Another one of those events that, as I believe Walter Conkrite used to say, "alter and illuminate our time," has raised its head like a helium balloon in a Dodger Stadium parking lot. But with these particular inflated metaphorical skyhooks, you can go one better than just locating your car in a sea of similar sedans, station wagons, and subcompacts. With each new Dylan album, you can actually pinpoint your misspent past.
Any thought of the first two — "Bob Dylan" and "The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan" — and I’m right back in the second floor barracks of Headquarters Company, 122nd Signal Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division up on Kelly Hill at Fort Benning, Ga. The two records arrived as a package when a fellow GI returned from "leave" in New York.
We were both jazz fans – he a buff, I a snob. At the time, if I were to add a genre to my growing record collection, it had best embody top-shelf improvisational virtuosity and go down well with Scotch-on-the-rocks. And, as many probably recall of their initial experience listening to Dylan’s nasal (or is it de-nasal) twang, I found it wanting. To paraphrase Dylan himself, something was happening there but I didn’t know what it was.
In context, this unwillingness to expand artistic horizons makes perfect sense. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, among others, had my attention at the time, and, being somewhat of a non-inclusive sort, there was no room at my inn for the type of idiosyncratic musical behavior that Dylan brought to the table.
Acceptance would have been much easier had I already been in the cultural clutches of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, but that would come later. For the moment, the art form still evolving from Satchmo and Bix and Jellyroll filled my plate. But, by the time my discharge came around, that had changed. My "hip-zone" had expanded.
Once back on the left coast, the hits just kept on coming. "Bringing it all Back Home" entered the fray during my 15-minutes of college and " Highway 61 Revisited" first saw light the summer thereafter. The cat was even getting radio airplay. "Like a Rolling Stone" rose to No. 2. We bohemian types feigned embarrassment at all the attention.
The monumental "Blonde on Blonde," a double album recorded in Nashville, arrived with much fanfare the following spring. By this time I worked in a bank on Long Beach Boulevard up past where it changed its name. Waiting for 5:30 to arrive took all day.
The journey from parking lot to record store to hookah-rich crash pad transpired in a blur. Somewhere along the way the jacket and tie became emancipated. It was seen as a mission from God and the sermons needed to be heard. Rumor had it that one song took up an entire side of the album. The times they continued to change.
Then came that moment in upstate New York when our Bobby chose to wrap himself up in his Triumph motorcycle. He stopped touring. We wouldn’t hear from him for a spell. Rumors ran rampant.
Although we weren’t privy, he and a group of friends who would later gain fame as "The Band," were hanging out with a mess of instruments and a tape recorder in the basement of a nearby big pink house. The legendary "Basement Tapes" were being born.
The wait for a new studio album was godawful. A few of us who had changed our majors to Mexican studies had rented a "ranch" out near Lake Elsinore, and it would be there, between field trips, that we would hang.
For some reason it was rather easy to stay up all night back in those days, so we got an early start for the Hollywood record shop to procure a copy of the mysterious "John Wesley Harding." Those who didn’t make the trip busied themselves cleaning dog hair out of the turntable.
Then, following an even longer wait, came "Nashville Skyline," replete with wry grin and new voice and a nod toward a moon-June-spoon lyric sensibility. As "Self Portrait," (the last of my L.A. Dylan albums) and a bevy of other enigmatic releases would demonstrate, he refused to be easily defined.
From then on, all new Dylan album memories would be of Utah origin. "New Morning" had me bartending at the Rusty Nail Saloon upstairs in the lodge at what was then called the "Treasure Mountain Resort." Smokey would arrive before the soundtrack to "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid."
By this time, I had begun a near decade-long gig down in Salt Lake playing phonograph records over the radio. For "Planet Waves" the digs were on Sand Ridge. For "Blood on the Tracks" it was a dilapidated farmhouse in Woodland, (Dylan and the "Rolling Thunder Revue" performed at the Salt Palace during this stretch). And by "Street Legal" the homestead had moved over-ta-Heber.
"Shot of Love," "Infidels," and "Empire Burlesque" involved covert missions to Salt Lake, while a friend performed the acquisition function involving "Biograph" and "Knocked Out Loaded," music that shortened the road miles considerably on a three-week jaunt to the Canadian Rockies.
Then began a series of official "bootleg" disks featuring never-before-released material — phenomenal works of performing art that, for whatever reason, were never included with the original. One, from the infamous 1966 show in Manchester, England, caught Dylan being called "Judas" for going electric.
More recently, the buzz has all been about "Time Out of Mind," "Love and Theft," and the new, much hyped, "Modern Times," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts last week. Egad! You can now pick up a cup and a scone and the latest Dylan at Starbucks. Scarlett Johansson is in the video. Even Smokey bought it. We bohemian types continue to feign embarrassment at all the attention.
"Modern Times" is astoundingly good, actually. No surprise there. He’s been back at the top of his game for quite some time. On first listening, before you’ve had a chance to download all the lyrics and become awash in the multileveled depths of one of the finest wordsmiths of our age, the effect is one of dance-’til-ya-drop rhythm and blues. But, then again, he ain’t talking,’ just walkin’ heart burnin,’ still yearnin.’
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