The bookstore radio was on and a DJ with a familiar voice was talking slyly and slowly about songs in which the devil was the subject. It was mid-afternoon on a hot day in Brooklyn, but the voice on the radio made it feel like two in the morning, speaking low, respecting the mood of the hour, the integrity of night. This DJ was not rushing; he had a fair bit to say about what he was playing; he'd obviously listened wisely to a lot of music in his life and had learned a thing or two about the devil. I knew who it was by the time he eased into an introduction to "Friend of the Devil" by The Grateful Dead.
What a fantasy for the year 2006: Bob Dylan as a late-night DJ helping get you through the night in post-September-11 America.
People in the store didn't seem to realize it was 2 a.m. and that it was Dylan who was whispering in their ears. Then a girl asked the owner, "Is it could it be ?" and he explained about Dylan's weekly satellite radio show.
Of course Dylan has spoken and sung to us many times before in that after-midnight voice, but rarely have the voice, song, musicianship, mood, and sound come together as movingly and seamlessly as they do on his haunting new record, Modern Times (Columbia/Sony $15.95), which topped the Billboard Top 100 two weeks ago and is still holding on in third place. It's been 30 years since Dylan had an album on the top of the list, and that record, Desire, is the last of his that I know at all well, unless you count Greatest Hits Volume 3.
Forty years ago Dylan released an incomparable two-record set he called Blonde on Blonde, which begins with a two-in-the-morning song that sets a mood you can still feel on the new record. In "Visions of Johanna" lights flicker "from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/ The country music station plays soft/ But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off." It's understandable that most reviewers of the new work instinctively place the spirit of it in the heart of Dixie rather than in Manhattan, where it was recorded. There's plenty of "country music" here but it's playing on a New York City station whether the radio's in a Village loft or a recording studio. If you have any doubts about how crucial the city is to this New Yorker's sense of himself, just look at the cover photo on Modern Times: "Taxi, New York at night." It's a silver blur, a spirit taxi, with city lights ranged overhead. Look at the cover of his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, and there it is again, Times Square in 1960, a year before he came to town from Hibbing, Minnesota and began the recording career that has brought him to us with 10 new songs.
New York is the power center that attracts and absorbs the same musical and cultural influences and inspirations that have flowed into the river of Dylan's music, including the 19th-century poetry of a southerner named Henry Timrod, thanks to the New York Times. Timrod's picture stares out at us next to Dylan's in the September 14 edition, the "big news" being the discovery of distinct similarities between lines by Nimrod and those in several of Bob Dylan's new songs. The Times printed four examples of Dylan's "thievery" side by side, and Sunday's Op Ed page ran a column by Suzanne Vega on the same subject. The Times story outdid itself by quoting bloggers calling Dylan "a thieving little swine" and a middle school Spanish teacher from New Mexico saying that what he's done seems "duplicitous." The media can't seem to resist this sort of thing, never mind how spurious and pointless it is; maybe the spectre of plagiarism will become the literary version of steroids in sports, and the stigma of an asterisk will one day cast its tiny shadow on glories like "When the Deal Goes Down" and "Spirit on the Water," songs that happen to share a grand total of 13 words with Henry Nimrod. While you're at it, you might as well stick asterisks on "Thunder on the Mountain," "Someday Baby," "Nettie Moore," and "The Levee's Gonna Break," not to mention "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" which neglects to credit Muddy Waters, who neglects to credit Hambone Willie Newbern, who etc etc etc.
In the opening New York chapters of Chronicles,. Dylan is eager to show how this or that song or artist or work of literature or art spoke to him. As populous as the domain of his influences may be, I wonder if he expected anything like the Desolation Row Who's Who provided by various reviewers of Modern Times. For a start there's Sonny Rollins, Matisse, and Yeats, cited by Robert Christgau as examples of how Dylan shares "the observant calm of the old masters who have seen enough of life to be ready for anything." Nicely put and true enough, but look who else came to the party. Aristophanes and Ovid have been sighted along with Chuck Berry, Casanova, Shakespeare, the Bible, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner and Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby and Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Bathsheba and Salome, Muddy Waters, Stephen Foster and W.C. Handy, the James boys (Skip and Elmore), the Johnsons (Robert, Lonnie, and Tom), Nina Simone, Carl Perkins, Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Merle Haggard, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, and Sleepy John Estes. There's even a glancing reference to Led Zeppelin, and in the video for "When the Deal Gets Done" that features Scarlett Johansson there are visual references to Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Buddy Holly. And of course Dylan makes sightings of Charlie Chaplin inevitable by "borrowing" the title of Chaplin's 1936 film, Modern Times, thereby prompting a number of reviewers to look for traces of the Little Fellow or the Tramp in Dylan's lyrics. For sure, one thing Dylan and Chaplin have in common is a talent for being funny and sad at the same time. Like Chaplin, Dylan can put you on, bring you down, turn you around, and then sneak up and take a bite out of your heart before you have time to realize there are tears in your eyes.
None of the 20-odd reviews I looked at mentioned some other folks Dylan may have brought on board, knowingly or not. He turns certain lines in "Spirit on the Water" with a playful snarl reminscent of Fats Waller, while the song itself, which is big enough to live in, goes its weird, merry, enchanting way. My idea of a song you can live in is something subtly swinging, loose, and lamentful, like Stuff Smith's "Taint No Use," where Smith's violin and vocal are a happy-sad match for Jonah Jones's bold, clear-as-a-bell trumpet. What makes "Spirit on the Water" feel big as life, big like weather or a walk in the woods or a sunset, is something very small and simple, a happy-go lucky chiming rhythm that goes its own way while the song chugs along and Dylan snarls about how "it seems so unfair" that he can't go to paradise "because I killed a man over there," and if you laugh out loud the first time you hear this little turn, it's okay: you've been smiling the whole way through anyway. The first time I heard this little beauty, the second song on the record, I wanted to hear it again. And then again. And then I wanted to take it out for a ride or long walk or maybe on a picnic outing with Scarlett Johansson.
By the time you come to "When the Deal Goes Down," the movement's different, more like waltzing than walking, but the singing and playing are so right, you want to hear it again right away, too, "soul to soul, as shadows roll."
It's hard not to think of Tom Waits, another natural-born late-night DJ, when you hear Dylan sing "Beyond the Horizon," a song that seems to be seeking out friends who are literally beyond the horizon, like Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison, who sang "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" in a similar style on his swan song album, Brainwashed.
Modern Times gets even better. The last three songs are so rich that I hesitate to say much about them after only four or five listenings in the short time since I bought the CD. The musicianship is hair-raising, the singer, the songs and the band in perfect balance. The playing of Dylan's band Tony Garnier, bass, cello; George G. Receli, drums, percussion; Stu Kimball, guitar; Denny Freeman, guitar; and Donnie Herron, steel guitar, violin, viola, and mandolin, with Dylan on guitar, harmonica, and piano must be especially gratifying for the man who wrote so well in Chronicles about the trials and tribulations that go into getting a song right. No wonder: the producer here is the singer/songwriter himself (alias Jack Frost). Describing the New Orleans session that produced great songs like "Dignity," "Series of Dreams," and "Ring Them Bells," Dylan speaks of how "the tune was gaining weight by the minute and none of its clothes were fitting," and how "we worked it to a standstill. Dan [Lanois, the producer] would have to be a shaman to make this work." He talks of the song in question becoming "more unfinished" as they "rolled on" and he complains that "the lyrics were so full of cloudy meaning" that "there was nothing in the song that was transforming itself, not even with all the ambiance."
In Modern Times, the clothes fit like a second skin and the ambiance is irresistible. Just listen to the driving, relentlessly building, brilliantly played "The Levee's Gonna Break" where at the end Dylan has you feeling the levee is America ("Some people still sleeping/Some people are wide awake"). And then get ready for "Ain't Talkin'," the song that closes the album. If you must, you can imagine Dylan as Chaplin "just walkin'" off down the road into the closing iris of sunset (except that in Modern Times, a gorgeous girl named Paulette Goddard is by the Little Fellow's side), but it's too amazing a creation to mar with anything external. Some of Dylan's more literary enthusiasts are bound to call it his King Lear or his Hamlet.
Now that I've just listened to that song again, I'd have to say that in the context of Bob Dylan's storybook career, the comparison to Lear and Hamlet is not really all that far-fetched.
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