Talking About Bob (on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of Bob Dylan starting to record his debut album)
On November 20, 1961, Bob Dylan's recording adventure for his own albums began in a New York City recording studio. The 20 year-old singer and songwriter began making his debut album on that day, and now, 55 years later Dylan has a body of work to his credit that includes 37 studio albums, 58 singles, and something in the neighborhood of 14 live albums. He has also been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." So, in his honor, let's chat about his career.
Mike Sauter, Direct of Content and Programming: Let's begin with something simple, and still hard -- what is your favorite Bob Dylan album of all, and why is it your favorite?
Brian Siewiorek, Production Director: His first recording session was in June, 1961 - for Belafonte's "Midnight Special". Belafonte did so many takes, and Dylan had to play the same harmonica part over and over that it changed the way he would later want to record his own albums.
My favorite Dylan album depends on my mood. But the one I come back to the most is Highway 61 Revisited - I love it when he goes wide with the long rambles - "Ballad of a Thin Man" is just brilliant... it all still holds up well these days.
Mike Sauter: My album pick is Blood on the Tracks. Love this album from start to finish. It's not as strident as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and more low-key than either Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde (though all fine albums).
I find this to be an especially great record to crank up in the fall and winter months. And you really can't get much better as an album opener than "Tangled Up in Blue." -- a cinematic masterpiece of a song. And then the mellow contemplation of songs like "Simple Twist of Fate," "Shelter From the Storm," and "Buckets of Rain." And the rollicking good fun of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts."
Brian Siewiorek: ...and "Idiot Wind" - one of the best "f-you" songs ever written.
Dave Blaushild, Volunteer Host: I agree with Brian. "Idiot Wind" is my favorite song on Blood on the Tracks. There is so much strength in the keyboards and it is lyrically strong. "The idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth, you're an idiot babe, it's a wonder that you still know how to breathe". Dylan wrote two of the best F-you songs: "Idiot Wind" and "Positively 4th Street."
I have three Dylan albums that I consider favorites: Highway 61 (1965); "Queen Jane Approximately" is my favorite song "Won't you come see me Queen Jane?". I especially like Dylan's piano playing on this one; New Morning (1970) has a number of great songs and Bob is backed up by some quality musicians including David Bromberg, Harvey Brooks (bass), Charlie Daniels (bass), Al Kooper (keyboards), and Russ Kunkel (drums). I really like his use of wrong grammar on "Day of Locusts": "And the locusts sang, and they were sang-ing for me" and the title track is a really upbeat song for a sunny morning in the spring. I also like Street Legal (1978), an album that got panned by the critics. It was released in 1978, after Blood on the Tracks and Desire which did extremely well. My favorite song is the lead-off single "Changing of the Guard". There is a cool Patti Smith cover of that song.
Sean Fogarty, Thursday Night Block Party Host: One of the fascinating aspects about Bob Dylan is he constantly did what he wanted. Dylan always seemed to thrive on challenging the notions of who he is or who his audience thinks he should be. His moves seem at once calculated and at other times, confounding. Weather plugging in, finding Jesus or releasing a pair of LP’s of pop standards, Dylan thrived on being confrontational.
I remember seeing Dylan and his band play Pittsburgh at the A. J. Palumbo Center in November of 2002. It was little more than a year since he released Love and Theft and the setlists were peppered with selections from that LP. Dylan was also playing covers on this tour. Two selections in particular were on the setlist that night, as they were just about every night of that leg of the tour. Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” and The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”. After the show I remember asking a friend: with volumes of his own songs in his canon to play, why Dylan would start covering those songs?
Performing the Warren Zevon number made sense. It was 10 days earlier that Zevon made his last public performance on The Late Show with David Letterman before he began to succumb to cancer. Playing the Rolling Stones number was baffling to me. Why would Dylan play a by-the-numbers cover of one of the Rolling Stones most popular songs about an inappropriate sexual relationship between a master and slave? Because he’s Bob Dylan, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
Brian Siewiorek: ...and that goes in line with his wicked sense of humor. I think that really confuses people.
Rob O'Friel, Rollin' and Tumblin' Host: I remember an interview with a rap star on an MTV special about Dylan. I can't recall the artist's name but I remember first just being surprised that this rap star had been influenced by Bob. And then the artist said something to the effect of, "in all of Dylan's hundreds of songs, there was never a 'throw away' line or word. Every line had a part to the story." Hearing that perspective from a rap star who really thrives on making it up as the song goes really brought Dylan full circle for me.
Mike Sauter: And, Sean, the interesting thing about Dylan's perspective is that although we often associate an "I don't care what anyone thinks" attitude as being purely cantankerous (a la Johnny Rotten/John Lydon personality), Dylan generally isn't going to be defiant for defiance's sake. I remember when Bob won the Academy Award in 2001 for "Things Have Changed" from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, I just assumed that his acceptance speech would strike at least some sarcastic tone in some way--I mean, as I thought at the time, isn't Bob Dylan so far outside of the pull of award gravity?--but he reacted warmly and genuinely and gave a fairly typical thank you speech. So Dylan will always follow his own path, be it away from mainstream thought processes or be it right down the middle of Mainstream Boulevard.
That Oscar win--and his confounding of my expectations as to his reaction--made me think from the beginning that he would be pleased and humbled by being awarded the Nobel Prize.
Does anyone have any special moments in Dylan's history that you'd like to point out or share?
Dave Blaushild: I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame last year in Nashville. There is an interesting exhibit called Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats. It profiles Bob, Johnny Cash, and the session musicians who played with them. Between 1966 and 1970, Dylan recorded four albums in Nashville: Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Self Portrait. Blonde on Blonde was still electric in nature and a great album. Dylan brought in Robbie Robertson, then of the Hawks to play guitar, John Wesley Harding was more folky, while Nashville Skyline incorporated more country elements. It's an interesting period in Dylan's evolution as a writer, and musician.
Mike Sauter: And one final memorable Dylan moment I'd like to share. Dylan's gospel period is sometimes overlooked, but it's a fascinating time in his career. There's a great video of a show in Toronto from April of 1980 which begins with an almost seven-minute long sermon by Bob and then blasts into a terrific rendition of "Solid Rock" from Saved.
When it comes to Dylan's career, we won’t let go and we can’t let go and we can’t let go no more...
More about Bob Dylan from WYEP:
- Discumentary: Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
- Discumentary: Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
- Discumentary: Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
- 50th Anniversary of Bob Dylan's First Major Concert
- Bob Dylan's Musical Influences
- Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks Turns 40
- Bob Dylan's 72nd birthday: Scott Mervis Guest DJ
- American Originals: Bob Dylan