Dylan deals with all the shadows
A spellbinding speech as he received the MusiCares Person of the Year award saw Bob Dylan confront his critics
It was as good an ending as any. And perhaps only Bob Dylan could finish a fancy pants awards ceremony speech with such Groucho Marx aplomb (all he was missing was the false nose): "I'm going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it."
"Let's hope we meet again, sometime," he said as he walked off the stage as the recipient of the MusiCares Person of the Year 2015 award. "And we will, if, like Hank Williams said, 'the good Lord willing and the creek don't rise.'" Notwithstanding the Biblical rising creek, the curtain of old age has perhaps dropped irrevocably on Dylan at 73. That said, as Bob reminded the world on his last album Tempest: "I ain't dead yet. My bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings."
Dylan's dotage hasn't stopped the creator of some of the most indelible music of the 20th and 21st centuries releasing some of his best albums in the last few years - the aforementioned Tempest, in 2012, and his new Shadows In The Night opus (Dylan's unadorned, whispery interpretations of Frank Sinatra standards from the 1940s.)
Two weeks ago on Drivetime on RTE Radio 1, John Kelly - a man whose music credibility is second to none - called Shadows In The Night Dylan's best album ever.
Not Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966) or even, my personal favourite, 1975's Blood On The Tracks? (Christopher Caldwell in The Spectator last month theorised that Blood On The Tracks was "now closer to the reign of George V, 1910-1936, than to our day.")
Perhaps Kelly was suffering from what Perry Meisel referred to in a 2001 New York Times article about eminent critics upon coming face to face with a new Dylan album: "Polite to a studious fault, embarrassed by its own potential for overstatement, like the first guest at a party." Mercifully, there are no dooby dooby doos from Dylan here but plenty of slow-tempo atmospheric mood pieces that you'd find on every album from Love & Theft in 2001 onwards (the positively Bing Crosby-esque Beyond The Horizon from Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times, for instance.). One of the stand-out tracks on Shadows In The Night, Stay With Me, is an exercise in pain. (His voice is bursting to full with agonising loneliness and regret on many of these self-flagellating Sinatra soliloquies.) You can actually feel Dylan's breath on the microphone as he unburdens himself like a depressed Sinatra after yet another messy break-up with Ava Gardner, 'crooning': "I grow cold, I grow weary/And I know I have sinned/And I go seeking shelter/And I cry in the wind."
The song originally appeared on Sinatra's 1957 album Where Are You?, a record that Frank himself referred to at the time as his "suicide songs". Dylan wrote of his particular love of Ol' Blue Eyes in his 2004 book Chronicles, recalling how listening to Frank, "I could hear everything in his voice - death, God and the universe."
All of those elements are in Shadows In The Night. What has slightly overshadowed Dylan's 36th studio album since his debut in 1962, of course, was his performance at the mic stand at the Convention Centre in Los Angeles on February 6.
Former US President Jimmy Carter introduced him onto the stage. There is some history between Bob and The Peanut Farmer-cum-one-time Prez. When Carter gave his address accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York City in July, 1976, he referenced Dylan's song It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) in his speech: "I have never had more faith in America than I do today. We have an America that, in Bob Dylan's phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying."
Looking like a Mississippi riverboat gambler with a bad wig from an old 1950s movie, Bob gave maybe his most compelling - however prickly - and poetic public performance ever. It was a speech loaded with evocative memories and warm-hearted tributes ("After he [Jimi Hendrix] became famous, he took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics.")
He settled scores and paid dues. He praised and he excoriated in turns. He said the late founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun "didn't think much of my songs". (Ertegun's widow, Mica, when subsequently contacted by Rolling Stone magazine said she "can't recall any such remarks supposedly made by her late husband.") Dylan added that Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Studio in Memphis, did like his songs. "I didn't really care what Leiber and Stoller thought of my songs. They didn't like 'em," he claimed of American songwriting partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ."Merle Haggard didn't think much of my songs. I love Merle but he's not Buck [Owens]," Dylan said. The puzzled country and western legend Merle was later to Tweet of the remarks: "Bob Dylan I've admired your songs since 1964." His 30-minute speech was a roller coaster of rhetoric and wit (and sometimes ages-old vinegariness, even bitterness.)
It was as crackpot as it was confessional. It was a speech loaded with words and phrases straight out of his own lyrics: his songs, he said, "sound like they've been traveling on hard ground". Of the songs he was being honoured for, Dylan added with a masterful touch, "but you know, they didn't get here by themselves. It's been a long road and it's taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far."
The Bard from north Minnesota - the Holden Caulfield of Hibbing - talked about meeting Johnny Cash in 1963, "when he was all skin and bones. He travelled long. He travelled hard . . . And I'll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days," Dylan said, like it was a lyric from one of his old cuckoo Christian albums from the 1970s.
Bob was, however, honest enough to admit that in 1964 he wrote It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) with Cash's 1959 track 'Five Feet High And Rising' "reverberating inside my head. I still ask, 'How high is the water, mama?'" Was Dylan's subsequent rant about where his songs came from about ring-fencing his legacy after he's gone to the great bandstand in the sky?
The lingering charges of Dylan stealing lines from old songs and poems down through the years cannot - as Dylan secretly knows - be easily dismissed: Dylan's When the Deal Goes Down owed a huge debt to Civil War-era Confederate poet, Henry Timrod's Retirement - the actual melody of When The Deal Goes Down owed a similar debt to Bing Crosby's 1931 hit Where The Blue of the Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day); Dylan's When the Levee Breaks nodded in the direction of a few Memphis Minnie classics, as did Ain't Talkin' in the direction of the Stanley Brothers' River of Regret, to say nothing of his Love & Theft album using verbatim uncredited chunks of Dr Junichi Saga's Japanese gangster tome, Confessions of a Yakuza.
I'm sure Dylan was incandescent with rage about Joni Mitchell's bitchy rant in 2010: "Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist. Everything about Bob is a deception."
Presumably, all of this, along with some of the reviews of Shadows Of The Night, is why Dylan decided to address a few things head-on during his speech. "I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
"For three or four years, all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffee houses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I'd heard it just once," the Septuagenarian sultan of sad said, before adding perhaps trying, unnecessarily, to protect the reputation of the great music he leaves behind.
"If you sang John Henry as many times as me. . .you'd have written 'How many roads must a man walk down?' too."
He was eviscerating about critics who go to town on his voice while letting equally proficient wheezers like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits get off "Scot free".
You'd think Dylan as a voice, perhaps the voice, of America over the last 40 years would have developed a thicker skin about such criticisms by now. I'm sure Philip Roth doesn't blow a socket every time Portnoy's Complaint is described as a kosher pornographic novel. Dylan, however, seems to seethe with each new attack on the notorious sound that comes out of his Minnesota mouth. "Why me?" he whinged, as if he was personally addressing The Wall Street Journal, which in 2010 suggested, "lately he's been sounding like a scatting Cookie Monster" - adding, apropos of possible future retirement, that Bob modelled himself on artists like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, "for whom performing was a matter of existential, if not economic, necessity".
In 1987, Sam Shepard wrote a one-act existential play featuring two characters named Sam and Bob talking place over a single afternoon. In the play, the character Bob recalls his famous crash on his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle in Woodstock on July 29, 1966. "Spent a week in the hospital," says Bob, "then they moved me to this doctor's house in town. In his attic.
"Had a bed up there in the attic with a window lookin' out. I started thinkin' about the short life of trouble. How short life is. I'd just lay there listening to the birds chirping. Kids playing in the neighbours' yard. Then I'd hear the fire engine roar and I could feel the steady thrust of death that had been constantly looking over its shoulder at me."
Death has been looking over Robert Allen Zimmerman's shoulder practically ever since.
On Shadows In The Night you get the impression that death is more than looking over his shoulder. Long may it remain just a look.