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Love in Vain: Dylan and the Stones in the Seventies

A second look at 'Street Legal' and 'Some Girls' after harsh initial reviews

The Rolling Stones
Matt Green/Getty Images
September 21, 1978

If there's one song that will memorialize this summer, it's "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones. You hear it on the radio almost hourly, and everyone in your life seems to be walking down the street to its beat. "Miss You" is an intensely erotic rock & roll ramble that exemplifies the polish, power and passion of the Stones. It's a track that equals "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar," and may even set new standards for the band.

These days, I also find myself singing the words and humming the melodies of the new Dylan songs. Especially these lines: "Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we're headin'/Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?" Behind these lyrics, an entire Billy the Kid soundtrack is in motion, with mysterioso counterpoints between strings and keyboards. "Seems like I been down this way before/Is there any truth in that, Señor?"

"Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" is Dylan's strongest, most convincing look at life in America since Highway 61 Revisited. When he sings, "This place don't make sense to me no more," I feel the way I did when I first heard "Desolation Row."

The reviews of Street-Legal, Some Girls and two Stones concerts in Rolling Stone were exceptionally negative and, in many ways, seemed based on a weird hostility and bitterness. Greil Marcus (who reviewed Street-Legal), Dave Marsh (who wrote about the Rolling Stones in concert) and Paul Nelson (who reviewed Some Girls) are among the top five or six rock critics in the world. But Marcus' and Marsh's articles were ad hominem attacks.

Marcus on the Dylan LP: "Most of the stuff here is dead air . . . wretched performances . . . [Dylan] speaks to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD . . . he's never sounded so utterly fake . . . intolerably smug . . . an imitation of caring that couldn't fool a stuffed dog."

Greil Marcus is saying that Street-Legal is completely without merit, lacks a single song good enough to redeem the effort, and is nothing but junk. Not only that, but Mr. Dylan is insulting to women! Mother of God!

However, "Baby Stop Crying" and "Is Your Love in Vain?," the two numbers that don't pass Marcus' "proper respect" test, are among the record's finest: simple, direct expressions from a man who knows love and the ambiguities of commitment only too well. They are songs about lost love – throwing it all away – and, what is even more compelling, the fear of love.

Street-Legal is definitely a mixed bag. But I hear mostly very strong songs – far higher than Dylan's recent average. And, as a whole, this LP is his most comprehensive comment about our current state since Blonde on Blonde.

Bob Dylan is once again trying something new (as he's done with every album). But what we have here is something more tentative than we're used to, because this record represents a very ambitious move, and a very deliberate one. Dylan is going back through all his vocal and instrumental styles. The tracks are filled with obvious echoes from Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline, et al.: "Where Are You Tonight?" nearly metamorphoses into "Like a Rolling Stone" at least three times. He wants to meld these styles into one: a style that isn't merely full, but is ultimately pure.

Dylan's voice is more expressive than it's ever been, and his mastery of phrasing has reached a level of sophistication that's simply stunning. But the ambitiousness of Street-Legal has apparently made the artist too hesitant about reaching for his goals – in fact, he shies away from the challenge. The problem is finally a musical one: you can't make a great LP with a twelve-piece band in six days, which is essentially what Dylan has tried to do. The new album is badly recorded, badly engineered, badly mixed. The drums sound like shoe boxes, the vocals drift on and off mike, etc. And no one has bothered to take the time to fix things up.

Dylan needs a producer. In 1969, with a six-man rock & roll band, you could go for the groove. But in 1978, when our ears have become attuned to technical improvements and superior studio techniques, it's unfair of any artist to give either himself or us less than the best. Arrangements for a twelve-piece band take time, thought and care. If Dylan were to walk into the studio tomorrow and record the same set of songs, the results would be twice as good because his band has been on the road for three months now, benefiting from the time and care that this music clearly needed.

The bitterness toward the Dylan album has much to do with Renaldo and Clara, a film I skipped because of the anger it caused among those who saw it. The movie created a backlash which caught Street-Legal. Dylan apparently didn't care about his audience.

Bob Dylan is moving back to the rock idiom, always my favorite of his periods. And though he can still set most of his own rules (as he did in the past), a lot of new rules have also been lodged, which is how it should be. And that's what I think Dylan must deal with first, no matter what else may be said.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

Dave Marsh on the Stones concerts in Philadelphia and New York City: "[They're] now just another good rock band . . . their show is frequently very dull . . . very average . . . it's clear that these Stones can only barely do it at all . . . the extremely tedious middle section of the show, in which the Stones promote their new album like latter-day Framptons . . . 'Respectable,' for instance, is just a rewrite of 'Rocks Off'. . . . What the program really did point up is how much the quality of the group's material has slipped. . . .  lackluster . . . boring."

Any serious critic who says the Rolling Stones are just another "average" band practically invites us to question all his judgments. I'd like to have the names of five bands better than the Stones. Marsh also complained that "the focus is still too incessantly on Mick Jagger" (when was it ever not?), and then turned around and bitched that, in 1975, "Jagger was obliged to take frequent breaks, and these were the slackest moments of all." Well, which do you want, Dave? A lion-taming act could have hopped onstage while Jagger rested. Finally, Marsh lets it loose: "Jagger wears blazers and golfing caps onstage these days, which is reminiscent of nothing so much as Bob Hope – or Jerry Lewis, in The Delicate Delinquent."

The Stones: Just Another Rock Band? Dave Marsh's Live Review

The two shows that Marsh wrote about were indeed less than the Stones have given us in the past. I saw the New York City date, skipped Philadelphia, but had the good fortune of seeing the band in a 3400-seat movie theater in Passaic, New Jersey, where they were hot and unstoppable. (The too few small dates on the tour were a special treat. Their new material was the high point of the concert in New Jersey. Keith Richards played his ass off, and Bill Wyman rumbled every seat in the house. It was obvious that the Rolling Stones still cut it and can be the best rock & roll band performing today.)

However, gigs like the 90,000-seater in Philadelphia and the end-of-the-tour dates in Anaheim and other megabuck stadium stops were unanimously regarded as second-rate stuff. Maybe Led Zeppelin can come across to that many people at that great a distance, but the Stones can't, and they know it. But rather than play for five nights at, say, the 18,000-seat Los Angeles Forum (which would have given their fans a better show, but might have reduced gross box-office receipts by $250,000), the band went for Fort Knox. That was the point of the 1978 tour: cleanup time at the superbowls. But, boys, the price of that extra quarter-million – split six ways, after commissions and taxes – is bad reviews. And you deserved them.

Even in optimum settings, the Stones, as a live band, had real problems this year and didn't meet the standards they set on their previous American tours. Above all, Keith Richards' performances were erratic: many nights, he barely played at all. And since he, more than anyone else, is the musical force behind the Stones, the band suffered without his guitar playing. I'm sure this fact must weigh heavily on them. I think the Stones' new songs are stunners, but, with Richards out of commission, both the fans and the critics would rather hear "Midnight Rambler."

It was a poor Rolling Stones tour, and I'll grant that Dave Marsh (who happened upon two really inferior shows) had a point. But I still feel that his review was based more on his own partisan zeal than on what he actually saw and heard.

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