There's an age-old joke that MCs at open-mike nights trot out before a particularly torturous act takes the stage. It goes something like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, this next act has suffered for their art. Now it's your turn." It's a bit like being a Bob Dylan fan. His Bobness suffers for his art (you can see it in his myopic eyes) and then it's our turn. Disappointing albums, lackluster performances, we sit through it all. But unlike the captive audience of those talentless open-mike performers, the dedicated Dylan fan always runs the chance that transcendence might just be an off-night away.
Read through Clinton Heylin's authoritative and incredibly bitchy tome Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions and you'll learn that Dylan never stopped creating music of value; he just got much worse at separating the wheat from th chaff. Albums such as Blood on the Tracks, Infidels, and Oh Mercy were all considerably stronger upon Dylan's first instinct. Once left to sit, however, Dylan went about methodically deconstructing the works until they were very different, less emotionally compelling albums. This isn't just idle speculation: Anyone with access to a decent bootleg network can turn up CDs of incredible quality that document the original albums, complete with an abundance of outtakes to further shed light on Dylan's unusual working methods. Believe me, it only takes hearing the original version of "Idiot Wind" on Tracks (not the stiff take included on Columbia Records' official The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 ) or the electric "Blind Willie McTell" to know there's something happening here, and Dylan ain't always the best person to tell you what it is.
What has always been most rewarding about being a Dylan fan is rediscovering the lost work, going back and listening to an album that on first review seemed forced or wrongheaded. Instead, once you've accepted that it isn't the album you wanted Dylan to make, it's still a damn fine piece of work. For all the deserved hoopla of Dylan's prime period (the mid-Sixties burst that produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde), there is still plenty of fire in 1970's New Morning, 1974's Planet Waves, and 1978's Street Legal to justify a complete re-evaluation of the man's work. To my ears only 1980's Saved is beyond redemption.
Most recently you may have heard that Dylan has been on one of his umpteenth comebacks. A Grammy for 1997's Time Out of Mind as Best Rock Album and another for "Cold Irons Bound" as Best Male Rock Vocal has led more than a few of his errant followers back to the fold. And the reissue last year (finally) of his infamous 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert has reminded all of us just how good he was. True to form, however, his most recent best music isn't the stuff so easily found. Sony Music has issued several CD singles from the Time Out of Mind collection that feature a slew of live B-sides that once and for all prove that critics extolling the virtues of his recent live concerts are not in fact being paid by Mr. Dylan or any promotional arm to say so. Naturally, Sony (or "Columbia," as his label imprint says, regardless of corporate ownership) has not issued these tracks domestically. Rather, they are printed in Austria and one must assume are readily available in Europe for the time being. (There's also an Australian version of Time that features these live tracks as a bonus disc, but import copies have been nearly impossible to find.)
Snatch up these singles now from your favorite importer because they'll probably never see official release here. If Dylan's track record is any indication, his next live album will be recorded sometime near the end of a tour when key members of his backing group have departed for other gigs. Dylan himself will be hung-over and sick. The track selection will be chosen by the marketing department with "input" from Bob. Think I'm being cruel? I've got copies of Real Live and Dylan and the Dead here that say I'm being kind. Or maybe you'd like to hear that live version of "I and I" one more time just to be sure.
The singles in question are "Love Sick" (released as a pair of discs each with different B-sides, a loathsome European marketing tactic) and "Not Dark Yet." The B-sides are as follows: "Love Sick," (recorded at the Grammys), "Cold Irons Bound," "Cocaine Blues," "Born in Time," "Can't Wait," "Roving Gambler," "Blind Willie McTell," "Tombstone Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and "Boots of Spanish Leather," all recorded between 1997 and 1998. Taken together they make the case for Dylan's continued artistic endurance and his best damn live album since Dylan and the Band's 1974 set Before the Flood.
It's all there in his voice, the barbed wire croak that's inspired so many parodies and caused so many arguments. With age it resembles nothing so much as the ancient bluesmen's moans it sought to emulate from the beginning. "My brain is so wired," sings Dylan during "Love Sick," and the feeling is immediate. The electricity flows and transmits. Dylan reconnects with his music and his audience. For every one of us who has witnessed a distracted Bob straining his voice and rushing his lyrics to just get them over with, "Love Sick" is stunning. His voice is full-throated, the lyrics dramatically timed and spit forth with convincing emotion. Time Out of Mind's other tracks are equally affecting. "Cold Irons Bound" has an extra slab of muscle that makes the album version seem far too tame, while "Can't Wait," a song I barely noticed in its studio incarnation, takes on a fevered pace and, while still far from a Dylan classic, seems rightfully suited for the band's steamrolling abilities.
"Born in Time," however, is a massive revelation. Stiffer than a cheese wedge on 1990's Under the Red Sky (and more sympathetically arranged but never used on 1989's Oh Mercy), "Born in Time" has loosened up considerably in live performance. A stately guitar introduces the opening lick, a pedal steel sweeps in the back door, and Dylan rolls out a beautiful delivery. He sings, "You're coming through to me in black and white/When we were made of dreams" with all the sadness that such resignation brings. But what he's really unintentionally saying is never count him out and never doubt that underneath all the bad production decisions and half-assed playing is often a song as dear to him as "Like a Rolling Stone" was to a generation, and now to classic-rock radio.
He takes spirited stabs at some benchmarks of Sixties legacy. "Ballad of a Thin Man" has all the authority of an old blues song handed down through the ages. The organ trades licks with the sharply overdriven guitar and Dylan crashes in with urgent insistence in his voice. It's no longer the husky bark of the original, but a voice that has taken in the years with patience and trepidation. The elongated jams near the song's end suggests that Dylan has decided that the music is in every way the lyric's equal. He's right. The words are those we've always known -- "Something's happenin' and you don't know what it is" -- but the improvisatory guitar leads take us somewhere completely different. Ditto "Tombstone Blues," which has turned from a manic rave-up into a sashaying shuffle over the years.
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"Boots of Spanish Leather" is done with a simple acoustic ensemble, stand-up bass, and acoustic guitars. The melody is ageless, and Dylan sticks to it relatively faithfully, reaching upward for a few new notes here and there. Between this cut and the two other acoustic blues are the Rev. Gary Davis's often-covered "Cocaine Blues" and "Roving Gambler," a track Dylan performed, coincidentally, on the earliest existing document of his beginning repertoire: the May 1960 Karen Wallace Apartment tape in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both folk tunes have been featured in Dylan's live shows for years. The versions here are as worthy as any. Amazing to think how in the mid-Eighties, he was often downright awful, adrift in a funk of doubts. Apparently Tony Garnier, the band's ringleader and bassist, has improved communication between Dylan and his backing group to the point that the music is most sympathetic and among the finest of Dylan's career.
If you had to pick the crown jewel of these performances, the nod goes to "Blind Willie McTell," a tune recorded for 1983's Infidels sessions and released in a solo piano version on 1991's The Bootleg Series. The remaining unreleased electric version, as mentioned, is among Dylan's finest work. This live version is suitable for enshrinement as well. If there's one song that seems to represent Bob Dylan's true ambitions in music, it's this one. "Nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell," he sings, letting us in on the real secret to his own music.
It's Bob Dylan's voice more than anything that has set apart his accomplishments. His songwriting has certainly been without peer, but it's the man's consistent ability to reinterpret the material, to breathe fresh life into a song destined for fossilization, that has led his charge. Others give him awards. He keeps on keepin' on, regardless. Even his live show is deliberately old school. The announcer tells the crowd without fanfare, "Please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan." As if Bob Dylan needed any introduction.
Bob Dylan performs Thursday, January 28 at the National Car Rental Center, 2555 Panther Pkwy, Sunrise. The Brian Setzer Orchestra is the opening act. 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $26.50-$36.50. Call 954-835-8000 for tickets.