bob dylan, 1998
Listening to Bob Dylan's new project, TEMPEST. I went into it curious to see if it would be up there with his last four albums that I think of as his very finest, wondering if he could sustain five in a row. What a ridiculous question. It's Bob Dylan. He's an artist and artists don't always do even work, though sometimes they do, and Dylan mostly does. Dylan is in his maturity now, in the time of his life when he has made so much music over the last more than fifty years he has become his music. He's been top dog since his first album. He was the Elvis of the college set through the Sixties. Throughout my adult life Dylan has been making music. I found his music at the time of his third or fourth album. I was 21. I wasn't tuned into the NY folk scene of the time from high school in Wichita, Kansas. I found his first three albums in a discount bin at one of the big box stores before Walm-rat in West of the Ashley Charleston SC. Bought one, took it home, listened to it, went back and bought the other two. Suddenly I was listening to Bob Dylan. I'd never heard anybody like him. He expressed the angst of my generation. That's where so many of us tapped into him, our teenage and post-teenage angst we shared collectively through the Fifties and the Sixties.
The title track, Tempest, is an account of the sinking of the Titanic. This is the third time I've heard it. Each time, it wasn't long into the song that it pulled all my attention into it until I sit here and listen to an epic song by the master. It's one of his epics like the The Masters of War, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Hurricane. Tempest is the story of "the watchman's" dream.
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking into the deep blue sea.
The orchestra was playing songs of faded love.
The next song starts lightly, softly as if coming up from the bottom of the sea, his voice starts the song Roll On John. As almost every time I've put on a new Dylan album it has been an amazement to my ears, to my mind, to my heart. This is Dylan the mature artist. He has made albums of poetry put to music, acoustic at first, then electric, over half a century. I attribute to Dylan the change from rock & roll to rock. It was rock & roll until Dylan went electric; he came on with a new sound and that new sound was rock. His rock has evolved through Like A Rolling Stone, the 70s where he rocked us good, A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. Now he plays with bands of seasoned musicians, always has, but this time a lot of old guys that look like they play dance clubs. Charlie Sexton is credited with guitar on this new album. Dylan has relaxed his rock almost into dance club music based in Fifties rock & roll, Dylan's own synthesis of American music. He has become the embodiment of American music.
I can't be the only one who sees that Dylan really needs to be up for the Nobel Prize and probably is. He is among the great American poets. To miss giving the Prize to Dylan will be like James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy not getting it. Ultimately, it's not important. It could harm him. It could set him free and launch him to a new level. The Austrailian writer Patrick White got his Nobel, then wrote The Eye Of The Storm, a story that made it clear White was indeed worthy of the Nobel. It put him on a new plane artistically.
Last night I heard you talking in your sleep
saying things you hadn't oughta say
maybe you'll have to go to jail some day.
I'll pay in blood, but not my own.
Hold your tongue and feed your eyes.
His bands over the last several years have had the tone of a dance hall band you might have heard in New Orleans before the flood. They can load a big auditorium with sound as good as any of the loudest ones, too. It even sounds like Dylan would like to be making music with a small band that plays in urban dance clubs. He has to give big concerts because so many people want to hear him. His gentler form of rock has the freedom of black musicians in the Fifties transitioning from blues to rhythm & blues, early Ray Charles, Buddy Guy. Dylan's band for a lot of years, The Band, was such a band. Great musicians who played so well together they jammed when they made music, would have been happy playing local dance music if they hadn't went in with Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks in the Fifties, one of the best of the 50s bands, Mary Lou their most memorable song (she took the keys to my cadillac car, she jumped in my kitty and she drove afa-ar). Later, they got up with Dylan and became the Band. They had that solid rock & roll foundation Dylan has always liked. Dylan has transcended rock the way he transcended folk, though without the shockwave. He sounds like he's making music now, music without a name other than music. It's what he's always done. He's never given himself over to one kind of music. He's always been elusive to pigeon-holing. He plays whatever works with the song in his head. And I can hear, too, that with the right sound equipment these people could blow the roof off.
All through Bob Dylan's career I have admired his integrity as a man. I'm not interested in what he's like as somebody to know. My part is in his audience, not to be a voyeur into his private life. His life is his songs, the words, the music, his musicianship as a guitar player, as a composer as well as the songwriter all other songwriters aspire to. A few weeks ago I heard on news that Hal David died, who had "the best songbook of the last fifty years." I laughed out loud. What about Lucinda Williams? Pointless to even think about it. It caught my attention in this time of hearing the Absurd on the news every day. Dylan's song Tempest is an American epic like Laurie Anderson's album Life On A String about the White Whale. The part I love the best hearing a Dylan album, any of them, is the musicianship in all the musicians is stellar. Every song is a satisfying piece of music. This is why I and so many others have loved Dylan over half a century, he makes satisfying music consistently. He has never locked down into one style. He's kept on changing and moving forward. Dylan is the artist of my generation I appreciate most fully. Sam Shepherd in there too when it comes to his integrity as an artist. Dylan's body of work is several book-length volumes of songs, every title an exceptionally good worded song and equally good music to accompany it. Dylan rules.