Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Bob Dylan at Budokan

The only thing that’s more fun than picking the high point of Bob Dylan’s long career is picking the low point of Bob Dylan’s long career. Was it 1970’s dumbfounding improvised explosive device, Self Portrait? The concert in 1982 when, upon being heckled by college students unhappy with his New Puritan material, Born-Again Bob told them they’d probably have a better time at a Kiss concert, adding that there they could “rock’n’roll all the way down to the pit!” Or the moment shortly thereafter, when he told Maria Muldaur that such ill-behaved young people were a sure sign the End Times were nigh?

They all work for me. But when push comes to shove I have to go with 1979’s Bob Dylan at Budokan, the double live atrocity that chronicles Dylan’s willingness to sell his much vaunted principles at a steep price to the poor Japanese people as strolled into Budokan not knowing they were walking into a kind of Pearl Harbor in reverse. Dylan was fronting a slick band (in uniforms!) complete with brass and backing singers, and had rearranged his songs like he was preparing to play a long stint at a Las Vegas casino.

The results are sometimes bizarre; he recasts “Shelter From the Storm” as a plodding 1,2,1,2 march across an endless desert, with horns dressing up the choruses like cheap tarts. And he turns “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” into an overblown show number that sounds like the theme music from a bad 1970’s cop show. It takes a brave man to butcher his own sacred cow, but Bob is up to it.

Not all of his songs wilt under this mistreatment. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” trots along like a good dog and is just as lovable, despite the slick flute prettying everything up. And the same flute fails to sink an interesting take on “All Along the Watchtower” that comes complete with some very overheated guitar. Meanwhile, “Like a Rolling Stone” shrugs off some odd phrasing and a schlock saxophone and emerges a winner, proof that you just can’t keep a great song down. Ditto for “Just Like a Woman,” which comes out of this massacre relatively unscathed.

That’s the paltry good news. For the bad news, just lend an ear (I double dog dare you!) to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which Dylan and evil collaborator Rob Stoner give a ruinous reggae twist. Or the great “I Want You,” which features a ululating Dylan (“I-eee want you!”), some really deplorable flute, and not much else. Thanks to the Budokan version I’ll never hear the song the same way again, and I’m not happy about it.

What Dylan does to “All I Really Want to Do” should constitute a crime against humanity; I suppose you can call the results cute, but not even Peter, Paul & Mary could have conceived of such a ludicrously crass arrangement. Poor “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” also gets the reggae treatment, and you’ll find yourself saying, “Just what the song always needed—congas!” Meanwhile Dylan doctors “Ballad of a Thin Man” up with some clichéd horns and a god-awful arrangement, and it turns out Mr. Jones is Dylan himself.

Even his early standards aren’t sacrosanct. “Mr. Tambourine Man” gets cutesified, but at least the melody is left intact. “Blowin’ in the Wind” features a piano that is too pretty by far and a crooning Dylan who sounds like he’s faking it, and it blows, it blows. Meanwhile, LP closer “The Times They Are a Changin’”—which Dylan tells the audience “means a lot to me”—doesn’t mean so much to him that he isn’t willing to sprinkle show biz glitter all over it. And, oh, that swelling chorus! Just like Neil Diamond!

This is supper club Dylan, and features a Dylan as is happy to sing for his supper, and a huge payday. Artists have every right to do what they want with their work. The younger Dylan wasn’t afraid to say to hell with audience expectations, but the younger Dylan was in the pocket of destiny and he knew it. He was right when he called them that called him Judas for going electric liars. On Bob Dylan at Budokan Dylan has reached a creative dead end and it is not at all certain he knows it. This is not the assured work of a confident artist but that of one who is so lost the best he can do is piss on his own legacy. Caveat emptor.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

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  • Martin Bourgeois

    I’m a big fan of this LP.

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