So over the past couple weeks it has been a pretty hardcore “Bob Dylan Time” over at the Sean Rose Camp. This can be blamed solely on one Benjamin Vigeant, who not too long ago came to me with a beguiling, yet wonderful request: a “Best Of” playlist picked from Dylan’s 80’s records, an era long considered to be the absolute nadir of the man’s recording career. I loved the idea of this so much that I decided to put any requested reviews on hold for the time being (sorry bros) and seek out not only all seven of his 80’s records, but every Dylan record I had ignored before the 80’s, going back as far as 1962’s Bob Dylan. Considering that Dylan has long been one of my favorite artists, for a multitude of reasons, it has (at least so far) been a thoroughly entertaining and revealing musical trip.
The trouble is, I feel like I’m bound to be disappointed. As it is now, I am standing on the precipice of Dylan’s notorious Christian period, considered by many to be the beginning of a serious artistic decline. It worries me a bit, especially considering how much I’ve enjoyed pretty much his entire 70’s output (including lesser-loved gems like Street Legal and Planet Waves). But maybe it shouldn’t worry me TOO much – Dylan is Dylan, after all, and even if his 80’s records are subpar I imagine they’ll at least be interesting. And that’s all that really matters, right?
Well. In either case, perhaps to delay the inevitable, I’ve been padding out my Dylan listening with a few live albums here and there. The Bootleg Series Vol.5, chronicling the early months of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour back in ’75, was probably the biggest surprise for me in terms of sheer quality; to put it bluntly, it is the best live Dylan record I have heard, and unless I am pleasantly surprised later on (unlikely, considering that I have Real Live and Dylan & The Dead to look forward to) I imagine it will stay that way. Whereas Dylan’s 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert – often cited as his best live document – captures Dylan at his angriest and most elusive, reinterpreting his older folk classics as brash electric rockers whether his audience liked it or not, The Rolling Thunder Revue is nothing but celebratory. The first six tracks here are, to me, some of the best music this guy’s ever created: “Tonight I’m Staying Here With You,” previously the sweet, unassuming final track on Nashville Skyline, is recast here as a driving anthem without losing a hint of its intimacy; “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, beyond all reason, works as a reggae-tinged country song; and “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” takes a previously dour protest song and intensifies it beyond all measure. Far and away my favorite track here, however, would be “A Hard Rain’s-A Gonna Fall,” which manages to take one of Dylan’s most prophetic standbys and turn it into a boogie-rock hoedown. Just this track alone – featuring one of Dylan’s fiercest vocal performances – may be proof that when it comes to reinterpreting Dylan, nobody does it better than the man himself.
The rest of Rolling Thunder isn’t nearly as exciting as those first six tracks, but what it lacks in intensity it more than makes up for in intimacy and open-heartedness. For one thing, it features Dylan’s first duets with Joan Baez in over a decade, with the two of them performing lovely versions of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Mama You Been On My Mind” and “I Shall Be Released.” Dylan’s solo acoustic songs are practically as good, with effective takes on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Love Minus Zero,” and then-recent Blood On The Tracks classics “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist Of Fate”. And while I will admit that most of the live Desire tracks here don’t do much for me – they’re fine, but not remarkable – the Revue’s performance of “Isis” is so great that it almost makes the studio version redundant. The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 succeeds by combining the best of both worlds, leavening Dylan’s penchant for defying audience expectations with a sweet sense of nostalgia that never comes off as pandering. Even if it doesn’t replicate the exact feel of a Rolling Thunder show, it feels like a complete Dylan experience.
At Budokan isn’t nearly as good as Rolling Thunder, but considering that it was recorded during Dylan’s Street Legal tour, this isn’t much of a surprise. Everybody hated Street Legal, and everybody hated its subsequent tour, in which Dylan littered the stage with female vocal accompaniment, horn and string sections, and more than a few flutes. Mockingly titled his “Vegas Tour” by critics (or his “Alimony Tour,” referring to his recent divorce, which just seems downright mean to me), these shows featured even more radical reworkings of old Dylan hits; only here, rather than take these songs into bold new territory, Dylan somehow manages to make a lot of them sound like Jimmy Buffet songs. At Budokan, which chronicles the bulk of the tour’s setlist, can be trying for any Dylan diehard – not just for the goofy Neil Diamond-esque arrangements, but for Dylan’s wheezy and uncomfortable voice, which can be a little shocking to hear after the intensity of his Rolling Thunder vocals. And it doesn’t help that the record is a full 99 minutes long, turning what could have been a brief misstep into a hellish gauntlet of cheese.
Now, I won’t sit here and pretend that At Budokan was anything more than a mild, often uncomfortable experience. It wasn’t. But at the same time, it didn’t disgust or offend me – and, once in a while, I was appealing to the ear. Streamlined versions of “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ In The Wind”, while not matching the originals, are lovely; “I Want You” is surprisingly gorgeous as a slower ballad (perhaps inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s live version from a few years before?); a full-band version of “Simple Twist Of Fate” makes it sound deceptively romantic; and there’s even a Hendrix-esque electric version of “All Along The Watchtower”! Even a few of the sillier arrangements, like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and a bouncy “All I Really Wanna Do,” manage to retain some charm. But on the other side of the coin, you’ve got awkward reggae versions of both “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”; obnoxiously leaden versions of of “It’s Alright Ma” and “Maggie’s Farm”; a painfully forced, chanted “Shelter From The Storm”; and a performance of “Is Your Love In Vain?,” not exactly the best possible choice from Street Legal. For a lack of a better term, it is a mixed bag, one that might reward a patient Dylan fan willing to sit through some of the corniest arrangements of his career; for everybody else, it’s easy to skip it. Despite some good moments, it is a mostly joyless experience.
(Although I would like to know – in both Rolling Thunder and At Budokan, the last verse of “Simple Twist of Fate” is entirely changed. The original verse might be my favorite Dylan lyric ever, so I’m a little sad to see it changed on more than one occasion. Did he just not like the original version??)
At Budokan‘s slick professionalism may well foreshadow Dylan’s artistic demise in the 80’s; it’s not horrible, but it is mediocre enough to warrant concern. I wouldn’t know, though – I haven’t even heard those later records yet! That will be for next time. I will warn you, though – if you are not much of a Dylan fan, the next couple posts or so will be of absolutely no interest to you. (Then again, neither would THIS one, so. Never mind.)
Until then, here is Batman to offer you a brief preview of what is to come!!