THE LAST THING I WROTE
At the bottom of last week’s NOTEWORTHY column was, “The reason I started off noting that I had retired as a record reviewer, was that I had half a mind to report on the new Dylan double album, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways.’ The album is seductive and wonderful, depending on what you bring to it. Maybe next week.”
I guess that half a mind means I’m a slow learner, so here I go, my first album review in many years. … don’t get too excited.
Reminds me of when I took over the position as Arts & Media Editor at my college newspaper, The Daily Lobo, on the basis of my wide-ranging music background. However I quickly realized it was now my responsibility to review all the arts, or get someone qualified to do it. Not an abundance of those in Albuquerque, NM, for what we were paying (free tickets).
But heck, how hard is it to review a movie? I watch movies. Oh, here’s the perfect one. Mick Jagger plays a reclusive rock star, the soundtrack sounds killer, two (?) directors I never heard of — piece o’ cake.
Turned out “Performance” is not a movie you get in one sitting. It became my most-watched movie — I’m past 80 viewings, I’m sure — but I stumbled out of the theater wondering what in heaven’s name I was going to write. It’s a complex, layered film, two films in one, really, about which a couple dozen books have been written. Not conducive to spitting out a cogent review for tomorrow’s paper.
Then, for my second film review, ladies and gentlemen, I chose — Fellini’s “Satyricon.” But that one was an easy review: “I quit.” I didn’t but sure wanted to.
SO NOW, WRASSLE DYLAN TO THE GROUND?
Have I learned nothing since college? Yes, yes I have. Following my generation’s troubadour through his controversial, chameleon, peaks and valleys, nobody to Nobel career (I was a freshman in HS when his first album dropped), gives me an advantage of sorts. I know it’s impossible to write the definitive review of anything he does (though this one is getting 5 Stars all over the world), and it’s dangerous to be either dismissive or effusive, because history and your second thoughts may embarrass what you put in print.
A lot of what you hear in a Dylan album depends on what you bring to it, which is not the case with most musicians. It’s either in the grooves or it’s not. Someone with a sketchy knowledge of Bob may be completely unmoved by “Rowdy.” His voice is a rumble. The music is well-played but unremarkable, rarely rockin’. The lyric themes range from a 17-minute catalog of 20th Century music to a Frankensteinian quest to assemble “My Own Version of You” to romantic, nostalgic musings about Key West.
The last cut on the double album, his first release of original songs in eight years, was the first one we heard, surprise released last March as a single. What to make of a 17-minute jukebox musing on the assassination of JFK, “Murder Most Foul,” referencing dozens of songs and artists from Oscar Peterson to Don Henley to Etta James? The dirge opens with a long-held low cello tone with gently cascading piano, then a mournful violin.
I’ve learned, Dylan probably makes sense to Dylan (in “Jimmy Reed” he declares, “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand”) but doesn’t need to make sense to you. The trick is to not try, just let the words wash over you and see how you feel and what you get out of it. Bob Dylan has always been a poet setting his words to music. He’s written a handful of good tunes but that’s not his value. Here the backing music is consistently perfect for the story, but you wouldn’t rush out to buy an album by this band.
One of the things that’s striking about this album is the way he manipulates that broken croak of a voice he’s got left into absolutely mesmerizing diction and style. You will be startled time and again with what he unexpectedly does with a word, even a syllable, that is so expressive. Melodic, even. We’ve been complaining for nearly 60 years what a terrible voice Dylan has but the truth is he’s always been a gifted singer who knew exactly what he was doing.
You never know how seriously to take him. At 79 he still sings about macho sex and violence. But when he threatens “Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm, I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm… I‘ll cut you up with a crooked knife… I’ll make your wife a widow, you’ll never see old age,” it’s less menacing than when he warns “Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine, one of these days I’ll forget to be kind.”
METRO ART & DUBLAB PRESENT: DEEP ROUTES EPISODE #1 – DOWNTOWN LA, PUNK’S EDGE — If you’re like me and you love LA history, LA music, riding your bike, or any combination thereof, then you will definitely want to check this out. Metro Art and Dublab have partnered to create a special programming series of multimedia deep dives into musical subcultures of Los Angeles, their mission being to explore “intersecting musical histories embedded into the streets, buildings, and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, with each [episode] corresponding to a Metro Rail transit corridor that is currently under construction.” (As an adolescent/young adult who rode across town at night to ride in large groups that would make stops to hear punk bands play at undisclosed locations, I can say I would have greatly benefited from these expanded metro lines.) This inaugural episode takes a look at the DTLA punk scene of the 1970s and ‘80s, featuring carefully selected music, and first hand accounts from KK Barrett (The Screamers), Trudie Arguelles-Barrett (the Plungers), Lisa Fancher (founder of Frontier Records), Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), Don Bolles (The Germs), Stuart Swezey (director of punk doc “Desolation Center”), and Atomic Nancy (of the infamous Atomic Cafe diner). In addition to these interviews, the episode has a visual component of archival photos and a (previously livestreamed) broadcast of “accompanying geographies as seen from a Metro Bike.” An archived recording of this episode can be found on Metro Art’s instagram (@metro.art.la), and new episodes will air for the next two Tuesdays (7/14, 7/21) from 12-1PM on Dublab’s website, and an archived version of the first episode can be found here: https://www.dublab.com/archive/metro-art-dublab-present-deep-routes-episode-1-downtown-l-a-punks-edge-07-07-20
Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 2,500 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org