Looking back on the fuss it caused, it feels like a different world, a distant memory that reminds us just how seriously we used to take our rock ’n’ roll … and our Dylan.
1979, after all, wasn’t only the end of a decade in which Dylan utterly reinvented himself as the most powerful singer-songwriter of a whole new age; it also saw him on a wave that was at least as pronounced as the trough upon which he entered the 1970s.
Do you even remember how bad Dylan was in the early 1970s? No matter that his performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 was widely regarded as triumphant — it was his first gig in four years; people were hardly likely to say anything else.
But the albums that followed — Self Portrait, New Morning, Dylan and the “Pat Garrett” soundtrack were so uniformly disappointing that when 1974 brought the Planet Waves reunion with The Band, it was so good to hear Dylan at least firing on a few cylinders that even cynics were prepared to overlook the fact that there were only two or three decent songs on the set: “Dirge,” “Going Going Gone” and, if you insist, “Forever Young.”
Then came the tour that spawned the Before The Flood live album, and the decade was already almost half done and the best Dylan had managed was to tread water. In 1966, his label, Columbia, released Dylan’s first Greatest Hits collection. In 1971, just five years later, the label released his second.
“Knocking On Heaven’s Door” notwithstanding, if they wanted to stick to that schedule for a third volume, what exactly would they have to put on it? Especially when you remember that the last two albums were both released by David Geffen’s Asylum label, after Dylan set off on contractual walkabout for a couple of years.
But then the tide turned. First an archive release, The Basement Tapes, a double-album distillation of the most legendary recording sessions in history, as Dylan and The Band holed up, indeed, in a basement in 1967 and jammed their way through every song they could think of. The collection was flawed, to be sure, but still, there was scarcely a Dylan fan in the world who did not listen to it and perceive the myriad different directions that he could have taken out of the sessions, any one of which would have been an improvement on the path he did finally take.
Then came Blood On The Tracks, a divorce (and more) set to music; it was universally proclaimed to be Dylan’s greatest album since Name Your Favorite a decade or more before. And it still is, from the accusatory snarl of “Tangled Up In Blue,” to the aural western “Lily Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts,” through “Idiot Wind” and “Simple Twist Of Fate,” and onto the various “alternate versions” that have leaked out onto the collectors’ market.
As journalist Carol Caffin said just a couple of months ago, “This album is a masterpiece, Dylan’s magnum opus. It changed my life when I was only 14, and I have never looked back. Brilliant — a perfect record.”
Looking for answers
Better was to come. 1975 also brought Desire, a record that may not have been granted the same all-out adoration, but which has just as many high points as its predecessor, and a clutch of songs that even rose above the last album’s high bar — the mystifying “Isis,” the rollicking “Black Diamond Bay,” and the plaintive “Sara.”
Then came the Rolling Thunder tour, an outing that is almost mythical now, so brilliantly realized was Dylan’s medicine-show road show. And, although the critics panned “Renaldo and Clara,” the movie that grew so organically from the tour, every time it washed up on the late-night theater circuit, the queues stretched around the block.
It’s true that Dylan’s next album stumbled. 1978’s Street Legal certainly had its moments — both “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” and the opening “Changing Of The Guard” would have beautified either of its predecessors, and when Patti Smith covered the latter on last year’s Twelve album, she knew exactly what she was doing.
Smith is already enshrined in rock history as one of Dylan’s biggest fans, and she had his entire career to choose from. She chose “Changing Of the Guard.” End of discussion.
Dylan was in England that same summer, for the first time since the Isle of Wight, as part of a world tour that began in Tokyo in February, wrapped up in the U.S. in December, and devoted a month to Europe amidships.
A solid week of shows at London’s Earl’s Court Arena in June sold out within minutes, so he returned at the end of the continental dates to headline the Blackbushe Festival, umpteen thousand fans converging upon a disused and dusty aerodrome in the middle of nowhere for a 34-song show that surely hit every highlight his career could offer. (Even if he did miss out almost every favorite song I’ve mentioned in this article so far.)
He looked good; he sounded great. There was certainly no indication whatsoever that the next time we heard from him, he would have so completely sidestepped his past and his reputation that only his name on the record sleeve proved that Slow Train Coming was a Bob Dylan album.
It was the Street Legal tour that sent Dylan searching for new answers to the questions that had haunted him all his life. It was an exhausting outing, physically and emotionally; he was still reeling from his separation with wife Sara and was battered too by a seemingly unanimously hostile press. “Renaldo and Clara” had been panned mercilessly — too long, moaned the critics; too sprawling, too self-indulgent.
No matter that it contained some of the greatest live footage of Dylan ever captured; nor that its admittedly convoluted saga of confused identities and dramatics painted the most revealing portrait yet of what it must be like to actually be Bob Dylan. Without a plot they could follow and an ending they could predict, the critics slammed the film; then, with the taste for blood still fresh in their mouths, they slammed Street Legal as well.
Now they were hammering the live show, and Dylan’s willingness to actually sit down with journalists in almost every town they visited and submit himself to an interview schedule that was as numbing as it was repetitive could not have failed to backfire furiously.
He had never enjoyed giving interviews, even when he knew that the assembled journalists wanted nothing more than a flash of that old acerbic wit. Now, however, the press corps wanted more, probing questions about the state of his marriage, his music, his mind. So Dylan sought refuge in the company of the friends who lived alongside him on the road and the bandmates who at least had an inkling of how unnatural that lifestyle really was. And among them, he found one who seemed to have answers.
Who had answers for Dylan’s questions? Find out in Part 2!