It was announced not too long ago that His Bobness was releasing yet another album to add to his ever-growing discography. Mixed feelings have I on this one: naturally I’m thrilled at the thought of more new music to digest, and to paraphrase Griel Marcus, I’d buy an album of Bob breathing heavily, but the last one wasn’t wonderful, the man is now 71 and his voice is like an asthmatic, stuffy, Cuban cigar guzzling grizzly bear. Stranger things have happened mind you, and I have no doubt I’ll have it on repeat for about a week when it comes out before coming to any serious conclusion, no matter how good or bad it is. But as it doesn’t come out until September, and I haven’t been listening to much new music lately, I feel the announcement has given me the impetus to take trip through his extensive back catalogue and draw attention to a few obscure favourites.
One of Dylan’s greatest tragic ballads, one with one of the greatest guitar melodies ever heard on a Dylan record, and a song that was for some reason shelved for 22 years until its final release on the Biograph boxset in 1985. Despite the incomprehensibility of this exclusion on any album, I can forgive it for its sheer beauty and juxtaposition of such a tragic tale with such wondrous music. The narrator’s friend is accused of the manslaughter of 4 men due to a car crash while he was driving, and is tried for (and receives) a 99-year sentence. The gravity and injustice of the situation is relayed by Dylan in somber placidity: “But he ain’t no criminal, and his crime it is none, Turn, turn, turn again. What happened to him could happen to anyone, turn, turn to the rain and the wind.”
Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues
This one’s a doozy. A pretty damn hilarious account of a disastrous trip to the “Bear Mountain Picnic” excursion, where there are too many people for the boat to take the happy families there, the ship sinks, people panic and families get separated and wash up on the shore. One of those nonchalantly told tales about something so utterly hilarious and ridiculous, a great treasure.
Suze (The Cough Song)
A really lovely little instrumental ditty written for his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo, nothing too amazing but for the fact that Bob coughs into the harmonica after about a minute and a half and then tries to explain that the song cuts before the cough came in and then fades out, prompting much laughter from the recording staff. Just one of those classic moments that was so fortunately captured on tape.
Where do I even begin with this one? The recording sessions are something of the stuff of legend among Dylan fans, with producer Daniel Lanois suggesting spicing up the song a little by bringing in a Cajun backing band, the products of which were disastrous. The song went through many changes of pace, lyrics and melody, nothing ever quite hitting the mark, before it was shelved, only to be resurfaced 5 years later for a Greatest Hits album with a rerecorded guitar and organ part. It sounded at this point like the song that should have made it to 1989’s Oh Mercy album, with a rollicking rock beat, Dylan’s sneering vocal and some lyrics that fit in with that album well, lyrics of desperate people searching for dignity, dissimilar people in different situations, all united by the common search for one thing: dignity. It’s a call back to the Highway 61 Revisited era of songs, with shout outs to the likes of a woman called Mary Lou, Prince Philip, a fat man and other such assorted characters. A shame it missed the album, a miracle that it managed to see the light of day.
|... and now.|
Spirit on the Water
A real personal favourite this one, off his 2006 album Modern Times. Despite being 65 at the time he still sounds like a lovestruck teen on this, the prettiest of his latter day ballads. The musical backdrop is very 1940’s, with pretty steel guitar and soft piano chords, soothing the anguish of Bob’s heartbroken mind. His voice really is rather beautiful on this one, and this record was probably the last time his voice sounded even remotely good before it turned to crap a few years ago. I’m glad he managed to whip this one out of the bag before that happened though, it could have been butchered. Instead the timing was absolutely perfect: his voice sounding old and grandfatherly but still with that element of adolescent pining and anguish, like the regrets one has for something years later when it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s a sadly overlooked piece of music in a discography filled with so many masterpieces that this one is unfortunately easy to miss.
Recently stumbled across this one: another instrumental, the “Final theme” referring to the film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid for which this was a soundtrack piece. A wonderfully evocative and tragic piece of music, complete with funeral-like chanting and an ethereal, tear-jerking flute solo. I’ve never seen the film but I know the story and listening to the music gives me a pretty clear indication of what emotion this music is meant to evoke.
The Death of Emmett Till
One of Dylan’s most harrowing ballads, based on the true story of the foul racist murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy who was killed in Mississippi over supposedly flirting with a white woman. The boy’s horrific ordeal is described in brutal detail, the bitterness of the narrator at the murderers’ “mockery” of a trial in which they were acquitted, and offering a rare judgement at the end for any listener who refuses to acknowledge their actions as evil: “If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,/Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust/Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,/For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low.” This is probably the best example of how Dylan’s protest songs could be both topical, harsh, brutal and extremely relevant.
What Can I Do For You?
A really brilliant treasure from his otherwise fairly weak Christian period; this one has Gospel music written all over it with its soulful organ and backing singers. The actual lyrics of devotion and gratitude are among some of his most inspired and honest, but the most amazing part of the song is Dylan’s beautiful and heart-wrenching harmonica: given an unusual prominence in this song, more than any other song since his mid-60’s albums, it reveals his devotion and passion to his faith in a way that mere words could not.
Words – Adam.