An Idle Word: A column
by BILL CUNNINGHAM
I still remember the first time I head that voice and those words come out of my radio. I don’t remember which deejay’ show it was–Ricci Ware, Joe Rotten or maybe even Joe’s meaner brother Moe Rotten–but oh how I remember the words and my immediate reaction to it.
“The sweet pretty things are in Vietnam of course,
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse.
But the town has no need to be nervous.”
This was the Bob Dylan I had been reading about it. Oh, he had been around for several years—those lyrics are the opening salvo of “Tombstone Blues” on “Highway 61 Revisited”, his sixth album (these were the days before digital music, compact discs or even eight-track tapes).
But he had made his blooming reputation as a folksinger and while San Antonio radio had eclectic musical tastes, folk music wasn’t part of the equation. This wasn’t folk music though, or like any music I had heard. This was the new Dylan who had shocked the folk world by coming out for the Newport Folk Festival accompanied by Chicago’s Butterfield Blues Band, plugged in their electric instruments and, to cries of “Judas” from the crowd, blown the American music scene apart.
“Highway 61” was the middle album in rock music’s greatest hat trick, preceded by “Bringing It All Back Home” and followed by the two-LP “Blonde on Blonde,” all released in a two year period of 1965 and 1966.
“Bringing It” was only half electric with the second side nominally folk music but “Highway 61” was where Dylan went completely rock. And it rocked like nothing I had ever heard before.
With Al Kooper’s furiously-pumping playing on the organ and Mike Bloomfield’s blues guitar licks driving Dylan surreal lyrics, the angst that had been building in the nation for the last three years was summed up in a six-minute blast that sounded like the world’s greatest garage band fronted by Baudelaire and fueled by absinthe and amphetamines.
Before the verb even existed, Dylan “namechecked” Belle Starr, Jack the Ripper, Jezebel, John the Baptist, Cecil B. DeMille, Galileo and Ma Rainey (not to forget the aforementioned carrier of the Midnight Rider) into his tapestry of corruption and malaise.
And my reaction as those words came flooding into my ears, were something like, well really to be exact (sounding like Burgess Meredith on an old “Twilight Zone” episode) well to be precise was the thought,” The world’s never going to be the same again.” And I was right.
Even more than Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, Dylan’s three classic albums in two years is a record that will never be broken in a time when artists spread three years between albums (not counting Willie Nelson’s album of the month club).
The impact on musical artists was profound in creating their own music and is reflected on my 70 plus iPod playlist of covers of Dylan songs ranging from Nancy Sinatra to “King of Rock N’Soul” Solomon Burke to Flatt & Scruggs to My Chemical Romance (an explosive deconstruction of the epic “Desolation Row” into three minutes on the sound track of “The Watchmen” movie).
Then came his motorcycle accident, followed by his recovery and release of two very, very good albums, his worst album of all time “Self Portrait” with its one redeeming factor being a magnificent cover of Skeeter Davis’ “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” and a continuing string of fair to mediocre album, marked by an occasional gem and broken only by 1975’s “Blood On The Tracks.”
The Dylan comeback starting 10 years ago with “World Out of Time” and followed by “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times.” The occasion for these musings is the release this week of Dylan’s forth straight great album, “Together Through Life.” Four greats in a decade isn’t like three classics in two years but still runs rings around almost anyone else recording today. And “Together” isn’t as revolutionary as the Dylan of 40 years ago but then neither am I.
The sound is more that of a veteran roadhouse band and the key instrumental force is the accordion played by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. And its major theme is romance albeit in some strange forms such as the song, “My Wife’s Home Town.” Its name is Hell.
Unlike the Dylan who burned the rulebook on popular music, it is an album rooted in the past—Dylan crooning in a Tom Waits-like rasp, Hidalgo’s accordion lending a Doug Sahm Tex-Mex vibe, the blues.
Who would have believed that the man who gave the town every reason to be nervous would one day be the guardian of America’s musical heritage—‘the “old, weird America” as rock critic Greil Marcus described it.
But then again, who better? Dylan’s grown old but he’s still weird.
And he still got his “namecheck” mojo together working the Irish novelist James Joyce and Waco honky-tonker Billy Joe Shaver into the same sentence on one cut.
“Together Through Life” evokes for me Edmond O’Brien’s offer to Robert Ryan to join his reconstructed band of old outlaws and Mexican revolutionaries at the end of “The Wild Bunch”—“”It ain’t like it used to be—but it’ll do.”
Or as Dylan puts it in the title of his new album’s riotous final cut—“It’s All Good.”Email | Print