Category Archives: Bob Dylan

Small Town Talk Speaks Volumes

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Any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually full of conundrums and partial truths, but any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually a good read. Sprinkle in The Band, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Todd Rundgren and other rock notables and you should have an enjoyable word stew. Barney Hoskyns’ new book, Small Town Talk, is a very good entree.

Dylan was visiting his brooding, enigmatic manger Albert Grossman in Woodstock NY. He had just returned from a hard grueling career changing 1966 electric world tour with his backing band, The Hawks. He needed to re-charge. Woodstock was the ideal place for him and his family to leave the public eye and enjoy a more rural pastoral life. In other words Bob was tired.

That all changed on July 29, 1966 when Bob wrecked his beloved Triumph motorcycle. Reports of the time ranged from his death, to broken neck to career ending injuries… at this point the book takes off.

During his recovery Bob invited The Hawks up to the village to play, write, and have some fun. The Hawks became The Band, the playing and writing became The Basement Tapes and the fun became infectious. Word leaked about what was happening up in Old Woodstock, then the songs leaked out and then Big Pink leaked out,  then everything changed.

Soon every rock star passed through, visited  or moved to the tiny village, and with them came sex, drugs, and, you know, rock and roll. It was a startling invasion of not only musicians but their entourages: parasites, groupies, drug dealers and media. This book chronicles those stories from 1966 until today. Some of the best parts of the story is how the locality and its governing officials and town business owners had to deal with this new paradigm of change. (The Chief Of Police has some fine stories with regards to the driving escapades of certain members of The Band ). Money was flowing in, but the quiet farming/art community was becoming more Greenwich Village than Mayberry. A seamy underbelly was growing underneath the narrow streets of the beautiful old village. The uneasy balance between old and new Woodstock is as much a character in the story as any musician. It is also filled with sadness as many of the Woodstock icons succumbed to their demons: Richard Manuel, Janis Joplin, Rick Danko and others.

Small Town Talk is a wonderful read, and any rock fan who cares about the birth of the Americana genre should pick it up. I’m betting most Dylan and Band fans already have. My only complaint is I wish the author would have dug deeper into the locals’ reaction to the conquering horde, being from a small town I know how my father would have.

Available at your favorite bookstore and here at Amazon.

The Basement Tapes Complete – Raw Myths

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In 1967 in Woodstock, New York recovering from a motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan gathered his then touring band (who by then had become close friends) in a basement of a frame house painted pink to record a few songs for shits, giggles and history.

This gathering and these songs became a treasure hidden by layers of dust and fable. The house became Big Pink and the friends became one of the most important groups in American rock and roll, The Band. For years those songs swirled around the music universe, some released in bootlegs such as The Great White Wonder and finally in 1975 an authorized truncated double album called The Basement Tapes. This release was sweetened in the studio and only contained 24 songs. Although it satisfied the hunger for these sessions we all knew there was more to hear from those months of woodshedding.

Finally those days and those songs have reached the light of day with the release of The Basement Tapes Complete. A sprawling 6 CD set of 138 songs capturing a pure moment of time and artists. From experience I can tell you nothing is as spiritually lifting and exuberant as making music with friends, and second to that is being able to listen to it being made. This release fulfills the latter.

The songs run from traditional folk and blues covers, Johnny Cash and Curtis Mayfield tunes to hammering out new original works. Some of those dents hammered into classics like I Shall Be Released, You Aint Going Nowhere, Tears Of Rage, This Wheel’s On Fire, Quinn The Eskimo and many others. You hear the sheer happiness and fun these musicians are having; thankfully a reel to reel tape recorder was on capturing every guffaw and every perfection. Don’t expect a shimmering sound, this is raw stuff, recorded in the absolute lowest fi, but it’s real. It was the first trek on the genre road we now mark as Americana.

Dylan takes lead vocal on every song while The Band works out backgrounds and harmonies. This is also Dylan’s finest recorded vocal performances. He is relaxed and uses his honey soaked throat (think Lay Lady Lay) on many numbers while on others he is full of irony and bitterness. But never too serious, the setting and the musicians around him didn’t allow it. The other revelatory aspect of this set is to hear the interplay of The Band, just off years of playing electric blues and rock, including the just concluded first Dylan rock tour, they expertly handle the acoustic country folk arrangements. Some of their work here is jaw dropping with a vast canvas of instruments and voicing. This music is flesh, blood, laughter, heart and history all unfiltered and magnificent.

This release finally opens and closes the chest containing one of the most sought after troves of musical enlightenment by one of the greatest songwriters and bands to ever strike a note. It is myth making and it’s a true, you just have listen.

Note: a slimmed down 2 CD version is also available, The Basement Tapes Raw. 

Covers Better Than The Original? Yep.

Everybody loves a list so here’s mine on a topic that is on many music blogs and sites. Now most of the time I prefer an artist’s own rendition of their work. Many people prefer Rod Stewart’s version of Tom Wait’s Downtown Train. Granted Rod has a voice that is like a sandpapered angel, beautiful; Tom’s is a sandpapered frog . But Tom’s version is full of the city’s mean streets and its hard luck citizens. I believe it is the vastly superior version.

So here are five covers I like better than the original, it’s subjective and personal, just like music.

5. Turn, Turn, Turn – The Byrds. That shimmering guitar jangle and Fab-like harmonies make one beautiful song. The great Pete Seeger’s original, not so much.

4.  House Of The Rising Sun – The Animals. This was a traditional blues folk song brought to radio life by a great British Invasion band. Here is an original interpretation by blues legend Leadbelly and his wife.

3. Mr. Bojangles – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Originally recorded by its writer Jerry Jeff Walker and released in 1968. It was a minor hit. In 1971 it was eclipsed by TNGDB and their excellent version.

2. Twist And Shout – The Beatles. Originally recorded by The Top Notes, then more successfully  by the Isley Brothers, the song is now on hold  to The Fabs and John Lennon’s throat tearing vocals. One of the great vocal performances in rock and roll.

1. All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix. Sorry Bob Dylan, I love you, but Jimi now owns this.

So, there are my favorite covers that outshine the originals, I’d love to hear yours.

Greatest Hits are just part of the story and the music….

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In the new paradigm of the music buying machine, we have lost the concept of “album buying”. Singles are downloaded or watched on the computer screen, but before the digital age held sway, it was called the Greatest Hits album.  I’m not a Greatest Hits cat, to me they are a collection of an author’s best chapters from his or her novels. Albums are, well were, a document of a certain time in an artist’s creative journey. I cannot imagine downloading one song from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or The Stones’ Exile On Main Street, they are only pieces of the work, without context or companionship. The albums stand in testament to the work and artistry created.

That said, Greatest Hits are very popular and remain a vital piece of the artist, publisher and record company’s life blood. So let’s take a look at some of the top selling Greatest Hits collections; in looking at them I’ll give you an alternative path to absorb the root of that artist’s work.

1. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits. This is the one of biggest selling albums of all time and the number 1 Greatest Hits album. I’m sure you have it. To see where this band evolved from and to hear a great record, I recommend you listen to their second album, Desperado,  released in 1973. The work is steeped in Country Western music and cowboy imagery. The_Eagles_-_DesperadoThe songs are strong and are connected through a time and space. Here, surrounded by its family and a cycle of stories, the song Desperado is a poignant and moving elegy to a man and a time past. This is gritty and honest music by my favorite incarnation of the band. I don’t believe they ever hit this consistent height again, but they soar here.

2. Creedence Clearwater Revival Chronicle. If ever a band can be summed up by their singles and hits, it is surely CCR. The path not taken here is their fourth album released in 1969, Willie and the Poor Boys.  Unknown John Fogerty was on a roll here, from Down on the Corner to his political firebrand, Fortunate Son (still true and effective today). Every song is a winner. It Came Out Of The Sky explodes off the record, while covers of American classics Cotton Fields and Midnight Special add an authenticity to the work showing where the party started. This album is what the Americana genre uses as its blueprint, they just don’t know it.

3. Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits. If all you want to hear is Purple Haze or Foxy Lady this one is for you. Hendrix was a nuclear explosion and his albums contained detonators, ignitions and fireworks that need to be heard, not only in context but chronologically. His growth as a singer, songwriter and player on his albums was and is beautiful to hear. I’m going to go with his debut Are You Experienced as the one to explore.  2054522This was revolutionary stuff in 1967 crossing all borders of music; it was so fresh, raw, magical and expressive but soaked in classic blues. Hendrix took rock/blues guitar by the throat and shook the hell out of it until it surrendered to him. This is the starting point of the new language the instrument spoke.

4. The Essential Bob Dylan. Yep, it has Blowin’ In The Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Knocking On Heaven’s Door and many more, as a matter of fact, they keep releasing it with new additions. Picking a path for you here is a thorny task, Bob is a chameleon and his albums roll and move with his interests, moods and whimsey. I believe he is THE greatest songwriter and is America’s true Poet Laureate, to pick one of his works is futile, but I acquiesce.  Unknown-11975’s Blood On The Tracks is Dylan focused and tight, it is work of great power and astonishing insight into this enigmatic man; it’s a close view he would not share again. I’ll put it this way when Tangled Up In Blue is not the best song on an album you are flying in rare air.

So, wagons ho! Go exploring, and be sure and post your travels.

Happy Birthday Bob.

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Damn Bob, May 24, 2011 you turn 70 years old. There are so many things I want to tell you old friend but I will try and break down the highlights of our relationship.

As a youngster I was too busy AM radioing to really know you. You were peripherally on my ear-radar through the songs Blowing In The Wind, Just Like A Woman and Like A Rolling Stone. But with the British Invasion winning on my Sears stereo you didn’t stand a chance, plus that voice it just wasn’t sweet enough for my ear candy tastes.

In 1968 a fortuitous purchase at the local Drug Fair changed all that. After falling in love with The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” album and devouring the liner notes I had to know more about you. My first mistake in trying to make your acquaintance was getting to know you through your “Greatest Hits” releases. I apologize. Of course all the songs were there that make you a welcome dinner guest, but not until my Cousin Booty gave me a copy of “New Morning” in 1970 did I realize your true friends got to know you through the dark corners of midnight coffee and the deep tracks of your menu. It was akin to know Dylan Thomas only through his “Gentle Good Night” than through his body of work. So I dove into the deep end, and Bob, I’ve enjoyed every new stroke and flip.

You’ve been called the voice of a generation, you scoffed at that just like a true voice should. Bill Clinton called you America’s poet laureate and you smiled and turned your amp on 11. Oscars, Grammys and Pulitzers abound, but you remain on the road and probably couldn’t sketch their images.

Every five years or so some critic calls the next new voice the new Bob Dylan, then that voice hears your canon and collapses under its weight.

Over the years you have given me many great gifts, so many I need a list to remember them all, but these 11 are so close and personal to our friendship I had to single them out:

Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight

Chimes Of Freedom

My Back Pages

Not Dark Yet

Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time

Tight Connection To My Heart

Workingman’s Blues # 2

Something There Is About You

If You See Her, Say Hello

Every Grain Of Sand

The 11th I will close this letter with, for it speaks not only of our abiding friendship but our soon to be traveled trails in the future.

Forever Young

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

Happy Birthday Bob.

Love

Stilson

Bob Dylan Meets Santa Claus And Feeds The Hungry

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I’ve listened to the new Bob Dylan CD “Christmas in the Heart” a few times now and it’s wonderful. The arrangements are played totally straight, to the point when “Here Comes Santa Claus” starts you almost expect Paul Anka to start singing; but no, it’s Bob. It’s Bob at his croaky-I drink gravel milkshakes- best. The joy of this fun and groovy album is the contrast of styles, the background vocals are like the Jordanaires and Andrew Sisters, silky smooth and sweet, Bob adds the salt, large rough chunks of salt. Listen, to hear Bob Dylan sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” much less “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a complete gas, something as a life-long fan I thought beyond the pale, yet here it is.

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And it’s all for a good cause, in a commitment to ending hunger, all of Bob’s U.S. current and future royalties from sales of “Christmas In The Heart” will be donated in perpetuity to Feeding America, guaranteeing that more than four million meals will be provided to over 1.4 million people in need in this country during this year’s holiday season.

The CD is like a crazy but favorite Uncle taking over an Andy Williams’ Christmas album recording session. It’s not for everybody but it should be. Thanks Bob, I can’t wait to clear the house this Holiday Season as I play you on 10. Now if only Tom Waits would follow your lead.

Stuff a stocking with Bob.