Sometimes it feels good to select a sacred cow from the annals of history and subject them to a thorough going over. Even better when they're still alive, and have played in front of the pope in recent years- like an old bluesman's recantation, hoping to invest now for a good yield in the afterlife, it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. There are too many classics around, too many shelves in libraries and living rooms and record stores heaving with the same old faces, retreading the same words and tired tried and tested formulas.
Those Dylan tapes on my shelf, lying there unlistened to for too long. So I take down Blood on the Tracks to remind myself what the fuss was about, and why I have such trouble listening to so many of his uncontested meisterwerks. The harmonica beckons with a promise of sorts- a 16 Lovers Lane lilt familiar and yet instantly jarring. A track like The Go-Betweens' 'Quiet Heart' always wore its Dylan influence audibly and sent shivers down my spine, and now in retrospect the reference to Scorpio Rising holds new allure. Within a few minutes I'm reduced to laughter by 'Idiot Wind'- the lyrics sound hollow, the vein of ripe self-laceration mined here induces a sickly feeling. Sailors had a word for it- calenture I believe. Which reminds me the Triffids were at their best capturing the arid Australian wilderness, the country-tinged 'You Don't Miss Your Water' or the powerful psychic storm warnings contained in 'Chicken Killer' or 'Wide Open Road'. Even when they allowed the sheer beauty of their pose to slip, Born Sandy Devotional's austere splendour giving way to textures buried in bagpipes and overproduction on the Calenture album, they retained enough composure to convince. The reworked 'Hometown Farewell Kiss' is as bittersweet a tale of the revenge of memory, with the great line "All this while I've kept a road-map in my head", as you could wish for. While I can't say I love 'Bury me Deep in Love', it paid David McComb's rent for a fair while I imagine. Quite a coup for any band to wake up and find one of their soggier numbers used to drench Jason and Kylie's wedding in Neighbours. I now also realize why I had more time for Springsteen than for Dylan in my precocious pre-pubescent years, favoured Raffles and Fu Manchu mysteries over Dickens or Amis, father or son. With the benefit of time, there seems less amiss with Bruce's pillagings from The Grapes of Wrath, and the born in the USA stance was always ironic. He's even outed as a Suicide fan in the interview with Rev and Vega in the reissue of their second album.
There was Dylan in the movies of course, now that I've despatched Blood on the Tracks back to the cassette shell it emerged from. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or Don't Look Back. But then again Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge in Pat Garrett provide such a poignantly erotic undertow to Peckinpah's outlaw savagery that Dylan's soundtrack pales into clichˇ the more I think about it. I have an lp of Kris and Rita recorded at the same time, with gorgeous duet ballads such as 'I'm down (but I keep falling)' and 'From the Bottle to the Bottom', the gatefold sleeve featuring them in shots from the set of Pat Garrett, the pair got up in western gear, walking tall down Mexico way. In the hometown farewell of Don't Look Back he's screened behind harmonica and dark glasses- the look says exactly that, don't look. Everything's surface, it's a bumpy ride.
Various explanations have been offered over the years for the "GET OUTTA THE CAR OCHS" quote, emblazoned on Grant McLennan's T-shirt inside the beautiful 'Lee Remick' gatefold sleeve, McLennan captured against a background of a Gitane-chomping Belmondo (the elder) on the wall. The most memorable being that Ochs was caught indulging his fawning idolatry of Bob (synonymous for God) during a car journey, which rankled with Dylan so much he told him to leave the vehicle. As I recall Bob did partly make amends by covertly naming John Wesley Harding after Tim Hardin, which remains a rare example of an album of his I can listen to. He doesn't seem to be straining at the leash to imbue every line with symbolic weight, rather like the first two Hardin lp's, where the folk bandit smuggled untold riches into the two-minute pop song format.
With Dylan I have the same feeling I do with the Beatles' back catalogue- I'm far more prepared to sit through covers of their songs, Petula Clark doing 'Rain' or Mark Murphy on the pop album on Immediate Records, than swallow whole their revolver, or burn their rubber soul. Murphy is the man who wears shades with such conviction you feel embarrassed to attempt to emulate him. The same kind of intensity worn so well by Miles on the Birth of the Cool cover. The sleeve of Rah from 1961 pictures him as a college hipster, with an economics book on his knee and a sign with the slogan 'RAH' emblazoned in sharply etched black letters in hand. He looks at you, you feel confronted. Cool Mark with a rage in his message, but if you don't look properly you'll miss it. Seductively easeful, impeccably stylish, but he doesn't have to labour the point. The kind of combination which makes the record itself such an unalloyed delight- 'Angel Eyes' may be an old standard but the way he breathes life into the words, "Idiot Wind" is scattered into the distance and revealed as bad sixth-form confessional by comparison. He chooses to end the song on an unearthly note of disaffected alienation, in keeping with the line "excuse me while I disappear". Yet his delivery of the syllable "dis", almost a scream, almost a hysterical plea, breaks every barrier of polite etiquette you might associate with 60's jazz vocals. Excoriating rather than the excruciating martyrdom of preacher Bob hanging out his wet blanket to dry.
Or there's the Band, who had their fair share of Dylan as supplementary member and songwriter- how do I explain the fondness I have for their first two albums and the Basement Tapes? Partly the Felt song 'Ballad of the Band', partly seeing Robbie Robertson dressed as a ringer for de Niro's young rascal Johnny Boy from Mean Streets in the Scorsese concert film The Last Waltz. Their well-worn 'I Shall be Released' is covered by P. J. Proby in winning style on his Believe It or Not! lp with his trademark camp exaggeration. The way he twists the words, elongates syllables, makes you think about them anew, to the point where his excess leads you into different directions from any Mr. Zimmermann might have envisaged. Stretching and writhing in his split-wide-open velvet trousers, "released" becomes "releyeast" and "blame" becomes "blayame". The Proby legend was written up in such style by Nik Cohn in Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom I needn't add to the myth-making. One of music's great horned figures, suffice it to say, up there with the likes of Skip James (read Stephen Calt's richly informative I'd Rather be the Devil) or Mingus for devil-may-care protean shapeshifting instincts.
The prime offender to my mind is the most recent Dylan offering, out of mind and outta sight would describe its closing 15-minute sprawling epic. Where Dexys' 'Reminisce (Part One)' lifted you effortlessly with the search for the perfect moment, wedding memory with street-talk amid an unattainable ecstasy, Dylan strains to attain a higher ground in musical form. He runs amok with line after line of self-absorbed doggerel, wading across an increasingly shallow river, shelling the remaining peas from a virtually empty pod. The road to canonization is a long and rocky one- gnostics and heretics were burnt at the stake for far less.
The memory of Dylan's conversations with himself retreat into the distance. I'll trade his harmonica for the ghostly shades of Mark Murphy, or the crazy cool of Shorty Rogers, whose 'Blues for Brando' was a reworking of his soundtrack work for biker flick The Wild One, point of departure for Kenneth Anger's speed and blasphemy cocktail Scorpio Rising.
©Marino Guida 2000