Navigating those solitary moments with Bob Dylan’s solitary triumph
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
A quick survey of my surroundings: I’m sitting cross-legged on this chair, with an album sleeve and the inner notes piled on my lap. Within reaching distance and in no particular order is a glass of water, a pair of headphones, my phone, an ottoman and a figurine of Larry Bird. There are records and posters hanging on the wall, my computer on the desk, and beside that, a lamp dimly lighting up the entire room, for mood as much as anything.
For the past few weeks, I’ve spent a good amount of time doing as much as I can on as little money as possible to improve the sound and listening experience in my music room here. There’s a new chair, and a new cartridge on the turntable. The speakers have been upgraded, repositioned and everything just seems to have a new clarity, a new kind of punch and drive and atmosphere.
There was a time — and this day could come again at any moment — where I would’ve used this to blast off to the netherworld. Led Zeppelin, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Black Sabbath, Sonic Youth, any and all of it would’ve been cranked to uncomfortable decibel levels, leaving the space rattling and awash in heavy, grungy glory.
That hasn’t been the case here. Maybe it began with the Wildflowers box set, but I’ve gone in the other direction lately, trading the giant riffs for more understated sounds, from the Beatles to Van Morrison to Miles Davis, letting the quality of the original recording come through as much as can be reproduced through vinyl. This hunt for the familiar and the comforting means that my listening to new music has waned considerably. Instead, it means I’m more likely to pick out a record I haven’t given much airtime lately. In this process, I rediscovered how heavy and nasty John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton is, and similarly, the eponymous Blind Faith album. With nothing but time and with my ear looking for more beneath the surface than usual, those records have shined.
The other night, I was scanning the shelves for something to continue this motif and I landed on More Blood, More Tracks, the 14th volume in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series. As if Blood on the Tracks wasn’t spare and emotional enough, this edition pares that album back to Dylan’s acoustic sessions in New York, which presents the songs in an unadorned light. The result is stark and sometimes chilling, but also affirming. First person is switched to third on the opening “Tangled Up in Blue,” but from there, this is Dylan laying his demons bare, allowing the listener in on his current state via an essentially perfect collection of songs.
Despite being made up of all the same songs (plus the bonus of “Up to Me”), this album is strikingly different from the final Blood on the Tracks. The sounds of Dylan’s shirt buttons clicking against the back of his guitar are the audible signal that this is a much more dressed-down affair, miles away from the slick production values of his contemporaries in the mid-1970s. With personal turmoil and a career at a crossroads, he was making a statement in how he dressed his songs as much as with the songs themselves.
Comparing the 1975 classic to these early versions, “Idiot Wind” gains the most in this stripped-down rendition. The official release is a classic, but stacked up against the rest of the record, it always hit me as a little grating, a little too amped-up and aggressive. It’s almost as if, by the time the final take was recorded, he’d put enough distance between himself and his words, and he performs them the way an actor would interpret someone else’s lines. Here, down to just Dylan, his guitar and some bass, he’s more resigned and in the moment, with his anger coming out not as some kind of performative aggression but rather that more realistic manifestation of hurt, where the narrator is just annoyed and tired and more than ready to move on. The rage has died down but the bitterness still lingers. There are some final digs to get in, sure, but it comes with that all-too-relatable feeling of throwing 20 bucks on a table and walking away. He’s done. It’s a wonder that he still knows how to breathe.
But as on the final album, it’s “Simple Twist of Fate” that sticks out the most for me. It’s the sound and story of a man alone, waking up in an empty room, walking through an abandoned city, staring at a suddenly vacant life and counting up all the steps and decisions that have led him to this moment. It’s as personal and remarkable a composition as any in his catalog, just devoid of enough specifics that the listener can fill in every heart-wrenching detail as needed. It’s a song that lends itself to any number of re-listens, with plenty of opportunity to apply as many lessons and empathetic projections as necessary.
There’s no need to recount all the dizzying fluctuations of this year. There have been elections and violence and mourning, but for the better part of 10 months, the best-case scenario has been that of a world essentially stopped, just frozen in time until situations change and science advances and people come together and decide what’s important and what’s not. Your optimism on that last point may vary. In the meantime, I leave the house to walk the dog and occasionally go to the grocery store, with every other hour back indoors. And there’s plenty to like inside — some nights I get a fire going, or I might start experimenting with some cocktail combination in the kitchen.
But my favorite way to get through all this has been sitting by the stereo, a record spinning slowly, album sleeve and liner notes in my lap, reading along while the echo of a serenade captured on a master tape and transferred to wax for my entertainment rings through the room. Thanks to those minor improvements, it sounds a little better today than it did 10 months ago. The entire experience is certainly more appreciated than it was then, aided as much by technology as just the dues we’ve all paid getting through.
Dec. 1, 2020
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org