Bob Dylan Speaks: Thanks the Musicians Who Helped and Influenced Him

I’f you’ve followed Bob Dylan for a while, you know he doesn’t speak very much. Since the early days when he would give truculent responses to some ridiculous questions asked of him in interviews, until the present when interviews are few and far between.

Bob seems to be changing his tone. He gave a long interview to AARP Magazine, discussing his new album, Shadows in the Night. And last night, Dylan was feted by the Grammys as the MusiCares Person of the Year, which honors musicians for their achievement in the music industry and dedication to philanthropy. He gave a 35-minute speech. That’s more than he’s said in front of an audience in all his appearances combined for many years.

Dylan mostly used this speech to thank the people who helped him in his career: the people from record labels who believed in him, the musicians who covered his songs, and the songwriters who inspired him.

Dylan also talked a bit about where his music came from:

“I’m glad for my songs to be honored like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground.”

And about his voice, often criticized:

“Oh, yeah. Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. What don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?”

You can read a transcript of Dylan’s speech here. I have yet to see a video of the event, but there certainly must be one. It would be wonderful to see it; Dylan was introduced by former President Jimmy Carter, and a whole slew of great musicians played his songs. Here’s the setlist:

Beck — “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”
Aaron Neville — “Shooting Star”
Alanis Morissette — “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Los Lobo — “On A Night Like This”
Willie Nelson — “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)”
Jackson Browne — “Blind Willie McTell”
John Mellencamp — “Highway 61 Revisited”
Jack White — “One More Cup Of Coffee”
Tom Jones — “What Good Am I?”
Norah Jones — “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
Dereck Trucks And Susan Tedeschi — “Million Miles”
John Doe — “Pressing On”
Crosby, Stills & Nash — “Girl From The North County”
Bonnie Raitt — “Standing In The Doorway”
Sheryl Crow — “Boots Of Spanish Leather”
Bruce Springsteen — “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
Neil Young — “Blowin’ In The Wind”

CD Review: Shadows in the Night, by Bob Dylan

Dylan shadowsIt was with a bit of trepidation that I first listened to this new album, Shadows in the Night. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I’m a huge Dylan fan, but Bob’s last “non-standard” release, his Christmas album, just didn’t work for me. I was afraid that Bob would do something similar on this record.

But, no, he’s created something of a masterpiece here. In ten songs, at just 35 minutes, Dylan recreates an ambience, a mood, a feeling. These stripped down arrangements – compared to the way the songs were performed back in the day – allow Dylan to do some of his finest singing in years. Even Bob said that he felt his voice was at its best during these recordings.

There are a few spots where he’s a touch off-key, and since each of the songs was recorded in just one or two takes, live (it’s not clear whether there are any overdubs), it’s more like a live recording than a carefully-crafted studio album.

The sound is also exemplary. With minimal miking, this record gives you the feeling that you’re up close to the band. Listen to this album on headphones; there’s plenty of detail, and it’s a warm, emotional sound.

You could fault Bob for the tempi of some of these songs; they are all slow and languid, giving the whole album a tinge of blue (which may be why the cover is that color). But he’s on to something here; he’s created a mood and a sound that is very different from what he has recorded in recent years.

My only regret is that the album is just 35 minutes long; I’d love to hear more of these songs in Dylan’s style. I hope Bob tours playing some of this music; it would be great to hear how he performs these songs live.

Book Notes: Bob Dylan, The Lyrics: Since 1962

Unknown.jpegUpdate: This book shows as available on Amazon.com, on December 11, 2014. It’s more expensive than the first edition – listing for $299 – and my guess is that it’s a second printing. It’s surprising that the publisher would have raised the list price, but perhaps they figure that it’s a cash cow. In any case, if you want to get a copy, you should probably act quickly.

As Bob Dylan has been such a prolific songwriter, his oeuvre is large and complex, and any book containing his lyrics will have to have quite a bit of girth. This new release is, I have to say, the heaviest book I own, though not quite the largest (in height and width). Weighing 13 1/2 pounds, this is not a book that is easy to read. However, it contains multitudes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

First, you need to know that you cannot buy this book at the normal price. Only 5,000 copies were printed, with 500 reserved for the UK (though it’s not technically a limited edition, and perhaps there will be another print run). While the list price was $200, I notice that people are already offering copies used on Amazon for $300 or more. I ordered my copy from Amazon UK, on the first day it was announced, and was disappointed to find that my order was “delayed,” with no guarantee that I’d get a copy. Then, about ten days ago, I checked Amazon UK again, and found a third-party seller was offering the book at the same price as Amazon, £81.25, 1/3 less than the UK list price of £120. I was very pleased to receive the book this morning.

The book is slightly bigger than an LP in height and width, in part because the book contains thick cardboard LP covers for each album. These are single sheets of cardboard, with the front and back of each original album printed on them. After each one of those is a list of songs on the album, then their lyrics, as well as, for some albums, songs that are alternate takes or tracks that were later released, such as on Dylan’s Bootleg Series.

Each of the songs shows the original lyrics, as well as notes for alternate lyrics, with references to the recordings, such as when Dylan sings different lines or verses on officially-released live recordings. Tell Tale Signs – the Bootleg Series Vol. 8 – is the only non-studio album that gets its own section, as this contains a number of outtakes from more recent years that don’t fit anywhere else. (Note that the book does not contain the lyrics to the songs on the recently-release Basement Tapes Complete, but only those from the original LP release.)

The songs are each laid out on a single, large, left page, so there’s lots of white space. If a song is long enough to flow to a second page, it takes up two pages; if not, the right page contains any notes or alternate lyrics, or is blank.

If you want a collection of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, you’ll certainly want this book, though, to be fair, it’s more of a collector’s item than a useful reference; it’s too heavy and unwieldy to access easily when you’re listening to a Dylan album and want to follow along. It is a true coffee-table book: you’ll need a table to hold it. Don’t even think of holding it on your lap. In fact, for that reason, I’m almost tempted to buy the Kindle edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), but I hesitate, as it may not be easy to navigate. (Amazon UK shows a release date of September 2016 for the Kindle edition; I have a feeling it will be released sooner than that.)

If you’re a die-hard Dylan fan, you may have already gotten a copy of this book. If not, and you’re willing to pay a premium, there are some copies available from Amazon. I would be surprised if the publisher didn’t reprint it, given the success; it sold out in just a couple of days. But you never know. This may be one of those things where Dylan just wanted a bunch of them printed and no more. (It’s worth noting that there was also a 50-copy signed, limited edition of the book sold for $5,000.)

Amazon UK Promotes Bob Dylan Bootlegs

It’s one thing that Amazon sells bootleg recordings; I understand that it may be hard for them to police all the stock they get from “record companies,” and third-party resellers. I’d noticed quite a few Dylan bootlegs in the past couple of years. These aren’t 50-year old recordings, which are fair game in the European Union, these are just plain old bootlegs.

But it’s another thing when, in an email promoting the latest Bob Dylan release, Amazon also promotes four bootleg albums. I got this email this morning:

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I assume Amazon would say it’s not their responsibility; they trust the companies to sell legal recordings, and these emails are generated by algorithm. But, still; it’s pretty lame.

Bob Dylan’s Complete Lyrics: The Must-Have Book for Dylan Fans

Dylan lyricsIf you’re a Bob Dylan fan, you certainly appreciate the poetry of his lyrics. In hundreds of songs, Dylan has told tales in his own unique way. There have been collections of his lyrics in the past, but a massive new book, due out in a few weeks, will collect all the lyrics to his songs, including some never released, in an annotated edition. This book, the size of LP covers, will feature Dylan’s lyrics, album covers, notes and annotations to the many hundreds of Dylan songs.(Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

A book like this seems like an end-of-career milestone. Is Dylan planning to hang up the guitar and end his never-ending tour? Perhaps. But if you like Bob Dylan, you will want to have this book. And you’d better act quickly; there are only 3,500 copies of this book being printed, so I have a feeling it will be sold out fast. (While not specifically a limited edition – it’s not numbered – the publisher has said that there was a limit to the number of copies they’re printing; it’s not clear if there will be reprints. I read that there are 500 copies for the UK, and it’s interesting that the UK edition has a different ISBN.)

There’s also a $5,000 edition, which is probably sold out by now: only 50 copies, signed by Bob.

The Next Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Release: The Complete Basement Tapes

91ZxXcnHIIL._SL1500_.jpgBack in 1967, Bob Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, holed up in Woodstock, NY, with the members of The Band, and recorded lots of music. In the basement of “Big Pink,” the house where they lived, they recorded and recorded.

In 1975, a double-album was released: The Basement Tapes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) With only 24 songs, eight by The Band, this was only the tip of the iceberg. Bootlegs of this music have circulated for years.

Now, in the next release in the Bootleg Series, Dylan is letting us hear all 138 songs from those sessions in The Basement Tapes Complete. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

The price is a bit steep: $150 in the US and £110 in the UK, but it’s a six-disc set, with extensive liner notes. There’s a cheaper download version available as well: $60, the standard price for six albums. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

I’ve heard the bootlegs, and I’m looking forward to this official release. If you’re a Dylan fan, you won’t want to miss this.

Now, maybe the next Bootleg Series release could cover the Blood on the Tracks period…

Essential Music: Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos

220px Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volume 9Between February, 1962 and June, 1964, Bob Dylan, at the dawn of his career, made a number of recordings for two publishing companies, Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. These recordings were released in 2010 as The Bootleg Series: Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Dylan had recorded his first album in late 1961, which was mostly covers, along with two original songs. His originals – the ones on the album, but also those that he was performing – were interesting enough to spur his producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, to set up a meeting between Dylan and Lou Levy, at Leeds Music Publishing. The goal was to record songs so that other singers could hear them, and potentially buy the rights to record them. He recorded eight songs for Leeds.

In early 1962, manager Albert Grossman also became interested in Dylan. He suggested that Dylan sign with M. Witmark & Sons for publishing. Since Leeds hadn’t earned anything from Dylan, they let him out of his contract, and he signed with Witmark. In a dozen sessions, Dylan recorded 39 songs for Witmark.

In a way, this minimalist Dylan is the most authentic version of his songs that we have, other than some early live recordings. These songs show Dylan in a very relaxed atmosphere; just him, his guitar, and his harmonica, in a simple studio. The recording quality isn’t always great, and Dylan’s not performing for an audience, but he is clearly aware that he needs to set down these songs in a form that will be nearly canonical. Some of the performances are as good, or ever better than what was released on his albums.

This two-CD set – officially released in 2010, but bootlegged for decades previously – contains an example of the early Dylan showing off his own work, and, while not as perfect as later recordings, stands as a powerful example of his early songs. Many classics are here: Boots Of Spanish Leather, Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Masters Of War, Girl From the North Country, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man. But there are also 15 songs that Dylan never recorded, showing just how prolific he was in the early ears.

The recording quality ranges from good to merely acceptable, but the music comes through, fresh, powerful, full of the potential that we now know was to come. Dylan knew he was going to be great in this period, and the quality of the songs he was writing must have been a clear sign to producers and publishers that he was to become a star.

Bob Dylan: Complete Album Collection

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Today sees the release of Bob Dylan’s Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1., (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) along with a limited edition of the same set(Amazon.com) which contains the music on a USB stick in a harmonica box. The latter was originally to have the music in 320 kbps MP3 files and high-resolution FLAC files, but somewhere along the line – after people, including myself, ordered the set – the FLAC files became standard CD resolution.

No matter; this set represents much of a life of music making, from the earliest eponymous 1962 album to 2012’s Tempest. There are 30 “side tracks,” live and unreleased tracks, as bonuses. These are all of Dylan’s official releases, not including his Bootleg Series, a total of 11 releases, covering 15 CDs worth of live and alternate takes. Clearly, Vol. 2 is intended to cover the rest of Dylan’s work. Could his record label be banking on the retirement or demise of Dylan to release the second volume? We’ll see.

886444259729.170x170-75.jpgIt goes without saying that this is probably the most important oeuvre in American popular music, and, while there are some weak albums in Dylan’s career, there are more than enough unforgettable ones to make up for the rest.

If you don’t want the CDs, the iTunes Store has four “digital box sets” which cover The 60s, The 70s, the 80s and the 90s-00s. You won’t get the “side tracks,” but you will get all 35 studio albums and 6 live albums that Bob has released over the years. You’ll pay about the same amount for the iTunes versions: $170 for all of them, without the “side tracks,” compared to (currently) $180 on Amazon.com. So if you’re a Dylan fan, it makes a lot more sense to buy the plastic.

Go ahead; you know this should be your Christmas present. You can even open the box and listen to Dylan’s 2009 Christmas in the Heart, a collection of traditional Christmas songs sung by Bob in his own, um, inimitable way. But just remember, every time you play that album, a puppy dies.

Essential Music: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

dylan-blood.jpgIf you follow my writings, you’ll have noticed that Bob Dylan is one of my favorite musicians. I’ve got all of his albums, and listen to his music a lot. In this recent article, The Music I Listen To Most, you’ll see that Dylan comes up in fourth position, behind The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach; that’s by play counts in my iTunes library.

There are lots of great Dylan albums, from Highway 61 Revisited to Blond on Blond, but the one that stands out most for me is Blood on the Tracks. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) It’s not just that it has many great, memorable songs, but there’s a unity in this album that doesn’t exist in most of Dylan’s other records. Many of my most-loved Dylan songs are on other albums – Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Forever Young, Cold Irons Bound, etc. – but Blood on the Tracks is an album that you listen to in extenso, because it tells a story.

When I wrote iPod & iTunes Garage, back in 2004, I asked a number of writers and musicians what their “essential music” was. My friend Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Banks series of mysteries, wrote the following:

“Much as I love all kinds of instrumental and orchestral music, at the end of the day I’m a word guy, and if you’re a word guy, Dylan’s your man. We were spoiled by an embarrassment of riches until the infamous motorcycle accident in July, 1966, and after the stark surprise of 1968’s John Wesley Harding we seemed to be stranded in a wasteland of ersatz Americana. There were great songs, of course, Lay, Lady, Lay and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, for example, and Planet Waves has many fine moments, but nothing could quite match the shock and pleasure of that moment in early 1975 when I set the needle gently on Blood on the Tracks for the first time and heard Tangled Up In Blue. Even better, it wasn’t a fluke. Next came Simple Twist of Fate, You’re a Big Girl Now and Idiot Wind, his most vicious song since 1965’s Positively 4th Street. The only disappointment is an overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which never quite seemed to fit, to my mind, but that’s a minor quibble, especially as it’s followed by the incomparable melancholy of If You See Her, Say Hello and the eerily redemptive Shelter from the Storm. There may be other contenders, but Blood on the Tracks surely remains the classic adult break-up album of all time.”

Peter nails it; it is the classic break-up album, but it’s so much more. If only for Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate, this would be a memorable album, but add the other tracks, and it’s a pure masterpiece. I’ve long felt that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts was the weak song on the disc, but I’m starting to change my opinion, especially after hearing the original New York recording of it. (I’ll get to that in a minute…)

9780306812316_p0_v1_s260x420.jpgBlood on the Tracks has an interesting history, which is well documented by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard in the book A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Dylan first recorded the album in New York, with a group of session musicians, in September, 1974. He recorded all the songs in just four sessions over ten days, but after playing it for his brother, decided he wanted to re-record five of the songs.

He went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his brother booked studio time, and found a handful of excellent musicians, and did two sessions in December. The New York sessions yielded the following songs:

Simple Twist of Fate
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Meet Me in the Morning
Shelter From the Storm
Buckets of Rain

And the other five tracks come from the Minnesota sessions:

Tangled Up in Blue
You’re a Big Girl Now
Idiot Wind
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
If You See Her, Say Hello

It’s interesting to listen to the original versions of some of these songs; many of them have been released on various official Bootleg Series volumes, and Biograph also contains two songs that didn’t make it on the album, but that are also brilliant compositions: Call Letter Blues and Up to Me. (See the list below for details of all official releases.)

The original New York session test pressing is fairly easy to find as a bootleg. Listening to that original version – the one that Dylan first planned to release – makes me wonder if he should have just gone with the first recordings. In particular, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts works much better in its acoustic form than in the later Minneapolis recording. And there’s more unity in the mostly-acoustic recordings from the New York sessions.

Here are the tracks that are available on official releases, but not the final album versions. They include alternate versions from the New York sessions, as well as two tracks that weren’t on the album from the same sessions. (Links are to the iTunes Store.) If you haven’t heard these tracks, and like Blood on the Tracks, you should definitely get them.

I hope that Dylan will release another Bootleg Series with all the New York recordings, and other outtakes from this period, similar to the recent set from the period of Self Portrait.