- “Tell Me Momma” (Live), The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
- “Million Dollar Bash” (Take 1), The Basement Tapes
- “Visions Of Johanna” (Alternate Take), No Direction Home: The Soundtrack
- “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol 2
- “Blind Willie McTell”, Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3
- “Ring Them Bells”, Oh Mercy
- “Born In Time”, Bootleg Series, Vol 8
- “Can’t Wait”, Time Out of Mind
- “Cocaine Blues” (Live 1997), Bootleg Series Vol 8
- “Sara”, Desire
This is the playlist The Narrator Returns suggested to me, and two things immediately made themselves clear. First and more superficially, the playlist strongly leans towards a full band. I said before that “Dylan the Wandering Poet” is my favourite version of him, but “Dylan the Rocker” isn’t too far behind; his bands are less polished than, say, The Beatles, but tonally they swap out polish for a kind of controlled storm. It’s like Dylan’s voice, guitar, and charisma are a centre of gravity around which the other band members are allowed to accrue (although as he gets older, they do take on more of a polish). The second thing is how strongly it leans towards Dylan the Confessional Artist. I worry that when I say “Confessional Artist”, it sounds like I mean, like, “Confessions” by Usher, but I actually mean the general idea of using music to air one’s personal emotions, positive or negative. I feel like a lot of Dylan’s way more Confessional are some of his more incoherent to me; I like “Sugar Baby” but I’m still not sure what the hell it’s about. But Bob Dylan doesn’t restrict himself to one idea, and this playlist has a lot of ways a song can be a “confession”.
“Visions Of Johanna” is my favourite song in the playlist, and despite the delirious lyrics, it actually strikes me as a pretty straightforward love song. This is a song about someone he enjoys spending time with, the things she does, the places they go; these details stuck in his mind, and he wrote them down and sung them. I complained before about how, without a refrain, “Changing Of The Guard” ended up spinning into nonsense, and here the phrase “visions of Johanna” seems to ground him; his mind bounces everywhere, but his feelings to Johanna are what give him a concrete sense of reality, and I find that idea swooningly romantic. I also love the country-fried style of the music, giving a laidback attitude to the whole thing. One of the central planks of Bob Dylan’s aesthetic vision is the simple combination of ideas, of playing the same song in as many ways as possible to see how the meaning changes, and here the controlled storm ends up matching up with the surrealist lyrics.
This ties into what I noticed about “Tell Me Momma”, lifted from the “Royal Albert Hall” concert. This and “One Too Many Mornings” (which I covered in a previous essay) share a kind of faux-laidback attitude, where it feels to me like Dylan is deliberately putting on a pose of not caring what you think, and wants you to know that it’s just a pose, which is definitely not something I pick up from the version of “One Too Many Mornings” found on The Times They Are A-Changin’. This is probably tied into how Dylan was being heavily criticised at the time for his first big identity shift from folk singer to rock star, not just in general but in the very specific case of being booed and heckled at that specific performance. Maybe that’s what ties all his career and songs together; it’s not that he gets stuck on an idea and riffs on it for an album or two, but that he gets stuck in a particular mood and filters all different ideas through it to see what happens. Maybe this ties into my particular positive reaction to him – I absorb him the other way around, tracking a single idea as it recurs through his many emotions.
Along these same lines is “Million Dollar Bash” from The Basement Tapes; if the underlying tone of the “Royal Albert Hall” concert is aggressively not giving a fuck, The Basement Tapes are passively not giving a fuck. It’s kind of a lazy Sunday mood, when you’re putting the minimal effort into your actions and external environment; looking through the tracklist, it’s kind of sad that he only did two covers of his songs in that period (weird that I don’t feel right calling his reworkings anything other than a cover). I’ve found his Basement Tapes songs are songs I don’t mind getting stuck in my head when I’m working, having a half-assed version of their already half-assed melodies floating around my head when I’m focusing on something else – it doesn’t matter if I only half-remember the lyrics and let it repeat over and over.
Coming back to love songs, I also really love “Sara”, which, despite more straightforward lyrics and an arrangement that sounds like something off the soundtrack for a made-for-TV movie about the youngest daughter of a Civil War veteran falling in love with a cowboy, strikes me as a lot less conventional. With lines like “So easy to look at/So hard to define”, it feels to me like Dylan is trying to solve the puzzle of this woman. He’s clearly been married to her for a long time, and it’s so rare to hear that kind of love described so intimately in a pop song as to be fun just for the novelty. It’s as if we’re catching him right in the middle of the process of trying to understand how he feels about her. It’s very strange to me to find Dylan in the middle of a thought process; it always seems to me like he already decided how he felt a long time ago – “Can’t Wait” is that kind of song, a pure expression of determined irritation.
Leaning in on that ‘conventional’ thought, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, “Ring Them Bells”, and “Born In Time” are all the most conventional sounding Dylan songs I’ve heard up until this point. Aside from his voice, all three songs sound the most like songs I would hear on mixtapes and the radio growing up, which is kind of disappointing – part of the reason “Dylan The Wandering Poet With A Guitar And Maybe A Harmonica, Esq” is my favourite version of Dylan is because that’s the version of him that sounds the most unique, like all his different influences and ideas manage to congeal into a single voice (further evidence that the best thing you can do for the wildly creative is restrict them as much as possible). I notice that it’s his country influences that are the least digested; it’s possible that my distaste for country music has clouded my ability to appreciate what he’s doing, or maybe he’s too much of a country music fan and he can’t rip apart the genre the same way he does everything else.
“Cocaine Blues” is a very different kind of conventionality in that it’s the most straightforward Confessional song on the album, being an admittance of a serious problem, and it still manages to throw a wrench in the idea because not only is it a cover, it’s a standard. I at least generally think of a Confessional song as something deeply personal and ripped from the soul, and this is exactly that (Dylan sounds almost too distraught to sing), it just happens to be one that was written by someone else a long time ago. I suspect Dylan sees it this way: why write a new song when an old one already expresses his deep, personal anguish perfectly well? The flipside of this is “Blind Willie McTell”, an original that acts as tribute to McTell as well as using him as a stand-in for all the black blues singers that inspired Dylan, which in a way makes it the most Bob Dylan lyrics on the album. To me, this feels like an acknowledgement that what he does is playacting, and these guys were the Real Deal.