From: email@example.com (Stephen Scobie)
Date: Sat, 31 Dec 94 19:53:39 GMT
Subject: year end speculation
(Forgive me if this shows up twice. I thought I'd posted it a couple of days ago, but it hasn't shown up yet. So here goes again...)
Some year-end speculations about Mr Dylan and his career......
Thinking recently about the whole course of Dylan's career, I found myself
dividing up his work into a series of phases. I'd like to share these
speculations with r.m.d, for any comments or suggestions y'all may have.
Two words of caution:
(1) These phases do not have hard-and-fast boundaries between them. Some of the beginnings and endings are fairly clearly marked, but a lot of them are fuzzy, with periods of overlap between one phase and the next. (2) I don't for a moment suggest that these phases are consciously intended or realised by Dylan. He doesn't wake up one morning and say, "Hey, time I moved into another phase." These are groupings which really only emerge in retrospect.
Phase One: The Prolific Years: 1961-67
These are the years of Dylan's youth, the first great outpouring of his
creativity, when words and music just rushed out of him without any pause
for doubt or hesitation. In these years he moved swiftly through several
styles -- folk, protest, rock, country -- at such speed that no two
consecutive albums are alike. There is a supreme confidence in his own
talent: verging, at times, on arrogance, or on hyperactive frenzy
(especially in late 65 to early 66). I'm sure that he was "sincere" in his various beliefs at this time (in Woody Guthrie, in the Civil Rights movement, in Sara); but I think his main belief was in his own talent. Nothing could stop the words and music pouring out of him. One possible end-point for this phase would of course be the motorcycle accident; but I would prefer to see it as carrying on through the summer and fall of 1967, to include those last great flourishes of his early genius, the songs of the Basement Tapes and "John Wesley Harding."
Phase Two: The Years of Withdrawal: 1968-1974
In a sense, this phase begins with the retreat to Woodstock in 1966,
but I think it only sets in, deeply, after "Nashville Skyline." There are
brief flashes of activity and even brilliance during these years: I still
find "Self-Portrait" a fascinating album, and the music for "Pat Garrett
and Billy the Kid" (especially as revealed on the complete out-takes) is
quite wonderful. But there is no sustained or extended activity during
these years, and there are long periods (such as 1972) when he seemed to
withdraw totally from everything. I see it as a period of doubt,
self-questioning, and profound lassitude. In these years, he just didn't
know where he was going.
There are several possible end-points for this period: as early, say, as the recording of "Planet Waves" in November 1973; or the recording of "Blood on the Tracks" in late 1974. But as late as spring 75, he is still capable of periods of drastic withdrawal and silence. I wouldn't say he is completely out of it until he comes back to New York in the summer of 1975.
Phase Three: The Years of Passionate Commitment: 1975-1981
Certainly, this phase could begin with "Blood on the Tracks," but I
think it fully hits its stride in the fall of 1975, with the extraordinary
coming together of the recording of "Desire," the Rolling Thunder tour,
and the filming of "Renaldo and Clara." It continues through the long
process of editing "R&C," then extends itself even further into the period
of the conversion and the Gospel tours. What distinguishes this whole
period is Dylan's passionate belief in the importance of what he is
doing. This is subtly different from the "belief" of the early 60s: I
think it is less self-centred. What Dylan believes in here is the
community of Rolling Thunder, the greatness of "Renaldo and Clara," and
the redemption of Jesus Christ; "Bob Dylan" takes second place to all of
these. Or, in other words (the words he learned from Norman Raeben), he
is now doing consciously what he used to do unconsciously. Nothing will
dim the brilliance of Phase One, but personally (and maybe it's because
I'm getting older), I find the work of Phase Three more rewarding, more
enduring. While I still find the lyrics of the Gospel songs irritatingly
simplistic, I have come to love the concert performances of 1979-80 (and
of course 1975). If 1966 is the height of Dylan's genius, 1975 is its
This phase basically ends in 1981, when he begins to reintroduce the older songs into the Gospel song-lists. And the real transitional songs are those weird and unresolved out-takes from 80-81, "Angelina" and "Caribbean Wind." The fact that he couldn't finish "Caribbean Wind" to his own satisfaction is ominous.
Phase Four: The Years of Drift: 1982-88
As in Phase Two, Dylan in these years doesn't quite know what he's doing, and he's casting around looking for directions. There are flashes of brilliance -- "Blind Willie McTell," "I and I," "Dark Eyes," "Brownsville Girl" -- but again, nothing is sustained, there are no extended periods of solid achievement. He tries out a lot of collaborations -- Mark Knopfler, Mick Taylor, Carlos Santana, Sam Shepard, Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead -- but they work only fitfully, and (apart from Petty) are mostly very short-lived. The typical albums of the period are the mish-mash mixtures of "Knocked Out Loaded" and "Down in the Groove." The best album of the period, tellingly, is the "Infidels" out-takes.
Phase Five: The Performing Years: 1988-1994
He eases into this with the second Petty tour, the brilliant "Temples in Flames," but it only really takes off in the spring of 1988, when he hits the road with his own small band (getting rid of keyboards and back-up singers; even, for the first year, getting rid of the harmonica) and begins "the Never-Ending Tour." True, there are great studio albums in this period, especially "Oh Mercy" and "World Gone Wrong": but the major creative emphasis, and commitment, is on live performance. These years have their ups and downs (1991 is fairly far down), but all the critics who expressed surprise at how well he was singing in 1994 just weren't listening in 88, or 90, or 92.... The depth and richness of material available from these years is formidable: it will take a long time for us to let it sift down, and for the truly great performances to declare themselves. But in the long run, who can doubt that some of his all-time greatest work will be adjudged to have come out of these performances?
OK, if you're with me so far, you may have noticed something about
these 5 phases I've been sketching: namely, that each of them lasts (give
or take a little, allowing for the fuzziness of some of the transitions)
more or less exactly 7 years. Now, a 7-year cycle is a widely observed
phenomenon: everything from sunspots to academic sabbaticals. It seems to
be a period of time that many phases of life comfortably fall into. If that is the case, then, observe that the current phase, Phase Five, is now at the end of its 7th year. What might this mean?
I doubt if Dylan will immediately stop performing: indeed, we already hear reports about concert dates in Britain next year. (And I expect that Dylan will keep on performing for as long as the audience outnumbers the band.) But it might mean some kind of shift in emphasis. Certainly, in the past few months, he seems to have been in a very *retrospective* mood: I mean the release of GH3, the possible (?) release of another volume of the Bootleg Series, and the "Highway 61 Interactive" CD-ROM. After years of notoriously poor TV performances, and of shying away from any kind of live release with his touring band, he has allowed two major TV broadcasts of live shows, Woodstock and Unplugged (and Unplugged looks as if it will proliferate into CD, official video, etc.) All of this looks to me very much like someone who is summing up a certain phase of his career. If only he can get all this retrospective stuff cleared out of the way, then, in about a year or so, he might, he just might, be in a position to give us something absolutely new.... Phase Six?
"Paying attention like a rattlesnake does When he's hearing footsteps trampling over his flowers."