Today Bob Dylan celebrates his 70th birthday and remarkably after fifty-two years of relentless touring and seemingly endless artistic endeavor, Dylan is still going strong. Staggeringly he isn’t some weary troubadour clinging on to the last embers of fame; instead Dylan is enjoying a career renaissance that shows no signs of stopping.
His renaissance started with 1997’s unexpected triumph Time Out Of Mind and was quickly followed by 2001’s sublime Love And Theft and 2006’s rollicking Modern Times. While Dylan was entering an implausible latter day purple patch he never stopped touring and suddenly found himself playing everywhere from Roman amphitheatres and sold out arenas to mainstream festivals and ominous Chinese’s stadia under the watchful eye of the nation state.
Dylan is the embodiment of an artist; he’s stubborn and eternally unpredictable, he’ll be confounding fans and baffling audiences until his voice becomes completely inaudible and he’ll be writing songs until the day his fingers fail him.
He will always be known as a folk icon but Bob Dylan has never been happy staying in one place or being confined to one sound. He embodied both the blues and folk tradition, like Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters before him. Dylan was a forager; borrowing riffs, learning melodies and acquiring an incredible knowledge of American song.
Dylan was as much the child of Robert Johnson as he was Pete Seeger, so today we’re going to present a quick eight track playlist of our favourite moments when Dylan went electric and embraced guitar rock, and you never know we might throw in the odd acoustic classic too.
Dylan caused a mighty stir at the Newport Folk Festival when he went electric but those perturbed folk purists were put to shame by the sensation Bringing It All Back Home. Half electric, half acoustic it pointed the way forward for not just Dylan but folk as a genre and concept.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” was Dylan that you could dance to: a woozy bluesy bar room waltz that proved the perfect setting for Dylan’s spiraling surrealist narrative. This was the sound of potential being unlocked; Dylan’s luscious comical imagery had finally found a suitably playful and carefree sound.
Dylan’s love for seductive bar room blues would endure and forty years on from his “…115th Dream” Dylan was still finding a home on the dance floor, stomping and clomping to the sounds of Memphis Minnie and Ma Rainey.
He reworked the female blues pioneers’ verses into a sprawling conservative call to arms. Dylan’s politics may have changed but his love for shuffling blues riffs and his flair for stand out couplets (“I’m Going To Raise Me An Army, Some Tough Son’s Of Bitches, I’ll Recruit My Army Orphanages”) certainly hadn’t.
There was more to Bob Dylan than just the studio recordings, and anyone who has seen Dylan live will know that he can and will do anything and everything imaginable to his classic material. No album and no track is sacred, everything is fair game for reinvention and on 1976’s live album Hard Rain Dylan shared his anthemic hard rocking take on Blood On The Track’s subdued acoustic sensation “Shelter From The Storm”. The original was famed for it’s controlled subtlety; this new live version was the polar opposite, a booming infectious stadium ready anthem.
“Tombstone Blues” is another marriage of divergent themes as a driving blues arrangement that rolls perpetually downhill, punctuated by a series of slick licks, is married to one of Dylan’s uncontainable surrealistic narratives. While Dylan hops from Galileo and Delilah to the cowardly sun and road maps to the soul the lick laden arrangement makes sure the “Tombstone Blues” never loses momentum.
Few could have expected Bob Dylan to recapture the zeitgeist in his 60s but that’s exactly what he did on 2001’s Love And Theft. Dylan appeared old, haggard and weary, the vision of the classic pre-war bluesman, who’d travelled to every town, drinking and smoking his way through the misery of existence. “Mississippi” was a beautiful folk rock anthem, simple, to the point and endlessly resonant; the reflections of a well-travelled raconteur who mastered so much but never love, and never the bottle.
“Stuck Inside Of…” shares a similar chord progression to “Mississippi” but the tracks couldn’t be more different. The former is a critical and humorous take on despair, the perfect contrast to latter’s upright earnestness. Marrying scathing satire to soothing tones “Stuck Inside Of…” is one Dylan’s most enticing and accessible offerings, highlighted by a string of delicious couplets:
“An’ I say “Aw Come On Now, You Know About My Debutant”
An’ She Says “Your Debutant Just Knows What You Need, I Know What You Want”
“The Ballad Of A Thin Man” is a wonderfully airy accusatory quasi-ballad that sees Dylan balancing spiteful putdowns with playful surrealist imagery. The arrangement is masterful, hazy, and potent, moving from the airiness of a haunted saloon to the hopeless resignation of the accused staring malignly at his shoes as the judge delivers his sentence.
“Ballad Of A Thin Man’s” meaning and focus is disputed but it is commonly read as an assault on those who took his lyrics too literally, those who attempted to dissect his songs and those who simple didn’t get Dylan. This is Dylan at his most contemptuous and most thrilling.
At the outset I promised one acoustic track and here it is, Dylan’s defining rendition of the traditional folk song “Moonshiner”. As a track it represents Dylan the character actor, throwing himself into the role of the “Moonshiner”, capturing the dejection, the misery but also the worldliness and the acceptance of the destitute alcoholic.
Dylan’s vocal performance is truly sublime, his career best, the phraseology is masterful giving the track’s erudite imagery (“God Bless Them, Pretty Women, I Wish They Were Mine, Their Breath Is As Sweet, As Dew On The Vine”) and its fatalist lament (“The Whole’s A Bottle And Life’s But A Dram, When The Bottle Gets Empty It Sure Ain’t Worth A Damn”) a level of poignancy the words alone could never hope to muster.
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