Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.
When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.
If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.
But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.
And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.
It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.
Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.
In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.
Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.
I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.
Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:
Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)
Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:
Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)
Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.
Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.
There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!
And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.
But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.