Tag 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’.

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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

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Rocks In The Attic #754: George Harrison – ‘Cloud Nine’ (1987)

RITA#754Imagine if George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ringo Starr and Jeff Lynne had got together and formed a band, maybe recorded an album together. What a project that would have been! Well imagine no more, as it did happen, in the form of this, George’s eleventh and final (in his lifetime) studio album from 1987.

The stars were definitely aligning around George around this time. The players on this album attest to the strength of this; neither of them needed the work. And it wasn’t the only supergroup that George would play with before the decade was out. A year later he and Jeff Lynne would form the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison – itself the result of a need to record a b-side for a Cloud Nine single.

In fact, it’s Jeff Lynne who I see as the unsung hero behind these two projects. His production is the reason Cloud Nine sounds so focused, compared to some of George’s more meandering efforts. It sounds upbeat and now, mainly thanks to that big drum sound – something he would apply again to Ringo’s drums ten years later on the Beatles’ ‘reunion’ singles, Free As A Bird and Real Love. Lynne would apply the same formula to Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever in 1989, before pulling Paul McCartney back on creative track with 1996’s Flaming Pie.

It’s sad that George didn’t release any more studio albums after this, before he died in 2002. Aside from working on the Beatles’ Anthology project, I guess he was happy just to tinker around in his garden, and bring up his son, Dhani.

Speaking of Dhani, I was happy to see his name credited as the composer of HBO’s recent documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed.  Alongside his writing partner, Paul Hicks, he’s been working as a composer for films and TV shows since 2013. Given the soundtrack success of partnerships Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, it’s more than likely that we’ll hear more from Harrison and Hicks in the near future.

Hit: Got My Mind Set On You

Hidden Gem: Fish On The Sand

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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.

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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 #530: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – ‘Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ (1976)

rita530It’s a shame that the songwriting of Tom Petty hasn’t earned him a personalised adjective like other famous rockers. You could throw a couple of chords together and somebody might say it sounds Dylanesque, or if your song has a melodic walking bassline it could be accused of sounding McCartneyesque. But unfortunately if you write a song that has all the hallmarks of a Heartbreakers song, nobody says that it sounds a bit Petty. Maybe this does happen and all the recording studio bust-ups are over a simple misunderstanding.

I recently had a week off work. I caught a horrible virus from my four-year old, and felt like death for a few days. During that week – and you need that amount of time to set aside – I watched Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour Tom Petty documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been ill, but it was a really great watch regardless.

It’s become de rigueur for an all-encapsulating documentary to be directed by a big-name director. As well as Bogdanovich’s Petty-thon, there’s Scorsese’s doco on George Harrison, and Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam film. Concert films attract big names too – Jonathan Demme’s work with Talking Heads and Neil Young, Scorsese’s Last Waltz with the Band, Wim Wenders foray into Cuban music, Taylor Hackford’s profile of Chuck Berry, Scorsese’s and Hal Ashby’s work with the Stones. The list is endless, and probably driven by the fact that most film directors are big fans of music to begin with.

I can’t make my mind up about Tom Petty. I love his earlier material, like this album and the unequalled  Damn The Torpedoes, but his later work in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond stray a little too close to the middle of the road for my liking. Maybe I’m just being a little Petty in saying that.

Hit: American Girl

Hidden Gem: Breakdown

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 #476 Donovan – ‘Donovan’s Greatest Hits’ (1969)

RITA#476Who doesn’t like a bit of Donovan? Well, quite a few people actually. Listening to his music – which should be what people judge him on – he sounds harmless. But I hear his autobiography paints him as something else.

I have that book too. It’s sat on my bookshelf, in my ever-growing ‘to read’ pile. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to read it though. I like these songs. They paint nice memories. I remember being at an all-night house party in London in the late ‘90s, and this record got put on in the early hours just as dawn was breaking. I don’t want memories like this to be ruined if he turns out to be a tit.

Donovan also seems to be a bit of a source of ridicule for Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. Dylan’s amusement of Donovan’s coverage in the English press is one of the funniest moments in the documentary. That sort of makes sense, I suppose. Donovan’s music isn’t exactly challenging; a mile away from the cerebral workouts of Dylan’s brand of folk. Donovan’s work in comparison is almost ‘folk music for elevators’.

My favourite tune on this collection is Hurdy Gurdy Man, used to soundtrack the opening scene of David Fincher’s Zodiac. I love that film and the song is used perfectly. I couldn’t imagine a more ominous song, although Donovan’s own Season Of The Witch is pretty haunting too.

Hit: Mellow Yellow

Hidden Gem: Hurdy Gurdy Man

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)