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.


4 thoughts on “Tempest

  1. I’m with you, David. I’ve been a big fan of Dylan’s ever since 1962 when I heard his first album. I was at the Forest Hills concert when he played electric guitar for the second time in public (the first being his Newport Folk Festival performance) and was booed by the crowd as he sang “something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones” while sitting at the piano. In those days I knew every Dylan song by heart and sang and played them all on guitar and harmonica. I even loved his voice — he had a great way with phrasing and enunciation. But I can’t listen to him anymore. The critics found lots of ways to pay backhanded complements to his ruined voice on “Tempest,” but I can’t find anything kind to say about it. And the songs aren’t bad per se, they’re just not anything special. They don’t sat anything better than someone else has said if before. (What’s that Dylan line about “anything I can say you can say it just as good?” — oh yeah — “One Too Many Mornings”). It’s important to know when its time to leave the stage — or at least the recording studio.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Seth. First, I am envious that you were able to see Bob live so early on and at a rather legendary concert to boot. That Forest Hills show has long been a part of Dylan lore.

      The Voice – remember when his first Greatest Hits LP came out and Columbia Records marketed it with the line: “No one sings Dylan better than Dylan”? Truer words were never said. I always loved that voice. I don’t think that’s the real problem now. He can work around the voice problem when he tries, and I think we’re willing to forgive him almost anything, if the material is good. That’s where the problem lies, at least on “Tempest” – the songs. You’re right, they’re not bad, but they’re not that good either.

      The first time I saw him in concert, he added a line to “One Too Many Mornings”: “I’ve no right to be here, if you’ve no right to stay.” I don’t know if its time for him to leave the stage or the studio, but if he wants folks to stay, I think he needs to be here with better stuff.

  2. It is refreshing to witness an anti Dylan response to the infallible Mr Dylan’s output. However, I have to disagree. Tempest can never be compared to Freewheelin’ or Times or the rest of Dylan’s 60’s output. But that is as it should be! Tempest is so far removed from that output, as is Dylan now so removed from Dylan then. Tempest should be reviewed in it’s time, based only on the quality of the songs or poetry (presuming you still give Mr Dylan the title of Poet?) delivered by Mr Dylan. Is he a poet? Is he a song writer? Is he a fraud? Check out the songs on this album and make your decision. He has been slated recently as a plaugarist for his artwork, and will be again for the lyrics on Tempest, but isn’t that what he has always done? He ‘borrowed’ extensively from his peers in his hey day, appropriating ‘traditionll ‘ tunes and handed down lyrics. I do not see this as a negative. If it was that easy to reappropriated existing material to say what you currently felt, they would have all ndone it! Mr Dylan’s art is not in his own, personally creativity and originality,nbut in making original songs and poetry from existing source material.

    1. In general, I agree with you. However, I wouldn’t call this “anti-Dylan” as I am one of his biggest fans. I agree that new material should not be compared to older material, and yet, it is hard to overlook a sad state of affairs when new stuff, such as on Tempest, fails to approach the quality of the worst of his old stuff.

      Yes, Bob has always “borrowed” but in the past he did so with an eye towards giving what he borrowed new meaning, and he did it such a way that was artful. Again, while we can’t hold him to past efforts, we also can’t forgive the fact that in recent efforts it seems that he just doesn’t care and is borrowing is a truly unskilful way.

      Thanks for your comment.

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