Sorry, no Buddhism today. Bob Dylan instead.
I’ve been a Bobby D fan for a long time. I’ve seen him in concert many, many times and I’ve eagerly awaited release of each new album. You could say I’m sort of an amateur expert on the man, and in my opinion, the last decade or so, far from being a renaissance period in Bob’s career, has been a drought. I haven’t cared of any of his albums since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and his voice has become so ragged that even I have trouble listening to it. My biggest gripe about the last 3 albums of original material was that I just didn’t care the songs. I didn’t like the lyrics, I am bored hearing him recycle old blues tunes, and although I liked where he was coming from with the mix of jazz and swing on some songs, he didn’t pull them off. There was a time when he could.
Yesterday, Bob released his 35th studio album, Tempest. Unfortunately, the drought continues. One of the first things a Bob Dylan fan learns is that it is futile to expect Bob to live up to anyone’s expectations. He travels his own road. But one expects something better than this, especially when it’s been several years between albums.
Tempest opens with “Duquesne Whistle.” Its catch old-timey melody is familiar, but it strikes me as the best song on the album. The second track has one of the better vocal performances on the collection with “Soon After Midnight,” an easy going love song. After that it’s pretty much a case of, as Bob sings in “Narrow Way,” “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.” In other words, you gotta take what you can get.
More recycled blues riffs with “Narrow Way” and “Early Roman Kings (Muddy Water’s “I’m a Man). The latter song at least has some fun lyrics:
They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
They’re lecherous and treacherous
Hell-bent for leather
Each of ’em bigger
Than all them put together
Sluggers and muggers
Wearing fancy gold rings
All the women goin’ crazy
For the early Roman kings
This album marks a return to the long-song form, with tracks clocking in at 7:25, 9:05, and 13:54. One of those, “Tin Angel” is folk music-styled ballad of desire and murder, while in “Scarlett Town,” (7:15) which is more or less another folk ballad, Bob’s voice is subtle and his phrasing effective.
Now if you want to hear an outstanding song about the sinking of the Titanic, I suggest you listen to the Carter Family’s “The Great Titanic,” the melody of which Bob “borrowed” for the title track, “Tempest.” Oh, and Bob’s song is also about the sinking of the Titanic. The longest song on the album, nearly fourteen minutes, it seems to me, without benefit of having the lyrics as with the other songs, a rather straightforward telling of the tale.
Unfortunately, these new longer songs lack the clever lyrics found in similar songs on “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” and neither do they have the surrealist imagery of “Desolation Row” and some of Bob’s other earlier work.
The track I was most looking forward to was “Roll On, John,” about John Lennon. I was hoping for something like “Lenny Bruce” from Shot of Love (“Lenny Bruce was bad/He was the brother you never had.”) Nope. Now, “Roll On, John,” features what I believe is a first in Bob’s career. In recent years, he’s been accused of plagiarism, and here marks the first time he has plagiarized the subject of his song:
Slow down you’re moving too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary
You’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be
Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John
Actually the first line is a double-plagiarism, ripping off not only The Beatles’ “Slow Down,” but Paul Simon’s “52nd Street Bridge Song.” The line from “Come Together” is obvious, and “you know how hard it can be” comes from “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” William Blake makes an appearance in “Roll On, John,” too (“Tyger, Tiger burning bright”), but I guess that’s okay since Blake is in the Public Domain. I can’t tell you how disappointing I find this song.
Maybe I’m being too hard on ‘ol Bob. He’s always borrowed melodies, and lines. But in the past, he did so more creatively. And it’s unfair to expect the current Bob to be like the old Bob. In fact, as I alluded to before, it’s virtually a sin. Still, I don’t expect Bob Dylan to be boring.
In “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan sings “Don’t you know, the sun can burn your brains right out.” Yeah, I know that. I liked it better when he told me stuff I didn’t know, like “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”
Now, here’s the video of “Duquesne Whistle.” Like the album, it’s strange, dark and violent, and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the song. But I really like the tune:
One last beef: I really wish they’d let me know when they’re going to film Bob Dylan videos on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m only a mile away. I’d like to be there. Hell, I’d like to be in one. They can use me, abuse me, for free.