Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Double Helping of Dylan

On Tuesday, Bob Dylan turned 70.

Forty–five years ago, sometime around his 25th birthday, Dylan released "Blonde on Blonde." (I say it was sometime around his birthday because, technically, the album was released in mid–May, but its release was delayed in some markets until late June.).

In a career that has been loaded with classic albums, Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" has always stood apart from the rest.

It wasn't the first double album, but it was the first noteworthy double album in rock music — or, perhaps, that should be folk rock, even though that is still too imprecise because "Blonde on Blonde" really combined folk rock with blues and country to create something new and fresh and exciting.

That isn't just my opinion, either.

Ed Masley of the Arizona Republic writes that "[t]here's never been a more compelling argument in favor of the double album as an art form ... The lyrics are brilliant, naturally. And Dylan never made a better–sounding record. Every detail plays its part."

Stephen Thomas Erlewine of has called it "his richest set of songs." It might be.

It is "an album of enormous depth," writes Erlewine, "providing endless lyrical and musical revelations on each play." I can vouch for that. I've had the CD in my collection for nearly 20 years, and before that I had the LP in my collection for several years — and the experience truly is unique every time I listen to it.

But that shouldn't be surprising. It was Dylan's seventh album in an extraordinarily productive period in his life. He released two more albums before the '60s were over, and those nine albums still represent a run of quality unmatched by virtually anyone else at any other time in the history of recorded music.

Nearly all of those albums were flawless, and the fact that "Blonde on Blonde" packaged 14 songs, most of which were written in this groundbreaking style and ran longer (in some cases much longer) than most recordings of the time, merely demonstrates the surge of creativity Dylan was experiencing.

I always felt that it was an inspiration to others, even those who reached the same heights as Dylan.

"Blonde on Blonde," perhaps more than any other Dylan album, reminded me of the solo works of John Lennon, who didn't embark on his own solo career until four years later. Their styles were clearly different, but, still, it is difficult for me to listen to "Blonde on Blonde" and not be struck by the surreal quality of the lyrics and the whimsy in the music of "Just Like a Woman," "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and "Visions of Johanna" — the wordplay that was so prominent in Lennon's music as well.

And then there was my personal favorite from the album, the groggy yet giddy "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" — which never mentioned rainy day women but did mention, frequently, that everybody must get stoned.

(Incidentally, because of an irrational concern on the part of many American radio stations and the BBC about "drug messages," that song was banned from the air in many places.

(In spite of that, it was one of the two hits that were promoted on a sticker on the plastic wrap — "I Want You" was the other.)

That song was the first track on the album — and the only track to feature a brass band.

It was followed by "Pledging My Time," a blues song that was an obvious change of pace, and that pace kind of continued for the remainder of the album, beginning with the ballad "Visions of Johanna." It wasn't as bluesy as "Pledging My Time," but it clearly established a mood. Dylan said it was his favorite track from the album.

Side One concluded with "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," the story of a worn–out relationship. Its lyrics were honest, if a bit defensive. When I hear Dylan singing "I didn't mean to treat you so bad ... I didn't mean to make you so sad," somewhere in the back of my mind I can hear Lennon singing "I didn't mean to hurt you, I'm sorry that I made you cry."

In my opinion, Dylan's plaintive harmonica was never put to better use than it was in that song.

Side Two opened with "I Want You," which always seemed to have the quintessential feel of 1960s folk music. The music was kind of jaunty, bouncy, and it has been suggested that the lyrics were inspired by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. I don't know if that is true.

Next was "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," a song that, frankly, never made a significant impression on me. I mean, I liked it well enough, but it sounded almost too conventionally Dylan to me. Maybe I felt it went on a little bit too long — it was, after all, more than seven minutes.

But length wasn't really a factor on a double album, even in 1966. Both "Visions of Johanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" were longer ("Sad Eyed Lady," in fact, was more than 11 minutes long and took up the entire fourth side of the album).

It must have been something else. Maybe it was the lyrics. John Lennon, I have heard, wrote a parody of the song ("Stuck Inside of Lexicon with the Roget's Thesaurus Blues Again") that made fun of Dylan for using too many obscure lyrics in his songs.

Maybe that is what it was. I don't know what it was. I just know the song never really grabbed me.

I couldn't say that about the next song on the album — "Leopard–Skin Pill–Box Hat."

At this point, it is probably worth reminding readers that Dylan's music and lyrics — by and large — are timeless.

But pillbox hat is a reference that probably requires some explanation for younger folks.

The pillbox hat was fashionable in the early 1960s. It was particularly favored by first lady Jackie Kennedy, who set style trends whenever she wore anything.

And she was wearing a pillbox hat on the day her husband was assassinated here in Dallas in 1963.

Dylan's song was meant to make fun of a slave to fashion, and the story is that the inspiration for that song (and others) was Edie Sedgwick, an actress/socialite who was probably best known for her association with Andy Warhol.

As I say, the song, with its bluesy melody and tongue–in–cheek lyrics, wasn't the only one that was said to have been inspired by Sedgwick. So, too, was the last song on Side Two — "Just Like a Woman."

But that song may have been inspired by someone else — Joan Baez. That's the other story I have heard about "Just Like a Woman" — that Baez, with whom Dylan was involved at the time, inspired it. I guess it really doesn't who inspired it. It will always be a Dylan classic.

The first song on the second LP, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," didn't have that much commercial impact initially, but it sort of got a second life almost a decade later when it became a standard on a tour featuring Dylan and The Band.

Masley calls its horn and harmonica lead–in "sinister." That's a good word for it. It was another bluesy track on what was, for the most part, a bluesy album.

The next song, "Temporary Like Achilles," was still more blues — but not "sinister."

"Mournful" is probably more appropriate.

"Absolutely Sweet Marie" always makes me think of George Harrison — primarily, I suppose, because he sang that song at Dylan's 30th anniversary concert but also because it always seemed to embody the playful and whimsical quality I often found in Harrison's compositions.

True, Harrison's music always seemed to have a spiritual depth, but Dylan's music didn't lack that quality. It just didn't seem to combine playful with spiritual as easily as Harrison's did.

I've never really been sure what to think of "4th Time Around." I mean, I've heard the stories — that it was a response to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" (and, perhaps, a warning to Lennon not to encroach on his turf) or that it was about his relationship with Baez.

But I always hear the Dylan I heard in the lyrics and music of stuff like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A–Changin'." That isn't a bad thing — just a different take.

"Obviously 5 Believers" concluded Side Three with 3½ minutes of old–fashioned blues rock that was clearly influenced by traditional blues artists like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters (and later borrowed and adapted by Southern rock groups like the Allman Brothers).

I always loved the way the line "feel so all alone," harkening back to the chorus on the first song on the album.

The last side of the record, as I mentioned before, was the 11–plus–minute recording of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," which rewarded listeners with some of the richest imagery of Dylan's extensive musical catalog.

It was said to be inspired by Dylan's first wife, Sara, something he apparently acknowledged in a song called "Sara" on the "Desire" album five years later.