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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  • Tom Kasmir

    I never heard anyone else write about how great a song “Never Say Goodbye” is. It transcends most of anything else I’ve ever heard, and there’s a ton of stuff I love besides it. I’m still hoping to this day a longer version will surface.

  • Michael Maxwell

    I think Robbie Robertson’s guitar caterwauling ruins the album. The stutter technique and trebly tone are like nails on a chalk board. Dozens of concert recordings sans Band are far more listenable. Thank God he only ruined one album!

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