Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nick's Picks for the '80s

While I (Ben) have been consumed with listening to Western music (Country music's first cousin on both sides of the family!), Nick has been posting on his new blog site about the
Top 45 80s songs of all time

This website contains Nick's thoughts on culture, literature, and, as always music.  It is called
The Cold Composure.

Here are his thoughts about the music of the 1980s:

I picked only one song per artist. If I had not stuck to this, then the list would have been saturated by Stevie Ray Vaughn, U2, Metallica, and Tom Petty. I tried to pick a good mix of rock and pop. And no, Michael Jackson did not even crack the top 20. A few of the songs are from the late 70s or early 90s, but they fit the “80s sound.” If I feel like it I’ll put up commentary later.

1. Any song performed by  Stevie Ray Vaughn

2.Sultans of Swing by Dire  Straits

3.With Or Without You by U2

4.Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison

5. I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

6.Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne

7.Master of Puppets by Metallica

8.Rock The Casbah by The Clash

9.It’s Friday, I’m in Love by The Cure

10.Love Song by Tesla

For the rest of the list and for the brutal verbal argument between the Arkansas father and his Wheaton son as found in the comments, go to

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Great October Music Haul

Nick and I are wondering if this blog is still read by anyone but us.  Well, at least we enjoy trading our musical thoughts.  What better audience for a father than his son?  What better audience for a son than a father?  Ah, family ties.

Now to the Great October Music Haul:
Once or twice a year, there is a large "garage sale" at the Texarkana Spring Lake Park.  Today was the day for the fall sale, but sermon and church work kept me tied up until late in the afternoon.  The benefit was that when I got there, vendors were cutting prices to half. 

Rushing past lots of clothes and trinkets, I thumbed through several stacks of books and glanced at quite a few DVDs, but found nothing.  Then I came across a good selection of music.  The original prices were one dollar each, a bargain, but now they were reduced to four bits, to use the term my father's generation was fond of.

Here is what I found:

1.  Elton Britt: The RCA Years.  We don't often think of Elton Britt's RCA years for the simple reason that we don't think of Elton Britt at all.  He was a yodeler whose best known song was "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere."  An added personal benefit:  He was an Arkansas man.  In the tradition of Jimmie Rogers, Britt's pure country music should be a delight.

As Bill Monroe might say, "I think I've heard of him."

2.  James Taylor: Greatest Hits.  I now have a James Taylor CD.  I am only somewhat familiar with him (being that my expertise lies elsewhere), but I recognize several of the songs on the back cover, such as "Something in the Way She Moves," "Carolina in My Mind," and "How Sweet It Is To Be In Love With You."

3.  Michael Martin Murphey with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra: Sagebrush Symphony.  First, I am only slightly familiar with Mr. Murphey, but I think my wife, Stephanie, used to like his music. Second, these are western songs, made famous by the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autrey, and other Western singers.

With names like David Milton and Homer Howard Bellamy, I could grow to like this fellers.

4.  The Bellamy Brothers: Greatest Hits, Volume II.  Shhh.  I got this CD for Stephanie.  She said she used to like them too.  I am only familiar with the name.  (I would prefer a CD by the Wilburn Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, or the Willis Brothers.)

5.  Kathy Mattea: Love Travels.  I know her from the radio.  Many of these songs are sung along with other singers, such as Gillian Welch.

6.  Neil Diamond: His 12 Greatest Hits.  I bought this one because it has the song "Sweet Caroline" on it.  I want to learn that one for my youngest daughter.  (TaraJane gets "Waltz Across Texas," which Neil Diamond did not record.)  This also has "Song Sung Blue" on it.

7.  Larry Gatlin: In My Life.  Of course I am familiar with Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.  But this is the first CD I have ever owned by either Larry or his brothers.

8.  Gene Watson: The Good Ole Days.  I have often wondered why Gene Watson was not a bigger name in the music world.  He is a really fine singer.

Gene Watson: 'The Good Ole Days' (Step One Records, 1996)

9.  Ferlin Husky: Signature Series.  What a find.  Mr. Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) is one of the country legends that we have lost this year.  His voice was outstanding.  He comic alter-ego, Simon Crum, was quite hilarious.  Best known for  songs like "Wings of a Dove" and "Gone," this recently inducted member of the Country Music Hall of Fame was truly a great singer.
Lists for $29.99 on Amazon!
Oh, by the way, I also picked up a copy of Robert Penn Warren's classic novel and greatest work, All the King's Men.  It may be the best political novel ever.  This edition has an introductory essay by Mr. Warren and has Clift's Notes in the back (?).  Nick, do you remember us standing in front of the Warren statue at Vanderbilt some years ago?  Hardback with dust jacket--25 cents.

And, I got a copy of Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino.   George Grant so like Eco that I buy his books with the intention of someday reading some of them.  Hardback, like new, with dust jacket--50 cents.

Total spent for the day:  $5.25.  Nick, what are you finding up at Wheaton to top this?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

George Jones' Top Ten...or Just Ten Greats Out of 160 Plus

One of the Greatest Living Performers--George Jones
 George Jones has had over 160 songs that have made the top of the charts.  From the mid-1950s through the present, he has been recording and singing great songs, many of which became hits.  Jones is a top country singer, a winner of many singing awards and honors, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a newsmaker (not always for good reasons), and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.  It is not all that easy to pick his top ten songs.  I have enjoyed his music for decades, but I don't come close to even knowing all his songs.  And some of his lesser known works are just as good as the big hits.

Don't hold me too accountable for the order given below.  I don't even agree with it.

1.  "He Stopped Loving Her Today." This is not only one of Jones' greatest hits, but it is one of the great all time country songs.  It is so incredibly sad and moving that I can hardly ever listen to it without nearly breaking down.  The perspective is that of a friend who observes a man's undying love for a woman who rejected him many years earlier.  Only in death does his love for this woman end.

2. "She's Mine."  This is a less well known Jones song.  I am not even sure if it was a top charted hit.  This song is about a man who accepts the fact that this girl who is in his life will someday leave him and that her love is still with one who has left them.  It seems to be an unusual romantic relationship, until the end of the song reveals the missing element.  The song is about a girl, a daughter, whose mother has "left this world" and the accepting love her father has for her.  "She's mine and yet, I know someday she'll leave me."  "She's a baby, I'm her daddy, and she's mine."  A sweet and moving work.

3.  "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool," with Barbara Mandrell.  I strongly identify with this song.  It is slightly autobiographical.  Barbara Mandrell's portion is great, but the crowd explodes when George enters in and echoes that theme of being country when country wasn't cool.  And there was something better about country music before "everyone" got in on the act.

4.  "I Don't Need No Rocking Chair."  This is a much more recent Jones' song.  It is in part a protest against so many country radio stations and producers who ignore the legends.  It is also a testimony to both Jones' resilience and to that of many an older person who can still do great things.  So many of my heroes have performed great feats in their older years:  Jones, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, and Paul Johnson are just a few.

5.  "If Drinking Don't Kill Me, Her Memory Will."  This is a traditional drinking, broken heart song.  I don't like the taste of liquor, but it sure resonates with the soul to hear these kind of powerful lyrics.  You feel the depth of pain that a person can go through in this world and understand why man in his sinful weakness so often seeks consolation in demon rum.

6.  "The Race is On."  What makes this song so attractive is that it was perhaps the first Jones' song I heard.  It was a hit way back in the 1960s.  It is clever and, like many country songs, skillful in its replaying of emotions through metaphors.

7.  "We're Gonna Hold On," with Tammy Wynette.  During the six or so years that Jones and Wynette were married, they produced a great number of wonderful songs.  As it turns out, they were probably better at singing together than living together in marriage.  Any Jones-Wynette duet is worth hearing.

8.  "Angel Band," with Ralph Stanley.  Jones and Stanley have performed several songs together on a couple of albums where Ralph Stanley sings with friends.  I wish they would produce a whole album together.

9.  "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes."  This song is a tribute to many of Jones' friends, fellow singers, and heroes.  It is another tear-jerker for me.  When Jones speaks of Hank, Marty, and Lefty, I find myself saddened by their absence.  And we all know that when George is singing this song, his shoes cannot be filled either.  (Watch the video!)

10.  "Choices."  I am painfully looking past quite a few other songs to chose this one.  I heard it for the first time today.  It is a powerful song that reflects on Jones' own life.  Even for those of us who have been preserved from the problems and failures that Jones both experienced and sings about, we are reminded that we have all made painfully bad and foolish choices.  This song reminds me of how thankful I am for a choice I did not make; in other words, I rejoice in the grace of God's electing love.

Of course, "The Grand Tour" should be on the list.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy Eightieth Birthday to a Superstar

George Jones celebrates his 80th birthday on September 12, 2011
Not many legends are still around.  Johnny Cash, Porter Waggoner, Bill Monroe, and Patsy Cline are all gone.  Elvis has been gone a long while, and old old Hank, Marty, and Lefty even longer.  Thankfully, we still have George Jones and Ralph Stanley.  (There are others no doubt.)  God has been good to George Jones, even though Jones, just like every one of us, has not always been very good toward God. 

Jones's drinking songs, like his songs about heartbreak, blues, and dejection, are born out of his many miserable experiences.  He has suffered from alcohol use and abuse, broken marriages, and at least one major wreck that should have ended it all.  As he says in one song, "from the blood from my body I could start my own still."

Just as those two great William's, Shakespeare and Faulkner, plummeted the depths of human tragedy and woes via their dramas and novels, so Jones has revealed the pain, misery, and struggles of man's failed efforts to find perfect bliss in this vale of tears.  Country Music is truly a Saturday night honky-tonk and Sunday morning revival kind of experience.  This is not to endorse every celebration of the honky-tonks, cheating songs, or drunkeness.  It is to realize the depth of reality in so many of those songs.

Perhaps the greatest song Jones ever did (and there are so many) is "He Stopped Loving Her Today."  Unrequited love has never been so powerfully portrayed as in this song.  It breaks my heart every time I hear it.  When Jones first looked at the song, even he thought it was too **** depressing (to use his words, sort of) to appeal to people.  But we are all depressed sometimes.  The blues and their first cousin from the south, sad country songs, all bespeak the human condition.  If you are not sad or heartbroken or lonely right now, someone in your family, neighborhood, or church is.  And whether that sorrow is self-inflicted, the result of events beyond your control, or due to being sinned against, it is a glimpse into the abyss, a journey into the underworld, a vision of the heart of darkness.  (Country music is, after all, great literature, sectioned up into 3 minute experiences with a fiddle and a steel guitar for emphasis.)

Sometimes the fault of Jones and other country singers is the lack of balance in giving answers to man's plight and misery.  Yes, this is a miserably depressing, lonely, heart-breaking world.  We could all drink ourselves into oblivion due to the fallen condition of mankind and the miseries of our own hearts. But God has spoken. There is hope.

Jones not only knows of the hope in this world, but he has celebrated it.  After his near-fatal car crash some years back, he appealed to Vestal Goodman of the Happy Goodman Gospel Singers.  Along with his fourth wife, Nancy, these two women helped George recover a vision of the Cross. Prior to that wreck, his wife worked to free him from his many years of alcohol and drug abuse.  Like June Carter Cash's labors with her famous singer husband, George's wife exemplified the saving Gospel to his life.
[For an amazing interview with George Jones about his life and faith, see]

Not all country songs are about the tragic dimensions of life and love.  Jones has had several hits that celebrate women.  Songs such as "She's the Rock that I Lean On" and "A Picture of Me Without You" are fine examples of a woman being man's source of stability, a true help-meet.
 God's blessings on dear old George Jones on his eightieth birthday.  I hope he continues to sing on this side of eternity.  I can also hope to meet him on this side as well.

George Jones at age 80--"Still Doin' Time"--on the stage

Jones' marriage to Tammy Wynette resulted in many a fine duo, but that marriage of two great singers did not last.  They sang, "We Gonna Hold On," but they didn't.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Album of The Year: "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Article written by Nick House.
I love the album cover.

     Helplessness Blues is the best album of 2011. It could have passed as being the best album of 1968; perhaps a lost Simon and Garfunkel world music album. I've taken the liberty of naming it Album of the Year even though the year isn't over yet, because unless Johnny Cash comes back from the grave to record a new record I doubt I'll hear anything better than this.
     It is hard to follow up a breakthrough album. If the band sticks with the formula that made them innovative in the first place, they might end up with a second album that sounds just like the first. That’s not always a bad thing, but Great Album II is never quite as good as the original. If they try to strike out in a new direction, they could end up being a band with no defined style that constantly reinvents itself. The ideal is for a second album to build upon the first, without being either a radical departure or a carbon copy.
     Fleet Foxes has achieved this ideal. Their first album was very minimalist, precise, and vocal oriented. The new record focuses more on instruments than the band’s trademark harmony. The music on Helplessness Blues is less precise than that on Fleet Foxes, but it is more exploratory, boldly going where no foxes have gone before. It is also a more personal album. On Fleet Foxes, lead singer Robin Pecknold’s voice always seemed to blend into the band’s harmonies and on some tracks it was almost completely drowned out. (Think “White Winter Hymnal”, “Sun It Rises”, “Quiet Houses”) The lyrics, while beautiful, seemed rather detached, like looking at a picture rather than looking at the thing itself.
     Things are much different here. Unlike the rather random collection of songs from Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues falls into a sort of pattern, telling the story of the singer’s emotional journey. It’s not a concept album per se, but one can see a sort of storyline emerge from the songs. Every storyline has a cast of characters. In Helplessness Blues, there are two main characters: the singer (played by Robin Pecknold) and his woman, whom he is having problems with. There are also a host of supporting characters: a mysterious man in “Sim Sala Bim” who is described as a “gentleman tied to the Oceanside,” a “stranger” who stands on the girl’s doorstep in “Battery Kinzie” and ominously says “nothing good.”, a “Bitter Dancer” who might be the singer’s woman or might be his son, and other, minor characters like “the slave and the empress” who both return to the dust like they came.
     Every story has a theme. This story’s theme is helplessness (duh), confusion, or a sense of being lost. Every song deals with confusion or being lost in some way, and the storyline is left somewhat unresolved.
     The record starts with the hymn like “Montezuma.” The band’s echo chamber, singing-into-a-can sound works well here: Pecknold takes the lead vocals solo and the band members back him up like a chorus of monks. If Worship music sounded like this, I would listen all the time. The singer realizes that he is older than his mother and father than when they had their daughter (and presumably disappointed that he has wasted half his life on this stupid band instead of getting a real job.) He wonders if he could ever get past only thinking of himself and learn to “dream of such a selfless and true love.”
     “Bedouin Dress” is one of the best-constructed songs on the record. Unlike some bands (Nirvana, you know who you are.) Fleet Foxes pays a lot of attention to the arrangement of their songs. This song manages to synthesize percussion, a jazzy Middle Eastern fiddle, and the band’s trademark harmonies into a pleasing whole. It’s probably the grooviest thing Fleet Foxes has done to date, and shows that they are not simply restricted to melancholy indie ballads. The singer talks about how he regrets his misspent youth, and that he would give up everything that he has “just to be at Innisfree again.” This is a reference to W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in which Innisfree represents the poets desire to come to some sort of home, a place of resolution.
     “Sim Sala Bim” is where the album really starts to sound like Simon and Garfunkel. This song sounds like the musical version of a very realistic dream. If you listen closely, you can hear some unusual chord progressions. The guitars, mandolins, and harps all sort of blend into an ethereal mix until the end of the track, when the song goes full tilt into a Celtic jam.
     If Jane Austen had listened to rock music, then she would have probably had “Battery Kinzie” on repeat. The song has a sort of Elizabethan or 18th century sound to it. Any band that can start a song with “I woke up one morning/all my fingers rotting” and not come off as overly melancholy has talent. This song is driven by the drums and percussion. When you listen to it, listen to the cadence and sounds of Robin Pecknold’s lyrics. In poetry, it matters just as much how the words sound as what they say.
     “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” is actually two songs. “The Plains” is an instrumental. Fleet Foxes had an instrumental on their self-titled record, “Heard Them Stirring,” but it was mainly showcasing their harmonies. “The Plains” starts with a simple drumbeat and guitar melody. Gradually, vocals and other instruments start coming into the song until it escalates into a dreamy crescendo and then fades into “Bitter Dancer.” “Bitter Dancer” is a very dark, foreboding skin. Like Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,”
it tells part of a story, leaving the audience in the dark as to the details. The harmonies on this song are so intricate that I cannot tell which voice is the melody and which voices are the harmonies. After three dark and foreboding verses, the music takes a U-Turn and starts into a major-key section, with the singers declaring “At arm’s length, I will hold you there.” It’s a very unusual way to end a song; listen to it and I think you’ll agree.
Fleet Foxes always keeps it real.
  “Helplessness Blues” was the first song from this record that I heard. The first part of it is a guitar driven ballad. The lyrics are worthy of Paul Simon. The singer speaks of once feeling that he had a purpose in this world, but now he feels lost and helpless. Every verse ends with the phrase “I’ll get back to you someday soon.” leaving his problems unresolved. After the third verse, the band comes in and the song slows down. The narrator tells of his desire to live a normal life with his woman “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore…and you would wait tables and soon run the store,” but ends the song with “someday I’ll be like the man on the screen,” suggesting that this idyllic life he speaks of is just an illusion.
     “The Cascades” is an almost Celtic instrumental. Robin Pecknold has said that one of his biggest influences is soundtrack music, and you can feel the soundtrack influence here. The music has a very imagistic quality to it: you can almost see the Cascades when it is playing. Listen with your eyes closed.
     “Lorelei” is something you don’t often see in modern pop music: a waltz. It is probably the most poppy thing on this record, full of 70s-nature-documentary-background -music guitar arpeggios, and flutes and background harmonies that gently hover about this song. It’s all sunshine and butterflies and stuff, so Metallica fans beware! You might just…like it. Just try not to sing along with the chorus. It ends with the sound of either cannons firing or a hockey game (I can’t tell), so that makes it slightly more manly.
     At first I paid little mind to “Someone You’d Admire,” mainly because it was short and quiet. After listening to it closely, I became convinced that it was the best song on the album. It’s a ballad with just guitar, vocals and a great melody. The best part is the lyrics. The singer sings about how he has two personas, one of who loves this woman and the other who “would just as soon cast [her] on the fire.” The song ends with the singer declaring, “After all is said and after all is done/God only knows which one of them I’ll become.” The best part is that the singer says what he wants and then ends the song, instead of dragging it out to three or four minutes like a more amateurish songwriter would.
     “The Shrine/An Argument,” another multi-part song. The first part involves the singer going to “the old stone fountain in the morning after dawn.” This part has some of the most adventurous chord progressions in the album. For those of you not musically educated, it goes from incredibly tense and strained to mellow in a split section.
     The next section is the most energetic that Fleet Foxes has been. The singer talks about his woman’s anger toward him, culminating in her “in the ocean, washing of my name from [her] throat.” The drama in the lyrics is perfectly complimented by the drama in the song.
     The final section begins with the singer singing as if in a dark cavern, “green apples hang from my tree/they belong only to me.” The singer does not reach a sense of acceptance, but instead asks the sea to “Carry me to Innisfree like pollen on the breeze.” Then after that, there’s something that sounds like a baby elephant being being beaten to death. I’m sure there’s some artsy reason to include that on the album, but it’s very annoying.
After this drama comes the Simon and Garfunkel-like lullaby “Blue Spotted Tail.” The singer asks rhetorical questions (“Why in the night sky is the earth hung?” “Why is life made only for to end.”?) These depressing questions are backed up by a beautiful, calm fingerpicked guitar melody.
     This leads me to a great digression. Perhaps one of the reasons that Christian rock music is generally lame is that there is no sense of mystery or searching in the lyrics. Robin Pecknold is an atheist or something thereabouts and he can sing songs that ask “Why is life made only for to end.” I feel like most Christian rock artists don’t ask questions like that, and would probably answer it with some sort of pat, “God made it that way” answer. Perhaps because Christians know they have the truth, they don’t write songs that have any searching or wonderment in them. Christian songs just seem to have no dramatic tension.
     After the drama of “Helplessness Blues”, “Someone You’d Admire.” “The Shrine/An Argument” and “Blue Spotted Tail,” the final track, “Grown Ocean” comes as a sort of relief. The music is mellow, but upbeat, contrasting with most of the second half of the album. The singer speaks of being in a dream where he is “as old as the mountains/still as starlight reflected in fountains.” He says that he will truly see his woman someday when he wakes from the dream into reality. The album ends with his singing “Wide eyed walker, don’t betray me/I will wake one day, don’t delay me. /wide eyed leaver, always going.” The album ends with the singer accepting his fate, but with his future still unsure.
     Fleet Foxes has managed to create a style of music that is both traditional and modern. Their music details a search for resolution, both musically and lyrically. It is a music that tells a story, maybe even a quest, full of wonder and wondering. Fleet Foxes is the defining sound of the 21st century, and when the Britney Spears ripoffs and screamo bands have all faded away, Fleet Foxes will remain. If you only buy one album this year, make it this one.

Just admit it: You know you want a beard like that.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Dylan Eleventary

By Nick
Dig That Purple Bowtie.
It is impossible to pick a top eleven songs from Bob Dylan. First off I like so many of his songs that it’s hard to pick just 11. Secondly, Bob Dylan’s output has been so diverse that it’s not right to compare his work from one era to that from another. Instead of trying to narrow out Bob’s eleven best, I’ll just pick out eleven that I really like.
11. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: One of the shortest hit songs ever, only bested by “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin. I appreciate the reggae version by Eric Clapton, and the version by Guns ‘n’ Roses is…unique, but Bob’s is still the best. On the Unplugged version he sings “Knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door/just like all the other times before.” Huh?
10. Tangled Up In Blue: This song is a rara avis, a long narrative song by Dylan that actually makes some sort of sense. I read somewhere that it was about the history of cubism. I don’t want to know what the song is about; that would spoil it. Best moment: when the woman hands the singer the book of poetry “written by an Italian poet of the 13th century.” Dante and Dylan: what a great combination.
9. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue: Bob Dylan could write great melodies. It’s a pity he couldn’t sing them. I’ve always thought this song could have been a pop smash had it been redone by another band. Favorite lyric line: “The emptyhanded painter from the streets/is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.”
8. Positively 4th Street: The perfect takedown. What else can I say.
7. All Along The Watchtower: I like Bob’s version better than Jimi’s. (Still like Jimi’s though.) This song has some of the best atmospheric lyrics in the rock music world. Dylan builds up an engaging story, and as soon as you get into it, he ends it. Why are the riders approaching? What are the princes on the watchtower looking for? One of the reasons I like Dylan is because he’s mysterious: You can find out all about a song by Breaking Benjamin or whoever, but you’ll never totally figure out a Dylan song. (If it makes you feel better, Dylan has probably never figured out a Dylan song.)
6. To Make You Feel My Love: Some British Chick named Adele or something has made a sugary-sweet remake of this. Dylan sounds much more authentic on his version. Dylan was a rare artist in that he could take pop music and make something meaningful out of it.
5. Not Dark Yet: But it’s getting there. Don’t take my word for it, just listen to the song.
4. Maggie’s Farm: More timely than ever. Unlike so many Dylan wannabes, Dylan was able to write songs that you could crank up loud. If I had a car with huge speakers I would blare this song out like it was rap.
3. Subterranean Homesick Blues: Dylan invented rap. This song is generally known as the first white rap song. The first non-white rap song was actually by Muhammad Ali and It’s called “Theme from Muhammad Ali and his gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay.” (Personally, I’m going for Mr. Tooth Decay.) Anyway, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is probably the one song that I feel defines the 60s vibe, and it also has one of the coolest titles ever.
2. John Brown: Dylan was often called a poet, usually in reverent, hushed tones. (“He was a poet.) Most of Dylan’s so called poetry is incoherent and insensible. However, occasionally, in between the “Tombstone Blues” and “Quinn The Eskimos” he came out with something that really was good poetry. This song, from the Unplugged album, is one of the best anti-war poems I’ve heard, putting Dylan in the ranks of e. e. cummings and Wilfrid Owen. I think he would be proud.
1. Dig It by The Beatles: From the Let It Be album. This is the best Dylan song ever. If you’re a Dylan fan you have to listen to it.

If Only This Had Been A Real Album
 Favorite Dylan song that’s not a Dylan song: “Girl From North Country” by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Bob doesn’t even sound like himself on this duet. This is just a flat-out great song, even if both the legends singing on it had a deficient sense of rhythm and couldn’t harmonize with each other no matter how hard they tried.

Two American Legends

And did you realize that "Like A Rolling Stone" wasn't on this list?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bob and Larry

By Nick
Not this Bob and Larry
 Bob Dylan is one of the most influential singers and songwriters of our time. His influence has spawned countless imitators such as Connor Oberst, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan.
There is not one Bob Dylan. There are many Bob Dylans. There is the 60s Greenwhich Village Folk Scene Dylan, the Electric Dylan, The Nashville Skyline Dylan, The 70s Leisure Suit Dylan, The Artiste Auteur Dylan, the 80s Dylan (“Jokerman” sounds like a lost cut from the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack.) The 90s Comeback Dylan, the Living Legend Dylan, and the World-Weary Troubadour Dylan. (Coming soon: Retirement Home Dylan.) In the movie I’m Not There, a really weird Dylan biopic that I have not watched, he is played by 6 different actors, including a woman. (I pity any woman ugly enough to pass for Bob Dylan.)

One phase that many people don’t know about or dismiss is the Saved Dylan. From 1979 through 1981 Dylan was a born-again Christian and recorded two Christian-themed albums. But unlike many secular artists who become Christian and then make lame music for Jesus, Bob Dylan didn’t dumb down his songwriting when he became a believer. You won’t find Jesus-is-my-girlfriend ballads on Saved and Slow Train Comin’. Instead, Dylan takes his style and Christianizes it, with good results. Unlike many Christian rock artists of today, his songs deal with theological concepts like covenants and sanctification. And not only did Dylan have good Christian lyrics, he backed it up with good Christian music. The music on Dylan’s Christian albums sounds like Gospel cranked up to 11. Listening to “Solid Rock“ or “Saved“ might give you the impression that it would be enjoyable to be a Christian. I’m sorry, but you can’t do the praise hand to anything on Air1.

Dylan and Gospel: an unlikely Combination

When Dylan was a Christian he had a brief acquaintance with Larry Norman. Larry Norman is often thought of as the first Christian rock artist. This is not true: the first Christian rock band was David and the Five Smooth Stones. Norman’s music seems babyishly tame today compared to Air1 staples like Skillet or Flyleaf (How come Christian bands can’t come up with cool names?), but in his day he was criticized for playing rock with a Christian message. He was also known as the Christian answer to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Larry’s music was very much worldview music. He took his Christian worldview and applied it to different areas of life. For example, in “I Am The Six O’Clock News,” he criticized the media’s reluctance to take a moral stand on what it reported, and the way it transformed tragedy into entertainment. Try finding anything of that depth on Christian radio. Another personal favorite is “Christmastime”, with lyrics like “I gotta buy a present can’t remember who it’s for/but I’ll see you in an hour when I get back from the store.” Larry seems to have anticipated The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” by several years. And finally, there’s “Baroquen Spirits,” a tale of lost love from the point of view of someone living in the 1500s. Not your average subject for a rock and roll song.

Serious Songs With Larry
Larry was a good songwriter, but he was often hampered by his pre-millennial theology. One of his best known songs is “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” a somewhat melodramatic 70s ballad about the Rapture. Regardless of whether you agree with its lyrics or not, it’s still a gorgeous song, and we can be glad that even though Larry believed premillenially, he acted postmillenially.

Why Should The Devil Have all the Good Music?
Secondary doctrine aside, both Bob Dylan and Larry Norman reached back to the roots of rock music: gospel. Rock music’s heritage is black and white gospel music of the south. Jerry Lee Lewis used to crawl up underneath a black church with his cousins (some kids named Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart.) and play air piano. Elvis was briefly a member of the Blackwood Brothers and sang Gospel music throughout his entire career. Little Richard started out in church (?) and briefly became a minister. Don’t forget Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the highly influential guitarist. Even the AC/DC hit “Highway To Hell” sounds like a Gospel song gone wrong.
Yet today’s Christian rock scene ignores the gospel roots of rock music and instead gives us bland soundalike pop acts and metrosexual metal bands. For those of us who haven’t had frontal lobotomies, there’s very little to choose from that has both good music and good lyrics. If you’re looking for solid Christian rock music, you can do no better than to start with Larry Norman and Bob Dylan’s Christian albums.
And no discussion of Bob Dylan's Christian Albums could be complete without mentioning the awesome tribute Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, which features covers of Dylan's Christian songs by great artists like Shirley Caesar, Aaron Neville, Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Sounds of Blackness.

Gospel Albums by Dylan: Saved!
                                       Slow Train Comin'
                                       Shot Of Love (Don't have this one.)
Larry Norman's Trilogy: Only Visiting This Planet
                                     So Long Ago the Garden
                                     In Another Land