Friday, December 20, 2019

"Bringing It All Back Home" - 1965

Dylan plugs in.

First one with a band. First one with an electric guitar. The protest era comes to an end and the first reinvention takes place. Then the first song on the album ("Subterranean Homesick Blues") immediately became iconic. And I guess it's kind of a protest song. Maybe that era isn't quite over yet. Maybe it never ends, as long as you keep caring.

I can't imagine how jarring this record must've been at the time. I'm 39. I wasn't alive during the start of Dylan's career. By the time I knew his name, we had a fully formed Dylan who had already cemented a legacy of writing great songs. So I have no idea what it's like to have the folkie-Bob turn into a rock act. I guess I've seen bands I've followed change tone a time or two though. Mumford & Sons plugged in and alienated a lot of people a few years back. Is that as close as we've had to this experience in my generation? Maybe. I still like Mumford & Sons. So maybe I still would've liked Dylan.

I don't think there's a bad song on the album. I don't particularly care for "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." Mostly because I think the choice to say "Captain Arab" instead of "AHAB" is a silly lyric (which I know was intentional) that ultimately falls flat, and in 2019 it sounds a little racist (which I know was UNintentional). But it's still not a bad SONG. And I like the sound of the album. The electric side (side A) might be the first example we really have of "Americana" as a style of music. And side B is classic Dylan tone, just stepped up a little. I like the bravery of starting with the electric and then rewarding the long-time fans with something closer to what they were used to on side B, if they made it that far.  That's clever.

The Summer prior to the album's release, Bob met the Beatles. That's significant. Like everybody working at that time (and most people working NOW) Bob would come to be very inspired and influenced by the Beatles. And he remained on good terms with them, despite a perceived musical "rivalry." But without his love of the Beatles, I don't think Bob would've started experimenting with different mixing techniques and sounds and we might never have gotten the electric era or the subsequent stuff. He might've fizzled out with the rest of the folkies. Or at best he'd be playing revival bills with either Simon or Garfunkel and maybe Louden Wainwright III.  (All of whom I like. I'd go see that show.) But as it was, Bob got weird with it, and we all benefited.

Reading Bob's Wikipedia page for this album reveals that recording sessions were all over the place and random in nature. It seems a schizophrenic series of sessions led to a schizophrenic album. As it should be. But there's no doubt that the whole time Bob was being intentional in killing off the "folk guy" that everybody knew. Just listen to "Maggie's Farm" and tell me he wasn't purposely saying, "that was fine, but NO MORE." It's obvious. It's bold.

A lot of my personal favorite Dylan songs are on this album. Some of yours probably are too.

Favorite Tracks:
  • "Subterranean Homesick Blues" - Which I first heard as dialogue in an episode of Murphy Brown, of all places. And it stuck in my head, even from that.
  • "She Belongs to Me"
  • "Maggie's Farm" - A pacing and rhythm Dylan would return to a lot in his career. There are a lot of his songs that could easily end verses with "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more." I like that.
  • "Mr. Tambourine Man" - Of course I like this one. Although the idea of somebody specifically wanting to hear some asshole play a tambourine as a form of entertainment never fails to make me laugh.
  • "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" - Definitely in my top-five favorite Dylan songs. I first encountered in in college when a professor described it in a class and encouraged us to read it as a poem. I didn't hear the song until several years later. When I read it as a poem I thought, "Yeah, I get why he likes it..." But when I heard the song, I thought, "OOOOOOOOOOhhhhh...NOW I get it."
I like "turning point" albums as a general rule of thumb.  Not always.  There are some that suck.  Some bands hit a turning point then IMMEDIATELY turn back because it sucked (memo to Arcade Fire).  But it sure worked for Bob.  This is a great record.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Heaven's Door Tennessee Bourbon

I thought that this would be a good point to take a small break and write about something different. We're four albums in--the end of the "acoustic" era. The end of the "protest" era, more or less. Before we dig into a new stage of Dylan's career, let's talk about a recent one. Let's talk about Bob Dylan's signature whiskey.

I'm always reluctant to try a celebrity-branded whiskey. I'm afraid of one of two options. 1 - What if it sucks and I spent $50 on it? 2 - What if it's GREAT and they stop making it? So I had reservations about buying a bottle of Heaven's Door. To the first point, yes Dylan released "Blood on the Tracks," but what if this is more like his Christian period? To the second...oh, God...what if it's like "Blood on the Tracks?" And what if everybody else wants to listen to "Blonde on Blonde?"

Reservations aside, after I bought the Dylan box set, I stopped and picked up a bottle of the Heaven's Door Tennessee Bourbon.

It's "Blood on the Tracks."

Okay. I'm in no way a whiskey expert.  I've had a lot of them though.  Everything from a $20 bottle of Jack to a $200 bottle of Johnnie Walker.  (I didn't personally buy the latter--a friend generously poured me a shot.)  I've had most of the big name brands, a ton of the smaller ones, Irish, American, Scotch, Canadian, Japanese...  I've made it a point to find out what my favorite whiskeys are and to buy them for myself and serve them to others. But I don't know what the hell the words the experts throw around mean, nor do I know how to describe a "taste note" or whatever. All that to say that whatever I write below won't be a professional opinion. I only know enough to know that Bourbon doesn't come from Tennessee, so it's weird that he called it that. (But I don't care enough to dwell on that.)

The bottle itself is a nice design. Very straight, very smooth. It's tall and noticeable on the shelf. It feels good in your hand and looks cool. The front is adorned with art that represents Dylan's iron work. Did you know he does iron work? He welds and makes gates. Wouldn't have called that, would you?  Look at these things!

Bob at work. - Source: 
Work in progress. - Source:

One of the gates with some lady. - Source:

That the iron work is pretty faithfully reproduced in the bottle decals is a nice touch for those of us who are crazy enough to know about that.

When I opened the bottle for the first time the cork made one of the most satisfying "pop" sounds I think I've ever heard. (Only one that compares is the Connemara Irish Whiskey I bought a while back.) It's weird how the aesthetic of the sound the cork makes can inform the experience. A lot of people probably don't notice that. A lot of people are probably irritated that it's a cork and not just a twist off top, in fact. But that's a sign of a quality bottle to me--both that it's there and that it SOUNDS good.

Then I was hit with the smell. It's 90-proof so there's a strong alcohol smell, but you also get a sweetness in the scent. It smells nice. I'd wear it as cologne if that wouldn't make me seem like a sad drunk who smells like whiskey all the time. It's a good, rich smell--you know how it's going to taste as soon as it hits you.

After my first test-sip, I said "Wow!"  Then I took another sip and said, "WOOOOOOOW!" It's delicious. As described above when I was talking about the scent, it's got a sweetness that is undercut by the sour that you're used to from most whiskeys. I tasted a good amount of caramel and it was very warming on the first swallow. I'm going to use the word "smooth" to describe it even though that doesn't mean anything to me. It's a great whiskey that does a great job accompanying the music. (During my first sampling, "Another Side of Bob Dylan" was playing the whole time.) And for what it's worth, at 90-proof it does the job.

There are three varieties, and so for I've only had the one. The Tennessee Bourbon is all I can speak for at present, but the Double Barrel Whiskey and the Straight Rye Whiskey are both on my radar. The bottles are reasonably priced against others I enjoy of similar quality. (You'll pay about as much for say Four Roses or a good small batch.) The Rye is the most expensive for some reason. I've only gotten into Rye recently and prefer to use it as the whiskey in a Manhattan when I make one, so I'm very interested in trying Bob's soon. And when that happens, I'm sure you'll hear from me again.  (The Double Barrel might come to me first, just because it's cheaper.)

For those who were waiting to hear about a different album this week, I'm sorry for the change in topic. But I thought it might be fun to talk about and maybe a couple people who want to take the word of a whiskey guy about a bottle of whiskey might find it helpful.

I'll be back to the albums next time. Hope you enjoyed this one!


(Source for the photo of the bottle--it wouldn't format well if I posted this as a caption:

Friday, December 6, 2019

"Another Side of Bob Dylan" - 1964

"Another Side of Bob Dylan" was being written at the same time the Beatles arrived in America. While the two became fans of one another, I don't know if it would be right to say one informed the other. But I still think that is a fascinating backdrop to keep in mind.

"Another Side" is an album on which people remain split to this day. Critics largely hated it. Fans at the Newport Festival accepted it warmly when he played there (prior to the album's release). It didn't sell as well as his previous record, indicating that there may not have been as warm a reception elsewhere. And when I've talked to people about it in recent weeks, I've got a lot of "meh" and "there are a couple good songs," and I've got a couple of emphatic, "BEST ALBUM OF THAT ERA" responses. It's a divisive listen. Some of the background of the album might explain why.

At the same time the US was losing their goddamned minds about the Fab Four, Dylan was going through some personal turmoil. The breakup of his relationship with Suze Rotolo (of which too much has already been written, so I'm keeping it brief) definitely had a major impact. "To Ramona" is probably heavily informed by that. The ongoing affair with Joan Baez was probably a major factor too. He also spent some time writing for/with Nico, who would later go on to release music with The Velvet Underground. Pile on top of this a lot of traveling, and hard work, including a book deal that took years to complete and endless gigging... It's easy to see that this was a weird time in Dylan's life, and it makes sense that the album he would put out would eventually get hit with the term "transitional." Transition was a big part of his day-to-day at that point.

The transitions weren't all personal. While still an album constructed of Dylan playing/sing solo, there were some serious musical transitions, too. Listening to the album for the first time I noticed that he'd stopped finger-picking. That might not mean a lot to people who don't play guitar, but suffice to say that if you've listened to folk music, you're used to hearing it finger-picked. He also played piano on the album for the first time. Thematically, the lyrics moved away from protest songs and toward a more poetic structure. The songs felt more personal. Although it is worth noting that while the album is *less* political, there are lines in "Chimes of Freedom" that are known to have been written about the day John Kennedy died--though in the context of that song it's open-ended.

Perhaps the biggest "transitional" piece is found in one of the better known phrases on the album: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." This was a Bob Dylan who was stepping down from his post as the voice of a generation. A Dylan who didn't want to be Messiah, but just wanted to write his songs. But like any transition, it was misunderstood by critics who instead wrote that he was beginning to sound like the fame had gone to his head. Because...of course that's what they said.

Favorite Tracks:

  • "All I Really Want to Do"
  • "Chimes of Freedom"
  • "To Ramona" - Which I'm not as fond of as a lot of Dylan fans, but it's a song about saving ones lover from oneself and I get that. Plus balanced against what was going on in his personal life, I think if nothing else, it's an important track.
  • "My Back Pages"
  • "It Ain't Me Babe" - I was familiar with this as a Johnny Cash song long before I knew it was a Dylan song. I don't prefer either version. They're both great. The way Dylan tells the story of meeting Cash, he says they were both so excited, they were jumping up and down on beds like kids. I'm sure that's not 100% true...but don't you want it to be? Don't you WANT to see Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan jumping up and down on a bed, giggling together?
I've said a few times in this post that opinions are divided on this album. So here's mine. On my first listen, I didn't feel much about the album other than recognizing a couple of the tunes. But on subsequent listens, it grew on me a lot. It's a sadder tone than we're used to from Dylan up to this point. I can see why some would've found it jarring--boy did they have no idea what was coming next! I think this is one you've got to spend some time with to appreciate. So of course critics didn't get it.

I can't blame anyone who doesn't love this album. But I think people who get up in arms about tearing it down probably don't have real problems in their lives like Bob Dylan did at the time.

Friday, November 29, 2019

"The Times They Are a-Changin'" - 1964

I've said of the title track, "I feel like in some ways, Dylan has been writing that song for 50 years." And it's getting close to 60.

That's in no way a knock against Bob. He's got a message and part of that message is that things change; you've either got to push back or change with them. It's up to you to decide not only which you'll do, but which you think is right. I love that.

It's startling to realize that Bob Dylan had been at this for only THREE YEARS when he was writing some of his most enduring work. And this time it's ALL ORIGINALS. No covers or "traditional" songs this time around. (And really, what's the difference between a cover and a traditional song? Basically you pay licensing for one and not for the other, I guess.) 

There are those who would call the album "politically charged." I prefer to think of it as "socially charged" because things like being opposed to racism, helping the impoverished, and seeking social change have nothing to do with politics. They're basic human issues--you're either a human being and you care, or you're not because you don't. You shouldn't have to vote about that. (Weird that I wasn't a Dylan-Guy until now, isn't it?) There's less wordplay on the album. More of a serious tone, addressing serious issues. People pushed back against that at the time--I guess he was supposed to address racism with a smile? Or not at all? I know I'm approaching this in 2019 with the benefit of hindsight, but I think the record is damn near perfect in tone and delivery.

And that's saying a lot, given the hit-or-miss nature of the recording sessions. I learned researching for this blog that there were several sessions where Dylan would record multiple tracks and they would be deemed "unusable" and discarded. (Some eventually ended up on the "Bootleg" series or elsewhere.) There were a couple days where even though it was just a guitar and vocal arrangement even Bob Dylan left the studio with nothing to show for it. I've got to tell you, as a musician, I find that encouraging. But eventually, Bob did enough good work to produce this album and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" became one of his best known songs.

A month after the recording sessions were finished, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The album would come out less than two months later. Dylan stated that the assassination did not inform the album (and that is clear based on the timeline) but the album sure captured the world in which it happened. The whole time he was writing the title track, Bob knew he was writing an anthem. He just had to wait for history to bear him out on that. Unfortunately, it only took a couple months. People call the album "pessimistic." It's strange how often reality comes across as pessimism, isn't it?

"The Times They Are a-Changin'" is definitely Dylan's most protest-based album and in my eyes stands among his best work. It's not my favorite Dylan record (we've got several weeks before we get there), but it's on the list. I wasn't born when these songs were written and yet as I'm entering my 40s they feel as fresh and vibrant as ever.

Favorite Tracks:
  • "The Times They Are a-Changin'" - Of course.
  • With God on Our Side
  • One Too Many Mornings - Which I've learned is a favorite of fans of this era of Dylan. Good.
  • Only a Pawn in Their Game - Although I feel that he's a little off-base in equating the plight of poor white people to the plight of African Americans. I feel like it was clear that wasn't correct even in the 60s. But a good song nonetheless and his heart was in the right place.
If it's been a while for you on this one, there are worse ways to spend a drive to work. And it might just get you fired up enough to make you want to help some people out, too. That's no bad thing.

Friday, November 22, 2019

"The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" - 1963

Suze Rotolo. That's the woman in the picture on the album cover with Bob. I had to know that. If you're anything like me, you wondered too. If you're a LOT like me, you've also Googled it. For a long time, when I'd see this album cover, I for some reason assumed it was Joan Baez, but in doing this deep-dive I realized Suze doesn't look anything like Joan.

Suze was in a relationship with Bob from 1961-1964. Dylan has acknowledged her impact on his career and writing during that time period. It may be pushing it too far to use the word "muse." Or it may not. But it does feel a little sexist, doesn't it? So we'll leave that alone. Rotolo was an artist/author and something of an activist. She passed away in 2011.

There's a lot more to their relationship. Some of it gets dark and sad. And Joan Baez' name comes up as more than an assumption. I would imagine Bob probably doesn't like to talk about any of that too often. Who would? I would imagine Suze's family enjoys it even less. It can be hard to separate the art and the artist, especially when they appear in photos on the album cover that maybe should've stayed private. But it was something that felt like it belonged on this blog. I think I might be writing a very poorly researched, very long form and stupid biography here.

So. Now that we've got all that out of the way...

I wrote that I was stunned by Bob's first album. The only phrase I can think of for his second is "blown away."  By album number two, which came out ONE YEAR after his first, he gave us "Blowin' in the Wind" and was the fully formed Dylan we all know and love. Except... I've been surprised to find that I don't hear "the Dylan voice" showing up in a real way at this point. Everybody has a Dylan impression, and some of them are even well-meaning. We all know what I mean by "the Dylan voice." But it's not present on his early albums. In fact...was it only really a thing on "Blonde on Blonde?" We're not there yet, but I feel like he put on "the voice" as almost a character choice for "Rainy Day Women #13 & 35" and it just kinda ran away from him.

But I digress.

This is a great album. It's a go-to for a huge part of the fanbase, and deservedly so.This is probably the earliest Bob Dylan that comes to mind for most people. It's a beautiful recording. By album #2, he was DYLAN.

While the first album was majority traditional/cover songs, this album is mostly Dylan's own material. Eleven of the thirteen songs were penned by Bob, including a personal favorite in "Girl from the North Country" (which I'd previously thought was a Simon & Garfunkel song, mixing it up with "Scarborough Fair," which even THEY didn't write--although the two melodies are very similar). It would turn out that giving Bob the keys to the car would drive the success of the album. The first album initially sold only 5,000 copies, resulting in the record label wanting to drop Dylan's contract. On the strength of Bob's own songs, "Freewheelin'" would reach #22 on the US charts, eventually selling a million copies. That should've been impossible.

What do record companies ever know about anything?

Favorite Tracks:

  • "Blowin' in the Wind" of course. Likely a bigger hit for Peter, Paul, & Mary. But I like Bob's version better.
  • "Girl from the North Country" - I think I probably heard Pete Townshend's version of this song a decade or so before I heard Bob's own. I've been a big Who fan since I was 9. I knew Pete didn't write it, but I didn't know Bob did until years later. I've loved every version of this song I've heard, which is a big compliment to Bob--it's a song so good you have to go out of your way to fuck it up.
  • "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" - Bob was 21 when he wrote this song--one of the more complex pieces of lyrical structure you could ask for. A friend of mine recently made reference to this song alongside the Bible verse: "the rain falls on the just and the unjust." I don't think Bob meant to do that. I think he just stumbled on a deep truth that every thinker has had to wrestle with. Frankly, I like Bob's phrasing better. It's the RAIN that's hard...
  • "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" - In the liner notes, Bob writes: "It isn't a love song. It's a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It's as if you were talking to yourself." I like that.
  • "Bob Dylan's Dream" - It was only in researching this post that I learned the melody is from a traditional song (with which I am obviously unfamiliar) called "Lady Franklin's Lament." Regardless, it's a song about missing people who are important to you. And I get that.
  • "I Shall Be Free" - I know people are divided on this song. I like it, especially in the overall context of the album. The whole album is filled with deep questions and the weight of an uncertain relationship. This song right at the end is a little bit of a lighthearted falling action. It feels appropriate to take some of the weight off the rest of the album right at the end.
This is one of just about everybody's favorite Dylan records. There's a reason. If you haven't heard it, or if it's been a long time, go out of your way to spin it soon. You'll be surprised--in your head you'll hear a full band but when you pay attention you realize it's just a guitar and a vocal microphone. Great listen, man.