Friday, September 08, 2006

Modern Times

Times change and don’t change.

So Dylan wrote in notes from his sole Egyptian Records release, a 1996 tribute to Jimmie Rodgers. That notion, that things change but don’t change, has been central to the set of records he began with Time Out of Mind [1997], continued with Love and Theft [2001], and adds to now with Modern Times.

As we out here in radioland tend to think of things as trilogies, it is now a trilogy. All and all, it’s been a grand return to form for Dylan. Modern Times stands with the previous two sessions like a Black Panther trackster at the Olympics - head down and fist up, getting a medal while the National Anthem plays. Maybe with an eye on the exit. The return to form is triadic.

Modern Times? Who knows? Maybe that’s the key. Have you noticed that what was pre-modern is now post-modern? But what about that Modern?! There is a rich sound here – and hell if it and its immediate antecedents aint likable to the rebirthed art Chaplin offered the world in his few sparse talkies, a resurge of genius long after his Silent Era heyday.

The sound of the Dylan group -- only the bassist, Tony Garnier, has carried through all the trilogy -- is incredibly tight and appropriate. Of the music -- he anchors and motivates all. J.J.Cale in old days had such a refined sense of blues rhythm, to try to give you an idea of the precise tightness. But the songs each have their own treatment and, blues, while the more dominant tone to Modern Times, is interspersed with variety light music, an old timey metier that has become a more integral part of the Dylan repertoire in these golden years.


As they have most every one of them died -- hang in forever there B.B.!, Otis Rush! and ….. who else? -- Dylan has taken on and carried forward the underlying sentiment of the bluesman and the blues ethos. Thunder on the Mountain, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Someday Baby, and The Levee’s Gonna Break are the core of this record, and they are all great numbers.

Cecelia has said about bands in general: “The further you get away from the blues the further you get into trouble.” The blues core is a key to the success of this record.

There are wistful and potent, Tin Pan Alley pop-style numbers too. Well Tin Pan Alley through the funnel, as Bob Wills might have had it. It’s actually hard to describe the style. It is Dylan’s. As he said of Jimmy Rodgers, “his refined style, an amalgamation of sources unknown, is too cryptic to pin down”. The critic will try, but these numbers can take a place ahead of some of their precursors on the previous two records. Beyond the Horizon moves me most.

Beyond the Horizon is a remake-remodel-revision of Red Sails in the Sunset, a popular one around the old home stead where I growed. Dylan has before paid omage to the popular song smiths of yore, starting with surprising appearances at public tributes to George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, flowing through the numbers on the Jimmie Rodgers tribute he produced, and his rendition of Tomorrow Night on Good As I Been to You, and reaching a flowering in the Time Out of Mind Trilogy.

Beyond the Horizon – beyond the blues horizon - is beyond Copper Kettle and Winterlude as this artist’s glimpse-depictions of heaven. But it is like Hello Hello or The Lovin Spoonful. The music is breezy. WhoodaThunkIt/ Ukes and Jazzmaster chords. Hawaii calls. He is a rhyming son of a bitch. The words go:

Beyond the horizon
at the end of the game
every step that you take
I’m walking the same.

It’s the right time of the season
Someone there always cares
There’s always a reason
Why someone’s live has been spared

Beyond the horizon
The sky is so blue
Ive got more than a lifetime
to live loving you.

This is an eternal time. Yes, “everything can go black.” As it does on another number on this disk. It will and it has. This is our era in long view. Thank you, Bob. Sorry we screwed up your beer drinking tryst with Ginsberg and the Russian poets near 42nd St in 1972.

Yes, Beyond the Horizon is like Red Sails in the Sunset. Theft you say! Stealing, Stealing. Recall the controversy around Love and Theft, as Dylan influences and borrowings were unmasked and non-anonymous. But Picasso is unrepentant. This record says, ok I am going to take Rolling and Tumblin, put in a few of my verses, shake it up, come back to a verse from another classic, and do the same with Someday Baby and The Levee’s Gonna Break . One recalls Al Wilson’s instructions on writing blues…Use a number of traditional phrases put together in a new relationship.

Funny but I was playing Memphis Minnie LP and heard her pal Joe McCoy’s version of The Levee’s Gonna Break just perchance as Modern Times climbed into the CD gondola. PlunckPlunckPlunck no place to stay. It was there in the air. Like the best blues art.

Grab it. If Joe and Minnie could have heard Dylan do this at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Fest, whew! Dylan’s last studio record came out on Sept 11, 2001. This one came out on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. People on the road. Help us! We saw it. On CNN. And telethons that followed. Dylan got it down - big time. He acknowledged it in new art as no other. He is mindful, of art in the air or on the levee to be found.

If it keeps on raining
The levee’s gonna break
If it keeps on raining
The levee’s gonna break
Some of these people don’t know which road to take.

Some people carrying everything they own
Some people carrying everything they own

Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones.

Put on your cat clothes mama
Put on your evening dress
Put on your cat clothes mama
Put on your evening dress

If it keeps on raining
The levee’s gonna break
If it keeps on raining
The levee’s gonna break

Few more years of hard work and then they’ll be a hundred years of happiness

If it keeps on raining
The levee’s gonna break
If it keeps on raining
The levee’s gonna break
I tried to get you to love me but I wont repeat that mistake.

Too much to get down here. From the guy who almost died and met Elvis after catching a congestive bug playing an outdoor event near a big batcave in Kentucky before this whole trilogy hit the road.

To hear him in a swell foop [Thunder on the Mountain] immortalize Alicia Keys [“Everybody’s got to wonder/whats the matter with this cruel world today”] , like Simon did DiMaggio, like Mailer did Monroe. Who is the thief, anyway?

To come on like a warped hillbilly hipster on down the road in a Cadillac with Chuck Berry, bringing the crazy St. Louis cat back to the fore of our culture [“I got the pork chops/She got the pie/She aint no angel/And neither am I”]. The songs are like story boards, and then he travels on.

To wit. It’s all good. For a lesson here I look to Dylan. Said the bard: “Times change and don’t change. The nature of humanity has stayed the same.”

Pen ultimately, I’d like to say that Rollin and a Tumblin [Now read: “This woman is so crazy/I swear I ain’t gonna touch another one for years.”] really tipped my boat when I first heard it from Canned Heat way back. 1967. When we were youths, this stuff seemed tied together somehow, Dylan and the blues, and we followed the picture on Bringing it All Back Home, the one that pointed to Robert Johnson. Greatly affecting to hear again the story of the Rollin and a Tumblin night where sleep eludes and the world is in a jug.

Finally, if you act now, you can get a bonus rendition of the Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour. The theme? Baseball. Includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Damn Yankees [not the Ted Nugent version] , Cowboy Copas, Sonny Rollins, Sister Wyonna Carr, more. Funnel on great vorticist! He recently swept through this area playing minor league parks in Pawtucket and Pittsfield. With Jimmy Vaughan and Junior Brown [and, I think, Elena Fereman]. The co-producer of Dylan’s Time Radio Hour disk is none other than Eddie Gorodetsky, who was a great college blues DJ [and Rainbow Rib Room chef] here in Boston back in the 70s.


Gordon Thomas said...

On Modern Times, Dylan sings:

More frailer than flowers, these precious hours/That keep us so tightly bound

On hearing these lines, I thought, well, that’s like something from an old poem, isn’t it, and, now, this just in from the NYTimes (9/14/06): Dylan’s lines are from an old poem. More precisely from Henry Timrod’s Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night:

A round of precious hours/Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked/And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers

No big surprise, not after hearing of the borrowings, on Love & Theft, from an obscure, but recent and copyrighted, Japanese book on the Yakuza culture. Timrod died in 1867, and Dylan uses at least five more of his lines in When the Deal Goes Down without any need to sweat plagiarism charges.

But what manner of plagiarism is Dylan’s, anyway? It’s all cut and paste. In Timrod’s poem, it’s the poet’s logic that’s frailer than the flowers, not the hours. The lines from the Yakuza book were hammered into the song Floater, the persona of which appears to be a disaffected tobacco farmer down South, a concoction fairly distant from a Japanese gangster. Dylan has no designs on the actual expressive content of his sources. When he wants the feel of archaic, flowery poeticism, he rips lines from an archaic, flowery poem, but the song itself is all late-in-the-day Bob Dylan, sad and kooky.

Should Bob be doing this? Is Dylan still a genius? I don’t know. Whether Bob wrote ‘em or not, my favorite lines from the album are these:

I’m as pale as a ghost/Holding a blossom on a stem/You ever seen a ghost? No/But you have heard of them

Now, that’s as funny as when, back in the day, the post office was stolen.

Anonymous said...

well, Jack, I finally figured out how to get that rss overlay out of my browser's field! -jay

Anonymous said...

And tell your blogs admin that the clock is way off.

It is 9:52 right now --jay

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