We can all relax now. Bob Dylan isn’t dead. He is all right. He is well and he’s not a basket case hidden from our view forever, the lovely words and the haunting sounds gone as a result of some ghastly effect of his accident.
And his head is in the right place, which, is after all, the best news of all.
The new Bob Dylan album is out and on our turntables and coming at us over the airwaves (though not enough of it is coming at us over the airwaves, God knows) and it is a warm, loving collection of myths, prophecies, allegories, love songs and good times.
The reaction is mixed. But that’s to be expected. Wasn’t it always mixed? No matter what move he made, didn’t they regret that he made any move at all? Aren’t there still those who got off the Dylan train back there with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and insist that he ought to write issue songs? And they still don’t know it takes a train to cry.
And so they’re stoning him again when he’s trying to go home. I’m sure he expected it and there’s no way to avoid it. After all, when you are so open, as he is so open, in what you do, you spread a net out there for everyone to get into bringing along his or her own hangups and his or her own visions and, sometimes the biggest hangup of all, his or her own head.
Dylan has always told us where we were at by our reaction to him. Nothing has changed. He even says it once again on the album notes of the new groovie in a beautiful allegorical tale.
The album, as was expected, is called John Wesley Harding (Columbia CL 2804). The cover photo is Dylan in the woods somewhere (possibly Woodstock?) with three friends. The wire has it these are members of the group Albert Grossman (Dylan’s manager) imported last fall from India. Personally, I prefer to think of them as two of the original scouts for the Lewis & Clarke Expedition with Kit Carson in the background.
Dylan plays harp, guitar and piano. Charlie McCoy plays bass, Kenny Buttery plays drums and on two tracks there is a steel guitar. All are Nashville musicians (the LP was cut down there) and apparently none of the instruments, except the bass, is electric. There’s some dispute about even that, but what I hear is an electric bass sound.
The point about Dylan’s work, and it’s a point that really applies only to the Beatles and Dylan, is that the more you listen to the music, the more bits and pieces and thoughts and fragments float up. You start out being impressed and grooving behind one or two or three tracks and then slowly (or sometimes in a blinding flash) other tracks move up into your consciousness and the outline and then the implications of their story take over.
So John Wesley Harding has been on the turntable for a few days now and this is a preliminary report.
Put together, the whole album is sort of the theme music to Bonnie & Clyde.
The title song is a ballad, a tale of a TV Western hero living outside the law and a friend to honest men (a theme that recurs in Dylan’s work, incidentally). It sets the tone of the album, in a way, since it is a country & western sound. “As I Went Out This Morning” is a rather enigmatic myth, at least on the first echelon of hearings, but “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” hits right away with terrific impact and immediately gained a niche among my favorite Dylan songs. I think it is a major work, a moral dilemma conceived in rock ‘n roll and R&B rhythms and played as a C&W tune. We are all one, the song says, and tells us there are no martyrs among us and that the beautiful people whom he addresses are gifted kings and queens.
“All Along the Watchtower” (some listeners have already pointed out the Yeatsian overtones of this) is more closely related, perhaps, to his Doomsday Ballads of the past. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke/ but you and I’ve been through that and this is not our fate/so let us not talk falsely now/ the hour is getting late.”
Five of the numbers in the album hit me as superb in the initial listening stage. The two just mentioned from Side One and “Dear Landlord,” “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from Side Two. Steel guitar is used on the last two tracks (when it is first introduced it has, for a brief instant, the sound of an electric organ).
Dylan’s voice has grown fuller and warmer, as this album shows us. The cynical edge is gone. He went off the bike and his life flashed before him and he is glad to be alive. He holds notes much longer now than he used to and like much of his music and lyrics in the past, the songs are deceptively simple. He takes cliches from all of pop music and changes all their faces so that he ends up implying the use of a cliche rather than actually using it and you find, as in the jazz soloists, a marvelously subtle turn which transforms a possible cliche into a new statement.
The album has a quality of serenity about it which is not only charming, it is entrancing. The country music station plays soft and you hear the echoes of all those late night broadcasts: “friends and neighbors wherever you are, come on out tonight . . .” in “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” His lyrics flow easily and the images glow just as brilliantly, but there is less harshness and more fluidity. His love songs no longer are about people who can’t make it together but about people who do. “Down Along the Cove” is the song of a happy man. It is positively joyous. He’s safe now. He’s happy, he can breathe easily and so can we. These are myths and legends perhaps, and maybe even parables on the edge of time.
Whatever they are, Dylan has returned, cleansed, as a whole man with a new kind of serenity to illuminate his visions and a deeper artistic impulse from within himself.
This is a story from the February 10, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.