ROLLING STONE REVIEW from 10th February 1968
February 10, 1968
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.
ROLLING STONE REVIEW from 24th February 1968
February 24, 1968So, there is this semi-recognizable cat on the front of the album out there in the woods, looking like some friend of Baudelaire, way back in 1844 in "Le Vieux Quartier" of Paris with a few friends from inside the walls. You might well ask, "What's it all about?"
The music is again a brilliant electronic adaptation of rural blues and country and western sounds. A swaying harp picks out the title track, "John Wesley Harding." A statement is made about the concept of everyday Good and Evil. Harding is Johnny Cash's outlaw figure, "he was never known to hurt an honest man" — folk-hero of a different kind, John Wesley Harding — "a friend to the poor." Call him Robin Hood if it means more to you. He was offering you "a helping" hand, and was this a man really to be hunted and punished?
With all the spiced crispness of the Elizabethan verse of some Samuel Daniel, Dylan expresses in this early morning incidente, "As I Went Out One Morning," all the beauty of a different concept of Love: in his knowing, he can only refuse the hand of this "fairest damsel," as he must. This Sad-eyed Lady, reaching out for another answer, finds only a rejection. In her asking she condemns herself: "I will secretly accept you, and together we'll fly South." Dylan lets her go her own way, also so "sorry for what she's done."
In "Dreaming of St. Augustine," some parallels are found with the bent track of all our lives. St. Augustine, who also sought an answer in a life of deprivation, of spiritual and physical agony, ("with a blanket, underneath his arm" as he went "searching for the very souls that already have been sold,") found in the end a similar humility to that expressed by Dylan here. The two concepts of Saint and Devil blended here — "There is no martyr amongst you now"; compared to Mozart, so "Come out you gifted Kings and Queens" and do your thing. And "know you're not alone." The immense compassion Dylan feels is shown only too clearly: he tells us that "He put his finger to the glass and bowed his head and cried."
There is hope for those still on the other side. With a delicate rippling harp-ending, Dylan tells us with all his gentleness how easy it is to break once and for all the clouded glass.
The opening lines of "All Along the Watchtower" resemble a wandering entrance through Dark Portals ("There must be someway out of here"). Dylan speaks in an almost apocalyptic vein of the Fall to come. He has told us frequently in his poetry of his acceptance of Chaos: "businessmen may drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth; none of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
Yet there is some hope in the minds of those who watch eagerly from the turrets: "There are many here amongst us who feel life is just a joke." There could be a New Day for the Princes and their Ladies — of realized, once thought impossible, differences, and a dancing tapestry of endless sounds and colors. For those who wait, "the hour is getting late."
Perhaps the most important track on the album is "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." This too real, even surrealistic, dialogue between two opposed parties attains a steam-hammer urgency. (It recalls the "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in its intensity.) The enormous gulf between the turned-on honesty of Judas Priest and his charity ("My loss will be your gain,) as he pulled out a roll of tens, and the baffled, suspicious questioning of Frankie Lee is a stage-piece. Judas, the knowing, says the money will all disappear and "Pointed down the road and said 'Eternity'."
This vision of a Golden Age — though "you might call it Paradise" — is not so far off. Judas the Priest, the one who has really seen, does not put Frankie down, but rather as a friend is just willing to wait until he can also find the laughing way out of it all. The limits of conventional Paradise are well known to the young, as they are to the "neighborhood child who walked along with his guilt so well concealed." And as Dylan whoops his way through a jubilant exit, one cannot help thinking of what might be changed soon, if one does "not go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road."
"Drifter's Escape" is a weird Kafkaesque judgment. Dylan, as ever, catches the exact pulse of these days — just as with "The Times They Are A' Changing" and Highway 61. Here is the nation, as its own jury and judge, and the Trial has commenced. The Vietnam War, symbolized in the court and its process, has a personal and national level: "help me in my weakness" for "my time it isn't long." The choice is there. The consequences of no rational answer to the whole problem were made only too clear in Peter Watkins' The War Game. The choice is Black and White ("you fail to understand why must you even try"). Good and Evil exist only on Man's terms. The tapping chords of a bass guitar ("outside the crowd was stirring") as an asking minstrel voice tells us of the lightning that could strike and who will be the victor then — the Drifter?
Side Two begins in the simple terms typical of the whole album. The elegant restraint of his plea for sanity ("my burden is heavy, my dreams are beyond control") amid the grasping hand of capitalistic machinery is overawing. Gone is the harsh attack of Dylan's previous compositions; "Dear Landlord" is a statement of what goes on around here sometimes. Dylan knows that they too "have suffered much although in that you are not unique" and questions the emptiness, bitterness and unhappiness of the supposedly rich and the vacuous non-reality of "things that you can feel, but just cannot touch." The song is a plea to those out there. Dylan "is not about to argue or move to some other place." With final resignation he says "If you don't underestimate me, I won't underestimate you."
"I Am A Lonesome Hobo" recalls (as does the picture of Bob, on the sleeve), a 15-year-old Arthur Rimbaud on the cobbled streets of Belgium, and his miniature masterpiece My Bohemian Existence. The serving of "time" that first questioning of established values of many career and personal desires, that unique nature of personal choice, brought us all down here with Dylan.
Brilliantly Dylan reverses the role of the Hobo and tells us what road one may end up on if one does not "stay free from petty jealousies, live by no man's code," hold your judgment for yourself and keep cool.
In "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," almost to the tune of "Irene Goodnight," Dylan suggests the immense sympathy he has for those who have dared to cut the rope and be free from the life of being one, "who lies with every breath, who passionately hates himself, and likewise fears his death." He realizes the trials of anybody who pushes through to the side of the Looking Glass. The immigrant, having seen through the enormous paradox of wealth and poverty on this earth, seeks another way. The song ends with open tenderness for those who have made the journey.
Just who the "Wicked Messenger" is, is unimportant, except to say that one knows his faces only too well. With "his mind that multiplied the smallest matter," and all the old hang-ups of flattery and dealing, Messenger is but total self-deception. With epic descending interludes Dylan tells us to reject it all: the bid was made behind the Assembly Hall and it did not come to pass. Seek the truth as it is, not as it is laid upon you. Many now seek a way, but, "if you cannot bring good luck, then don't bring any."
"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" is such a simple answer. The minor chords jangle the shattered staircases of all our fears: "You don't have to worry anymore," "You don't have to be afraid." Woman's age-old fear of unwanted and unloved children has no more relevance. The song ranks alongside "Ramona" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," as an epic, lyrical love song. So tonight "kick your shoes off do not fear." As the hang-ups recede you will forget the moon when somebody lies in your arms tonight. Love really isn't anything to regret on equal terms.
Without a doubt this is another major musical step for Bob Dylan. The predominance of country blues, white and black, from Hank Williams to Leadbelly is unprecedented in the new electric music. The steel guitar conjures shades of the Black Ace on many a front porch down South. As to the usual message and meaning, anybody can feel the return to a cooler, more hip, almost shrugged-shoulder awareness of the whole scene revolving around here. The commitment is, as always, frighteningly sincere. And Bob would no doubt agree that J. S. Bach did try also, so really hard, to tell us that the seagulls had wings to fly.