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Preceded by: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Followed by: John Wesley Harding (1967)
1963, Bob Dylan is being proclaimed as the artistic leader of the protest movement that stands up against the establishment. From that moment on, he and his music have showed a tendency of not wanting to be understood any longer. Tired of being launched as the pioneer of a social movement or musical trend every time people thought they had comprehended Dylan and his songs. The faith of an artist who is assigned with visionary powers by his followers.
No matter whether it was his role as protest singer in the early sixties or his innovative contributions to the so called genre of folk rock a few years later, Dylan always seemed to have the feeling that others wanted to make a stooge of him and started to agitate against this in an almost paranoid way. This side of Dylan was magnificently illustrated by Cate Blanchett in the film I’m Not There. It was this Dylan that released an enigmatic album in 1966 on which he did everything not to be understood for one time. But even if you don’t try to decipher everything The Singer tries to tell you in mysterious ways, there still remains a lot of beauty on Blonde on Blonde.
Only 54 years after being founded in the state of Minnesota, Hibbing already welcomed its most prominent resident to date: Robert Zimmerman. As the descendant of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Lithuania he entertained his local high school by playing rock ‘n roll covers before moving to the states’ capital (Minneapolis) to subscribe to university. Folk music entered his life, and it must have generated more attention than his classes at that point, as he quit university toward the end of his first year (May 1960) to move to New York. There, in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village, he performs in some local clubs before being picked up by a record label. A self-eponymous debut album (1962) follows, containing mainly folk traditionals and not having a lot of success.
Dylan crosses the Atlantic for the first time to visit London before his second album follows in 1963: The Freewheelin’. Writing his own compositions now and many of his songs being interpreted as protest songs, it brings him his first success in times of the Cuban missile crisis and the civil rights movement. Especially his performance (with Joan Baez) during the Great March on Washington (with Martin Luther King speaking his famous words) delivered him his status as the guy with the scruffy jeans who kicked against the establishment. This already changes after the murder of John F. Kennedy and his 1964 release The Times They Are a-Changin’ and definitely on his fourth album later that year, with the meaningful title Another Side of Bob Dylan. Dylan’s star rises fast subsequently, when he transforms from a protest songwriter to the absolute folk rock star.
This of course starts with the release of Bringing It All Back Home (1965), on which Dylan goes electric on side 1, and was immediately fortified with his performance that summer at the Newport Folk Festival, backed by the electric sound of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band members. Only one month later Dylan presents the world his next album, the legendary Highway 61 Revisited (1965) , featuring the same ‘electric crew’. Problem for Dylan was that some of those guys preferred to stay with the Blues Band instead of touring to promote this new album. So Dylan searched for other musicians and ended up with guys from Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band The Hawks. Those guys would later form some kind of genius group called The Band, after some of them contributed to Dylans’ brilliant seventh: Blonde on Blonde, one of the first double albums in rock history.
Recordings for the album started in New York, where Hawks drummer Levon Helm already dropped out as he was tired of playing in a backing group. With Helm replaced by Bobby Gregg (responsible for the opening snare drum on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’) and with amongst others Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko in support, the recordings proceeded but none of the recorded material could count on Dylans’ satisfaction. It was only after moving to a studio in Nashville and adding some local session musicians that the album started to grow towards its ultimate versatility.
When you start playing the album, you may wonder how the faces of music critics must have looked like while listening to the first song, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’. The former ‘protest songwriter’ states he wouldn’t feel so all alone if everybody would get stoned, supported by a brass band going berserk. The song was avoided by a number of radio stations and you can hear Dylan having a laugh about it on the song itself. The other enigmatic track on side 1 is ‘Visions of Johanna’, which is generally highly praised by those same critics. This song doesn’t really stand out in my opinion, but of course I didn’t spend hours of research to decipher its lyrics. The third song that perfectly fits into this category is the closing song of the album: ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. This track entirely fills up side 4 and seems to be about his wife Sara, which was confirmed by Dylan on the Desire song ‘Sara’ 10 years later. What Dylan could not have presumed, is that the track ultimately convinced Roger Waters that it’s possible to fill entire LP sides with only one song.
Did folk (rock) disappear on Dylans’ seventh? Not completely, as at least 1,5 of such songs can be found. ‘4th Time Around’ definitely is one. Although the lyrics are again slightly drenched in absurdity, the classic finger-picking guitar sounds familiar. Decide for yourself whether this familiarity stems from Dylans’ earlier works or from The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’. The other track is ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’, which was the first song being recorded for the album. It’s a very good one, with recognizable lyrics and a prominent role for the keyboards-guitar combo, leading the great crescendos every time the chorus is about to set in.
The album however never lets itself categorize in some kind of subgenre. This is immediately clear on track two (‘Pledging My Time’), with the pure blues kicking in. The harmonica almost sounds as plaintive as Dylans’ voice here and Robertson does a great job here by adding his bluesy guitar sound. ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ is another great blues song, with typical lyrics about some guy being left behind by his lover. However, it’s the piano here (played by Hargus Robbins) that claims his role as guide of Dylan’s excellent wailing throughout the song. Also on side 3 is ‘Obviously 5 Believers’, an awesome song on which Robertson really shines. It sticks out compared to the two aforementioned songs because of its uptempo style but it finds its match in two other uptempo songs on the album: ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ and ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’.
The first one serves another portion of prosaic lyrics with several sexual references, driven by a repeating keyboard riff. However, this song lasts a little too long in my opinion. The second one certainly does not suffer from this handicap. It was used a lot of times by Dylan as the opening song on live gigs, for example on Before The Flood together with The Band. Problem here: once you’ve heard one of those live versions with a screaming Dylan, the studio version doesn’t suffice anymore.
The remaining four songs are all to be found on the second side of the album, together forming the core of Blonde on Blonde. We might even go one step further and call this one of the best vinyl sides ever made, close to The Beatles’ Abbey Road Side 2. It opens with ‘I Want You’, by far the most poppy song out there. This is due to the fact that the music as well as the lyrics both outshine in simplicity, in deep contrast with the rest of the album. Although Dylan summons an elaborate list of characters during the song, similar to a light version of The Band’s ‘The Weight’, he addresses himself to the simple ‘you-person’ during the chorus, contributing to the songs accessibility. What follows is ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, the absolute highlight of the album. This track was rearranged numerous times (musically as well as lyrically) by Dylan during the recordings, till obtaining this optimal result. The chorus becomes a real earwig after hearing it a few times and the flawless guitar playing makes you forget about the tracks’ seven minutes length. Amazing.
The party continues on the next track (‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’), without any doubt the best guitar song on the album. Although Dylan plays the intro, it’s Robertson taking over after that. On top of that the lyrics are kind of hilarious and will pop into your head again whenever you notice another fashion victim on the streets. Side two concludes with one of Dylans’ best known songs: ‘Just Like a Woman’. This track is also closely investigated by a number of music professors and according to their research this song is about Edie Sedgwick. Or Joan Baez. Or maybe another woman. In this way it’s kind of representative for the entire album: unsolvable and inexhaustibly intriguing.
A concert tour to promote the album followed after its release, where Dylan was backed by The Hawks. Deeply exhausted by this tour, Dylan finally found some rest after his motorcycle accident by withdrawing to the basement of Big Pink with The Hawks. This accident was also surrounded by rumours and theories, as it would have been made up to escape from the music scene for a while. Like with so many other things, probably nobody except Dylan can ever confirm this. Let’s keep it that way.
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Genre: Roots Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: The Band (1969)
I love albums that can take you to other places, albums that succeed to give you the opportunity to travel in space and time within one hour, without even having to move from your couch. Last time I travelled to Big Pink, which is not some new to inhabit planet from the far future. It’s also more than that big house near New York, Big Pink is that small town in the American South where The Band was playing that night.
Right after the needle touched the vinyl, the spots enlightened the stage and five genius musicians showed up, completely aware of their qualities and playing with some kind of distinguished serenity. In the back sits Levon Helm, behind his drums. He’s actually the only American in the band, being the son of a cotton farmer from Arkansas. There he joined The Hawks in 1959 before moving to Canada, where the rockabilly sound of that band was highly appreciated. There, in the environs of Ontario, Levon and singer Ronnie Hawkins recruited four Canadian musicians, all around 18-19 years old.
One of those guys was the singer of the opening track of tonight’s gig: ‘Tears of Rage’. His name is Richard Manuel, the band’s pianist but also gifted with this soulful voice (to be heard a lot more during this performance). He wrote this song together with some guy named Bob Dylan and succeeds to sing it even more desperately than Dylan did earlier on The Basement Tapes. It immediately brings you into the world of The Band, to Big Pink, where unbreakable family ties survive at all costs in a divided society.
During the second song, ‘To Kingdom Come’, the spotlight is aimed at guitar player Robbie Robertson. This song is one of the many he has written as a member of The Band, but it’s one of the rare ones on which he also performances the lead vocals. Robertson (although being the only one of them who isn’t a multi-instrumentalist) is a great shareholder of The Band’s success with his smooth guitar playing and having signed for some of the groups greatest classics. His guitar playing also sounds great on this song, which might bring you some visions of The Byrds.
The next song is sung (and written) by Manuel again, and his voice is the only memorable thing I remembered from it as ‘In A Station’ didn’t really astonish me at other points. But this was quickly forgotten when that mysterious bass player starts to sing the following song: ‘ Caledonia Mission’. His name is Rick Danko and I become an absolute fan of his voice within his first two lines. He originates from Ukranian ancestors and thanks to his car accident The Band could not promote their debut album (1968) with a concert tour until the next year, when they were already recording their second album: The Band. The song is actually also written by Robertson, who created a strange mix of country verses and a soul chorus, where the piano adds another dimension to the song.
The Band announces to play one more song before the break and this one completely blows me away. During this short break I decide I’ve just listened to the best song that was ever written. Robertson wrote it, based on his experience as a young Canadian in his twenties, arriving at the cradle of soul, blues, rock ‘n roll and what else more: Memphis. He realized that he’d ended up in the world of Levon Helm and as a great songwriter he luckily possessed the capacity to describe his images in a marvelous and poetic way. On top of that the song was extremely suited for the voice of Helm, the total impersonation of the main character in ‘The Weight’.
The weight is carried by a visitor of the little town called Nazareth, as Robertson is of course considering this ‘new world’ a holy destination in his life. He comes here just to pass somebody’s (Miss Fanny) regards but would never have thought that this would be such a burdensome task, ending up in some bizarre experiences. He arrives there very tired and they decline to give this man a bed, just like in Luke’s story about Mary and Joseph. After Carmen has dropped off nobody less than the Devil to keep him company, he also runs into Luke himself, who is arguing with Miss Moses about joining the civil rights movement. Luke is worried about what’s going on and asks the traveler to stay so he can take care of the young Anna-Lee. His vehicle subsequently breaks down but luckily there’s good old Crazy Chester who can fix it. He’s willing to do that, on the condition that the traveler looks after his wild dog, Jack. It all gets too much for him now so he hops on the first train (cannonball) to get back to Miss Fanny. AMEN! After Levon of course personally kicks off the song (Anna-Lee, Carmen and Crazy Chester were all real characters in his life, from the town with the perfect name Turkey Scratch), the lead vocals are shared during the rest of the song with Manuel and Danko. Brilliant.
After turning the record over, The Band returns on stage and immediately my attention is drawn to the mystical fifth guy, sitting like an old wizard behind his organ while playing a delicious intro of the first song: ‘We Can Talk’. This is Garth Hudson, the classically skilled member of the band. During the first years, this guy gave music lessons to the other guys for 10 dollars a week, only to prove towards his parents that his education was not wasted by joining that band. The song itself is basically one of the most catchy ones on the album, showing another great example of mixed vocals, with Danko, Manuel (writer of the song) and Helm sharing the lead vocals again.
Another nice intro is delivered by Hudson on ‘Long Black Veil’, after which the beautiful vocals of Rick Danko follow again. This ballad (guy falsely accused of murder) is a cover and was originally written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin back in 1959. As you know The Band was prematurely built around this time, as they formed The Hawks from ’58 till ’63. They continued as Levon and the Hawks in 1964 before becoming Bob Dylan’s band the next year. As such they toured around the world, although Helm aborted halfway to go working on an oil rig for two years! After the tour Dylan moves to Woodstock in 1966 with The Band following him shortly afterwards. It was Danko who found the big pink house in the state of New York where he would live together with Manuel and Hudson.
But we don’t get time to dig further in history because I’m blown away a second time this night. Out of nothing (looking at a completely dark stage) a dramatic and bombastic organ sound rises up: this is a real showcase for Garth Hudson. The song is called ‘Chest Fever’ and is probably one of the rare Band songs that shows any kinship with psychedelic rock, which was booming around that time. It’s of course all about this pounding organ riff, being filled up with Manuel’s tearing voice (telling the classic story of a spurned man) and the distorted guitar playing by Robertson. This is a genius piece of music, which has to top the list of best tracks below even when it’s of course not the best one on the album, but ‘The Weight’ would be a little too predictable.
I need some time to recover from this and this time is offered by ‘Lonesome Suzie’, a decent ballad from Manuel which can’t really excite me. But the excitement returns when Danko starts singing ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, a song he co-wrote with Dylan. The song is stuffed with all kind of bizarre sounds, with the organ and guitar producing oriental noises. But the real strength of the song are Danko’s vocals, who seems to be in an ecstatic form of hesitation during this track. It was tonight’s last boost of energy, as the gig is closed by the peaceful ‘I Shall Be Released’, a majestic song from Dylan, sung by Manuel in a breathtaking way. With this song we all pray to be released from our sins and say goodbye to the world of Big Pink.
So in the end, what makes this album such a great record? I guess it’s the diversity as well as the connectedness of the songs. First of all, all different members of The Band are portrayed as individual musical geniuses, as each one gets his moment to shine. In this way it often reminds me of The Beatles’ Revolver . But there’s also an apparent connection between all songs at the same time, telling you the story of the people of Big Pink. Not the big house, but the towns and villages that these guys from Canada discovered after following their own Moses to the promised land.