Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I Hung My Head and Listened

When something as good as Blonde on Blonde exists, what’s the point? Many music critics claim Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles to be the greatest album, but it’s easy to pick holes through an album that sounds slightly dated—although it is still very good. But over roughly the same 40 years, Blonde sounds just as refreshing as it must have had in May of 1966.

So, what’s a guy like Bob Dylan to do? At the humble age of 25, he has created a masterpiece that still hasn’t been rivaled. The first album after it? John Wesley Harding, a record that is, in terms of a follow-up, about as good as you can get and still underappreciated. For most, it’d be the high point of their career but for Dylan, it’s probably behind Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks and Bringing It All Back Home, in that order.

But it’s an album worth looking at for, among other things, its simplicity, religious message that would becomes more striking in ten short years, perspective lyrics that range from impersonal to intensely personal (look no further than “Dear Landlord”) and crack playing from the musicians.

I already had about 20 different Dylan albums before I got Harding during my senior year of high school. As it is with the majority of the 400 or so albums in my personal collection, I got it from the library and like most, my first impression of the album was the cover—and how non-striking it was. At that point, I was still a Dylan novice and more used to the blurriness of Blonde or the happiness shown on Freewheelin’, and this faded, old looking picture of Dylan surrounded by Indians (and The Beatles?) was like something I’d find hidden in a corner of my grandparent’s attic.

In my bedroom, I had a stereo that my mother had bought me as a Hanukkah present two years before, and that’s where I first listened to it. The album begins with Dylan’s strumming away at his acoustic guitar and when the lyrics kick in (“John Wesley Harding/was a friend to the poor…”), Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on the most restrained drums this side of the new Wilco album join in too. And the most underappreciated aspect of the album, Dylan’s harmonica playing, eventually comes in between each verse.

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the album. In fact, the first time I listened, I could only get a few songs in. When I told my Dad this, he said something along the lines of give the album a chance, it’ll only get better. The next day, while waiting for school to begin, I burned a copy of the album and gave it to my girlfriend at the time, Hannah. I told her my reaction to the album and to this day, she still doesn’t particularly like Harding, although I doubt she gave it more than a listen or two—even though she is a Dylan fan.

I can’t remember the first time the album really kicked in for me, but I do know it was sometime around the break between high school or college, or possibly even during the beginning months of my freshmen year at SUNY Purchase. It actually wasn’t until this year that I began to love the album as much I do now; before then, it was a good album but one that wasn’t on any consistent playlist of mine.

The way I described the opening of “John Wesley Harding” is pretty much the way every song on the album begins and ends: always McCoy thumping the bass line, Buttrey never letting himself go into the foreground or background but staying right in the middle, occasionally Pete Drake on steel guitar and Dylan himself leading the group in a way that he wouldn’t really reach again until Blood on the Tracks.

But the simplicity is the album’s greatest strength. After all, look at the other albums on top of the charts in 1967: The Monkees, More of the Monkees, The Sound of Music soundtrack, The Hollies, Moby Grape and Forever Changes. Of course there were also some other amazing albums that year (Axis: Bold as Love, Disraeli Gears, the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper’s and, most importantly, The Velvet Underground and Nico, to name just a few) but in no way are those albums as gorgeous as Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.

The fondest feelings I have for any song on the album is “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” which reads like a mix between Dylan’s own “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” and Johnny Cash’s version of “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” (I use Cash because Harding is an album that he would seemed to have surely loved, especially the title character of the album.) Although I haven’t been witness to quite yet, my father and his brother, Ken, used to act out a skit to “Frankie Lee” when they were young and the song had just come out. I asked my Dad about it, and he likes the song because he finds it one of Dylan’s funniest. I completely agree with this sentiment, and can really only think of one or two songs that might be funnier in Dylan’s catalogue—“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” comes to mind.

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked,
He dropped ev'rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand.
"What kind of house is this," he said,
"Where I have come to roam?"
"It's not a house," said Judas Priest,
"It's not a house . . . it's a home."

I mean, how is that not funny? It’s also a good verse to quote because, as I’ve noticed, everyone gets a different reaction from it. Me, I think it’s Dylan stating the difference between having a “house,” a place that has four walls and is used for the purposes of shelter (from the storm) only, and a “home,” which is what Dylan was trying to achieve with Sara and his children in Woodstock at the time.

My other two favorite songs on the album are, if you’ll pardon the cliché, the Kafkaesque “Drifter’s Escape” (“Outside, the crowd was stirring/You could hear it from the door/Inside, the judge was stepping down/While the jury cried for more”) and “I Am a Lonesome Hobo,” which is the song Bob Levinson ended his class with.

I guess I still find it remarkable this album was only recorded 18 months after Blonde on Blonde, because they just sound terrifically different. But I guess that’s why Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and everyone else is everyone else.

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