Sunday, May 29, 2016
Reaching higher with little regard for how the marketing team would be challenged in their effort to dilute the content and label it for mass consumption, Blonde on Blonde was the third in a string of very compelling LPs that cast Dylan in the role of a rock/blues performer and songwriter. His move away from the persona of "folk singer of topically driven lyrics with acoustic guitar" was a deliberate, smart way of dodging the sign that his followers attempted to hang on him in perpetuity. Bringing it all Back Home was the shot across the bow, delivering a message to his contemporaries/critics that rock, rhythm and blues had its roots in America. The British groups that had taken this music up in earnest were indeed carrying it back to the shores of the US in a slightly modified incarnation. Bob kidnapped this model, taking it home again, with the results filtered through his own howlingly free form, surrealistic lens. The game was raised on Highway 61 Revisited, capturing the man in full, snarling poetic sail.
The table was set for another grand statement, though Dylan had been seriously burning the candle at both ends. Riding a white tornado of stimulants, incessant gigging and destroying those in the press corps who dared ask ridiculous questions or set him up as spokesperson for any movement (real or imagined), he somehow found time to conjure material that would end up filling two records.
Shrink-wrapping the words, musical motifs and undiluted ideas of this fine set of songs as they were envisioned was a masterstroke. Peering out, unsmiling, inscrutable, from a blurred cover photo on the gatefold sleeve was the master of ceremonies himself. Undoubtedly, he would smirk subversively at the thought of all of the weed that would be divided up and rolled by countless listeners who used his visage as a makeshift tabletop.
Yes, but I would not feel so all alone...everybody must get stoned
It is easy to suppose that "Rainy Day Women 12 and 35" is simply an exhortation to wreath yourself and a few friends in fog of opaque smoke, occupying a room where conversation gets down to molecules, eventually working its way back to pointless laughter. Surreal sense of humour, joke trombone and a ragged party atmosphere infuse this carefully placed opener.
Was it an original statement for the time?
The Coasters explicitly expressed these sentiments on record in 1965, well before Bob. Ray Charles took the same tune (written by Ashford and Simpson) to number one on the R&B charts around the time that Blonde on Blonde hit the stores.
Dylan wanted the first-time listener to relax and take in a few subliminal messages as they eased into a comfortable spot to enjoy the songs that would follow.
1) Audiences were "stoning" him with a chorus of boos at all gigs after his Newport appearance in 1965 simply because he was playing with a band. Not just any band, but The Band who were then still The Hawks, minus Levon Helm who left for a bit because he couldn't stand the nightly jeering from the crowds.
2) Any free-thinker will eventually be stoned or put down by large, ugly and stupid mobs. Expect these dimwits to assemble and shout down what they don't understand with a fine mixture of ignorance and insecurity. Biblical stoning is also heavily implied.
3) Bob was really telling you much about the changes that he was undergoing. The angry, combative and sarcastic tone of his writing is almost completely missing in action here. He is plainly saying, "Don't take this too seriously, folks." Songs with a love or relationship theme are all over this set.
4)What else is going to come out of staying up all night in a deranged state? Get stoned!
With the mood set, our resident, red-eyed bard takes us on a journey that involves very little sleep, blues based romps, some R & B, pop hit singles, Tex-Mex, country-rock and his usual way with words.
Recently married and soon to become a father, there is a definite softening of the heretofore scathing, scattershot musical and lyrical destruction of faceless victims. In the place of scorched earth policy is a (slightly) muted version of the character assassin. Now using 12 bar blues with interpolations from his wheezy harmonica (or that of Charlie McCoy), he plainly asks if he can get some reciprocation for his commitment ("Pledging My Time") is chastened by the lover who freezes him out ("Temporary Like Achilles") and begs for the return of a partner ("Obviously Five Believers").
Early in the morning, early in the morning, I'm calling you to...please come home
In calling out vacuous, faddish worship of possessions over substance ("Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat") with a truly raging solo courtesy of Robbie Robertson, the author takes this one opportunity to use his caustic voice. Otherwise, Blonde on Blonde straddles the line between enigmatic verse and the aforementioned conundrum of being in love versus a truly loving partnership. There is no concept running through the grooves (Bob, feel free to correct me if you stumble upon this by accident) though the actual sound of the disc is quite uniform. Working outside of the blues motif, the "singles" take a direct approach to lust ("I Want You")and an attempt to unravel the mystery/complexity of the strong, intelligent female ("Just Like a Woman"). Flipping to a barrage of imagery, with some of his most insightful lines on display, we get the long form tracks. "Visions of Johanna", my personal favourite, is unfathomably majestic, sitting comfortably with the clever "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie". The most curious selection of the pack is "4th Time Around". Dylan had been acquainted with John Lennon since 1964, though it is this tune that rattled JL a bit when he first heard it. By admission, Lennon went through a Dylan phase after George Harrison brought "The Freewheelin'" LP into his wheelhouse. John wrote a series of Dylan-esque songs: "I'm a Loser", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Norwegian Wood".
Was this the fourth time around?
In typical, shaggy dog tale fashion, Bob stretches out his gentle jibe toward his English contemporary well past two minutes, parodying the melody to "Norwegian Wood", taking the narrative down another road entirely.
Lots of ink has been spilled about this fine set evoking those deeply quiet spaces that occur when most people are sleeping, with all night writing and recording sessions giving birth to most of the finished product. Mistakes are left in, the bleary eyed musicians brilliantly conveying the vision of the bandleader. None so perfectly than on the closing song, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". Nary a word nor a note is wasted in this eleven minute plus gem. Hypnotic, gentle and exploratory all at once, it builds tension with each passing verse, preparing the listener for a cathartic breakout that never happens. It could very well be his magnum opus. With that, the ride eases to a stop as the needle skids toward the runout groove, without any conclusion or neat summary offered. You can frame this work of art and drink it in any time you please. Very much in agreement with the suggestion of the "overnight feel" that Blonde on Blonde so vividly captured. This piece has been my soundtrack on overnight drives, when I needed something substantial to accompany the 100 mile stare into the lines marking the centre lane while allowing my passengers to sleep. I have played this record as a child who didn't understand it and have been fortunate to grow old enough to grasp what this gifted man was really getting at.
Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiled...
Friday, May 27, 2016
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Following a very successful run of LPs with his partner, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon entered the 1970s as a solo act. His first effort in this capacity was par excellence.
"No, I would not give you false hope, on this strange and mournful day."
Stylistically, the loping, reggae inflected "Mother and Child Reunion" opens this phenomenal set with a knuckleball. Coming on like an old spiritual, without alluding to any religious theme, there is something deeply familiar in the groove. The atmosphere belongs to Kingston while the author voices the lyric in a very staid manner.
Know where the words came from on that? You never would have guessed. I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called "Mother and Child Reunion." It's chicken and eggs. And I said, 'Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.' I fell into Los Incas, I loved it. It's got nothing to do with our music, but I liked it anyway. The Jamaican thing, there's nobody getting into a Jamaican thing. Jamaicans have a lot of good music, an awful lot.
Cissy Houston leads the backup singers with soulful precision.
Los Incas provides the solo breaks in the acoustic-dominated tale of "Duncan", similar to the Andean touches that they had added to "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)." World Music was not in the purview of the majority of pop artists of the period, though it works well here. Brian Jones would have been proud. There are lines that are quintessentially Simon, intoned in a way that almost seems like he's passing on a secret.
Displaying an incredible economy with words, that concision is used to great effect in "Everything Put Together Falls Apart". Clocking in just shy of two minutes, the delicacy of the playing coupled with a lilting melody belies the darker message of the downside to taking pills. This is a tune to play for songwriters that have only a nodding acquaintance with subtlety. Arrangements are uncluttered, with a deliberate attempt to shun the big production job that colored Bridge Over Troubled Water. Very little augmentation is present and the focus is, rightfully, placed on the songs themselves.
"Run That Body Down" is my personal favorite, standing out from the pack. This song builds beautifully, supported by Hal Blaine's brushed groove and airy vibes, virtually lifting off when Jerry Hahn takes his tasteful, wah-wahed solo. Hinting at domestic troubles, he name checks himself and (then) wife Peggy, though any pointed references are gracefully sidestepped, leaving the listener to speculate as to what meaning is intended.
Butchered by countless guitar players during late night sing-a-longs, "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" is one that everyone knows, sounding like it is being delivered with a wink.
What was it that mama saw?
Something sexual is what I imagine, but when I say 'something', I never bothered to figure out what it was. Didn't make any difference to me. First of all, I think it's funny to sing--"Me and Julio." It's very funny to me. And when I started to sing 'Me and Julio,' I started to laugh. I like the line about the radical priest. I think that's funny to have in a song.
Simon was ahead of the curve by employing exotic instrumental flavoring (inspired work by percussionist Airto Moreira) that manages to enhance the scattershot wordplay of this memorable song.
It's carbon and monoxide, the ole Detroit perfume, that hangs on the highways in the morning and it lays you down by noon...
Delicate chord progression, harmonium pad and jaunty bass harmonica (reminicient of "The Boxer") move "Papa Hobo" along. Nice vocal texture. Close-up to the mic, with no reverb. Stomping bass drum pushing violent acoustic slide work announces the arrival of "Paranoia Blues". "Whose side are you on?" asks the author as he moves from people talking behind his back to getting the shakedown by the customs man "in that little room" to someone stealing his chow fong.
Paranoia is just a heightened state of awareness.
Closing this flawless record is another sketch of a troubled relationship.
"Congratulations, seems like you done it again. I ain't had such misery, since I don't know when."
Ending with the question, "Can't a man and a woman live together in peace?" some beautiful electric piano by Larry Knechtel provides the soft landing. Meticulous in every way, I don't think that he has ever made a better record. Bigger commercial splashes would follow, though artistically, it was all done best here.
I viewed Simon and Garfunkel as basically a three-way partnership. Each person had a relatively equal say. So in other words, if Roy (engineer Roy Halee) and Artie said, Let's do a long ending on "The Boxer'", I said, two out of three, and did it their way. I didn't say, Hey that's my song, It wasn't until my own album that I ever started to think to myself, What do I really like?" On my own album, I learned every aspect of it has to be your own judgment. You have to say, wait a minute, is that the right tempo? Is that the right take? It's your decision. Nobody else can do it.
Left to his own devices, he would not disappoint.