Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.

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Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.

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What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.

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A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.

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This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.

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Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.

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And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.

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19 Responses to “Odyssey notes: The 1960s”

  1. Thom Hickey Says:

    Thanks. Glad to have happened on your blog. We share a lot of enthusiasm. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (you’ll find bob and van well represented).


  2. “What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time?”

    A massive, well-nigh stunning, attack of sehnsucht. It really was a “what hit me?!?” experience.

    It had already been out a couple of years when I heard it. I had seen it reviewed in one of the audio magazines (which would have been either High Fidelity or Stereo Review) by someone who didn’t get it at all and described it as incoherent yelling, or something to that effect. It would be interesting to find the review. And nobody I knew was talking about it. Now I can’t remember what prompted me to seek it out. Could have been hearing Moondance, which I do remember someone recommending to me. Or maybe it was a more in-tune reviewer. But I sure do remember the experience.

    Your reaction is very interesting to me, as I’ve wondered if it was a phenomenon of the times that wouldn’t hit people coming to it a generation or two later in the same way.

    Your lists are interesting. I wouldn’t agree with your choices of “very best,” of course, but neither do I find them very far off, with the exception of Another Side and “To Ramona.” Never did care much for either the album or the song.

    I like Cohen’s Songs From a Room better than the first album, but that may be because I heard it first.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series–now to catch up on your Chesterton stuff–I’ve been rather busy for the past few weeks.


  3. Oh yeah, and I was going to say about Neil Young: have you heard his songs from the three Buffalo Springfield albums? I think they account for the early interest in him, before he’d really made his solo mark. His name was known from that group. Personally I sorta like that album, at least the first side. “Old Laughing Lady” is kind of a masterpiece, though I admit there’s nothing else comparable to it on the album.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I expressed myself a little ineptly about Young in this post. I do think that first album is surprisingly weak — it was a surprise to me, at any rate — and I’ll not weep if I never hear it again, but it’s nowhere near as bad as those Pink Floyd albums!

    No, I’ve not heard the Buffalo Springfield records, and you might very well be right that his success there carried him over the debut album hump. Certainly his second record, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, with Crazy Horse, is far better than that first record would have led me to believe possible.

    Interesting that you are fond of Songs From a Room; personally I do prefer the earlier record (or the later one, for that matter, Songs of Love and Death). But Songs from a Room does begin with an awfully good one-two punch.

    I first heard Astral Weeks many years ago, when I was (what I would now describe as) an immature listener. At the time, I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it; I think my main impression was that his voice could peel paint. But I’ve since grown more discerning. :)


  5. Oh yeah, again: I also meant to say that I really like some of Pink Floyd’s stuff–about one track out of three or four, maybe. The sort of dreamy stuff like “Pillow of Winds” or “Grantchester Meadows.” But I listened to Ummagumma not long ago and it was mostly forgettable-to-terrible. I guess you haven’t gotten to their most famous stuff, though, which is from the ’70s. Be interesting to see what you think of that.

    I suppose Neil Young’s name recognition got the first album enough sales to allow him to record another. If he’d been unknown, there probably wouldn’t have been a second.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Right now I cannot even remember the titles of the albums I listened to. Their later work, like The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, is certainly more palatable, and I like some of it a good deal, but even there I was surprised at how much dross there was amongst the gold.

  7. kathyB Says:

    Our opinion chez Bader regarding Pink Floyd is similar to yours – it’s just kind of boring. I like the Hendrix version of All A long the Watchtower, and prefer the early beatles to their later albums, which I find can get a bit self-referential and pretentious.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Yes, everybody likes the Hendrix version of that song. It’s one of those rare cases where a cover version of one of Dylan’s songs can rival the original. But personally I still like the original better.

    I agree with you about the Beatles, but I find that Abbey Road wins me over.

  9. kathyB Says:

    I notice you don’t have any Beach Boys in your odyssey. I really like the Beach Boys.

  10. Grumpy Says:

    Astral Weeks is my all time favourite record. I’m not complaining but it did have a certain ‘thing’ as a record, when it had side one, in the beginning, and then side two where it all goes pear shaped.

    Like Maclin, I think there is something to be said for Neil Young’s first album (though I confess to being a died in the wool fan). I like The Old Laughing Lady and ‘If I could have her Tonight’.

    I hate Pink Floyd. I just detest it. I was at boarding school when people used to play it all the time – always coming out of people’s study doors. Fracking Dark Side of the Moon. If you didn’t go to boarding school you cannot imagine what it’s like being stuck with other people’s musical tastes (like Bob Dylan constantly coming out of my study door….).

  11. Grumpy Says:

    Though Astral Weeks is doubtless the greatest, there is something to be said for listening to AW, Saint Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece as a trilogy, one after the other.


  12. Hmm, that’s a great idea. St D.P. is really fine album, one of his very best, and VF is not far behind.

    I didn’t go to boarding school, but I did work in two different record stores, and in a couple of offices where a radio was always playing. The first record store was in a mall and the cashier for some reason was vested with the power of deciding what music would be played. Mostly she liked a live Neil Diamond album, of which she never tired, even though she played it over and over all day. I don’t think they ever found her body.

    The office experiences left me with a deep hatred of almost every song that was a radio hit between roughly 1976 and 1979.

  13. cburrell Says:

    Veedon Fleece is my #2 VM record, and I love St. Dominic’s Preview as well. I hope I’ll have more to say when it comes time for my odyssey notes about the 1970s. But I must say that the folks around here seem to have unusually good taste.

    Kathy, I didn’t include the Beach Boys because they really only made a few records in the 1960s, I think, and the theme of this odyssey is decades-long development of particular singers. True, I included the Beatles, but, arguably, they are a special case. Doo-wap.

    Grumpy, since you love Astral Weeks as you do, you might find this collection of acoustic studio outtakes interesting. As far as I know it has never been issued commercially, but — not recommending any particular course of action — a little digging online might turn it up. Some of the tracks can be found on YouTube. To me, several of the unreleased tracks sound like AW outtakes. It’s good stuff, in any case.

  14. kathyB Says:

    I didn’t realize that was the theme of your odyssey, Craig. And I will definitely forgive you for not including any post-beatles stuff by former Beatles. I don’t think any of it is nesrly as good as Beatles. One artist that we are discovering who does have a decades-long career is Bruce Springsteen.


  15. Did you mean to say that the Beach Boys only made a few records after the 1960s?

  16. cburrell Says:

    I meant to say that they made their records mostly during the 1960s, but looking now at their discography it appears that they continued making records right through the 1970s and 1980s. I had no idea. I had thought their trajectory was roughly the same as that of the Beatles: lots of popular records in the 1960s, and then a break-up. Was Brian Wilson still part of the group after the 1960s?


  17. They did continue, but I don’t think most of the later stuff is considered as good. I’m not really a fan, so I don’t know for sure. I didn’t much like them in the ’60s and it wasn’t until ten years or so ago that I listened to Pet Sounds with an open mind and appreciated it. My impression is that Brian’s presence was intermittent after that album.

  18. kathyB Says:

    Brian Wilson’s input did decrease over time as he struggled with mental illness, and he was really the chief composer of the group.

  19. cburrell Says:

    I see. So I was sort of right, but sort of wrong too. Anyway, I didn’t include them, and it’s too late to start now.

    It’s not yet too late for me to include Springsteen. I did a Springsteen marathon a few years ago, and I’m not sure I’m ready to do it again. But I would like to hear Nebraska again. I’ll think it over.


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