pretty good song.

"4th Time Around" follows, another song that may sound somewhat underwhelming upon initial listen.  This is a really mellow, soft sounding song.  It's a sweet sounding song.  It's another pleasant song to listen to, easy on the ears.  Not challenging sonically, and not particularly challenging lyrically, but it is an interesting song to listen to nonetheless.  A peculiar little love song. 

After 3 somewhat low-key songs, the band kicks it up a notch with the fun and raucous "Obviously 5 Believers".  This is a good head-bobbing song, it's got a good beat and a good rhythm.  It's fun to listen to, it's hooky and catchy, and would undoubtedly be a fun one to hear live.  Great guitar, great drumming, this is probably one of the best blues-based rock songs on the album.  A very cool song that seems to get lost in the shuffle of all the greatness, but it's no slouch by any means.

To close out an epic album like Blonde On Blonde, you would certainly have to end it with an epic song, and Dylan more than delivers on that front with the majestic and sweeping "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands".  This is a holy sounding song, a religious sounding song.  It's got a certain magic to it.  This is Dylan's ode to his then wife Sara Lolands, and it's absolutely beautiful to listen to.  Clocking in at over 11 minutes, it is quite a listening experience.  Dylan's poetry is stunning and moving, and the music compliments the lyrics perfectly.  Aside from the fact that it's just a gorgeous sounding song, a heavenly sounding song, with majestic poetry, it carries extra weight and significance in my eyes due to the fact it was the last song of it's kind Dylan would ever record.  This is the last song on Blonde On Blonde, and as Dylan fans know, after Blonde On Blonde, nothing would ever be the same again for Bob. 

After this album, he and The Hawks would blaze a trail through Europe on what I would consider to be the most awesome tour of all time, stirring up more controversy along the way with Dylan's electric sound.  Dylan would push himself beyond the point of exhaustion, and shortly after returning home from that tour, would suffer a motorcycle accident that changed everything.  It changed his outlook on life significantly, gave him pause, and he would emerge a changed man stylistically and musically.  Although the man certainly still had many great songs left in the tank, he never got back to the utter brilliance found on Blonde On Blonde, Highway 61, or Bringing It All Back Home, probably the 3 greatest albums any artist has ever strung together back-to-back of all-time.  And similarly to turning his back on the folk community a few years earlier, he would turn his back on the brilliance of those albums.

So knowing all of this, when listening to Blonde On Blonde, you are listening to the end of an era.  The end of brilliance, and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is certainly a fitting swan song to that era of excellence from Bob Dylan.  It makes it almost sad to listen to.  I have always been incredibly fascinated by Dylan's peaks and transitional periods, and while it's really like splitting hairs trying to determine if Highway 61 or Blonde On Blonde was Dylan's artistic peak, I would have to give a slight edge to the latter.  His mind and his sound was continuing to expand on Blonde On Blonde.  It captures a moment in time where Dylan was the coolest person on the planet.  When he could do no wrong.  He was awesome, incredible to listen to, and then, as Dylan does, he changed his style again on his subsequent albums.

Dylan would make good albums in the future, but he never again made anything like this.  Nothing close to this level.  So Blonde On Blonde, along with Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home, stand as artifacts of his greatness.  And of course, going back further, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan as well.  Taken as a whole, this body of work is a testament to what is possible not just in music, but in life, and this album, along with the above aforementioned albums, have all made huge impacts in my life, just as they have in millions of other people's lives as well.

In summary, Blonde On Blonde ends one of the greatest eras by any artist in the history of rock music.  It's Dylan's artistic peak, and that, as evidenced by the albums that proceeded it, is really saying something. 

9.9

John Wesley Harding

Bob Dylan

1967

Before delving into John Wesley Harding, I think a recap is in order.  A kid from rural Minnesota moves cross-country by himself to New York City.  Within a year or two, he's been signed to Columbia Records as an up and coming folk singer.  He cuts a decent debut album consisting almost entirely of cover songs.  Nothing particularly impressive.  Shortly thereafter, he proceeds to release what is probably the greatest folk record of all-time, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, which propels him to immediate notoriety and fame with such classics as "Blowin In The Wind", "Masters of War", "Hard Rain", and "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" (just to name a few).  It was an album that changed everything in the world of music, having a profound effect on the millions of people who heard it at the time, and even people that hear it for the first time today.  He then releases the highly pointed "The Times They Are A'Changing", an album that took his topical songwriting a step further with it's borderline preachy material.  He had cemented himself as a throwback topical folksinger, a spokesman for the protest movement that was gaining steam and popularity at the time.  He then releases Another Side of Bob Dylan, an album that saw him moving away from his topical songwriting style.  A more light-hearted, introspective affair.  A transitional album.  Then things start to get really interesting with his next album Bringing It All Back Home, where he sports an electric backing band, and the evolution of his lyrics into the statosphere of surreal, poetic complexity.  Everything progresses further and really comes together on his equally amazing next album Highway 61 Revisited, almost an entirely electric affair, only with more musical variety, and a continuation of Bob's stunning lyrical evolution.  He had completely reinvented himself from folkie protest singer to a mind-bending rock and roll poet in the span of only a year.  He then releases Blonde On Blonde, a sprawling double-album that built off the sound and lyricism of his prior records, a mindblowingly awesome, raucous and decadent sounding album that cemented Dylan as not only the coolest cat on the planet, but the most revolutionary recording artist of all-time.

He then takes off on an epic tour of Europe with his electric band The Hawks, where he encounters hostile audiences upset about his new sound, constant bombardment from the press and fans, and an exhausting tour schedule.  When he gets back stateside, he suffers a life-changing motorcycle accident that caused him to withdraw from the spotlight, reflect, and re-evaluate everything.  It would be over a year later before Bob would surface from seclusion to record his follow-up album to Blonde On Blonde.

And so we arrive at that album, John Wesley Harding, a quiet, cryptic, stripped-down, largely acoustic, repentant sounding record compared the raucous and mind-bending albums that proceeded it.  It's borderline shocking to listen to after hearing those past albums, as it is a significant departure in terms of sound and complexity.  That being said, there are still some interesting lyrics and some very good songs to be found on John Wesley Harding, but their greatness is not as immediately apparent, largely due to their subdued sound.

John Wesley Harding is a really fascinating listen, perhaps one of the most fascinating albums Dylan ever made, not because it is one of his greatest albums (it's certainly not bad) but mainly because it's a historic transitional album from him.  And normally with Dylan, that's a good thing, but considering the mediocrity that was to come from him in the near future at the time, this album sounds like the ominous death of a genius.  He's once again shedding his skin here, much like he did on Another Side of Bob Dylan.  But as his next few albums would indicate, he's not so much evolving as he is de-volving.  He's turning his back on his brilliance, withdrawing from everything.  He had his reasons, but it's really fascinating to try to comprehend how he could give up on his art, as he would self-sabotage his career in the coming years (Self Portrait, etc) in an effort to shed his audience and further withdraw from the spotlight.

But as mentioned, John Wesley Harding is a good album, and certainly one that warrants careful analysis.  The album starts off with the title track, which sets the tone for what's to come with his subdued, stripped-down sound.  It's quiet, and easy-listening.  Just acoustic guitar, low-key bass, harmonica, and some very light drumming (which is the basis of pretty much every song on the album).  Bob sings a tale about an old west figure who "was a friend to the poor" and who was "never known to hurt an honest man".  OK.  Nothing special here.  A pleasant sounding song nonetheless.

Up next is one of the more interesting songs on the album "As I Went Out One Morning".  Again, this is a quiet sounding song, but this one has a cryptic feel to it.  The lyrics are rather ominous, somewhat mysterious.  What really strikes you about this song (and the rest of the album for that matter) is just how sparse the music is.  It's quiet.  Dylan's tone has also changed.  Not really sound of his voice, but everything is much more subdued here.  He's not beaming with intellectually challenging confidence here, he sounds much more restrained, and so does the music.  It all sounds so strange, so ominous.  "As I Went Out One Morning" is a good song, nothing mind-blowing, but oddly engaging in a very cryptic way.

"I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine" is my personal favorite song on John Wesley Harding.  Moreso than any other song on the album, this one seems to sound the most repentant, the most emotional, the most personal.  Bob sounds like a man who's sinned, who's been humbled, and who is seeking forgiveness.  On his prior albums, he sounded taunting, confident, occasionally nihilistic, decadent, etc.  He sounded all-knowing, and he flaunted it.  He had gone into territory lyrically that nobody had ever gone to before, he had blown so many people's minds, and probably his own mind, but here he sounds humbled.  He sounds sorry, like he achieved some kind of divine knowledge of the past few years and he had spewed it out to a world that simply couldn't handle it.  He probably did feel like some sort of Oracle when he was recording Blonde On Blonde, having people fawn over him, it had to have gone to his head to some degree.  But here, he's seeking repentance, forgiveness.  He doesn't see himself the same way anymore, he's not riding the amphetamine-fueled high he was on a year earlier.  He almost died in a motorcycle accident.  He was living life at such an incredibly fast pace, and realized it could all go black in an instant, that he had a wife and children to provide for.  He had time to reflect on things, had taken a step back, and was humbled.  The song itself is about a dream of St Augustine, a martyr.  Dylan may have seen himself as a martyr, like he was killing his old-self.  This is one of the more complex songs on the album, and it ends with an emotional line that really captures the repentant feeling of the song "Oh I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified.  I put my fingers against the glass, and bowed my head and cried."

Up next is the classic "All Along The Watchtower".  Like most people, I heard the mindblowing Hendrix cover version of this song first, making Dylan's original version seem somewhat underwhelming to say the least.  That said, it is an engaging listen.  The lyrics are rather cryptic, my favorite line being the classic "there are many here among us who think life is but a joke".  This song, again like most on the album, sounds very sparse, very stripped-down, only this one seems more-so, possibly because Hendrix's version is such a polar opposite, it makes the original version sound barer than it really is.  Another interesting thing to note is Bob's voice, which, to me anyway, sounds somewhat similar to his "wise old man" voice from his early albums.  It's the only time I can think of where he kind of "resurrects" this voice on an album, so I personally find that to be very interesting.

We then have another favorite of mine "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest".  This is one of the last times we hear Dylan the story-teller for quite a while.  It's another quiet one, but it's an inviting, warm song.  It still sounds ominous.  While it sounds like the same Dylan from Blonde On Blonde, his style, subject matter, and tone could not be more different. He sounds more in control, more reserved, more plain, less intent on blowing your mind and more concerned with just telling a story.  There's nothing really to decode here, in fact, he even plainly states the moral of the story at the end of the song "Well the moral of this story, the moral of this song, is simply that one should never be where they do not belong, so if you see a stranger carrying something, help him with his load, and don't go mistaking paradise for that home across the road".  He was probably sick of having his songs misinterpreted constantly, so figured he'd just spell it out for people.  It's a plain, simple message, one that I certainly like and can relate to.  This song still has a kind of bizarre feeling to it to me, mainly because of what this album represents - the death of his art, his genius.  He sounds content about it in this song.  People didn't know at the time he'd wait to put out his next album for 2 years, and that it would be a full-on country album.  And people didn't know at the time he'd purposely release a terrible double-album after that, attempting to shed his audience, that he wouldn't tour again for 7 years, etc.  But I think Dylan kind of knew that at the time, or was planning something like that.  He wanted out.  So when you listen to this song, it's like "no! don't do it! don't go! you'll never be the same again!".  Or at least, that's how I feel when I listen to it. 

Up next is "Drifter's Escape" kicking off a series of fairly underwhelming songs.  It's a fairly short and sweet song, the tale of an outlaw drifter being put on trial, but he doesn't know why.  There are some parallels to be drawn with Dylan's situation at the time, haven been booed relentlessly for going electric, etc.  This is also the first song on the album where Dylan delivers the song with a country-inflected voice.  It's slight, but certainly noticeable.  A bit of a twang delivery.  Overall a modest song.

The same could be said of the following track "Dear Landlord".  Dylan sings the song from the poor tenant's prospective, as he pleads for mercy and compromise from his landlord.  Not a great song, but not bad either.

Then we have "I Am A Lonesome Hobo", another modest track.  As the title suggests, the song is sung from the prospective of a "lonesome hobo" without "family or friends".  Curious how closely Dylan was able to relate to the character in this song, as he had lived a fairly secluded existence for the past year.  Was also probably feeling like a bit of an outcast, based on all the scrutiny he was receiving at the time.

"I Pity The Poor Immigrant" is the next track.  This is the first time in a while that Bob wrote a song championing the downtrodden, but his delivery is not very emphatic on this song, like his older topical material was.  It's a slow, sleepy song, with a somber tone.  It's almost like he's trying to perhaps get back in touch with his original topical songwriting.  All of the hostility to his new material might have gotten to him.  He certainly had a while to think about all of that.  The sound of the album does reflect the more stripped-down, sparse sound of his older recordings.  If he was trying to get back in touch with that style, he wasn't trying very hard on this song.

"Wicked Messenger" follows, where Dylan again adds a bit of a country-yelp sound to his vocal delivery.  The wicked messenger in this song could very well be about Dylan himself, which would make sense based on the repentent feel of the album as a whole.  I think he felt he had gone too far on his prior records, as there are certainly songs he wrote that were spiteful, biting, taunting, and at times vindictive in tone.  He did indeed sound like a "wicked messenger" in many of those songs.

The last two songs on the album "Down Along The Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" offer up a bit of a preview of Dylan's next album that he would release 2 years later.  "Down Along the Cove" has a bit of a hokey, country flavor to it.  It sounds kind of corny, but it's a happy sounding song, soft and light on it's feet.  "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" is the most overtly country sounding song on the album.  It has a slow, twangy sound going on, with what sounds like a slide guitar.  If the subdued, stripped-down, simplified sound of John Wesley Harding hadn't thrown people for a loop, the country inflections of the last two songs must have surely left folks scratching their heads at the time.

So that's how John Wesley Harding ends, with two hokey, country-flavored songs.  Bob Dylan would not release another album for 2 years, and when he did, it would pick up where those songs left off.  He would record an all-country album, and completely change his voice to a bizarre sounding country croon.

But before that, there was John Wesley Harding, a intriguing yet somewhat frustrating listen.  The first half of the album actually has some pretty stellar material on it, whereas the second half of the album sounds underwhelming and hokey at times.  It's the bridge between two completely polar opposite albums (Blonde On Blonde and Nashville Skyline).  Once again, just when people thought they had Dylan figured out, he completely changed his style again.  His next record would be an even more extreme change in style, a style that baffled and disgusted most of his fan-base when it came out two years later, in the infamous summer of 1969.

8.8

Nashville Skyline

Bob Dylan

1969

The year was 1969, and a lot was going on at the time.  The hippy-dippy flower-power movement was in full swing, psychadelica was at it's peak, Woodstock was happening, riots were happening, people were getting assassinated.  It was a crazy time.  It was also an incredible time for music as well.  The Beatles would record their masterpiece (Abbey Road), Hendrix had put out Electric Ladyland, and this band called Led Zeppelin would put out their debut album.

And Bob Dylan, the guy who had arguably kick-started the stream-of-consciousness style of music that was popular at the time, hadn't released an album in 2 years.  Furthermore, his last album John Wesley Harding was a significant stylistic departure for Dylan, featuring a much more sparse, stripped-down, simpler sound, a somewhat underwhelming sound with occasional country-inflections peppered into some of the songs.  Certainly a far cry from the complex, decadent sounding Blonde On Blonde that had proceeded it.  John Wesley Harding was a bit of a head-scratcher, so the anticipation must have been enormous for Dylan's follow-up to that album.

And so here it was, 1969, incredible things happening in music, and the man who started it all releases what?  A full-on, throwback country album?  What?  Not only that, the guy had completely changed his voice, to a bizarre sounding, hokey country croon.  What?

Well surely this was an album with "something to say", poetry and lyrics to decode, analyze, interpret, etc.  Nope.  These songs were short, formulaic, hokey, cliche country songs.  WTF was Bob Dylan doing here?  The initial reaction for me, along with probably a lot of his fans, was disgust.  Then head-shaking bewilderment.  Mind you, I didn't listen to this album in 1969 because I didn't exist.  I had read about this album, and avoided it for a while.  It was the beginning of Dylan purposely putting out albums that in his words "people couldn't possibly relate to."  He was clearly trying to shed his audience (again).  He had already withdrawn from the spotlight, laying low for the past 2-3 years.  Dylan wanted to focus on raising his family.  He didn't want to be anyone's puppet, and he was suffocating from the pressures of fame.  He was willing to sacrifice his art for his family.  He wanted out.

It sounds bizarre, but it was what it was.  And so thus we have Nashville Skyline, a fairly short and sweet country music album, by a guy who was almost unrecognizable as Bob Dylan.  But once you get over the initial shock and disgust of Bob Dylan, the guy who made some of the most important, incredible albums of the decade, recording a hokey country album, it starts to dawn on you that Nashville Skyline actually is a pretty good album (for what it is).  Taken on it's own accord, it's a downright charming, warm, golden-sounding old-school country record.  It kind of harkins back to that classic country period of Hank Williams, Claude King, Johnny Cash, etc.  Dylan is paying homage to that style, and the album is actually very pleasant to listen to, and features quite a few really good, traditional sounding country songs.

The first song on the album is a duet between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.  Normally, that combination would be enough to get this reviewer very excited, as these guys were bonafide legends.  Unfortunately, they're covering my favorite love song of all-time, Bob's own "Girl From The North Country".  That song is absolute delicate perfection in my opinion, so there's no need to cover it.  You can't make a song like that better, you can only make it worse.  Perhaps if you hadn't heard the original, this would sound like a pleasant duet from two legends, but given that the original is very special to me, I can't really listen to the cover version.  I've tried, a couple of times, but find myself skipping the song rather quickly.  Again, they don't do a bad job necessarily, but hearing Bob singing one of his classics in his "country-croon" voice is downright painful for me to listen to personally.

So, for me, once you get that song out of the way, the album really officially starts with the pleasant country-instrumental "Nashville Skyline Rag".  It certainly sets the tone for the album with it's hokey country charm, but it is a pleasant sound nonetheless.  Perfect for driving down a hilly country-road on a hot summer's day.  It's got a certain upbeat charm and warmth to it.

Up next we have "To Be Alone With You".  I can only imagine the reaction folks had back in the day when this album first hit the shelves.  Maybe Bob was doing a different voice on the "Girl From The North Country" cover because he was singing with Johnny Cash?  Surely the entire album isn't going to be like that?  It soon becomes apparent, that yes, the entire album is going to be like that.  And quite hokey too, as "To Be Alone With You" reflects.  It almost sounds like a parody of a country-song, must have really shocked people upon first hearing it.  That said, it is a good country song, an upbeat tune with lots of charm.

Then we have "I Threw It All Away" which is one of the best songs on the album.  It's kind of a "tear in your beer" type of country song, kind of sad in tone.  Although it's certainly cliche at times, the lyrics resonate with me personally.  It's about having everything good going for you, and then you "throw it all away".  I did that once, when I quit my job, broke up with my girlfriend, and moved to Chicago from San Francisco.  Everything ended up working out in the end, but at the time, I couldn't help but feel I had "thrown it all away".  So I can relate.  The song also serves as a good warning against throwing away things that, although you might not appreciate at the time, are in fact positive things in your life.  So while this song is kind of cliche, there are some wise words to be found in it.  "So if you find someone, that gives you all of her love.  Take it to your heart, don't let it stray.  Oh for certain you will surely be a'hurtin, if you throw it all away."

Up next we have one of the corniest songs on the album "Peggy Day".  It's ripe with cliche lyrics, but admittedly is a joy to listen to.  It's a happy little song, quite hokey, as Dylan just picks corny words that rhyme with "day" throughout it.  It ends with a waltzy outro which really puts the corny-exclamation mark firmly in place to cap it off.

Then we have what is probably the best known song on the album, the peculiar "Lay Lady Lay".  This song has a bit of a bizarre, otherworldly quality to it.  The organ gives the song a somewhat eerie feeling, and the cowbell adds to the quirkiness of it.  Then of course you have the country-slide guitar and Dylan's country-croon, just making it all around a rather peculiar listening experience.  It's one of the most unique songs in Dylan's catalog, and overall, a pretty good song at that.  What makes it good (in my opinion) is the strangeness of it, the strangeness of the sound.  It's a classic.

After that comes "One More Night", one of my personal favorite songs on the album.  Like pretty much all the other songs, it's hokey, but this one has a nice, steady, foot-tapping rhythm to it that I particularly enjoy.  It puts me in a good mood.  I also really dig Dylan's guitar on this song.  It's country, but it sounds good.  It sounds happy, and the bass on the song sounds great too, and really accentuates the overall hokey, yet cheerful vibe of the song. 

"Tell Me That It Isn't True" follows, which happens to be my favorite song on the album.  It really has a beautiful, enchanting sound to it, a really beautiful melody.  It doesn't necessarily stand out amongst the other tracks upon first listen, but to me, this is the best song on the album.  Bob is going for a modest, warm, charming sound on most of the album, and I think everything really clicks on all the "country" cylinders on this track.  It's a sweet song.  The best part for me is the all too brief piano solo to close out the song, which is just absolutely pure gold to listen to.  It's beautiful and warm, and never fails to bring a smile to my face. 

Up next is "Country Pie" which sounds a lot like "Peggy Day" with it's upbeat, cliche hokiness.  But also like "Peggy Day", "Country Pie" is a pleasant enough song to listen to.  It's almost funny it's so hokey, so at the very least it is an entertaining listen.

Nashville Skyline finishes up with "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You".  This song is kind of like a cousin to "Down Along The Cove" and "I"ll Be Your Baby Tonight" from John Wesley Harding.  It's got that type of catchiness to it.  Another pretty good song, a fitting way to close out an incredibly hokey album.

So that's how Bob Dylan would close out the 1960s, with Nashville Skyline, a country album.  For a guy that used to make incredibly serious, gripping, and complex music to close out the decade with Nashville Skyline has always been a bitter pill for a lot of Dylan fans to swallow (including me).  He had once again completely re-invented himself, but as mentioned before, he wasn't evolving with this change, he was de-volving, and he was doing it on purpose.  He wanted out of the spotlight, out of the rat-race so he could enjoy a quiet, rural existance raising his family.  He was burnt out, and given that he had pushed himself beyond the brink of what was creatively possible lyrically and musically a few years earlier, it's kind of understandable how he was mentally and physically exhausted.  He didn't want to go the way of his peers that would end up dead a few years earlier (Hendrix, Morrison, etc).  His motorcycle accident in 1966 gave him a chance to step back, reflect, and sober up.  It probably saved his life, as it is difficult to imagine how much longer he could have kept going at the pace of Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde.  His head would have literally exploded. 

So while it is incredibly frustrating and disappointing for Dylan fans to witness his self-inflicted "fall from grace" it's also kind of selfish as well.  We all want more of his art, more music, while the man himself just wanted his privacy.  He wanted to raise his family in peace.  The only way he felt he could do that was if he put out music that was the complete opposite of what made him popular in the first place, and thus we have albums like Nashville Skyline.

The tragic thing about all of this is the fact that Dylan would never be the same again.  When he finally decided to come out of seclusion 5 years later, he wasn't the same guy.  He had lost his creative spark, wasn't really able to ever get it back, at least not at the caliber he once had.  Sure he made a couple of good albums in the mid-70s, hailed as "comeback" albums by most, but they arguably were not in the same league as most of his 60s albums.  I think folks were more relieved and excited that he actually didn't make a bad or mediocore album that they get a bit carried away with their praise of his mid-70s work (yes I'm talking about Blood On The Tracks and Desire).  Those were good albums, but they weren't great (in my opinion).

Then after that you had born-again-Christian Dylan in the late 70s and early 80s, which only spawned more mediocrity out of him, but it was worse because it was preachy-mediocrity.  And then the majority of the 80s for Dylan was absolutely terrible and embarrassing, and a complete waste of time (aside from Oh Mercy).  It wasn't until the mid/late 90s that Dylan started to finally regain his creative spark, but by then he was getting to be an old man.

Point being that Dylan was never the same again after this.  He turned his back on his art, and then he couldn't reclaim it when he wanted to.  He couldn't get it back.  I'm always curious, if he would have known that back in the late 60s, if he knew he was never going to get that magic back again, would he have still purposely "thrown it all away?"  Knowing Dylan, the answer would probably have been yes, as the guy has never been particularly sentimental of his 60s work, rarely acknowledging it's brilliance.  For him, it's been like a burden that he's had to carry around his entire life, as some people still think of him as a protest singer, or as a betrayer of the the protest movement, or as "Judas", or a stoned-out-of-his mind beat-nik poet, etc. 

Dylan has never really cared about what his audience wants, most of time trying to do the opposite of what they want, seemingly just to spite them.  There's something ballsy about that to me.  It's incredibly selfish, which is kind of admirable in a weird way.  That's Dylan, he's hard to pin down, just when you think you get him, he changes, which, when you think about it is the truest hallmark of an artist.

So that's how Dylan closed out arguably the greatest decade of music, with Nashville Skyline.  Far from a brilliant album, it is not without it's charms, an album that I personally enjoy listening to from time to time, in spite of what it represents. 

8.9

Self Portrait

Bob Dylan

1970


This album isn't quite as bad as everyone says it is, but make no mistake, this is half-hazard, uninspiring, dull, and profoundly disappointing considering the man's epic albums that preceded it.  This was essentially an album to deliberately shed his audience, and an attempt to completely withdraw from the spotlight.  It's supposed to sound underwhelming, and it's supposed to sound bland too...and boy does it succeed in that regard.  I mean, it KIND of works as background music, but ultimately it will start to get on your nerves fairly quick...and there MIGHT be 1 or 2 songs that pass for average, but that's really the only good things to be said about this album.  The sad thing is that by sabotaging his career by making hapless albums like this, he really lost his ability to be truly great ever again.  New Morning has its charms (underwhelming as it is) and Blood on the Tracks is definitely a good album, but practically everything else the guy would make in the next 20+ years was mediocre at best, and occasionally as bad and uninspiring as this album at worst...frustrating...

6.0

New Morning

A black-and-white photograph of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

1970


Fresh off the heels of his first universally (and deservedly) loathed album of his career (Self Portrait), Dylan released New Morning, which is essentially his "domestic bliss" album. Upon first listen, it might seem pretty underwhelming, but after repeated listens, it becomes more and more enjoyable, similar to Nashville Skyline. This album does not have the country twang or croon of that album, but it does sound generally rural, somewhat rustic in tone.  It's got a homespun, unremarkable vibe about it, and once you get used to it, you find that it actually has a lot of warmth to it as well. This album is a reflection of Dylan's life at the time: a quiet, complacent, isolated, happily married family man, so when you listen to the album with that context, it makes sense and feels right.  While there are definitely a couple of throwaways here, there are some real gems to be found as well (i.e. "Sign on the Window", "Man In Me")...it's a nice record, it's meant to sound underwhelming and pleasant...nothing more, and ultimately, that's all it is.  I can relate to this album more now that I myself am a 30 year old happily married man with a kid.  I can appreciate where he was coming from.  It's not very cool, not very hip, but it does represent his reality at the time, which makes it real and endearing.  New Morning is a record that celebrates the simpler things in life, and overall it's a pleasant, if somewhat underwhelming listening experience.

8.1

Planet Waves

A crude black line drawing of three men on a white background

Bob Dylan

1974

Expectations were no doubt high for Dylan re-teaming with The Band after 8 years, but man, what an incredibly dull, boring, uninspiring and disappointing album this is…all the songs sound the same, and they're all very average or poor in quality unfortunately…not as bad/disappointing as Self Portrait, but not far off to these ears...at least Planet Waves is shorter and takes up less of your time...it's got that going for it.

6.4

Blood on the Tracks

A drawing of Dylan's face in profile facing a purple stripe with the album's name in white

Bob Dylan

1975

I have always been a bit bemused by the extraordinary amount of praise this album receives, not just from Dylanites but from music critics in general.  Popular opinion suggests that this is not only one of Dylan's best albums, but in some critical circles, it is considered the best album in his entire catalog...really?  Blood on the Tracks?  Better than FWBD?  Better than the trilogy of epicness and brilliance that was BIABH/H61/BOB? While BOTT is certainly a good album, a borderline great album, for this Dylan fan, it is simply not in the same league as most of his classics from the 60s...not even close.  Here's my theory on why BOTT receives such lavish praise...for all intents and purposes, Dylan had not released an epic/great album since Blonde on Blonde (9 years earlier), so suffice to say his fans were more than eager for Dylan to regain his mojo.  He had released the underwhelming (but good) JWH, a charming but head-scratching country album (NS), an abysmal double-album of toss-off covers and b-sides (SP), an underwhelming (but warm) domestic-bliss album (NM), and then practically went MIA for 4 years before releasing the incredibly disappointing Planet Waves.  People no doubt wondered what had happened to the brilliance of Dylan's past, and were salivating for anything above average, or preferably good.  And that's what Blood on the Tracks is: good...but because it was the first consistently good album Dylan had made in almost a decade, I think the reception was overtly giddy.  Dylan finally didn't release a disappointing album, and on top of that, it's actually pretty good!  Now, does anything on Blood on the Tracks measure up to the greatness of his past?  Yes, in particular "Tangled Up In Blue" which I agree is one of his all-time best songs.  There's also some compelling and endearing songs to be found here as well, such as "Simple Twist of Fate", and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go".  And I have always been a huge fan of the rustic and soothing "Meet Me In The Morning", another one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs.  That said, apart from those 4 songs, the rest of the album is either slightly above average at best, or below average at worst.  There's nothing here as excruciatingly boring/tedious as some of the filler tracks from SP or PW, but some tunes here come a bit too close for comfort.  "Idiot Wind" is probably the most annoying song on here...Dylan once described "Like A Rolling Stone" as a long piece of vomit, but I think that description is much better suited for "Idiot Wind", a bitter, unbecoming rant that is not particularly enjoyable to listen to.  All the other songs are just fine, but certainly nothing special.  I've always called BOTT Dylan's "mid-life crisis" album, and maybe that's why so many people identified with it back in the mid-70s (most of his old-school fans were probably in that stage).  BOTT is probably the most personal album Dylan had ever made up to that point, which makes it a compelling listen.  It's honest, occasionally endearing, but it's also bitter and somber at times as well.  It has the general rustic sound that characterized Planet Waves, but the songs are obviously much, much better and more compelling.  So overall, just because BOTT was the best album Dylan had made in several years, and the fact he didn't make anything better until literally 25+ years later (LAT), doesn't make BOTT a great album.  He was awash in a sea of mediocrity prior to BOTT and quickly descended deeper back into it later in the decade (and stayed there a LONG time).  So while BOTT stands head and shoulders above what came immediately before and after, doesn't make it one of his best albums. A classic of the era no doubt, but not really a classic in the grand scheme of things.

8.8

The Basement Tapes

The performers from the album standing next to recording equipment

Bob Dylan & The Band

1975 (recorded 1967)

Along with a lot of other Dylan fans, I am completely fascinated and bewildered with Dylan's transformation from his Blonde On Blonde phase to his John Wesley Harding phase, basically the years immediately following his life changing motorcycle accident.  As it turns out, there's not much to be said about it other than the fact he was lying low, sobered up, and being a family man...all of a sudden...ok.  Anyway, while he was being Normal Ned, he cut some demos with his pals in The Hawks (who would become The Band) in a very relaxed, laid back setting at a house (Big Pink) in upstate New York.  The results were The Basement Tapes, which aside from a few standout cuts, basically reflect the type of laid-back rustic vibe in which the songs were created.  That said, the first 5 songs on the album are pretty much all fantastic (albeit in a modest way...nothing here has the frenzied energy/imagination of Blonde on Blonde), particularly "Yazoo Street Scandal" and the sublimely beautiful "Goin' To Acapulco".  This is a double album which is pretty much evenly split between Dylan singing and Levon & Co singing, so it's like a Dylan/Band demo album, which could have been awesome, but much like their later collaboration on "Planet Waves" ends up sounding pretty underwhelming overall.  So while there's a few gems to be found here, it ends up sounding kind of like a B-Sides collaboration album from Dylan/Band...so pretty average overall.

8.1

Desire

A profile of Dylan smiling, wearing a hat, coat, and scarves

Bob Dylan

1976

I don't really care for the rustic, old-west sound of this album…the whole cowboy music thing...could do without the violins…I mean sure, it's better than "Planet Waves" but that's not saying much.  Once you get past "Hurricane" and "Isis", there's really not much to sink your teeth into here…but if I'm ever on a long horse-back ride in the Great Basin and need a soundtrack, "Desire" would be decent background music I suppose.

7.4

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