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.
On November 25, Thanksgiving, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom The Band called it quits. They called it in style with a huge guest filled concert that was labeled The Last Waltz. After 17 years on the road, the toll on Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel was being to show emotionally and physically. The film and recording of this event has gone down as one of the greatest live concerts ever staged. But there’s more to add to their legacy with two new found recordings.
I had seen The Band many times before, even followed The Band/Dylan Before The Flood Tour on its East Coast dates. This show was bittersweet for me, the audience knew it was maybe the last time they would ever see one of the greatest bands and live acts on stage. But The Band came to play and the recording proves it. Starting with their “we own this now” cover of Don’t Do It to the ending notes of W. S. Walcott Medicine Show, their playing is committed and sharp. The vocals, always a benchmark of a Band show, were great except for Manuel’s which were strained and weary. Always considered the lead singer by his bandmates, his voice was showing the road and all its distractions. Robbie’s guitar work on the recording is the best I’ve ever heard, his lead on Forbidden Fruit just kills it. Garth doesn’t go off the charts as he was capable of with his keyboard work but still keeps the glue. Rick was always an inspired bassist and sometimes an ethereal vocalist, here he proves both especially on It Makes No Difference. As always Levon’s drum work was in the pocket and his vocals impassioned and impeccable. He was always the heart and soul of this unit. Other highlights are Twilight and a bare bones non-horned up Ophelia. A full track listing follows at the end of this post. A worthy and important addition for any Band fan.
In 1983 members of The Band reconvened as a touring unit minus Robbie Robertson, his guitar work taken over by The Cate Brothers; and though not on stage, his brilliant songwriting was in full force. This is a recording of their first concert since The Last Waltz. They had played together backing Danko’s solo work and in some impromptu jams with other artists, but this was the kickoff, the 2nd Act. Recorded in Chicago’s Mandel Hall on November 6, 1983 as a FM broadcast special The Band came roaring back and took names. That concert can now be found on a new and most worthy CD called And Then There Was Four.
Starting with some drum kicks and whoops The Band storms into Up On Cripple Creek and never lets up. You can feel the love on stage as they played old favorites, a solo Danko tune and some lively blues numbers that Levon was swimming deep in since 1976. The Cate Brothers do admirable work here but even two guitarists could not match the staccato power of Robertson live, but the exuberance of the performances more than makes up for it. Every song is good and for a board recording of a radio broadcast, the quality is great. I do nothing but smile when I hear them. Some standouts are The Shape I’m In, Rag Mama Rag and a wonderful joyous version of (I Don’t Want To) Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes. A complete track listing follows at the end of the post.
The biggest notice here is the quality of Manuel’s voice, what was weary and worn in 1976 was strong and pure here, listen to King Harvest Has Surely Come and I Shall Be Released for the proof. Sadly this would not last, three years later in an undiagnosed depression he took his own life in a Florida motel during a tour. This tragic incident ending this second chapter of The Band. The third chapter was seven years away with the release of Jericho, a superb album that kicked off a short lived but beautiful Renaissance. #
1 – Don’t Do It
2 – The Shape I’m In
3 – It Makes No Difference
4 – The Weight
5 – King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
6 – Twilight
7 – Ophelia
8 – Tears Of Rage
9 – Forbidden Fruit
10 – This Wheel’s On Fire
11 – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
12 – The Genetic Method
13 – Chest Fever
14 – Up On Cripple Creek
14 – The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
1 – Up on Cripple Creek 2 – The Shape I’m In
3 – It Makes No Difference
4 – Milk Cow Boogie
5 – Mystery Train
6 – King Harvest
7 – Java Blues
8 – I Shall Be Released
9 – Rag Mama Rag
10 – Long Black Veil
11 – (I Don’t Want To) Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes
12 – The Weight
13 – Ophelia
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.
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.
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 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. 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 Experiencedas the one to explore. This 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. 1975’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.
Imagine you have to choose twenty songs that represent who you are, not just your favorite songs but songs that are you. Twenty songs that make up your life’s playlist as you stand right now. Twenty songs that friends would reflect upon you, but more importantly, twenty songs that a stranger would hear and form a glimpse of the person you are. Well, here’s mine.
1. When You Wish Upon A Star – Jiminy Cricket
2. Jailhouse Rock – Elvis
3. Old Wooden Cross – Johnny Cash
4. I Want To Hold Your Hand – The Beatles
5. A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
6. Country Comfort – Elton John
7. Every Picture Tells A Story – Rod Stewart
8. Willie The Wandering Gypsy and Me – Waylon Jennings
9. Kentucky Avenue – Tom Waits
10. Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones
11. Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight – Bob Dylan
12. Daniel And The Sacred Harp- The Band
13. Real Love – John Lennon
14. Wonderful Remark – Van Morrison
15. When Johnny Strikes Up The Band – Warren Zevon
16. Buffalo River Home – John Hiatt
17. Alien Love Song – Todd Wright
18. Here (A Song For Tammy) – Stilson Greene
19. The Weight – The Band
20. In My Life – The Beatles
So as of today, there’s mine, it could change tomorrow. I’d love to hear yours, so post on……
John’s solo releases are a fascinating look inside an artist at a particular time and space in his life. I think it’s hard for some listeners to hear and connect with an artist’s personal outlook, demos and all, if that outlook doesn’t relate or seems out of touch with their sensibilities. John’s solo albums fall into that pit.
1. Plastic Ono Band – December 1970 – John was undergoing primal scream therapy and the work reflects it. The songs are raw and emotional, stripped to basics, and deeply personal. Starting with Mother, a heart wrenching plea of John’s inner child lamenting his Mother’s early death and his father’s abandonment. Working Class Hero’s lyrics of society and its expected results of us is as relevant today as then. Love is a beautiful song to the aspects of romantic love as a physical manifestation. The work Godtakes his therapy and throws down the gauntlet to kings and kingmakers, including himself. It is one of Lennon’s greatest vocals on one of rock’s seminal albums. POB gets better with age as we look back on the end of the Sixties’ dream, but at solo Lennon on a tightrope without a net.
2. Imagine – September 1971 – You cannot escape the title cut, Imagine has become the world’s anthem. It is ubiquitous and deservedly so, but the album is pretty damn good, too. John was still in the process of discovering who he was post-Beatles, but unlike POB, Imagine is a gentler journey. Not to say he was beyond petty foibles, listen to How Do You Sleep, his send-off to Paul McCartney for a perceived slight from Paul’s solo album, Ram. Therapy wasn’t softening his strong jealous streak either. John always professed that jealousy was the biggest motivator of his art, but in typical John fashion, he takes that trait and writes one his greatest songs, the lush and lovely Jealous Guy. The Imagine album was an embrace, not only to the public, most of who thought POB cold and harsh, but an embracing of John himself. He was accepting the Beatles as past and looking forward to John.
3. Some Time In New York City – June 1972 – The less said about this album the better. It is a perfect snapshot of the time, John was caught up in New York’s radical political movement. It was a short lasting fling and the quality of the songs reflect it. It is John’s greatest stumble, a big, bold, ass-over-teacups stumble. The only shining moment was the Chuck Berryish cut, New York City. Que pasa New York?
4. Mind Games – November 1973 – Mind Games would hopefully take away some of the grime of the New York fiasco from our ears, but it only washed some of it away. John was reeling from his very first commercial and critical failure and the continuing crumbling of his marriage to Yoko. Mind Games’ title cut was a minor hit and over the years has grown in stature but the album as a whole contains some of Lennon’s most limpid writing. The exceptions being the title cut, One Day At A Time, Only People and the beautiful Out Of The Blue. Mind Games is a work of an artist who for the first time in his career faces a deep look inside his creative well and sees it draining.
5. Walls And Bridges – November 1974 – I won’t go into the whole Lost Weekend era of John’s life, but the Yoko-less months of debauchery did produce a welcome back to statis work from John. WAB is a good album, lavishly produced with confident songwriting and vocals. Its snapshot is of an artist finding his footing, emerging from a cloud of self inflicted smoke and haze while pining for his true love. The album is not bitter though, it is as life affirming as John has ever been up to this point. It contains his only number 1 hit, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, but the masterwork here is #9 Dream.
6. Rock N Roll – February 1975- Recorded between Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, Rock N Roll was a contract resolution recording and it shows. Produced by the ever-mad Phil Spector and using the best LA musicians, the album is a mish mash of old rock covers played without any heart or urgency. John gives it his best vocally but the whole retro vibe falls flat, fun but flat. He was years ahead of the rockabilly renaissance but he missed the midnight train. The album remains a inconsequential member of the Lennon Canon. Slippin’ And Slidin‘ is the best of the lot.
7. Double Fantasy – November 1980 – The sad irony of the album was the great happiness and joy surrounding its release and the murdering of its creator only a month later. After a 5 year self-imposed absence John returned with songs of domestic bliss, fatherhood, love and hope. He was happy, really happy for the first time in his life and the art sings it. Starting Over signals his arrival with an Elvis wink, Woman wraps Yoko and all women in a fabric of love and respect, Beautiful Boy is a lullaby to his son and fatherhood while Watching The Wheels accounts to the naysayers and the critics that there is more to life than art, there is life. Douuble Fantasy won the Grammy in 1981 as Best Album. It deserved the award on its own right, as I grow older its songs have become part of the litany of adulthood, being a husband and fatherhood. There is grace in there somewhere, I just haven’t figured out where yet. (Note: The original release and even the remastered CD are really hard to find, what is readily available is the “stripped down” remastered version released in 2010)
8. Milk And Honey – November 1984 – A release of produced demos and songs recorded during and after the Double Fantasy sessions. The songs continue John’s winning streak of happy introspection but with a little more salt, as in Nobody Told Me and I’m Stepping Out. The ironic and poignant Borrowed Time is hard to listen to but remains a beautiful tune. Grow Old With Me was John’s last masterpiece. A touching love letter to enduring love not only for our partners, our family and friends, but our relationship with John. Grow Old With Me deserves the pinnacle of Imagine, I doubt that it will ever reach that, it may be too precious and personal for that mass ritual. It is a fitting close to John Lennon’s work, career and life.
I saw The Band over 30 times. They were my first concert way back when as a sophomore in high school. That night they tore up Merriwether Post Pavilion. In 1974 from January 15th through the 22nd, I saw The Dylan/Band: Before The Flood Tour six times in four cities. The last time I saw them was at Wolf Trap opening for John Prine. I took my daughter Morgan for her first ever concert. As much as I loved it, I think she was too young to appreciate the music, but she liked the tie-died Life Is A Carnival tee shirt I bought her.
One visit to New York City in 1981 at a small club I was fortunate to see an impromptu show by Steve Forbert. He was joined by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. As great as the music was, it was made fantastic because during the break and after the show all four artists sat at our table. It remains a memory that has become almost surreal. All I can say is that they were down to earth, friendly, and gracious. They were cats you could hang with at the local bar or pool room. The clearest moment I have is that every time the waitress (her name was Rhonda and she was from Virginia and is the reason why we were so well seated and treated) brought the table drinks Levon would say in that beautiful soft southern drawl “thank you m’am”.
Every member of The Band, except Richard Manuel, would tell you Richard was their lead singer. But for me the voice of The Band was Levon. My first introduction to their music was his line “I pulled into Nazareth…” Hell, I never pulled out. He is considered by many as one of the best drummers of his and any generation, I cannot attest to that but I know the cat could play, and as he played he sang his ass off.
Over the past days so many appreciations of Levon have been written and read. They tell of his days as a boy in Arkansas, his stay as a teenager drummer in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Dylan years, The Band, the Last Waltz, acting, The Band’s reemergence, the illness, Midnight Rambles, revived solo career and Grammy awards. I urge you to take time to read about this remarkable artist, man, friend, father and grandfather.
This is what I know. The following are links to what I consider are his greatest vocal performances, and they are what I want people to hear as a tribute to this American troubadour, this music legend.
When I Paint My Masterpiece – A Bob Dylan song that The Band and especially Levon added the masterstroke to.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – This is the live Last Waltz rendition and it’s revelatory. Levon sings as if a gun is held to his head and his life depended on this particular take. It’s one of the greatest vocals of all time.
Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen may have written it, but The Band and especially Levon own it.
Tennessee Jed – From his last solo album, Electric Dirt. His voice, ravaged by time and illness, still conveys his power and the innate good natured inflection I love about his voice. And his pitch, as always, perfect.
So rest easy Levon, we here know the drum stool is now taken in Heaven, you and Rick and Richard can start a band.
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.
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.