Bob Dylan Countdown #178: “Too Much Of Nothing”

Our first foray into the Basement Tapes brings us this dark brooder about the dangers of empty rewards. While Dylan allegedly mentioned King Lear as a possible inspiration here, it was likely his own experience that served as a muse. Don’t forget that, as he was recording this song, he was in the midst of a hiatus from the merry-go-round that brought him fame, money, and exhaustion, and that experience seems to inform his lyrics.

In the verses, he outlines the consequences for those who aren’t careful what they desire. False pride, ignorance and meanness are all possibilities. In the worst cases, it’s impossible to predict the outcome and utter chaos reigns (“Oh, when there’s too much of nothing/No one has control.”) That sounds like a man who has lived through it.

When we get to the chorus, it becomes clear that the narrator has already made his mistakes, stranded as he is now on the “waters of oblivion.” Coming on the heels of the crescendoing verses, the choruses, sweetened by Rick Danko and Richard Manuel’s otherworldly harmonies, release the tension somewhat. But it is a release that only comes after the ultimate fall.

What’s ironic is the definition of “nothing” that Dylan chooses to embrace here. His idyllic time with The Band in Woodstock was filled with little more than bucolic living and making music, far removed from the fame game. To his fans, that life might have seemed like a lot of nothing.

In fact, he was recuperating, physically and mentally, by leading a more fulfilling life than the past several years had provided. Dylan’s “Too Much Of Nothing” era actually occurred in his mid-1960’s whirlwind phase, when he had much given to him and even more expected from him. It’s that lifestyle that he rejects with extreme prejudice here.

Bob Dylan Countdown #179: “Moonlight”

When I was a kid, my Dad was a big fan of  The Platters, the vocal group that cranked out hits like “My Prayer,” “Only You,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” I always get a sense of deja vu when I hear “Moonlight,” because it has the same lilting tone as those classic hits, in particular that ode to dusk, “Twilight Time.”

Now Dylan’s vocals aren’t quite as silky smooth of Platters lead Tony Williams. But he is pretty deft here with some tongue-twisting lyrics (“The dusky light, the day is losing, orchids, poppies, black-eyed Susan.”) With Larry Campbell’s steel guitar moaning prettily in the background, the entire effect of the song is soothing and serene.

Coming of the death rattle of Time Out Of Mind, Dylan seems to have consciously injected more levity into “Love And Theft.”  A lot of those lighter songs, like “Bye And Bye, “Floater,” and this one, don’t really command attention. They are passive in that respect, unconcerned if the listener simply lets them waft by or chooses to delve a little deeper.

Doing the latter usually reveals some pretty nifty qualities. If you think about them long enough, lines like “The boulevards of cypress trees, the masquerades of birds and bees” will reveal their brilliance. So whether you bask in it or simply let it glance off you as you stroll by, “Moonlight” sparkles.

Bob Dylan Countdown #180: “Spanish Harlem Incident”

Clocking in at just a shade over two minutes long, “Spanish Harlem Incident” is just a postage stamp of a song. Yet into that brief time period, Bob Dylan crams in so much rich imagery that it almost couldn’t afford to be any longer, lest listeners be completely overwhelmed by the results.

This is Dylan at the age of 23, in complete command of his poetic gifts. This stunning wordplay was unprecedented in his genre, whether you considered that genre to be folk or pop or rock or whatever. At this point in his career, he was already leaving all comparisons behind. Even The Beatles would need another two or three years before they shed all of their influences to create something never heard before. In that respect, Dylan got there first.

The encounter with the Gypsy gal in Spanish Harlem gives him the opportunity to unleash a torrent of descriptive words. It’s as if all of his senses have been inflamed by her exotic beauty and the world is exploding in front of him. Everything is flaming or flashing or rattling, assaulting the reality that he thought he knew before he met her.

“Spanish Harlem Incident”, found on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, could seem like showing off if the fancy verbage weren’t apropos to the story. Consider the lines,”The night is pitch black, come an’ make my/Pale face fit into place, ah, please.” Alliteration, assonance, and consonance jam-packed in two lines:  A poetry professor’s wet dream. And yet it expertly expresses how Dylan’s outsider character is feeling in this unfamiliar location.

Although this song is probably too short and slight to be considered among Dylan’s classics, it still indicates the stunning level of talent at which he was operating. He was in some seriously rarefied air way back then, and, nearly 50 years later, he’s still pretty lonely out there.

Bob Dylan Countdown #181: “When He Returns”

One thing that is often overlooked when considering Dylan’s Christian period is how small his margin for error was. With songs of that type, he had to be sure that he didn’t come off as too hectoring, thereby sacrificing the quality of the song in favor of the message of his sermon. By contrast, the message had to be strong, or else he would have been seen as wavering. What would be the point of going out on that limb if he didn’t make his point while he was out there?

There are critics to be found who feel that Dylan erred on both sides of that dividing line during that time period. But I think that he found a unique way around the problem on “When He Returns.” While there can be no doubting Dylan’s born-again qualifications based on the pointed lyrics, his singing, in conjunction with the musical accompaniment, presents a picture of tenderness and vulnerability that leavens things considerably.

The anguish in Dylan’s voice is palpable, which presents an effective counterpoint to the blunt-force lyrics. Since that is the case, lines like “The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God,” so unapologetic on the page, are tempered by the softer touch of the presentation. Bob also makes sure to include himself in the blame game, mixing in a few “I”‘s with the “you”‘s when he talks about those who on a wayward path in need of heavenly guidance.

Give credit to the lovely piano work of Barry Beckett, who sets the tone with his gentle chords. And, of course, give credit to Dylan’s marvelous vocal, one of the most nakedly emotional of his career. Listening to that voice, it’s easy to believe that he believed. With material as delicate as”When He Returns,” such commitment to those beliefs ultimately makes the difference in getting it across.

Time-Out Review: Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen

(Every once in a while, CK takes a time out from counting down old songs to concentrate on a new release.)

There is refreshing humility and honesty embedded in the title of Leonard Cohen’s newest album. After all, the content of Old Ideas, Cohen’s 12th solo LP and first since 2004’s Dear Heather, is no different from the stuff he’s been talking about for the last 45 years in his music, and even further back from that in his poetry.

The mysteries are intact and unsolvable: How do you reconcile love with desire, and how do you reconcile both of those with the idea of a higher power? How do you live life to the fullest when you’re faced with the knowledge of certain death?  Is there any such thing as the truth, or is it just a perversion of the overarching lie? Much like there are only so many notes on the piano, Cohen’s position is that these topics are always what will interest and confound us the most, no matter the prevalent current events of the day.

In no way does that mean Old Ideas is derivative or stale. As a matter of fact, this is Cohen at the top of his game, as wry and clever as ever even as the conundrums he faces get increasingly profound. His nimble wordplay is more colloquial than in the past, and yet it is assembled in such a way as to remain endlessly insightful. In short, they don’t write ’em like this anymore.

Old Ideas starts off with “Going Home.” In the verses, Cohen tales the role of God, who admonishes Leonard, a “lazy bastard living in a suit”, for trying to solve life’s mysteries in his songs instead of simple rolling with God’s plan. In the chorus, Cohen takes the reins back, singing about “going home,” wherever that may be, with total peace of mind and nary a regret.

Elsewhere, Cohen continues his long-running dialog with the fairer sex. “Crazy To Love You” plumbs the depths of a broken relationship with typical eloquence, while “Lullaby” is just what its title claims to be without any of the cloying cuteness it implies. The 77-year old master also wraps his fathoms-deep voice around the blues on “Darkness” and “Different Sides.”

Cohen puts that voice front and center for most of the record, using his old trick of adding heavenly female backing vocals for as stark a contrast as possible. The music is spare, just simple backing with an occasional horn or harmonica here and there for brief interludes. Still, Cohen’s melodic sense, helped by collaborator Patrick Leonard on a few songs, has never been finer.

Another plus here is that Cohen, who has never been the best album artist, has taken care to make sure the album flows better than just a random collection of songs. Or maybe he has just narrowed his focus so much that the album sounds more consistent than many of his recent ones. Whatever the case, it makes for one of the most cohesive discs in his career.

On “Show Me The Place,” Cohen unfurls a lovely gospel-tinged number that goes down as one of the finest efforts in his sterling career. Setting aside his trademark cool, he is penitent before someone, maybe a God, maybe a former lover, as he sings, “Show me the place where the suffering began.” It’s a startling moment of vulnerability, as the narrator, haunted by his mistakes and threatened by his mortality, seeks out some fragment of innocence and grace.

It’s unlikely that his request will be answered, but that just means that he’ll keep questing. Leonard Cohen might think these are Old Ideas, but, when presented by such a gifted songwriter, they’re downright revelatory. 

RATING:  8.5 out of 10

Bob Dylan Countdown #182: “Dear Landlord”

Dylan has stated that one of the reasons that John Wesley Harding stands out in his catalog is that most of the songs were written in piecemeal fashion, with the lyrics already in place before the music was composed. As a result, a lot of the songs, including this one, have surprising melodies. Straying from the adapted folk tunes of which he had been so fond, Dylan comes up with unexpected twists and turns that are certainly in keeping with the lyrical complexity.

On “Dear Landlord,” Dylan’s insistent piano drives the bus. He starts singing in a low, guttural moan on each verse, eventually rising into a piercing cry as the chords veer off in an almost atonal fashion. He then tumbles back down woefully so he can start all over again. There is nothing resembling a chorus onto which a listener might be able to grab. While it may make the song an unlikely candidate for humming along, it also keeps it fresh after innumerable listens.

It’s bracing to hear Dylan singing from a position of weakness as he does here. It can be fun to speculate who the landlord represents, but it’s ultimately less important than the genuine emotion contained in the singer’s lament. There is a something of a “judge not lest ye be judged’ feeling to the message here. But while he’s singing from the point of view of the oppressed, Bob also tries to understand the motivations of his oppressor instead of simply castigating him for his actions.

And, considering where he was at in his life and career, it’s intriguing to hear Dylan spit out the following lines: 

“All of us, at times, we work too hard                                                                                                                                                                       To have it too fast and too much                                                                                                                                                                             And anyone can fill his life up                                                                                                                                                                                 With things he can see but he just cannot touch.

Maybe the Landlord was Dylan himself, at least the version who had spent the previous years on a non-stop binge of revolutionary music, incendiary touring, and living so hard that it almost broke him completely. Maybe “Dear Landlord” is the physician trying to heal himself.


Bob Dylan Countdown #183: “Buckets Of Rain”

While I was mesmerized by Blood On The Tracks the very first time I heard it, it took a long time for me to warm up to this track. I thought it was a bit of an anticlimax, coming as it did on the heels of so many colossal songs. I thought this album deserved a closer along the lines of “Desolation Row” or “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” et al. Why go out with a relative whimper?

Yet as the years have passed and I’ve listened to a lot more music, I’ve come to appreciate the fine art of sequencing an album. As someone who has had the opportunity to do album reviews for the last five years, you can trust me when I say that it is a lost art. Dylan, for my money, has always been one of the finest practitioners of it. If we are going to accept that Blood On The Tracks is a concept album, it’s also necessary to view “Buckets Of Rain” as a song that sacrifices a bit of its potential grandeur for the sake of the album as a whole.

By that I mean that Dylan needed a song at the end of the album to serve as the epilogue. Another wordy treatise on tortured love and its acrimonious fallout might have tipped the balance of the album toward being a one-sided harangue rather than a nuanced look at a relationship that has run its course. “Buckets Of Rain” is the even-tempered, after-hours rumination of a man who has been through the fire and now, with the tears drying away, can see it all much clearer.

“Life it sad, life is a bust/All you can do is do what you must,” Dylan sings in the final verse. It’s helpless wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless. There is still fondness there for the one who got away, but there is all also acceptance of the truth, now unavoidable. He ends the album with one more unanswered question:  “I’ll do it for you/Honey, baby, can’t you tell?” Sadly, no amount of wisdom will ever bring that answer to the fore.

When I compiled this list, I judged these songs on their individual merit. For the most part with Dylan, you can do that and be fair to the songs. This song is a notable exception in that it is best appreciated as a part of the whole. On its own, #183 seems about the right spot for “Buckets Of Rain.” In its context, however, it’s damn near perfection.


Bob Dylan Countdown #184: “Corrina, Corrina”

The credits on the The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan say that this song was arranged and adapted by Bob, but it’s fair enough to argue that this is an original composition. After all, there are a ton of different versions of the song in circulation, and none of them appear to bear too much resemblance to Dylan’s version. That’s why I’m allowing it on this list, which is meant only for songs that Dylan wrote or co-wrote.

There is a pleasant, lilting feel to the proceedings here that show Dylan’s ability to take on lighter material. Anyone who expected him to be only a dour protest singer or lovesick balladeer, two roles he played extensively on Freewheelin’, might have been surprised by the touch he displays on “Corrina, Corrina”. He even drops in a supple falsetto just to show off a bit. It’s also one of the first examples of how he could interpret a song with a band alongside him rather than with his acoustic guitar as sole accompaniment.

One little digression here:  Although much of my time has been spent the last few weeks writing or researching for this project, I’ve been trying, little by little, to get through the 4-CD compilation of Dylan covers just released on behalf of Amnesty International. I haven’t made it through the whole thing yet. 

The funny thing is that, if you had put those 70 songs before me in Dylan’s versions as a playlist, I could listen to it all day. As for the covers, it’s a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of artists are either laying on the performances too thick or missing the point of the songs by a pretty wide margin. It’s for a good cause though, so there’s no sense in complaining too much.

Anyway, one of the covers I did hear and like was Pete Townshend’s take on “Corrina, Corrina.” He doesn’t try to do too much with it, which would have a mistake. I also like his choice of material. I suspect that a lot of young up-and-comers are drawn to the wordiest stuff, trying to show they’re up to it when the vast majority of them aren’t. Townshend has nothing to prove, and his effortlessness is engaging. And that effortlessness, after all, is what Dylan managed all those years ago on the original.

Bob Dylan Countdown #185: “Forgetful Heart”

The fact that there are only three spots between them on the list should tell everyone that I feel like “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” and “Forgetful Heart,” two of the finest numbers off Together Through Life, are very much cut from the same cloth. There’s a banjo in the latter, so that sets it apart a bit, and it also features a set of lyrics that is just a wee bit stronger.

Notice how those lyrics make a casual shift throughout the song. At the start of the action, the personification of the heart gives the words, at least on paper, an almost playful feel that’s in stark contrast to the music. Indeed, it’s the kind of device you might expect from a Cole Porter standard and not a pitch-black blues.

But as the song progresses, the words shade ever so slightly darker to match the music. Desperation seeps in, and memories of good times are replaced with pain. It all sets it up for a couplet that goes down as one of Dylan’s all-time closers:  “The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door.”

It’s as if the narrator is sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss the more that he contemplates his situation. His heart may be forgetful, but his mind’s recall is unfortunately sharp, locking all the slights and wounds irrevocably in place.

Bob Dylan Countdown #186: “North Country Blues”

Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota is in the midst of the Iron Range, a unique area of our country teeming with iron mines. Coal mines may dominate the mining conversation in the United States, but iron mines come with similar sets of problems (dangerous conditions for workers, cheaper competition from overseas, low wages, etc.)

It only makes sense then that Dylan would be drawn to this particular occupation when he chose to write his own Woody Guthrie-type ode to put-upon workers and include it on The Times They Are A-Changin’. But Bob takes a somewhat unconventional approach by telling the story from the perspective of a woman with a family full of miners.

He could have easily just given a laundry list of all the hardships miners endure, but, by personalizing it, he makes it seem much less like medicine and more deeply affecting. And by choosing a woman as the centerpiece for the tale, he emphasizes the way that an entire community is affected by these mines, not just the miners themselves. It’s like an anti-war song from the perspective of the widows.

Dylan sings the song almost dispassionately, as if all the emotion has been drained from this poor woman who has lost her brother and father to the mine’s dangers and her husband to the mine’s sudden lack of usefulness. Her final, stoic realization that her children will eventually join the list of those who have departed is almost too much sadness to contemplate.

Dylan obviously witnessed this sadness firsthand growing up. That he captures the essence of this harrowing job without making it seem like a lecture is a testament to his skill and compassion.