Bob On Bob

I’m something of a Bob Dylan obsessive.

Let me rephrase that; I am a rather psychologically unbalanced Bob Dylan obsessive. In my own defense, I would like to point out that I am not a completist like I am with Robyn Hitchcock. For me, Dylan has a good dozen years, followed by nearly a quarter century of dreck (some rare exceptions, mind you – I like the throwaway silliness of the Traveling Wilburys), one solid album and then more dreck. But those good twelve years…

I’ve accumulated, through the internets and judicious use of the Google, more unreleased and live performances from that wondrous dozen years than anyone has any need for whatsoever. Alternate takes of tracks from Blonde On Blonde with The Band; radio performances on Studs Terkel’s Wax Museum radio show; an unreleased live album, complete with the planned Columbia Record’s cover picture; Further recordings made with the incredible session musicians that played on Nashville Skyline. All amazing, and in most cases, better than any of his released material.

I don’t bring this up to brag – like I said, judicious use of Google will find the same sources and recordings. What this utterly unnecessary cornucopia of Dylanalia makes clear is that the axiom that Dylan was/is not the best interpreter of his material is a big load of bunkum. I will not argue that many artists have covered Bob’s songs with great effect – from Area Code 615 (the very musicians who played on the aforementioned Nashville Skyline) with “Just Like A Woman”, to Yo La Tengo with “I Threw It All Away.” I love these covers, as well as many others. But Dylan, as evinced by both released performances and the plethora of bootlegs, continued to explore and recast his own work to great effect. A good example of this can be found on the officially released Biograph box set, and the blistering live version of “Isis.” The crazy compulsion apparent in the lyrics is now matched with an arrangement that is all forward propulsion, a train careening off the tracks. Another fine example is from the now oft-mentioned Nashville Skyline, and the version of “Girl From The North Country”, arranged for two voices and performed with Johnny Cash. The wistful lyrics are coupled with a slow dirge of an arrangement, making it a lamentation – the two singers do not respond to each other; here, Dylan and Cash sing from the same point of view, seemingly giving voice to a young man and his older self, with Dylan’s voice encapsulating the longing of youth and Cash as the melancholy understanding of loss that comes with age. Of course, I could be off my rocker with that interpretation, but so be it.

I’ll probably do a Dylan centered podcast one of these days, assuming I can trim down to under 30 minutes the “gems” I want to share. But until then, I want to share one great “Bob on Bob” re-visioning – an absolutely ripping version of “Shelter From The Storm”, originally on Blood On The Tracks (speaking of which, a great bootleg exists of the original NY tracks Dylan cut for this – he felt them “incomplete” after listening, and redid many of the songs). From a solo acoustic performance to this barn-burning full band take:

The Big Boss Scam

“Mr. Bruce Springsteen” (please say with pompous condescension – listen to Randy Newman’s “My Life Is Good” in Podcast 1 for inspiration) – what is the deal? I was comfortable knowing he had reached irrelevance at the same time I had reached legal maturity. I had no problem with the Boss and the Piano Man going out as Grumpy Guses with their pissing and moaning “57 Channels (And We Didn’t Start The Fire)” malarkey. But after September 11, Springsteen dragged his wrinkled carcass out to torture us with “The Rising”, a song filled with such empty platitudes and overblown schlock as to make one long for the subtle bombast of “Born In The U.S.A.”

That Springsteen re-sold the public his hackneyed “every-man/every-pain” persona is fine; he serves a purpose for some, even if it is one for which I have little use. What is killing me right now is Springsteen as alt-rock influence. That two current bands would so choose to ape the lord of logorrhea is more than a mind can bear. It is easy enough to discount The Killers (I just don’t get what the Hot Fuss is about. Bad pun – deal), especially since they have the misfortune of not understanding how Springsteen got away with Born In The U.S.A.; it was the Reagan years, and the combination of cocaine and Aqua Net damaged many people’s sense of taste. I’m afraid to find out if they penned an ode to the baseball of their youth – the hoary old McGwire/Sosa years – or if they have wet dreams of the Acela running along the Northeast Corridor. I’m also unimpressed by their acquisition of last year’s costumes and spirit-gum mustaches from My Name Is Earl.

But another, more problematic Bruce-biter roams the land; the widely praised Craig Finn, lead singer/songwriter (I use both terms loosely) of The Hold Steady. Finn doesn’t sing, per se, but speaks loud, emphatic tales of drifters and sinners, people with names like Shifty Montenegro and Sal Paradise (one of these I didn’t make up). From the streets of Minneapolis to migrant communities of Ainu dockworkers in Gdansk, Finn spits and heaves epic montages of tortured souls who’ve lost at love and canasta, looking for a shot at redemption or at least another roll of the rigged dice in the crap-shoot of their dreams. Backed by a band who wants to meld E Street with The Replacements, but instead sound like Soul Asylum and The Beaver Brown Band, Finn has the audacity to rip whole cloth from Springsteen’s back catalogue. You can try to say “Stuck Between Stations” or “Party Pit” aren’t achingly like “For You” or “Rosalita”, but no one likes a liar. If you like Born To Run, you’ve had 30 years to get it, and don’t need this sad band. They should of at least had the decency to call the album The Wild, the Innocent & the Springsteen Ripoff.

The Fall-uh

I had a big long post planned discussing my history with Mark E. Smith and The Fall. First exposure, impressions, lack of true familiarity despite fanatical friends, etc. However, I feel pretty crappy because fall (the season) has just been pummeling me into some sort of narcoleptic allergen state. My only recourse to dealing with the symptoms is to take fistfuls of antihistamines and decongestants, with the occasional dose of pain killers to alleviate the pounding caused by the pressure build up in my skull. So between benadryl naps and trying to get on with life, The Fall fell by the wayside.

The short version is this: never been a fan. Was overexposed in college to the early Fall material and never warmed to it. My biggest problem being the brittle sound – all treble from the guitar, all snare and cymbals, with Mr. Smith warbling like a tasered British Vinnie Barbarino way out in front of it all. Like much of the post-punk scene The Fall were not my cup of tea.

Being the musical elitist I am, I always felt a little remorseful that I didn’t find a way to like, or even accept, this seminal music snob landmark. I didn’t get it. So recently I felt determined to rectify the situation and settled in for multiple listens to the compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The first dozen or so songs are what I remember, and I can’t say I like them anymore than I did before. Next comes the mid-eighties material, and the emergence of Brix, the new Mrs. Smith. As a dowry Brix brings the E and A guitar strings and The Fall discover the 80 – 100Hz range.

Then a small glimmer of hope. I actually liked a song, “Cruiser’s Creek,” thus proving the oft-quoted (and hitherto doubted) statement that, “If you don’t like The Fall, it’s because you haven’t heard the right song.” This swings, a great little rockabilly ditty. I do feel I like it for the wrong reason, in that it reminds me of a Bily Childish song – assuming Billy ever did more than one take. The songs right around it on the compilation are also decent. I could listen to these without being appalled, though I still think the Kink’s cover “Victoria” is the sad reach for popularity it appeared to be at the time.

Once Mark E. Smith discovers the Madchester sound this compilation goes South rather quickly. I should note that this was The Fall of my college years, which may explain why so many of my music snob friends talked about the recordings from a decade earlier. I found the nineties material veered between weak and hackneyed. Black marks go to “Masquerade”, a song whose Casio stylings forced me to abandon it without finishing a first listen.

In closing, I still don’t like The Fall. They are much more stylistically diverse than I knew, but the genre appropriations seem forced. Smith may love acid house, but he still wrote post-punk songs on top of the new rhythm. “Cruiser’s Creek” I’ll add to my collection. But the number of Fall fans remains at 50,000.

Grumblings

I always end up doubting myself (and the decisions I make) regarding blogs, blogging, and writing in general. Reading that Hitchcock post – it isn’t very good. Part of it is rust – still got to clean the pipes out, get things flowing. Part is that it I find it both hard and somewhat pointless to evaluate or review a new release. Music is not something that is just part of my life – it is integral, a true soundtrack. I live with and inhabit music, or perhaps I should say music inhabits me. Whether purposely consumed or a product of unconscious osmosis, I seem to pick up things here and there from both the new and the old. Asides aside for a moment; much like a pair of shoes, I find it difficult to pass judgment on music until I have lived with it and kicked it about in different situations.

Reviews often strike me as the worst of all worlds. Combine facts of a press release or liner notes with snap judgements and a deadline (or at least, some perceived need for timeliness) and hope for the best. Some small number of these concoctions surprise in their level of insight or astuteness, but as the saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and again. Most fall nearer the old(ish) chestnut (attributed to everyone from Martin Mull to Thelonious Monk to Elvis Costello), “”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Of course, this makes it interesting in that modern dance could probably do a wonderful job with architecture, though writing about music still is a challenge. Mayhap Zappa was onto something when he said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.” I certainly have moments where I can only nod in sympathy.

The short of this is that I don’t like reviewing. In wishing to avoid the traps of the MadLib approach (ARTIST NAME has released their new album ALBUM NAME, which sounds like ANOTHER ARTIST NAME mixed with A THIRD ARTIST NAME. The standout tracks TRACK NAME and ANOTHER TRACK NAME evoke AN ARTIST NAME, leaving this reviewer AN ADJECTIVE.), I do things like “real time” impressions, or I write stories that are evocative of the feel of the album, or, best of all, I just give my opinion without placing a value judgment upon it. If I like it, I do my best to state why. If I dislike something, I’ll try to do my best to explain the reasoning. I don’t place much value on artistic intent – if you mean to paint an apple but it comes out looking like a pear, I don’t see why I should care – I just judge the pear as a pear, you know? Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

In summation, don’t expect many reviews, at least in the traditional sense. I’m not happy with that OlĂ©! Tarantula write up, which is a little too vague too often. I do have some things planned for the next few days, so stay tuned. Maybe another podcast? I got a hold of a long lost favorite, from the time of shoulder pads and big hair, when “Wicked awesome!” wasn’t an exclamation only in daily use in Maine…