Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Bob Dylan (page 1 of 1)

Dylan’s conversion

Conversion to folk music, that is. From the 1978 Playboy interview

PLAYBOY: Just to stay on the track, what first turned you on to folk singing? You actually started out in Minnesota playing the electric guitar with a rock group, didn’t you?

DYLAN: Yeah. The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in ’58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.

PLAYBOY: What was so special to you about that Odetta record?

DYLAN: Just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Waterboy,” “Buked and Scorned.” 

Though with Dylan you can never tell, I hope this is true. (Especially since Odetta and I share a home town.) 

Odetta sings ballads and blues vinyl front cover

Odetta sings ballads and blues vinyl back cover

Twenty-five years ago I wrote an essay about Dylan that was published first in Books & Culture and then at bobdylan.com — the former of which was a pleasure to have published and the second rather disorientingly exciting. (I got paid in CDs.) I think this is the B&C version. 


“Now there’s this fame business. I know it’s going to go away. It has to. This so-called mass fame comes from people who get caught up in a thing for a while and buy the records. Then they stop. And when they stop, I won’t be famous anymore.”

Bob Dylan, age 23

One of the highlights of my career: Long ago, I published an essay on bobdylan.com. Bob may even have read it — the guy who ran the website said he “usually” read what was posted there. Also awesome: I didn’t get paid in money but in music. I was told that they’d send me as many Columbia/Sony CDs as I wanted. I agonized over the question of how much would be too much to ask, and eventually settled on 20 CDs. A week later, they all showed up in my mailbox. 

My friend and former colleague Jason Long and his colleague Jeremy Cook have written a sobering essay on the long-term social and economic effects of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened 100 years ago. 

Arnold Kling’s proposal for making Twitter less rude assumes that there are people on Twitter who want to be less rude. I’m sure that there are plenty of Twitter users who would like to constrain other people — but certainly not themselves. 

William Deresiewicz’s essay at Harper’s on what the pandemic has done and is doing to artistic careers is powerful: 

The pandemic will likely extinguish thousands of artistic careers. And the devastation will extend to the businesses and institutions that connect artists to audiences. The big players with deep pockets — Live Nation, the mammoth concert, ticketing, and artist-management company, or Gagosian, which operates galleries in seven countries — will survive. The entities that founder will be the smaller ones — mid-tier galleries, independent music venues — the kind that are crucial for helping emerging artists gain exposure, for sustaining serious creators and performers who won’t or can’t sell out to the commercial mainstream, and for keeping alive the spirit and soul of the arts. […] 

But the most frightening prospect is precisely the degree to which this crisis has entrenched and extended the power of the platforms: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook; YouTube, which is part of Google; and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Because it is that power that is ultimately behind what has been happening to artists. Art hasn’t really been demonetized. For the companies reaping the clicks and streams, free content is a bonanza. Along with Spotify and a few other players, the tech giants are diverting tens of billions of dollars a year away from creators and toward themselves. They have been able to do so only because of their size, which has given them leverage over labels, studios, publishers, publications, and above all, independent artists, and because of the influence it has given them in Congress. 

Finally, I wrote a post over at the Hog Blog about how workers reluctant to return to their morning commutes resemble English peasants after the Black Death. 

Spanish Is the Loving Tongue

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One of the most surprisingly interesting, and moving, moments on Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks comes on the third disc, when, a few songs in, you suddenly hear the zzzzz of a tape recorder starting up. Apparently the engineer had just realized that something was going on worthy of being recorded.

So we come in near the end of the first verse of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” This is not one of Dylan’s originals: it’s an early-20th-century cowboy poem that was set to music in the 1920s. Almost everyone has recorded it, and Dylan seems to have loved the song deeply. He has played it many times in concert over the years — as YouTube amply demonstrates — and recorded two versions in studios. One of those, done when he had stopped smoking and found that weird crooning voice that you hear, most famously, on “Lay Lady Lay,” just might be the worst recording of his entire career. I can’t even bring myself to link to it.

Here, when the recording engineer flips his switch, Dylan is playing guitar and is accompanied by the bassist Tony Brown and the pianist Paul Griffin. Griffin, by the way, is a remarkable figure. He played with Dylan on his great trio of mid-60s electric albums — you can see him with the whole band here, and there’s an unfortunately tiny photo of him and Dylan here — but he turns up all over American pop music, and often very distinctively. Yes, that’s him on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” but that’s also him on Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”; that’s him playing electric piano on Steely Dan’s “Peg,” and, perhaps most famous of all, that’s him on “American Pie.” What a career.

Anyway, here he is with Dylan again. Bob has, I suspect, just launched into “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” and Griffin and Brown are finding their slots in the song. I’m sure Dylan had no thought of putting it on his new record; he just loved the song and started playing it. And it’s magnificent.

“Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” is a thoroughly inauthentic song. It’s not a real cowboy ballad; it’s belated, imitative. Like “Loch Lomond,” a 19th-century parlor song pretending to be an ancient Scots ballad, it’s completely fake and completely wonderful. And here, fooling around in the studio, Dylan finds something deep inside the song — something emotionally real and raw and utterly compelling.

Dylan and his wife Sara were going through their divorce at this time, and it is almost universal to hear Blood on the Tracks as a breakup record — perhaps the greatest breakup record ever made. In his liner notes for this collection, Jeff Slate notes that Dylan has disavowed such an interpretation, claiming that he got his lyrical ideas for the album from reading Chekhov stories. Slate treats that disavowal as definitive. Please. Blood on the Tracks is the greatest breakup record ever made, and the pain of that divorce is etched into every song. It’s also etched into many of the takes and rehearsals here: I defy you to listen to the first four cuts of disc 1 — two takes of “If You See Her, Say Hello” and two of “You’re a Big Girl Now” — and conclude that they arise from thoughtful reflection on Chekhov.

And all that pain makes its way into this performance of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” Brown quietly accents the melody with his bass, and Griffin finds a wonderfully appropriate groove, like a barrelhouse piano player who’s had too much to drink and is noodling through an old tune before heading off for bed. It’s relaxed and meditative; it sounds almost designedly unprofessional. It perfectly suits the deep melancholy of Dylan’s voice, which gives itself over unreservedly to this sentimental old song and makes of it something unforgettable.

the contingency of collaborative art

Big day for me yesterday: More Blood, More Tracks arrived. It’s extraordinary — could be the best of the bootleg series, but then I might well think that, since I believe Blood on the Tracks to be Dylan’s masterpiece, and one of the great achievements of American music.

On the first disc — the six of them closely follow the order of recording — Dylan plays solo, and there are some harrowing moments there. At one point Dylan is playing “You’re a Big Girl Now” solo, and it’s a totally devastating performance. But you keep hearing the buttons of his vest clicking against the back of his guitar as he plays. Somebody later asked the engineers why they didn’t stop him, and the chief engineer said that they just couldn’t. “We were awed and freaking out and scared. It was intense.”

But then on the second disc he brings in Eric Weissberg and his band (called Deliverance, in those days, because they had played in the great film of that name). At one point you hear the engineer ask what Dylan wants to play next, does he want to continue with what they’ve been working on? Dylan replies, “No, the one we’re gonna do is,” and he starts strumming and wordlessly singing the tune to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Suddenly the band kicks in: drums and bass, then, quickly, an organ fill, a little electric guitar — and it’s magic. They’re in a perfect groove. It’s butter. But of course they have to stop, because they’re not recording yet. Dylan says, “Okay, we’re about ready,” and the engineer starts the tape, and the band tries to get right back into that groove they were in, and for about thirty seconds they’ve got it — and then it falls apart. They do another take, but this time it’s too fast. On every take someone messes up. Finally, Dylan gives up in frustration.

And that’s it for Eric Weissberg and Deliverance. From then on Dylan plays basically with a string band (guitars, acoustic bass, mandolin, with a few occasional additions). The recorded version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” is a great song, but I really think that the full-band version could’ve been even better — if they had been able to get that groove back. But it didn’t happen. And then Dylan took the whole recording session in another direction, which was surely for the best — I can’t think of any other songs on the album that would have benefitted from adding drums and electric instruments, and I can think of several that would have been greatly compromised by that kind of sound.

But the whole sequence is a reminder of just how contingent recording music is — of the number of elements that need to come together to create a certain vibe and mood; of the constant danger of those elements not coalescing, which might leave the whole project teetering on the brink of failure; of how that failure might be the fortuitous opening to something new and better; of layers and layers of possibilities lost and new possibilities gained. To a guy who does most of his creative work alone, it’s scary and fascinating.

keep the body receptive

I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow…. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.

Leonard Cohen

Dylan paints


I tried to create the two dimensional image using a mathematical system. At times, the background and foreground converge. Natural scenery is always the main feature. These are not crowded compositions. They are using basic structures to express feelings and ideas. Perfect proportion and logic instead of emotion. The nature of beauty, the lines, forms, shape, and texture that emphasize the recognizable create harmony where natural scenery is the main feature.

Bob Dylan

Nobel Dylan

I bought my first Bob Dylan record 45 years ago, and I’ve been listening to him closely and frequently ever since. I’ve written about how much he means to me, and I’ve even taught his music and lyrics in classes. I’m gratified that he is the only contemporary songwriter to be surveyed by a great literary critic. But I don’t think he should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, because I don’t think what he does is literature.

It’s not a lesser thing than literature; it’s just different. Singer-songwriters practice a hybrid art, because to their words they add music and performance. Dylan’s lyrics rarely offer great satisfaction when detached from his music and his voice — if you can find a way to detach them, which, if you’ve ever heard them sung by him, you can’t. The novelists and poets, even the playwrights, are working with a different set of restrictions, a different set of potentialities. Zucchini and pomegranates.

And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I might be somewhere by now.”

Back at the hotel afterward, Dylan looks about as satisfied as a man with his restless creative spirit can be. It’s nearly 2 a.m. by now and another pot of coffee cools. He rubs his hand through his curly hair.

After all these hours, I realize I haven’t asked the most obvious question: Which comes first, the words or the music? Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar. “Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he says. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

“I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

He’s slowly strumming the guitar, but it’s hard to pick out the tune. “I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song.”

As he keeps playing, the song starts sounding vaguely familiar.

Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity’s ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work. As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future. Bob Dylan as identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants. This terrifies his audiences. They could accept a consistent image — roving minstrel, poet of alienation, spokesman for youth — in lieu of the “real” Bob Dylan. But his progressive self-annihilation cannot be contained in a game of let’s pretend, and it conjures up nightmares of madness, mutilation, death.

The nightmares are chimerical; there is a continuing self, the Bobby Dylan friends describe as shy and defensive, hyped up, careless of his health, a bit scared by fame, unmaterialistic but shrewd about money, a professional absorbed in his craft. Dylan’s songs bear the stigmata of an authentic middle-class adolescence; his eye for detail, sense of humor, and skill at evoking the archetypal sexual skirmishes show that some part of him is of as well as in the world. As further evidence, he has a wife, son, and house in Woodstock, New York. Instead of an image, Dylan has created a magic theater in which the public gets lost willy-nilly. Yet he is more — or less — than the sum of his illusions.