Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

In June I set out to review every album Prince ever made. I embarked on this project because I realized that, for me, Prince was embalmed in the ’80s – the guy I heard at clubs and parties. He was that sexy M.F. who could rock, croon, talk to God, talk for God, write weird erotic scenarios, and take goofy chances. I wanted a better idea of who he really was. There had to be more to the man than “Purple Rain” playing to a gang of us nerds in a hotel ballroom at a science fiction convention.

It’s easy to follow, album by album, a band that existed for fewer than 20 years – I’ve done that with The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pixies, The Clash, Creedence, and several others. It’s much harder to do with an artist who’s been playing and recording for 30 years or more. They change too much. They travel down side roads while you stick to the interstate. Or you change too much. It’s been a long time since I was punchin’ a clock and listening wide-eyed to Born to Run.

It’s also hard to follow an artist with a lengthy career because every artist, no matter how talented, eventually skids into the Bad Spot. That’s the rough patch where your Muse runs off with someone younger and prettier and you’re left to grit it out on craftsmanship alone.

In the 1970s, Neil Young dissected his soul on several awe-inspiring albums. Two that’ll slay you: On the Beach (1974) and Tonight’s the Night (1975). When the ’80s dawned, Neil took a long time getting out of bed. For example, Trans (1982), which might as well have been called Tron, and Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983), his fake Fabulous Fifties record. Neil didn’t make a good record until Freedom (1989), which you’ll recall for the stunning “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Bruce Springsteen did pretty well in the 1980s, at least until Tunnel of Love (1987). Then things went downhill. Or, in Springsteen terms, the mill closed, the state cops shut down all that street racing, and the D.A. couldn’t get no relief. After two subpar efforts, Human Touch and Lucky Town (both 1992), he recorded nothing of consequence until his reaction to 9/11, The Rising (2002), after which he reinvented himself as the Dark Knight of the 21st century.

I need a weatherman to explain to me what Bob Dylan was trying to do on Self Portrait (1970) and Dylan (1973).

David Bowie’s career after Scary Monsters (1980) is not the least bit scary.

Sadly, Michael Jackson’s career after Bad (1987) is not worth talking about.

Back to Prince. I made it through the first 14 albums. I rediscovered his ’70s disco discs. I relived my youth with Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. I was struck as if by lightning by Sign O’ the Times.

By the time we got to the 1990s, the road Prince and I were driving developed some serious twists, the safety rails disappeared, and the paving got thinner. Loyal Reader Slave to the Garden warned me that in the ’90s, Prince, in his apocalyptic struggle with Warner Bros., dumped albums on the market that should’ve been dumped in the dump. We were approaching the Bad Spot.

The next one on my list, Come (1994), is what we critics like to call awful. I’d rather listen to a flock of trumpeter swans barking like dogs as they circle for a landing.

Prince’s 1987 bootleg, The Black Album, officially appeared in 1994. It’s not as good as black albums by Spinal Tap (1984), Metallica (1991), and Jay-Z (2003), though it’s probably better than the Marilyn Manson Black Album bootleg, if I could bring myself to listen to that one.

Looking at the rest of the ’90s, I see that Prince was either attacking the Warner Bros. Death Star or playing stuff that belongs in a galaxy far, far away. Well, what did I expect? How long can Prince go on being that sexy M.F.? (I can still pull it off, but only from a distance.) Artists have to change or they might as well be locked in a trophy cabinet. I’m convinced that Prince will emerge from this depressing era into some new and wonderful form, but I’m not going to follow every bread crumb until I catch up with him.

(There are two albums I definitely want to hear: The Girl 6 soundtrack, which is supposed to be a throwback to the ’80s, and the three-record Emancipation, both from 1996.)

What I’ve learned
Here’s what I can tell you about me: It’s hard to grow past the music that filled me with joy when I was young. Some of those artists are still recording, but they no longer speak to me. Or perhaps I can no longer hear them.

Here’s what I can tell you about Prince: Overall, no performer in the history of popular music is as talented as Prince. Some people sing better or write better or dance better, some people see deeper into the human or the national psyche. Some people are more economical (Prince does not know when to end a song).

But no one can do everything that this gentleman does at such a consistently high level. No male performer is as insistently sexy without also being sickeningly misogynistic. Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Bowie, Young, and Dylan are as prolific, but even those guys never released three discs of original material on the same day.

There’s much more to Prince than “Purple Rain.” I just don’t need it.

[Editor’s note: It’s at least twice as difficult for a female singer/songwriter to survive in a decades-long career as it is for a male. It’s much easier to find male counterparts to Prince, so I stuck with the men.]

I started out liking Prince, but after listening to the first 14 albums I really like Prince. I want to keep liking Prince. So I’ll stop here. Thanks as always for reading along.

A couple of days ago I spent an afternoon listening to Pink Floyd and Justin Timberlake. I got nothing out of that. This afternoon I’m listening to Chuck Berry. Until next time, enjoy this insane video from the Neil Young of the Everybody’s Rockin’ era.

 

In Seattle in the early ’80s there was a fannish group that lived together in a house called Star Base. It was part of an informal chain of Star Bases around the country, from the first generation of Star Trek fans. They had a charter and I think they were incorporated as a non-profit. (I was present when the charter was dissolved, but I was too distracted by one of the female board members and the sweater she was wearing to take in the details.)

Seattle’s Star Base was part of a larger group of science fiction fans who lived around Seattle, with a satellite group in Olympia. They threw raucous parties at their house on Phinney Ridge. Bet their neighbors liked that. It was mostly women living at Star Base, and from the outside this group looked as if a) every day was Gestalt Therapy Day, or b) they were training for a covert mission overseas.

I’m not making fun of these folks. For all the hijinks and emotional maelstroms that went on there, I have never met a group of people who got so much done in a day. If you had to get to the moon by close of business Friday, they’d get you there. They ran sci-fi conventions, held jobs, and saved lives.

I just noticed that “hijinks” has three dots in a row. Looks Danish.

Raspberry beret/The kind you find in a second-hand store
When I first met them, Michael Jackson ruled at Star Base (along with Rocky Horror and a true ’70s horror, Meatloaf). Every year at Norwescon, the region’s biggest convention, at midnight during the Saturday night dance, the djs played Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” from Off the Wall (1979). If you lived at Star Base or partied at Star Base or had sex at Star Base or wanted to have sex at Star Base, you got on the dance floor and participated in a group dance that I thought was kinda dumb but everyone had fun doing it so forget me.

But Prince was already making inroads among the female population of Star Base. Just look at the cover of Dirty Mind (1980):

Prince - Dirty Mind

Michael Jackson always seemed sexless to me. Not Prince.

Raspberry beret/And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more
I learned about Prince thanks to the Star Base population. I’ve never really written about him, probably because he’s released more albums than Chicago and I feel intimidated when I consider him as a subject. Today I’ll do a little to make amends.

You can’t think about Michael Jackson and Prince without noting the startling coincidences in the lives of the two men. They were both born in the Midwest in the summer of 1958. Michael Jackson started out as a Jehovah’s Witness. Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness as an adult. They began their solo careers within a year of each other. Michael Jackson named his son Prince. Prince would’ve done the same thing if he had felt like it. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters. And so on.

Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours
But the differences are far greater. The Michael Jackson who launched his real debut effort (without his father hanging over him) with Off the Wall emerged with his sound fully formed. It didn’t change by a molecule until the day he died. Prince has experimented so much with his sound, he makes Beck look like he’s chained to a chair. Only David Bowie and maybe Paul McCartney can keep up with this guy.

Michael at his peak gave us “Billy Jean,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” and “Thriller,” but for overall accomplishment I’ll take Prince. Period. There’s a lot of uninteresting filler in Michael’s oeuvre. Of the songs I’ve heard on Prince’s army of albums, I can’t say that all of them are worth repeated listens, but rarely is something uninteresting. And as for high points – “1999,” “Delirious,” “Dirty Mind,” and “Let’s Go Crazy” are pretty good songs.

To help me forget the girl that just walked out my door
I’m launching The Prince Project beginning today. What is The Prince Project? Bill Murray to Dan Ackroyd in Ghost Busters: “I don’t know.” I’ll figure it out as I listen. Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome. You’re also welcome to keep me company in my little red corvette by loaning me a Prince CD. There are only about 35 to choose from.

If I could put Star Base to work on this, we’d finish this project before we began.

Random Pick of the Day
The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)
The superb Bob Dylan covers include the title cut and “Chimes of Freedom.” The Gene Clark originals, particularly “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Here Without You,” are like folk versions of The Beatles. The song that really kills me is Pete Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” This is one of my favorite songs of the 1960s.

I rate this album a Must Buy, even though Mr. Tambourine Man falls apart in the final laps and even though “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” aren’t on it.

Random Pan of the Day
Bad Company, Bad Company (1974)
Bad Company is nowhere near as good as Free or Mott the Hoople, the bands that begat them. Bad Company is nowhere near as good as AC/DC, though it’s obvious that AC/DC wouldn’t have existed without Bad Company. Whether that’s reason enough to build a time machine and return to 1974 with a bazooka is your call.

So what do we have on their debut? The origins of the arena buttrock format: “Can’t Get Enough,” which is about sex, “Movin’ On,” which is about leaving after sex, and “Bad Company,” which is about why it’s tough to be Bad Company, so I guess you should have sex with them to make them feel better. And then there’s “Seagull.”

“Seagull” is a rock-star dues song. Just the thing to include on your first album. In this epic tonal composition, “seagull” means “our awesome band” and “never asking why” means “we are so stoned” and “until you are shot out of the sky” means “until they stop buying your records.” Bad Company gets major demerits for writing a dues song when they should’ve been paying fines.

Ernest Hemingway said it best: “As musicians they are fatal.”

 

Robert Louis Stevenson drew a map of an island and was inspired to write Treasure Island. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about a Hobbit and from there drew a map of Middle-Earth. Many writers start writing after being captivated by a drawing or a photo. Others cut pictures out of magazines to help them visualize their characters or some aspect of their stories. Writing is surprisingly visual.

For my book, I bought 10 irregular sheets of poster board at an art supply store. The biggest is about 2’x3’. I took all the book covers, magazine photos, and old postcards I’d collected with a mountainous, railroady theme and spray-mounted them on these boards. I glued a balsa-wood frame to the back of each to keep them from warping, then hung them on the walls around my corner desk. This way I write while looking at the physical setting my characters are moving through.

I also drew a map of the where the action is, but my illustration skills are stuck in the sixth grade, when I struggled to draw a creditable starship Enterprise. (Still working on that one.) I keep redrawing the map for practice but I’m not getting better at it. I know the look I want and at some point I’m going to hire an actual artist to do it.

Meanwhile, it occurred to be that I could one-up Tolkien and RLS. (Boy, I never thought I’d get to say that.) I love building models. My book is full of trains. Why not build a model of something I’m writing about?

Micro 1

Nature is always trying to come indoors and take over. If you leave your car parked too long, nature will grow under it and eventually over it. Same with trains. Open-top cars left on a siding will eventually support enough wind-blown dirt and weeds to initiate agriculture. I’ve hiked past abandoned bridges that were turning into gardens way up in the middle of the air. Look at what happened to the High Line in New York:

High Line

I thought I was going to have one such bridge in my book, with an abandoned gondola astride it. So I made one. (This was also a way to sneak a garden railroad into my wife’s garden.) The wood came from an old dish drainer. The plants are a type of sedum that’s pretty much indestructible. It all lives outside; I’ll bring it in when winter comes.

Micro 2

I tried to sell these photos to Classic Toy Trains, but for some reason they weren’t enthused about showing their readers how to destroy their classic toy trains. They were very nice about it, though.

Micro 3

After further thought I decided to put this bridge in my second book. At least I’m thinking ahead. For my next construction project, I considered a half-size caboose replica, but I had some doubts I could secure trackage rights for the backyard. Maybe I’ll build that miniature Cape Cod lighthouse after all. It could double as a doghouse.

Today I went to the gym for the first time since the Write-a-thon started, so I’m feeling particularly virtuous this evening. My new mantra is short and intense workouts rather than lengthy and laid-back. Blood, not just contusions.

Random Pick of the Day
Ministry, Filth Pig (1995)
Sometime in the early 1980s I saw The B-52s at Kane Hall at the University of Washington. The opening act was a Seattle band called The Blackouts. It was an unlikely pairing, as The Blackouts were dark and noisy and The B-52s are light and zany. But it’s a rock-concert tradition to pair like with unlike. A tavern here in Portland just had Wicked Sin opening for The Punctuals. I didn’t go. I knew it was wrong.

The Blackouts eventually met a heavy-metal industrialist named Al Jourgensen and under his leadership formed Ministry and became even darker and noiser. Filth Pig is a good example. On this disc, Ministry did everything it could to clear the dance floor. The album name was thought up by a 16-year-old boy with bad skin and no hope of getting laid. The cover art is grotesque. The track listing is unreadable. Most of the songs are as listenable as a space shuttle in need of a new muffler. The singing is not so much singing as it is screaming at Orcs.

But! This album has their cover of “Lay, Lady, Lay” (track 9, since you’ll never decipher the info on the CD). The first time I heard it, I thought it was a joke. I listened a second time because I was looking forward to the laugh, but I didn’t laugh. I just listened. Now I’ve heard it many times and I think it’s beautiful. (Dylan does it again.) “Lay, Lady, Lay,” and tracks 1, 2, and 10 redeem Filth Pig for me.

Random Pan of the Day
Fun Boy Three, Waiting (1982)
The musical equivalent of the plastic garbage floating around in the Pacific Ocean. David Byrne produced this thing, after producing another inept record earlier in the year, The B-52s’ Mesopotamia. But 1982 also saw Talking Heads’ first live album,  the excellent The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. Strange year for David Byrne…The only FB3 song worth its weight in vinyl is one of their two collaborations with Bananarama, “Really Saying Something,” and in that one they let the girls sing the leads.

I know I said I wasn’t going to do anymore music reviewing while the Write-a-thon was on, but I can’t seem to rein myself in. So many bands to insult, so little time.

 

Dear Loyal Readers: Thank you for your many compassionate comments after we lost our dog, Storm Small. They’re much appreciated. Though we plan to recruit a new dog soon, we will never replace our little man. He was the comeback kid and our most valuable player.

But now I have to get my act together, because in one week I begin the Clarion West Writers Workshop Write-a-thon. I’ve pledged to write an hour a day and double the size of my novel by the time this marathon ends on August 2. Two people have already put up honest-to-God money to support me, which means no screwing around, I have to do it. All hail my supporters:

Karen G. Anderson
Mitch Katz

They will receive an original piece of Run-DMSteve art, which I will create once this thing is over, plus my ever-lasting, ever-lovin’ thanks!

During the course of the Write-a-thon I will post every day on this blog with something (I don’t know what yet) about my progress. Your comments are welcome, however snarky, and I thank you in advance for reading along. See you on Sunday night, June 23.

What’s so hard about Web 2.0?
In April, at a social-media marketing conference here in Portland, I attended a presentation about how even an idiot without a camera can make a video and post it on YouTube. The guy was right because now this idiot has done just that!

Random Pick of the Week
Roy Orbison, Mystery Girl (1989)
It’s about time I said something positive about Jeff Lynne (of ELO infamy) and here it is. He was one of the founders of The Traveling Wilburys. The Traveling Wilburys (Lynne, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jim Keltner) gave Orbison a new lease on his musical life. Lynne then went on to produce Orbison’s farewell, Mystery Girl, released the year he died.

Roy Orbison’s voice belonged in a higher league. When he recorded Mystery Girl, Orbison still had most of that voice left, and though the material at hand was inconsistent he did a fine job with “You Got It” (written by Lynne, Petty, and Orbison) and “She’s a Mystery to Me” (Bono and The Edge). Either of these songs would’ve made a fitting B-side to “Oh Pretty Woman,” and what greater compliment can you give? So thank you, Jeff Lynne.

Random Pan of the Week
Macklemore, “Thrift Shop” (2011)
Oh come on. “This is fucking awesome” is not a lyric. Macklemore’s vocabulary never gets out of second gear and he wouldn’t know a metaphor if it hit him with an impact equivalent to one U.S. ton of lead. “I’m a take your grandpa’s style/I’m a take your grandpa’s style/No for real – ask your grandpa – can I have his hand-me-downs?” The grandpa in the video is wearing the same clothes my Dad wears! Eat your heart out, kid – someday I’ll inherit all of Dad’s clip-on ties from the ’60s.

But the video is fun.

I’m not impressed by a white rapper named Macklemore. The guy to watch is Wallpaper. (OK, it’s four guys. Shut up.) Have you heard “#STUPiDFACEDD”? “White boy wasted/gluestick pasted.” This is fucking awesome!

Q: What happened to the end of 1986 Week?
A: It collided with the weekend. Party!

Q: Aren’t you too old to party?
A: You’re never too old to party. You might have to party at 12 frames per second instead of 24, but you’re never too old to party.

Q: Well, how would you rate 1986? What kind of year was it musically?
A: It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls of independent means.

Q: Since you were writing about 1986, why didn’t you mention The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead? It’s supposed to be their best album.
A: I’ll end with them. Sort of. Like it’s any of your business anyway.

Q: Looking at your tag cloud, I see that the biggest name is Bruce Springsteen. You mention him a lot, but you don’t write about him very much.
A: You have to form a question in the form of a question. Don’t be a sports journalist.

Q: Right. Bruce – WTF?
A: Springsteen has been around so long and recorded so much that it’s impossible not to notice him. He’s a handy measuring stick. Dylan has been around even longer and has recorded even more, but he doesn’t have the same impact on our culture. Bruce has remained relevant, or at least topical. Bob has not. Plus I don’t like Dylan’s voice. But to answer your question, I don’t know what I could add to the existing mountain of Springsteen music journalism that would make a difference or sound original by even one gram. So I’ll go on referring to him and trying not to refer to Dylan. Or Donovan.

Q: How are you getting along in the novel-writing sector?
A: I’ve written 15,000 words.

Q: Is that a big number?
A: If I keep them, yes. If not, no.

Q: Would you say that writing a novel is an iffy proposition?
A: I’d say I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

Q: What did you listen to today? Sweatin’ to the Oldies?
A: Today I listened to M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011). The radio hit, “Midnight City,” sounds like vintage Depeche Mode. I’m still wading through the rest of this two-disc set. This French band is kinda arty, like Arcade Fire but without the beat. I might have to counter with Oingo Boingo. I might spend this week listening to M83, blink-182, Haircut 100, Matchbox Twenty, Heaven 17, Maroon 5, The Dave Clark Five, The Bobby Fuller Four, 3 Doors Down, and Fun Boy 3.

Q: Fun Boy 3?
A: I bet I’ll be able to dispense with some of these guys in a song or two!

Q: Where’s Deadmau5 on your list?
A: I just learned that the 5 should be pronounced as an s. I feel as ridiculous as the day someone busted me for pronouncing R.E.M. as “rem.” Which reminds me of something I read recently. What a way to begin a review: “I don’t ordinarily like to think about sex and R.E.M. at the same time…” I don’t even care what the rest of the sentence is! (Review of the film Fourplay in Portland Mercury, 27 February 2013)

Q: Let’s get back to The Smiths. Are you hating on them?
A: As if. I like half a dozen of their songs very much, but they’re scattered across their four studio albums, so their 1986 disc, The Queen Is Dead, didn’t move me.

I have tons of respect for Johnny Marr, their guitarist, but not much for Morrissey, even if he’s still being treated like a god. If all bands can be explained by The Monkees, then Johnny Marr is Mike Nesmith and Morrissey is Davy Jones.

Nevermind all this Q&A BS. Here’s a real interview for you. In the April 9 Seattle Weekly, Duff McKagan, the original bass player in Guns N’ Roses, interviews Marr. (Marr has a new album, The Messenger. It has some surprisingly strong tracks for a guy whose heyday was in 1986.) The interview is not only fun, it produced this gem:

McKagan: You were sort of the anti-guitar hero. I’m just so fascinated by your guitar style. I try to picture you guys in 1979 or whatever. I don’t know what he was listening to to get that sound.

Marr: Joy Division were rehearsing in the room above my band. They were scary guys just to look at because they wore old man’s clothes. With haircuts like they just came from the second world war. And that was much scarier than looking at someone who looked like the New York Dolls, or one of the Rolling Stones.

A: Everyone have a good week. Sweat to the oldies all you want, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
Q: I didn’t ask a question!
A: Deal.

 

Rebel Soul
Kid Rock
2012

I first encountered Kid Rock when Devil Without a Cause (1998) served up two mega-hits, “Bawitdaba” and “Cowboy,” both of which are totally awesome if you’re a teenager and clueless. I thought of him again in 2004, when my boss at the time and his wife went to a Kid Rock concert. After the show they were invited backstage, where they persuaded Mr. Rock to autograph Mrs. Boss’ ass. The next day at work, Mr. Boss proudly shared photos of this historic event. His wife had a nice ass.

I’d rather contemplate derrière marketing than Kid Rock, one of an octet of prominent male musicians who enjoy wearing stupid hats. The other seven are:

santana
Santana

costello
Elvis Costello

dylan
Bob Dylan

jack and edge
Jack White (left) and The Edge (right)

buckethead
Buckethead

deadmau5
and Deadmau5.

Honorable Mention, Bandana Division:

Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band Perform On "Today"
Miami Steve.

(The hatless gentlemen are Jimmy Page and guess who.)

But when The New Yorker profiled Kid Rock, I knew it was time to turn my attention his way again. From the pages of my favorite magazine (Model Railroader is the runner-up) I learned that KR is a white boy who started with rap but transformed himself into a rocker who loves Motown, Mitch Ryder, ’70s arena rock, Hank Williams, and outlaw country. His new album, Rebel Soul, was available for a free listen on Rhapsody, and as the operative word here was “free,” I took it out for a spin.

The results: Mixed!

You can’t charge Kid Rock with not knowing his history – the man vacuums up music like Beck or Prince. “Detroit, Michigan” appropriates the guitar line from Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and threatens at times to burst into Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ’n Roll.” The foot-tapping “Celebrate” has the same drive as “Ballroom Blitz” without the dopey speaking parts and with a big ’70s guitar hook I can’t identify. The jaunty “Redneck Paradise” could almost be “Werewolves of London,” a song KR digs – he mashes it up with “Sweet Home Alabama” on “All Summer Long” (Rock n Roll Jesus, 2007).

Let’s be thankful that Kid Rock never imprinted on Chicago or Men Without Hats. It’s bad enough that for one frightening moment on “Cocaine and Gin” I thought I was about to hear Don Henley sing “The Last Resort.”

The album’s highlight was “Cucci Galore.” Ladies and gentlemen, this is the song Kid Rock was born to write. It’s a no-holds-barred study of the Playboy Mansion, in which KR deftly rhymes “edible bikinis” with “chocolate martinis.” “Cucci Galore” is by far the most interesting song on Rebel Soul. Musically, it’s an exciting blend of hip hop and hard rock. Also, KR genuinely cares about Playmates in their natural habitat, more than he does about any of his Dukes of Hazzard preoccupations. I give him points for his sincerity and his musical eclecticism, but I’m taking them all away for the dumbass lyrics.

Consumer report
You can dance to some of Rebel Soul, you can skip the country tracks, and it rocks in several places, though you’ve heard rockers like these a million times, often from the band that played your employer’s holiday party. Kid Rock surprised me – he can do a lot of what AC/DC, Bad Company, Humble Pie, The Cult, Bob Seger, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Black Crowes, Stone Temple Pilots, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club can do, not as well but sometimes not far off. While that’s an impressive entry on anyone’s résumé, I’m not giving him the green light to autograph Special D.

I’m not going to replay Rebel Soul. Nor will I kill time with lengthy celebrity profiles in The New Yorker when I should be writing my novel. But no way am I skipping this:

MR The Sex Issue

 

Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan
Various artists
2012

What was the first rock ’n’ roll song? Scholars debate “Rocket 88” (1951) vs. “Rock Around the Clock” (1955). As if! The first rock ’n’ roll song was obviously “Please Please Me” (1963), because that was the first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned.

I have no memory of how “Please Please Me” entered my little world. The perp might’ve been one of my younger, hipper aunts, the one who could correctly identify Jerry Lee Lewis and The Beach Boys. The record could also have come from my father’s only known visit to a record store. In the wake of The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on Ed Sullivan, my dad, Run-DMIrving, went in search of music that would appeal to Young People, as he had three of them at home. At the store, Dad (who cries every time he hears Mike Douglas sing “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life”) was advised by two teenage girls and returned with a stack of 45s: The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Glenn Miller leading his band in “Moonlight Serenade,” Liberace leading an assault on Mozart, nursery rhymes, country songs about prisons and coffee, something about a purple people eater, and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” I don’t know who those girls were, but I’ll bet they’re the ones who invented satellite radio.

I quickly lost the paper sleeve to “Please Please Me,” but we had crayoned all over it anyway. We probably tried the same trick on the black-and-silver inner label. Then, to completely erase the value of this artifact, I played it repeatedly on our 1940s-era turntable. The tone-arm tracked at a sure-footed 10 pounds and you could imagine if not actually see slivers of vinyl curling up in the wake of the needle. This record rests in peace today inside the huge console phonograph my parents bought in 1970, sandwiched between the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof and Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer to Home.

Whatever your choice for the first rock ’n’ roll record, no one back then would have believed that anyone could make a living for 50 years in this business. Most bands never have a hit and most of the ones that do have only one. But here’s Bob Dylan in 2012 with 50 years of music behind him, still touring, still recording, and still holding the attention of fans, critics, scholars, and idiot bloggers.

Amnesty International is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tribute to Bob Dylan: Chimes of Freedom. This is an enormous block of music, four CDs in its initial release and two CDs in a follow-up from Starbucks. Because I’m not a fan of Dylan, I opted for the set I could buy at my neighborhood Starbucks, which also gave me an excuse to buy a cranberry-orange scone.

Run-DMSteve vs. Bob Dylan
I admit I have made a few comments about Dylan that have not been entirely positive. However, it doesn’t matter what I think of the music of Bob Dylan or the films of Bob Dylan or the art of Bob Dylan or the many religions of Bob Dylan or the man Bob Dylan. What does matter is that the only artists who have had a greater influence on popular music in the past 50 years were John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Dylan deserves all the acclaim he gets, though he probably doesn’t deserve Ke$ha covering “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” which is what happens if you buy the four-CD version. I’d rather hear Lady Gaga take a swing at “Lay Lady Lay,” but I regret that that one only exists in my head.

The Starbucks Chimes of Freedom is not a history of Dylan’s career. More than half of this set is from the 1960s, with most of those songs from two albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’. Well, those are two pretty good albums, even if they leave the final g off their verbs. Starbucks also omitted “Lay Lady Lay,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” most of Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire, and everything he’s recorded since 1997’s Time Out of Mind.

What this is is a series of loving tributes. Unfortunately, while the 31 artists from around the world are undeniably talented (not counting Sting), most of them are way too loving. An air of reverence, almost as if they’re asking for permission, inhibits them from cutting loose and owning the song they’ve been assigned. No one goes head-to-head with Dylan à la Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Beck’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”

It doesn’t help that several people tried to imitate Dylan’s voice. I can hear that from any street-corner musician on my lunch break. Two tracks from Blonde on Blonde suffer this fate. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red does a pretty good Dylan on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and the Israeli Oren Lavie proves on “4th Time Around” that he can imitate Dylan and Leonard Cohen simultaneously. This is not an evolutionary advantage.

Here’s what good
Joan Baez sings “Seven Curses,” a track that was dropped from the Freewheelin’ album. I’m astounded by the purity of her voice, as she’s been around as long as Dylan. Airborne Toxic Event gives us a memorable “Boots of Spanish Leather,” though the chorus threatens to slide into “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” K’Naan, a Somalian rapper, works against an intrusive string section to transform “With God on Our Side” into a heartfelt foot-tapper. Raphael Saadiq (from the USA) is no Beck, but I like how he turns “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” into a languid honky-tonk.

Then there’s RedOne, a Moroccan who produced Lady Gaga, and Nabil Khayat, who is from Lebanon and who otherwise is a mystery to me. Their version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” rewards more than one listen, despite the echo of the 1993 Guns N’ Roses version.

Patti Smith gives “Drifter’s Escape” a real country flavor, befitting one of the gems from  John Wesley Harding but something I wouldn’t have expected from her. Diana Krall does a lot with “Simple Twist of Fate,” one of only two songs here from Blood on the Tracks. The reverence that undercuts others somehow works for her.

Mexico’s Ximena Sarinana is an actress and a singer, like Zooey Deschanel but with a more appealing voice. She turns “I Want You” into a cross between a low-budget carnival and a high school march. Mariachi El Bronx’s “Love Sick” is fun but slow, as is the Silversun Pickups’ rendition of “Not Dark Yet,” which is dreamy and U2-like without U2’s ability to floor it.

Kris Kristofferson’s “Quinn the Eskimo” is so singular, it’s too weird to listen to a second time!

The trouble with big names
Just because you recruit a famous artist to interpret the song of another famous artist doesn’t mean you’re going to wind up with something famous. What bigger name is there than Johnny Cash? His duet with Dylan on Nashville Skyline’s “Girl From the North Country” was the highlight of that monumental album. Here he sings another ’60s favorite, “One Too Many Mornings,” but he’s in the harness with a North Carolina folk duo named The Avett Brothers. The Avetts play well, and they sing OK, but OK isn’t good enough when you’re standing side by side with Johnny Cash, mister.

Seal is a British soul singer; Jeff Beck is a Stone Age guitar god and jazz-fusion pioneer. They were assigned the most awesome Bob Dylan song ever, “Like a Rolling Stone” (#1 on Rolling Stones’ list of the top 500 songs of all time). Sadly, combining Seal’s voice, which is brassy and opaque, with Beck’s guitar playing, which is fast and furious, gets us just about nowhere. But they’re livelier than their cohorts Pete Townshend, Bryan Ferry, Mark Knopfler, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Adele, and Jackson Browne. These folks are simply uninteresting, except for Jackson Browne, who also manages to be irritating.

Ziggy Marley does fine with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and if I liked reggae I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed it.

Bottom of the barrel
The one irredeemable track comes to us courtesy of Sting: “Girl From the North Country.” I can’t tell if Sting is serious, if Sting is kidding, or if Sting has a head cold. Somewhere in the middle his mind wanders and he strays dangerously close to Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will.” I can forgive him for his cover of “Little Wing” on Nothing Like the Sun, but this means war.

In a category by themselves
The Dave Matthews Band’s core competency is sanitized rock ’n’ roll. They always make me think of the ribbon of white paper you have to break to use the toilet in your motel room. They were assigned “All Along the Watchtower,” and I don’t envy them having to walk in Dylan’s and Hendrix’s footsteps. But what I heard on this track was the Dave Matthews Band deciding to have fun in their doofus Dave Matthews way.

And they do! Dave’s voice sounds as if it’s been filtered through a kaleidoscope, and there’s some inane horn-playing and scat-singing, but this is one of their few songs that I’ve ever listened to all the way through. I especially liked the part where they flirted with “Stairway to Heaven.” The song ends like a car full of crash-test dummies.

Consumer report
There’s something inherently wrong with these multi-decade career retrospectives. I can’t figure out who listens to these things. If you love Bob Dylan, do you love him in every one of his decades? If you agree with Dylan that everyone must get stoned, do you want to hear his Christian music? If you were attracted to Dylan by his conversion to Christianity, how will he win you over with the rest of his oeuvre? It seems to me that tributes work best when the band didn’t change much over the years (Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode), didn’t last long (The Smiths), or when the artists are covering a single album (This Bird Has Flown, the 40th-anniversary salute to Rubber Soul).

Enough philosophizing. Dylan never fails to provoke, and how many pop artists can say the same after 50 years? Or even five? If you adore Bob Dylan, buy the four-CD set. As for Starbucks, every now and then they come up with a winner. Unfortunately, their Chimes of Freedom isn’t one of them. Everybody must get sconed? No, those aren’t good for you either.

I’ll see you in 2062 for the 100th anniversary tribute to Dylan, featuring Grand Dame Gaga, Yo-Yo Ma 2.0, Clone McCartney, Sir Justin Bieber, Adele (looking for a do-over), and probably Sting.