“born in time (unreleased version)” – bob dylan (2008)

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Today marks Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday.  For over 50 years, Dylan has been a cultural phenomenon defying expectations and challenging listeners.  An enigmatic figure, Dylan is also a very divisive one at that.  Nobody can split a room as evenly as he can.  While some admire his songwriting ability and disrupting pop music norms of the 1960s, others just simply cannot stand his nasally voice. He isn’t for everyone.  An acquired taste, Dylan continues to be a figure that eludes labels amidst a fog of mystery.

I discovered Dylan when I was 14 after looking at a picture of him in an issue of Rolling Stone listing their picks for the 500 best songs ever recorded.  Now that I am 28, I can now say that Dylan’s music has been a part of me for most of my life.  The first track I can ever remember hearing was “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  I borrowed a CD which would be his standard Greatest Hits compilation; 10 tracks of Dylan’s best through 1966.  When that wasn’t enough, I moved onto a two-disc compilation that was part of Columbia Records’ Essential Artists series; The Essential Bob Dylan covered eras of his career through 2000.  The Essential Bob Dylan really appealed to me because I could get tastes of the buffet that was his entire career.  I could vaguely trace the projection of his career from a beginner’s perspective.

However, that set wasn’t enough.  I started buying studio albums.  Highway 61 Revisited. Blonde on Blonde. Blood on the Tracks. Time Out of Mind. “Love & Theft.”  All of these were bought while I was still in high school. I was a fanatic.  Dylan was all I could listen to and I talked about him all the time.  I had that reputation.  I didn’t care.  While all the other high school kids were listening to Nelly or whatever else was playing on top 40 radio in the early to mid-2000s, I was listening to Bob Dylan and I was convinced that was the coolest thing I could do.

In college, I experienced a real treat as a Dylan fan.  2006 saw the release of Modern Times. Wow!  Not only was this a great record, but this album was significant for me because it was the first new studio album Dylan released since I became a Dylan fan.  When he released his last album, “Love & Theft” in 2001, I didn’t know who he was.  He wouldn’t come up on my radar for another for another year or so.  I bought that album the day it came out.  I also convinced the music director of the college radio station where I volunteered to put the album in heavy rotation (he did).  I even appropriated my college radio DJ name, Jack Frost, from Dylan because that was the pseudonym under which he produced that album.

College also saw my pursuit in learning more about him.  I was already academically engaged within the world of high education, so some of that bled over into my leisurely pursuits.  I read books and downloaded countless bootlegs thanks to my university’s fast internet connection.  In 2007, I even got to see Dylan live for the first time.  I rode with my dad to Nashville where I saw him perform at the Ryman Auditorium.  Opening up were Andrew Bird and Elvis Costello respectively.  And half way during Dylan’s set, Jack White randomly showed out to jam on a few songs; one of which had never been played live since recording in 1964.  Over the years, I would go on to see him live 4 more times and collect a few dozen more albums.

My reputation as a Dylan fan preceded me.  If I met someone for the first time, they already knew I loved Bob Dylan.  And I wasn’t just a fair-weather fan.  I defended Dylan and some of his more questionable career choices and laid out all of my knowledge.  People would even text me or send me a message on social media when they had questions.  Of course, my fandom would also be a source of some ridicule.  Crude jokes and cruel comments were often made to me to undermine my interests and the happiness I experienced.  I didn’t care most of the time.  Sometimes I did.  But, Dylan was a guy who didn’t care what people thought of him.  When people were calling him a prophet or the voice of his generation, he would pour bottles of whiskey over his head or intentionally record controversial albums in order to dissuade people.  If Bob Dylan was too cool to care what people thought, then I would be to.

Even the most casual and cavalier music fans know a little about Dylan.  Though their knowledge and exposure is generally relegated to his more famous 1960s about.  Things like him “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival or a heckler branding him as Judas during a performance at the Royal Albert Hall are commonly known.  I wanted to know everything.  I wanted all of the bad along with all of the good.  I bought all of his albums from the 1970s and most of the one of the 1980s, two periods that many would consider very low points for Dylan’s career.  However, there a quite a few overlooked gems from those periods.  Songs that may not be as well-known or brilliant as his more famous works from the 1960s, but still excellent songs that reflect a man who is progressing and growing into a role he feels comfortable with.

With that, Dylan is notorious for leaving some of his best material on the cutting room floor.  Unofficial bootlegs of these cuts would circulate and fans would dissect them and debate why Dylan would neglect such great tracks.  One that comes to mind is “Blind Willie McTell,” a ballad dedicated to a blues pioneer that was left over from the recording sessions for 1983’s Infidels.  The track would eventually find a home on the release The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991; the first installment of his iconic series of bootleg material released in 1991.

In 2008, Dylan released another installment of The Bootleg Series entitled The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006.  Depending on which version you bought, this was a one to three disc set that compiled alternate versions, unreleased material, and live tracks recorded between 1989 and 2006.  Some of the albums that Dylan released in this period would fall to the wayside as being forgettable including two albums of folk covers (Good as I Benn to You and World Gone Wrong), but this would also be a period that would spark a renaissance in Dylan’s career.  In 1989, Oh Mercy was a strong comeback album from a performer many felt was wash-up.  Time Out of Mind, released in 1997, would go on to earn Dylan a Grammy for “Album of the Year.”  And 2001’s “Love & Theft” and 2006’s Modern Times would appear frequently on critic’s list for best albums of the decade.

I have a special affinity for this period of Dylan’s career since I was born in 1987.  While Dylan’s truly great and monumental material was recorded over 20 years earlier, he still had a lot of great left in him.  This was my Dylan because he was recording this music while I was alive and still growing into the person I am today.  This was my generation’s Dylan and that felt so much more valuable than previous incarnations of the folk troubadour.

In 1990, Dylan released Under the Red Sky, a peculiar album the guys behind Was (Not Was).  The album is quintessentially early ‘90s and very cheesy at times.  Dylan evokes lines and imagery from nursery rhymes and fables into the songs on the album.  One of the tracks released on the album, “Born in Time,” actually originated from the sessions for his previous album Oh MercyOh Mercy is considered one of his best albums while Under the Red Sky is merely a footnote.  However, in the grand tradition of Dylan throwing away his best material, Dylan discarded earlier versions of “Born in Time” recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions.  The song would find a home on Under the Red Sky, completely rerecorded.

The original version of “Born in Time” was eventually released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series entitled The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006.  The earlier recorded version easily stands out as one of the best songs on that release as well as one of my personal favorites.  It is a tender song about love and heartache reminiscing about a love that has past.  This version is stripped down to just the band and Dylan’s acoustic guitar.  All of the production elements from later version are gone and the song is better for it.  Aside from the production, Dylan is also performing better as well.  His vocals on the earlier version are better and clearer; less nasally.  Even the lyrics evoked greater more fantastic imagery.  The later version of “Born in Time” became weaker on all fronts.  I don’t think I’ll never know why, but this is a part of the fun.

Dylan is still putting out albums at 75.  Last week saw the release of Fallen Angels, the second of two consecutive releases profiling songs made famous by Frank Sinatra.  He hasn’t released an album of original music since 2012’s Tempest.  No one expected him to put out one Sinatra let alone two whole albums.  That is just Dylan’s style, though.  He does whatever he wants to do regardless of the backlash or criticism.  I’m sure some points of his career were well-meaning missteps that get played off as intentional, but those might be few and far between.  For the most part, Dylan knows he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.  He has done it all and he will continue to live his life on his own terms.  Even if that means throwing away his best material.  Even if it means alienating his fans.  Even if it means it comprises his legacy to some.  For me, he is an inspiration of the true meaning of success.  In Dylan’s words, “a man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.”

Happy Birthday, Bob.

P.S.  Unfortunately, this song does not appear anywhere on YouTube.  I encourage you to listen to a sample here and seek out the song on your own.

 

 

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“don’t talk (put your head on my shoulder)” – the beach boys (1966)

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This week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.  Music podcasts and publications everywhere were blowing up my social media feeds with their own take on the album and praising Brian Wilson’s genius.  Every music critic and journalist offered their analysis and historical retrospectives of Wilson’s mental breakdown and his retreat into the studio to compose what is arguably the band’s masterpiece.  Naturally, I spent my time this week playing this album on repeat and engaging in every nuance within every groove.  Everyone was talking about it, so it only felt natural to be a part of this global listening party.  However, what could I say that hasn’t already been said about this album?  Perhaps the best way is to talk about my personal journey with the Beach Boys.

In general, I do not like the Beach Boys.  There is no arguing against the fact they were the biggest band from the U.S. fighting against the British Invasion of the mid-1960s.  They put out album after album and chart-topping single after single creating their niche as American good ol’ boys who love girls, cars, and surfing.  In a world where radio was dominated by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys were able to grab their own sizable piece of the pie.

The problem is that I just cannot relate to that sound and what they are singing about.  Their take on surf rock, for me, is hokey at best.  I really enjoy surf music.  I dig the obscure tracks and novelty records from bands like the Centurions, Dick Dale, and the Ventures.  I also have an affinity for the various bands that later blended punk, surf, and rockabilly like the Cramps.  Despite that, the Beach Boys were just so bland and boring to me.  They almost felt too clean; too quintessentially American to me.  There was just no connection.

As I got older and learned more about contemporary popular music, by disinterest in the Beach Boys only continued to grow.  I became really big into Chuck Berry while in college.  For me, he was the real “King of Rock & Roll.”  He certainly could do more than Elvis.  I had found that a lot of Beach Boys tunes directly lifted riffs from Chuck Berry tunes.  Now, I’m not so naïve.  I know other bands like the Beatles did this, and that most bands from that era also stole from earlier blues musicians.  However, this only continued to reaffirm why I just couldn’t give a shit about the Beach Boys.

That being said, Pet Sounds is a perfect record; and there are very few that can earn that distinction.  There is a reason why the whole world was celebrating the anniversary of this record’s release.  Pet Sounds is richly-textured experience that is complicated and layered from every single aspect of it’s production.  Wilson suffered a mental breakdown on an airplane after thinking another band member was going to steal his wife.  During this time, the band was on tour.  Wilson encouraged the band to go tour without him while he started worked on their next album.

Wilson gathered a group of sidemen known as the Wrecking Crew to serve as the studio musicians during the Pet Sounds sessions.  During this time, Wilson was exploring new ways to use instruments and how space can affect the sound.  Microphone placement and the physical arrangement within the room were meticulously organized to achieve the sound Wilson had in his mind.  He also explored ways to achieve certain sounds from instruments that were unique and experimental such as playing a piano by directly plucking it’s strings.  The tapestry of sound Wilson created was complex and reminiscent of complicated orchestral pieces.

Every song on the album is absolutely perfect.  From singles such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “God Only Knows,” one of the finest American recordings ever produced, Pet Sounds presents a perfect listening experience that serves as a testament to the level of genius that can be achieved in pop music.  A signature track for me is “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” a melodic song about love falling apart.  It is beautiful and heart breaking.  The whole album is an emotionally exposed retrospective of a man trying to find peace within himself.

Brian Wilson is touring this year and playing the entire album at shows to commemorate the album’s 50th anniversary.  He will be playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.  I’m going to do my best to go and see him play.  Despite me generally not liking the Beach Boys, I can admit that they made something truly special and I would love to see the composer behind it all perform the album in its entirety.  I could always leave when he finishes the album and before he moves onto his hit parade of “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls.”

“kodachrome” – paul simon (1973)

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I started taking guitar classes last fall.  In the beginner classes, you start learning the basic open chords and commit those to memory.  For the most part, I have all of them remembered with the exception of one or two I very rarely use.  As I progressed to the next class, different strumming patterns are introduced as well as riffs.  At the school where I take classes, they have 7 classes that make up their core guitar program.  You start in guitar 1 and then enhance your skills in the next class with guitar 1 repertoire.  This repeats itself for guitar 2 and guitar 3.  The seventh and final class of the program is guitar forever (or four).

A few weeks ago, I started taking guitar 3, which would be the fifth class in the program.  I had heard a lot about this class.  During the last class of each session, there is a student showcase where the classes perform a song that showcases the lessons they have learned.  I have written about these already from my own experience performing in the student showcase.  However, whenever the instructor for guitar 3 introduces the class, they always make note of the “dreaded barre chord.”  I now understand what they meant.

We started to learn the shape for barre chords immediately upon starting the first class of the guitar 3 session.  The first song in our packet of songs to learn throughout the course was the Ringo Starr penned Beatles classis “With a Little Help from My Friends.”  This song contained a Bm barre chord.

What makes barre chords difficult to learn are two things.  First, because of how the index finger is used, I have to remember that I need to use different fingers when making my chord.  I have spent 4 sessions already learning open chords and have some muscle memory regarding what fingers to use.  For example, to make an Am open chord, I typically used my index, middle, and ring fingers.  Since the Bm barre chord contains an Am chord, I now have to tell my brain to instead use my middle, ring, and pinky fingers.  As a beginner, switching up the fingers can be a little tricky.

However, the reason why barre chords are so difficult is because you have to clamp you index finger across all six strings tightly and use your thumb to apply pressure underneath the fret board.  This hand shape uses muscles that are never used for anything else other than this purpose.  As a result, it kind of hurts.  My instructor showed us some hand exercises we can use to help build the hand strength, but the key is to just practice.  While I have been practicing, I’m still not great at quickly switching to a barre chord or even putting enough pressure on the string so as not to get the thud sound.  I try not to get discouraged because I am told it can take a long time to get used to it, but is worth it in the end.

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While I am really struggling with barre chords now, one thing I have never really had a problem with is learning riffs.  I still remember all the riffs learned from songs taught in the preceding four classes.  While I may not be able to remember the rest of the song in terms of what key or chord sequence for strumming, I don’t ever forget the riff.  In fact, I learn the riffs rather quickly.

Last night, we moved onto the next song in our packet which was Paul Simon’s catchy hit “Kodachrome.”  I absolutely adore this song, but I looked at the sheet with mild annoyance of the multiple barre chords that the song calls for.  We went through the song a few times and I struggled where I knew I would, but we also did take time to learn the opening riff.  Within minutes, I had it down perfectly.  The riff is a neat little boogie number that ascends form the lower E string to the D string, and then descends again before repeating.  For me, this riff is what makes this Simon class truly great.

The song sounds jovial and fun, but there is some dark humor with the lyrics.  When Simon reflects on his time in high school or all of the girls who ignored him, there is a tinge of animosity in there.  However, he has his Nikon camera and that is his whole world.  With every picture he takes, he can make the whole world a sunny day.  He seems to suggest that we interpret our photographs with rose-colored glasses and project more positive memories that may not actually reflect the time when the picture was taken.  The song is cleverly written with a tongue-in-cheek commentary on nostalgia and it’s manipulative hold on our memories.

Despite the cynical message behind the lyrics, “Kodachrome” is a very fun song that makes me happy listening to it.  And there is some irony there.  I am distracted by the boogie riff and up-tempo styling and not focusing on what Simon is saying.  But, that’s ok.  I’m more than happy to add it’s signature riff to my repertoire.  Now if only I can finally get these barre chords down.

“a to z blues” – blind willie mctell (1961)

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Early blues music, I believe, is the darkest genre of music in the 20th century.  Old bluesman busking on street corners, playing bars, or fingering on their front porches in stifling heat of the Deep South weave tales of deception, intrigue, and murder.  Often set against a jangly 12-string guitar, these balladeers and storytellers create elaborate narratives about the limits of human nature and the worst aspect of our own psyche; often drawing from personal experience.

I love old blues music, but it isn’t a genre I often find myself making the time to listen to.  Whenever it comes on, I enjoy it.  However, it isn’t something I seek out as an active listener.  I get really busy with my day to day routine that I don’t often have the time to really seek music that I isn’t readily available to me.

Every week, I volunteer for a prestigious music school in Chicago.  They offer classes and instructions on a variety of different instruments and dance styles.  They also have what I feel is the best concert venue in Chicago.  I have personally attended shows there by Marshall Crenshaw, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and John C. Reilly.  It is truly a great place and shining cultural beacon in the city.

The volunteer work I do is in their resource center; a media archive and library that houses over 20,000 records, CDs, and books.  Part of my role as a volunteer is data entry, media asset management, and helping people locate materials.  It is a really cool space and a very calm, welcoming atmosphere.  I arrive, grab a beer, and just enjoy my time.  I can play whatever I find there.  Oftentimes, I like finding records that I personally love.  The resource center has an amazing hi-fi system and I love playing albums that I already own because the fidelity is so rich that I’ll hear elements I have never heard before since I listen on my low end stereo or Apple earbuds; elements like certain instruments or backing vocals.  It feels like I’m discovering something new in something I had assume I knew everything about.

Lately, I’ve been trying to balance my listening habits.  I do like to spend some time listening to what I know and like, but also I try to find something random that is unknown or unfamiliar to me.  This is usually hit or miss. Sometimes I really love what I find, but most of them I find it just ok and doesn’t particularly move me.  So, it becomes background noise at that point.

This week, I came across an LP from blues musician Blind Willie McTell.  I had heard of McTell before.  Bob Dylan has a very brilliant track about him they he cut from Infidels and relegated to be released on rarities collection years later.  I couldn’t say for certain I had heard McTell before.  The album was entitled Last Session and was released in 1961 as McTell’s first collection of songs.  McTell had actually died two years prior in 1959.  This was fairly common for musicians like McTell.  He recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s onto 78s, and then recorded a bit in the ‘40s.  He barely made much money and would often perform on the street and under different aliases.  The bohemian movements in Greenwich Village during the 1960s shed light on these forgotten performers and offered them a new audience, though many were long gone which added to the ancient and ghostly appeal of their music.

Recorded in 1956, but released in 1961, “A to Z Blues” is a wonderfully dark and comically violent song recorded for Last Session.  In some versions of the song recorded by other artists, the first half of the song is a duet involving a lover’s quarrel.  They can’t get along.  The man is tired of being fussed at and his lover’s infidelity, while the woman has had enough of her man’s drunk and violent ways.  The song comes to a standoff with the woman responding to a veiled threat from her man.  Then, the man threatens to take his razor blade to stab and carve the entire alphabet into his lover’s skull and face.  How macabre!

In McTell’s rendition of the song, there is no duet.  He is the only one singing and the song becomes less of a fight and more of an attack.  McTell is the dominating force and laying it all down on the table.  While the duet version appears to be the product of rage brought on by a fight, McTell’s version is one of cold, calculated murder; and he is loving every minute of it.  Going through the motions of reciting his ABCs, McTell outlines every step along the way.  From cutting her head by the letter D, cutting her face by G, slicing her arms by N, and gutting her chest at the very end with Z.  All the while, McTell is relishing every slash.

I was so happy to find this track.  The guitar sounds jovial at times and makes the whole scenario more dastardly.  Decades before the PMRC and other parents organizations designed to censor offensive music, there were artists telling stories of their lives and desires often reflecting the darker side of humanity.  It is all very uncomfortable, but cathartic as well.  It makes the whole hunt of finding great older music so much more thrilling.