Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Katz on Dylan on Dylan

I'm no Dylanologist, like Clinton Heylin (world's leading Dylan scholar) or A.J. Weberman (who famously "researched" Dylan's garbage cans), but I'm no dabbler either. I have 70 Dylan LPs/CDs, have read 10-15 books on the subject and I've seen him more times in concert, 10, than any other artist. I do have my thoughts on the man.

I would never argue that Blood on the Tracks isn't the key Dylan album of the 1970's, but I will unequivocally state that Street-Legal, from 1978, is the second best of the decade and the single most undeservedly ignored work in the Dylan oeuvre. The songs are magnificent and the imagery potent and mysterious. Dylan often talks about how, after his motorcycle accident on the heels of Blonde on Blonde it took him years to write consciously the way he wrote unconsciously in the years pre-crash. Street-Legal is the prime example of this return to form.

True, the album suffered from dark and muddy production, but the songs still came through with strength. The remastered SACD positively explodes with energy and clarity, showing Dylan in his finest voice of the decade, period, and the texture and depths of the tracks truly to be marvelled at. The sweeping organ on the last cut, "Where are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)" will put you in a "Like a Rolling Stone" mindset and make you appreciate how monumental this album is.
Jonathan Cott's collection of Dylan interviews in Dylan on Dylan weave together a finer autobiography than even Dylan himself attempts in his unique and entertaining Chronicles. Every Dylan that we've known - drifter, protest singer, psychedelic rocker, Woodstock prairie farmer, soul searching singer-songwriter, fire and brimstone Christian warrior - are explored in the man's own words. I have a new theory.

I have never seen Dylan's signature film Renaldo & Clara. It was obvious, as witnessed through his availability to and honesty with interviewers, that the movie meant the world to Dylan. He goes deeply into himself in this period than in any sit downs before or since. His entire being was devoted to the making of the film and, in an earnest attempt to explain its themes and importance, Bob approaches his questioners with candor. He even quotes his own lyrics to delve further into his true persona. Even George Harrison quoted Dylan lyrics more in interviews than Dylan himself, except in 1978.

Following the film came Street-Legal, which he was also willing to discuss at great length. Both works were crushed by critics, and, by 1979, Dylan was a Christian soldier, his answers to questions now showing no tinge of personal feeling, simply rehashed religious doctrine. While Slow Train Coming is a very fine album, it is only the tunes that are Dylan's; the words are Biblical paraphrasing.

I think Dylan, who always made it clear that the press didn't bother him, was hurt, hurt deeply, when two very personal works were thrashed in the media. With that, he sought solace in religion, a place many go when feeling desperate, alone and unwanted.

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