Or maybe just…becomes.
I’ve never listened all that close to Bob Dylan’s first two albums until here recently. What changed is that I acquired The Original Mono Recordings box set a couple of years back and I’ve since been able to listen to the legend “busy being born” in clear crystal sound instead of my old battered used vinyl copies.
Even so, I never really bore down on the experience until this week, when I decided to try and put my finger on why I like the first album, simply titled Bob Dylan, which sold 5,000 copies when it was released, so much better than the second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.That’s the one that set Greenwich Village on fire on the way to changing the world and all.
It’s certainly not the covers. The cover is the best thing about the second album. It even sort of promises that what’s inside will be the main thing it’s not, which is “freewheein’.”
Even decades of general familiarity (you could end up knowing a lot about Dylan’s second album–like the lyrics to a lot of the songs–just by being alive for the last fifty years) left me unprepared for how safe the newly minted “Bob Dylan” was prepared to play it after that first album flopped.
And, by safe, I mean, of course, vocally. Which, as most of you know, is what matters around here.
Getting to know that first LP in the last year or so has been a revelation, so much so that I wonder how I could have possibly missed it before, irrespective of the quality of my old, used vinyl. It wouldn’t be fair to say Dylan made it sound like he was breathing a revolution (the quality that made so many intellectual gatekeepers underestimate the art that went into the early efforts of Fats and Elvis and Little Richard). But he was still the freest voice to enter popular music since the mid-fifties. And he was mostly singing other people’s songs. As so often happens–as it had happened with Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, among others–you start out thinking it’s the songs, but it’s really the voice.
Nearly as startling as Dylan’s first voice–and the way he used that voice–was his harmonica playing. Not just the fire and dexterity he put into it, but the way he wove it into his singing, as though it were simply an extension of his singing, constantly challenging and enlarging itself.
I know all this is hardly news to long-time Dylanistas who have followed him since whenever. But, however much I’ve loved his mid-sixties music since it first whopped me up side the head in the late seventies, I wasn’t prepared to have what I had imagined to be Dylan-the-Burgeoning-Folkie make such a purely vocal impression and then sustain it for the length of that first album.
And that, in turn, might be why I was/am so unprepared for the restrictions he put on himself when it came time to make his second album. On the first four tracks (which only include “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “Masters of War”), he doesn’t sound so much like he put his harp in his pocket as somebody shoved it up his sphincter. Sorry, but this doesn’t sound like a man breaking free. Maybe it did then. Maybe the mere fact that he didn’t “sing pretty” was liberating and forward-looking. These days, it sounds almost impossibly affected, the epitome of everything every note of his first album had been prepared to mock–the sound of freedom reduced to the sound of surrender.
And, except for his always cutting way with a talking blues (though he cut even deeper on live shows from the period), he sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the whole thing.
Given what I know about both the purely cynical crony capitalists who are forever lingering somewhere in the background of every inexplicable thing and the highly gullible earnest folkies who snatched up Freewheelin’ and then carried Dylan right up to the moment he stabbed them in the face by “going electric,” I suspect this is the sound of a supremely calculating young man who has judged the odds and accepted what must be done to get where he is going from where he’s been.
It’s also the sound of a man who might be harboring a grudge against more than just the masters of war–a grudge that would carry him right past his core audience when it was finally time to merge the various “Dylans” of these first two LPs into the full might and fury of Highway 61 Revisited.
Heard that way, Freewheelin’ becomes almost as subversive as either Bob Dylan or its own legend.
That’s how genius rolls, I guess–if you’re moving a little too fast…slow down and wait for the main chance.
And, as always, God bless Peter, Paul and Mary and/or Albert Grossman for hearing hits in “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
I not only wouldn’t have, I still don’t. Miracles happen.