Category Archives: Bob Dylan

Rocks In The Attic #763: David Bowie – ‘Pinups’ (1973)

RITA#763I just saw Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, covering Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour of 1975 – 1976. I’m not much of a Dylan-head, so it was all new information to me. I’d seen pictures of him playing with a face painted white, but I had no idea what that was all about. And I was surprised to learn that Gene Simmons and Kiss were partly to blame!

Another surprise was spotting a post-Bowie Mick Ronson playing in Dylan’s tour band. I’m not much of a Bowie-head either, so I wasn’t sure what Ronson ended up doing after he left Bowie’s employ. Turns out he was a very busy boy, recording two solo albums and essentially becoming a gun for hire.

Ronson appears in the Scorsese film a couple of times, playing some blistering lead guitar on a couple of songs on stage, and can be glimpsed walking around backstage and in some of more interesting off-stage sections of the film. It really made me realise how much I miss seeing him strutting around with his Les Paul. It was sad to hear Joan Baez recount asking Ronson what Dylan thought of him, and Ronson replied ‘I don’t know; Bob’s never spoken to me’.

RITA#763a
The highlight of the Dylan film for me was seeing Joni Mitchell playing Bob and his entourage the song Coyote, which she had written for the tour. Bob half-heartedly joins in, and you can see his face almost drain at Joni’s use of non-standard tuning and funny chords. It’s the same look of despondency he throws at a pair of CBS records executives when he goes in to ask about them releasing Hurricane as a single (to draw attention to the false imprisonment of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter). One executive immediately starts talking about markets and the possibility of airplay on black radio stations. Bob just doesn’t care and his face shows it.

My one very small criticism of Scorsese’s film relates to the only time I’ve seen Dylan play. At the end of the film, in the run-up to the credits, each of Dylan’s tour dates since the Rolling Thunder tour are listed, separated by year. I paused the 2018 list to have a look at the date I saw him play, in Auckland. Not only is the concert listed against an incorrect date, but it’s also attributed to Brisbane, New Zealand – an imaginary combination of locations in the Pacific. Jeez, Scorsese is such a hack director!

Pinups is probably the Bowie album I know the least from his early glam period. I don’t know why; I think I just avoided it in my youth simply for being a covers record. Whenever I do listen to it though, I really enjoy it. It’s nice to see the kind of mainly London-esque material that was making Bowie tick at the time – The Who, The Pretty Things, Pink Floyd, Them, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Mojos, The Easybeats and The Merseys. It’s actually a bloody strong LP, finding Bowie having a lot of fun, backed by Ronson and bass player Trevor Bolder from the Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane albums, and drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Nice to see Twiggy on the cover too.

Hit: Sorrow

Hidden Gem: Here Comes The Night

RITA#763b

Rocks In The Attic #706: Bob Dylan – ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II’ (1971)

RITA#706I saw Bob Dylan in concert a couple of weekends ago. I took my mother-in-law along, who has trouble walking, so we got to use her disabled badge and park inside the stadium.

A couple of weeks prior, they sent us instructions to access the parking space. The email subject line was ‘Mobility Parking Bob Dylan’.

‘Mobility Parking Bob Dylan’ sounds like the long-awaited, much slower, follow-up to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

I went to the concert expecting age-appropriate Dylan classics such as:

– The Tyres (On My Wheelchair), They Need A-Changing
– Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…I’m Senile
– Subterranean Hip-Replacement Blues
– Like The Rolling Stones
– A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (And I’ve Forgotten My Umbrella)
– All Along The Wheelchair
– Lay Lady Lay (It’s Naptime)
– Stuck Inside My Mobility Scooter With The Memphis Blues Again
– Blowing In The Wind (Flatulence Remix)

And of course, I was expecting Mr Dylan to perform under his real name, Robert Zimmerframe.

The truth was far scarier.

Bob is Bob, and Bob gets to do what he wants to do. Or so the chorus of staunch Dylan fans seem to recite, every time a criticism of his live performances is uttered. It’s like a reflex mechanism. They can’t help it.

You see, Bob Dylan no longer performs Bob Dylan songs live in concert. He sings songs with the same titles as the ones on his records, and (I’m guessing) with the same lyrics, but the music is something else, something new, something strange.  And saying that he sings these songs is very generous, for he doesn’t even sing anymore. He just expels an odd sound, indecipherable to most people. I’m sure he’s trying to get words out, but his enunciation is just lost to the ages.

Critical reviews of his Auckland show were almost universally positive, with the caveat that ‘it wasn’t for everybody’. Because it’s Bob Dylan, right? The man changed culture as much as any politician of the twentieth century. His influence on the music world is immeasurable. So does that give him the right to do what he wants on stage? Of course it does. But then again, any artist can do whatever they want. That’s the very nature of art. It’d be boring otherwise, and generally is.

I can understand the absence of big screens above the stage. If Bob doesn’t like being recorded, that’s fine. But the policing of mobile phones seemed a little heavy-handed. Multiple PA announcements before the show warned that phones were not to be taken out inside the arena ‘at the request of artist management’, which just sounded a little like the energy-allergic paranoia of Michael McKean’s character on TV’s Better Call Saul. I managed to get a few blurry photos, and took a couple of videos under my jacket. A couple in the rows below us were not so lucky and were caught by the phone police. They were asked to follow a staff member out onto the concourse, a journey from which they never came back. As a result, I feel like I’ve smuggled something out of East Germany.

RITA#706a
The sound itself also left a lot to be desired. The first two or three songs were some of the worst sounding music I’ve ever experienced at a big concert. The sound mix was all over the place, and the band just didn’t seem to be gelling. Then something just clicked during a song featuring the accompaniment of a fiddle-player, and it got better and better as the night progressed.

I’m just sad when I imagine how good a Dylan concert could be. ‘Sometimes he can be transcendent,’ somebody told me on Facebook. ‘And other times he can be…less than transcendent.’ Somebody else warned me that he doesn’t do jukebox set-lists, and while I’m sure that a greatest hits set would have made a lot of people happy last week, I’d have been content with something else. If he’d have played anything – anything – and actually sounded like Dylan, I’d have been happy.

But there were a couple of moments in the concert where he did sound like the Dylan everybody remembers. Sat behind his baby-grand on stage, he blew into his harmonica, and that beautiful wailing sound breathed in and out, filling the arena. It’s the sound that makes my dog sing along to Bob’s records. Right then, he could have been the Bob Dylan of 1965, or the Bob Dylan of any decade since. That truly was transcendent.

Hit: All I Really Want To Do

Hidden Gem: I Shall Be Released

Rocks In The Attic #528: Bob Dylan – ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965)

rita528This was the first Dylan album I ever bought – I think because out of all of his classic singles, I liked the singalong ‘…Then You!…’ bits in Like A Rolling Stone. It really is a great song – although, like nearly all Dylan songs, I have no idea what it all means. My lyric-blindness prevents me from caring about the words too much, and it’s a blissful kind of ignorance. Perhaps if I knew what the lyrics meant, I’d like the song less, like seeing a card trick standing behind the magician.

I’d probably have listened to a lot more Dylan in my youth, if I’d started with another album – perhaps The Freewheelin’ from 1962. I still find 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited a bit of a heavy trip. Man.

This week it was announced that Bob has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I’m sure this has made a whole load of highbrow people really angry, and I like the nomination for that establishment outrage, as much as I like it for Bob’s achievement at being awarded something nice.

Rolling Stone magazine says he deserves it – not ‘for making it through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books’, a nice reference to a lyric from this record’s Ballad Of A Thin Man, but for ‘for inventing ways to make songs do what they hadn’t done before’. It’s a long time since Rolling Stone said anything against the grain though so it’s not surprising. Perhaps if this announcement would have come thirty or forty years ago, they might have taken a difference stance. Rolling Stone, like Dylan himself, once was very much the embodiment of the counter-culture. They haven’t exactly become the establishment since; instead the establishment has shifted in the intervening years, to stand behind people like Dylan.

What do I know though? I don’t even understand what he’s saying half the time.

Hit: Like A Rolling Stone

Hidden Gem: Tombstone Blues

Rocks In The Attic #422: Bob Dylan – ‘Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (O.S.T.)’ (1973)

RITA#422When I bought this record, a few years ago at the Auckland record collectors fair, the stall owner thanked me for my purchase by coming around to my side of the counter, leaning into me with the stale breath of the previous night’s beers and giving me a quick burst of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, air-guitar and all.

My knowledge of Dylan after the ‘60s is very limited. I know about the big albums – but in terms of everything else, there seems to be so much chaff among the wheat that it’s almost a minefield, like the musical equivalent of trying to separate the good Woody Allen films from the bad ones.

I haven’t seen the film that this record soundtracks. Coming to a cultural backwater like New Zealand has severely limited my chances of being able to see the film on television or though a friend, so I’m going to need to seek it out through other channels. As I approach the end of my thirties, there’s still a heap of older films I still need to see; only last night I was watching Peter Bogdanovich in The Sopranos and I realised I haven’t seen any of Bogdanovich’s own films. Well, I’ve seen Mask – everybody has seen Mask as the BBC used to play it with alarming regularity – but I haven’t seen any of his other films like The Last Picture Show or What’s Up Doc?, despite reading so much about Bogdanovich and seeing him critique other directors such as Hitchcock and Truffaut. My knowledge of Truffaut films is similarly limited, and ashamedly the only thing I know him from is his appearance in Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I was speaking to a friend at work the other day and the subject of youthful ignorance came up – the fact that young people today are just so blind, not only to cultural matters, but also in terms of current events and even historical events. I wonder if the rise of technology and social media has had a negative effect on the ability for young people to see the importance of understanding about anything other than themselves. I’ve heard Spike Lee say similar things about young African American kids, but it’s a universal problem – an epidemic of the twenty first century.

Yes, I’m starting to sound very much like an old man. But I ain’t knockin’ on heaven’s door just yet!

Hit: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

Hidden Gem: Main Title Theme (Billy)

Rocks In The Attic #349 Bob Dylan – ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ (1964)

RITA#349I like this stage of Dylan’s back catalogue: completely solo, pre-electric, and just before his fame got in the way. But Another Side is probably my least favourite of his first four albums. To me, it’s his Beatles For Sale – he sounds stuck in a rut with nothing particularly innovative on offer. A change of direction is on the horizon, but not just yet. Well, at least he didn’t resort to rewriting children’s nursery rhymes like Lennon and McCartney did in their desperation to get an album together in time for Christmas 1964.

I’ve just watched the latest Coen brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis – about a struggling folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s. As well as a perfect of the time novelty song – Please Mr. Kennedy – which I laughed at more than anything else I’ve seen in a long time, I really enjoyed the ending of the film where (SPOILER ALERT!) Dylan is glanced at, just as the film’s titular protagonist is about to give it all up and missing out while folk explodes into mainstream America.

There’s an element of openness to the ending that I liked. You don’t get to fully find out whether Davis calls it a day. In the final scene, he gets a beating for heckling a performer the night before, and that might be enough for some people to think twice about their options. But Davis’ character was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Dylan’s, who did go on to have a career in the folk boom of the mid- to late-‘60s, although nowhere nearly as successful.

I like to think that Davis didn’t quit – but maybe that’s the muso optimist in me. In the past I’ve had to quit a few things as a guitarist – some bands, some partnerships. Sometimes you just have to. The regretful thing is that I feel by moving to New Zealand, I’ve quit being a musician completely. I looked into joining / starting a band when I first moved here, but I could never find any other like-minded people. Everybody just wanted to play New Zealand music. Musicians here are blinded by a parochial mindset that I’ve never encountered anywhere else.

There is good Kiwi music out there, but it’s few and far between. That’s why nobody outside of New Zealand has ever heard of Dave Dobbyn or Anika Moa. Even Shihad are at best a whisper of a memory in the minds of overseas rock fans. World famous in New Zealand is just that – it’s mean to be an amusing way of embracing the country’s size and limitations, but it ends up being Kiwi music’s epitaph. And why would that ever change? The most successful musical export of this country was Crowded House – a band so to blame for putting New Zealand into the artistic middle-of-the-road, that it’s not surprising that foreign drivers have so much difficulty remembering to drive on the left when they get here. Even tall poppies like Lorde are derided by Kiwi music critics, because her music is so typically un-Kiwi, and how dare she achieve worldwide fame without playing barbeque reggae or singing about Dominion Road.

Still…Slice Of Heaven, what a tune!

Hit: It Ain’t Me Babe

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)

Rocks In The Attic #335: The Travelling Wilburys – ‘Traveling Wilburys Vol 1’ (1988)

RITA#335As a rule I don’t go for supergroups. There’s too much ego, hype and general bullshit to get in the way. At least with this album, there’s no truth to spoil the illusion – none of the contributors (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty) are mentioned anywhere on the album sleeve. Instead, they’re only represented by their pseudonyms (Nelson, Lucky, Lefty, Otis and Charlie T. Jr. respectively). The album’s liner notes are by Michael Palin (again, under a pseudonym – Hugh Jampton), which is another nice touch.

It just sounds like a bad dream though, doesn’t it? George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty? All songwriters well past their prime, and in Orbison’s case, close to the end of his life. The production – by Lynne and Harrison – is about as far from analogue as you can get; everything sounds digitised and far too clean. The guitars all sound the same on every single track – clean, bouncy and soul-less acoustic guitar, and like everything that Harrison was touching in his solo career, that horrible overdriven slide guitar of his is over the whole album like a bad stain.

You’d be forgiven for expecting the songs to be pretty good, given the calibre of the songwriters involved. As a collection of songs, they’re not too bad – the album’s only real saving grace. Handle With Care and End Of The Line are great tunes (from Harrison) and the only song I dislike is the dirge of Dylan’s Tweeter And The Monkey Man.

The album does succeed in coming across as it is intended to be. That is, four middle-aged guys and a senior citizen having a sing-song in somebody’s garage.

Hit: Handle With Care

Hidden Gem: Last Night

Rocks In The Attic #306: Bob Dylan – ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (1965)

RITA#306I’m liking Dylan more and more these days. I was listening to Roger McGuinn’s version of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) on the Easy Rider soundtrack the other day and it just made me want to listen to Dylan’s version – a seven and a half minute highlight from this album, his first of 1965.

I think this was the second Dylan album I ever heard, after Highway 61 Revisited, and it always used to annoy me that production-wise, Maggie’s Farm is so similar sounding to Subterranean Homesick Blues. The instrumentation on both songs is almost identical, to the extent that you can imagine Dylan and his band running from one song into the other while the tape’s still rolling. If the songs bled into one another, I wouldn’t have a problem but the fact that they put a song between them on the album reeks of hopeful misdirection. A similar accompaniment can be heard after the false start on Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, so maybe the backing band only knew one style of playing and were hoping Bob wouldn’t notice.

That’s not to say that Subterranean Homesick Blues isn’t every kind of awesome. One of my favourite Dylan tracks, it’s one of those timeless records – gibberish lyrics wrapped up in a punk spirit, twelve years before the Sex Pistols and the Clash turned up.

Listening to Dylan’s own version of Mr. Tambourine Man always reminds me of a Dylan poster that used to hang in our Sixth Form assembly area. From memory, I think it just had Dylan’s face with ‘Hey Mr. Tambourine Man’ printed below. I don’t know who put it there, or how long it had been there, but I get the impression that it had been there for a while. It’s probably still there now.

Hit: Subterranean Homesick Blues

Hidden Gem: It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)