Playdate with Bob Dylan

As I contemplate the many pleasant afternoons in my life, oddly enough, it’s one of the non-carnal ones to which I often return in memory.

It was an afternoon in the Tune Town record shop in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I was still in my twenties, a young dad, and I was there to pick up a book I’d lent to the guy behind the counter, Bill Lloyd.

Bill Lloyd in his Foster & Lloyd days.

Yes, that Bill Lloyd, A few years later, he was half of Foster & Lloyd and on his way to his career as one of the most admired, beloved and respected musicians in Nashville.

But on that day, he wanted to return my copy of It’s Too Late to Stop Now, a book of essays by Jon Landau, who had forsaken writing about music to become Svengali for Bruce Springsteen.

I went to pick up the book but luckily the afternoon went as I’d hoped and elongated. It became an adult playdate.

You’ve got to hear this, he said — again and again.

It was a weekday, so the store was essentially ours. A few customers came and went, but Bill kept pulling records from under the counter and popping them on the store turntable.

He guided me through an afternoon of songs — wonderful, swirling music, stuff I’d never heard before. With the record shop at his disposal, he took me through his world, and played me stuff from Buddy Holly’s demos, recorded in his apartment just weeks before his death. He introduced me to The Dictators Go Girl Crazy and I became a lifelong fan of Handsome Dick Manitoba. I was stunned by the import-only White Trails by Englishman Chris Rainbow. That was a thrilling collection heavily influenced by the Sunflower / Surf’s Up era of The Beach Boys.

I kept notes in the plain pages at the back of the Landau book. Within a couple of years, I’d tracked down and bought all of the records Bill played for me that day.

I love adult playdates and now I feel as if I’ve had another rewarding musical afternoon, this time with Bob Dylan.

Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is sort of like that long-ago afternoon with Bill Lloyd, only without the music. (I hope a soundtrack album to Dylan’s book is imminent.)

Bob Dylan

It’s as if we’re seated on the floor in front of the turntable, and Dylan is flipping through his albums saying, You’ve got to hear this.

He’s picked out 66 songs from all across the musical map, and he tells us about them. There are no details about recording and only once or twice does he examine the songs from a professional songwriter’s viewpoint. He never indulges in self-reference, about a particular song’s influence or ways in which he would approach the same material.

So it’s not a discographical reference. Like a lot of Dylan’s prose, it’s fanciful, often hilarious, and notoriously unreliable. We assume the recording details at the front of every chapter are correct, but all bets are off when it comes to his flights of fancy.

And he takes such flights frequently. With several songs, he goes off on wild tangents.

Consider this meditation on footwear, which I excerpt I from his commentary on “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins:

There are more songs about shoes than there are about hats, pants and dresses combined. Ray Price’s keep walking back to him. Betty Lou got a new pair. Chuck Willis didn’t want to hang his up. Shoes reveal character, station and personality. But for all that shoes revealed, they did not give up their secrets easily. [Consider] the white buck, a shoe so proud if its immaculate surface that it came with a small brush to buff any blemish from existence. And one can’t forget blue suede shoes. Has ever a shoe proclaimed its frivolity more joyously? Has any article of clothing ever said more plainly that it wasn’t meant for the farm, that it wasn’t meant to step in pig shit? Poor Carl Perkins, watching Elvis Presley sing his song “Blue Suede Shoes” on TV in 1956 from a hospital bed. At that point, Carl’s version had sold a million copies, but a car accident slowed the momentum of Carl’s career and it never truly recovered. Elvis, on the other hand, was all sullen eyes and sharp cheekbones, backwoods-born but city-livin’, truck-drivin’, hip-shakin’ with a feral whiff of danger. Carl wrote this song, but if Elvis was alive today, he’d be the one to have a deal with Nike.

Feral whiff? It’s writing like that that makes me wish Dylan published prose more often.

Turns out he’s not just the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he’s also the master of the Dad Joke.

These vamps are like transcriptions from those off-the-wall monologues Dylan used to deliver when he hosted his Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio. The book is much like the show in the sense that he wants to educate us about the music that made him.

A treatise on the bluegrass music of the Osborne Brothers’ 1957 recording of “Ruby, Are You Mad?” somehow morphs into a discussion of heavy metal music. He concludes the two forms of music have a lot in common: “This [bluegrass music] is speed metal without the embarrassment of Spandex and junior high school devil worship.”

He loves tall tales. Discussing Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” he references Linda Ronstadt’s hit version of the song. “A lot of people cite The Dickson Baseball Dictionary as listing ‘Linda Ronstadt’ as a synonym for a baseball,” he deadpans, because the ball “‘blew by you.’ When Herb Carneal announced a Twins game and the opposing team’s batter would take a strike off a fastball, Herb would giddily exclaim, ‘Thank you, Roy Orbison.’”

There’s no such entry in my edition of the Dickson book, but why quibble. I’m not sure Dylan’s writing would last more than a couple of minutes in the fact-checking department of The New Yorker. Those carnivorous Keepers of Truth would roll up the manuscript and toss it in the dustbin. But who cares? Dylan’s obviously having fun.

Except when he isn’t. There are a couple startling essays on music than turn tragic and unforgettable. You’re laughing along with his word play and then suddenly shocked into silence.

Ry Cooder

Somewhere, Ry Cooder is blushing. Dylan lavishes the great guitarist with Himalayas of praise. His chapter on “Old Violin” reminds me that I need to rethink Johnny Paycheck. I’m suddenly questioning if I missed something in the singing of Perry Como. And what love Dylan’s shows Judy Garland.

The artists range from hillbillies to rappers, with Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby thrown in, alongside The Clash, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and artists you’ve never heard of. He cares little for political correctness and says, at one point ,that as a field of knowledge expands and is stretched tighter, the skin of society becomes too thin for the comfort of ideas.

There’s a lot of pocket wisdom in the book and it’s as if he just used the premise of writing about records to reveal this wonderment of prose writing.

Note: There are no entries for The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones or Dylan.

It’s a beautiful book, filled with oddball and esoteric illustrations. The cover features Little Richard, Alis Lesley (she called herself the Female Elvis) and the great and doomed Eddie Cochran.

As much as I love hard copies, I supplemented this purchase of paper with the audio version of the book. I heard Bob was doing part of the narration. He ends up doing his fantasias, which sound like coffee-shop beat poetry read aloud. His segments have a different audio texture than his other narrators.

And what a cast of collaborators. The lineup includes Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Oscar Isaac, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Sissy Spacek, Alfre Woodard, Jeffrey Wright and Renee Zellweger.

Helen Mirren, part of the narration crew

You’ve got to hear this. Bob doesn’t point us to any of his recordings, but he does include some contemporaries — Willie Nelson, Cher, Jimmy Webb and others — and, of course, honors the forefathers of rock’n’roll: Little Richard, Rick Nelson, and Johnny Cash.

But — and here’s where you need to take notes — he introduces us to recordings that mean so much to him: “Take Me from This Garden of Evil,” an unreleased song, recorded by Jimmy Wages in 1957; Harry McClintock’s 1927 recording of “Jesse James”; and “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1924. I know I’ll be tracking down “Doesn’t Hurt Anyone” by John Trudell, released in 2001 … one of only two songs from this century to make Dylan’s cut.

And that makes sense. Bob Dylan is, after all, a pure product of America. He is the American musical experience wrapped up in the bones of sinews of one human being, and he wants to share his love with you.

You’ve got to hear this.

Can You Take Me Back?

John, Ringo, George and Paul on their ‘Mad Day Out’ in July 1968.

For a week now, I’ve been immersed in the 50th anniversary edition of the White Album, the record officially known as The Beatles, released November  22, 1968.

It was the first Beatle album that I bought new. My sister was at the right age when the Beatles hit in 1964. I watched them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ that February and sat front and center for A Hard Day’s Night at the theater that summer.

I liked the music, but music itself hadn’t really hit me. Not rock’n’roll at least. I was still into Henry Mancini and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — but that’s another story.

Things had changed by 1968 and I was ready when the White Album hit. Back then, young sprogs, our parents didn’t just buy us stuff and we didn’t get handed an allowance. The folks expected us to work for money. And since the White Album was a double-album, I’d need to work extra hard.

That fall, my parents had moved to a new house on a heavily wooded lot outside Bloomington, Indiana. They’d paid to have a few trees removed around the back deck, but the massive stumps were left behind. Stump removal was my job. My father’s going rate was five dollars per.

Owing to blisters and exhaustion, I couldn’t do too many stumps at a time. Gradually, using axes and shovels, I cleared all but a few. In order to buy the White Album, I needed to find a big bastard out in the yard.

I found something suitable and asked my father if I could have $10 for it, since it was such a large and sprawling fucker. The old man agreed. I think he knew I had the hunger to buy something that was otherwise out of reach.

I attacked that thing with the ferocity of Alan Ladd in Shane. He and Van Heflin took on a monster stump and together pulled its stubborn carcass from the ground.

Without help, I spent a day working in the back yard. When I called my father outside at dusk, he marveled at my work, then handed me a $10 bill. I rode my bike to the Woolworth’s — luckily, owing to the early sunset of November — only a half mile away. The album was mine.

I’m not sure I can make a Sophie’s Choice with Beatle albums. I’ve always been partial to Rubber Soul. Revolver still sounds great all these years later. Then there’s Abbey Road. On the day it was released — a year after the White Album — I remember tear-assing down to Discount Records on lunch break to pick it up. I held it , still sealed, in my fingers on my desktop, the envy of my social set, since I had it first.

But the White Album was something unique. It both pleased and mystified me. Every note and every sound became part of my sinews. Over the years I haven’t needed a device to play the record. It’s always there, ready to unspool in my skull.

The 50th anniversary edition — six CDs, one BluRay — is a worthy presentation for such a vital album. The Beatles always so well captured the essence of their times, and they matched the brutality and change of 1968 with an album that was chaotic and magnificent.

I not only rediscovered this great old album. I found things I didn’t know I was looking for.

The box arrived in the mail and almost immediately I hit the road for a drive to New York for the weekend. For my road music, I grabbed only the last four discs — the demos cut in the spring at George Harrison’s house, and three discs of studio outtakes, including songs that never made it on to the album, including ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Sour Milk Sea,’ ‘Child of Nature,’ ‘Across the Universe’ and others.

The four portraits included with the White Album.

I was alone, so I played the discs one after another at thundering volume. I’d had most of the stuff on bootlegs, but the quality of this set is superior. I’ve always enjoyed these archival sets. Bob Dylan has 14 volumes in his Bootleg Series, and it’s great to hear his early takes — to hear, say, what ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ sounded like about six minutes before genius showed up. There’s a Jimi Hendrix archival set that makes his music sound ordinary, right before his brilliance caught fire.

The Beatles have not done the ‘official bootleg’ thing quite as much, but the White Album is a great place to show the anatomy of the creative process.

Here are some highlights (for me):

  • Hearing John work through ‘Julia,’ the song about his mother. To hear him on the talkback with engineer Chris Thomas … to hear his voice again … chokes me up. The same happens when you hear George order a sandwich before recording ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ It’s sad those voices are no longer in the world.
  • I never much liked ‘Helter Skelter’ because of its lumbering sound, and began to actively hate it after Charles Manson co-opted it. Oddly, on this set it’s one of my highlights. After blasting through it, Paul says, “Mark it ‘Fab,’” and it is.
  • I always wondered about that ditty (‘Can you take me back where I came from’)  that Paul sings as the sound montage of ‘Revolution 9’ begins. Here you hear him work through it, trying to develop it into a full song. Turns out it was perfect as a fragment.
  • Hearing all four Beatles sing ‘Good Night.’ On the original release, Ringo sings it with an orchestra. I could never decide if — since it followed the madness of ‘Revolution 9’ — the song was intended to end the album on a reassuring or ironic note. On one of the takes, Ringo sings and the other three lean into a microphone to harmonize. It’s not the greatest performance, but to hear those four voices together again is deeply moving.
  • Hearing three Beatles (Ringo, depressed, took a break during the sessions) playing ‘Back in the USSR’ in a lower key. They sped up the tape to give the song its sonic magic.
  • Hearing John finger-pick his way through ‘Dear Prudence’ and Paul do solo run-throughs of ‘I Will’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son.’

All the way down to the city and all the way back, I blasted those four discs.

Listening to the White Album itself was sort of an afterthought for me. My ears are not sophisticated and when people talk about new remixes, I sort of glaze over.

So it was more out of a sense of duty that late the night of my return, I went downstairs to my basement office and music room to put on the remixed White Album, just so I can say I listened to it.

Wow.

Do you remember the old Maxell tape advertisement, from back in the Seventies — the windblown and mindblown guy in the easy chair? That was me as ‘Back in the USSR’ boomed from my speakers. I listened to the whole thing straight through. It was brilliant.

‘Tis the season, apparently, for expensive box sets.

Bob on the tracks

Just the week before, I’d been spelunking through Bob Dylan’s back pages. As the first victim of bootleggers, he began bootlegging himself back in 1991 when he launched his Bootleg Series. He’s up to Volume 14, More Blood, More Tracks, six discs collecting the 1974 recordings leading to his classic Blood on the Tracks.

As with the White Album outtakes, I’d had bootlegs devoted to the Blood on the Tracks sessions. He recorded much of the album on the day I turned 20 — September 16, 1974 — and ran through monstrous numbers of takes.

After a few furious days of recording in New York, an album was assembled. Columbia Records designed a cover, commissioned liner notes from Pete Hamill, and readied the album for release.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the hit parade.

Dylan had second thoughts. He played the acetate of the album for his brother while visiting Minnesota in December. David Zimmerman told big brother he could do better. Or something. But he hired a studio, found some local musicians, and got Big Brother Bob to re-record half of the album.

Columbia Records had a collective coronary and the album was delayed a month. To save time and money, the record company went with the original album cover, meaning the Minneapolis musicians did not get credited, though they had recorded half the album.

Eventually, the original recordings — some of them, at least — leaked out.

Conventional wisdom — meaning bullshit spewed by clueless fans such as myself — held that Dylan withdrew the original recordings because they so well chronicled the pain and suffering of a man mired in heartbreak and despair.  The album supposedly told the story of his abandoned love as his marriage crumbled. Dylan, his voice strained, was a testament to vulnerability. (Dylan denied this, of course, saying the album was inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov.)

Now, however, Dylan has shared all of the takes — they are legion; six discs worth — from the New York sessions. Alas, no outtakes from the Minneapolis sessions exist, but we do get all of the master takes, minus the echo added in post production.

Both the White Album and More Blood, More Tracks show deep-dive insight to the creative process. Both the Fabs and Dylan show us how songs grow and evolve. But these huge collections are more than mere curiosities for music geeks. These are further explorations and discoveries of this music we’ve carried within us for a half century.

Listen again to the acts we’ve known for all these years. You’ll be surprised by all of the things you haven’t heard.