Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Bob Dylan Live 1996, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

So, when I arrived at the Dylan portion of this project, I relistened to this album and (somehow) came away unimpressed and decided I would remove it from my collection. Fast forward about ten months, and I was pet/house-sitting in Seattle and my hosts had a turntable and vinyl collection (they had two turntables/collections, actually, but one was explicitly off-limits, which is a distinction I respected (as in, honored, and also respected, as in thought approvingly of) and among the few albums available to me and that I wanted to listen to was this one. So I put it on. And I came away with a new appreciation. But now I was mistrustful of my own ears and decision-making. So I waited another two months or so and listened to my copy at home again. I am keeping it. Incidentally, I think my original decision came after listening to the acoustic side and not really paying attention to the electric side, as I was probably getting a little Dylan-weary at the time.

What I Think of This Album

This is the renowned concert at which someone in the Manchester crowd yelled “Judas” at Dylan for the sin of going electric, and he responded “ I don’t believe you . . . you’re a liar,” which borders on nonsensical (though the catalyzing accusation is itself a bit off-base – who is the Jesus in this scenario?) And then Dylan commanded his band – which was in actuality, the Band (minus Levon Helm, though they were the Hawks at that time) – to “play it fuckin’ loud” as they launched into “Like a Rolling Stone.”

This is a two disc set, as it should be. How else to properly document the show? The first half of the set (disc one) was acoustic, with Dylan playing solo. The second half of the set (disc two) was Dylan and the Hawks playing electric. Splitting this into two physically distinct records drives home the nature of what the audience experienced. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the context. There is no way to divorce the myth from the music, and indeed, one listens for the legendary heckle with anticipation as “Ballad of a Thin Man” subsides. And that is the album’s great flaw, no fault of Dylan’s of course:  it is more significant as a record than as a record, even as the electric side provides white-hot versions of already-great songs.  

The first disc finds Dylan in classic folkie form, warmly received by the audience. At this point in 1966, Blonde On Blonde was not available in the U.K., so three of the seven songs of the acoustic set were new to this crowd. What strikes me most about the acoustic portion is the harmonica playing. The runs on “Desolation Row” are pretty great, and they add mournful touches to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. More generally, this version of “Visions of Johanna” probably justifies its otherwise indefensible length. “Fourth Time Around” sounds a lot like “Norwegian Wood,” and is speculated to be some sort of mocking response to that song. But side one is not the reason anyone owns this album.

The electric side actually offers a gift apart from the confrontation. Set opener “Tell Me, Momma” is a verifiable rarity, never recorded in the studio and never played live other than on this tour. I don’t know why, because it’s a strong tune; Dylan’s vocal is inspired and the Hawks are tight and play with passion (particularly Robbie Robertson on guitar and Garth Hudson on organ). In fact, the entire second side bridles with energy. Versions of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and “One Too Many Mornings” are outstanding. You can hear some indistinct heckling and what observers describe a derisive slow clap as Dylan warms up for the third track. Hudson shines and Robertson lays down some nasty lines on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” You can hear more catcalling and extended mock-clapping before “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” kicks in, which is thrillingly delivered.

The audience again gets spicy, growing more agitated as the set progresses, and you can hear them for a fourth time in the space between “One Too Many Mornings” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the latter of which’s lyrics translate well to the situation unfolding in the venue. After “Ballad,” it gets strangely quiet. Then comes the infamous denunciation, which garners the approval of the crowd, and there are more shouts, leading to Dylan’s retort, followed by the blistering closing performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.” 

The concert indeed was held at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (also the site of the seminal Sex Pistols concert in 1976), though the album carries the title – now in quotes to reflect the historical inaccuracy – the “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. Not officially released until 1998, bootleg versions of the show had existed since about 1970, and not unreasonably someone got the source show wrong and the name stuck. As if the concert was not historically significant enough, it turns out that shortly after the 1966 tour ended, Dylan was in the motorcycle accident that took him out of the public eye for more than a year, and he would not tour again until 1974.

The reason Levon Helm was not with the Hawks at that time was that he had been taken aback by the negative reaction of U.S. crowds during the autumn 1965 shows and left the tour after a few weeks, choosing instead to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Tell Me, Momma” is a great, semi-lost Dylan song.

Release Date

October, 1998

The Cover Art

Ho to the hum.

Bob Dylan – Blood On the Tracks

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 6)

I had to take a break from reviewing these Dylan albums. The first three were so easy, and then I hit Blonde On Blonde. The repeated playings of that double album were not enjoyable and finally I accepted that I didn’t like it. After that was The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4:  The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, which at the time led me to conclude that it also did not merit remaining in my collection (the rest of the saga about my journey with that album is in that post). Subsequently, the insubstantial Nashville Skyline; it wasn’t a difficult record but it remains a fundamentally disappointing and somewhat bewildering one. And now Blood On the Tracks, the infamous divorce album. Needless to say, it is likewise not a fun listen, though it is a rewarding one.

What I Think of This Album

Dylan has denied that he wrote this to be his divorce album and rejects any autobiographical interpretation at all; rather, he maintains that he was inspired by his time spent studying under painter Norman Raeben (and has also claimed the songs owe their existence to Anton Chekhov’s short stories). In the same way that its origins are disputed and ever-shifting, the album withholds clarity from the listener, preferring mystery and enigma. If Dylan’s lyrics are often confusing on his 1975 comeback, then the listener is left with the delivery as signpost, and Dylan very clearly communicates his emotions:  bitterness, anger, sorrow, nostalgia, and regret. 

Almost everything about “Shelter From the Storm” is perfect. The guitar strums are like a warm blanket, the melody is first rate, and Dylan’s delivery is heartfelt and gentle. He reaches back to his ’60s work to employ slightly more impressionistic, fantastical imagery than on the rest of the album, even as it’s clear that this is another (gorgeous) song of heartbreak.

“Idiot Wind” is pretty goddamn impressive, even as the unmitigated spite of the lyrics is troubling. In that way, it is also a callback to Dylan’s earlier, angry songs from the ‘60s. It also contains a rare moment of humor – perhaps the only one on the album – when he deadpans “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

Dylan sounds particularly invested on the sorrowful, slightly defensive “Simple Twist of Fate,” a gentle number that could’ve fit on Nashville Skyline. The harmonica is well-played. The guitar playing on “You’re a Big Girl Now” is laudable, as is the harmonica. Once again, Dylan’s vulnerability shines through with his emotional delivery and unadorned lyrics. Lloyd Cole and the Go-Betweens have covered this track. These two songs arguably make up the heart of this album. If you want to add a third chamber to that heart, then it would take the form of “If You See Her, Say Hello,” which is no less self-lacerating for being direct and pretty.

I once read an interview with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs (I am 99% sure it was him) in which he claimed that every true Dylan fan hated “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Fuck Greg Dulli. I’m not going to go so far as to claim it’s a great song, but it is a very good tune and bears the distinction of being the most upbeat, melodic one on the album. There is no denying Dylan’s skill in grabbing your attention with this Wild West tale of bank robbery, murder, infidelity, a diamond mine, and a drunk jurist. And, perhaps because the relatively straightforward plot nonetheless retains some ambiguity, it holds up to repeated listens (unlike, say, “The Gift” by the Velvet Underground). Dylan tricks you into believing that if you listen to the song just one more time, you’ll be able to figure out what’s going on. I also appreciate the offhand reference to suicide, treating it without drama or judgment.

The oddest song is “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Against a sprightly backing, Dylan sounds almost joyous as he appreciatively reminisces about a relationship that is not yet over. I don’t care for the melody. The bluesy “Meet Me In the Morning” leaves me absolutely cold. If Greg Dulli wants something to complain about, he can have the repetitive, facile “Buckets of Rain.”

I have to say, I find “Tangled Up In Blue” to be marred by Dylan’s vocal affectation. And what’s more, I am not impressed by the shifting time perspective. Sometimes he’s singing in the present, sometimes in the past – big deal. What is the sequence of events? It doesn’t matter to me. Is it one woman he’s singing about or multiple women? I don’t care. More than on any other track, the artifice of Dylan’s narrative exercise overwhelms whatever organic artistry might be present.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Shelter From the Storm”

Release Date

January, 1975

The Cover Art

I intensely hate the purple field on the left. The painting is okay. The design of the title and artist name is a disgrace.

Bob Dylan – Biograph

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 8)

At first, I thought I would skip Biograph because it is a box set and under my rules, I am not reviewing box sets. But then I thought about how I keep Biograph organized with the regular CDs and not the box sets, and how I have reviewed the Treasure Isle Collection, which is a four CD set that I also catalog with the regular albums. And maybe I felt a little insecure about the Blonde On Blonde fiasco. Well, I regret nothing.

What I Think of This Album

This is a strange collection. Not a greatest hits, not really a career overview, not a gathering of rarities, it nonetheless makes stabs in all those directions. I think it works best as a rarities comp, as almost 40% of the songs were either previously unreleased or released only as singles, and there are some real gems there. As a hits collection, it fails simply because there are too many non-hit songs included, and its size makes it overly challenging for a first time listener. 

And as a career overview? Actually, it works pretty well that way. And while I am tempted to augment that praise by suggesting that Biograph overcomes the lack of chronological sequencing, I am going to go further and posit that the set works better because of the timeline jumping. I think to start out with Dylan as folkie, segue to the manic electric period, document the bewildering post-motorcycle accident era, observe the comeback of Blood On The Tracks and Desire, gape at the conversion to Christianity, etc. would have been boring and unfair (though, strictly speaking, accurate). I feel it is more appropriate and far truer to present Dylan in all his guises and modes without a framework, for this uniquely highlights his talent and skill (and perhaps his stubbornness). Jumping around from 1964 to 1975 to 1981 to 1966 to 1979 to 1969 reveals the scope and depth of Dylan’s gifts, and in fact honors those gifts by giving over fully to them. To otherwise present Dylan as being one thing for some chunk of time and then another thing during a later period dilutes and distorts the actual story, which is less one of transformation and more one of transcendence. Of course, Dylan says he was transformed after his motorcycle crash, so maybe I’m just full of shit. 

I like this collection both because of the rarities and the songs from the albums I don’t own (and probably never will). 

The unreleased songs (I am counting singles and B-sides here) are showstoppers, mostly. Two singles released in 1965 validate my preference for the Highway 61 Revisited portion of Dylan’s career. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is romantic and sexy. This is possibly my favorite Dylan song ever. It is also the blueprint for the entire Wedding Present output. Predating that by a few months was “Positively 4th Street,” which is cutting and venomous. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is perhaps a tad reductive of Dylan’s sound from that time, but it’s not a bad song at all.  

“Abandoned Love” is a tremendous track dating to 1975, never before released, replete with ramshackle charm (and the violin of Scarlet Rivera). Dramarama covered this recently. “Up to Me” should have been included on Blood On the Tracks, as it is similar in feel but much better (and refreshing) than many of that album’s tracks. “Baby, I’m In the Mood for You” is an early track – from the Freewheelin’ sessions in 1962 – and it reflects the playfulness of Dylan’s work from that era. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” is based on an unspecified Scottish ballad, and it sounds like it; nae, this is a fine piece.

I don’t know why “Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” was relegated to a B-side. This is a fun, surprising blast of energy from 1981, the blues structure notwithstanding. “Quinn the Eskimo” could not carry that title these days (rightly so), but that’s the only thing wrong with it. Shifting locales, “Caribbean Wind” is pleasant, though lightweight. Ending things is the warm and spare “Forever Young.”

While it is nice to own the original of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” the truth is that Nico’s version is *much* better (though it’s probably necessary to mention that Nico hated the arrangements on Chelsea Girls).

Of the songs from albums I don’t own, my favorite might be “If Not For You,” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is almost as sweet and heartwarming. I like the gentle “Every Grain of Sand,” which is also from 1981 but sounds like a 1964 track at its core (it reminds me, melodically, of “Chimes of Freedom”). “You Angel You” from Planet Waves is a very welcome surprise. 

I used to own Another Side of Bob Dylan, so “It Ain’t Me Babe” isn’t new to me, but I am grateful that I have it now. The same is true of the live version of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).”

Getting “I Want You” – the best song from Blonde On Blonde – without needing to own Blonde On Blonde is a gift. Too, the live rendition of “Visions of Johanna” is much more enjoyable than the studio version.

The liner notes contain a lengthy biography and, more compellingly, song-by-song commentary from Cameron Crowe (ugh), with explanations from Dylan (yes!).

The Best Thing About This Album

One of the nice surprises of this collection is all the love songs. I dig the fucking love songs.

Release Date

November, 1985

The Cover Art

Terrible, but not surprising.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975 The Rolling Thunder Revue

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 7)

I once received Chronicles: Volume One, the Dylan memoir, as a gift. I only made it partway through, as I found it impossible to credit the impossibly detailed remembrances from the early 1960s. There is no way all the contents were factual or accurate, and as a novel, it wasn’t terribly interesting.

What I Think of This Album

An exciting, revelatory live album, I really think this is a must own for even a casual Dylan fan. Notably, Dylan and his unruly band tear their way through a series of songs with reckless abandon, offering new arrangements and an unexpected vigor. Dylan doesn’t come across as playful, but neither is anger the animating emotion; instead, he sounds compelled by some unknown force to inject as much energy into his songs as possible. 

The track listing is hard to beat, drawing from across Dylan’s career and relying on popular favorites. It should be noted that the two disc album does not document any specific show during the tour, or even replicate a complete set list. Rather, it is a compilation of highlights from various nights, and I have no problem with that. In general, the electric songs are the best, and I prefer the first disc over the second.

The version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is eye-opening, coming out of the gate like a caffeinated bucking bull; the slide guitar is slippery and silvery, Dylan is practically jumping out of his shoes, and the rhythm section keeps a monster beat throughout. The same energy suffuses “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which sounds less like romance and more like obsession, while “It Ain’t Me, Babe” gets a funky arrangement with skittering drums, supplemental congas, a bouncy bass line, and an impassioned delivery from Dylan, as well as more impossibly mercurial slide guitar work (plus harmonica). 

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie McCarroll” gains heft and intensity. And there is an expansive muscularity to this version of  “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Lot to Cry.” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is vibrant, intricate, and maudlin (but in a good way). “Just Like a Woman” is a trash song, no matter what the arrangement.

The songs from Desire  – of which there are several, not surprising considering it was Dylan’s forthcoming (but already recorded) studio release – all benefit from the live setting. In fact, I submit there is no reason to own Desire when you can get this album, which has “Hurricane,” “Sara,” Romance In Durango,” “Isis,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” and “Oh, Sister” in superior versions. “Hurricane,” in particular, comes to life vividly, with neutrino-speed congas and an emotive violin and “Sara” gets an urgent and pained reading. The tempo and melody of “Oh, Sister” make me think of “No Woman, No Cry” (which was released one year earlier).

There are a number of tracks that are solo performances from Dylan, and these are much more subdued. This includes “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” the latter of which does not come across well in this spare arrangement (and Dylan’s voice sounds fairly rough on this track). “Tangled Up In Blue” shifts to the third person for most of it, if you care about such things. I can’t say either “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” or “Love Minus Zero” gain much, but they are certainly not worse than the studio versions.

Splitting the difference between loud and spare are the duets with Joan Baez. The full-throated version of “Blowin’ In the Wind” is strident and somehow triumphant. Written during the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions (but never released), rarity “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is given a very nice Sweetheart of the Rodeo-type treatment (though I don’t know what the studio version sounds like). Dion & the Belmonts covered it. On the other hand, “I Shall Be Released” comes across as overcooked, stodgy, and self-important. On the other other hand, the song has been covered by the Byrds, the Hollies, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Wilco, Elvis, and Paul Weller (the Jam), so what do I know? Traditional song “The Water Is Wide” is also a duet, with a full band backing, and it’s okay but not really a highlight or anything.

The members of the large backing band included Mick Ronson (Mott the Hoople, Bowie, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter), a relatively unknown T-Bone Burnett, violinist Scarlett Rivera, and Roger McGuinn (Byrds).

The Best Thing About This Album

The energy.

Release Date

November, 2002

The Cover Art

I like the black/white photo of the be-hatted Bobby.

Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

You may be wondering, where the fuck is Blonde On Blonde? Well, it’s currently in the re-sell pile. Everyone thinks that double album is Dylan’s crowning achievement, but I find it self-indulgent. The songs get longer and the melodies more oblique, and Dylan seems to focus on the personal in a way that hinders accessibility and prevents any universality. It’s an album where it sounds like Dylan has started buying into his own hype, and there is a strong sense of detachment and remove to the songs. Also, I think there are some troubling signs of misogyny and sexism (though there may have also been on other of his albums and I just didn’t pick up on them); “Just Like a Woman” is highly problematic, and “Visions of Johanna” seems to trade in the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Dylan had written lengthy songs before, of course, but on those tracks, there was a sense of inevitability. The opposite is at work here, where in no circumstance is there any good reason for these songs to last as long as they do. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” just drags on and on, squandering what is a pretty melody. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is one of the stronger songs on the album, but it also overstays its welcome. The same is true of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” And whatever the merits of “Visions of Johanna,” they are diluted over more than seven minutes. No thanks. Also, I absolutely hate “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” I should also admit I’ve never listened to John Wesley Harding.

What I Think of This Album

I can’t help but feel this is a minor, though enjoyable, entry in Dylan’s catalog. It’s only got ten songs, one of which is an instrumental (was anybody clamoring for a Dylan instrumental?), one of which is an unusual reworking of an earlier song, and with two other tunes lasting under two minutes each. In fact, nothing cracks the four minute mark, which is highly unusual when compared to the songs on Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Relatedly, the surrealistic narrative geyser has been shut off in favor of straightforward, plain-spoken lyrics, set to simple country music arrangements at that. Also, Dylan sings rather pleasantly on this album, which by itself should lay to rest any complaints about his vocal abilities. If he sings in a less traditional manner on other albums, it is by choice, and maybe that’s something his critics should consider.

There are at least two classic songs on Nashville Skyline. One is the regretful and clear-eyed “I Threw It All Away,” with a nice organ part in the background. Yo La Tengo (among others) covered this song. Even better is “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” on which Dylan sounds invigorated for the first (and last) time on the album. One of the more romantic songs in his oeuvre, I think of it as a cousin to “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” Unlike the rest of the album, this is less country than it is soul – I can imagine Otis Redding covering this spectacularly. The piano is wonderful and Dylan sings with warmth and humanity.

“To Be Alone With You” just barely escapes being filler, with an energetic, daresay lively, presentation (the bass runs are impressive). “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is decent without being substantial. “One More Night” also squeaks by, with another really nice Dylan vocal. Some people really like “Lay Lady Lay.” I don’t know. I find the melody annoying. But it’s a sweet song of seduction, and unexpected at that. I just don’t enjoy listening to it; the percussion is cool, though.

There is a fair amount of fluff here. Instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag” is pointless. “Peggy Day” almost seems like parody (and it is downright criminal that it comes right after “I Threw It All Away”). “Country Pie” is insultingly silly (fortunately lasting just 95 seconds). The duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” strikes me as very strange. Both men sound fine, but this song does not work as a duet. At. All. Between this rerecording of a tune from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the obvious filler, and the middling quality of those songs that rise above disposable (i.e., “To Be Alone,” “Night,” and “Tell Me”), it seems Dylan was creatively parched at the time.

That piece of shit Charlie Daniels played on this album, unfortunately. Bob Johnston was in charge of the board, once again. Kris Kristofferson was working as a janitor at the studio when this was recorded, and was recruited to hold the bongos and cowbell for drummer Kenny Buttrey on “Lay Lady Lay.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”

Release Date

April, 1969

The Cover Art

Look at Bobby smiling! A gold star just for that.

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Two recollections this time. One, I am 99% sure I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” on the school bus (one of the drivers over the years was a fan of the classic rock station). And I swear to god I remember being struck by it, even as I strained to hear it over all the talking (needless to say, I did not talk to anyone on the schoolbus). I didn’t know who the artist was or what the song was called, of course, but I knew I liked it. Two, many many years later, I saw Robyn Hitchcock play a solo show at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He was excellent, and for the encore (possibly the only song – I am not sure) he played “Desolation Row” (claiming, I think incorrectly, that Dylan didn’t play it live anymore). It was among the most impressive 12 minute time spans of my life. Beyond the fact that he knew all the words, and apart from his own very skilled guitar playing, Hitchcock gave this song a reading that honored the original while deviating from it.

What I Think of This Album

Springsteen described the opening drum hit of “Like A Rolling Stone” as the sound of the door of his consciousness being kicked open. That’s a tough description to beat. Highway 61 Revisited was the sound of Dylan refining his considerable gifts, somehow surpassing his stellar work on Bringing It All Back Home. If Dylan had moved away from folk on his previous album, he all but rejected it on this one (“Desolation Row” being the only link remaining).

There is so much going on in “Like A Rolling Stone,” it’s frankly daunting. Dylan delivers the lyrics with such intensity, drawing out certain words (“make a deeeeeeaaaaaal”) and emphasizing some (“how does it FEEL?”) and underplaying others (“With no direction home / A complete unknown”) and communicating a palpable, vitriolic disgust. Or is it self-loathing? Because I have a hard time listening to the song and not rapidly coming to the conclusion that Dylan(‘s narrator) is lacerating himself. But maybe that’s because while I can’t imagine subjecting another person to this relentless stream of abuse, I sure can understand doing it to myself. Speaking of relentless, Dylan’s acidic observations and mocking questions fuel this song past the six minute mark, which allows it to accrue momentum and mass, like a cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain, until it achieves this unstoppable power. Finally, there is the music itself. The instantly recognizable organ part was conceived and played by non-organist Al Kooper, a guest in the studio that day and not one of the musicians actually enlisted to record, who managed to come up with an unexpected contribution that Dylan insisted be highlighted by the mix. Mike Bloomfield played the guitar and Paul Griffin dances his fingers on the piano (Griffin also played the piano on “American Pie”), and of course that’s Dylan on the harmonica. Really, this is a perfect song.

Respite from the heavy emotion of the opening track arrives in an unusual guise, for “Tombstone Blues” is a deeply odd, essentially hallucinogenic, polemic in which Dylan verbally destroys symbols of authority and slaughters sacred cows. For all its unpredictable, evocative, surreal imagery, I find a great deal of humor in it:  from Jack the Ripper sitting at the head of the Chamber of Commerce to the sun being chicken and not yellow to the civic effort to reincarnate Paul Revere’s horse to the fantastic collection of stamps employed to win friends and influence an uncle. All the while, the band sounds like they can barely hold it together for the requisite six minutes, never slowing down even as the speeding locomotive of the song loses nuts, bolts, and plates of metal as it careens into the horizon. Bloomfield spirals out blues licks and throws out a couple of solos, Kooper adds more of his savant-organ playing, and drummer Robert Gregg tries to keep everyone on the same page. The experience is at once exhilarating and exhausting.

After those two monumental tunes, the next two songs suffer in comparison. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (one of my favorite Dylan song titles, actually) is a lazy, loping blues song with saloon piano. Paul Westerberg has covered this song, which doesn’t surprise me that much. Meanwhile, “From a Buick 6” is an energetic, sloppy blues song with Kooper on the organ and an insistent bass from Harvey Brooks. This odd song title has inspired Yo La Tengo (“From a Motel 6”) and Billy Bragg (“From a Vauxhall Velox”). The mean-spirited taunting of “Ballad of a Thin Man” follows, and unlike “Rolling Stone,” here it is clear that Dylan is directing his disdain outwardly, cruelly reveling in his hapless listener’s bewilderment. All the while, Dylan plays a somber piano augmented by Kooper’s spooky organ. A great song, but not one I enjoy listening to.

One of my favorite Dylan songs (there are a lot of them) is “Queen Jane Approximately,” which has a warm and gentle melody with Latin flourishes. This track, too, is critical of its subject; it provides a detailed description of the subject’s diminished circumstances, victimized by her own foolishness and shortsightedness. But, there is a sense of compassion and comfort, as Dylan invites Queen Jane to cry on his shoulder once she has hit rock bottom and rid herself of her illusions. The piano is wonderful, the guitar leads are cool, and the harmonica part is excellent. Luna’s “I Want Everything” borrows from the melody of “Queen Jane.” Dylan follows this up with the comical, Judeo-Freudian (Dylan’s father was named Abram [Abraham], and Highway 61 goes to Dylan’s hometown of Duluth) fever dream of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Between the omnipresent slide whistle and the considerable wordplay, this is Dylan at his most exuberant. LA punks X have an excellent cover of “Highway 61 Revisited.”

The barrelhouse piano reappears on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” another bit of comedy, this time revolving around a series of physical and moral grotesqueries in Mexico. still, the feel of the song is laidback and easygoing. Wrapping things up is the epic, multi-hued “Desolation Row.” Lacking the ire of much of the rest of the classic songs on this album, Dylan adopts a plainspoken delivery and lets the imagery flow, incorporating references literary, biblical, and historical, all of it disturbingly pointing to decay and destruction. While Dylan’s lyrics are the understandable focus, the intricate guitar fills by Charlie McCoy are nothing short of beautiful. The Old 97’s borrowed the melody for “Champaign, Illinois.” It’s difficult to imagine surpassing Bringing It All Back Home, but Dylan accomplished that, a mere five months later, with this jaw-dropping work.

Bob Johnston produced.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Like a Rolling Stone,” but almost every track is stupendous.

Release Date

August, 1965

The Cover Art

Intentionally or not, the combination of the red and white horizontal stripes and the motorcycle graphic on Dylan’s shirt give this a mythical “American” feel (though I am guessing its a Triumph (and therefore British) motorcycle).

Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

When we were in college, my friend Justin would lament “you’re too smart to not like Dylan.” While I appreciated the implicit compliment, I’m not sure I agree with the formulation. One can be intelligent and not like Dylan. And one doesn’t have to be smart to appreciate Dylan, either. In other words, Dylan isn’t a litmus test for anything other than taste. After all, Justin and I became friends even though at the time, I was not yet a Dylan fan. It also bears mentioning that in addition to trying to convince me to like Dylan, Justin also sought to persuade me to take up smoking. So . . . who was too smart not to do something, hmmmm?

What I Think of This Album

Dylan’s fifth album is his deliberate move into rock, and in fact is a masterpiece. Bringing It All Back Home is near-flawless from start to finish, way more consistent than The Freewheelin’ and much better than the stark third album and the uneven fourth disc. It should be noted that those albums do contain some amazing songs:  “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “My Back Pages,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” and “All I Really Want to Do.” Okay, so you can make an argument that Another Side of Bob Dylan is worth owning. But Bringing It All Back Home is undeniably crucial.

On much of the album, Dylan is backed by session musicians playing electric instruments and rock drums. He also moves away from direct commentary on the social or political, instead indulging himself with a stream-of-consciousness approach that relies on surreal poetry and impressionistic imagery. This was 1965. No one else was writing songs even remotely like this.

Dylan met the Beatles in 1964 and probably came away with a new appreciation for pop (a genre that certain interviews, at least, suggested he viewed with disdain). But he must have always liked some of it, as he acknowledged the influence of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” on the verbose, rapid-fire “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is way too short at not even two and a half minutes. Anchored by harmonica and a sick little guitar lick, Dylan playfully unleashes a head-spinning torrent of words that surely must have impressed the Beastie Boys. And there are clear lyrical references to this song in tunes by the Jesus and Mary Chain (“Blues From a Gun”) and Echo and the Bunnymen (“Villiers Terrace”).

Dylan changes pace with the gentle “She Belongs to Me,” a love song to a woman of wide artistic talent. By 1965, the ravages of Huntington’s Disease meant Woody Guthrie probably was unable to communicate any appreciation of “Maggie’s Farm,” but I think he would have heartily approved of this proletarian song of principled refusal. Dylan refines the sentiments of “She Belongs to Me” and combines it with his new lyrical approach on “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” a thrilling, literary song that celebrates the object of his affection with unusual, unpredictable language.

More surreal yet is the bizarre, confusing, and frightful world of “On the Road Again,” which shuffles along with a sense of courageous good cheer. Dylan shifts from the personal to the historical for companion piece “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” in which he unspools a feverish, nightmarish version of American history. I really really enjoy the flubbed intro with Dylan and producer Tom Wilson (Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel) breaking down in laughter.

The exquisite “Mr. Tambourine Man” – helped along by the subtle electric lead guitar – is the most pop of Dylan’s surreal experiments on Bringing It All Back Home, with a warm delivery, a dreamy, hypnotic melody, and lyrics that call to mind the innocence of childhood, the comfort of trust, and the promise of escape and discovery. Obviously, the Byrds version is a landmark, but don’t overlook the original. Dylan reclaims the spitfire delivery of “Subterranean” and mixes it with the foreboding scenes from “115th Dream” on the stark and punishing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Unlike most everything else on this album, “It’s Alright, Ma” is a relentlessly bleak polemic that serves as a grim summary of everything that’s wrong in the world. After that, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” seems like a reprieve, and while it certainly has a pretty melody, the lyrics border on unkind. The only two weak spots are “Outlaw Blues” and “Gates of Eden,” and neither is terrible.

The Best Thing About This Album

I can’t pick any one song. I think Dylan’s simultaneous embrace of rock arrangement and surrealism is the best thing about this album.

Release Date

March, 1965

The Cover Art

Cluttered and pretentious and silly, though I do like the blurry ring.

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Well. We’ve reached Dylan. This is going to be difficult, because I have a healthy amount of Dylan. I’m not sure what I’m going to write about over the course of all these entries. What I need to say right off the bat is that Dylan makes me think of my best friend from college Justin, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met and a devoted Dylan acolyte.

What I Think of This Album

Dylan’s second album and the earliest one you need to own, this is what launched him, rightly, to stardom.

On the one hand, this is basically an album of folk and blues, and Dylan’s original compositions remain beholden to older songs:  “Girl From the North Country” is based on “Scarborough Fair;” “Blowin’ In the Wind” is adapted from an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block;” Dylan was sued over the arrangement of “Masters of War;” the traditional folk ballad “Lady Franklin’s Lament” gave rise to “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” and as much as it pains me to acknowledge it, even “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” borrows from “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?” (which itself is a riff on “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone,” I swear to God that’s the title of the song).

On the other hand, Dylan’s unique and organic imagery is startlingly innovative and powerful, and he delivers the songs with a mix of anger, humor, loss, and wisdom that communicated  the acute concerns of the nation’s awakening youth yet remained firmly rooted in American musical tradition. Moreover, Dylan introduced (arguably) substantive songwriting into the pop landscape with this work, proving that this sort of music could indeed be art. Touching on a topic I will return to later, this album also rebuts the ignorant charge that Dylan can’t sing – he sings just fine here.

There are four stone cold classics on Freewheelin’, including what might be my favorite all time Dylan song. “Blowin’ In the Wind” is, like most tracks on here, just Dylan on guitar and harmonica. Against this spare and repetitive background, Dylan challenges listeners to take heed and demonstrate integrity, without ever invoking any specific context. “Girl From the North Country” is a poignant love song with nimble guitar work, and a truly lovely vocal.

The undisputed masterpiece of the album is “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” an epic, ominous travelogue replete with astonishing and apocalyptic imagery:  “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it;” “I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping;” “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans;” “Heard the song of the poet who died in the gutter;” “Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison.” JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. Honestly, the album should consist of just this song and maybe a voucher for a bottle of bourbon. Dylan once again plays an impressive guitar on the deceptively bitter “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which he downplays with an almost tender reading. This is a song I absolutely adore; Mike Ness (Social Distortion) released an appropriately venomous version.

The rest of the album can’t hope to compare with these four songs. “Talking World War III Blues” is inspired by Woody Guthrie; I appreciate the display of Dylan’s playful sense of humor. I guess some people find “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” to be lightweight filler, but I think the song offers a rare jaunty respite from a pretty dark album. Those people also probably hate hate hate “I Shall Be Free” (a Lead Belly song), but again, I think it’s fun and funny. If nothing else, over the course of his career, Dylan has proven that he is more than just one thing – let the man play a silly song every now and then!

The cover of “Corrina, Corrina” – featuring a backing band – is a nice little tune, and actually reminds me of late period Dylan (like Time Out of Mind or Modern Times). “Oxford Town” is fine, but I find Dylan’s delivery to border on annoying. There are a couple of blues numbers that I can do without. Sorry, but I hate the blues. So I skip “Down the Highway,” and also “Bob Dylan’s Blues” which for all its absurdist pretensions, doesn’t really register. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” comes across as tedious – I don’t need this track. And while there are those that consider “Masters of War” to be one of the album’s high points, I think it’s remarkably unpleasant, and perhaps too much the product of its time.

The Best Thing About This Album

While “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” might be my favorite Dylan song, I concede that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is the best thing on this album.

Release Date

May, 1963

The Cover Art

Really, a fantastic shot. Taken in February on Jones Street (by West 4th Street), the image of Dylan and Suze Rotolo (herself an artist and professor, who exposed Dylan to communism, Rimbaud, and Bertolt Brecht) is nothing short of iconic. Rotolo died in 2011. This must be the LP cover because my CD lacks the song listing at the bottom.

The Drifters – The Very Best of the Drifters

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

When my son was young, he sometimes watched this cartoon show that, based on my limited attention, was Marvel’s Avengers except as young children (possibly The Super Hero Squad Show). There was a Valentine’s Day episode (I think) whereby the various cartoon child Avengers fell in love with each other by dint of some external force (which is a VERY odd conceit for child characters). At one point, a romantically-frustrated young Thor exclaims “This is NO kind of wonderful!” and I loved that throwaway reference to the Drifters’ song. Good job, writers for the Child Avengers!

What I Think of This Album

As the liner notes helpfully explain, the Drifters went through two distinct incarnations in the 1950s and 1960s, and even that summary is inadequate. This collection focuses on the more successful and well-known official version of the group – the one that ran from 1959 to the late ’60s.

I can think of two very good reasons to own this comp. One is that it contains perhaps the two best Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman songs in “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The other is that you get to hear Ben E. King sing lead on several tracks, and he has a great voice. As a third reason, if you happen to need one, this is a pretty strong representation of Brill Building songwriting, with very good-to-excellent material from not only Pomus/Shuman but also Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and even Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard.

King sings lead on most of these tracks, with additional songs led by Rudy Lewis, as well as Johnny Moore (who takes an oddly Elvis-like approach on 1964’s “Saturday Night At the Movies”), and at least one other person. Lewis actually had a very nice voice, and does an outstanding job on “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and Moore fucking kills it on “Under the Boardwalk” – that swoop from “down by the” up to “sea” is spine-tingling.

The piano and percussion on “Sweets for My Sweet” is wonderful (later covered, in worse fashion, by the Searchers). Is there a more dramatic intro than the vocals on “Some Kind of Wonderful”? “I Count the Tears” is excellent and “Up On the Roof” is a solid track. Classic status has been appropriately bestowed on “Under the Boardwalk,” which, on top of the genius vocal, has an easily overlooked glassine guitar part, a just-right bassline, and a sweet guiro.

The highlights, of course, are the eminently romantic “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Both are swoon-worthy. The violins on “Moment” are exquisite and King delivers a perfect vocal. The Latin sounds of “Save the Last Dance for Me” are irresistible; the polio-afflicted Pomus wrote the lyrics while watching his new bride dance at their wedding. There is some speculation that a young Phil Spector – apprentice to Leiber and Stoller at the time – had a hand in the production of this song.

I own an excellent book titled Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, which I recommend to anyone even remotely interested in this period of rock history.

Some interesting facts:  Phil Spector plays guitar on “On Broadway” and the backing vocals on three songs included Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, Doris Troy (who also sang on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), and Cissy Houston.

The liner notes explaining the immoral, unscrupulous business arrangement at the heart of the Drifters – the name was owned by George Treadwell, who could basically hire and fire the group’s members at will, none of whom got any royalties – are truly shocking.

Ben E. King died in 2015.

The Best Thing About This Album

The pair of Pomus/Shuman numbers.

Release Date


The Cover Art


Dressy Bessy – Kingsized

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

I bought this album at the Dressy Bessy show at Sleeping Village. Colleen Green was the opening act, and she was very good, by the way. I had mixed feelings as the show approached, as I was disappointed by the albums since Dressy Bessy, which I loved, but I figured Tammy Ealom puts on such a good show that I would still enjoy it anyway. I probably listened to Kingsized on Spotify leading up to the concert and was thrilled to hear so many great – I mean, really fucking great – songs on it.

What I Think of This Album

While hardly the big time, this feels like Dressy Bessy’s star-making turn, full of famous guests and with a bright, full sound, and on new label YepRoc. It was not, of course, a star-making turn, but it is a fantastic album that houses some of Dressy Bessy’s best work.

The aforementioned guests include Peter Buck, Rebecca Cole (Wild Flag, the Minders), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5, the Baseball Project), Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon), Jason Garner (Polyphonic Spree, Old 97’s, Deathray Davies), Eric Allen (the Apples in Stereo), Michael Giblin (the Split Squad), and Andy Shernoff (Dictators). While not as consistent as the self-titled third album, it probably has higher peaks, and in any event is way better than interceding albums Electrified and Holler and Stomp. I tend to think of this as a comeback album after the wrong turn of those two discs.

The opening drum roll of “Lady Liberty” demands your attention immediately and an impressively slippery bass line from Garner pulls you into a world of handclaps, 12 string guitar (from Buck), sweetly stacked vocals (Ealom and Cole), and a sassy performance from Ealom:  “Man, that bitch is good.” Equally excellent – if not better – is the electrifying title track, with an otherworldly performance from guitarist John Hill, whose guitar squeals would make Neil Young smile, another strong guest bass, this time from Giblin, and a vocal performance bursting with attitude (even though the lyrics are twee enough to have fit in well on Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons). The final part of the great trinity of this album is “Make Mine Violet” which is darker and more mature than a lot of the band’s typical material. It also boasts an excellent arrangement, at times reminding me of the Beach Boys, with wonderful harmonies, unexpected mini melodies, and stick percussion accents. Hill’s guitar is buried in the mix and almost sounds like a keyboard sometimes, and McCaughey adds some critical piano. Ealom plays this bass this time around, and, of course, delivers a killer vocal. These three tracks are so compelling and infectious that you almost forget to listen to the rest of the album.

But even the second tier songs are very good. I am not sure how I feel about the use of “mamacita” on sunny “Honeybee,” but this song is just a hair less impressive than the three already discussed so I will allow it. Imagine a grittier Blondie and you will end up somewhere very near “57 Disco,” on which McCaughey contributes organ. Departed bassist Rob Greene reappears for a couple of numbers, including spiky “Say Goodbye,” which provides the treat of hearing Ealom playing some surprisingly vinegary keyboard. The band brings lots of energy to “Giddy Up,” transforming what would otherwise be an average song into a very fun tune. The band gets dirty and dangerous on “These Modern Guns.”

“Pop Phenom” and “In Particular” are okay – not offensive but not Dressy Bessy’s best by a long shot (I do like how Ealom pronounces “phenomenon” on “Pop Phenom”). I find “Get Along Diamond Ring” to be fairly annoying, actually, and I feel pretty much the same about “Cup O’ Bang Bang,” but these are minor complaints.

The very long list of thank you includes Trent Bell, who I am going to assume is the same from Chainsaw Kittens; the rest of the list includes the Minus 5, the Baseball Project, Mike Mills, and the Apples In Stereo.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Kingsized” reigns supreme here.  

Release Date

February, 2016

The Cover Art

Minimalist and monochrome, I think this is great.

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