Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Bob Dylan - Planet Waves

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #14: 

The underrated Planet Waves orbits from a Country-Gentlemanly New Morning to Blood On The Tracks-style yearning and bitter loss. “Hold on to me so tight / And heat up some coffee grounds” begins the first track, the affable and welcoming “On A Night Like This.” But there’s a little blood on these tracks, too, as the last line of the last song “Wedding Song,” prepares us for the reflections and recriminations to come on the later album: “And I could never let you go, no matter what goes on / 'Cause I love you more than ever now that the past is gone.”

The 1974 Planet Waves, tossed off in a three-day recording spate -- and sounding like it, too, with raggedly refreshing results -- constitutes, then, a rough-hewed and ramshackle bridge from Bob Dylan’s post-crash laid-back country-rock period, to 1975’s pointed and poignant Blood On The Tracks, in which the break-up of his marriage haunts his dreams to poetic and expressive affect.

In Planet, these night visions are equally tender and tough: In “Never Say Goodbye,” Dylan sings of his dreams “made of iron and steel / With a big bouquet / Of roses hanging down / From the heavens to the ground." This back and forth bonhomie and melancholy plays throughout the release, which appropriately finds a dualistic Dylan in fine voice, alternately biting and genial.

And if you’re going to hastily record a rickety down-home and downcast, overlooked and undercooked work that depends on nuance over bombast, the go-to guys are The Band, at their Basement Tapes best. Robbie Robertson’s responsive guitar dynamics and Garth Hudson’s swirling organ ebb and flow mark particular musical marvels throughout the LP, evoking a recent past -- and one as perhaps a prelude to long-ago memories...


"Thought I'd shaken the wonder and the phantoms of my youth / Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin' the hills of old Duluth,” says Dylan in the pensive and questing “Something There Is About You.”  He's in an introspective mood, and the subject of youth and the passing of time crop up repeatedly in Planet, and not just in the album’s best-known song, the resonant and lovely “Forever Young,“ with its earnest wish: “May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / May you stay forever young."

In “Going, Going, Gone," Dylan is more distractedly resolute and rudderless, as we sense that Planet Waves may indeed signal a bridging, a transitional time for Dylan, looking back but still seeking an ill-defined fairly-formed change musically and -- not incidentally -- personally: “I'm closin' the book / On the pages and the text / And I don't really care / What happens next. / I'm just going / I'm going / I'm gone.” In “Wedding Song," his aimlessness take on a more ritualistic and anticipatory but still indistinct form as “I've said goodbye to haunted rooms and faces in the street / To the courtyard of the jester which is hidden from the sun / I love you more than ever and I haven't yet begun.”

All Dylan knows for sure is that it’s time for his boot heels to be wandering, and in this more carefree “Mr. Tambourine Man” frame of mind wherein he can “forget about today until tomorrow,” Dylan displays a little Maggie's Farm fun in the album’s punchiest and jauntiest song, the colorful “Tough Mama” where a self-deprecating Dylan -- in dire circumstance and in weather that “was a-hotter than a crotch” -- rolls with rollicking instrumental punches that could’ve been thrown from The Band

      I'm crestfallen
     The world of illusion is at my door,
     I ain't a-haulin' any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore.
     The prison walls are crumblin', there is no end in sight,
     I've gained some recognition but I lost my appetite.
     Dark Beauty
     Meet me at the border late tonight.

If anything is going to bring Dylan back down to earth, to serious purpose and that detected Blood On The Tracks mindset (as manifested perhaps in that elusive “Dark Beauty”) it is the aptly-titled “Dirge,” a stark and dark tale made even more so by the late Richard Manuel’s somber piano punctuation, and by Dylan’s emphatic vocals -- vocals that nearly see him spit out Idiot-Winded spite and self-loathing: “I hate myself for lovin' you and the weakness that it showed / You were just a painted face on a trip down Suicide Road.” It’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe, indeed. And it’s a wonder the singer of the song can even live with himself:

     There are those who worship loneliness, I'm not one of them,
     In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem.
     The crystal ball up on the wall hasn't shown me nothing yet,
     I've paid the price of solitude, but at last I'm out of debt.

     Can't recall a useful thing you ever did for me
     'Cept pat me on the back one time when I was on my knees.
     We stared into each other's eyes 'til one of us would break,
     No use to apologize, what diff'rence would it make?

     So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine,
     The naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen.
     Lady Luck, who shines on me, will tell you where I'm at,
     I hate myself for lovin' you, but I should get over that.

He won’t get over that. And at the end of Planet, in the deeply-felt and expressed “Wedding Song,“ Dylan, in a clarion call of sorts to an open-ended and messy, unpredictable and imperfect life, acknowledges a resignation to his conflicting feelings that have overtaken him and that he’ll never escape.

And moreover, in admitting that “It's never been my duty to remake the world at large / Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge,” Dylan goes on to pledge: “'Cause I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn't bend / And if there is eternity I'd love you there again” -- expressing an emotional intensity that, just as Planet Waves has built to this pinnacle and passion, will be, by extension, further built upon and carried over with more cohesion and coherence the following year in the indelible and deeply-ingrained Blood On The Tracks.

I concede that I may be reading too much into a musical, lyrical or thematic progression from Planet Waves to Blood On The Tracks, unwitting and intuition-driven though it may be on Dylan‘s part.  But the earlier album and the speculation does lend itself to some pattern of interpretation and analysis, which is more that can be said for other quickly-conceived and recorded Dylan albums.

“What’s the matter with me? / Ain’t got much to say” Dylan admitted once in “Watchin’ The River Flow.” So be it. But he just seems to be too restless in Planet Waves to be going with the flow. There’s something else around the bend.


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