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


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Patriotic Rock Songs (!)

By Nick

Not the best picture, but it's all I could find.
Rock Music is not known as a bastion of patriotism. The majority of rock songs are apolitical, and those that are political are usually tired variations on the "I-Hate-George-Bush" theme. Many of the best rock bands are hardcore liberals, and "patriotic rock" is usually a codeword for Ted Nugent. And before I go any further, I will say that I am a conservative and I can't stand Ted Nugent's music.
     Many rock songs fall into the somewhat vague category of Anti-War or Protest songs. Many protest songs are very good, such as Bob Dylan's "John Brown". At their best anti-war songs show the horror of wars and put to shame any people who try to glorify war. Any true conservative is anti-war. At their worst (and they're far more at their worst than at their best) they are short-sighted attacks on the military that keeps them safe. It's easy to criticize your leaders if you live in a free country like America. There are plenty of American/British rockers who have criticized George W. Bush and are incredibly famous. I don't know of any Korean rockers who have criticized Kim Jong Il and gotten away with it. Going back to the main point, their are very few rock songs that speak highly of the US military.
     Alice in Chains, the 90s grunge/rock band, is not known for patriotic songs. Most of their songs fall into the general category of "I hate [Fill In The Blank]."  But on their 2nd album, Dirt, from 1992, they performed one of the best military anthems of all time, "Rooster." This is not just one of the coolest pro-military songs ever, but one of the coolest songs ever period. Alice in Chains guitarist (and wah-pedal addict) Jerry Cantrell wrote the songs about his father, Jerry Cantrell Sr., who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, and who was nicknamed "Rooster" as a young man. The lyrics speak of the horrors of war while praising the warrior who fights for his country. Musically, the song alternates between the soft, almost psychedelic verses and the huge electric guitar buildups.

Ain't found a way to kill me yet

Eyes burn with stinging sweat
Seems every path leads me to nowhere
Wife and kids, household pet
Army green was no safe bet
The bullets scream to me from somewhere
(Commentary: The soldier in this song is trying to survive so he can get back to his "wife and kids.")

Yeah they come to snuff the Rooster
Yeah here come the Rooster, yeah
You know he ain't gonna die
No, no, no, you know he ain't gonna die
(Commentary: words on a page cannot convey how awesome this chorus is. You just have to listen to it.)

Walkin' tall machine gun man
They spit on me in my home land
Gloria sent me pictures of my boy
Got my pills 'gainst mosquito death
My buddy's breathin' his dyin' breath
Oh God please won't you help me make it through
(Commentary: In the 1960s many of the peace protestors were very rude to veterans coming back from Vietnam, spitting on them or calling them baby-killers. The naive protesters, then and now, do not understand what the soldiers go through in combat in foreign lands, away from their wife and children with their combat buddies dying. The song's singer cries out to God to help him get home alive.)

Yeah they come to snuff the rooster, ah yeah
Yeah here come the rooster, yeah
You know he ain't gonna die
No, no, you know he ain't gonna die

Also in the realm of rock songs and the 4th of July, check out "Independence Day For A Petty Thief" by House of Heroes from their album Suburba. It's not particularly patriotic (although House of Heroes has done some good pro-troop songs on their World War II album, The End Is Not The End.), but it's rockin'.

Current Listenings: The Great Hylian Revival by Jay Tholen, Helplessness Blues by Fleet
Foxes, "Gravedigger" by The Dave Matthews Band.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Country Music and Patriotism

Part 1 of what is now a 3 part music series.

Country music is a broad category entailing many kinds of songs.  Sometimes in listening to "country stations" on the radio, I am confused about what country music is.  There are defining music styles and themes that clearly identify some songs as country. Among the many recurring themes or ideas found in country music is love of country, in this case, the country being the United States. 

What country singers often celebrate in family, grandparents, a loving wife, a farm, or a road leading home is personified in the United States as a country.  It should be no surprise that many country artists, including Johnny Cash, have been military veterans.  It should be no surprise that many country artists devote time to touring and performing for American troops overseas.

Country music heralds the flag, the military, freedom, and the unity of the idea of "God and country."  Like all patriotic sensibilities, sometimes it is overblown, often it echoes that much maligned concept of "American exceptionalism," and sometimes it is blind to America's faults.  But country music has often contained its own critiques of American actions. 

None of this can be used to easily put all country artists in the right wing of the Republican Party.  Many of the older musicians, like Bill Monroe, were old-time New Deal Democrats.  Ralph Stanley, in 2008, endorsed John Edwards (whose subsequent downfall looks like a country song) and later President Obama.  (In fact, Stanley was personally recruited by Pres. Obama.)  Del McCoury's CD Moneyland, which appeared around 2007, was a veiled call for a replacement of the Republican administration.  Some of the songs were drawn from the era of the Great Depression and were bemoaning the Hoover administration.

Still, it is hard to find many true blue liberals among country artists.  Either they are politically conservative, religiously conservative, or culturally conservative.  (And like even left-wing entertainers who profit from the free market sales of their work, they are business conservatives.)

Patriotism finds reason to celebrate the ideals and potential of this country even amidst the many flaws.
Perhaps the most popular patriotic country song of our time is Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." While Greenwood has actually enjoyed many hits, this one has been the most successful and defining for him.  Like much good music, it has crossed the charts and is popular in all kinds of audiences and settings, but particularly patriotic settings.

Notice the words (and comments) below:

If tomorrow all the things were gone,

I’d worked for all my life.
And I had to start again,
with just my children and my wife.

I’d thank my lucky stars,
to be livin here today.
‘ Cause the flag still stands for freedom,
and they can’t take that away.

(Commentary:  An abiding belief in this country is the freedom we enjoy and the opportunities we have under that freedom.  So, in times like these when the economic situation is threatening "all the things...[we've] worked for all [our lives]" we still have the belief that freedom is better than material goods, that the love of a family can sustain us, and that freedom cannot be taken away.)
And I’m proud to be an American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won't forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

And I gladly stand up,
next to you and defend her still today.
‘ Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.

(Commentary:  The freedom exists because men have fought and died for it.)
From the lakes of Minnesota,
to the hills of Tennessee.
Across the plains of Texas,
From sea to shining sea.

From Detroit down to Houston,
and New York to L.A.
Well there's pride in every American heart,
and its time we stand and say.

(Commentary:  There is a unity that is geographic and cultural.  The idea of what an American is--which has been a topic of discussion for centuries--is found in our pride of nationhood.)
That I’m proud to be an American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won't forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

And I gladly stand up,
next to you and defend her still today.
‘ Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.

(Commentary: The repetition of the ideas and words of this song--accompanied by the music--reinforces the love of country based on freedom.  The prayer and wish for the song is for God's blessing on this country.)

We hope to highlight some other country songs that are patriotic in the days ahead.