Another Side Of Bob Dylan, released in 1964, owns a bit of an awkward spot in the Dylan catalog, wedged in between the protest folk of his first few albums and the incendiary shift to electric music in the middle of the decade. Yet the album contains several indisputable classics and a few more that probably deserve a better shake than they’ve been given over the years. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “I Shall Be Free No. 10”- Dylan comes off a little thin-skinned in the opening verse as he seems to be trying to shrug off the impact that his music makes on people. Things don’t really get a whole lot better from there, leaving this one as little more than a footnote in the man’s career.
10. “Black Crow Blues”- As we progress throughout Bob’s catalog, we’ll see a number of instances where his off-kilter, intuitive piano style adds great value to his songs. This is one of the first examples of that phenomenon, as an otherwise nondescript blues vamp is brought to life by the saloon-like stomp he conjures on the ivories.
9. “Motorsycho Nightmare”- Dylan plays a smart-mouthed rake in this comic escapade with such aplomb that you get the feeling that it wasn’t too out of character for him. The jokes about taking showers with a girl who looks like actor Tony Perkins were topical enough at the time; the jokes about Fidel Castro and his beard show that Bob wasn’t afraid of good-naturedly riling up Middle America.
8. “Spanish Harlem Incident”- One of the things that distinguishes Another Side Of Bob Dylan is that the songwriting takes a turn toward the poetic on several songs. This fun, short ode to a captivating “Gypsy gal” is strikingly vivid; Dylan’s expert descriptions allow you to see this girl in your mind’s eye as you listen and be just as entranced as the narrator by her “wildcat charms.” And Bob’s tripping wordplay is effortlessly nimble. Consider, for just one shining example: “The night is pitch black, come an’ make my/Pale face fit into place, ah, please!”
7. “All I Really Want To Do”- Any song that gets taken to the charts by both The Byrds and Cher must be pretty malleable. It’s ironic that the cover versions work so well, since the song seems to be a personal effort by Dylan to advertise his overall lightening up. The protagonist promises to the object of his temporary affection that he’s not looking to simplify or classify her, categorize her or analyze her. It sounds like the treatment that a guy burdened with the label of spokesman for a generation would want for himself.
6. “I Don’t Believe You”- This clever, one-liner-filled complaint about a fickle female feels like a precursor to some of Dylan’s jaded yet wounded anti-love songs that enlivened the tail end of his electric period. Maybe that’s why he was able to resuscitate the song for incendiary performances of it with the Hawks, including the one that can be found on the Live 1966 disc of the Bootleg Series, which turned out to be the definitive version of the song.
5. “My Back Pages”- I think people might misread this track sometimes as Dylan’s self-criticism of his earlier work. What I think he’s trying to intimate with this song is that his point of view was changing, and the gray areas of the big picture were suddenly more germane to his writing than the “lies that life is black and white.” He brings that same sort of loose-limbed approach to his wordplay, stretching the syntax of lines well beyond their breaking point and creating words and phrases from out of thin air that end up making perfect sense. Plus, it has one of the most memorable refrains not just in Dylan’s career, but in rock history.
4. “Ballad In Plain D”- Perhaps the most unjustly maligned song in the Dylan catalog, perhaps because Bob himself regretted writing it. It’s my contention that his regret is not due to the song’s quality, which is first-rate, but rather due to the song’s nakedly autobiographical nature as a blow-by-blow retelling of the final hours of his relationship with Suze Rotolo, which included a physical scuffle with her sister Carla. Bob comes off like a jerk at times in the song, but he seems to be aware of that fact and is willing to show the truth warts and all. His regret for his own failings is just as genuine as his animosity toward the sister. It all builds slowly to a towering climax, the “timeless explosion of fantasy’s dream,” before the sad epilogue and one of Dylan’s most cryptically incisive closing lines: “Are birds free from the chains off the skyway?”
3. “To Ramona”- It’s rumored to be about Joan Baez, but Dylan strayed away from specifics so the song could resonate with many. (It provides an interesting compare and contrast with “Ballad In Plain D,” for sure.) This is one of the sadder songs in the Dylan ouevre, simply because it’s hard to imagine Ramona snapping out of this funk in which she is ensconced. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of depression, and Dylan’s weary vocal is perfectly on-point, implying that hes can empathize with this girl and might even join her in the doldrums, but he’s never going to be able to save her.
2. “It Ain’t Me Babe”- When The Turtles turned this one into a hit, they sang the refrain in an almost taunting manner. Dylan’s reading is much more measured and matter-of-fact, as he simply relates all the ways in which he will never be able to live up to the demands of his former lover. The subtle genius of the song is the way that these demands escalate throughout until it becomes clear that “Babe” ain’t ever gonna be satisfied.
1. “Chimes Of Freedom”- Instead of singling out a specific cause to protest, Dylan rounds up practically every wounded soul on the planet and grants them a deux ex machina in the form of the titular bells to wipe away all their hurt. His descriptions of the storm in the verses contain imagery that makes the imaginary tumult seem spectacularly real. Then his roll call of those needing assistance, many of whom might be overlooked by the average person, builds in the refrains ‘til his final plea for the chimes to toll for “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” It’s one of the very best moments in Bob’s recorded career, coming in a song that ranks up there with his elite.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
Those looking for reasons why Bob Dylan pretty much left behind the protest song genre early in his career may be overlooking the obvious: He pretty much perfected the style on his 1964 album The Times They Are-A Changin’. The album often gets downgraded in Bob’s catalog as being too much of an unremitting downer, yet many of the songs contained are considered Dylan evergreens. Here is a track-by-track review.
10. “North Country Blues”- Dylan knew well about the iron mines from growing up in an area known for them. To tell the overarching story, he concocts a personal tale of a woman who essentially loses her whole family because of the mines’ danger and decline. It’s bleak but effective.
9. “Only A Pawn In Their Game”- You can fault the song if you wish for its listless music. But it’s hard to find fault with Dylan’s fearlessness in essentially pardoning the murderer of Civil Rights pioneer Medgar Evers. Instead, Dylan fingers a system that would brainwash an ignorant, poverty-stricken white man into thinking that the reason for all his problems is racial integration.
8. “Restless Farewell”- Dylan famously sang this song at a tribute for Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday in 1996, and the song has a little “My Way” in it in the way it unapologetically recalls a life spent. Bob was already eschewing nostalgia and perhaps signalling by this closing track the turn his career was about to take away from all that he had built with the protest material. It’s a lovely song that gets overlooked in his vast catalog.
7. “With God On Our Side”- Bob probably could have made his point without mentioning practically every war in history, but that’s nitpicking. The song keeps building and building, piling up example after example of how the inhumanity of war is rationalized away in the name of God. By the time he gets around to the what-if about Judas having God on his side, it’s hard to conjure up any argument against his position.
6. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”- Dylan fleshes out this story of the insidious effects of poverty so well that one could easily believe that Hollis Brown was just as real as Medgar Evers or Hattie Carroll. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, only more tunnel, so that when Brown finally does the unthinkable and wipes out his family and himself, it seems almost like mercy. This is pretty harrowing stuff, but it’s extremely well-done nonetheless.
5. “One Too Many Mornings”- The acoustic guitar is plucked so softly and the harmonica played with such delicacy here that it’s as if the narrator is afraid that anything louder will cause him to plummet into the figurative gaping pit above which he’s teetering. His “restless, hungry feeling” is caused by the departure of his former lover, and the loneliness is exacerbated by the sights and sounds in the twilight around him. Without giving away any details of the estrangement, this poor sap tells us everything we need to know about a romance that missed by inches and miles.
4. “When The Ship Comes In”- Pissed off at a rude hotel clerk and inspired by Brecht and Weill’s revenge fantasy “Pirate Jenny,” Dylan created this endlessly clever metaphor for a time when the righteous will thrive and their enemies will suffer the consequences. This song wouldn’t have sounded too out of place during Bob’s so-called Born Again period in the late 70′s. The difference is that “When The Ship Comes In,” with its sunny melody and focus on the ship’s positive effect, sounds more triumphant than accusatory.
3. “The Times They Are A-Changin’”- Too many people see this monumental achievement of a song as a knock on the older generation, probably because of Dylan’s youth at the time of his composition. Yet the overall effect of the lyrics is inclusive, as Bob asks all of the different groups of people to heed the change. The brilliant stroke is the way that the song remains forever in the present tense, so that it stays eternally relevant. The transformation it promises is always underway but never complete.
2. “Boots Of Spanish Leather”- As ingenious as it is heartbreaking, this slow song begins as a series of letters sent back and forth between lovers separated by distance until the letters stop coming one way, a development that reveals that the pair will henceforth be separated by much more. Dylan uses the same melody as “Girl From The North Country” and delivers a bereft and wounded vocal. It may take a few listens to intuit just who is writing what to whom, but once you get there, you can understand why this is one of Dylan’s all-time great weepers.
1. “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”- Only those who were there know for sure what went down between Maryland tobacco heir William Zantzinger and kitchen maid Hattie Carroll that resulted in her death, but, thanks to Dylan’s stunning song, Zantzinger was forever after doomed to infamy. Anyway, the actual act isn’t what Dylan is putting on trial; it’s what he felt was a justice system that was far from “on the level.” This is a magnificent example of Dylan’s gifts as a rhetorician and poet; one wonders if Zantzinger would have got off so light had Bob been prosecuting.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, check out my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs. The link for pre-orders is below.)
After an accomplished but relatively nondescript (and non-selling) debut that relied primarily on borrowed material, no one could have expected how stunning Bob Dylan’s second album would be. With assured and ambitious songwriting and rapidly improving performance skills all over the place, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan still stands as one of the landmarks of Bob’s career. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Bob Dylan’s Blues”- After the smirking introduction that insinuates that Tin Pan Alley is no longer located in America, the punch lines fall a little flat. Add in the fact that the verses come off more listlessly disjointed than winningly haphazard, and you can see why this is the runt of the litter.
12. “Down The Highway”- If there’s a problem with Freewheelin’, it’s that there’s a wide disparity between the album’s haves and have-nots. “Down The Highway” has a cool stop-and-start guitar pattern to distinguish it, but not much else, making it one of the mediocre numbers that aren’t in the same league as the classics.
11. “I Shall Be Free”- After some pretty heavy material elsewhere on the album, Dylan decided to go out on a lark with this carefree, joke-filled number. Some of the jokes are of the “I guess you had to be there” variety, but enough land to garner a few chuckles and to highlight Bob’s off-kilter sense of humor.
10. “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”- Although he shares the writing credit with long-forgotten Texas blues singer Henry Thomas, Dylan pretty much conjures a unique creation full of whoops and hollers and reckless energy. What’s impressive about the song is how much of a racket Bob can raise with just his guitar, harmonica, and vocal.
9. “Bob Dylan’s Dream”- When Dylan talked about being “so much older then” in “My Back Pages,” he might as well have been referencing his character in this track. Although he was just 22 when this song came out on Freewheelin’, the wistful vocal and nostalgic look back through “half-damp” eyes at old friends now departed suggests a man four times that age. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” may be a tad too earnest, but it’s well-constructed.
8. “Talking World War Blues”- The talking blues would soon go the way of the dodo bird in the Dylan catalog, but this one is one of his finest in that genre. The satire of nuclear paranoia still holds up well even today when the issue isn’t as much on the front burner. That’s because Dylan plays it light, as his hapless title character comes to the realization that those people who worry about what it will be like after World War III are worrying about the wrong thing, since they probably won’t be around to see the aftermath anyway.
7. “Corrina, Corrina”- It’s notable for being the first full-band performance behind Bob Dylan on record, with Bruce Langhorne, who would go on to provide some memorable backing on future Dylan songs, providing the electric lead. It’s also a good example of Dylan’s imaginative renderings of folk material, as he gives this oft-sung lament a jaunty vibe that brings it into contemporary times. He also sings it with just the right amount of delicacy and restraint.
6. “Oxford Town”- An attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi which ended in an armed confrontation is the impetus of this understated protest song. Dylan simply lays the facts out here and lets the tragedy speak for itself. His simple, plainspoken rhymes also makes him seem like one of those affected by the violence rather than an outsider putting in his two cents. There may be more impressive lyrical feats on the album, but there isn’t anything that’s as direct a hit on its protest target as “Oxford Town.”
5. “Masters Of War”- Many people mishear the song as being anti-war, but it’s really war profiteers whom Dylan wishes would perish. This is as blunt as Dylan has ever been in a song, as he refuses to equivocate in any way and piles up the list of offenses that his enemies have accrued. If some of the techniques Bob uses here are manipulative, it’s the price he’s willing to pay for making his point. There is no doubting the raw power of his performance, one of the most mesmerizing he has ever given in the studio.
4. “Girl From The North Country”- One of the real revelations of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is the tenderness that Dylan displays on the ballads. Taking the bare bones of the traditional “Scaraborough Fair” and expanding upon it, he movingly plays the role of a man wondering about the present exploits of his former love. The duet of the song Bob did with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline is charming, but it can’t match the intensity of the longing on the original. Another standout performance on an album full of them.
3. “Blowin’ In The Wind”- It’s a song so vast in its wisdom that it seems like it could have been bestowed on the world by a higher power, and yet it also seems that the truths held within it are so self-evident that any one of us could have written the song. Yet all of that mystical mumbo-jumbo denies credit to Bob Dylan, who stared all of this down at the tender age of 20 (which is how old he was when he first performed it in 1962, not when it finally arrived in his own version on Freewheelin’) and delivered the goods. It’s simply the quintessential folk song.
2. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”- Dylan’s famous comment in the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that each of the song’s lines could have been the beginning of a whole other song only sounds boastful until you hear them. By framing the song as a series of questions asked by a worried mother of her son, Bob raises the stakes, making all of the calamities the blue-eyed boy witnesses even more threatening. His protagonist’s promise to “know my song well before I start singing” is Dylan’s way of saying it takes vigilance and care to properly identify the obstacles in life one must overcome. One of the first Dylan epics, and still one of the best.
1. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”- Up until Dylan came along, there was little in the way of psychological reality to be found in the common pop love song. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” starts to change all that, as it meditates on the futility of love, the false starts and misconnections that eventually lead to the demise of a relationship. Dylan’s narrator seems alternately resigned to the end and frustrated at both the girl’s unreasonable expectations and his own inability to fulfill them. The emotion peaks when he bids her “fare thee well,” making it clear that, despite all of his protestations to the contrary, it’s not all right at all.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs comes out in July, and the link is below for pre-orders.)
Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album received very little attention from the listening public upon its 1962 release. The collection of mostly traditional folk and blues songs with a pair of originals thrown in was recorded in two days when the singer was just 20 years old, but a close listen reveals some evidence on how the artist on Bob Dylan became, well, Bob Dylan. Here is a track-by-track review.
13. “Highway 51 Blues”- There’s some quick-fingered acoustic guitar to savor on this one, but Dylan’s blues belting gets a little too goofy here to deliver the intended effect. Other, more effective highway songs were in his future though, so consider this one a test run.
12. “Freight Train Blues”- This one gets some notoriety for a falsetto note that Dylan holds for an eternity, but otherwise it just seems designed to fill out a specific quota for a blues/folk album. Train song? Check.
11. “Gospel Plow”- Dylan shows some spunk by making this gospel traditional sound like the work of the devil. His staccato harmonica blasts and spirited vocals carry the day, but the perfunctory reading prevents this one from leaving much of an impact.
10. “Man Of Constant Sorrow”- O Brother, Where Art Thou turned this mountain moaner into an unlikely hit in a bouncy bluegrass version. Dylan’s take is more somber, and you can hear its influence on some of his early folk melodies.
9. “You’re No Good”- Of historical note as the first song found on the first ever Bob Dylan album, this cover version of a Jesse Fuller ripper gives a pretty good indication of the idiosyncratic power of Dylan’s vocals. It also begins a long, complicated history of Bob’s relationships with women in his songs.
8. “Talkin’ New York”- Dylan’s affinity of talking blues is made clear by the fact that he chose this song as his first ever original on an album. The re-telling of his arrival in the Big Apple and his attempts to make it big in the music business is winningly absurd. The hapless, fed-up protagonist eventually hightails it out of the city and ends up in the “Western skies” of East Orange.
7. “Fixin’ To Die”- Borrowing this song from Mississippi bluesman Bukka White, Dylan lets loose some unhinged vocals that makes the listener believe that this guy is only “Fixin’ To Die” because he’s too angry to deal with life anymore. Bob’s vocals are impressively craggy, sounding like a man at least four times as old as he actually was when the song was recorded.
6. “Pretty Peggy-O”- Before he could write some story songs of his own, Dylan had to show the ability to effectively sing them. Bob shows what he can do with this Scottish ballad nimbly transferred in his interpretation to the American Southwest. Most would play this tale of a doomed soldier somberly, but Dylan turns it into a rave-up and enlivens it in the process.
5. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”- Proving that he understood at an early age the art of album song-sequencing, Dylan saved this show-stopping tale of a man staring down the Great Beyond with fierce grit to be the album’s final song. The song itself, by Blind Lemon Jefferson, is such a classic that Bob needed only stay out of its way to earn points.
4. “In My Time Of My Dyin’”- You might accuse Dylan of having a preoccupation with death based on the preponderance of songs about buying it on Bob Dylan, but it’s important to remember that the percentage of blues songs about death is pretty high to start. What matters is how well Bob performs the song, showing off some nifty slide techniques on the guitar and getting the vocals just right. His interpretive skills were already off the charts.
3. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”- It’s a song that has had a healthy shelf life, showing up now and again during epochal moments in Dylan’s career, like the mid-60′s electric shows and The Last Waltz, for two examples. On Bob Dylan, his jaunty take demonstrates the genesis of the winking charm he would bring to his original songs about seducing women. He may have learned it from Eric Von Schmidt, but “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” quickly became quintessential Dylan.
2. “House Of The Rising Sun”- There is much debate as to who borrowed what arrangement from whom among Dave Van Ronk, Dylan, and The Animals. The Animals made the song a monster hit single and their signature song, but Dylan’s take is haunting in its own right. Whereas Eric Burdon belted his way through his troubles, Bob’s desolate vocal lets everyone in on the depth of the loss that the protagonist has suffered.
1. “Song To Woody”- It’s common for artists to use their debut album as a means of establishing their identities. It’s telling that Bob Dylan chose to honor all those who came before him with the most significant song of his first ever LP. Woody Guthrie gets the title shout-out, but the song is essentially an admittance by Dylan that his own burgeoning career was made possible by the hard roads traveled by the blues and folk singers who preceded him.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, check out my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: Hos 100 Finest Songs in the link below.)
Just two years after the smashing success of their debut, The Traveling Wilburys returned in 1990 for a second round of roots-rock supergrouping that they titled, with typical tongue-in-cheek, Volume 3. Alas, they were missing a family member after the death of Roy Orbison, but Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and George Harrison soldiered on to far less media attention and sales. Here is a track-by-track review.
11. “New Blue Moon”- Lynne was essential to the group for his expert production and his ubiquitous vocal harmonies, but none of the songs on which he took lead in the group’s brief existence ever took off. This breezy number is just well-played filler.
10. “Seven Deadly Sins”- While the idea of Dylan singing lead in a doo-wop group has a certain subversive flair, it’s not enough to carry this one very far past pleasant inconsequentiality.
9. “Poor House”- Petty’s offbeat humor comes to the fore on this hootenanny, aided by Lynne’s yelping backing vocals and Harrison’s ever-fetching slide guitar. One of the most fun tracks on the album, even if it’s easily forgettable once it’s over.
8. “The Devil’s Been Busy”- The second Wilburys album was generally a shade darker than the first, perhaps reflecting the loss they had suffered when Orbison passed away. This track, which gets a nice boost from Harrison’s sitar, is bitingly cynical, a trait that would have sounded out of place on Volume 1. Dylan gets off the best line here, directed to the victims of corrupt power: “Sometimes you’re better off now knowing how much you’ve been had.”
7. “You Took My Breath Away”- Jeff Lynne produced two Tom Petty albums to continue their professional relationship, including Highway Companion in 2006. There’s a lovely ballad on that album called “Damaged By Love,” and you can hear the seeds of that song on “You Took My Breath Away.” The lyrics aren’t as polished on the Wilburys number, but the overall pace and production makes the songs pretty much first cousins.
6. “Where Were You Last Night?”- Both Wilburys album are consistently strong, but the second one lacks any true classics along the line of “Not Enough Anymore” or “Tweeter And The Monkey Man.” Songs like “Where Were You Last Night?,” an amiable ode to romantic suspicion coughed out by Dylan with Harrison helping out, rule the day. It gets by just fine on charm and professionalism but lacks the songwriting spark that propelled Volume 1.
5. “Cool Dry Place”- We all have storage problems, but musicians probably have to deal with that more than most. I learned that from this bluesy, saxophone-embellished affair that features Petty portraying a cramped instrument collector. So what if not everyone can relate to such an uptown problem? Al least the song has a distinctive point of view, which makes it stand out here.
4. “Wilbury Twist”- As stated above, Volume 3 was a relatively dour affair compared to Volume 1. That all goes out the window on the closing track, when the Wilburys create their own dance which includes, among other distinctive moves, this command from Harrison: “Put your other foot up/Fall on your ass/Get back up/Put your teeth in a glass.” At the time, everyone hoped that the Wilburys would regale us with more music down the road, but, as a closing statement by this casual assemblage of superstars, “Wilbury Twist” is as fitting as could be.
3. “Inside Out”- Environmental concerns seem to be at the heart of this song, although the lyrics work better as a series of one-liners rather than as a coherent whole. What carries the day is the group interplay, as Dylan takes the verses, Petty the refrains, and Harrison the bridge, while Lynne adds harmony to them all in an MVP performance. This one has the effortless bounce and swing of the first album, with walled acoustic guitars and Jim Keltner’s rock steady beat doing much of the heavy lifting.
2. “She’s My Baby”- As great as the first album was, there was nothing on there that really rocked. “She’s My Baby” takes care of that right from the bludgeoning opening riff. Keltner, as usual, is crucial, and Gary Moore comes aboard to play a fierce lead guitar and a sprinting solo. The lyrics are reminiscent of Vol. 1’s “Dirty World” in their reliance on double entendres and wink-wink, nudge-nudge sexual references, that is until Dylan (who else?) gets right to the heart of it: “She like to stick her tongue right down my throat.”
1. “If You Belonged to Me”- The band’s willingness to trade jobs and share the limelight on the second album is commendable, but the finest song, ironically enough, is the one where a single band member takes center stage. In this case, it’s Dylan, pulling one of his acidic love songs out of the holster and singing it with just the right mix of wounded pride and thinly-veiled disgust. His harmonica solo is typically stellar, and the acoustic guitar mix behind him is pristine. As a matter of fact, Harrison liked the arrangement so much that he essentially re-wrote the lyrics and presented it as “Any Road,” the lead track on his final solo album Brainwashed.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Books and e-books of material that originated on this site can be purchased from the link below.)
What started out as a George Harrison session featuring a few buddies turned into the Traveling Wlburys, and never has the term “supergroup” been more accurately applied. On Traveling Wilburys Vol.1, Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison come together for an album that rivaled the biggest hits the men ever had as individuals. Here is a track-by-track review.
10. “Margarita”- This is the one song on the album where the laid-back atmosphere crosses the fine line into silliness, and it’s also the one time when Lynne’s production gets a tad overbearing.
9. “Rattled”- Lynne has always been adept at mimicking mint-condition rockabilly, and here he hets his Jerry Lee Lewis on with the help of Jim Keltner’s muscular beat. Bonus points for getting Orbison to recreate his “Pretty Woman” “R” roll.
8. “Congratulations”- Dylan sounds so woeful here that you fear he might collapse rather than finish this tongue-in-cheek tale of misery. The Wilburys chime in with staggering backing vocals that make them sound like the world’s most harmonious chain gang.
7. “Heading For The Light”- This one sounds like it could have fit in on Harrison’s Cloud Nine album, which was essentially the impetus for the Wilburys anyway. Bouncy horns accentuate the upbeat tune, and you can hear the fun that the Quiet Beatle is having with his friends.
6. “Dirty World”- This is Dylan at his most off-the-cuff and mischievous, tossing off brazen double-entendres in an attempt to win over a girl from her new man. The random call-and-response session from the other Wilburys at song’s end is inspired as well. This song would seem slight in lesser hands, but here it’s a rollicking blast.
5. “Last Night”- Petty gets his showcase in this tale of a one-night stand gone horribly awry. There is something subversive and hilarious in the way that his deadpan vocals are interspersed with the golden tones of Orbison. It’s never clear just what fate befalls the narrator, but when he surmises at songs’ end that “All I got is this song,” it’s a pretty good consolation.
4. “Handle With Care”- Harrison’s dry humor gets a workout in this song that started the whole Wilburys phenomenon off. His protagonist is just looking for a little bit of tenderness after getting knocked around a bit by life, and some of the complaints sound like they hit pretty close to home (especially when he claims that he’s been “overexposed, commercialized.”) George’s slide guitar and Dylan’s harmonica turn out to be an inspired combination.
3. “End Of The Line”- This is another song where the juxtaposition of the disparate voices produces fantastic results. Harrison, Lynne, and Orbison trade off on the verses, reassuring listeners with the “It’s all right” refrain even as all mattersof hypothetical disasters loom in the distance. Petty serves as the wry counterpoint, making small talk about his car and Jimi Hendrix. This is the song where Lynne’s back-porch production is at its finest.
2. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”- We can’t say for sure if the Wilburys ever considered including Bruce Springsteen in their little party, but he’s here in spirit thanks to Dylan’s hilarious parody. Thanks to some slinky horns and the catchy “And the walls came down” refrain, you don’t need to know any Boss references to enjoy the song. Yet if you do, you’ll find yourself chuckling along even as you admire Dylan’s ingenious tale of a bizarre love quadrangle featuring bullets, car chases, and gender confusion.
1. “Not Alone Anymore”- Jeff Lynne is most likely the author of this song (his publishing company holds the copyright), so he deserves credit for crafting a weeper that can hold its own with colossal Roy Orbison classics like “Crying,” “Running Scared,” and “It’s Over.” The rest is all Orbison, using perhaps the most iconic voice in rock music history to take the whole thing to stratospheric levels of heartache. There won’t be a dry eye in the house by the time this one is through.
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Earlier in the list, I talked about “Mistress And Maid,” an excellent song co-written by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello that got away from Macca a bit when he brought it into the studio. Luckily, he had no such problems with “That Day Is Done,” which was impeccably rendered on Flowers In The Dirt, the Paul album which takes its title from lyrics in the song. McCartney renders the song with the mixture of grandeur and sorrow that the lyrics demand.
We are also lucky that Costello provided his own version of this heartfelt song on the extra disc of the All Useless Beauty reissue. In that take, Elvis is accompanied by legendary session man Larry Knechtel on piano and the inimitable Fairfield Four on backing vocals. This version, especially with those amazing backing vocalists on board, really drives home the song’s gospel influences.
“That Day Is Done” feels like the duo’s attempt to replicate some of the somber majesty of the early recordings of The Band, especially the Dylan-penned numbers “Tears Of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released.” The open spaces in the music, the gospel influences, the lyrics which come from the perspective of a man who can’t keep his promise to his love because death has intervened, all of that recalls the mystery and magic of those first two Band albums.
Costello delivered a moving performance of this song at a tribute concert for Linda McCartney in 1999. Such painful occasions are why songs like this are written, because they pinpoint the myriad emotions inside of us better than we could ever possibly articulate them ourselves. That kind of beautiful sadness is generally the province of a master songwriter; “That Day Is Done” came from two of those masters, so the results are doubly heartrending.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
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Bob Dylan, one of Bruce’s biggest influences, once sang, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The character in the title track and closing song of Bruce’s stunningly powerful 1978 album can relate. He gives away everything good in his life in one fell swoop of self-destruction for an urge that he can’t even properly articulate. You just have to be there.
When Bruce gets to the build-up to the chorus in this song, he doesn’t sing so much as howl. It’s a primal sound, and it fits this character well. After all, this guy doesn’t so much make wrong choices as he’s an unwitting victim to some innate desire. When he talks of his wife’s aversion to street racing, he says that it was because “that blood it never burned in her veins.” Clearly, it burned in his though, overwhelming any common sense.
The dichotomy of this guy’s persona is reflected in the music. At times it’s soft and reflective, but then it surges into some of the E Street Band’s toughest rock and roll ever. Remember that punk was all the rage in 1978, but none of those whippersnappers had anything on the assault Bruce and the boys show here. Springsteen’s precise solo is a thing of cruel beauty, and Roy Bittan plays his piano like a mad scientist. All restraint is left behind.
“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” is a marvel because it mines deep psychological territory with a relatively small amount of words. Bruce brings it all home in the final lines, following up his admission that even the loss of his money and his wife had little effect on him, as if they were just shadows from a dream, and every line is fraught with meaning: “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ‘cause I can’t stop.” (Again, the lack of control over his self-sabotaging ways.) “I’ll be on that hill with everything that I got.” (Which, at that point, is practically nothing.) “Lives on the line and dreams are found and lost.” (The stakes couldn’t be higher.) “I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.” (Even knowing these stakes, he’s ready to dig in his heels and take whatever comes.) “For wanting things that can only be found/In the darkness on the edge of town.”
In many ways, this song is Bruce putting the charming gang members and street racers of his early songs to bed once and for all. These characters that once seemed so romantic, even when they were coming to bad ends, morph into this man-child, who can’t leave that life behind even though it costs him every important thing he has. It’s suddenly not very romantic anymore. It was also Springsteen’s way of letting go of an archetype which had served its purpose brilliantly but would have seemed exceedingly silly had he continued to write those songs into his 30’s and 40’s.
It all coalesces into the unflinching portrait of one man on his last chance, ready to fulfill his destiny, however aimless and ineffectual it might be. It turns out that the darkness was his home all along.
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Why, oh why, Bruce, Part 2. As in why in the name of all that’s righteous would you leave this shimmering rock bomb on the shelf and off an official album release? We had to wait until Tracks to enjoy this killer. It was recorded in ’79 in the run-up to The River, which had, like, 87 songs on it. You mean to tell me that this one couldn’t have been crammed in there?
Hell, they should have created another side of the album just to contain the E Street Band’s swagger on this song. Roy Bittan’s hook is one for the ages, and the drum and sax interplay in the instrumental break is a master class conducted by Professors Weinberg and Clemons. Rarely has the band ever brought this much thunder.
As for the lyrics depicting a self-imploding relationship, they have a singability that’s a refreshing change-of-pace. I can deal with Bruce doing the 34-more-syllables-than-the-line-can-hold thing; that’s actually a hallmark of some of my favorite songwriters, from Dylan to Costello. Still, the concise way these words fit the meter of each line really add to the power-packed punch the song delivers.
Maybe Bruce felt that the lines in the chorus about the noose were too harsh an image. Maybe he felt that he had other similar songs that fit The River better. I don’t know. If there’s a fan out there who does, please enlighten me. I doubt I’ll agree with the reasoning though. No shelf should ever have contained “Loose Ends”.
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The emotional centerpiece of The Ghost Of Tom Joad, “The Line” is a stunning tale of what happens when the call of duty conflicts with the necessities of the heart. In many ways the song can be seen as a counterpart to “Highway Patrolman,” as characters clash with the forces within themselves when faced with seemingly impossible choices.
Bruce borrows the melody from Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” although he turns this song into a much more somber affair that Bobby D’s jaunty number. Using just acoustic guitar, keyboards, and a voice that sounds like it’s been beaten down by fate so badly that it’s afraid to come up for air, Springsteen brilliantly brings these folks to life with just a few brief descriptions.
Springsteen puts us in the shoes of two California Border Patrol agents, scrambling to make ends meet while trying to scrape together a semblance of happiness along the way. Carl, the narrator, is so wounded by the death of his wife that he can’t see the ulterior motives of his new love, who sees him as a ticket into the U.S. His counterpart, Bobby Ramirez, bears the burden of making his living by depriving people of his own heritage of the opportunity for a better life.
When it’s revealed to Carl that his new love’s brother is just another of the smugglers he’s been trying to catch, he still blindly charges ahead in an attempt to help the girl. Bobby stops them, and Carl finally pulls back from the brink after briefly considering shooting his friend. The girl runs away, and Bobby and Carl are left with the debris of their friendship and the hard truths of the lines that they crossed while trying to defend “The Line.” This song is beautiful, sad, and revelatory without an ounce of strain. More people than just hard-core Springsteen fanatics should hear it.
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