Friday, October 3, 2008

Holden Caulfield, Bob Dylan and Dignity

The 8th installment of Dylan’s highly acclaimed Bootleg Series is perhaps the most interesting yet. It focuses on the period extending from his Oh Mercy album in 1989 and goes through his most recent album Modern Times. By compiling alternate takes, live cuts, soundtrack songs and never-before-heard tracks this collection might present the truer picture of the artist during these years than any of the individual albums. Some have dismissed Dylan’s modern work for reasons unknown, but for those who have embraced it, it is in some ways his most rewarding period. Like many of the blues, folk, country and early rock musicians he admires so much, all he has heard has become part of the lexicon of his own music. To my mind, it is no different than a jazz musician quoting a favorite phrase mid-solo, or a politician saying “Abraham Lincoln said…” It is absorbing the reality of your experiences into the reality of who you are. As far as copyrights and giving credit go…that’s for others to figure out.

These modern years of Dylan have been like a master’s class in glass blowing. He takes the sand that is our century - the history, the politics, the culture, the anthropology, and especially the music - and forms it into a fragile crystallized vignette that illuminates the modern condition.

For those who wish Dylan would go back to who he was in ’66 or ’76 or ’86 I have to wonder why. Why would you want your favorite artist to stay still and keep doing the same things over and over? Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye would stare at the pretty young Indian girl in the Diorama in the Museum. He wished he could put people in a glass case and preserve them the way he remembered them when he and they were young. Ultimately this is as much a recipe for madness as facing the world head on can be. By living now and processing the past artistically it becomes more meaningful and maybe less painful. Dylan’s modern work is unstuck in time. It floats freely from the turn of the 20th century to just over the horizon. By staying true to his own vision of life he has preserved his dignity as an artist, instead of reliving past glory or fruitlessly trying to be of the now.

Here’s a rundown of the songs and first impressions.

Disc 1:
"Mississippi" - rootsier, softer.
"Most Of the Time" - no longer an anthem of dread, here it is a somewhat jaunty acoustic number.
"Dignity" - A solo piano reading of one of Dylan’s best modern songs, this version gives the song an almost funereal somberness and changed my understanding of the lyric quite a bit.
"Someday Baby" - Completely different take of the song from Modern Times that caused the plaigairists among the critical field to cry foul. I think if they had released this one there would have been less outcry.
"Red River Shore" - One of the real highlights of disc one. Jumping off from a traditional song that was recorded during the Time Out Of Mind sessions it builds musically much the same way “Blind Willie Mctell” does. The lyrical themes fit so perfectly into his modern style you might think he wrote it. It’s not a mistake. I believe has been very open about his influences and his belief that they are his, and any other artist or seeker’s to use.
"Tell ‘Ol Bill" - Spookier version than the one on the North Country Soundtrack. A fine example of his modern poetic style.
"Born In Time" - So much better than the over-produced version on Under A Red Sky. It sounds like it would have fit fine on the none-too-long Oh Mercy.
"Can’t Wait" - Much slower and emotionally bare than the version than the one released on Time Out Of Mind. Amazing vocal performance.
"Everything Is Broken" - Lyrically quite a bit different and somewhat more playful than the one on Oh Mercy
"Dreamin’ Of You" - Another song you can’t believe was left off Time Out Of Mind. Musically it would have been a good counterpoint to some of the other, slower songs. Lyrically, it’s full of mystery and fear. A major find.
"Huck’s Tune" - From the film Lucky You this song is especially notable for the strong radio-friendly arrangement.
"Marchin’ To The City" - Time Out Of Mind should have been a double album. Although this is similar to other songs on the album, it is totally worthwhile, with a great organ part by Augie Meyers.
"High Water" - A live version that really showcases the dynamics of Dylan’s modern touring band. A big guitar heavy version, that shows why the highlight of most of his modern shows is the most recent material.

Disc 2:
"Mississippi" - a lazier and smoother version, focusing on Dylan’s drawling vocal delivery.
"32-20 Blues" - The Robert Johnson song played pretty straight up by a guy who actually can play the blues when he wants to.
"Series Of Dreams" - a more sparse version than the one on the first Bootleg series. I think I like the first one better.
"God Knows" - version from Oh Mercy that I like much better than the one on Under A Red Sky.
"Dignity" - Completely different feel on this one. A popping bass line and sparking guitars give this an upbeat, almost pop feel. Very different, and very cool.
"Ring Them Bells" - a live version that adds not much to the song.
"Cocaine Blues" - showcases Dylan’s propensity for peppering his live shows with covers of traditional songs.
"Ain’t Talking" - A demo for one of the better songs on Modern Times. This version really shows how Dylan works up a song from original concept to final version.
"The Girl On The Greenbriar Shore" - A live cut from his 1992 tour again showing his ability to inhabit traditional songs.
"Lonesome Day Blues" - another live cut, featuring his best touring band that included Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell on guitars.
"Miss The Mississippi" - A Jimmie Rogers song from an entire album Bob did with David Bromberg and then never released. It was worth the wait. The musical interplay is fabulous.
"The Lonesome River" - A duet with the great Ralph Stanley that will send shivers.
"‘Cross The Green Mountain" - An amazing, cinematic song about the Civil War Dylan wrote for the Gods and Generals soundtrack. It is the perfect song to end this epic collection.


michele l'ulysse said...

>he lyrical themes fit so perfectly into his modern style you might think he wrote

he did indeed, it's noe either the Kinston Trio or the Girl of the Greenbriar shore. It's actually written by Bob. And Born in time was actually recorded FOR Oh mercy. It comes out of those session.

Erikdw123 said...

"These modern years of Dylan have been like a master’s class in glass blowing. He takes the sand that is our century - the history, the politics, the culture, the anthropology, and especially the music - and forms it into a fragile crystallized vignette that illuminates the modern condition."

Couldn't have said it better myself :-)
Very nice article. Thanks.

psteve said...

What a strange sentence: "some have dismissed Dylan's recent work for reasons unknown." You mean nobody who has dismissed the last few records (I don't care much for the most recent one, though I like the two before it quite a bit) has stated a reason?

FRANK said...

It's "Under THE Red Sky."

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Wow, really appreciative of the song breakdown. Thanks. Since you are clearly a fan, I thought I'd introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you'd enjoy.

It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

You can get a copy at or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.