Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind – 1997 – Columbia

Bob Dylan - Time Out of Mind - 1997 - Columbia

This was the last Dylan album I bought on vinyl. I remember at the time there was a buzz around it before it was released. Odd rumours about how Dylan had almost died of a heart condition and that the record was his response to his growing sense of mortality. Greil Marcus wrote a glowing piece of criticism before it was released. I was sitting at a computer terminal in the Chifley Library at the Australian National University when I read this article. My jaw sort of dropped. I thought gee, this is great news. I actually think that part of the marketing success of Time Out of Mind was that people were just getting to grips with the internet. Stories and information were easier to spread, the grapevine had just become digital and had spread its tendrils everywhere. Everyone who was into Bob wanted to hear this record. I printed out the Griel Marcus piece and mailed it through the regular post to a friend of mine in Sydney (as I said, people were just starting to get to grips with digital communication).

When it came out I bought a copy from Impact Records. For years Impact Records was the best record shop in Canberra. They were a little pricey, especially if you were buying imports, but they had a lot of stuff and they were the only store in Canberra with LPs. Everywhere else only had CDs by that time. My copy was reduced in price as the cover had been slightly damaged during transport. There were a few thin, deep scratches on the front. It was a double album. On one of the inner sleeves there’s a great black and white photo of Dylan in a bar. This photo isn’t in the CD copies.

Side One opens with Love Sick, a minor key blues that is Leonard Cohenesque though the production (by Daniel Lanois) is much better than on any Leonard Cohen album. It’s got a dark, brooding loneliness to it that is compelling. As soon as I heard that first song with Dylan’s flanged, echoed vocals and Jim Dickinson’s stately paced and spooky organ I knew the rest of the album would be great. I wasn’t dissappointed. In many ways Time Out of Mind is like a 1990s continuation of Blonde on Blonde. It’s a work that feels like echoes and images richocheting around the inside of a perpetually insomniac skull. “My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired and the clouds are weeping.” This is a record steeped in the blues but it also anticipates 21st century sensibilities. I like that there’s the sound of the room that the musicians played in, there’s space in the playing and there’s good use of microphone spill. There’s life in these recordings. It’s like the music and recording techniques from the 1950s just kept developing without being totally derailed by the sensibilities of 1970s and 80s. Time Out of Mind really helped propel that old/new sound that a lot of bands are into these days, that sonic warmth that comes from working with old equipment and utilizing old techniques (most importantly actually playing live in the studio, or doing most of the instruments live). It’s a good thing that it’s helped influence this trend.

This double album was on high rotation in my house for the first couple of weeks that I had it. I’ve listened to this a lot over the years. I never tire of it and every listen feels like I’m digging deeper and deeper into that sound. Time out of Mind doesn’t age. It almost sits outside of time.

In 1998 I got to see Dylan live with his band. Me and my girlfriend bought tickets to a show at the newly opened Wollongong Entertainment Centre because I figured that it would be easier to get better seats there than Sydney (all the seats in all the venues were the same price so it was first in first served and I didn’t think many people would travel to Wollongong to see the show but a lot would travel to Sydney.) My hunch worked, we got third row seats. Patti Smith was the opening act. She only played a short 45 minute set but she was incredible. Dylan played for ages, encore after encore. His grey Beatles style jacket was soaked in sweat. He was in fine form and so was the band. I loved that they did so many songs from this record and I loved that they did so many of his older songs differently to what they were like on the records. I heard a couple in front of me complaining that he wasn’t playing his hits. He was, every second song at least. They just weren’t recognizing them which was amusing. Dylan only spoke to the audience once. “This is my first show in years, I’ve just gotten out of rehab.” A joke. The same couple in front of me thought he was serious “Did you just hear that? This is his first show in years.” They hadn’t heard of the Never Ending Tour he was on I guess. Actor Jack Thompson was in the audience, he was standing right at the edge of the stage watching and singing along. He knew all the words including the words for folk songs that Dylan hadn’t recorded like Roving Gambler. I loved hearing Hattie Carroll live. It was good seeing Jack singing along. I walked up to Jack and said hello and I said that I loved his work or something stupid like that. I do love his work but why walk up to him during a show and tell him that? I went back to my seat. I’d smuggled a camera into the venue (this was back in the days when no one had mobile phones and those that did didn’t have cameras on them so it was still possible for security to control camera use). The camera I brought was a small, el cheapo instamatic, I didn’t want to take chances with a bigger, more obvious SLR. I’d covered any shiny bits with black tape so that it wouldn’t be easy to spot by security. The guy sitting next to me had his camera confiscated during the show. I was lucky I guess. I got several good shots. (Later on when I developed the negaties in the darkroom I push processed them since I guessed that they would probably be underexposed as the instamatic only took photos at a 125th of a second. The photos were as grainy as hell.)

After the show was over and people were leaving I walked up to Jack Thompson again and I apologized for interupting him during the show. “It’s alright mate” he said. He was a little drunk. I spoke to his brother a bit and then me and my girlfriend said our goodbyes and went back to her sister’s house where we were staying for the night.

Great record, great gig, great memories.

Peter La Farge – On the Warpath – 1965 – Folkways

Peter La Farge - On  the Warpath - 1965 - Folkways

I was initially aware of Peter La Farge from listening to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cover his songs and from reading about him in biographies on those two artists. The first recordings I heard of his were this album and As Long As the Grass Shall Grow which I bought when I was about 19 years old from Yesterday and Today Records, a shop that was in Parramatta which specialized in country records but also had some folk, blues and 60s psycedelia. They were both on one CD released by Bear Family Records.

There was a precision to Peter’s writing that I liked immediately, the songs were so well crafted. There was also something in his voice I could immediately relate to and that I have never heard before or since. Listening to Peter taught me a lot as a singer. I liked his rough hewn playing style too.

It took me about 18 years to get a copy of this on vinyl. Peter La Farge records aren’t exactly easy to find in Australia. In all my years of trawling through second hand record shops, op shops and specialty record stores I only ever found one album on of his on vinyl (a reissue of ‘Sings Women Blues’ on Verve) at Yesterday and Today Records back in the 90s and one album that had a track of his (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow on An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music, Folkways) at Discovery Records in Hornsby, again back in the 90s. In both of those instances I didn’t have the money to buy them at the time so I just looked at the covers and had a read of the song titles and wished I could afford them and in both instances I went back a couple of days later to buy them when I had the money but they were sold already. It’s funny when I can remember exactly where I saw records that I didn’t even get to buy.

Ebay has altered my record buying habits lately and I now mainly shop online. I found this album there. It took about three weeks to ship to me and I was so happy to see that the cover was in mint condition and that the record had hardly been played. This is probably my favourite album cover. The photograph by David Gahr and the design by Ronald Clyne is striking. It hits the right balance of anger, defiance and pride. Like all Folkways LPs it is cheaply manufactured but it is designed really well and it comes with a nice booklet packed with notes, lyrics and musical notation of the songs.

This was the final album from Peter La Farge. He made five albums in five years. His first was on CBS and the rest were on Folkways. They are all good. He was an actor, a playwright, a rodeo rider, artist and a Korean war veteran. He committed suicide in October 1965. He was 34 years old. He packed a lot into a short life.

If you want to hear his recordings, four of his albums are available from Smithsonian Folkways and if you want to find out more about Peter, film maker Sandra Hale Schulman has made a documentary about him, The Ballad of Peter La Farge and she’s written a biography Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter La Farge.

Harry Belafonte – The Midnight Special – 1962 – RCA

Harry Belafonte - The Midnight Special - RCA - 1962

On this album Harry Belafonte branched away from calypso to American folk songs and blues. It was recorded in Webster Hall, New York City in 1962. This was the first Belafonte album I bought. It is a great record. He’s such a perfectionist but the gloss doesn’t kill the feeling. Harry Belafonte possessed one of the purest sounding voices, it was sweet like honey, smooth and light but it had guts and soul too. The versions of Midnight Special and On Top of Old Smokey are still my favourite recordings of those songs. I got this album when I was still a teenager and it was a time when I was starting to search for where the music I liked came from. I was starting to look at the musical ancestry so to speak. More than anything this record really got me interested in folk music. It was like a signpost pointing in two directions. You could go back further from here to people like Leadbelly and forward to people like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

One of the things this album is famous for is the appearance of a young Bob Dylan on harmonica. It was Dylan’s first professional recording gig. Apparently Dylan didn’t enjoy doing take after take after take and walked out after just one song (Midnight Special). Dylan was much more of a one or two take recording artist and it makes sense with the sounds that Dylan’s interested in. The point to remember here is that there is no right or wrong way to make art. There is the way that makes the most sense for the particular artist. For Harry Belafonte doing endless takes until he is satisfied works and for Dylan doing one or two takes and moving on to another song works. It’s interesting to note that on this record Dylan plays the harmonica with a lot more finesse than on his own recordings. Maybe it’s because he was holding it in his hands and wasn’t restricted by a harmonica holder but maybe it is because Dylan deliberately downplayed his own abilities on other recordings. Maybe it is a bit of both.

This album was pivotal in developing my appreciation of so much music. In that sense it was also pivotal in my development as a musician. I can’t stress enough how important it was to me. Great, great stuff.

Odetta – Odetta Sings Dylan – 1965 – RCA Victor

Odetta - Odetta Sings Dylan - 1955 - RCA Victor

One of my favourite records. No one sings Dylan like Odetta sings Dylan. That said, no one sings Dylan like Dylan sings Dylan neither. They are both great artists and great voices. Odetta trained as an opera singer but was sidetracked by folk music. She had a voice that was deep like a man’s though it remained very feminine. She was incredible. Like some of my other favourite records this features Bruce Langhorne’s guitar playing. I love his sound. Bruce lost several of his fingers due to an accident with a cherry bomb when he was a child but he could really play beautifully. When I was searching through records I’d often have a look at the liner notes and the personel who played on the record. Sometimes I’d buy a record just because of one of the players on it. One of the sadder things about how music is consumed these days is that people have lost contact with that side of it, the human side. If you just get an mp3 of a song without all that information it doesn’t exactly spur you on to think about who played the second guitar line or who was the engineer or who played the bass. By removing the human side of the record, by removing the understanding that it took time and effort to produce it removes the sense of value that is attached. It is a pity that music is being devalued in this way. But back to this record, the opening track, Baby I’m in the Mood for You locks in with a driving folky beat that really sets the mood for the entire album. It is a record that is so alive. I love it.

Gary Shearston – Songs of Our Time – 1964 – CBS

Gary Shearston - Songs of Our Time - 1964 - CBS

I first read about Gary Shearston in Craig MacGregor’s book People, Politics and Pop. I found a copy of Songs of Our Time for $1. Its cover was ripped cover and the record had so much surface noise that the crackle was as loud as the recording. This LP is one of my all time favourites and features the best version I’ve ever heard of Dirty Old Town. I’ve since bought two other copies in much better condition and one copy on CD. Listening to Gary Shearston taught me that singing in an Australian accent, singing in your own voice, was cool. Over here in Australia the whole culture is living so much in the shadow of America and England, American movies, American and British television, American music and so on that it is nice to be hear performers who aren’t trying to sound either American or British. There is nothing wrong at all with music from the States or from England, some of the best music ever comes from those places but to try to be something that you are not just comes across as false. Shearston had a great voice, it was instantly recognizable. In many ways he was like an Australian Pete Seeger, an anti-war activist, singer and a leftie. Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was going to manage him but Shearston wasn’t allowed to enter the United States of America due to his anti-Vietnam war activities. Later in life he became an Anglican priest. He kept performing and recording and his voice never aged. Sadly Gary died a few weeks back. I’m glad I got to see him perform once. I loved his work but Songs of Our Time remains my favourite record of his. It is great stuff.

Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong – 1993 – Columbia Records

Bob Dylan - World Gone Wrong - 1993 - Columbia Records

World Gone Wrong is my favourite Dylan album. It doesn’t matter that none of the songs are written by him. Everything about it is perfect in a rough hewn, homespun, lonesome, bleak and burned out way. Starting with the cover art which for me was reminiscent of the art on  his 1965 album Bringing it all Back Home but this time he was solitary, alone. It seemed to be the same character in the photo but with his world imploded into a brightly coloured gloom. When I first heard it I was amazed. It was a follow up to his Good As I Been To You album. That was a good record of old folk songs and blues but the sound on this one was rawer, more alive. It was a perfect selection of songs. After years of putting out records that were of variable quality it felt like Dylan had returned to form and was going to stay that way for a while.