Wednesday, January 26, 2011


When filmmaker Stan Brakhage died a few years ago his obituary in Artforum stated that “(his) death marks the end of the most astonishing career in the 108 year history of the cinema.”  Stan Brakhage towered over the cloistered world of avant-garde film as perhaps no other artist has towered over their own field.

And yet Brakhage is a virtual unknown even amongst film buffs. I have been thinking about Brakhage lately because despite the fact that Bob Dylan has been world famous for nearly 50 years, it is not an exaggeration to say that his career and position in the world of popular music for nearly half a century is nothing short of astonishing. His oeuvre is rivaled only by the Beatles in its scope and influence.

There is no doubt that his remarkable "comeback" in the past 13 years--the trilogy of critically acclaimed studio albums, his book Chronicles, Scorcese's briiliant No Direction Home documentary, the never ending gems from the bootleg series especially the Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert, his acclaimed Sirius radio program, and of course the Never Ending Tour--have helped contribute to his
exalted status today.

The recent release of “Bob Dylan: The Complete Mono Set” comprises the foundation upon which his reputation is built. Before I get to the music, however, Dylan fans will appreciate the entire packaging which is absolutely perfect. Each of his first 8 studio albums are reproduced exactly as mini-lps. Holding the majestic double album Blonde on Blonde with its gatefold is like holding one of Vitra’s beautiful mini-reproductions of the greatest hits in modern furniture. The ubiquitous clunky plastic cd cases are nowhere to be found. Surprisingly, the only weak link is the accompanying booklet’s skimpy essay by Greil Marcus, one of Dylan’s most perceptive chroniclers. But the rare pics mostly from the mid-60s are gems.

The conventional notion over the years especially from Dylan detractors is that Dylan has been sloppy in the studio especially on his 1960s albums. That was the gloss on Dylan in an infamous 1975 Rolling Stone article by Jon Landau. Landau an editor at Rolling Stone at the time was also the manager and confidant of the “new Dylan," Bruce Springsteen. Not coincidentally, everything Landau was saying about Dylan was pretty much the opposite of how Springsteen approached recording. Without getting into a Bob vs. Bruce fight here, it could be argued that if Dylan’s recordings suffered from a lack of polish then Springsteen suffered from the opposite: too much polish, too much production, too much bombast.

But I also think that Landau was essentially wrong, and the Mono Box set refutes much of his argument. These are Bob Dylan's albums as they were meant to sound originally before stereo became the norm and these recordings were remixed for stereo. Out of the first eight albums we have four genuine masterworks: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisted, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Harding.

On the early solo acoustic albums we no longer have the annoying separation of Dylan's guitar coming out of one speaker and his voice coming out of another that was wrought by stereo. Here we get the voice and guitar as one unified sound--the way it would sound if we were listening live. On the final album of the set, 1967's John Wesley Harding the set-up is similar to the first four albums with Dylan receiving sparse backing from some of Nashville's great session men. Perhaps no album in this set is as vastly improved going back to mono as this one. It has long been viewed as one of Dylan's most enigmatic albums--released at the height of the new sonic revolution ushered in by Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. And though it appears on most Greatest Album lists (albeit on the low end) its stock should rise even further now. If Bob Dylan had only recorded JWH and no other music he would have a cult following of some kind.

The trilogy of electric albums are really at the heart of Dylan's achievements as an artist. In fact, with these albums Dylan invents the genre of "Rock" music as differentiated from the Rock and Roll of the 1950s and the revival of same by the Beatles, the Stones and the Who. Bringing It All Back Home has plenty of Rock and Roll on the electric side, some of it positively raw, even too raw. It's not until Highway 61 Revisted that something entirely new is happening. Pop music had simply not heard songs like "Like A Rolling Stone",  "Ballad of a Thin Man", "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues", and  "Highway 61" before. It's a new sophisticated type of sound, lyric and attitude. Soon it would be embraced by the British bands. The Mono recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" packs the wallop that must have been evident in 1965 on car radios and small transistor radios.

1966's Blonde on Blonde is a milestone for Dylan and Rock. Here you had a double-album of original material and one song that occupied an entire lp side. The Mono version makes "I Want You" as exciting and thrilling a single as Dylan ever released. Other standouts are "Sooner Or Later (One of Us Must Know)",  "Absolutely Sweet Marie", and one of my own favorite Dylan songs "Fourth Time Around"; in Mono the "thin, wild mercury sound" that Dylan often spoke of as his ideal sound is achieved.

Dylan's work after these initial 8 could oscillate wildly in quality, but the high points were as good as his best work from the 1960s--Blood On The Tracks (1975), Time Out of Mind (1997), and some would add Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006). But the run he had in the 1960s as the auteur of a new sensibility, consciousness and sound as exemplified in the albums in this box set will likely never be duplicated.

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