Real Life Rock Top 10

Special Absurdity of Worldwide Commemoration of Bob Dylan's May 24 60th Birthday Edition!

Published May 14, 2001 7:24PM (EDT)

1) This column has been unable to confirm a report that at his May 1 concert in Asheville, N.C., Bob Dylan performed his Oscar®-winning song, "Things Have Changed," with the Thing Itself prominently displayed on a speaker cabinet. True or false, the story doesn't touch the night Michael Richards showed up on "The Tonight Show" wearing his new "Seinfeld" Emmy as a necklace.

2) Bob Dylan, "Return to Me" on "The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs -- Music from the HBO Original Series" (Sony)

Listening to his startlingly gentle version of "You Belong to Me" on the "Natural Born Killers" soundtrack, you could figure that Jo Stafford would have smiled at Dylan's cover of her 1952 smash, her biggest record. And you can imagine what Dean Martin would have to say about this cover of his 1958 smash -- and his best record. Probably he wouldn't say anything, just give Dylan the same sneer Robert Mitchum gives Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man." A look that says, "Are you still here?"

3) "A Nod to Bob: An Artists' Tribute to Bob Dylan on His Sixtieth Birthday" (Red House)

Suzzy and Maggie Roche can't help letting you know how clever they were to choose "Clothesline Saga," one of Dylan's coolest songs -- and their bohemian posing stands out as rock 'n' roll raunch on this collection of bored and pious folkie tributes, most of which somehow project condescension through the veil of homage. But if you're ever yearned to hear "I Want You" done as a prayer, this is for you.

4) New Dylan Alert! Robbie Fulks, "Couples in Trouble" (Boondoggle)

Fulks has an uncanny ability to write songs as if they were remembered from a previous life -- a life lived in England in the 17th century. This album leads off with "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" -- "a stranger he came calling," that other person says through Fulks. It's a new -- or unfound -- version of "The Daemon Lover," dripping blood: "And on his lips the strangest words seemed so meek and common." You want a warning? That's a fire alarm. This is the sort of song Dylan would be sneaking into his shows next week, if he hadn't already recorded it as "House Carpenter" (1962, on "The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3") and "Blackjack Davey" (in 1992, on "Good As I Been to You"). As for Fulks, the rest of the record is Don McLean in loud clothes.

5) David Hajdu, "Positively 4th Street -- The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña" (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

This disagreeable book contains a connection I've never seen anywhere else: between Dylan's 1965 "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger song "Take [or "Taking"] It Easy." First verse: "Mom was in the kitchen, preparing to eat/Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast/Pa was in the cellar mixing up the hops/And Brother's at the window, he's watching for the cops."

6) "Duluth Does Dylan" (Spinout)

Bands who still live where Bob Dylan was born dive in with no respect and come out sounding as young as they are. Not all of it is good, and some of it's horrible, but little is predictable -- not Chris Monroe's deep winter cover drawing, the First Ladies' wasted "Father of Night" or the way the chorus of "Like a Rolling Stone" keeps surfacing in the Black Labels' "Where did you say we are? And who are you, anyway?" reading of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." Everybody must get stoned, like a rolling stone -- why didn't anyone think of that before?

7) Old New Dylan Alert! Bob Marley & the Wailers, "Catch a Fire: Deluxe Edition" (Tuff Gong/Island)

Before releasing the Jamaican sessions that made up this 1972 album -- songs included "Stir It Up," "Kinky Reggae," "400 Years," "Slave Driver" and "Stop That Train" -- producer and label owner Chris Blackwell had some overdubbing done in London. This set presents the originals -- including two numbers left unrevised and unissued -- on one disc, plus, on a second, "Catch a Fire" as it almost, but not quite, caught fire around the world.

"Concrete Jungle" -- available in its first form as a Jamaican single -- was always the test between the real thing and its adulteration. This profound protest against the specific political and economic realities of Jamaica in the moment, and against the weight of history, of slavery, pressing down like an elephant's foot every time the singer tried to think, speak or act, is smaller as the Wailers made it on their own -- spare, the sound open, the backing vocals word-by-word clear. Despite the backing singers, and the careful, impeccable rhythm of the band, this is one man's testament, a work of dignity.

In London, John "Rabbit" Bundrick of Texas added organ, and Wayne Perkins of Alabama added guitar; the backing vocals were muffled -- and somehow given even greater presence. There is a long, slow introduction, Perkins edging his way into the theme like a stranger trying to walk into a bar without anybody noticing, though after one turn into the music he's got his money out. Aston Barrett's bass, a counter in Jamaica, is huge here; as much as Bundrick's Garth Hudson-like tentacles, it's this that makes a mood in which you can't tell curse from judgment, the future from too late. Straight off, the sound puts everything in doubt, and everyone on the record in jeopardy.

As the song goes on, the backing singers seem to circle Marley's lead, pointing at him, smiling, frowning, offering approval, withholding it, and soon the prosaic has vanished from the performance: the crying chorus is made up of the "many thousands gone" of "No More Auction Block," the indelible slavery song first heard by whites from black Union soldiers. Odetta sang it in the 1950s, and no one ever went farther into the song than Bob Dylan, singing it in the Gaslight Café in New York in 1962 (on "The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3") -- much farther, that night, than when he took some of the song's melody, and some of its spirit, for "Blowin' in the Wind." "Where Dead Voices Gather," Nick Tosches calls his forthcoming book on 1920s blackface minstrel artist Emmett Miller -- this remixed "Concrete Jungle" is one place they gather.

All through the progression of the song, Perkins has been waiting, offering up a sign or a riff, a comment or a counterpoint, like the man in the bar looking a split-second too long at the guy who seems to own the place, holding his glass in a way not quite the same as anyone else, calling another drink with words that are English but sound like Spanish. As Marley steps back, then, Perkins steps in. The solo he plays is so restrained in form, and so passionate in tone, it translates the pain of Marley's story into a dream beyond words or even images. It is a dream of flight, of the running man trapped, escaping only to be trapped again, until, in a shocking moment, the solo turns over, and turns back on itself, as if to say: This record will end, but the story can't end. Not well; not even badly. And you can't wait it out. "400 Years"? You thought that meant from then to now, but it means from now to then. And then turned over, and run backward.

8) Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan Live: 1961-2000" (Sony Japan)

Sixteen tracks, from "Wade in the Water," taped in 1961 in Minneapolis, to "Things Have Changed," from Portsmouth, England, last year. Killers: the old ballad "Handsome Molly," from the Gaslight in 1962, and "Dead Man, Dead Man," studio version on "Shot of Love," 1981. Taped in New Orleans that same year, "Dead Man" is a textbook warning against the devil, if you listen as if you're reading; if you hear it, it's a poker game, and the singer's winning.

9) Pre-Dylan Alert! Robert Cantwell, "Darkling I Listen: Making Sense of the 'Folkways Anthology,'" talk at "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular" (Getty Center, Los Angeles, April 20, 2001)

About old American music, as first recorded in the 1920s and assembled by Smith in 1952 as the six-LP anthology "American Folk Music" -- which, given the degree to which he absorbed it, in the late '50s and early '60s might have been Bob Dylan's pillow. The records were not quite the songs, and the performances of the songs were not quite the songs either, Cantwell argued: When seven decades ago those who Dylan once called "the traditional people" faced new machines, what resulted were "thought experiments, science fictions -- newer than new, as it were, and older than old. They lead us, finally, to the 'Anthology's' central mystery: How can these performances have found their way to those records? Or better, these records to those performances? -- questions that would not arise at all were it not for the still deeper question with which Harry has confronted us: What is a record?

With the strange old sounds ("It is the sound of the old records we have, not the records themselves"), Cantwell said, Smith "placed us roughly where the listeners to Edison's phonograph were, phenomenologically speaking, in the early weeks of its public unveiling, when, according to the editor of the Scientific American, 'the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that [it] was very well, and bid a cordial goodnight.' At succeeding demonstrations young women fainted; eminent scientific heads were convinced it was a trick of ventriloquism; a Yale professor pronounced it a flat-out hoax. What was this machine that could steal the human voice? That could make absent people present -- or was it that it rendered present people absent? That immortalized the human voice, but at the same time abolished it? What can one say of a machine that brings the dead back to life, but in the same instant buries them again?" No one has ever come closer to rendering Smith's selections -- the likes of the Alabama Sacred Heart Singers' "Rocky Road" or Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" -- in mere words, as opposed to, as with Dylan's versions of the latter, on his first album in 1962, and in the basement tapes sessions five years later, more recordings.

10) Anonymous Dylan fan (e-mail, May 7)

"Bob birthday blast of coverage reminds me of fifties country song -- I forgot to remember to forget -- except updated -- I forgot, then remembered then forgot then remembered then remembered why I never should have forgotten in the first place."

By Greil Marcus

The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.

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