Sunday, January 31, 2010

SONG #75: Shelter From The Storm

Original Version on Blood On The Tracks, 1975

And Dylan makes the blog, finally.

In the same way that playing with younger musicians made me realize some things about the legacy of The Eagles (see the "One Of These Nights" post) it's fascinating to me to see how my musician friends in their 20s approach Bob Dylan.  Most of them have very little time for him, or they offer backhanded insults like, "He's really a poet, not a songwriter.  He's an author, not a musician."  (That's my personal favorite-- what better way to say "He sucks, but I'm not allowed to say that"?  Calling someone a poet is like saying a blind date is a "bundle of fun.")  They're genuinely bewildered by all the fuss.  To them, he's an old, weird guy who can't really sing or play well and who uses such simple song structures that they don't seem like songs to them.  Where's the bridge?  Where's the moment for the band to shine?

I'm a firm believer, however, that every fan of music would love Bob Dylan if he or she gave him one hour of directed listening.  Dylan is not going to capture your imagination playing in the background.  You'll never be at a party and say "Hey, what's that slammin' track?" and have it be Bob Dylan.  If you close out the distractions, get comfortable, and sit and really listen to some of Dylan's better work, it'll put its hooks in you for the same reason that all great art does: at his best, Dylan is a mirror back to us all, a perfect reflection of humanity trying to make sense of itself.  Moreover, because Dylan himself is completely inscrutable for almost all of us, the art itself it what you have, and so the songs aren't about Bob-- they're about the songs.  That small but important piece of distance is why Dylan is not just some old singer-songwriter, and why his work endures in a way that Jackson Browne's or Aimee Mann's isn't: those two are turning out to be much more insular voices of their particular moments.

I'm supported in my theory by my experience covering Blood On The Tracks in its entirety last year with the SFSC All-Stars.  We've done a benefit show with our friend Phil Lesh for the last several years at Slim's in San Francisco, and this year we had the energy and time to tackle the whole album in sequence, with a different lead singer for every track.  I moved over to keys to make room for Phil on bass (who does he think he is, anyway?) and because I was therefore basically just leading the band through the changes and plinking along, I had a chance to watch over a dozen musicians dig into Dylan's work, many for the first time.  Phil, Matt Cunitz and I were really the only Dylan fanatics in the band, but by the end of the week of rehearsals and the shows, everyone had had their Dylan moment.  Our version of "Shelter," modeled on this version, was a highlight for me, because this version of this wonderful song marks that moment for me when I went from Dylan fan to Dylan fanatic, the kind of person who has 500 live show bootlegs, all of his outtakes, and wonders whether I need every note played on the 1966 tour with The Band (Answer: yes). 

Sometimes Dylan's constant messing with the arrangements of his songs is a disaster.  I've seen him a bunch of times, and he's been terrible more than once.  One time, I had no idea what song he was singing until about two minutes into each song for the whole set.  I may be a Dylan nut, but I am not an apologist-- he's made some terrible music and very purposefully: records where you could tell he thought he'd made something great, and it's appallingly not so.  Have you heard the new Christmas album yet?  It's almost William Shatneresque in its levels of shocking awfulness.

And yet... and yet... that kind of constant search for another way sometimes strikes solid gold, and I believe that to be the case here and on the album it comes from, Hard Rain, the most underrated Dylan album and perhaps the most underrated live album ever made.

There's good reason why this record has been overlooked.  It's the soundtrack of a live TV broadcast from Colorado State University in 1976.  It rained miserably all day, so the audience and band is soaked.  Dylan had wowed audiences in 1975 on his Rolling Thunder Tour, and folks were hoping for more of the same in '76, but by then Dylan's marriage had crumbled, the band had started to go sour, and the set became darker and a lot less good-timey.  Imagine turning on the TV in 1976 and planning to see Dylan give you his greatest hits, and he plays a dozen obscure or completely reworked numbers without any stage patter or attempt to connect with the audience at the stadium or at home.  The band seems confused about what's coming next, and Dylan's got a "why bother shaving?" beard and a do-rag and is lost in his own reverie.  The stage is a mess-- there's about 50 people hanging around in the back.  Most of the footage is Dylan close-up, though, so his complete distance from the audience is in even starker relief.  Plus, the sound is coming out of your one speaker 1976 solid state TV.  People thought it stunk, assumed the album was a desperate attempt to recoup the massive losses the tour piled up, and walked away from the whole thing.  Critics ripped it, calling it cliched and old and tired.  Dylan responded by converting to conservative Christianity and making a series of "religious" albums to cement his utter alienation from his original fans.  He has, for most people, never rehabilitated himself.  Hence a new generation's confusion-- why does everyone care about a guy who hasn't made a undeniably great record in over 35 years?

And why on earth am I recommending this to you, and with such vehemence?  

I did not come to this album in the way contemporary listeners did-- I first heard it a dozen years later when there was no Youtube and the footage of the show was impossible to find.  I bought the record because of the cover.  Go back and look at it-- it's one of my favorite shots of Dylan.  He's wearing the heavy makeup that he slapped on for some of Rolling Thunder shows, and that look says so much to me.  That's the face of a lost man-- lost in the 70s, lost in a divorce, lost on the road, lost in a spiritual crisis, lost in terms of what kind of artist he will be now that the 60s are dead and buried, you name it.  It's one of the most honest record covers I've ever seen-- you know that the music contained in here is a little ragged and tired and angry and, well, full of Hard Rain.

"Shelter" opens side two of the original album, and ever since I started talking about it with people about twenty years ago, I've discovered a crew of people who are also as obsessed about this take as I am.  I remember bonding with my friend Jason Tandon (who really IS an honest-to-god, paid-to-be-a-poet Poet, thank you very much) over this song in graduate school.  Hopefully, once you hear this, you'll join the club.

The original version of the song is hushed and muted.  It sounds like a man ruminating on a lost relationship with regret but not anger.  It's a beautiful song.  This version is anything but.  Dylan "plays" slide guitar all over the track, but he's not the most accurate player in the world, so there are dozens of chromatic and dissonant squonks throughout.  It's also an aggressive, uptempo rocker now, powered by the brilliant drumming of Howard Wyeth, who uses the bell of his ride cymbal to create the syncopation through the tune, the bass line of Rob Stoner that never stops moving, and the little lead guitar figure by Mick Ronson (the lead guitarist of David Bowie's Spiders From Mars band) that takes over in between the vocals.  T-Bone Burnett is somewhere in the mix as well.  Maybe the band was falling apart and pissed at one another-- it sure sounds like it-- but that doesn't mean they still aren't great players with something to prove.

And speaking of those vocals-- I know that Dylan is not a traditional singer.  I know that.  But that doesn't mean he can't sing.  The delivery here is fantastic-- he has total control over his voice even though he's basically screaming the lead vocal, and he's now turned the song into a vituperative, furious condemnation of someone that has let him down.  It's a complete reinvention of the song, more dramatic than I would have thought possible.  It's amazing to me that both versions of "Shelter" exist, and that they're both absolutely essential listening for completely different reasons.  That's a trick that can almost never be pulled off by the same artist.

So check it out, but with this caveat-- just listen to it first.  Don't watch the footage until the second time through.  The video really does emphasize all the things that turned people off and will lead you away from the sound of the track, and that's what I fell in love with.  As I'm typing this last paragraph, I have the track on without the visual, and just like the first 500 times I heard it, I'm completely enthralled.  Enjoy.



  1. Aahhhhh, I was wondering when we'd get to the Rolling Thunder era Dylan. Can't agree more with Jeff about this record and anything live from the two rolling thunder tours. So good, so good, so good. My favorite track from the record is Idiot Wind, but this one is also tremendous. Blood on the Tracks is my favorite divorce/break up record, but the new versions of the song really capture what happens post-break up when the mixed feelings of blood on the tracks turn into unadulterated anger and recrimination. He spits out these lyrics and with the heavier, electric arrangement you can feel his oozing disdain.

    I'm a Dylan homer, but I can't agree that Dylan "hasn't made a undeniably great record in over 35 years." He's made at least two. I'll put Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind with any of his work. I also really like multiple songs on Love and Theft, Modern Times and Infidels.

  2. You would put Oh Mercy with ANY of his work? ANY? Really? Come on, man-- that's like saying that Beckham really turned around the MLS before he got hurt. It's a very good record, better than most, actually, but GREAT? Top 100 of all time GREAT? No way. It's so much BETTER than the records around it that it shines a little brighter. But if someone came to you and said, "I need a Bob Dylan record. What should I buy?" you wouldn't recommend "Oh Mercy" in the top five. I can think of about a dozen others that are better. That's what I mean by "undeniable." No Dylan nut would be without it, but someone could have a great sense of Dylan as an artist without ever hearing Oh Mercy. Also-- while I'm retorting-- name five GREAT songs on Infidels! Didn't think so. If multiple means "two," then don't try to defend those records, because I LOVE two songs off the Flock Of Seagulls album, but that's not an "undeniably great" record, either.

    Go Vols!

    1. Hi Jeff: I just wanted to let you know that Ronson isn't playing on that song,it is just Dylan and T-Bone and Dylan's slide is not bad, he is playing in open tune with a capo on the 3rd fret and I believe that is a Gretsch guitar and the vocals are like a holy man possessed. The best he ever sang IMHO.On albums, what about Street Legal? There are two completely different versions of this album, the one released in 1978 that sounded tinty and thin and the greatly remastered one of around 2006, my jaw dropped when I heard the remaster and the songs are all over the place.

  3. Whoa, whoa, whoa... Jeff, you're changing the criterion here. You said "undeniably great," not "essential listening" or "must own."

    I'm not as much of a fanatic or a Dylan completist as you and Ben, but "Time Out of Mind" and "Love and Theft" are amazing records that I would call undeniably great. (I'll stay out of the whole Infidels/Oh Mercy debate, since I don't know those records well.)

    TooM and L&T are old man's records, meditations on times past, regrets, death, one's place in the world, haunting memories, made by someone who knows that he's seen more sunrises in the past than he'll see in the future. Rock and roll is largely centered on the energy, ambition and delusions of youth; it doesn't really embrace thoughtful reflections of middle age and beyond.

    Imagine if some other artist (like Thom Yorke, Jay Farrar or Eddie Vedder) had made TooM and L&T back to back. The critics would be tripping over themselves praising them as masterpieces that reveal a new level of profundity. But since they're Dylan, we shrug and say, Yeah, well, we already knew he was a genius. Ho, hum...

    That being said, I agree that the Rolling Thunder period is mind-blowing. The opening of "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You" on the 1975 record is a pretty bold announcement that the songs are not going to sound like those familiar friends sung by that cute kid who sang in those Greenwich Village cafes.

    Even if they are tired, burned-out and disenchanted by the time they hit the stage in Colorado, they still get into a killer groove within seconds. Amazing.

  4. Sorry-- I don't mean to be changing criteria. I'm assuming all three of those phrases mean the same thing. So... I don't think Time Out Of Mind is undeniably great or essential listening or a must own. There. I said it. It feels good. I really like it, and I really love a lot of the tunes, and "Not Dark Yet" might be in my top five or three all time favorite Dylan songs, but some of the versions on there are rushed, and I'm not sure that it would be met as a work of genius coming from another artist. If he'd spent just a little more time getting better sounds and better performances, then no question... but he didn't. I know I'm in the minority there, but there it is.

  5. Empire Burlesque, anyone?

    At the risk of agreeing with Jeff for the 879th time on this blog, I have to affirm that Time Out of Mind is hugely overrated. I listened to it recently trying to make a post-1989 Dylan mix for someone (lots of Oh Mercy on it, btw) and it has not held up -- hard to believe I had a hard time picking that album or OK Computer as my favorite of 1997.

    And while I'm at it, Modern Times is another inflated offering. But Love and Theft is a masterpiece, and Together Through Life hasn't yet received half the praise it deserves.

    Dylan records have become like Star Trek movies to me. Every other one is a thing of beauty and joy, and the rest are disposable.

    And now, just to prove I have a will of my own ... Jeff: You are WRONG, sir, about Beatles for Sale! The tired quality to which you refer makes the songs more poignant. It's the first record where they sound like grown-ups and the harmonies are sublime, maybe their best. Also the first time John shows a little fang as a songwriter. (Whew. There. Got that off my chest.)

  6. Funny, my one and only experience to see Bob Dylan was at the relatively small (capacity 1200 - it's but world-famous, in Washington, D.C.'s eyes) 9:30 Club. As stated on Wikipedia, it was "an unannounced show on April 2, 2004 prior to scheduled dates at the Bender Arena and Warner Theatre. Dylan treated the crowd to a rare performance of "Hazel", a song that had been absent from the set lists of his Never Ending Tour for many years." I can't say I am a "fanatic" so I didn't recognize the historic importance of said rare performance, but it was one of the best shows I've ever attended. It was one of the most intimate of settings and he was reserved in his action (sitting mainly off to the side of the stage behind a keyboard), but the music was riveting and felt like he was performing these songs for the first time right in front of me. Considering the man had at least 40 years of songwriting, performance, and recording experience behind him, that speaks volumes.

    I must admit, I didn't know of Hard Rain, but love "Shelter from the Storm" - a greatly underplayed track off "Blood on the Tracks" (eclipsed by "Tangled up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate"). You really hit the nail on the head with the two different animals here.

    Furthermore, I agree: "Christmas In The Heart" is a joke. I don't think I could have put it better than Ken Tucker for "Fresh Air" on NPR: "Dylan does make his slow, deliberate version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" sound more like a threat than a promise." The review is worth a listen, and the archived segment and transcript is here:

    However, I'll add to the love for "Love and Theft" (2001), and should try "Modern Times" (2006) some more. I must admit, I had that snobbery about me when it came out, saying "His voice was something back in the day, kind of a quirky gimmick and whatever, but now it just sounds bad." True, I wouldn't want him to sing me a lullaby, but he is one of the most creative people I could name, and am glad he's still out there making his art for us.

  7. Went back and re-listened to Infidels. 2 good songs. Went back and listened to Oh Mercy and Love and Theft. I pretty much love those records. Have to disagree with Quinn that Time Out of Mind is overrated. There's something really raw, powerful and a little upsetting about the record. He really sounds like a guy struggling with mortality.