Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Happy Birthday

I was backstage at a jazz festival once when musician Anthony Braxton came in to greet some of the people who had already been on stage. "Thank you for your music," he said. A simple greeting, and the only thing I'd feel like saying to complete-stranger-to-me Bob Dylan on his 70th birthday. Plus a thank you for the words.

This blog is essentially connected with my field of work, so there isn't so much that's personal, so why mention Dylan's 70th birthday today? Well, since the name of this blog is taken from a Dylan lyric (and explains why there's little personal opinion on the blog – after all we're all idiots, blowing "Idiot Wind" every time we move our teeth, and that seems to sum up much blogging) I thought I should mark it. His music has accompanied me since I was about 15 or 16 years old and helped me make (non)sense of the world since Blood on the Tracks (or was it Blonde on Blonde that I first bought? Specifics are unimportant. Best to take the songs as a whole for his 70th, and you can chose which Dylan you want: hence my quick cut-up above). So, at the risk of being pointless, a personal selection of 15 songs performed by Dylan and 5 covers by other folk to celebrate with.

The Times They Are a-Changin': performed at the White House. The Guardian reviewer disliked the performance, which illustrates how one can be on a different planet of opinion. (While many writers generally struggle to either "get" Dylan or to make him fit their idea of what he "is" or should be.) Singing to the largely popular, most powerful man in the world, President Obama, "The first ones now/ will later be last" resonates with not protest-song but humble truth, as does Dylan's minimalist and beautiful rendition 

Things Have Changed After the times changed, things changed, not least for himself: "I used to care/but things have changed". The video is a fun example of Dylan as the song and dance man he has described himself as. Pathos and disappointment: "You can hurt someone and not even know it" and "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie" 

Dixie: from the film and CD Masked an Anonymous. Because a seemingly unexpected choice of traditional song can still be given classic yet new voice 

Red River Shore Bob can always handle a love song in all its shapes, not least this one of loss and regret. (Plus I'd just read Octavia Butler's great time-slip novel of slavery, Kindred, and if anyone makes a movie of that, this – coincidentally and strangely – is the final song.) 

Mississppi (first version from Tell Tale Signs). It was good on Love and Theft, it's just great here. Funny, tragic, lilting: "I was raised in the country/been living in the town/I've been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down" 

Everything is Broken Because, well… it is 

Queen Jane Approximately Anyone creative who has been "tired of yourself and all of your creations" will recognise this 

Sara Another love song, another lost-love love song, and an adult one with children involved in the divorce, great descriptive verses and a heartfelt chorus 

Tomorrow is a Long Time Written by Dylan and not a cover of a traditional song – though when I first heard it I thought it was, and in its timelessness it might as well have been. "There's beauty in that silver, singing river/there's beauty in that rainbow in the sky/But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty/that I remember in my truelove's eyes" 

Every Grain of Sand Dylan borrows a Blakean phrase for the chorus but the rest of the words are his and he leads you through something of the awe (and questioning) of his religious beliefs, and even if you don't share the beliefs, you can share the awe 

Must be Santa After a few slower songs listed above, time for one from Dylan's tongue-in-cheek/not-tongue-in-cheek Christmas album, and a strange video that has him as some sort of dissolute uncle at a Christmas party turning violent. "Play it fucking loud," I'd say 

Billy 4 Part of Dylan's extraordinary soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's great Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which also saw Dylan create "Knocking on Heaven's Door" apparently overnight, and apparently reducing the drummer to tears of emotion in the single take 

Don't Think Twice it's Alright (alternative version from No Direction Home). This is not a love song, just a great song of a failed relationship voiced superbly with words of care, sarcasm and withheld bitterness to almost ironically gentle guitar: "You just kind of wasted my precious time/but don't think twice, it's alright" 

Forever Young (from Live at Budokan). There are several versions of this hymn to a friend, lover or family (in Dylan's case apparently to his son), and this is just one great one 

Tangled Up in Blue One of Dylan's "story" songs, which as he explains below, are less story songs, than situations looked at from different views. Hurting and seeking: "She was working in a topless place/And I stopped in for a beer/I just kept looking at the sight of her face/in the spotlight so clear"

Covers (though the originals will naturally also do):
The Times They Are a-Changin', from the film Masked and Anonymous. In the film, a cynical promoter introduces a child (played/sung in this short appearance by Tinashe Kachingwe) who's strangely been made to learn a Dylan song, and Dylan listens/watches her perform from a position of a different generation and the same understanding

Cover: Like a Rolling Stone, by Articolo 31. The original song in this Spanish-language hiphop-ish cover backgrounds as a sample, but the result and knowledge of the original classic make this just infectious and great. Also from Masked and Anonymous

Cover: Death is Not the End, by Nick Cave. Suitably featuring on Cave's Murder Ballads album, a great, tragic, passionate, and occasionally comic dirge: "When the cities are on fire/with the burning flesh of men/just remember that death is not the end"

Cover: When the Ship Comes in, by Marcus Franklin from I'm Not There. A cool, clear folk song, sung so coolly and clearly by a roughly 12-year-old Marcus Franklin

Cover: Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, by Cat Power from I'm Not There. Dylan's so often-present humour is to the fore in this song, with an suitably upbeat version by Cat Power. ("Grandpa died last week/now he's buried in the rocks/but everybody still talks about/how badly they were shocked/But me, I expected it to happen/I knew he'd lost control/when he lit a fire on Main Street/and shot it full of holes")

Interview with Dylan in the 80s, uploaded to YouTube by the director:

Plus Idiot Wind, Just Like a Woman, Shelter from the Storm, Blood in my Eye, Just Like Tom Thumb Blues, I Shall be Released, Highway 61, Moonlight, Desolation Row, Ballad of Thin Man, Make You Feel My Love, Lay Lady Lay, It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding

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