Chapter Six: Soon After Midnight (April 12 –  Newark, Delaware)

Bob Dylan is the last man standing in a game that he bluffed his way into. He got into Columbia studios as a sideman, keeping the ace up his sleeve well-hidden. When the opportunity came to make an album of his own, he used the occasion to advance his reputation as a harmonica player and to make himself known as a guitarist, rather than risk blowing it on staking out a claim as a songwriter, People have long wondered why that first album didn’t reflect what he was playing in the clubs and instead opted for what seems to be a random grab bag of covers.  If you listen to that album today, you will hear the variety of guitar styles he had mastered, as well as some unique and exciting harmonic work. It sounds a lot more like the resume of an untested sideman than a debut album from a promising folksinger. 

It wasn’t so easy to get into the game in 1962.  Pop music was dominated by good looking Italian kids who learned to sing in the church choir. Folk music was a back door to nowhere.  But when Dylan’s first album neither sold well to the public nor impressed Columbia’s producers into giving him more work as a sideman, he responded by making a record of original songs that was so good that he not only opened a window of opportunity for himself, but opened it so wide that a whole generation of Elvis wannabes climbed through that window.  They all got into the game, and now that game is over, Dylan is the last man standing.

He played out his string until the end, not only through his own genius, which was palpable, but by bluffing, lying, stealing, being a general all-around asshole, and making everything he touched his own.  If you didn’t like folk music, you did after you heard Dylan play it.  If you didn’t like country western, you did after hearing Nashville Skyline.  You may have never thought of buying a gospel record until hearing Slow Train Coming, and he did more for extending the life of the blues than all the hotshot English guitarists put together. 

Dylan influenced everyone and changed everything.  This game that would never have knowingly accepted his ante was transformed by the cards he played.  No one was content to do what they had done before. Even the Beatles were no longer satisfied being The Beatles. They wanted to be Dylan too. People like Paul Simon who might have languished in the poetry pages of a University journal became international singing stars. Even Bobby Darin, who had dreamt of nothing but being the teenage Frank Sinatra, chucked his formal wear and dragged out an acoustic guitar to sing a protest song written by Tim Hardin in the glitter of Las Vegas.

The game is over now.  The record industry has collapsed.  Millions of songs by perennial unknowns are posted to little avail on the internet. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad. The CD’s they record on their computers and distribute through sites like ReverbNation have a certain value as promotional tools for use in getting some half-assed gigs where a few might be sold as souvenirs to the friends who show up to the gig. But it is not the same as having a record out back in the day when a music industry still existed.  Even those who get signed to the remnants of a major label are unlikely to shake things up in the cities.  Their music may get copied to some IPods, but only to be part of a general mix of protective sound in the anxiety coma of contemporary American life.

And in the heat of this indifference, a few stalwart celebrities from the golden years continue to ply their trade. Unlike Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen, who charge $300 a seat for a three hour concert that hits all the bases of their careers, Dylan chooses to gallivant the globe like an itinerant cowboy singer, throwing a few classic hits into whatever else he feels like playing on any given night, not paying much attention to whether he is getting $100 a ticket for an arena show or $40 for a date. The fans that follow him around the world like it this way, but the poor idiot who only gets a chance to see him once every two or three years is not so forgiving when he plays three or four songs from Nashville e Skyline and nothing from his latest album. The last time I saw him was one of the first shows of his 2005 tour with a new band.  It was the first time I had ever been bored at a Dylan concert and the last concert of his that I attended.  I’ve downloaded dozens of concerts from the last eight years, and don’t feel I’ve missed anything. The current tour is something else, though. He has finally put together a show that sums up what he has been doing for the last fifteen years or so, and what he has been trying to do all his life.

Mixed-Up Confusion, his first single, was a weak emulation of the Elvis Presley sound that lacked the conventional structure of a Presley song, although it could be argued that the similarly constructed Mystery Train had no problems getting on the radio.  The flip side, Corrina Corrina, was a successful. Blues croon that further showed the type of a singer Dylan aspired to becoming.  Throughout his career, he has returned to the music that was popular around this time, His occasional practice of covering sentimental pop ballads in concert such as Soon, Moon River, Answer me My Love, and You Don’t Know Me, and releasing official recordings of You Belong to Me, Blue Moon, and Let It Be Me prove that he finds magic in these songs.  Attempts at writing something original in this vein, such as   When Teardrops Fall, have not been successful.  But now, with the help of Bobby Fuller’s A New Shade of Blue, he has come up with “Soon After Midnight,” a song that compares favorably with The Angels’ 1962 classic, Til.

He begins with the plundering of Fuller’s unmistakable riff.  He not only steals the riff, but the guitar tone as well. Then he goes on to use the chord structure as well as its internal dynamics as a girder against harmonic disaster.  One of Dylan’s inadequacies in his approach to this type of material is his lack of understanding the harmonic principles behind some of the changes, especially those in the bridge.  This is why he seems to go out of tune when he sings Tomorrow Night and Soon, when in fact he is only misunderstanding the relationship of the melody to the chords. The, when he pens an original in this mode, such as When Teardrops Falls, the whole thing falls apart at the bridge.  The paradox here is that some of the best, most solid yet original bridges in rock history can be found on Blonde on Blonde.   Nashville Skyline is notable for the bridges he writes in the country genre. 

“A New Shade of Blue” is so solid that Dylan can go wildly off-course in the lyric and the song is only enhanced by it.  Compare how out of place it sounds in “Bye and Bye’ when he starts carrying on about baptizing people in fire and starting a civil war to the verse about dragging Two-timing Slim’s corpse through the mud in “Soon After Midnight.” The music of Bye and Bye simply could not shoulder the shifting of the lyrical weight, So even though Dylan is a thief, we are all sharing in his plunder when we enjoy what he does with his plunder.

“I’m a thief and I dig it”…Jawbone, The Band

Dylan has been a thief from the very start, when he stole Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement of” House of the Rising Sun.”  One of the funniest bootleg moments comes one of those living room tapes from the early sixties when he begins to introduce a song as “the Leaving of Liverpool,” then catches himself and says corrects the title to Faretheewell, explain that he made a lot of changes in the song, then he plays Leaving of Liverpool with about one word changed. Anyway, his thefts are well-documented, so I need not go into them, but I will add that one of his most original songs, a song that may well be his finest achievement, begins with the introduction from Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” That song is “Sad Eyed lady of the Lowlands.”