Sunday, March 22, 2015

Plugged-In Dylan

"Look out, kid,
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again"

Bob Dylan
"Subterranean Homesick Blues"

It's hard to comprehend now just how phenomenally productive the early 1960s were for Bob Dylan.

Obviously, Dylan has had a remarkable career, and the quality of his work has seldom dropped to a level that other singer/songwriters could only hope to equal — some day.

He put out seven albums between 1962 and 1966, and the weakest probably was the first, his debut album (which's Bruce Eder compared to the Beatles' and Rolling Stones' debut albums — "a sterling effort, outclassing most, if not all, of what came before it in the genre, but similarly eclipsed by the artist's own subsequent efforts").

Those early years weren't more productive than other periods in Dylan's life — they were probably as productive as any, though, and they yielded songs that will probably stand as his primary contributions to the history and traditions of American social activism — songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A–Changin'."

But, while one could detect a routine sameness to Dylan's work, that was more a matter of style than substance, and each of the albums Dylan released in that mid–decade period had something that made it unique in Dylan's library.

And the thing that made "Bringing It All Back Home" — the album Dylan released 50 years ago today — unique was that Dylan divided it into equal parts acoustic and electric. In the days of vinyl records, that meant that one side was acoustic and the other was electric, but in the era of CDs, of course, it is all on one side so I guess, if you don't know where one ends and the other begins, you'll have to, uh, play it by ear. The sequence of the tracks is the same on the CD as it was on the original album.

My favorite track on the album has always been "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and that, in turn, always reminds me of a moment from one of the journalism classes I taught at Richland College here in Dallas. I was in the classroom about 10 or 15 minutes before class began on this particular day, and some of my students were there as well. One of my students asked me, "Professor Goodloe, what is your favorite rap song?"

Now, I have nothing particular against rap — other than the fact that I don't consider it music — but, to a great extent, I suppose it's this era's musical generational marker ... in the same way, I guess, that my parents and others of their generation preferred Glenn Miller and others who recorded the songs of their youths, and the people of my generation listened to our own music, and neither side really seemed to understand the other. There are always exceptions, of course — and I do appreciate other types of music more as I get older — but music really does have a strange power to transport you to another time and place in your life. They are so strong, these generational markers, that you can find yourself believing that you can merely walk through a door and be back in that time and place.

For people of a certain age, rap (or hip hop) is their generational marker. (Some people will tell you that not caring for rap is racist, but I can assure you it is not. It is more of that eternal age thing. I have known black people of my generation — some have been students in my classes — who felt the same way so it is clearly not a byproduct of race.

(Sometimes I feel like Jay Leno, who told Seth Myers the other night that he was called racist by a college–age person because he admitted to not liking Mexican food. "Being anti–guacamole is not racist!" he said.)

Anyway, I told my student, "The closest thing to rap in my collection is Bob Dylan singing 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.'"

Another student spoke up. "That's the original rap song!" That really impressed me because it must have been recorded 30 years before she was born, and I told her, "You just got an A!" (And she did get an A — but she earned it with exceptional work in class. Later, when she asked me to write letters of recommendation for her, I was proud to do so.)

Another song on the album that I have always liked is "Maggie's Farm." As a youngster, I just liked the song, the melody, and I paid little attention to the lyrics. In hindsight, I can see it was a declaration of independence of some sort.

But from whom was Dylan declaring his independence? Perhaps the folk genre — or the protest movement genre. It doesn't matter. Anyone who feels oppressed by someone or something and breaks away from whatever it is — an unsatisfying job, an unsatisfying relationship, whatever — may feel inspired to sing some of "Maggie's Farm."

I guess the song on the album that had the most Dylanesque folk sound was "Mr. Tambourine Man." I always think of it as a Dylan song — cut from the same cloth as "Blowin' in the Wind" or "The Times They Are A–Changin'" And, of course, it was a Dylan song, and his version does favor those songs, even half a century later (perhaps even moreso).

But I was reminded, not long ago, that an electric version of the song became the breakthrough hit for the Byrds.

Dylan has long been one of the musicians who was admired and appreciated by the people of my generation. "Bringing It All Back Home" was before my time when it was released, but I remember listening to it as a teenager. In many ways, it seems to me that it has always been a part of my life.