But Bob Dylan, who figured out everything else about rock ‘n’ roll – and also has hundreds more songs to sing than McClean – figured out how not to loathe plodding through your greatest hits every night on tour. While most songwriters churn out a hit and play it pretty much the same way every time, a Dylan song is a more fluid piece of art where the words, the melodies and the arrangements change from night to night and tour to tour.
In the mid-80s, Dylan’s penchant for re-inventing his songs made his concerts borderline unbearable. Slicker but sparkless versions of masterpieces like “The Times They Are A’Changin'” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” came out so frilly and garbled – and sounding as tame and cheesey as David Letterman’s band – that even his most die-hard fans couldn’t recognize a classic – or didn’t want to – until Dylan mumbled the chorus.
But that’s not the case with “Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5” which is quite simply one of the best live albums ever released. It equals, and at times even tops, its predecessor in the series – Dylan’s outstanding release a few years ago of his first electric concerts with Robbie Robertson and The Band, “Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4.”
The two “Live 1975” discs are an astonishing sampling of Dylan’s 1975 “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour, for which he assembled an ace back up band and was joined by folk luminaries such as Roger McGuinn, of the Byrds, and Joan Baez.
The music is carnival-esque and chaotic, brisk, tight and piercing. And Dylan’s voice is at times clownish, maniacal or possessed, but unlike his singing for most of the 80s and 90s, his caterwauling and growling is still as sharp and wise as it is on “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blood On the Tracks.”
The release contains several songs from Dylan’s vastly under-appreciated and bleak “Desire” album – “Isis,” “Hurricane,” “Oh, Sister,” “Sara,” “Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below).” They are all strong renditions, equalling and at times outdoing the studio versions – but the real treats are the roiling, riled-up versions of classics such as “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” “Mr. Tambourine,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and “Momma, You Been On My Mind” –a duet with Joan Baez.
“Momma, You Been On My Mind,” incidentally, makes Dylan one of the few songwriters to have classic songs that were never officially released.
“A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” is transformed from the stark, spiritual dirge about the loss of innocence into a rollicking stampede of poetry, with lunatic resonances.
But the climax of the album may be the rocket-fueled version of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a somber, angry anthem of racial protest, political protest and economic injustice from “The Times They Are A’Changin'” album.
It’s the true story of a black servant whimsically murdered by a wealthy young man with powerful connections. The young man is convicted, but given a light sentence.
This version of “Hattie Carroll” loses none of its sting from being ramped up and electrified. While the original version’s power comes from its darkness, this version is charged by its ferocity and madness.
Another fascinating moment on the album is the sizzling version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” further evidence that even Dylan’s greatest songs are not static. The most well-known version of the song was released on “Blood On The Tracks” in January, 1975. But this live version and a version from the second album of the bootleg series, show Dylan playing with the music and words to “Tangled Up In Blue,” both before and after it became an instant classic.
This new release of Dylan’s most trenchant songs also brings into drearier relief how self-obsessed and self-indulgent today’s one-note songwriters have become.
Whether it’s Counting Crows, Dave Matthews or Eminem, few of them seem to be able to take a break from whining about their own emotional retardation and neutered sensitivities to see what’s going on in the outside world.
Sure, Dylan had civil rights, race riots and Vietnam to chronicle and skewer, but there are plenty of things to shout about these days. Dylan would have had –and may still have – a lyrical ball with the intolerance of terrorism or Attorney General John Ashcroft, with the stunning negativity of campaign ads or corporate fraud.
As for civil rights, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s recent segregationist bungling shows not all of the racial evils Dylan sang about in the ’60s have been conquered.
And surely, many of Dylan’s songs are about his own hang-ups and tumultuous relationships. But even the more self-centered of Dylan’s tales of heartbreak and emotional conflict have a universal edge that today’s sappy songwriters have blunted.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.