Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Arts and Farts and Crafts

Alright, I know I said I was going to write about Jerry Seinfeld's MVP performance on Curb Your Enthusiasm from this past season. It was a worthy subject, but it seems to me that I had to hit it at the exact moment the season ended. The way things work now (especially funny things) you either jump on it or its over.

So, I'm going for something a little more timeless (well, timeless for me because I talk about it all the time - and let's not mention thinking), which is my "review" of the classic Bob Dylan album "Self Portrait."

My friends all know how much I love this album. It is considered one of the worst albums of all time by many and rightfully so. And I do have a reputation for loving albums that are considered "one of the worst albums of all time" or "shitty" or "I can't believe you like this shit, Domino. Put the sound on the basketball game on." I don't like these terrible albums in a means of connecting with the rock n' roll spirit of Lester Bangs and his appreciation of the underdog(god, a shout in the street!) or his preaching of the raw power (read: Iggy Pop) of simple rock and roll like the Count Five (their merits including wearing vampire capes on the back cover of their album and standing over a grave). I don't even like these terrible albums like one enjoys a bad movie because of its unintentional humor and because "it just can't be this bad, this is AMAZING (sound of shoving popcorn in the mouth)!" I like these albums and I like this album, because I think it can teach us something - there is something going on in "Self Portrait" underneath the mix of phoned in vocal performances, the baffling song choices, and the downright gems. As the narrator in the Bible said, "Let us begin with the beginning, and the beginning began with a bang. And there was light!"

A good friend of mine, we'll call him my freshman year college roommate, once said about the first song of Self Portrait, "All The Wild Horses," that if you heard this song start off an album today, you would think it was the beginning of the best album of all time. Freshman year roommate was right and he hates this album. Dylan doesn't sing a word on the song, it is slow western strumming with woman's choir voices building and mixing with a cinematic string arrangement. It feels like the beginning of the best western or best legend or tall tale of all time, which it is a sense is. This album is the Bob Dylan legend summed up in one sprawling statement. The songs are there, but they don't sound like the versions you know, like the live version of "Like A Rolling Stone, " which features the Band as tight as ever but Bob singing in his Nashville Skyline croon as if he were trying to humiliate his own signature song. Levon Helm and Rick Danko belt out backing vocals to try to pull the song into sincerity, and Robbie Robertson burns his guitar "King Harvest" style, but there is no hope, this isn't the snare drum shot song that "opened the minds of a generation (read: Bruce Springsteen on every bad 60's documentary you've ever seen), this isn't one of the meanest, loosest and inspired songs ever recorded, this is a singer knowing his myth and not falling for it as his audience as. Sure, there is no direction home, but it doesn't have to take a song to go to number 5 on the Billboard charts to tell you that.

Bob is even poking holes in himself and his peers. His cover of "The Boxer" is a downright insult if you don't have a sense of humor. Now, I like Simon and Garfunkel. I even love a lot of their stuff, but if there is a point where Paul Simon veered to the too self-serious (god bless his solo work "Papa Hobo" especially") it was in the Bookends/Bridge Over Troubled Water era and "The Boxer" is one of the pinnacles - although it is a damn fine song. Now, think about "The Boxer" in the hands of Bob Dylan. A song written by one of the best songwriters in the 20th century in the hands of one of the top 5 songwriters in the 20th century. The possibilities seem endless. However, when you hear Dylans' hobo bluegrass cover of the song, you literally see the song in his hands. He is playing with it, "The Boxer" becomes a wounded animal of a song, a wet bug, with Dylan poking at the wings, morphing it into something strange and different from what it once was, something less important. It's as if he's saying, "I can do it to my own songs and I can do it to someone else's. Look at your beloved songs now." This seems cruel, and it is. He is essentially showing his own power to make or break the music the audience loves.

Even the standards aren't safe. "Blue Moon" and "Let It Be Me" are both given Nashville Skyline renditions. They are sloppy and compared to other versions they are far inferior. However, they are fun. The drums on "Blue Moon" are terribly sharp, the piano is playful and the background singers are inspired. The same can be said about "Let It Be Me," there are are different electric and guitar parts, as well as an impossible sounding piano.

This brings me to the most important part about the album: it just sounds damn good. All the backing tracks and musicians, whether they are The Band or not, just sound so tight. Even the really terrible songs like "Early Mornin' Rain" have a terrific rhythm section. The piano on the entire album is really the revelation. And there are certainly gems: "All The Tired Horses," "Alberta #1," "Days of 49," "In Search of Little Sadie," "Little Sadie," "Copper Kettle," "Quinn the Eskimo," "Wigwam," and "Alberta #2." The version of "Quinn the Eskimo" is perhaps one of the best and most FUN SOUNDING songs of all time with Dylan screaming in his Nashville Skyline croon and his voice full of fuzz and the rest of the band playing as rollicking a backing track that they ever played with an especially inspired Danko belting out vocals. This song is the sound of a good time - when you think of a good party, you just have to listen to this song, your friends are there, there's whiskey and plenty of room to move around and there is a singer onstage who is having fun with a backing band that just knows how to do it.

Counter this with "In Search of Little Sadie" and "Little Sadie." This is the same song separated by only one song, which is a cover of an old standard, while "Little Sadie" itself is an old standard. "In Search of Little Sadie" is a full band version of the classic murder ballad, while "Little Sadie" is a standard blue grass reading. Why put the same song twice in span of three songs? Boredom? Sure probably. Proving a point? Sure probably. He could do it. Because you see that name on the album, the face on the cover? That's Bob Dylan. Here's the next album from Bob Dylan!

This the essential mix of the album. There are blatantly uninspired moments mixed with some of the best pure rock and roll, bar and folk songs you have ever heard. And no matter what direction you swing in, it just sounds so good. The album ends with two of the best songs, "Wigwam" and "Alberta #2." The former was made famous by "Royal Tenenbaums" with its sexy brass and wordless Dylan singing/moaning, but seriously professional drumming. While "Alberta #2" is just smooth bass and backing vocals, which some terrific Dylan harmonica and lyrics that are just so catchy that you know the song is as old as America.

Was Dylan lazy? Sure. Is this album terrible? By all means. However, you just have to look at the cover and the title. Self Portrait. The cover is painted by the artist himself during a time when he was still as popular as he had ever been. However, he'd crashed his bike and had hid out in Saugerties and made a country album and the 60's were over and he was getting a little older just like everyone else. So what was next? What was Bob Dylan anyway? A collection of standards and folk songs? Songs of the collective conscious? Inspiring generational defining songs? A message bearer? All of these things could be true if looked at in a certain light - just like his own self portrait. A lot has been made of Dylan dissembling and reassembling his own image and myth like the best artists do, but this was the first evidence that he was capable. Once his portrait was split into as many pieces as it was on this album, only then could he build it back together and progress (family man, maturing star, divorcee, outlaw) into the 70's.

Maybe that movie I'm Not There said it better and surely Cate Blanchett is a better lay and a better actress and man than I am. And maybe I just like this album so much because I listened to it a lot driving around upstate New York during the winter and the spring of 2007 (somtimes in love, sometimes in hate) with the windows of my 1997 Pathfinder open and singing the songs at the top of my lungs and blasting "Quinn the Eskimo" as loud as I could because it might make everyone loosen up a little. Despite all of this, in the end, this album depicts an artist and a human being as he saw himself at a certain point in his life - perhaps even more than the rest of his work. Worts and all, I will always take that over anything. Because even two shitty versions of the same song in the span of three minutes is better than something false from 1966. Because I'd like to think we're all closer to a 24-song double album that baffles than any kind of generational masterpiece. Maybe we'll get there, but until then we just have a series of self portraits.

Next: Music or Sports?

Now: The next installment of "From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt"


The bartender knew I was underage but he gave me a beer anyway. “It’s for Ben,” he said. Dad’s legacy is all over this town. How many people has he healed? How many people know about his accident when I didn’t know until just before? I should just enjoy it all. Tomorrow we are going to bury mom and right now it looks like everyone is doing alright. Maggie is playful playing darts with me and talking to Eve, though Eve looks worried about what James is doing. He wouldn’t do anything. That girl Jane was such an old girlfriend. But that oldest Gregors sister is so pretty, they all were. Anne was the closest one to me. Tom knew her somewhat.

Where is he?

I always loved this Billy Joel song. He’s one of my favorites. “Still Rock N’ Roll To Me” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” They all sound like New York. Long Island. Home. I never could believe that dad was friends with him. He must’ve been close to getting famous. The accident stopped him. That would make sense. Then again what do I know about it all anyway?

I’m standing holding my bottle. The wrapper is damp and peeling off. I can see the Bud of the Budweiser logo. This place is how I pictured it – wooden, messy, a dive. I didn’t expect the sawdust on the floor. It must be for atmosphere. James said he’d been sneaking in here since he was sixteen. He did look older, started growing facial hair when he was pretty young, well I was really young. I slide my right hand into the snug right pocket of my jeans and look around. Kids from my grade said they’d snuck in here too. I don’t really want to be seen. That would be sort of embarassing being home this soon after I went away and down here drinking. It would seem a little strange of all of us coming down here together the day before our mother’s funeral. But I think we all need this. I’ve been depressed since I heard the news and this has seemed like the longest day of moping. I need a little positive energy to go into tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ll even stop crying. Just thinking about the look of the coffin and the whole ceremony is making me tear up a little bit. I wipe my eye with my sleeve and feel a little water in my nose. My mother is dead so its OK for me to be home. People will understand. But its so hard in this town because once word gets out it soon gets distorted and then you’re pregnant or depressed or an alcoholic and in shame when you’re seen or your name is mentioned between mothers in the Stop N’ Shop.

“Ok, sorry sorry, Liza. My turn right?” Maggie taps my arm.

“Yep, no problem.”

“This is a marathon, huh?”

“It’s kind of a boring game.”

Maggie laughs and her hair flies back. My sister is beautiful in her own way. “I don’t know why guys like it. Jake used to…”

She still has her smile but it fades and she starts to frown a little. She holds a grin that is barely above straightlip.

“Anyway, let’s just finish. You need to be exposed to this kind of boredom. It consumes your college years and your twenties.”

“She’s right,” Eve adds.

“See,” Maggie says. “We have the wisdom of a married woman too.”

She winks and Eve laughs. I feel like I should laugh too but I’m not sure if Maggie was being mean or nice. I just take a litle sip and my beer is getting warm. I’m not good at drinking.
I see Eve looking back at James and I look back too. But I see the back door open and Tom is walking in with some girl.

Where’d he get to?

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