Dylan: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Let’s begin in reverse order with…

The ugly

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis was a cacophonous, overblown sports arena, home to Minnesota Twins baseball and Minnesota Vikings football teams.  It’s most notable architectural feature was the pneumatically suspended fabric dome, held aloft by constant air pressure pumped into the structure.  Sylvia and I attended a baseball game there once, fans of the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.  We figured it was designed to be noisy intentionally, so that visiting teams and their fans would feel intimidated by home team rowdies.  Leaving the the facility postgame, the hurricane-force air pressure was so intense it literally propelled us out the exit doors.

Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Tom Perty & the Heartbreakers scheduled four arena dates together during the summer of 1986. One of those shows was at the Metrodome.  A specially priced concert/round-trip bus ticket combo sponsored by a La Crosse, Wisconsin radio station was offered, so we signed up.  The promise of complimentary Old Style beer along the way played no significant role in that decision.


The Dead would open the show with one long set, though truncated by Dead standards. From the opening notes of a barely recognizable “Gimme Some Lovin’,” we realized  something was wrong.  The Metrodome wasn’t designed as a concert venue.  Sound waves reverberated around us. The Dead’s music was barely recognizable, guitar solos and vocals echoing aimlessly in the air, bass and drums out of sync and muddled.  This was not the Grateful Dead I’d heard twice before.

During intermission, the buzz among fellow concertgoers was palpable.  What’s going on? Why did the music sound so awful? When Dylan and Petty played their set, it was the same acoustic mess that plagued the Dead.  No one could distinguish what lyrics Dylan was singing or exactly what song the Heartbreakers were playing in that environment of nonstop reverberation. Looking back at the published concert reviews and comments from that night, virtually all were extremely critical of the acoustics for that show.  To this day, I scratch my head in disbelief at what could have been a comet ride of a concert.  Instead, it was a subsonic disappointment.

The bad

One day after Barack Obama was elected president, twenty-two years and one hundred sixty miles down the Mississippi River from the Metrodome, Bob Dylan brought his never ending tour to the La Crosse Center.  It was three days before my birthday, on November 5, 2008. Sylvia and I were anxious to hear Dylan in a venue where we’d previously heard Bruce Hornsby & the Range and Johnny Rivers.  The acoustics were tried and true. We were feeling celebratory for many reasons.

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I can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe our seats, which were just to the left and behind the soundboard, were too far back.  Maybe it was the uninspired backing band, or that Dylan stood practically motionless behind a portable keyboard, singing at a volume level just below that of the band. He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat that hid his face in a shadow, perhaps masking what could have been boredom.  Maybe it was the constant, low-level buzz of concertgoers who found it a convenient time to carry on personal conversations.  But most annoying, each song sounded the same as the previous one, displaying little or no imagination in the arrangements.  It was difficult to make out what Dylan was singing because his voice sounded garbled much of the time and few melodies were distinguishable.  Some reviewers thought it was a good show.  The opening two songs, “Wicked Messenger” and “Watching the River Flow,” were unrecognizable to me until each was nearly finished.  Nearly every song, new or old, suffered from a paint-by-number quality.  It was exhausting to listen.

The good

Ten years after La Crosse, almost to the day, Bob Dylan performed in Asheville on November 2, 2018.  Sitting in row four, we and some friends were facing Dylan’s baby grand piano with its lid up and with a perfect view of the maestro himself sitting at its keyboard.  To his left on a small table were two items he brings with him on tour.  One was an Oscar statuette, his academy award for the song “Things Have Changed,” featured in the film Wonder Boys, and the song with which he opened the show.  The other was a bust of Greek goddess Athena sporting a green laurel on its head, perhaps a reminder that Dylan is a Nobel laureate after all.

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Dylan’s backing band included Charlie Sexton on lead guitar and also featured Tony Garnier on bass; Donnie Herron on pedal steel, electric mandolin, and violin; and George Receli  on drums.  They were brilliant.  Song arrangements were fresh and diverse.  The setlist was a welcome mix of contemporary and classic works.  Dylan interpreted each number deftly, accompanied by engaging vocal and facial inflections.  For a couple of songs he left the piano to take center stage, displaying hints of swagger as he dipped the mic stand and struck a pose.  It was especially effective on “Love Sick.”  His arrangement of “It Ain’t Me Babe” left me speechless.  We were transfixed.

Before I knew Sylvia, I’d heard Bob Dylan for the first time on November 1, 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin. Oddly enough, forty years ago almost to the day of the Asheville show.  Thirty years prior to La Crosse.  Was it good?  Oh, yeah.  It was good.  It was the “Budokan” tour.  Dylan used essentially the same musicians who backed him on his Street-Legal album, but with additional horns and backup singers.  While some reviewers were critical of the new musical arrangements, I thought many were unique and more interesting than the originals.

As I recall, the last song for Dylan’s 1978 show was “Changing of the Guard.” His opening song forty years later was “Things Have Changed.” Indeed they have.  It was wonderful to hear Dylan in good voice, backed by a spot-on band, delivering new, inspired arrangements for his classic works, and covering his more recent songs with passion.  The 2018 Bob Dylan is how we’ll remember him, and that’s a good thing.

 

Blonde on Blonde

It was hailed as a landmark album.  Rock music critics variously ranked it among the greatest albums of all time, with some placing it at the top of that all-too-fickle list.  Released fifty-one years ago this month, though the exact date is debatable, it’s still considered one of the finest recordings in the history of rock music.  To many, including me, it remains at the top of that list.

Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde capped a trilogy of albums that began with Bringing It All Back Home, followed by Highway 61 Revisited, both released the previous year.  In the history of rock music, Blonde on Blonde was among the first double albums with a gatefold cover and one song, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” that spanned the entire fourth side of that two-LP set.  Initially I thought Highway 61 Revisited, containing the timeless anthem, “Like a Rolling Stone,” could never be surpassed.  Man, was I was wrong!  At first listen, Blonde on Blonde blew me away.

For a budding teenage guitar player just beginning to get the hang of playing and singing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from the Bob Dylan Song Book I’d purchased months before, the songs from Blonde on Blonde offered a new challenge.  I desperately wanted a leg up on learning them.  Desperation turned into exultation when I spied the Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde “Deluxe Edition” song book in a local music store where I’d get guitar strings and picks.

Regretfully, I never convinced my garage bandmates at that time to include a Dylan song or two in our repertoire.   Instead, I learned a few of them for practice and to entertain myself.  Eventually, I learned enough of them to entertain my college housemates and an occasional campus coffeehouse audience.  Over time, I’ve entertained some of those same housemates, their spouses and friends whenever we’ve gotten a chance to reunite for special occasions.  Long ago, I’d allegedly perform for about anyone at the drop of a hat.  Those days are becoming fewer and further apart.  When it does happen, you can be sure I include a hefty portion of Dylan songs, some by request.  If you find yourself in the audience on one of those rare occasions, please don’t request “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” unless I have my Blonde on Blonde “Deluxe Edition” song book handy and you’re ready to settle in for the night.

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?
Bob Dylan – “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Bob Dylan and me

NOTE:  I began writing this story several months ago, but put it aside.  It’s published now in honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I first heard about Bob Dylan in 1963 when a radio disc jockey played Peter, Paul and Mary’s record, Blowin’ in the Wind.  I didn’t know what a cover version was in grade school.  But I recall the DJ talking about a young protest singer named Bobby Dylan who wrote the song, a name I initially misheard as Bobby Darin.  Dylan’s name came up some time later when the station played another Peter, Paul and Mary record, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.  Though I still hadn’t heard Bob Dylan, I did begin to appreciate folk music thanks to Peter, Paul and Mary.

The March on Washington was all over the news later that summer and while Martin Luther King had a dream, Bob Dylan had a song.  I finally saw him in a television news piece singing a few lines of Only a Pawn in Their Game.  It began, “A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood…”  Whoa!  Who the heck is Medgar Evers?  I knew about the the man who shot Liberty Valence, but I’d never heard of this guy Evers or the guy who shot him.  It would be a few more years before I understood the awful truth behind that song, long after Dylan penned his more topical works.

That fall I entered eighth grade and had other things on my mind like girls, cars, and anything California.  Thank you, Beach Boys.  All those things important to a young teenager came crashing down in November with the assassination of a beloved U.S. president.  The accompanying void was filled by homework and more thoughts of girls, cars and anything California.  Until February 1964 when the Beatles changed my world.  I wanted an electric guitar.  I wanted not only to listen to music, I wanted to play it.

Top forty radio — Motown, the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion bands — filled my musical world through freshman year in high school and starting a band became my new pursuit.  The summer of 1965, out of a tinny radio speaker, a new song captured my attention.  If any description of “mind blowing” could be more apt, Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds was a perfect fit.  The jangling electric guitar, steady beat and obscure lyrics painted enough vivid pictures in my head, to compel me to get their debut album.

I’m a reader.  So naturally I read the liner notes on the back of the album sleeve.  Bob Dylan’s name was mentioned several times as he’d written four of the album’s twelve songs, including Mr. Tambourine Man.   I liked the album, but was especially knocked out by those four Dylan songs that also included Spanish Harlem Incident, All I Really Want To Do and Chimes of Freedom.  Thus began my pursuit of more Dylan.

The first Bob Dylan album I bought was his newest release at the time, Bringing It All Back Home.  It contained eleven songs, four of them longer than five minutes, including the original Mr. Tambourine Man with more verses than I ever imagined possible.  It got even better when I finally heard Dylan on the radio that summer singing a new one, Like a Rolling Stone.  I was hooked and Dylan was my drug.

Since that time, I’ve never lost my appreciation for Dylan and his music, even though some of his albums garnered few, if any, critical accolades.  I’ve added nearly all of them to my collection, whether in vinyl, compact disc or digital download.  In browsing through my  Dylan vinyl, I even found two different copies of Great White Wonder, the first authentic bootleg album that I still believe might be worth a few bucks someday.  As for Dylan concerts, I’ve only been to three.  They were in 1978, 1986 and in 2008.  I haven’t attended another for a variety of reasons but I listen to enough music any given day to hear a bundle of Bob quite regularly.

His songs remain a part of my acoustic repertoire, a repertoire I performed in campus coffee houses long ago.  Now, I play them for my own enjoyment and to entertain a few friends on occasion.  When you read great literature, you can sometimes quote specific lines or even entire passages from memory. When it comes to Dylan, I once was able to recite all the lyrics to most of his pre-1970 catalog.  Those memories have faded a bit, but I’ll always recall these, among the first I ever learned and, in my admittedly biased view, of Nobel quality…

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 ain’t no place I’m going to.  Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.  In that jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.”

Happy Birthday, Bob!

I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan since I was in high school.  Without Dylan I might never have found the nerve to try my hand at performing solo in college coffee houses, his songs making up a portion of my repertoire.  There is nothing I can write about this living legend that hasn’t been stated by others more proficient at wordsmithing than I.  Suffice it to say Bob Dylan has been the single biggest influence on my contemporary music appreciation than any other artist or band, including the Beatles.


At the risk of sounding like a eulogy derived from an IBM commercial, love may fade and time may pass, but your music and your message endure.  They will remain a part of me forever.  Happy 75th birthday, Bob!