Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Planet Waves

I am going on record, right here and now, as stating the indefensible; namely that Bob Dylan, the great Bob Dylan, would have done us all a favor had he disappeared into darkest Africa—as the brilliant young Symbolist French poet Arthur Rimbaud did after abandoning poetry at the ripe old age of 21—after recording The Basement Tapes with the group that would go on to be called the Band. Because nothing he ever did after them even comes close to measuring up.

Oh, I know Blood on the Tracks has a billion fans, as does John Wesley Harding. Hell, I’ll bet even the execrable Self-Portrait and its bastard son Dylan have their doting admirers. But I’m not one of them, and I will spend the rest of my days wondering what happened to the trickster Zimmerman whose surreal wordplay, wild sense of humor, and flashes of brilliant spiritual insight illuminated The Basement Tapes, making them, I think, the best folk-rock music ever recorded.

I know, I know, I constitute a minority of one. But aside from 1974’s great Before the Flood, the live LP Dylan recorded with his old buddies the Band, the only post-Basement Tapes LP I ever listen to is that same year’s Planet Waves, the studio LP Dylan recorded with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Company before the tour that led to Before the Flood. That this LP constitutes the only real studio collaboration between Dylan and the Band is downright inexplicable; the feel between Bob and his Basement Tapes compadres is hand and glove, and if the LP is a kind of bummer (“Dirge” and “Wedding Song” make sure of that), it’s a lovely bummer, and makes up for its down in the mouth lyrics with ensemble playing that is inexplicably both impromptu sounding and tight as a pair of too small shoes.

The songs, or at least many of them, may be no great shakes—Dylan himself dismissed “You Angel You” as having “dummy lyrics,” and no matter what anyone says, the lovely “Forever Young” flirts with bathos—but they’re saved by Dylan’s passionate performances and the Band’s wonderful backing. It’s the performances on Planet Waves I love; the Band plays it loose but never carelessly, and fills out some ho-hum material, alchemizing lead into gold. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice put it best when he said, “In a time when all the most prestigious music, even what passes for funk, is coated with silicone grease, Dylan is telling us to take that grease and jam it.”

The only complaint, or perhaps I should say mystery, about this LP is why Dylan chose not to utilize any of the Band’s great vocalists in a back-up capacity. I think the vocals of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm would have helped fill out some of the LP’s stray cat scrawny songs, including the album’s highlight “Going, Going, Gone,” the hard-edged “Tough Mama,” both the “fast” and “slow” versions of “Forever Young,” and especially the lovely beyond belief “Never Say Goodbye,” with its wonderful lines, “Because my dreams are made of iron and steel/With a big bouquet of roses hanging down/From the heavens to the ground.”

But be as it may; I am left to simply revel in the Band’s great playing instead. Robbie Robertson performs miracles on “Going, Going, Gone,” picking out notes each and every one of which rings out like an exclamation point; plays rough on “Tough Mama,” the LP’s jagged as barbed wire hard rocker; and provides lovely and delicate counterpoint to Dylan’s vocals on “Something There Is About You” and the “slow” version of “Forever Young.” His sparse accompaniment on the lugubrious but mesmerizing “Dirge,” which features just Dylan on vocals and piano, is almost breathtaking, while his playing on “Never Say Goodbye” is nothing short of brilliant.

As for Dylan, he’s in great voice and plays lots of excellent harmonica. And this despite the fact that the album obviously found him in a deep funk, what with his having failed to release any new material for three-and-a-half years (instead we got 1973’s horrendous Dylan, which consisted of outtakes too shitty to be included on 1970’s equally awful Self-Portrait) and his marriage on the rocks. Both the black as midnight “Dirge” and the just slightly less bleak “Wedding Song” speak to his frame of mind, as does “Going, Going, Gone,” which speaks explicitly of suicide.

People can argue all they want about these songs, and whether they’re truly autobiographical, but I think they are; the wonder of Planet Waves is that it includes two brighter numbers in the form of the sprightly and subtly bayou-flavored (on which I hear Garth Hudson’s chipper accordion, although he’s not credited with playing it on the LP) “On a Night Like This” and the similarly upbeat “You Angel You,” which “dummy lyrics” or not shows off the Band’s talents as much as any song on the album.

Garth Hudson also plays a very prominent role on the LP, and his contributions to “On a Night Like This,” “You Angel You,” the wild yowl that is “Tough Mama,” and the autobiographical (or my ass is green!) “Something There Is About You” almost steal the show. There’s also heaps of great piano on the album, from both Dylan and Manuel. Indeed, and I realize I’m jumping tracks here, what strikes me most about Planet Waves is how several songs (especially “Something There Is About You” and “You Angel You”) sound more like Band songs than Dylan songs, which just goes to show you how much synergy Dylan and the Band shared in the studio.

Look, I know I’m crazy, and that my opinion is shared only by that lunatic segment of the population who could never stand Dylan in the first place (“He can’t sing!”), but here’s what I think; I think that Dylan hit a vein of pure gold during his days with the Band at the latter’s home at Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, and that he would never again write songs as purely wonderful as the existential lament “Too Much of Nothing,” the prophetic “This Wheel’s on Fire,” or the madcap capers that are “Million Dollar Bash” (“I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist”), “Please Mrs. Henry,” and “Apple Suckling Tree,” to name just a few. By the time John Wesley Harding came out in 1967 Dylan seemed to have lost forever his surrealistic sense of humor, which made such songs as “Tiny Montgomery” and “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” (“Slap that drummer with a pie that smells, take me down to California baby!”) transcendently great.

Instead he opted to return to the Dylan as prophet pose he himself had years before condemned with the words, “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.” And after that he lapsed into a ho-hum domesticity that left this critic cold. Maybe the dark warnings of “Too Much of Nothing” and “Nothing Was Delivered” off The Basement Tapes were prophetic; we will never know. But an essential part of him died by the time he got around to recording John Wesley Harding. And I know this, right down to the soles of my feet; he’d have been well advised to stick closer to the Band than he did—they never failed to bring the best out of him.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Kafka Esque

    Marriage and 5 kids dulled his senses.

    • Michael Little

      Can’t argue with you there! Thanks for writing, Kafka!

      Michael

  • jimmynixon

    the author demonstrates his complete lack of understanding of all things Dylan.

    • Michael Little

      Complete lack? Come on, I know a few things. I know he did all his best work by 1967. And that he never equaled the sheer brilliance of “Please Mrs. Henry.” But thanks for writing. And have a good one!

      • zimium

        One question: IF you know his post-band work, you KNOW who Jokerman is. Do you? And do not come with a crass answer such as Jesus, Satan or the Bob himself. The master’s post-80 work may not be of your liking but just ONE song there justifies the whole body of work. And of course you have no idea which one I am talking about. Ignoramus.

        • Michael Little

          Answer: Who gives a shit? Myself, I think it’s about Jerry Lewis. And I don’t buy that “one song justifies everything he’s done since The Basement Tapes” brouhaha. As for calling him “The Master,” I must say you carry things a bit too far. Was it The Master who gave us Self-Portrait? Bob Dylan at Budokan? “Wiggle Wiggle”? “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”? If so, Christ, who has a lot to answer for regarding Dylan’s early eighties work, help us all. Respectfully, Mike

          • zimium

            Dis-respecfully (As I think you don’t deserve ANY), Grain of Sand alone beats anything written before 1980. And if you don’t give a s… about Jokerman, you simply are too dumb and blind to understand post-The-Band Dylan and I wont bother telling you who he portrays so masterfully. Any other group of musicians would have done as well as the Robertson gang of Canucks (and I am one). Without Dylan songs, song-writing lessons, guidance and inspiration the Hawks would likely have dis-banded and never be heard from anywhere ever. The “Master” is how Mr Van M. refers to him and he IS the greatest Master of song-writing EVER as Julian Lennon referred to him on Letterman. I guess you are relatively new to Dylan and you should not argue with the people who were here from the START, heard and understood what He did to Folk, Rock and Pop – a multi revolution NEVER heard before. I know what my reaction was when I first heard Blowin’ in the wind by PPM and 30 minutes later I owned my first TWO Dylan LPs, never to look back. I saw in the eyes of non-fans who idolized the Beatles the surprise and shock when they heard LRS for the first time, and soon after I saw one of them play frisbee with his Beatles LPs and his dog.
            I was in Paris on May 24 1966 to see him for the first time and I did NOT sleep that night, That a moron like you dare write this type of crap and put it on this website in enough to make me close this account and never read another article like your crap here.

          • Michael Little

            Okay, I’ll bite. Who do you think “Jokerman” is about? And I’ll tell you this: If you think “Grain of Sand” is Dylan’s best, I must call you an imbecile or a Christer, in which case you’re simply blinded by your horrifying faith. I mean, it’s not bad, but his BEST? Sheer madness, my friend. And Dylan never had a band that came close to comparing to THE BAND. If so, who were they exactly? I might give a vote to the sessions guys who played on Blonde on Blonde, but they weren’t a band, they were gun slingers for hire. And you know what? I’m listening to “Grain of Sand” now, and it’s beginning to bore me. Can’t even be bothered to listen to the words. It sort of just drags along like a wounded animal. A pretty animal, but one that should be put down for its own good. And please remember this: Dylan recorded The Basement Tapes with The Band for a reason; they give him as much as he gave them. It was a divine sharing of diverse backgrounds. And Levon Helm was no goddamn Canuck! Sincerely, Mike

          • zimium

            Any band he had, with or without Bloomfield or Herron or Campbell he has regularly improved his band not forgetting his tour with the Heartbrakers. He MADE the Band and you may like their Americana style BUT they are NOT a great band.
            If you dont understand and appreciate GOS, you obviously are beyond help.

            As far as Jokerman is concerned, when you get a brain, simply look at what album it is on, what the topic is, and READ the lyrics, which may well be beyond your abilities.You do not deserve the information until you admit that I am right.

          • Michael Little

            That last sentence makes you sound like a petulant 5-year-old. And to say The Band is not a great group is sheer imbecility. Their work on The Basement Tapes and on their first two LPs is brilliant, period. As for admitting you’re right, wrong. Ain’t gonna happen because you, my friend, are a jerk. Fare thee well.

          • zimium

            The Band is so mediocre they could not get a contract and continue as a group so they split and even Robbie is starving playing in Toronto clubs. The proof is in the pudding. The only imbecility here is your article. Get lost idiot.

          • Michael Little

            You do not deserve for me to get lost until you admit I am right.

          • zimium

            The thing is that you are already lost. You just are too dumb to realize it.

          • Michael Little

            That’s the wittiest thing you’ve said yet. Perhaps there’s hope for you. Look, your info is so hopelessly wrong I don’t even know where to start. Take Robbie Robertson. He’s rolling in money. He could probably live off his royalties for “The Weight” alone. Throw in a whole bunch of other songs, and his soundtrack work, and I guarantee you the guy never has to work another day in his life. Garth Hudson, probably a different story. At least get your facts straight, dunderhead.

      • jimmynixon

        that’s absurd, if you’re not joking, you need professional guidance.

        • Michael Little

          I said at the beginning of my piece I was crazy. Doesn’t anybody read a word I write? Not that I blame them. As for “Please Mrs. Henry” I was joking. But not about The Basement Tapes. He never equaled them. No one has ever equaled them. They are a prodigious output of sheer brilliance.

  • Ishman Bracey

    I appreciate this appreciation of Planet Waves. But denigrating Dylan’s other work, which you seem to admit you don’t get, does not enhance your insights and for some readers may take away from them. Rimbaud’s poetry, as great as it is, was fundamentally adolescent, which is why he is a patron saint of rock stars. I’m grateful to have seen Dylan deal with his aging process and not turn away from the creativity that remains. It seems selfish to wish he had disappeared so you would not have confront the later work. That said, Dylan has lived out the “I is another” in his work as fully as imaginable. The overt religious turn his work took was a turn away from that, or a turn toward a force, God, that is all things in his view, and, Dylan being Dylan, he never stopped turning. Probably only a few can turn so many times with him and it is reasonable to assume Dylan fans differ according to which turns are their favorite. Again, thanks describing how Planet Waves moves you. It was very lovely.

    • Michael Little

      Thanks for your thoughtful words. I may disagree on Rimbaud’s poetry–to call it “adolescent” is to diminish its astonishing power, and hence t demean it–but you’re right about my not wanting to face Dylan’s later work. Who can face “Self-Portrait” and not turn to stone? Where others see a progression, or in your words a turning, I see a sad drop-off in creativity, with some exceptions of course. I suspect it may have been due in part to his giving up amphetamines, and due in part to a domesticity and the complacency that comes with it. But I’m wrong all the time, and I could be wrong here. Thanks again for your very reflective critique, my friend. Mike

  • Michael Little

    That said, I do like “I’m Saved.” It rocks and it rolls. Not bad. The lyrics are unfortunate, but I can ignore them. Thank you Lord!

  • Mick Gold

    Listen to Tangled Up In Blue, Shelter From the Storm, Blind Willie McTell, Jokerman, Where Are You Tonight, Dignity, Not Dark Yet, Mississippi (many versions), Red River Shore. If you think NONE of these are as good as Please Mrs Henry, you have a most unusual way of hearing Dylan and a most unusual mind. Maybe nothing except funky surrealism does it for you. Roll over Rimbaud! Tell Hank Williams the news.

    • Michael Little

      I do have an unusual mind, I’ll grant you that. Look, I write right up there in the review I’m crazy and that nobody will agree with me. And it’s hardly as if I don’t like ANY of the songs he’s recorded since 1967. I could put together a compilation. It’s just that very few of them (“Shelter,” “Idiot Wind,” etc.) move me the way his pre-1967 work did. The point I was trying to make was that I thought he found an incredible new way of expressing himself while working with the Band that mixed humor with seriousness then never followed up. And went downhill fast with Self-Portrait, etc. I do appreciate your friendly tone and your reasoned argument. To say nothing of those last two sentences. They’re great!

  • Michael Little

    And I’ve figured it out. Jokerman is about you. Moron

  • hankwilliams

    I do love Planet Waves, but I also like Self Portrait. Two of the Dylan albums I listen to most.

    • Michael Little

      Are you for real? Self-Portrait? Wow. I admire your honesty. And thanks for writing, my friend.

  • Craig Whitman

    I love Planet Waves- listening to it now. The Band and Dylan are magic. The Band possibly the most skillful rock group back then.

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