Friday, September 4, 2009

Bob Dylan 30: Biograph

In 1985, Bob was known as a cultural icon, though many Americans wouldn’t have exactly been able to say why. He started the year as the odd voice out on “We Are The World”, then showed up as the penultimate closing act at Live Aid, playing a brief acoustic set with two inebriated Rolling Stones. (He used the occasion to inspire Farm Aid, but the few people who actually understood his mumbled comments thought it was a crass distraction from the poor Ethiopians we were patting our backs to save.) Empire Burlesque got lots of press, but it didn’t wow.
So it was a little surprising when Biograph came out that November, an unprecedented five-record set featuring Dylan’s biggest radio hits plus album cuts and some fabled unreleased tracks. (Collectors were just as intrigued by the fabled unreleased tracks it didn’t include.) When you want to understand where the concept of the box set started, have no doubt that it started here. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, long considered the benchmark, wouldn’t have happened without Biograph, but had the advantage of CD-length programming. Because it was 1985, most households (much less radio stations) hadn’t considered owning a compact disc player; thus Biograph was sequenced as ten separate LP sides and themes, which is exactly how it’s supposed to be heard.
Side one is dedicated to the tender love song; these are the songs the leader of the Wallflowers hears when he thinks of his parents in love. The rarity here is a nice piano take of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. Side two is made up of protest songs; oddly enough, given his reputation, his legacy as the conscience of the ‘60s is neatly wrapped up in four songs from his second and third albums, plus the wistful “Percy’s Song”.
Side three features rock ‘n roll, a side that had confused his folkie followers but was a good audition for those about to watch him tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. One version of “Mixed-Up Confusion” starts the side, followed by “Tombstone Blues”, “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”, the Before The Flood version of “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, with 51 seconds or so of “Jet Pilot”. Side four explores imagery and wordplay, from the near-religious wonder of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Every Grain Of Sand” to the level of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Visions Of Johanna”, included here in a gorgeous live version from 1966 (with a stomping “I Don’t Believe You” with the Hawks right in the middle). His genius can be demonstrated nearly as with the Beatles: you can play the songs in alphabetical order and they’d fit just fine.
Side five starts out about such characters as “Quinn The Eskimo”, “Dear Landlord” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but what does “It Ain’t Me Babe” have to do with that? It doesn’t really matter, because the songs are so good, especially when you get to side six, which is the best of set. These are some of his best odes to unrealized love: “To Ramona”; the heartbreaking original New York version of “You’re A Big Girl Now”; “Abandoned Love”, which would have been the best song on Desire had he included it; “Tangled Up In Blue”; and a transcendent live “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.
From there the themes jumble again. Side seven, with its rare tracks, seems to be dedicated to his best songs never included on an album simply because they were the ninth or tenth best songs he’d recorded that day: “Can Your Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, which segues nicely into “Positively 4th Street”, a live “Isis” from the Rolling Thunder tour, one incarnation of “Caribbean Wind” and “Up To Me” from the New York Blood On The Tracks sessions. Side eight seems to play on the more playful side of his love songs. “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” has some hilarious rollercoaster whoops, but “I Wanna Be Your Lover” makes us wish they’d included “She’s Your Lover Now” instead. A possibly live version of “Heart Of Mine” is the other rare track.
Side nine is entrenched in the late-‘70s, with a couple of his born-again anthems amidst songs that got unfairly overlooked, starting with “Romance In Durango” from Rolling Thunder. Side ten is devoted to the rest of his “anthems”, many best known either in cover versions or plagiarism by others, closing with a short publishing demo of “Forever Young” (the fast version).
There’s a lot to take in here, but any newbie who took the time to digest them those years ago has probably gone ahead and explored each of the lesser-known albums that spawned these. If you can program your CD player to digest these songs in the prescribed chunks, they’ll be even more revelatory.

Bob Dylan Biograph (1985)—4


  1. Biograph was the first Dylan I ever bought. I'd heard "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" on a classic rock station and made a u-turn for the record store. I said I just heard some song about the president of the united states standing naked called It's Alright Ma. I think it was by Bob Dylan or Bob Seger. The clerk laughed and pointed me to Biograph. He said it had everything on it. Of course, it didn't have It's Alright Ma, but my life changed forever that day. Within a month I had the catalogue. I owe my career as a playwright, director and leader of a well regarded theatre company to that record clerk and to the folks who packaged Biograph. And, more to the point, of course, Dylan.