Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Dylan 2

It doesn’t sound 40 years old. It doesn’t seem 40 years old. The sound is crisp, clear, loud and perfect; the attitude is joyous and playful, yet at times frantic and at times haunting.
If Live 1964 really is 40 years old, it must’ve been way ahead of its time. Gee, really? Dylan ahead of his time... that’s so... expected.
Only Dylan -- two years into a recording, writing and performing career unmatched by anybody -- can astound and impress even beyond such high expectations.
The credit is to the performer, to be sure, but first I have to mention and thank whoever it was who unearthed those recordings, remastered and cleaned or whatever the hell else he or she did. From a purely sonic level, it is as high-quality as any live recording I’ve ever heard.
Halloween 1964, New York’s Philharmonic Hall. Bob Dylan, four albums down and many more to come.
Among the greatest joys of listening to the album is the enthusiasm that Dylan brings, even on “Don’t Think Twice,” that I’ve never quite heard come across. Known for wildly changing his songs in a live setting, Dylan had clearly started reinterpreting even in those days. On “Don’t Think Twice,” he adopts a sing-songy shout, nothing acidic about the tone of voice but just a greater urgency in being heard.
“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” is the folk-protest movement’s greatest satire and it’s a shame the song has barely been heard. Dylan’s take on the red scare is more along the lines of pointing out its ridiculousness, rather than cowering from its wide-sweeping grasp. Did he really think the red-hunters were mostly a joke? Their motives and tactics certainly seem laughable, but scary if not in precision in effect.
One of the absolute bonuses of an 1964 Dylan live recording is getting to see the early gems, like “To Ramona” and “I Don’t Believe You,” holding their own up to the glorious classics. With a catalogue as large and varied as Dylan’s, songs inevitably fall through the cracks and the rediscovery is thrilling.
“Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” appears on just the Bootleg Series, first the 1991 box set and then the Rolling Thunder set released in 2002. Each version different, each beautiful and energetic and never (before or now) on the mainstream radar. The tone of the song is a perfect analogy to the arc of Dylan’s career. The song ends with an equally sly and heartfelt “I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear / As someone who has had you on his mind.” It’s late-stage puppy love and as Dylan’s career progressed, he hit pure infatuation (the remarkable Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde), heartbreak (John Wesley Harding) and depression (Blood on the Tracks).
But this set is young, vital, unjaded Dylan. He must have known he was important, but I doubt he could even imagine he’d be a legend, an icon.
Joan Baez joins Bob for four songs, trading whoops-we-messed-up-the-words wails to wide laughter. They’re not perfect, but they’re at once flawed and exquisite in harmony.
He giggles, he messes up, he babbles and it’s all engaging to hear. This is folk Dylan, not rock ‘n’ roll Dylan or the pain-in-the-ass Don’t Look Back Dylan. He’s in-between, so far unencumbered by stardom, and still enamored with Woody. He picks, plucks, strums and blows the harmonica -- and he has fun. The music is fresh and powerful, but mostly light enough still to spark a chuckle.
This isn’t a concert that truly defined any era of American music; it didn’t break any barriers; or cast turbulence in its wake. No guitars were set on fire, Shea Stadium wasn’t full, 500,000 people weren’t there, no Hells Angels induced deaths, not even a “Judas.” This is simply great songs, performed with passion and love by a man on the cusp of greatness. And it’s all the more interesting because he turned greatness into icon, into legend.