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Dylan's "Modern Times": The poet/singer at 65

(Author's Note: I've put off writing this review of Bob Dylan's most recent release, "Modern Times," for several months; possibly, because there is too much to say about the man and his music, of course: including those mid-60s times, the time of Anthony Quinn dancing on the beach in Greece as Zorba The Greek, in the film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same name. Dylan's words from that era are  I'm not looking them up, but quote them from memory, so they might be off a bit: "...to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow..." That was from the old days lyrics from "Mr. Tambourine Man," of course. Now to Modern Times.)

When Bob Dylan released his first new work in five years, "Modern Times," last year, he was following up on sounds he had first developed in his previous CD, "Love and Theft." (One reviewer wrote that these two releases are the third part of a trilogy that began with "Time Out of Mind," recorded in South Florida in the late 90s. Dylan responded, if anything, the last two releases are the first and second part of a trilogy, and that makes sense to me.)

When you hear some of these tunes from "Modern Times," you don't think of early Bob Dylan at all you think of Louis Armstrong, early blues masters, and even Bing Crosby (listen to Dylan singing about "the Bells of St. Mary's" on "Modern Times," and you're likely to think, "What did he just say?")

He also follows up "There ain't no end to the trouble that women can cause," from "Love and Theft," with "This woman's so crazy, I aint touching another one for years." (If you think that sounds sexist, maybe it is, but so were some of the lines from Dylan's 60s masterpiece "Blonde on Blonde." Plus it is good to see Dylan hasn't let age (65 years) deter him from thinking, and dreaming, about women, and what they can do to a man. Plus, if you listen to some female blues greats like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, you'll find a woman can think the same sort of things about a man.)

Whether or not you believe that Robert Zimmerman (his real name of course, before he was "touched" by Dylan Thomas, a real wild Irish poet) is a prophet, you have to agree he sure sounded like a bonafide soothsayer when he was singing about New York City on "Love and Theft" with the "Honest With Me" track, when he sang about "Siamese Twins," and "some things are too terrible to be true..."

That work had the very prophetic release date of 9/11/01.

If there is a truism about Dylan down the years, he, like his rival in the old days in Woodstock, New York, Van Morrison (Dylan didn't want anything to do with the "upstart" in those late 60s), always surrounds himself with great musicians.

The story goes that Al Kooper wanted to play guitar at the "Blonde on Blonde" sessions until he heard Mike Bloomfield's great riffs and knew he couldn't compete he switched to organ, which he was not very adept at playing.

When Dylan was listening to some of the tracks in the studio he said, "Turn up the organ." Kooper's bigtime organ-playing days had begun.

Dylan's current musicians, for his latest work, and for the European tour he is currently on, are, as listed in the liner notes to "Modern Times": Bob Dylan, vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano; Tony Garnier, bass, cello; George G. Receli, drums, percussion; Stu Kimball, guitar; Denny Freeman, guitar and Donnie Herron, steel guitar, violin, viola, mandolin.

(Seeing references to Dylan's piano playing reminds me of this little gem that I am sure few are aware of. A friend of mine a few years back put me in touch with the fan club president for singer Bobby Vee, whose first big break was filling in for the great Buddy Holly after Holly's death in a plane crash in Fargo, North Dakota; Vee's fan club president told me this interesting fact: around that time, in the late 1950s, guess who played keyboard in Vee's band for a month Minnesota-born Bob Dylan.) You can find photos of Dylan in his youth, middle years, and now, at his Web site, www.bobdylan.com.

Regarding his current band, Dylan ruffled some feathers by saying it is the best backup band he ever has worked with. Those who love The Band have some disagreement with that remark.

Dylan's Web site, www.bobdylan.com seems to change as much as Dylan and his work over the years.

In the most recent edition, you get new photos, plus the lyrics to all those songs from all those releases, including "Under The Red Sky," released in the early 90s.

I bought "Under the Red Sky" as a cassette tape; I remember the New Yorker magazine panned the release, calling it terrible. Well, back to Dylan's being a prophet: he was astute enough to have Stevie Ray Vaughan playing on the work; it was one of the last performances of Vaughan's life, before he died in that helicopter ride after a concert, when he substituted as a passenger for Eric Clapton.

If you check the notes on the release you can find at www.bobdylan.com, you will also see that some of the other musicians who appeared on "Under the Red Sky" are David Crosby, Al Kooper and George Harrison.

Back to "Modern Times": I am listening to it as I write this.

"Someday Baby," just began to play. Dylan got a grammy for the song, and for the album. I read somewhere at 65 he is the oldest person to win a grammy for new work. Dylan credits himself with the lyrics for all the songs on this release, but some are obvious re-workings of old works either the music, or the lyrics. This has been done many times before by blues singers and other writers of the past reworking something and then crediting yourself.

I thought the music to "Beyond the Horizon" sounded familiar, and then I read it is note for note, the music to "Red Sails in the Sunset."

I might add that I don't care much for the second track, "Spirit on the Water," but I do like tracks like "Thunder on the Mountain," "Rollin' and Tumblin" and the final three tracks, eight, nine and ten: "Nettie Moore," "The Levee's Gonna Break" and "Aint Talkin."

"Aint Talkin," which seems shorter than its 8:48 length, probably has the sound most reminiscent of that melancholy slowness of tracks such as "Highlands," from non-trilogy-according-to-Dylan "Time Out Of Mind." (There is another re-working of another's words; this time it is reworking poet Robert Burns.) So that is my Bob Dylan review. There is too much to say about this release, and about Dylan.

If you don't have "Modern Times" in your collection, get it.

There are all sorts of jewels in there: I just heard the "Bells of St. Mary's" line it's from "Beyond The Horizon."

(After I thought I had this finished, I listened to the second track from "Modern Times." Maybe I do like it that's Dylan for you.)


 
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