I’m a bit of a traditionalist fundamentalist sixtiesist when it comes to Bob Dylan’s output, I think he took a sharp turn downwards as soon as the 70s hit, rising magnificently once again in ’75 and ’76, before disappearing beneath the murky waters of musical mediocrity again for ever more. I know, I know several of you are probably shrieking at me right now, penning impassioned tributes to/ defences of various late LPs – most of which I’ve not listened to even once. I admit it this is not a reasoned, well-researched viewpoint; its how I feel. You see I fell so hard for Dylan, surrendered so completely to, what I still regard as, his genius that when he just started making good records, records that normal mortals could have made, could conceivably better even, I reacted like a scorned lover; I won’t have them in the house.
I’ve banged on previously about how my parents were Dylan freaks and how I had to leave home to appreciate him fully for myself*, but make no mistake I’ve been steeped in sixties Dylan all my life, I will have absorbed these songs from an impressionable age. It’s an interesting and a difficult exercise to try to articulate anything about music that’s so close to me it’s bled into every fibre of my me-ness.
I’ve never really understood why Bob Dylan, his debut from 1962 is such a neglected part of his early work. It’s a real favourite of mine. Most overviews of his work just seem to dismiss and patronise it as juvenilia, or as a rehearsal for the likes of Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are a-Changing. Okay so I accept that we’re only dealing with two Dylan originals here, as opposed to ‘Trad. arr Bob Dylan’, who seems to have been a very popular writer at the time and Dylan had not yet penned anything that was going to change the world, and yet Bob Dylan has real depths of emotion, intensity and energy that some of his later, better work just does not.
I’m a damn fool sucker for a good sleeve note at the best of times and I heartily concur with Robert Shelton here that all the ‘husk and bark’ is left on his voice and ‘Mr Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty’, what it doesn’t tell you though is the emotional power that voice has on me. I have no idea if it might just be me but no-one’s voice can mess with my locked-away emotions the way Dylan’s can, no matter how well I engage intellectually with the music and the words, his voice just strikes something deep inside me like a match on the bottom of a boot. Always has.
Example? just cue up ‘Song For Woody’ here, a real unfeted gem as far as I’m concerned, Dylan’s tribute to his inspiration and mentor Woody Gutherie. The words are clever, affectionate, wise, the music great, but its the voice that just cracks me open.
Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that’s coming along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s dying and it’s hardly been born.
later echoed of course by David Bowie on his own ‘Song For Bob Dylan’, something just chimes inside when I hear it. Don’t get me started on ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, which if they catch me unawares can make me cry, as the former once did on a crowded commuter train, not very British at all.
Dylan sings with complete and total conviction here and I really think that’s the key to why his covers of so many traditional songs work so well, he owns them all through his intensity. Just listen to ‘Gospel Plow’ and the sheer heart and soul, guts and glory he puts into an old spiritual to transform it into a rollicking, fervent, joyous and desperate thing; also clock his wonderful percussive harmonica playing, something that again I don’t feel he ever gets enough credit for. Check out his ‘House of The Risin’ Sun’, which knocks any other I can think of into a cocked hat, the feeling he imbues each line with is impossible to beat, he sings it as if the sorrow was his alone and not that of any third-party protagonist, real or imagined. Double check out, ‘Fixin To Die’, a close cousin of his own ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’, where the 20 year-old Dylan hits the straps so hard he really does own that Bukka White tune ‘Well, I don’t mind dying / But I hate to leave my children crying’ – what more can you say? In fact all three dying tunes, ‘Fixin…’, ‘In My Time of Dyin”** and ‘See That My Grave is Kept Clean’, are powerfully done, raw and unmelodramatic.
But there’s a lot more here than anguish and emotion, like all the best Dylan there’s a lot to laugh at here too, whether it’s the wry observations on ‘Talkin’ New York’, the sheer fun he has playing with word endings on ‘Pretty Peggy-O’ and the vocal onomatopoeia of the exuberant ‘Freight Train Blues’, a certain amount of Bob Dylan is sung with a smile firmly in place. It wouldn’t really be half the LP it was without this sense of fun, just listen to the way he pronounces ‘woman’ as ‘wouyymann’ on the hot-rodded opened ‘You’re No Good’.
What comes through so loud and clear, literally, listening to Bob Dylan is that this is, above all else, a young man’s LP. The energy, the sheer Technicolor nature of the emotions on display here, the comparative lack of subtlety^ and the bull-in-a-China-shop confidence throughout. Maybe it’s a desire to drink at this particular fountain of youth that keeps bringing me back to these haunts, often at the expense of the later-greaters, a need to lick my fingers and plug them into the socket of this LP^^ to recharge. It smells like rebellion to me.
Well, what will your mother say, what will your mother say
What will your mother say, Pretty Peggy-O
What will your mother say to know you’re going away
You’re never, never, never coming back-io ?
*6 Down, believe it or not – it’s got one of my fave ever Legos on it too.
**was there a G shortage in ’62 perhaps? The ‘reat G famine.
^all apart from the wonderfully understated harmonica on ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’.
^^1537 does not endorse finger-lickin’ socket-stickin’ in any way, shape, or form. Only really silly people would do that.