Trouble No More

I’ve been listening to the latest entry in Bob Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series, Trouble No More, which catalogs his “born again” years, 1979-1981.  It’s mostly just live versions and alternate takes of the songs from his three born again albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. It’s a pretty limited time frame, not presenting one of Dylan’s most prolific periods (compared to, say, the equally-narrow Basement Tapes era or the early-career Witmark Demos from ’62-’64), and tends to present the same six or seven songs over and over again. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting, worthwhile listen for the Dylan fan.

On the whole, it’s more than a little fascinating listening to these songs. Where the studio versions always seemed a little flat and passionless (ironic, given the subject matter), these live versions come…well, alive. There’s an energy and passion that were definitely absent in the studio versions. Songs like “Precious Angel” and “Solid Rock” sound vital and interesting in a live setting, while songs that were already pretty good — “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Dead Man, Dead Man,” or “Slow Train Comin'” — sound amazing. The band is pretty solid, the backing vocalists are fabulous, and Dylan sounds like a man with conviction, something he was sorely lacking in the studio versions. And this is Dylan, so even though you hear the same song six times in some cases (“Slow Train Comin'” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” both pop up at least six times over the course of the 102 tracks), they often sound drastically different from version to version. This is still Bob Dylan, after all, and he’s always tweaking things and changing it up. The studio version of a Dylan song has always ever been a foundation to build on, not a blueprint that has to be slavishly followed. He changes up time signatures, rhythms, vocal delivery, instrumentation, all in the name of finding the heart of the song. It makes for some fascinating listening.

It’s particularly interesting hearing the few songs from that era that didn’t end up on an album, such as the breezy “Caribbean Wind,” the reggae-tinged “Cover Down, Pray Through,” or the bluesy, chugging “Yonder Comes Sin.” One wonders why these songs were left off the albums in favor of other (in many cases, weaker) songs.

I will admit, 102 tracks is a bit of a slog. I have to listen in smaller chunks (and not just because I really only listen to music on my way to and from work), mostly so I don’t hear two versions of “Slow Train Comin'” on the same drive. Trouble No More does, at least, reframe this part of Dylan’s career, presenting these songs as vital and energetic instead of flat and lifeless. It’s a nice look at such a divisive period.

Protest Music

If you’ve had a conversation that lasts more than two minutes with me in the past month or so, you’ve probably heard me go off on some rant about the current political climate and America’s current administration.  Believe me, I’d love to talk about something else, but every time I turn around, something new and horrifying has happened and I get angry and riled up all over again.

Now, this may seem tangential, but my creative pursuits go in waves.  Sometimes, I’m all about novel writing, sometimes it’s comics and drawing, and sometimes it’s music.  Lately, it’s been music.  And here’s where it connects: the single upside to my current mood and reaction to American politics has been to write a slew of protest songs.

Now, there’s a long history of musicians picking up an instrument and address injustice and inequality.  Guys like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie made their careers writing songs of protest (sure, Dylan moved away from that pretty quick, but that’s how he started out).  Speaking out for the less fortunate, the voiceless, the silent masses – that’s what protest music is all about.

And so, despite my distaste for the current administration and its policies, my songwriting has felt pretty inspired lately.  I would gladly trade inspiration for a different president, mind you.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2017

When I was a younger man, single and insecure and full of anxiety and dumb ideas, I was a bit of a sad sack.  Okay, a lot of a sad sack.  I moped around the campus fountain at midnight listening to sad songs on my Discman like some mooney-eyed twit.  And I made mix CDs of songs about love gone sour and losers.

Nowadays, I tend to mope less, mostly because I finally got medication and therapy.  Marrying an amazing woman helped, too.  While I don’t make mix CDs anymore (I make playlists on my phone instead, because it’s 2017), I do still enjoy putting together thematic lists for special occasions.  While I think of myself as less of a loser than I once did, I thought it might be fun to put together one more Loser List for Valentine’s Day.

Before the list, though, a few words on this holiday.  I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day.  Maybe it’s a result of being single throughout college and grad school.  Maybe I resent being told I have to be romantic on a set day in a specific way (today’s comic is a pretty clear indicator that the Wife and I have our own unique brand of affection and romance).  Honestly, I don’t think there’s any real reason to feel obligated to do some big, ridiculous thing today, unless you really want to.  Some folks really love Valentine’s Day, and that’s great for them!  For the rest of us, let’s just act like it’s a regular ol’ Tuesday, and everyone has joined Garibaldi’s Red Shirts for the day for some weird reason.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the Losers List.

The Beatles, “I’m a Loser”: A Hard Day’s Night is one of my absolute favorite Beatles albums, and this manages to be one of the best songs on the record.

Beck, “Loser”: Like this song wasn’t going to show up on this list.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Even the Losers”: More a song of hope than anything else, it always gives me strength to think that even the losers can get lucky sometime.

The Avett Brothers, “Shame”: Sometimes we feel so sure of ourselves, only to realize we’re being tremendous assholes.

Bob Dylan, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”: Blood on the Tracks is full of sad songs of love gone wrong, but this is one of my favorites.

Cake, “Friend is a Four-Letter Word”: If early-20s me had an anthem, this was probably it.  If anyone needed a punch in the face, it was early-20s me.

Camera Obscura, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken”: “‘Cause I can’t see further than my own nose at the moment.”  Brilliant.

Sting, “Seven Days”: Sting’s face is pretty punchable, too, if only because he refers to his rival as “Neanderthal.”

Jesse Malin, “She Don’t Love Me Now”: I’m a sucker for great horn arrangements.

Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do”: Your woman runs around on you while everyone’s at church?  Robert Plant feels your pain.

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan

So, here’s a cool thing: Bob Dylan was announced last week as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The prize committee cited Dylan “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

And hey, that’s definitely something I can get behind.  Even when he’s less than great, Dylan can still turn a phrase better than most.  I thought it might be fun to run down a list of some of my favorite Dylan lyrics, in honor of his…um, honor.

Let me ask you one question/Is your money that good?/Can it buy you forgiveness?/Do you think that it should? (Masters of War)

I mean, all of “Masters of War” is classic.  It’s one of those evergreen protest songs that they could play over footage of any war and it would feel pretty appropriate.  There’s a sneer and a condemnation in the words, a drone in the repetitive chord progression that’s relentless and unchanging.  You get the feeling Dylan fucking hates war, has always and will always hate it, and you’ll never be able to convince him it’s justified.

Voices echo/This is what salvation must be like after a while. (Visions of Johanna)

I don’t always necessarily have a lot of deep insight into a particular lyrics.  A lot of his stuff just strikes me in a funny way.  His turn of phrase is always magnificent.  There’s an almost dismissive quality to a lot of what he sings, as though he can’t be bothered to decide if what he’s singing is profound or tremendously absurd.  Maybe it’s both.  I think it’s probably both.

I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I’m reading James Joyce/Some people tell me/I got the Blood of the Lamb in my voice. (I Feel a Change Comin’ On)

Yeah, it’s latter-day Dylan, and it’s sort of a throw-away set-up to get to the payoff about “the Blood of the Lamb in [his] voice.”  But damn if that isn’t the perfect way to describe Dylan’s singing, with that broken-down throat that sounds like he was in a sand-gargling contest with Tom Waits after they both drank a fifth of scotch and smoked three packs of unfiltered cigarettes each.

Last night I danced with a stranger/But she just reminded me you were the one. (Standing in the Doorway)

Once, many years ago, I spent an entire blogpost dissecting this song (fair warning: I was 23 at the time, so I was pretty damn insufferable about…well, everything, but especially music).  There’s just something so sad and beautiful about this pair of lines, it just kills me every time.

Then she says, “I know you’re an artist, draw a picture of me.”/I said, “I would if I could but I don’t do sketches from memory.” (Highlands)

This is the song where I got the name for my webcomic site (it’s also what I called the old blogspot blog back in the day).  It’s a pretty evocative title, and the lines in the song itself are frankly pretty damn funny, when you consider the fact the subject is standing right in front of him when he says he can’t do a sketch from memory.  Another situation where I can’t really tell if it’s brilliant or absurd, so it’s probably both.

I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”/He said, “You’re not Him” (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream)

No one spins a weird yarn like Dylan.  The surreal imagery, the bizarre characters, the out-of-left-field interactions…it all swirls and twirls like a kaleidoscope stuffed with LSD.  And this particular lyric epitomizes the thing folks seem to forget about Dylan too often: he’s funny as hell.

But the joke was on me/There was nobody even there to bluff/I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough. (Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues)

Easily one of my favorite Dylan songs to play.  It’s a twisted morality play about a place where no one has any kindness in their hearts, and the idea of returning to New York City as a place where things are better or kinder or less indifferent is sad and amazing and bizarre all at once.

You got a lotta nerve/To say you are my friend/When I was down you just stood there grinning. (Positively 4th Street)

The ultimate kiss-off song.  Dylan is full of vitriol and bile, snarling the lyrics to an old flame.  You almost feel bad for the subject of the song.

And I know no one can sing the blues /Like Blind Willie McTell. (Blind Willie McTell)

A simple song with just voice, piano, and an acoustic guitar (played by Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits), borrowing the tune of the old blues standard “St. James Infirmary” and acting as a history of race relations and slavery in America.  A blues song about the blues.  A lament that one does not fully possess the capability to express what is in the heart.  No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, but Dylan comes damn close in this song.

They say prayer has the power to heal/So pray for me, mother /In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell /I am trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others /But oh, mother, things ain’t going well. (Ain’t Talkin’)

Dylan famously went through a born-again Christian phase in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and while those albums weren’t the greatest, he’s managed to put the biblical imagery to better and more effective use since then.  This is a perfect example: referencing the power of prayer, the Golden Rule, and the struggle to be who you’re supposed to be.

So, that’s ten of my favorite bits of Dylan lyrics.  What’re your favorites?

“Watered-Down Love”: Dylan’s Born Again Albums, Reconsidered

Bob Dylan went Born-Again Christian in 1979, and decided that his music would follow suit.  For three albums, he pursued his new Lord and Savior through his songs.  Then, rather abruptly, Dylan went back to…well, to being Dylan with the 1983 album Infidels, and the whole business of those three albums was just kinda dropped.  The accepted wisdom – and my feelings on the matter when I first heard these three albums back in graduate school – is that Dylan’s Born Again phase yielded pretty bad music.  For albums built around the theme of a newfound faith, they feel oddly dispassionate, uninspired, and bland.  And Dylan’s lyrics?  Mundane, straightforward in a way Dylan never was, and boring.  These three albums – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love – rank as some of the worst in Dylan’s long and varied career.

But how much of that poor reputation is deserved?  Are the albums as bad as we’re told they are?  Again, I didn’t care for them when I first heard them almost a decade ago, but I did go in with the pre-formed opinion that they were going to suck.  Maybe I – we – have been too harsh.  I mean, on paper, these albums should be great: Dylan is writing about his faith, which should lead to inspired lyrics.  And heck, Slow Train Coming has guitar work by Mark Knopfler (of the Dire Straits).  This should be a knock-out home run combo, right?

Let’s take it album by album, see how they stand up thirty-six years later.

slowtraincomingSlow Train Coming (1979): The first of the trio, and widely considered the strongest.  The album opens well with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a song that’s solid-enough to be a legitimate part of the Dylan canon even now.  That’s followed by “Precious Angel,” a song with pretty great instrumentation and some of the blandest lyrics imaginable.  Dylan sounds bored while singing, like he can’t be bothered to try.  There’s no conviction to it.  “I Believe in You” Has the same problem (in addition to some pretty strangled, strained vocal efforts by Bob) and an uninspired instrumental piece.  Things are not looking good for the album.  Things pick back up, though, with “Slow Train,” where Dylan’s lyrics are more circumspect and he sings them with more conviction.  Knopfler’s guitar work doesn’t hurt, either.  It kinda sags in the back half, though “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is fun and relaxed.  The album ends with “When He Returns,” a slow piano-led paean to Jesus that just drags out for a every second of almost four-and-a-half-minute run time.  On the whole, not a classic album, but pretty solid.  Three of the nine songs are pretty great, which isn’t the best ratio but it’s better than nothing.

bob_dylan_-_savedSaved (1980): Saved opens with a mostly-acapella rendition of the old spiritual “Satisfied Mind,” which is pretty awesome.  It’s followed by the title track, which plays out like a tent revival gospel sing-along.  “Covenant Woman” isn’t bad; a middling Dylan song that veers a little deeper into schmaltz than you’d like, but is still likable enough.  “What Can I Do For You?” feels like Dylan doing a Dylan impression, right down to the harmonica solos.  “Solid Rock” picks up the pace a bit, which is appreciated, and almost feels like a Tom Petty song.  “Pressing On” is genuinely great, a solid mixture of Dylan’s lyrical concerns and instrumentation that feels inspired, passionate, and heartfelt in a way the previous couple of songs just don’t.  It’s followed by “In the Garden,” which feels like something you might’ve heard on the 700 Club back in the day (that’s not a good thing).  “Saving Grace” has a similar tone and church organ intro.  The album ends with “Are You Ready,” which aims for slow-burn Chicago blues but just feels forced.  Overall, Saved is definitely weaker than Slow Train Coming.  The good songs aren’t as good as the best of Slow Train Coming, and it just feels pedestrian in too many places.

shotofloveShot of Love (1981): The third and final album of the Born Again Trilogy starts out strong with the title track, though it does get a bit preachy here and there.  “Heart of Mine” is a good follow-up, maintaining a solid rhythm and pretty good lyric read from Dylan.  “Property of Jesus” falls flat, feeling too much like a cookie-cutter praise song from a middling praise and worship band.  “Lenny Bruce” is just straight-up boring, and “Watered-Down Love,” despite an awesome title and concept, feels watered down and flat itself.  “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” comes out of nowhere, though, feeling like a song from a different time and a different Dylan.  It’s a shock to the system, a swift kick in the ass that electrifies.  It’s followed by the reggae-inflected “Dead Man, Dead Man,” which finds Dylan hollering and shouting like the best tent revivalist.  The album stumbles a bit with “In the Summertime” and “Trouble,” but ends strong with “Every Grain of Sand,” a song that (while kind of boring musically) draws on Christian themes in the way Dylan should’ve been doing since Slow Train Coming, honestly.  It’s heartfelt and clever and inspired, and a great way to close out the trilogy.

But how does the whole business feel, all-told?  If we look at it from a purely numbers game, we’ve got 28 songs, about 11 of which are actually pretty good.  Less than 50% there.  But quality isn’t an all-or-nothing sort of thing, and that maybe doesn’t tell the whole story.  Songs like “Dead Man, Dead Man,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” and “Pressing On” are affecting, heartfelt, and just about as good as anything else Dylan put out in the 1970s of 1980s.  Shot of Love definitely comes out as my favorite of the three, and an album that I genuinely enjoy and will even put on sometimes just to listen to.  Honestly, that’s all I ever want out of music: the desire to occasionally just listen to it just because.  Yeah, I end up hitting the skip button quite a bit, but the songs I like, I really like.  I think that’s really true of all three albums: while I don’t care for most of the songs, the ones that are good remind you that Dylan could take just about anything and make an interesting song out of it.

Conveniently, in this day and age of iTunes and Spotify, you can easily just grab the individual tracks you like and consign the rest to the dustbin of history if you’d like.  I’d definitely recommend it for songs like all three of the title tracks and songs like “Dead Man, Dead Man,” “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” and “Pressing On.”  They’re nice reminders that even Dylan at one of the nadirs of his career could still write better songs than lots of other musicians out there at their peak.

Favorites: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited

I’m an unapologetic Bob Dylan fan.  I’ll even listen to the crappy late ’70s/early ’80s born-again Christian albums that everyone agrees are absolute crap.  But my favorite, the one that I could listen to over and over again for the rest of my days, the one that would be in my “Desert Island Discs” top ten, is Highway 61 Revisited.

Yeah, it’s kind of the obvious choice.  With “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s guaranteed to be one of the best-known of Dylan’s albums, standing alongside his earlier folk albums and Blonde on Blonde as the ones that all the casual fans know about and probably have.

But I’m not some hipster who thinks popularity makes something bad.  There is, I think, a good reason that so many people like this record: it’s just really damn good.  Peak Dylan, firing on all cylinders and writing with a passion and a fire that could barely be contained.  From the first firecracker snare shot of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the plaintive harmonica wail that brings “Desolation Row” to an end, Highway 61 Revisited is everything I ever wanted in a rock and roll record.  Dylan is by turns thoughtful, aggressive, playful, and mystical, tapping into a mythic America that seems somehow more real than the actual one.

Tunes!

If you’re like me – and you should all be so lucky – then writing is a process that involves music.  Lots of music.  But not just any music!  No, you must listen to specific songs or specific styles to help set the mood for your protagonist’s adventures.  Or misadventures.  Or what have you.

I have a constantly-evolving playlist on my phone of the songs I listen to while writing.  Some are on there because they fit a specific scene, while others are more about describing the characters or the mood.  The following playlist was developed while I was writing The Invisible Crown and another novel that will appear later in the series, tentatively called Death and the Dame (that one’s a love story.  Sort of).

1. Anita Kelsey, “Sway”: There have been times I’ve just written to the Dark City Soundtrack.  This is still one of my favorite songs off that collection.

2. Sting, “Perfect Love…Gone Wrong”: On there because of the smoky, steamy city jazz feel, and also the extended metaphor where Sting is a disgruntled dog amuses me to no end.

3. John Mellencamp, “The Full Catastrophe”: Perfect summation of my protagonist, Eddie Hazzard.  His life is a bit of a rolling catastrophe, and there is a minor chance he was accidentally loving your wife while you were loving his.

4. Soul Coughing, “Fully Retractable”: One that’s on there for tone/mood.  There’s a dark undercurrent, a sinister feel to this song that’s just really fitting.

5. Muddy Waters, “Rolling Stone”: Life in a blues song always sounds like it sucks.  I imagine Eddie’s life is much the same way.

6. Bob Dylan, “What Was It You Wanted”: Either the narrator is stuck in a world that makes no sense, or the guy took a shot to the head.  Either way, a Dylan song is a must-have on pretty much any playlist I put together.

7. Gorillaz, “M1A1”: Fight scene song!  Love the energy, the staccato burst of the snare, the spiky guitars…great soundtrack to a fistfight.

8. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”: Another mood setter.  Creepy, dark alley vibe that I dig.

9. EL VY, “Happiness, Missouri”: Like I said, a lot of songs I stick on these for the general mood they set.  This one fits with the general feel of the city of Arcadia: dark, slightly mysterious, vaguely threatening and sinister.

10. Arcade Fire, “My Body is a Cage”: The contemplative, protagonist considers his actions and his destiny before launching into the story’s climactic scene song.  Love the build of it, the sense of determination and all that.

11. The Dead Weather, “Hustle and Cuss”: Basically the Eddie Hazzard theme song.  He has to be out there hustling, working his tail off, because his enemies are always a few steps ahead of him.  And cussing…well, you have to express your frustration somehow.

12. David Gray, “Dead in the Water”: While The Invisible Crown might be the first of Eddie Hazzard’s cases, it certainly won’t be the last.  I’ve got three other novels already written in the series, I’ve started working on the fifth novel, and I have plans for the sixth.  The core idea for the sixth book came from a short story I wrote a couple years back about Eddie and a particularly disturbing case and a mis-remembering of a lyric from this song.  Expect to see that book in…um…2022 or so, maybe?  I dunno.

13. Adele, “Rumor Has It”: A private detective works with whatever information he can get.  Sometimes, that information is merely rumors.  Sometimes, those rumors turn out to be true.

14. Tom Waits, “Way Down in a Hole”: Tom Waits sounds too ludicrous to even be one of my characters, and I have one antagonist who’s a head in a jar named The Fish.  Honestly, when developing characters, I just ask myself, “What would Tom Waits do?” and go from there.  It’s served me pretty well so far.

15. Modest Mouse, “Bukowski”: This always struck me as driving music, the sort of thing you’d hear on the soundtrack if TIC was turned into a movie/TV series and they had a scene of him driving from the office to an informant or chasing down a lead.

That’s my playlist!  What do you listen to when you’re writing?