Many apologies for the hiatus between posts, especially since I left some of you hanging with these last ten. But here they are without further ado. Again, remember that the rule here is that these songs weren’t originally included on one of Bob’s solo studio albums and they can’t be alternate takes of songs that were included.
10. “I’m Not There”- The amazing thing about this famed outtake from the Basement Tapes sessions is how none of the players seems quite sure where it’s going at any time and yet they all get there together. And where exactly is there? It’s that place inside a broken heart where hopes and dreams go to die, where the expectations that the one you love is really going to change finally give up the ghost. I tend not to believe in magic, but there was something clearly afoot at Big Pink beyond just talent and inspiration, and it’s all over this mysterious, marvelous track.
9. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”- I’ll never stop wondering how much of this was meant to be homage and how much was meant to be parody. The funny thing is that Springsteen had largely stopped writing these streetlife tales by the time Dylan and Top Petty concocted this wild love quadrangle. Instead this plays like some lost connector between Bruce’s second and third albums. And, unlike most songs of this nature, it’s extremely engaging even if you don’t get the jokes, in large part due to the ominous refrain and Dylan’s ability to pull all the various strains together in a fatal but funny ending.
8. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”- The first Bootleg Series volume was the first huge payload of unreleased Dylan material to hit the shelves, but Biograph leaked some great forgotten songs a few years before that, including this single far too unwieldy to be a hit (except in England, where it snuck into the Top 20.) The Band’s herky-jerky rhythmic inventiveness is in early evidence here, while Dylan curls his words around them like sarcastic vines. This tale of a girl mesmerized by a svengali-like character whom the narrator knows isn’t all that features some of Bob’s most elastic wordplay, with lines that you could never believe even now would work in a pop song (so imagine what it must have sounded like 50 years ago!)
7. “Foot Of Pride”- One of the great songs that Bob left off Infidels and made that disc the ultimate what-might-have-been of his career, “Foot Of Pride” benefits from Mark Knopfler’s tough guitar licks and Bob’s colorful harmonica asides. The music is really just an excuse for Dylan to spin lyrics that take aim at various targets and characters, all of whom are going to survive his diatribes just fine, which is part of the reason he’s so aggrieved. Why he didn’t want the world to hear this kind of wild genius around this time is known only to him. What’s certain is that Dylan spewing venom allows us all to vicariously get out own frustrations off our chests as well.
6. “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”- Yeah, I know, not a song. But it has to be acknowledged. The nervousness with which Bob plows through this spoken-word poem about Guthrie’s impending passing and the impact he made on the youngster carrying the torch, which was recorded and captured for posterity on the Bootleg Series, betrays just how much the folk forefather actually meant to him. That makes it an important document of the inner, empathetic Dylan that too many observers overlook in favor of his lyrical brilliance and idiosyncratic behavior. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being mesmerized and genuinely touched by that performance, while it’s easy to figure that anyone hearing it might just look up Guthrie’s stuff too, which is a heartening thought.
5. “She’s Your Lover Now”- Howlingly funny and heartbreakingly disappointed all at once, here is a masterpiece that remained unfinished for many years, thanks to the breakdown at the end of the take included on The Bootleg Series. The complete 65-66 recordings finally gave us the full magilla with Bob on piano, but the band version is the one for the books. Nobody plays the jilted lover like Dylan, as he alternately insults and confides in his romantic rival while directly addressing the former lover with wisecracks that are leavened by the hurt in his voice. Perhaps the best manipulation of pronouns ever heard, as well.
4. “Things Have Changed”- I had the chance to interview Marty Stuart and asked him about the resemblances between this and Stuart’s “Observations Of A Crow,” and he admitted that Bob asked him for the A-OK first. Stuart responded that he had probably borrowed the melody in the first place anyway from somebody else, so Dylan could go crazy with it. People concentrate on the chorus and the seeming weariness of the punch line, but a close listen to the verses reveals that there’s a lost of feistiness in this main character. I think that payoff line should read more like “I used to give a damn, but ….” Because when you’re confronted with the insanity and hypocrisy that Bob details in the lyrics, indifference seems to be the only reasonable option.
3. “Positively 4th Street”- The capo de tutti capi of all kiss-off songs; it’s quite amazing that this kind of unrepentant attack made it so high on the singles charts. But, then again, with each new release Dylan was expressing emotions that hadn’t previously been broached in pop songs, so the newness of it probably struck people, that and the fact that he did it with Al Kooper’s chirpy organ as his main accompaniment on the track. I’m in the camp that it was probably written about his former folk song buddies who turned on him, but what does that matter really? What matters is that without it, it would be hard to imagine songs as diverse as “You’re So Vain,” “You Oughta Know,” every diss rap ever recorded, and, heck, even “Diamonds And Rust,” for that matter, ever existing.
2. “Red River Shore”- When we’re permanently separated from the person we love the most, is it possible to truly be happy? What kind of life awaits us if that’s the case? Is it a life at all? Those are the questions underlying a song that might be the most tragic in Dylan’s entire catalog. Much of his music since Blood On The Tracks is haunted by that one girl who reigns above all others in his mind and heart to whom he is endlessly returning but never quite getting there, and “Red River Shore” takes that idea all the way to the harrowing end of the line and dares us to behold the boundless misery that awaits there.
1. “Blind Willie McTell”- Dylan’s intuitive sense of timing on the piano combined with Knopfler’s minimalist acoustic guitar fills make for a haunting combination, first thing. As for the lyrics? Timeless is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing music, but this song takes that word to another level. It bounces from Biblical times to slavery ships to a lonely modern hotel room, and a connection that suggests that human nature has never quite been able to get out of its own way becomes obvious. God watches it all, allowing greed and corruption to run rampant and lives to be subordinated to these pursuits while refusing to interject. Only the blues singer can put his finger on the vastness of the pain, providing an outlet if not an answer. And if that pretty well sums up what Dylan has been doing all the years.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to the paperback edition of Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
Our countdown continues today with #20-11 on the list. Again, the rules here are that these songs do not appear on a Dylan studio album. (By the way, I’m including The Basement Tapes as a studio album, since I did do a CK-style review of that, which you can find in the archives.)
20. “Cant Escape From You”- Singing over an elegant doo-wop melody that would have suited Dion, Dylan craggily cogitates about the one love out of them all that stubbornly clings. He’s neither sad nor sorry, yet he states as a self-evident fact that this woman is tied to him till the end. There is a nimbleness to the singing here that matches the sprightly sorrow of the tune, and an overall effortlessness that has no right being in a song with such impressive lyrical displays.
19. “Abandoned Love”- It has the sound of Desire and the sentiment of Blood On The Tracks, so, at a time when Dylan seemed more committed to thematic unity on his albums than normal, it fell through the cracks. But, man, does it hit home as a clear-eyed dissection of crumbling romance. Both his patron saint and his inner ghosts have betrayed him, so Dylan’s narrator is clearly in no shape to sustain this relationship. But what really kills you is the way he asks for one more moment at the end before it all goes to pieces.
18. “Up To Me”- This is a bit of a soundalike to “Shelter From The Storm,” so Dylan probably decided that Blood On The Tracks wasn’t big enough for both of them. And really, how can you complain about that album? But still, this song deserves a spot somewhere. The narrator bears the burden at the end of every verse, a burden that slowly squeezes the life out of his ability to carry on in this romance. The settings and characters change drastically from verse to verse, but what it comes down to is fickle, frail human nature, as evidenced by lines like “She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that.” And in that lovely last verse, Dylan literally brings his guitar and harmonica into the song and melts our hearts.
17. “John Brown”- Dylan’s Unplugged session at MTV is a prime document of how his live skills were still Ginsu-sharp in the early 90’s, even as people were questioning if he’d ever do anything of note in the studio again. (Boy, were those folks in for a surprise.) But the standout track was this out-of-left-field choice of a song he’d only demoed back when he wrote it in the early 60’s. How relevant its thoughts on the horrors of war stayed, and Dylan’s searing performance of it for Unplugged really makes them stick.
16. “Farewell, Angelina”- All you need to do to time-stamp this song is to listen to the surrealistic flow of the lyrics, which clearly places it in the same class with wordy wonders like “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan gives a restrained reading of the song in the version that made it to the Bootleg Series, perfect for the song’s story of a drastic change that the narrator matter-of-factly abides. His exhortations to Angelina (more on her in a moment) urge her to prepare for the transformation, because it’s coming whether she wants to accept it or not.
15. “‘Cross The Green Mountain”- Dylan knows his Civil War stuff, but the war that he depicts here isn’t romanticized in the least. It’s a brutal, ugly thing, only leavened somewhat by the weary beauty of the martial music his band plays and the dignity of his lyrics. His narrator is dying, if not already dead, and he surveys both the abomination of reality and the sweeter scenery of the spirit world he hopes to enter. Maybe the narrator is a soldier, or maybe he represents the hope of humanity, snuffed out by war’s atrocities. In any case, the tragedy is, as the man says, monstrous.
14. “Angelina”- At the end of the Born Again period, Dylan was kind of all over the place, his secular musings trying to muscle their way back into the picture over the proselytizing nature of Slow Train and Saved. “Angelina” was recorded in the midst of this tumult and is all the more fascinating for it. Dylan switches back and forth from random scenes encountered by his lonely wanderer archetype and direct conversations with the titular character. Anybody who tells you for sure that they know what’s going on here is either lying or in over their heads, but getting lost in it is half the fun. And quite impressive how many rhymes he has for “Angelina,” right?
13. “Caribbean Wind”- Dylan lamented that all his rewrites of this song kind of diluted the original meaning, which he could never quite recover. Yet, somewhat like “Angelina,” the messiness of it is part of its charm, as each verse sets a new, thrilling scene and makes an insightful observation or two before its on to the next one. And the huffing rock arrangement is buoyed by Dylan’s absolute commitment in the vocals; his whine has rarely sounded more urgent. Autobiographical details sit next to shaggy-dog tales, and all of it lives within the “furnace of desire.” Who cares what he originally meant? This will do just fine, thanks.
12. “I Shall Be Released”- Let’s be clear here: Dylan’s off-the-cuff recording of the song for a greatest hits package (upon which this ranking is based) doesn’t come close to the takes he did with with The Band that eventually found their way to light. If he was trying to take some of the sonority out of the song in the version he recorded with Happy Traum, he succeeded, turning the song into more of a shrug of the shoulders. Still, it’s hard to erase the soaring ache in Richard Manuel’s voice from your head while listening; that’s your definitive take, right there. As for the song itself, well, it’s a matter of Dylan proving that he didn’t need verbal gymnastics to deliver profound truths.
11. “Rambling, Gambling Willie”- Keep in mind that this tale was concocted by Dylan at the very outset of his songwriting career, which makes the level of craft somehow more impressive. The gambler with a heart of gold is a tale as old as the hills, and still this song wrings something new out of it. Bob even gets away with giving us a moral to the story to wrap it all in a neat bow. Plus he blows some mean harmonica throughout. I’d go to see a movie made out of this song in a heartbeat.
(For more on these and many other Bob Dylan classics, check out my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. You can get it in the link below or find it at your local bookstore.)
In honor of the paperback release of my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Songs, I thought I’d dig back into the Dylan catalog. You can see my Dylan album Retro Reviews by looking through the archives, but there are so many ridiculously great songs that he wrote and performed that didn’t make it onto his studio LP’s. So for the next few posts (after which we return to the Paul McCartney catalog), I’ll be counting down the Top 30 of those non-album songs, in typical Retro Review style. Remember that if the song appeared on a studio album, it’s ineligible for this list, so no alternate versions of “Idiot Wind” from the Bootleg Series or stuff like that. Today we start with #30-21.
30. “All Over You”- The Witmark Demos is one of the few Bootleg Series releases that didn’t really set me on fire. The versions of the well-known songs tended to pale next to the album takes, and the ones that were left unreleased were generally inferior and understandably left behind. But this one contains a heaping helping of cleverness and humor, as well as what seems to be pretty rampant use of double entendre, which is relatively rare in the Dylan catalog outside of The Basement Tapes, where minds seemed to be hilariously in the gutter much of the time.
29. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”- Whether rendered acoustically in front of a live audience or in a herky-jerky studio take, this is one of Dylan’s flat-out funniest songs. He sets up each one-liner with the timing of a Borscht Belter, and it would be a sly commentary on sexual politics if he was even the least bit serious. We always wonder who inspired some of his heartbroken songs from the early 60’s, but the poor one-night stand who fired up this lark is probably glad to remain unidentified.
28. “Tell Ol’ Bill”- For your next Netflix theme night, fire up some of the random movies which included new, original songs of Bob’s in the last two decades. Not a lot of classics, mind you, and yet the songs that Dylan dreamed up for them were uniformly excellent. This moody, sauntering shuffle sounds like a song played by a combo on a smoky stage with just a handful of people milling about in the audience, none of them paying much attention. Dylan’s narrator, left to rot in a cold wasteland resembling his Minnesota childhood stomping grounds, by a woman, or God, or whomever, goes for broke because he has nowhere else to go. The phrase “the night is young” has never sounded so ominous.
27. “I’ll Keep It With Mine”- You can hear Dylan walking through this song on the Bootleg Series, prodded along by his producer, and the tender ache in his voice more than makes up for any stumbles and fumbles made by the musicians as they feel their way around it. The takes with Dylan kind of stomping through it on piano are fine as well. “If I say I’m not loving you for what you are/But for what you’re not” is a couplet that stays with you. And what do you suppose the “it” in the title is? I’d say it was the girl’s heart, but can you imagine Bob being that kind of honeydripper? I actually kinda can.
26. “Dirty World”- Found on the first Traveling Wilburys collection, this stomper is propped up by a muscular Jim Keltner thump. What always amazes me about these Wilburys performances is how at ease Dylan seems in a time frame when he sounded so labored in much of his solo work. You can focus on the humor there, and there’s plenty of it when his buddies all chip in with their random interjections at song’s end. Yet Dylan locates a note of woefulness in the narrator that makes it seem like he’s laughing through tears. The finished product is almost more affecting than maybe it was even intended to be.
25. “Huck’s Tune”- Dylan latches onto the gambling concept here in honor of the film Lucky You. This guy knows when to fold ’em, hence the refrain of “I’m gonna have to put you down for a while.” The vocal nails all the themes of the lyrics, from the weary heartbreak to the tentative hope. Extra points are awarded because he manages to surprise us with the hoary “wife”/”life” rhyme in the opening lines somehow. Never has losing one’s entire stake sounded as noble as it does here.
24. “Mama, You Been On My Mind”- Maybe the narrator doth protest too much, because I feel like she’s in his heart as well as on his mind. (Kind of like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” or John Waite’s “Missing You,” in that regard.) Those opening lines are effortlessly poetic, and then Dylan pulls back from all that with prosaic pronouncements about how their paths are diverging and how it’s not really hanging him up that much. Dylan even sings it somewhat dispassionately to second that emotion (or lack thereof.) Then comes the closing couplet, where suddenly he turns the spotlight on her and how she may be kidding herself too. Such a subtle beauty.
23. “If You Belonged To Me”- Many people sleep on the second Wilburys album, but there’s a lot of fun stuff there (“Wilbury Twist,” anyone?) as well as this absolute killer. Jeff Lynne polishes those acoustic guitars to a fare-thee-well and Dylan pulls out the harmonica to seal the musical deal. The story is a pretty standard affair, you should be with me instead of him and so on, but it’s rendered with enough idiosyncrasy and bite to keep you coming back to it. George Harrison liked it so much he essentially recycled it with new lyrics for “Any Road,” the leadoff song on his final album.
22. “Dignity”- Some people might like the rawer takes you can find on Tell Tale Signs, but I actually prefer the studio version that he released as a single back in ’94. (Holy Hannah, has it been that long?) It’s musically nothing fancy, but it has enough of a backbeat to propel it along, and the other instrumental elements know to lay low and let Bob’s words do the heavy lifting. It’s a fascinating idea for a song; you can take it as a debate about what the word means or you can hear it as a lament that the concept of dignity is nonexistent in the modern world. In any case, it’s a deep thinker with some pep.
21. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”- Straightforward enough to be recorded by Elvis (and Rod Stewart, whose version actually outdoes the King’s, in my opinion), and yet still strange enough to be worthy of its creator. The melody is a beauty, all cold desolation in the verses and sweet reunion in the refrains. The second verse sounds like a prototype for the lonely wanderer character Dylan would inhabit again and again in the post Time Out Of Mind era to staggering effect.
(For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to order Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. Or find it in a bookstore near you.)
It’s been four years since Tempest, Bob Dylan’s most recent studio album of original material. The album astounds me anew with each listen. It’s a classic just waiting to be anointed as one: From the gritty rock of “Pay In Blood” and “Narrow Way,” to the ambition of “Tempest” and “Scarlet Town,” to one of the most idiosyncratic tribute songs you’ll ever hear in “Roll On John,” Dylan killed it. For my money he can release Sinatra covers till the end of time; Tempest earned him that right.
“Long And Wasted Years” is the heartbreaker on the album. Bob’s ballads are fewer and farther between on his most recent albums, but when he drops one, it’s always worth the wait. This one rides on a guitar riff that drags itself up a flight of stairs only to tumble back down every time, mimicking the Charlie Brown-ish gullibility of the narrator’s once-high romantic hopes.
But not anymore: “One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.” Of course there are the usual Dylanesque digressions to keep us from getting any kind of linear narrative. But that’s what life is like, right? One moment you’re musing on a lost love, the next you’re thinking about your enemies back behind you in the dust, the next you’re egging someone on to dance. OK, maybe that’s what Dylan’s life is like, not ours, but it’s such a fascinating place to visit.
As always he reveals more about himself than the biographies could ever approach: “I think that when my back was turned/The whole world behind me burned.” And then, that last verse, it hurts just to write it let alone hear Dylan sing it with his brilliant phrasing: “We cried on a cold and frosty morn/We cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears/So much for these long and wasted years.” On second thought, give us an original album, Bob. Nobody writes songs like these anymore. Nobody did before, either.
The “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single was the first indication that The Rolling Stones had quickly shaken the hangover from Their Satanic Majesties Request. Beggars Banquet, released at the end of 1968, doubled down on that song’s purpose and fire for the band’s finest full-length to that point, and, perhaps, from that point on as well. Not that they were done experimenting; Keith Richards was still up to his musical tricks and Mick Jagger was still in a provocative, questing lyrical mode. The difference was that it was all much more tangible, gritty, and real, and it was focused, with a big assist from new producer Jimmy Miller, into an overpowering attack. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Factory Girl”- Being the weakest song on Beggars Banquet carries not an ounce of shame. This one is just a tad less ambitious than the rest, but the combination of down-home (fiddle and mandolin) and exotic (congas and tablas) makes for a charming curve ball.
9. “Parachute Woman”- If at times the album sounds like it was recorded in the commode featured on the cover (which is apropos considering the nature of the songs), that’s a byproduct of Richards’ use of a cassette recorder to lay down several of the tracks. It makes his guitar here sound like it’s resiliently sounding off despite being partially choked off, turning what could have been just another innuendo-laced blues into a sonic thriller.
8. “Prodigal Son”- It’s almost shocking how antiquated they sound on this blues, making you believe that the recording was made in the 30’s when the song was written. There’s a maturity to the performance that separates this from even the blues songs they had attempted just a few years previous. Which figures; considering the wild times the band was experiencing during that period, the hard-earned experience that breeds the authenticity necessary to put across material like this was flying at them.
7. “Dear Doctor”- The Stones had a complicated relationship with country music, sometimes overdoing it to the point of insulting caricature. They don’t exactly play it straight here, but you don’t sense any contempt for the music or the people who generally make it either. After all, some country songs are meant to be funny too, and this one can certainly make you chuckle. Jagger’s falsetto is part of that, and so is the relief shown by the narrator once he’s inadvertently rescued from his scheduled wedding to a “bow-legged sow.” By contrast, the music is played lovingly, with assists for the band from Dave Mason, who joins Richards on acoustic guitar, and Nicky Hopkins, who plays tack piano. It all adds up to tongue-in-cheek back-porch melodrama played with a mischievous wink and a loving nod.
6. “No Expectations”- One last time, Brian Jones adds a sensitive side to a Rolling Stones recording, only this time he’s not working against the grain. The slide part he plays here piles on the tender sorrow already found in Jagger’s tale, one that’s summed by the title’s utter capitulation to a bad end. A wise arena band once said that lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, but this song contemplates what happens when the music man gets the short end of the bargain. No train or plain is ever going to get him far enough way to avoid the pain.
5. “Stray Cat Blues”- Jagger once claimed that The Velvet Underground influenced this brooder laced with bad intenitions. Maybe so, but The Stones’ bottom end quickly transcends that comparison, swaggering nearly out of control each bar before Charlie Watts pulls it back into place like he’s manually return a typewriter to the left margin. Richards gets his shots in during the colorfully chaotic outro. The whole thing is nasty, yet irresistibly so, providing a blueprint for all future Stones songs that you can’t help but love despite your better self’s objections.
4. “Jigsaw Puzzle”- This one flies in the face of the whole “Stones-return-to-roots” storyline, unless their roots include rambling, quasi-jazzy, Dylanesque epics. Bill Wyman’s hepcat bass line is contrasted by Richards’ askew slide interjections, and then the whole thing gets washed away in Jones’ mellotron haze. But not before Jagger paints random character sketches brought together in “Desolation Row”-style fashion by the bemused narrator. He wins points for including his band members in his wild tapestry, something the ever-hiding Dylan would never dare to do. One of the band’s most experimental tracks in a lot of ways and it holds together, maybe most thrillingly when it barely does.
3. “Salt Of The Earth”- Jagger has actually claimed that this song is cynical, that the people he’s addressing in the song will never actually have any power, so at least they deserve a toast. The way that message is delivered changes its meaning though; there is undeniable uplift in the chorus, in Richards’ yearning vocal (his first lead on a non-novelty song), in the acoustic simplicity of the musical approach, the the gospel fade-out. And in the bridge, Jagger admits his strangeness to these “wavering millions,” and, if you twist a head a certain way to the stereo, you might swear his voice contains some envy toward their unsung lot in life as well.
2. “Sympathy For The Devil”- Again, the narrative doesn’t fit here. Never before had the Stones taken on anything so ambitious; there’s no getting back to basics in this at all. In spite of that, it came to define the band, inaccurately in terms of the Satan stuff, but accurately in terms of their willingness to get inside the darkness so that they could best enlighten their audience about it. The band’s ability to coax this song out of its folk song shell into something so vibrant and inventive should not be overlooked, nor should Jimmy Miller’s ability to keep it going off the rails. And speaking of rails, that “whoo-whoo” refrain suggests a train, one conducted by Jagger’s mysterious narrator right into the black heart of what was supposed to be a loving decade.
1. “Street Fighting Man”- Man, have acoustic guitars ever sounded this intense anywhere else? The song indirectly becomes a commentary on the band’s dynamics; every time Jones enters the picture at the end of the refrain with the exotic instrument of the month, Richards acoustic armada sweeps it all away like so much debris. Jagger meanwhile manages to sound forceful while equivocating. He essentially says that he’s as powerless to affect change as any of the “Salt Of The Earth” folks, no matter how much of a ruckus he raises. The force of the music is such that the intelligence of his words almost get lost in the shuffle. The Beatles couldn’t decide whether “Revolution,” a product of the same year, should be sung like a lullaby or screamed like a call to arms. The Stones’ surer hold of the era’s tumult is one point in their favor in the debate for the ages.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a much more in-depth look at the Stones, my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in a few weeks. Preorder it at the link below.)
On the surface, 1965’s Out Of Our Heads looked just like its three predecessors in the Rolling Stones catalog in that it was comprised of a bunch of R&B and soul covers with a few originals sprinkled in for good measure. The difference was the quality of those originals, as the Jagger/Richards songwriting team seemed to flourish all at once and find their uncompromising, invigorating voice. And there was great variety there as well, as the standout originals on the album included a lusty blues, a defiant rocker, an icy ballad, and, of course, the song that remains their signature a half-century after its release. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “One More Try”- While not an embarrassment, this fleet-footed original suffers a bit in comparison to the Jagger/Richards classics that surround it and makes a bit of an odd choice for a closing track. (Although this was still a time when bands didn’t really consider albums as anything more than a collection of tracks, so it’s somewhat understandable this one was tacked on the end.)
11. “Hitch Hike”- Sequencing this so close to “Mercy Mercy” makes it seem like one long R&B workout to start the album, which is fine, although it doesn’t really distinguish this Marvin Gaye cover too much.
10. “I’m All Right”- If nothing else, this live cut displays the frenzy of their early concerts. It never quite devolves into complete chaos, thanks to Charlie Watts steady backbeat, allowing Jagger and the guitarists to flip out.
9. “Good Times”- When you’re up against the standard of Sam Cooke, it’s wise to underplay, which is what the band does here. They cop an easy-going vibe that makes this one a quick, pleasant diversion.
8. “Mercy Mercy”- It’s interesting to hear how the Stones rhythm section nails that strutting groove while the electric guitars fuzz things out. The result is just another example of the group putting enough of their own identity into a cover song to make it more than just an album-filling exercise.
7. “The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”- The boys have some fun at the expense of a nameless record company promoter (later identified by Bill Wyman in his book.) While the music is a relatively straightforward blues stomp, there’s some sneaky insight in the lyrics about the cultural disconnect between the youth who played and listened to rock and the older generation clinging to their record company jobs trying to peddle the music.
6. “Cry To Me”- Man, were they great at these sauntering ballads. Keith Richards’ guitar punctuations at the end of Jagger’s wailing pleas are always perfectly-pitched. So what if Jagger’s screams weren’t as pleasing to the ear as Solomon Burke’s? He nails the emotion behind them, and that’s the important part.
5. “The Spider And The Fly”- The sleepy blues accompaniment is just right for Jagger’s weary tale of a rock star on the make. There’s no joy in his conquest (although there’s not really any guilt either.) Like the spider entices the weaker insects into a trap just because it’s what he does, so too does the singer ensnare unsuspecting women, like his girl at home and the barfly he encounters, as part of his routine existence. The sly humor and telling details provide further evidence of the rising songwriting tide.
4. “The Last Time”- Richards has spoken about how it was hard for he and Jagger to write a single for the group in the beginning, simply because the boys in the band were far tougher critics that any outside artist interested in songs from the duo. Maybe that’s why they piggybacked on a Staples Singers song (the chorus is nearly identical) to get it done. Aside from that though, the song is set apart by the loping rhythm, that quizzical riff (played by Brian Jones), and the striking cohesion between the musical attitude set forth by the instrumentalists and Jagger’s half-heartbroken, half-taunting bark.
3. “That’s How Strong My Love Is”- The album’s standout cover is Jagger’s showcase. Who knew he could get all heartfelt and earnest, setting aside his raised eyebrows to deliver from the heart and soul? The band supports him ably but basically stands back and lets him do the heavy emoting, and he really reaches you.
2. “Play With Fire”- For just a heartbeat, the acoustic guitar intro sounds like it’s going to be open-hearted and sentimental. It quickly takes a dark turn, and that’s the tone maintained throughout to chilling effect. Jack Nitzsche’s harpsichord is a left-field contribution that contributes to the song’s austere beauty. Then there’s Jagger’s vocal, which goes from emotionless in the verses as he tears holes in the facade of a society girl and then downright threatening in the refrain as he warns her away. Ruthlessly unforgiving and absolutely compelling.
1. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”- Well, there’s the riff, obviously, but it’s more than that, right? We start on the chorus like The Beatles, but the similarity really ends there. The better comparison, from the same year, is “Like A Rolling Stone”, in that both songs find a kind of freedom in alienation; you have to identify the issue before you can cathartically attack it. That’s where Jagger’s lyrics, practically stream-of-consciousness in the way they flow from one aggravation to the next, really carry the load. We all generally come up short in life, which is why this anthem has ridiculous staying power.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Rolling Stones, you can pre-order by upcoming book about their 100 finest songs by using the link below.)
The sentimental among us likely couldn’t find it in ourselves to give The Wind a bad review even if it consisted of ear-damaging shrieks committed to tape for an hour, such were the circumstances surrounding its release. But I’m here to say that, even separated from the context of its creation, this album stands tall among Warren Zevon’s imposing back catalog, and it’s a fair argument to say that it might have been his best after the one-two punch of Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy a quarter-century earlier. The guest stars all give their all, but, regardless of the shadow hanging over them cast by his illness and subsequent death, Zevon’s songs, and his searingly honest performances of those songs, carry the day, just as it had always been with this artist. (And, since we’re at the end of this series, I want to take the opportunity to wonder why Warren isn’t in the Rock Hall of Fame, for sanity’s sake?) Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “The Rest Of The Night”- The one B-sideish throwaway here, it wastes some stinging guitar from Mike Campbell. (Campbell’s bandleader Tom Petty pitches in harmony vocals, which are not his strong suit.)
10. “Rub Me Raw”- Some of the lyrics seem to reference the reaction to his illness and Zevon’s distaste for some of it, but it’s a bit too vague where a direct broadside might have worked better. Plus his raised-eyebrow approach to the blues undercuts the song’s potential power.
9. “Numb As A Statue”- Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Jackson Browne catalog should be able to recognize David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar here. It gives this otherwise routine mid-tempo workout some pepper. The chorus is solid even though the verses meander.
8. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- First of all, it might be the most overrated song in the Dylan catalog. Plus, it’s almost too on-point considering Zevon’s situation at the time. Still, when Warren beckons the doors to “Open up, open up” in the fadeout, damn if it doesn’t overcome all that.
7. “Prison Grove”- Backed by an all-star cast of vocalists playing the chain gang, including Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bob Thornton (naturally), Zevon depicts in poetic terms a frightful,\ figurative prison. He asks for deliverance not just for himself but for his fellow inmates: “Shine on all these broken lives.”
6. “El Amor De Mi Vida”- The Latin lilt and Spanish lyrics differentiate what otherwise is a pretty straightforward piano lament. More than anything though, Zevon’s wrecked vocal makes the most impact here.
5. “Disorder The House”- Bruce donated a good one to Warren in the early days with “Jeannie Needs A Shooter.” Here Zevon returns the favor by having The Boss essentially duet on this rollicking, unkempt, hilarious commentary on the state of the depressing world, written with Jorge Calderon. Springsteen wails on guitar, can barely keep a straight face when the Lhasa Apso makes an appearance, and joins Warren in stomping all over the “davenport of despair.” Anyone thinking that The Wind is a downbeat affair should know better after hearing this one.
4. “Dirty Life And Times”- Ry Cooder’s guitar provides the essential spark while Dwight Yoakam joins Thornton for some high lonesome on backing vocals. But this is Zevon’s show, starting the song (and album) off with the unforgettable line: “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” He intimates that maybe his lowly state is some cosmic comeuppance for his wanton ways in the past, and yet he still shrugs off a reticent paramour by going after her sister. Unapologetic and candid, it’s the perfect tone-setter for the deep emotional stuff to come.
3. “She’s Too Good For Me”- Here Zevon enlists Don Henley and Timothy Schmitt to add bittersweet, beautiful backing to prop up his wounded lead. It’s an irresistible combination, perfect gilding for the loveliest melody on the album. When he told that girl to hasten down the wind way back when, you got the feeling it was because he knew he couldn’t hold on to her anyway. But here it appears that his own folly drives her away, which somehow makes it even more forlorn.
2. “Please Stay”- This is the one that really gets me. The vulnerability is almost overwhelming, as is the beauty, upped by Warren’s perfect choice to have Emmylou Harris contribute the harmony vocals. What must it be like to stare down death, not knowing if “the other side of goodbye” even exists? Hearing his guy who’d never capitulated to anything in his songwriting subtly admitting to his fear is staggering. And then Gil Bernal’s sad, out-of-left-field saxophone part cinches the deal. The fact that so many colleagues and friends rallied to help him out on this album leads me to believe that Zevon was far from alone at the end, unless we all are, in which case this song hurts even more.
1.”Keep Me In Your Heart”- All the guest stars back off for the closer, leaving drummer Jim Keltner, Jorge Calderon, Zevon’s longest-running, most consistent collaborator who co-wrote and played all other instruments on the track, and Warren himself for his farewell. This is the optimistic flip side to “Please Stay,” Zevon assuring us that he’ll always be around even as he’s headed to Pleasant Stream. And this dude of so many witty, wise, wicked, wonderful words leaves us with a simple “Sha-la-la” refrain, sounding absolutely at peace. And we said, “So long, Warren.”
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in November. Pre-order with the link below.)
The wry, knowing smile Warren Zevon displays on the cover of his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya is a good indication of what’s to come. Zevon writes and performs on the album like a guy with nothing left to prove, simply making the music that comes naturally to him. That’s not to say that his inherent prickliness abandoned him; the album title should let on that isn’t the case. But the album begins the unofficial trilogy that closed out his life and found him at ease with his legacy, reflective, spouting practical wisdom, and winning us over all over again. Here is a song-by-song review:
12. “Hostage-O”- Zevon borrows more than a bit from “Tracks Of My Tears” in the acoustic guitar riff that drives this odd combination of benign melody and harsh imagery. The narrator’s point, that he’ll take abuse over loneliness, is a bit unwieldy for the musical setting, but it’s an interesting attempt.
11. “Dirty Little Religion”- Zevon drains all the Hallmark out of his pitch to a would-be lover, coming on like a modern-day Elmer Gantry. The sentiment may be sour, but I like how it’s matched up with a Johnny Cash-style rumbling rhythm.
10. “Life’ll Kill Ya”- After he tugs at your heartstrings with one of those Zevonian quasi-classical opens, he goes on, with something approaching glee, to tell us that those strings will be clipped in due time. If you can accept death’s inevitability, there’s a kind of liberating effect that the song has, especially with that underlying piano keeping the melody afloat.
9. “Porcelain Monkey”- Leave it to Zevon (and co-writer Jorge Calderon) to look back at Elvis through the lens of his sad decline rather than focusing on the good stuff. The silliness of the title trinket suggests just how wasteful Zevon felt The King’s final years were.
8. “My Shit’s Fucked Up”- It’s not an easy listen, nor is it Zevon’s most eloquent display of lyrics, although it shouldn’t be considering the effect he desires. This is one of those songs that is almost too intense, considering what would eventually befall Zevon, to bear, but the stark honesty of his performance demands your attention.
7. “Ourselves To Know”- Sounds a little like something off John Wesley Harding, with its antiquated setting, religious overtones, and quizzical message. It’s lovely in an understated way, with some nice interplay between Zevon’s harmonica and Jim Ryan’s mandolin.
6. “Back In The High Life”- Zevon gets a chance to show off his interpretive skills here. In Steve Winwood’s original, his elastic voice created a joyous effect. When Warren sings it, he sounds so ravaged and defeated that the redemptive promise of the refrain seems like nothing but a pipe dream, lending the song an air of sadness that it doesn’t have on the page.
5. “Fistful Of Rain”- There’s a macabre joke at the heart of the refrain here, because what do you really end up when you “Grab a hold of that fistful of rain?” The pennywhistle and call-and-response backing vocals give this one a little musical ambition that makes it stand out a bit, while Zevon’s message that we should embrace the futility of life is ironically inspirational.
4. “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer”- Displaying the solidity of Zevon’s songwriting chops, this one delivers a hooky melody and the ability to milk a metaphor for all its worth that could hang with the best of Motown or Nashville. Nothing too fancy, and yet it cuts pretty deep thanks to the hurt inside false bravado of the vocal.
3. “I’ll Slow You Down”- There’s a little “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in this melodic charmer, as Zevon frames the song on the surface as a narrator’s admission of his unworthiness while making veiled criticisms of the priorities of the girl whom he’s cutting free. The British Invasion slope of the tune taxes Warren’s vocals, but the strain he shows only proves his point somehow that he’s better off staying behind.
2. “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down”- This energetic album-opener proves that you don’t need to plug in to rock out; just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and some peppery drums get the job done quite well here. It also helps to have Zevon unapologetically and metaphorically commenting on the eventful life he’s spent being in the right place at the wrong time with intentions that probably fall somewhere between the two extremes. His survival instincts win the day.
1. “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”- Forget for a moment the heartbreaking irony contained within the song as it pertains to Zevon’s eventual fate. Concentrate instead on the melody, one of Zevon’s most enduring, which is really saying something. And concentrate on the benevolence and warmth of the message, which should fill the hardest heart and moisten the most jaded eyes. Sing it as a lullaby or chant it as a prayer; either way, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” holds powers and charms far beyond the seeming simplicity of the notes played and sung by its one-0f-a-kind creator.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
If you thought he was going to be mellow after five years away, you were sadly mistaken. And if it was a comeback, it was only from the hiatus, since the quality of the previous two albums were still pretty high. Nonetheless, 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene was a kind of muted triumph for Warren Zevon. It didn’t tip the applause meter very high in terms of gaining wide acceptance, but to those who had followed him from the start, it was a reaffirmation of his strengths, from his ballsy social commentary to his out-of-left-field tenderness to the undeniable charm of his ne-er-do-well persona. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Leave My Monkey Alone”- In the “It seemed like a good idea at the time” department, how about a dance song about colonization of Africa? Other than a so-cringingly-bad-it’s-good video featuring Zevon doing choreography with George Clinton and the fact that you can tell people that Warren once collaborated with Flea, this one is best left for the curiosity pile.
9. “Bad Karma”- A little sitar spices up this heartland rocker about a damaged soul wondering where everything went awry. Concise and solid if not overly memorable, this one shows off Zevon’s Rolodex, as Michael Stipe and Heartbreaker Stan Lynch sing backing vocals.
8. “Sentimental Hygiene”- Zevon knows he’s got a catchy title phrase, so he wisely builds the song around it and keeps the fanciness to a minimum. What remains is a driving, moody rocker that sets a solid tone and gets its job done, with a big assist to Neil Young’s wall-scraping guitar solo.
7. “Reconsider Me”- Of course, the subtext of the title is that Zevon was asking the same of the listening public after his five-year absence. More than that, this is a great example of how he could tinker with his vocals and empty out all the bad-ass attitude when needed; his vulnerability on the mike is the most memorable thing about this straightforward love song.
6. “Even A Dog Shake Hands”- OK, so maybe Hollywood hangers-on were an easy target, but Warren hits the bulls-eye so clean and hard that he not only splits the target but he also fells the tree holding it. I don’t know if he came up with the title phrase, but it’s so on-point it’s scary. And “All the worms and the gnomes are having lunch at Le Dome”: it don’t get much better than that. Kudos as well for three-fourths of REM for helping out on a song that sounds like they crammed on Bobby Fuller Four singles before recording it.
5. “The Factory”- It may be Bob Dylan on harmonica, but this ode to the working man is far more Springsteenian in nature. The tone is Zevon’s though: Where Bruce took a somber tone on his own “Factory,” Warren blows through this one with sardonic humor and a zest that you wouldn’t expect considering he’s inhabiting a guy knee-deep in asbestos and contemplating offing his wife. The refrain of “Yes, sir, no sir” is a brilliant touch.
4. “Boom Boom Mancini”- We live in an era where boxing earns a few select champions billions where most of the rest toil in anonymity among the wider public. Ah, but the 80’s were a great era for puglisitic cult heroes like the title character, who represented the kind of underdog spirit from which countless movies have been made. Zevon takes a gritty approach to his tribute, with attacking guitars and bludgeoning drums, while using typically no-BS tactics in the lyrics. In this way, he underscores the brutality of the sport while still capturing Mancini’s allure.
3. “Detox Mansion”- Again, here is Zevon zigging where most would zag. Instead of singing about his addiction in hushed tones filled with mea culpas, he conjures a sarcasm-heavy track about the celebrity recovery lifestyle, name-dropping and suggesting that he’s going to get a great song out of the deal. It’s a wry commentary on how the famous have the opportunity to expunge their demons in luxury, as compared to the normal person who just has to do the work without any creature comforts to soften the blow.
2. “The Heartache”- Damn it, Warren, you’ve got me laughing all disc long, and, then, on the penultimate song, you go and get me misty. Combine a gorgeous country-tinged melody and Zevon’s predictably trenchant musings on the one that got away, and you’ll start to wonder if the guy who first said it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all had any credibility whatsoever.
1. “Trouble Waiting To Happen”- Guest stars add serious zest to this good-natured rambler about bad times: J.D. Souther adds some country sensibilities as co-writer, Brian Setzer lends a little rockabilly on lead guitar, and Don Henley punches out some sweet harmonies. But what makes the song such a winner is Zevon playing off his public persona so cleverly, to the point where you can’t be sure how far his tongue is tucked in his cheek as he sings about the various calamities on his docket.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)