earthwork, woodlawn va
Earlier today I watched a documentary of Bob Dylan in the 80s, the years I paid him no mind. It was called Both Ends Of The Rainbow, 1978-1989. I didn't know anything about Dylan's music in that time. In the film I learned that I wasn't the only only one to lose interest in Dylan after his album Saved. I listened to first side and gave it to a "Christian." Dylan had a didactic streak from the start, part of what I liked about him in that time, as I'd recently come out of childhood and teens of didacticism with fundamentalist church. Then it was familiar, sounded like truth. Later, by the time he made that ridiculous album, Saved, I'd lost my attraction to the didactic. Dylan was bad to use the gospel convention of starting a song "You better...." You better, you oughta, you needta, you're supposed to. Up until Slow Train Coming I thought nothing could turn me away from Bob Dylan. It was like he spoke my mind. I didn't know it when I fell away as a fan, a huge portion of his fan base had lost their interest. Dylan was never cliched until he attempted gospel songs. I was surprised at how many albums went by before I started paying attention to him. Next album I bought was Oh Mercy to see what it was like, and that was after reading his book Chronicle, which told the story of recording the album. It's supposed to be one of his better ones. Maybe it is.
The film showed me why I paid Dylan no mind through the 80s. I don't have a problem with Dylan living his life, being who he is, writing the songs and performing them to his own satisfaction like a good artist. His imaginative lyrics went away. The film's perspective was guided by a guy who wrote a biography of Dylan and some others connected with magazines like Rolling Stone. They were saying after he ran off his fan base he had lost his identity as to what kind of music he played. The 80s were disco time, another aspect of the 80s I ignored. Punk came on in 1975 and I started listening to punk that year. It was fresh and new, the next thing. The post-Sixties time of Bon Jovi, Ted Nugent, and religion rock bored me. Corporate music, sequels to the Sixties sound. Dylan was looking like he was growing old ungraciously. In the film they said he had a hard time finding the music to bring his audience back. Nothing he made through the 80s brought anybody back. They were saying his albums during that time didn't even figure in the top 50. He appeared to be attempting pop, which he'd never done before. He tried propping himself up with Mark Knopfler and Tom Petty. Then the Traveling Wilburys happened, bringing Dylan back to favor with much of his fans he'd run off. I never took to Traveling Wilburys. I was off in another world of music, punk and African I'd discovered on Afropop, an NPR show none of the stations I get play anymore.
Through the 80s I wanted to hear Patti Smith, Nina Hagen, the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sex Pistols, Generation X, Joy Division, Psychedelic Furs, Lou Reed, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh. If Dylan was going to go into disco and post-Sixties sequels, he was going without me. I figured it was inevitable. Friends tend to grow apart over time as their experiences lead them in different directions, into different worlds of the mind. I figured it was all right to let Bob Dylan go. Once he'd satisfied me mightily. Little Richard too. Little Richard satisfied me totally in my teens; then he made By The Light Of The Silvery Moon and took up preaching. He threw a big diamond ring in a river. I saw Little Richard preach in Winston-Salem in 1977. He was ranting about the devil being behind rock and roll, that while he was singing he was with the devil. Then Jesus saved him. Dylan said the same things in his Jesus time, that rock and roll was of the devil. I suppose it's ok to come back to it when you need the money to live in the manner to which you've become accustomed. Maybe that brings Jesus back into it. Next thing I see Little Richard on tv as has-been rock n roll star complaining because he wasn't getting enough royalty money from his songs. Next he's at a music awards show excited out of his mind he won an award he indeed deserved. It appears in both cases the devil took a back seat to need for recognition and money.
The Dylan that pulled me all the way back was Time Out of Mind, then Love And Theft, Together Through Life, Modern Times, and now apex Dylan, Tempest. I'm back in his fan base as solid as in the early years. On a different level this time. The 80s were a freaky time. Politically, it was a reaction against the freedom of the Sixties. Dylan didn't go with punk, the new underground music not played on radio except at college FM stations. Punk carried on the artistic explorations of the Sixties period after auditorium guitar had been taken as far as it could go. Punk pulled rock back from overdone virtuosity to jamming. I was going to conjecture Dylan might have bypassed his 80s awkwardness turning to punk instead of pop. But that's not for me to say. He has to go with his own karma, his own vision, his own artistic sense. I had a feeling everything went out from under him when the Sixties, the context he came along in, went away replaced by corporate pop, which the folk music he came up in was a reaction against. I'm hearing Modern Times now. It sounds awfully good. It sounds Dylan. Not like early Dylan, but soul of Dylan. I wonder how much being a big pop star doing his own thing, going his own way, pulled him away from his own way into the pop formula that pays so well. It appears to me that's the issue. It disoriented him, he went through a time of diminished creativity, then pulled himself back onto his own track.