DYLAN BECOMES DYLAN (Segue of the Day: 8/15/16)

Or maybe just…becomes.

dylan1

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.

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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.

ME AND DYLAN GET TOGETHER…COSMICALLY SPEAKING (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #41)

Back in 2009, on the occasion of Mary Travers’ passing, I wrote an obit for her where I argued, among other things, for her (and her group’s) singular importance in the history of folk music and especially, topical protest music.

One significant piece of the argument, rarely acknowledged by others anywhere, ever, was PP&M’s now taken-for-granted ability to put the radical young Bob Dylan high on the charts a full two years before the “folk rock” boom and to do so specifically with one of his protest songs…which was relevant to the Civil Rights movement in that year’s headlines and also to the escalation of the Viet Nam war, still two years away. Unspoken in all that, was the notion that not even the rise of Bob Dylan was inevitable.

I’m sure others have made this point, but, if so, I’ve never actually heard or read about it. So I’m especially happy to note that, as of now, I know of at least one other person who agrees with me.

I feel like this is pretty good company.

On Peter, Paul & Mary’s early hit version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

“I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group. They took a song of mine that hadn’t been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.”

(Bob Dylan, on the occasion of his accepting an award from MusiCares: L.A. Times, Feb. 7, 2015)

Lengthy excerpts of the speech can be found here. Highly recommended reading. And listening, of course….

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION? (Vocalist of the Month–Mary Travers RIP Redux)

[NOTE: As usual, things are goin’ on, so I’m a little late with my Vocalist of the Month for May. I intended it to be Jerry Butler and I got most of the piece written, but I’m still an organized thought or two away from finishing it, so I’m going to cheat a little and use this as an excuse to post my obituary for Mary Travers, which Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute on the net in the wake of her passing. The piece has been slightly modified to sharpen a phrase or two but, from where I stand, what I said then, regarding either Mary or the world, isn’t any less true now–except that the “draconian powers” I mention below have indeed been “assumed” by Democrats and Republicans alike, and it will almost certainly take a replay of the sixties, which we are almost certainly not up for, to assume them back. Goodbye us.]

In the days leading up to the Iraq war nothing made that modern media invention–the conscience-stricken hawk–quite as queasy as the spectre of the “Peter, Paul and Mary liberal” turning the new adventure into “another Viet Nam.”

That kind of insight was, of course, less than brilliant on infinite levels, but there was some justice in the basic underlying unease: the special relationship between music and politics that’s now called to mind by the catch-all phrase “the sixties” was not, after all, just some weird accident.

The stark, unsettling contradictions that boiled to the surface in that generation have been wallowing in the American psyche since the beginning and are with us still, while the notion that musicians and other artists should confront them is, if not quite that old, at least far, far older than the recording industry.

By contrast, a reality where this very confrontation could produce gold records–and the powerful, insidious, ear-worm relevance in modern American life that this generally implies–was entirely modern and called forth very specifically by three earnest folkies who, as if to prove history really does have a sense of humor, were assembled by a quasi-corporate process not all that different from the ones that later produced the Monkees and the Back Street Boys.

Partly for those reasons, the group was something of a punching bag among the hipper-than-thou left–particularly that part of it which gave up on the dream long before Peter, Paul or Mary did–even before their massive success began to haunt bigots and mad bombers alike.

At least some of that was envy, but for art to work as politics the art has to come first and P,P&M had two elements of genius. The first was the magical “other” that is created when the members of any great harmony group blend their voices.

The second was Mary Travers.

It was Travers who gave the group’s sleek sound the gravitas it needed to become a dividing line and a cultural force that went far beyond selling records. A lot of what Peter, Paul and Mary did–children’s songs, stale stage-patter, tiresome renditions of “true” folk songs by way of Merry Olde England–was innocuous or worse and can safely be consigned to the nostalgia bin if not the dust bin.

What’s left are a number of fine performances that include a couple of dozen diamond-pure sides that did what art very, very rarely does–changed things.

Nearly every one of those sides featured Mary Travers as either lead or de facto soloist.

It was her voice that put Bob Dylan on the charts for the first time (not scraping the charts, incidentally, but “Blowin’ In The Wind” all the way to #2); her voice that brought Pete Seeger back to the top ten after nearly a decade in blacklisted exile–not with Weavers-style balladry but with a political anthem; her voice wailing on the key line in Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” that makes it sound even now like something college kids really would call forth as naturally as breathing when they were being beaten with night-sticks and tossed into paddy wagons at the “liberal” Democratic Convention in 1968.

The paraphrased poetry of “the whole world is watching” was Dylan’s but it was almost certainly Travers who Middle America heard when the fragment echoed across evening news newscasts or turned up in quotes in the morning newspapers, just as it was effectively Travers, almost alone, who first put “protest” music into the proverbial million living rooms where Martin Luther King might as well have been the antichrist.

It wasn’t for nothing that Civil Rights paragon Ossie Davis–as righteous a defender as African-American culture will ever have–called her white-bread folk group “the movement set to music.”

All of that would make her one of the most important voices of the century but she could be even better.

“500 Miles” was recorded in 1962 and, with the tumult still largely in front of her, Travers used that completely artificial confection as a vehicle for collapsing time. Standing on the cusp of a cultural earthquake that would not have been entirely possible without her, she made a commercial folk song sound as if it had always existed and always would, as if everything that was about to happen had already been and gone and she was the only one left to speak of it. Much like the sixties themselves, her version can make you smile behind the eyes or rip your heart out–can be steeped in as much hope or damnation as a listener chooses.

And where “500 Miles” was a pure abstraction–a reach for something that could be grasped but not quite held–“Leaving on a Jet Plane” was utterly prosaic. Travers simply took John Denver’s best song–a fine, if conventional take on that most jealously guarded male prerogative, i.e., the freedom to come and go and have the little woman wait for you to make up your mind–and turned it inside out.

What was left was possibly the strangest hit record of the entire rock and roll era. At once thoroughly radical and profoundly reassuring, recorded just as the women’s movement was taking off, it made no grand statements in the manner of “Respect” or “I Am Woman,” or even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” but instead simply took for granted everything genuinely useful such a movement might achieve (all the more remarkable since Travers had recorded it in 1966–the same year as the brassy “Boots” and well before the others. Where others proclaimed, Travers simply made the most powerful assumption of all. That the right to make the most profound decisions in a relationship was no more than her–or anyone’s–just due. She called special attention to nothing–and missed nothing. The freedom and attendant responsibility that lay behind her bold assumptions got exactly the weight they deserved and no more, lessons that have been missed by generations of male rock critics and elite “feminist” scholars alike, but were likely not lost on the wave of female singer-songwriters (Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, et al) who were about to leave their own deep mark.

It was perhaps appropriate for “Jet Plane” to hit number one in the last month of a decade synonymous with tumult. It seems at least possible that after a deluge of assassination and war and riot, the culture simply took that highly symbolic occasion to draw a deep breath and reach back for some sense of itself, for some reminder of the bedrock that would be waiting when the brick and mortar stopped flying. If cultures can do such things–and if ours did such a thing at that moment–it is both supremely ironic and completely unsurprising that it was Travers’ voice (on a by then three-year-old album track) we reached for.

The critic Ralph Gleason once famously called Peter, Paul and Mary “two rabbis and a hooker,” and to be honest that’s one of the funniest things any critic has ever said. But the real joke is that it was the hooker–not the rabbis or the critic–who turned out to have the biblical voice.

Before her, the great voices of American protest music remained in the underground or on the sidelines. Before her, if a “folk” group had a really big hit it was “Good Night Irene” or “Tom Dooley” or, “Michael” (as in row the boat gently and safely ashore). Before her, if Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” it could scrape the charts for a week before being banned (and effectively ending the singer’s substantial career as a hit-maker). Before her, there was no way Woody Guthrie singing “Deportee” or Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” or, for that matter, Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” could get anywhere near a chart.

After her, there was no way “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son,” or “Ohio,” or “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” or “Born In the U.S.A.” or “The World Is a Ghetto,” or “What’s Going On” or “Fight the Power” could miss.

As we head into an age when the party of “limited” government (which, laughably, still goes by the name Republican) has laid the groundwork for an assumption of draconian federal powers which the old House Un-American Activities Committee that hounded Pete Seeger would never have dreamed possible, the American music charts are, in most ways, as free of pointed, topical relevance as they were in 1961 and every year prior. These days even so-called “hardcore” rappers and punks confine their protests to their albums. Few others bother with even that much.

I’d like to think that the moment is always right for some new version of Mary Travers to stick a fingernail in the side of today’s newer, tougher version of plastic culture and slit a seam that will allow for a new blast of fresh air.

I’ll keep on hoping for it, but I won’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, be holding my breath.

Truth is, the blonde chick in Peter, Paul and Mary has gone to her reward and I have a funny feeling they only made one of her.

Mary Travers “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (Live on Television, 1982 Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion Special)