Turning discomfort into art, via 'Blonde on Blonde'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Bob Dylan is currently on tour. He and his band are running through a string of dates in Japan, then it’s on to a couple of Hawaii shows, and then in June he’ll be back out there, touring Europe and, I imagine, he’ll schedule another tour in another part of the world after that, if he wants to.
There are plenty of people out there, via snarky posts from the blank-faced and the like, that rag on Dylan for still touring, dressing like a cowboy and singing his songs with his increasingly creaky voice. Not liking the sound is understandable, I suppose, but knocking someone for following a calling and making a living has never made sense. I like the idea that he’s still out there doing what he wants. And it’s not any different from how he’s approached the rest of his career.
That much should be obvious, but it seems to be lost on some thanks to age and discomfort. But a reminder of his own stubborn refusal to bend to the expectations of the masses came while I was enduring a first-world problem even more annoying than looking past irritating commenters — flying.
Family issues meant I had to get on a plane for a quick trip this past weekend, and as usual I packed a book and my headphones. I had started the flight (and the hour or so that preceded it) reading Greil Marcus' "The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes," which begins with the fury that Dylan and The Band felt night after night in 1966 performing his then-new songs: long, winding tales that questioned man and god and law that were amplified over the disapproving roar of the crowd, and the crowd raising their own volume in an attempt to drown out the music, and so on. It's aggressive and a cursory listen to some of the surviving live material — or even just the proper Highway 61 Revisited versions — will reveal the tension in the music. Perfect stuff to read about and to listen to before getting on an aluminum tube that's about to hurtle through the sky at 500 miles per hour and 32,000 feet above the ocean, of course.
Those initial electric performances came just before Highway 61 Revisited was released, and by the time of Blonde on Blonde, he was well aware of the hand-wringing outrage coloring every move he made, and the music appropriately sounds different. Where he’s hard-charging through his songs on the former record, with Blonde on Blonde he has a detached cool through much of the music, as on “Absolutely Sweet Marie” or “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Recording with a band that was — as far as anyone can tell — centered on guitarist Robbie Robertson, keyboardist Al Kooper and drummer Ken Buttrey, along with a host of rotation musicians, he was now following his rock and roll muse with full force.
It may come off as trite to still be writing anything about Bob Dylan that's meant to be in any way revelatory. But the ragged swing of that band giving noise to the words he'd so abstractly constructed fit, strangely enough, the arrhythmic roar of the engine that required the music to be turned up so loud on my headphones. It’s part of what gives songs like “I Want You” so much pull. The lyrics are meticulous and precise, able to be abstract and specific on the same reading, and behind is the best pickup band imaginable playing along as though they’ve never heard it before (which was entirely possible).
As Dylan’s lyrics were born out of heart and craft, so are the notes that Robertson and the Blonde on Blonde band play. And so the record plays on, rough and tumble yet changing the entire course of music that was to come after it; all just another day in the studio with a visionary who didn’t seem to care much about expectations. All that mattered was making sure the songs sounded the way they were supposed to in his head, and if the only way to get that kind of sound was by sketching out as rough a blueprint as possible and letting the right people play along, then so be it.
It’s that confidence that’s so obvious on the first listen, and that confidence never dissipates through the years. Blonde on Blonde came out in 1966 as a double LP well after he had horrified the onlookers at Newport and as he was preparing to do the same to ticket holders in the United Kingdom. He was hailed as the spokesman for a generation, but that was someone else’s label. It didn’t mean a lick or a note to the music he was making and wanted to make. So if people found it confrontational, whether or not it was, that was their thing, not his.
And so, with my headphones cranked about as far as it could go without causing lasting hearing damage to get above the dirge of the engines, this is what I was listening to. Not an optimal setting for taking in one of the 20th century’s greatest musical moments, but this was the moment I had, and hearing Dylan sneer and the band riff around his lyrical paintings was where I wanted to go while I was going somewhere else.
In a way that some of Dylan's music was intended (though likely not Blonde on Blonde), it was comforting. I doubt that this would've been the case had I been trying to absorb "Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat" for the first time, but it wasn't the first. Far from that. Looking back at me from that iconic, out-of-focus album cover was a guy with a singular motivation, playing with a band that sounded like no other and wouldn’t last much longer than it took to put those 14 songs down to tape. That moment lasted and resonated, preserved on vinyl and later encrypted within the zeros and ones required to fit inside my iPod, and now it was here, 48 years later, competing with a goddamn jet.
It felt nice. I don’t have a crippling fear of flying by any stretch, but I’m never entirely comfortable and would always rather be somewhere else. And the idea that anyone can take a moment of discomfort, channel it and spin it into something that can outlive that initial, unwanted emotion was soothing.
He was trying to simultaneously make millions of people understand him and stop them from attempting to paint him into a corner. And I’ll take what he was trying to do and I’ll try to understand what was going on there. He’ll keep doing what he does as long as he can, whether he’s jamming in a basement or cutting a record in Nashville or making another stop on his never-ending tour after more than seven decades on this planet.
I’ll keep listening to whatever he does, liking some of it more than the rest, happy in the knowledge that he’s still following his weird muse, creating periods of discord now that will become moments of comfort later.
April 6, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com