Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest, is the thirty-fifth coming according to the music press. The man is officially a national treasure as of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors (similar to a knighthood or Canada’s coveted “Golden Molson”). Every new Dylan album for the last fifty years has been a media event, and yet everybody knows maybe three songs from Bobby Z.’s catalog, one of which isn’t actually named “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” by the way.
So what’s the deal? Why does everybody adore Dylan but only a select few listen to him? Well, I’ll tell you.
The rub is that one has to listen to Bob Dylan, and actually listening to music doesn’t fit with a multitasking culture. His songs, brilliant though they may be, are terrible background music. For example, the only person ever to intentionally put Dylan on prior to sex was Andy Grimstad of Buffalo, New York, who in 1973 thought it would be funny to get a little action to “Blowing in the Wind.” (It wasn’t, and she didn’t.)
This isn’t to say that Dylan can’t swing, but rather that the swing isn’t necessarily the thing. You can’t throw on Blood on the Tracks or Highway 61 and read a book because those albums are the book. Trying to multitask to Dylan is like trying to drive, eat, text, read, and apply make-up at the same time, which is to say that too many people try to do it and end up crumpled and bloodied.
If you’re going to listen to Dylan, then goddamnit listen to Dylan. Step into his world for the time that you’re willing to commit (a song, an album) and you’ll be rewarded. Them waters run deep.
And if you’re going to step into his world, why not really do it? Go see the man live in concert before that creepy little Vincent Price mustache takes over him completely and he starts narrating “Thriller” at Branson’s Tito Jackson Presents: The MJ Experience.
These are the ears I brought with me to Tempest, not my “the legend rises again” ears; not my “The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, is this our modern master’s last record?” ears. No, my question was this: What if I shell out for the premium seats when Bob comes around and all he plays is Tempest in its entirety?
Look, you know that if you go see Tommy Tutone and they rock the new album the audience isn’t going to go for that shit. Two bars in some dude is going to start yelling, “Just play the song!” By the second song half of the audience will have walked out, which means you’ll be all alone in Tommy Tutone’s living room.
Would a full show of Tempest be worth your Dylan dollars? The short answer is yes. The ten songs in this collection are well-balanced; in fact, the sequencing feels like a set list.
Album opener “Duquesne Whistle” allows the seventy-one year old time to get on stage, and then the song breaks into a seat-clearing shuffle. “You say I’m a gambler, you say I’m a pimp, but I ain’t either one,” he sings and we’re off into Dylanland with its masks and hustlers and train whistles.
“Soon After Midnight” brings the tempo back down, a fifties-style ballad in all but lyrics, unless “I’ve been down on the killing floor” is an image that sprinkles stardust in your hair. “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud,” Bob growls. This is why Dylan isn’t background music.
“Narrow Way” gets the crowd back on its feet, with a simple Muddy Waters-like riff and that train-chugging shuffle again. “Your father left you, your mother too. Even death has washed its hands of you.” Somebody please make sure those lines end up on my headstone. Three songs in a row soaked in death, likely because “This is hard country…you won’t get out of here unscarred,” Bob tells us.
“Long and Wasted Years” is a bitter pill but it is spot on, full of lost loves, foreclosed farms, and death. Heavy stuff, but this is what Dylan does — he tells stories, and not all stories are pleasant.
Mid-tempo rocker “Pay In Blood” sounds like seventies Dylan. “I’ve got dogs that’ll tear you limb from limb,” he says. “I pay in blood, but not my own.”
I never really considered the possibility that Tom Waits and Bob Dylan have much in common musically, but “Scarlet Town” changes that. The storytelling is strong and the arrangement is Waitsian, but the imagery is all Bob.
We’re back to the Muddy Waters riff for “Early Roman Kings,” which musically is the weakest song in the collection. What saves it is the lyric, and in my imaginary Tempest concert that’s what keeps me in my seat.
By “Tin Angel” I find my focus wavering a bit. Listening to Dylan is work, which is what makes it rewarding but also tiring. Concentration is a must – don’t lose the thread or you’ll lose the story.
And then comes the title track, a waltz time retelling of the fate of the Titanic. This is Dylan in full-blown troubadour mode, wandering town to town keeping alive our myths and stories. It’s as perfect of a moment as one could hope for.
Finally it’s time for the show closer, “Roll On John,” a song for a close friend of Dylan’s who was murdered back in 1980. A lot of us have similar tragic stories. The fundamental difference is that we weren’t friends with John Lennon.
It’s a compelling end to our evening with Bob. After ten songs filled with gamblers, whores, and hustlers; tales of American myths and legends; blood-soaked stories of death; this is what it all comes to — a septuagenarian remembering his buddy gone these thirty-two years. John would be in his seventies, too, but now he is another blood-soaked legend living in a Dylan song.
Turn up the house lights, it’s time to go home. Thanks for a fine evening, Bob.