Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan

Dr. John

Dr. John

Seriously, three cheers for the old guys. In an era where hype machine blog year-end top ten lists are often chock-full of buzz band debut albums, let us not forget that Rolling Stone is sometimes right. 2012 has seen great albums from the likes of baby boomer mainstays Dr. John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Cliff. Despite their age, these artists have somehow managed to adapt their style to the contemporary music world while still creating a product that is very much their own.

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Bob Dylan, The Tempest

Bob Dylan, The Tempest

I might need another 10 years before I can write accurately about Bob Dylan’s new album Tempest, which comes out officially today. I felt similarly about 2001’s Love and Theft, which I listened to when my future wife and I drove back across the country together from California on a pilgrimage towards the remains of New York and our lonely apartment in Queens. We had been booked on a flight for the morning of September 11. My grandmother called me a few hours before the flight and said: “I don’t think you’ll be flying back.” It was impossible to listen to Love and Theft on that cross-country drive (and for years afterward) without hearing the prescient echoes of our national apocalypse. “High Water” was rising. “Sky’s full of fire.” “The Twins [were] coming to town.” I don’t know what will happen that will make many lines on Tempest resonate with perhaps never-intended wisdom and deep social and personal revelation, but I know something will happen.

Tempest, Dylan’s 35th studio album, is much better than his recent output. The two albums between Love and Theft and the new record —Modern Times and Together Through Life— were decent (okay, Modern Times was superior, and I’m intentionally not mentioning the sick joke Christmas album, and not quite counting the excellent Tell Tale Signs alternate takes and other gems compellation).  Tempest is as vein-draining as Time Out of Mind, often as lyrically dense as Love and Theft, with a new and thrilling element included: Dramatic Storytelling.

On several songs, the story is nearly linear, balladic, and harkens back to Dylan’s original progenitors, the weird folk artists of the early 20th Century and those Romantic poet balladeers whose tradition Dylan keeps up when he isn’t dabbling in Rimbaudery and Gingsburgian excess. Last week, I used “Tin Angel”—a moody murder ballad about the Big Boss catching Henry Lee with his woman, ending with a triple bloody death— in teaching my 9th grade English class to have them practice paying attention to plot and imagery in a short story. It worked well, especially after we cleared up the confusion about Bob Dylan and Bob Marley being the same person.

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Bob Dylan

As a kid, I discovered the genius of Bob Dylan via my uncle’s record collection, which included  Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire. But when my uncle invited me to see Dylan play this week at Terminal 5,  I hesitated. How would Dylan the Man measure up to Dylan the Legend? But what was I going to do instead, watch Monday Night Football?

In person, Dylan barely resembles or sounds like the curly headed hipster on my uncle’s albums.  Imagine a dapper diminutive grandfather with emphysema backed by a band of bluesmen half his age. For most of the show, he stands at an organ perpendicular to the audience, mostly people in their 30s and 40s. Every few songs, he huffs into a harmonica or plays guitar with equal parts sloppiness and passion. Never a master of melody, he abandons pitch in favor of a spoken-word chant with a huskiness that makes Tom Waits sound like Minnie Mouse.  Meanwhile he jettisons the meter of his songs and adopts a ratatat rhythm, dropping words like third period French. He could almost be reading from the cue cards he flipped in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back.

Rather than perform a jukebox musical, Dylan deconstructs and rearranges his material on stage, an aesthetic reinforced by Monday’s opening song, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”  The rest of the set included reworked versions of classics such as “Desolation Row” and “Highway 61 Revisited” as well as newer ones like “Summer Days” from Love and Theft and “Thunder on the Mountain”from Modern Times, a song that name checks Alicia Keys as a symbol of a new generation of musicians.

To Dylan’s credit, he hires the right people. When his band gels, as they did halfway through Monday’s set, their take on the blues is a lesson in tastefulness and musicianship, especially Charlie Sexton on lead guitar and Donnie Herron on pedal steel. (His entourage also includes a team that combs the web for people who post his music, including his latest bootleg, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964)

Sure, Dylan is a shadow of his former self. But nobody asks a  69-year-old pitcher to throw the same fastball he hurled in his glory days. Nobody expects a 69-year-old to make love like a young man. Why expect eternal youth from a 69-year old rock star?  When Dylan closed Monday’s show with “Like a Rolling Stone,” the crowd screamed along “How Does it Feel?” Unlike the singer, the existential question shows no sign of age.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. All he really wants to do is baby be friends with you.

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