Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941) is a singer/songwriter from Hibbing, a mining town in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. As a schoolboy, Zimmerman was an indifferent student with a keen interest in art and poetry. At nights he would often listen to the radio, where he heard the sounds of blues and country music from Louisiana and other far-flung places. He discovered rock and roll in the mid-fifties, and organized local bands as a teenager. After graduating from high school, he spent one year enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He rarely attended class, but he managed to discover the beautiful storytelling within folk music.
“Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom. Each demanding a degree of respect. I could believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. Folk music was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn’t enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time. It was a huge story but hard to come across. Once I slipped in beyond the fringes it was like my six-string guitar became a crystal magic wand and I could move things like never before. I had no other cares or interests besides folk music. I scheduled my life around it. I had little in common with anyone not like-minded.”
– Bob Dylan “Chronicles, Volume 1″
Bob Dylan (b. 1941), singer, songwriter, guitar, harmonica, piano
In early 1961, Dylan traveled to New York City, where he hoped to both perform and meet his musical idol, Woody Guthrie, who was hospitalized there. Indeed, he spent significant time with the ailing folk singer, and established himself as a regular act in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene. Dylan was not considered a premier performer at first; he was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of old folk songs, but artists such as Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Fred Neil were more popular.
By late 1961, his talent began to attract attention. A positive review in the New York Times, followed by session work playing harmonica for Carolyn Hester caught the attention of producer John Hammond, who signed Dylan to a record contract. This was a surprise to both the folk music community and Columbia Records management. Hammond was a legend in the business, having discovered and promoted the talents of jazz greats Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Billie Holiday, among others, but few could see the potential in the young folk singer with the unusual voice. Bob Dylan’s first album, recorded in just six hours in November 1961, sold poorly, prompting fellow Columbia record executives to label the singer “Hammond’s Folly”. But Dylan responded with a brilliant second album (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963), which included several songs now considered folk standards, especially “Blowin’ In The Wind”, an instant classic and a popular hit for folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. Over the next two years, Dylan revolutionized the art of folk songwriting, crafting songs of great lyrical sophistication, songs of love and protest and hypocrisy, that sent musicologists and sociologists scrambling for their notepads and record players, eager to decipher what the great young philosopher meant. Suddenly, Bob Dylan was the country’s preeminent songwriter, and thrust into an uncomfortable, unwanted role as “spokesman for a generation”.
Dylan Goes Electric
From his arrival in New York City in 1961, until the release of Bringing It All Back Home in May, 1965, Bob Dylan performed as a solo act, though his songs were sometimes recorded with spare, acoustic accompaniment. But he always had an interest in rock and roll music. Bringing It All Back Home marks the first major transition in Dylan’s career, with one full side of music recorded with an amplified band. In July, 1965, he stunned the audience at the Newport Folk Festival by plugging in and playing raucous and distorted music, offending folk purists who considered the switch to electric music as “going commercial”, and destroying myths that this man was beholden to any group or generation. During this busy period of his career, Dylan also recorded the classic Highway 61 Revisited in the summer of 1965, perhaps his greatest achievement, which cemented his intention to employ electric instruments. Dylan adopted the practice of performing one acoustic set and one electric set at concerts, to mixed reviews. He received a nasty reception in England, documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back. The press hounded him, peppering him with irrelevant and condescending questions. In July 1966, an exhausted Dylan crashed his motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York. It nearly killed him.
Dylan recovered, and though some of the insanity with obsessive fandom remained, he was able to begin a mature phase of his musical career which continues today. He is popular music’s “most interesting man” — hundreds of books have been written about his life and work. He has received dozens of awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of freedom in 2012. I read two books while studying his music, “Bob Dylan In America” by Sean Wilentz and “Chronicles, Volume 1″ by Bob Dylan. Both are recommended. He is intensely private, and rarely makes himself available for interviews. After touring sporadically for years, Dylan embarked on a Never Ending Tour in 1988, and has played about a hundred concerts per year through 2013. He is arguably the most influential artist from the second half of the 20th century. There is a wealth of information available about Bob Dylan; here are a few links to get started.
A Short List of Contributing Musicians
Bruce Langhorne (b. 1938), guitar
Mike Bloomfield (1943-1981), lead guitar
Al Kooper (b. 1944), Hammond organ, guitar
Charlie McCoy (b. 1941), guitar
Bill Lee (b. 1928), bass
Hargus “Pig” Robbins (b. 1938), piano, keyboards
Tony Garnier (b. 1956), bass
David Hidalgo (b. 1954), guitar, violin, accordion
Augie Meyers (b. 1940), organ, accordion
A Very Brief Recap of His Career, 1967-Present
As he recovered from his motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan recorded a series of informal sessions (The Basement Tapes) with The Band, who would soon achieve widespread popularity of their own. From 1967 to 1969, he recorded three strong albums using country session musicians in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville Skyline is my favorite of the three, featuring short, sentimental songs and Dylan as a deep-voiced country crooner. One of the great curiosities of Dylan’s career is how his voice changed, from the nasal sounding delivery of his youth, to the thing, gravelly voice in recent years.
I have limited interest in Dylan’s work of the seventies and eighties. There are fewer compelling songs. And many major record companies lost their way in terms of understanding what makes good sounding records. Synthesizers often replaced traditional musical instruments, and the performances often sound as if every wrong note is eliminated from the finished product. This studio perfection sucks the life out of popular music, a practice that continues today in many genres. The consensus choice for best album during these two decades is Blood On The Tracks.
The Modern Guitar Band
Dylan evolved as a songwriter in a fascinating way. Over the last quarter century he relied more on his vast knowledge of folk music, both recasting traditional songs or using snippets of previously used phrases to create new songs. The practice of using phrases from older folk songs is an ancient tradition, though few employ it today. His skill at assembling soulful musicians continued to grow, and he recorded them in a live informal manner, with minimal production interference. The best post-1990 Dylan recordings sound like live music. A great example is this take on “Cold Irons Bound”, from Time Out Of Mind:
A great example of what is essentially a small jazz combo, with three guitarists (including bass guitarist Tony Garnier) loosely improvising around a highly syncopated rhythm, with Dylan singing and adding the occasional fill. Five and six piece bands with two lead guitars dominate the top of my list of favorite bands. Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers Band are among the early practitioners, with Bob Dylan’s modern work, along with Los Lobos and late-nineties era Lucinda Williams more recently examples. The modern improvising guitar band is not that far removed from dixieland and swing jazz bands of the past.
Bob Dylan has had a great career as a bandleader, with three distinct great bands — the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, with the tinny, upright piano and bright organ lending a carnival atmosphere, the subtle Nashville sessions of Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, and the contemporary twin guitar sound featured on recent records like Modern Times and Love And Theft.
With A Little Help
By the time I study each musician, I usually have most of the songs I want. Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were examples of artists where I was able to find a number of new songs I liked. Bob Dylan is similar, and the last artist in the countdown with a substantial body of unexplored music. Although not yet featured, Billie Holiday is another artist I’m compelled to explore in significant detail; her supporting bands featured many great jazz musicians.
To expedite the process of learning more Bob Dylan songs, I first studied on my own, then showed my initial list to three friends, asking for suggestions. As a result, I added perhaps twenty more songs, for a total of about one hundred and forty recordings. I’ve enjoyed my three month excursion into Bob Dylan’s music. i learned a lot, and my opinion of his music has grown. Thanks to my friends Kelly, Corry and John for their help.
My Concert Experience
I’ve seen Bob Dylan in concert once. He performed as the headliner with Lucinda Williams and Van Morrison, at the Rose Garden, a large modern basketball arena in Portland, Oregon, in September, 1998. On that tour, Dylan and Morrison took turns playing last. Lucinda opened, and though she was riding a crest of popularity after the release of her most famous album, was given only a half-hour to perform. Van took the stage after a very brief intermission, and proceeded to tear the house down with an upbeat, swinging no-nonsense set, one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. Dylan came next and was a major disappointment, though it would be hard to follow Morrison’s passionate performance. The music was uninspiring, and Dylan’s singing was hard to understand. Everything sounded fuzzy and distorted. It was hard to even tell which songs were being played. He played “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but different than the way I knew it. We left about halfway through the set. Part of the problem was not knowing all the songs beforehand, but it’s hard to appreciate the music when it can’t be understood. Surely there are great live performances in Bob Dylan’s career, but he seems best suited to the recording studio, where his expressive but weak voice can be properly heard.
Van Morrison is the musician most similar to Bob Dylan. I see Morrison as highly influenced by Dylan, and not the other way around. Among songwriters of the past half century, Dylan is the top of the influence pyramid. If I had to choose one quality of Dylan’s music I like best, it would be the way he punctuates his lyrics, syncopates the sounds, emphasizes the syllables in such a pleasing manner. I rock my head gently back and forth, feeling the rhythm of the words and listening to the sound of the lyrics that roll along with the music so gently. He doesn’t wail. He sings to the music. His ability to make the lyrics swing within the music is beautiful.
Listen To That Duquesne Whistle Blowing!
“Duquesne Whistle” is the opening song on Bob Dylan’s newest album, Tempest. Co-written by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter, “Duquesne Whistle” is one of my favorite songs of the past few years. It shares a recent distinction of being the greatest song ever by a seventy year old man, along with Paul Simon’s “The Afterlife”, in the last blog entry.
“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing,
Blowing like the sky is gonna blow apart.
You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going,
You’re like a time bomb in my heart.
I can hear a sweet voice gently calling,
Must be the mother of our Lord.
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing,
Blowing like my woman’s on board.”
The song starts gently, a delicate but complete introduction to the song structure, before the drums and bass kick and take us on our journey. The recording quality has a primitive feel; it sounds like it was recorded at Chess Studios. This one hits all the right buttons for me, with a train as a metaphor for life. The song makes references to his woman, his Lord, and hints that the end of the line is within sight. Elvis Presley was the big train from Memphis, and Bob Dylan is the Duquesne Whistle.
“Duquesne Whistle” is a medium-fast shuffle, a dance song. The band subtly pushes the throttle down as the song moves through the five verses, but never so fast that the train derails. There is a short pause after the fourth verse, a little stop, before kicking into gear for the final verse:
“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing,
Blowing through another no good town.
The lights of my native land are glowing,
I wonder if they’ll know me next time around.
I wondered if that old oak tree’s still standing,
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing,
Blowing like she’s blowing right on time.”
A little riff for tension, and off they go, over the horizon and into the sunset, with David Hidalgo (I think that’s right. I’m researching it.) leading the way on guitar. If I were to summarize Dylan’s career as a musician, I see a man who began his career determined to bring attention to the injustices of life, who matured into an elder statesman who wants to have fun and enjoy his life and his music. My father would’ve loved “Duquesne Whistle”. I’ve thought so many times about it. He’s the only one I know that would understand. I just wish I could have played it for him before he was gone.
Bob Dylan Songs:
Although my collection draws upon some greatest hits compilations, I will try to present the collection chronologically, as the songs were first made commercially available:
Song To Woody, Bob Dylan ★★
The House Of The Rising Sun, Bob Dylan ★
Talkin’ New York, Bob Dylan ★
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Bob Dylan ★
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Blowin’ In The Wind, Bob Dylan ★★★★
Girl From The North Country, Bob Dylan ★★
Masters Of War, Bob Dylan ★★
A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Bob Dylan ★★★
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Bob Dylan ★★★★
Corrina, Corrina, Bob Dylan ★★★
I Shall Be Free, Bob Dylan ★
The Times They Are A-Changin’mr.
The Times They Are A Changin’, Bob Dylan ★★
Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Bob Dylan ★
With God On Our Side, Bob Dylan ★
Only A Pawn In Their Game, Bob Dylan ★
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, Bob Dylan ★★
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
All I Really Want To Do, Bob Dylan ★
Chimes Of Freedom, Bob Dylan ★★
My Back Pages, Bob Dylan ★
It Ain’t Me Babe, Bob Dylan ★★
Bringing It All Back Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan ★★★
She Belongs To Me, Bob Dylan ★★★
Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Bob Dylan ★
Maggie’s Farm, Bob Dylan ★
Mr. Tambourine Man, Bob Dylan ★★★★★
It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, Bob Dylan ★
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, Bob Dylan ★★★★
Highway 61 Revisited (Deluxe Version)
Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan ★★★★★
Tombstone Blues, Bob Dylan ★★★
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, Bob Dylan ★★
Ballad Of A Thin Man, Bob Dylan ★★
Queen Jane Approximately, Bob Dylan ★
Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan ★
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Bob Dylan ★
Desolation Row, Bob Dylan ★★
Tombstone Blues (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
Blonde On Blonde
Rainy Day Women 12 & 35, Bob Dylan ★★★
I Want You, Bob Dylan ★
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, Bob Dylan ★★
Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, Bob Dylan ★
Absolutely Sweet Marie, Bob Dylan ★
Fourth Time Around, Bob Dylan ★★
Just Like A Woman, Bob Dylan ★★★★★
Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, Bob Dylan ★
John Wesley Harding
I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, Bob Dylan ★
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Bob Dylan ★
The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, Bob Dylan ★
Girl From The North Country, Bob Dylan (with Johnny Cash) ★★★★
To Be Alone With You, Bob Dylan ★
Tell Me That It Isn’t True, Bob Dylan ★
I Threw It All Away, Bob Dylan ★★
Lay Lady Lay, Bob Dylan ★★★
Country Pie, Bob Dylan ★
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You, Bob Dylan ★★★
If Not For You, Bob Dylan ★★★
Day Of The Locusts, Bob Dylan ★
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (Soundtrack)
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Bob Dylan ★★
On A Night Like This, Bob Dylan ★
Forever Young, Bob Dylan ★
Blood On The Tracks
Tangled Up In Blue, Bob Dylan ★★
Simple Twist Of Fate, Bob Dylan ★★
Shelter From The Storm, Bob Dylan ★★
Buckets Of Rain, Bob Dylan ★
The Basement Tapes
Million Dollar Bash, Bob Dylan & The Band ★
Lo And Behold!, Bob Dylan & The Band ★
Hurricane, Bob Dylan ★
Hard Rain (Live)
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Live), Bob Dylan ★★
Shot Of Love
Every Grain Of Sand, Bob Dylan ★
Sweetheart Like You, Bob Dylan ★
Tangled Up In Blue (Live), Bob Dylan ★
Knocked Out Loaded
Brownsville Girl, Bob Dylan ★
Man In The Long Black Coat, Bob Dylan ★
Most Of The Time, Bob Dylan ★
World Gone Wrong
Delia, Bob Dylan ★
Lone Pilgrim, Bob Dylan ★
Time Out Of Mind
Love Sick, Bob Dylan ★★
Dirt Road Blues, Bob Dylan ★
Cold Irons Bound, Bob Dylan ★★
Love And Theft
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, Bob Dylan ★
Mississippi, Bob Dylan ★
Summer Days, Bob Dylan ★★★
High Water, Bob Dylan ★★
Thunder On The Mountain, Bob Dylan ★★★
Spirit On The Water, Bob Dylan ★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Bob Dylan ★★
When The Deal Goes Down, Bob Dylan ★
Someday Baby, Bob Dylan ★★★
Workingman’s Blues #2, Bob Dylan ★
The Levee’s Gonna Break, Bob Dylan ★★★
Together Through Life
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, Bob Dylan ★★
Duquesne Whistle, Bob Dylan ★★★★
Soon After Midnight, Bob Dylan ★★
Narrow Way, Bob Dylan ★
Early Roman Kings, Bob Dylan ★
Long And Wasted Years, Bob Dylan ★
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2
The Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo), Bob Dylan ★
I Shall Be Released, Bob Dylan ★★
You’re A Big Girl Now (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Bob Dylan ★
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 (Rare And Unreleased Recordings) 1961-1991
He Was A Friend Of Mine, Bob Dylan ★
Let Me Die In My Footsteps, Bob Dylan ★
Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues (Live), Bob Dylan ★
Mama, You Been On My Mind, Bob Dylan ★
She’s Your Lover Now, Bob Dylan ★
I’ll Keep It With Mine, Bob Dylan ?
If Not For You (Alt), Bob Dylan ★
Tangled Up In Blue (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★★
Call Letter Blues, Bob Dylan ★
Idiot Wind (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
If You See Her, Say Hello (Alt), Bob Dylan ★
Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan ★★
Jerry Macguire (Soundtrack)
Shelter From The Storm (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
Fourth Time Around (Live), Bob Dylan ★★
Visions Of Johanna (Live), Bob Dylan ★★★★
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Live), Bob Dylan ★★
Just Like A Woman (Live), Bob Dylan ★★★
Mr. Tambourine Man (Live), Bob Dylan ★★
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (Live), Bob Dylan ★
Ballad Of A Thin Man (Live), Bob Dylan ?
Like A Rolling Stone (Live), Bob Dylan ★★★
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7: No Direction Home — The Soundtrack
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★★
Blowin’ In The Wind (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★★
Masters Of War (Live), Bob Dylan ★★★
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (Live), Bob Dylan ★★★
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Take 1), Bob Dylan ★★★
She Belongs To Me (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★★★
Maggie’s Farm (Live), Bob Dylan ★★★
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
Desolation Row (Alt), Bob Dylan ★
Highway 61 Revisited (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signals
Mississippi (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★★
Red River Shore, Bob Dylan ★
‘Cross The Green Mountain, Bob Dylan ★★
Cold Irons Bound (Live), Bob Dylan ★
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Tomorrow Is A Long Time, Bob Dylan ★
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self-Portrait
I Threw It All Away (Alt), Bob Dylan ★★
House Of The Rising Sun, The Animals ★★★★
House Of The Rising Sun, Josh White ★★
Blowin’ In The Wind, Peter, Paul & Mary ★★
Blowin’ In The Wind, Stevie Wonder ★
Corrine Corrina, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys ★★
All I Really Want To Do, Sonny & Cher ★
My Back Pages, The Byrds ★★★★
My Back Pages (Live), The Byrds ★
It Ain’t Me Babe, The Turtles ★★
Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds ★★★
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, Them ★★★
Like A Rolling Stone (Live), The Jimi Hendrix Experience ★★★
Just Like A Woman (Live), Van Morrison ★★★
Just Like A Woman (Live), Van Morrison ★★
If Not For You, George Harrison ★
If Not For You, Olivia Newton-John ? (on wish list…maybe her best song)
On A Night Like This, Buckwheat Zydeco ★★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Muddy Waters ★★★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, The Seldom Scene ★★★
Rollin’ And Tumblin’ (Live), Cream ★★
Trouble No More, Muddy Waters ★★★★
Trouble No More, The Allman Brothers Band ★★★
Trouble No More (Live), The Allman Brothers Band ★★★
Someday Baby, Ray Charles ★
Worried Life Blues, Big Maceo Merriweather ★★
When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin ★★★
The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo), Manfred Mann ★★
I Shall Be Released, The Band ★★
He Was A Friend Of Mine, The Byrds ★★
Down On Penny’s Farm, The Bently Boys ★
Tomorrow Is A Long Time, Rod Stewart ★★
Delia’s Gone, Johnny Cash ★★
Wallflower (Live), David Bromberg ★
The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, David Grisman & Jerry Garcia ★
Paul Simon is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Queens, a borough of New York City, New York. Simon’s father Louis was a professor at the City College of New York, and a part time bandleader, who gradually gave up his musical aspirations to support his family. Like many New York boys growing up in the forties and fifties, Simon’s first love was baseball, but he took a greater interest in music during elementary school. Simon met longtime collaborator Art Garfunkel in sixth grade; by eighth grade Simon was writing songs that the two would sing together. Success came early for the duo; as teenagers the two had a hit song. Billed as Tom & Jerry, “Hey, Schoolgirl” was a top 50 national hit in 1957.
After high school, Simon and Garfunkel each attended college, and only performed occasionally. Simon graduated from Queens College with a degree in English, while Garfunkel received a degree in mathematics from Columbia University. Simon continued to write songs, performing them solo, or with Garfunkel and other musicians. In 1964, the duo had a successful audition with Columbia Records, and recorded an album of folk songs titled Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. Sluggish sales prompted Simon to leave and pursue a solo career in England, but he returned a year later when an electrified version of “The Sounds Of Silence” became a surprise #1 hit. Simon & Garfunkel reunited and became one of America’s most beloved folk rock groups, with four acclaimed albums, culminating with the Grammy Award winning Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970.
Here Paul and brother Ed Simon play the finger picking standard “Anji”, originally by British guitarist Davy Graham:
Bridge Over Troubled Water is Simon & Garfunkel’s most diverse album, with Simon beginning to experiment with different rhythms and instrumentation. At the height of their career, Simon & Garfunkel disbanded, and both men pursued solo careers. Though Art Garfunkel had success as both a singer and actor, it was Paul Simon who embarked on a long, influential career that includes dozens of literary and music awards, plus the grand distinction of being a member of Saturday Night Live Five-Timers club.
As an independent songwriter, with no affiliation to a specific group of musicians, Paul Simon traveled far and wide to create different musical backgrounds. He traveled to Jamaica to record “Mother And Child Reunion” and Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record “Loves Me Like A Rock”. He traveled to South Africa and Brazil to record compelling native rhythms, and returned to New York to complete the tracks with lyrics and studio musicians, the songs for the albums Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints. The talents of New York’s finest studio musicians are featured throughout his career.
An artist of uncommon stamina and longevity, Simon created what is considered his greatest work (Graceland) in his mid-forties. His most recent album, the highly acclaimed So Beautiful or So What from 2011, includes “The Afterlife”, my favorite song in the last few years. Simon also “reunites” every now and then with Art Garfunkel to play Simon & Garfunkel songs. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990, and Simon was inducted as a solo artist in 2001.
An incomplete list of New York City’s best studio musicians, a small subset of those who contributed to Paul Simon’s music:
Steve Gadd (b. 1945), drums
Richard Tee (1943-1993), keyboards
Bill Lee (b. 1928), bass
Eric Gale (1938-1994), guitar
Joe South (1940-2012), guitar
The Brecker Brothers (Michael (1949-2007) and Randy (b. 1945)), core horn section
David Sanborn (b. 1945), saxophone
“No, the early songs, I can’t say I really like them. But there’s something naive and sweet-natured, and I must say I like that about it.
They’re not angry. And that means that I wasn’t angry or unhappy. That’s my memory of that time; it was just about idyllic. It was just the best time of my life, I think, up until recently, these last five years or so, six years…This has been the best time of my life. But before that, I would say that that was.”
– Paul Simon
Simon is somewhat dismissive of his early work; I like the Simon & Garfunkel songs better than he does. Songs like “I Am A Rock”, “Homeward Bound” and even the playful “At The Zoo” are among my favorite Paul Simon songs. Taken together, Simon & Garfunkel’s earliest music paint my imagined portrait of life growing up as a schoolboy in New England; I feel the chill of their winter, and the warmth and happiness of life there. An older person still appreciates, and often longs for younger days. Songs about winning or losing love, and wanting to be home, ring true forever. Like emptiness and harmony, I need someone to comfort me. It’s hard not to reminisce fondly, even if life didn’t go according to plan.
For the first time in ten or so artists, I passed on reading a full biography of Paul Simon. I’m very familiar with his music, and sensed I would not learn much. Besides, Bob Dylan is up next and I have to study and prepare. That’s not a knock on Simon; Dylan is a complex character with a vast library of music. This is as good a place to point out that Simon may prefer his post-Garfunkel music because he, like virtually all young folk songwriters, was so influenced by Bob Dylan, that he was not satisfied until he broke free and found a more authentic voice.
I reviewed Simon’s long interview in Paul Zollo’s “Songwriters on Songwriting”, and used a few quotes to facilitate a discussion.
“As soon as your mind knows that it’s on and it’s supposed to produce some lines, either it doesn’t or it produces things that are very predictable. And that’s why I say I’m not interested in writing something I’ve thought about. I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up.
It always picks up on something true. You’ll find out much more about what you’re thinking that way than you will if you’re determined to say something. What you’re determined to say is filled with all your rationalizations and your defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you’re thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I’m thinking. Even if it’s something that I don’t want to be thinking.
I think when I get blocked, when I have writer’s block (though I never think of it as writer’s block anymore), what it is is that you have something to say but you don’t want to say it. So your mind says, “I have nothing to say. I’ve just nothing more to say. I can’t write anything. I have no thoughts.” Closer to the truth is that you have a thought that you really would prefer not to have. And you’re not going to say that thought. Your mind is protected. Once you discover what that thought is, if you can find another way of approaching it that isn’t negative to you, then you can deal with that subject matter.”
– Paul Simon
I’ve used this philosophy for the blog, especially the last couple of years. After reading and listening to music for a few weeks, I write whatever emerges. No thought is given to organization until the profile is in progress; at some point I find the logical path to a satisfactory conclusion. For the second time in the last six months (Neil Young post), I’ve had writer’s block, not knowing how to start. I’m out of my league; I can’t possibly offer insight or reasonable analysis of Paul Simon’s fifty-plus year career, impossibly long and diverse to capture in a couple thousand words, even if I had the formal musical training. I can write down a list of songs I like, and the ones I like best, but even then I’m having yet an inner crisis over the concept of attaching a rating to songs. Recently, I’ve had like-minded critics and analysts question assigning a value to artistic expression. Another friend said recently that ranking songs was against her principles. The closer I get to finishing this project, which began over four years ago, the more I feel the rating exercise is misguided at best, and at times I feel sheepish and stupid evaluating my favorite musicians and songs in numerical terms. But I am nearly done, compelled to finish what I started, and show how my calculating mind thinks. Though the ratings connote some hierarchy of music, my words nearly always champion the artists and their brilliance.
Simon On Beginning And Ending Songs
“Because how you begin a song is one of the hardest things. The first line of a song is very hard. I always have this image in my mind of a road that goes like this (motions with hands to signify a road that gets wider as it opens out) so that the implication is that the directions are pointing outward. It’s like a baseball diamond; there’s more and more space out here. As opposed to like this (motions an inverted road getting thinner.) Because if it’s like this, at this point in the song, you’re out of options.
So you want to have that first line that has a lot of options, to get you going. And the other thing that I try to remember, especially if a song is long, you have plenty of time. You don’t have to kill them, you don’t have to grab them by the throat by the first line.
In fact, you have to wait for the audience — they’re going to sit down, get settled in their seat…their concentration is not even there. You have to be a good host to people’s attention span. They’re not going to come in there and work real hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, the rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out.
So “You Can Call Me Al”, which was an example of that kind of writing, starts off very easily with sort of a joke: “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” It’s a joke, with very easy words. Then it has a chorus you can’t understand. What is he talking about, you can call me Betty, and Betty, you can call me Al? You don’t know what I’m talking about. But I don’t think it’s bothersome. You don’t know what I’m talking about, but neither do I, at that point.
The second verse is really a recapitulation of the first: A man walks down the street, he says…another thing. And by the time you get to the third verse, and people have been into the song for long enough, now you can start to throw abstract images. Because there’s been a structure, and those abstract images, they will just come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song.
So now you have this guy who’s no longer thinking about the mundane thoughts, about whether he’s getting too fat, whether he needs a photo opportunity, or whether he’s afraid of the dogs in the moonlight and the graveyard, and he’s off in, listen to the sound, look what’s going on, there’s cattle and…”
– Paul Simon
Describing what makes a song enjoyable is a complicated proposition. I have my favorite subjects — love, God, work, nature, beauty: the small handful of life’s most precious things. Good songs can have simple words, or be complex and literate. There are good songs using only one or two chords, with monotonous melodies that compel the listener into a trance-like groove. There are good songs with elaborate chord structures and unusual melodies, that must be listened to several times to even begin understanding. How the singer “phrases”, accenting and punctuating the words within the melody to tell the story, is essential, a reason why I generally prefer an author’s original version. It’s also why I gravitate to “plain” singers over the wailers and belters of the world. By singing at a medium volume, and not yelling every word, allows the plain singer to emote more effectively, to enunciate each word, and accent the song with higher or lower volume where appropriate. Many of my favorite artists are great songwriters who don’t have particularly strong voices, but they sing with finesse. John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Jerry Garcia are among those who interpret a song well.
I like songs whose words can be interpreted in more than one way. The classic example I often use to illustrate this is Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately”:
“Have I told you lately that I love you,
Have I told you there’s no one above you,
Fill my heart with gladness,
Take away my sadness,
Ease my troubles, that’s what you do.
There’s a love that’s divine,
And it’s yours and it’s mine,
And it shines like the sun.
At the end of the day, we will give thanks
And pray, to the One.”
– Van Morrison
The song can be viewed as either romantic love or religious devotion. This type of ambiguity is a rare and wonderful trait. Paul Simon’s practice of letting his subconscious participate lends itself well to lyrics open for interpretation.
Let’s look at a couple of Paul Simon performances. My favorite song on Graceland has always been “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, featuring the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Performed in concert, the song displays the singing group’s grace and agility:
In the fall of 2003, Simon & Garfunkel embarked on the elaborate “Old Friends” tour, in which they assembled a fine orchestra, and invited their heroes, The Everly Brothers, to participate for a few songs each evening. First, here is Simon & Garfunkel performing “The Boxer” as a duet on the David Letterman show. Note the inclusion of the song’s “missing verse”.
And here, with the full orchestra, Simon & Garfunkel perform “I Am A Rock” in 2003:
In 2007, Paul Simon became the first recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The concert to commemorate this occasion included a performance of Simon’s “Loves Me Like A Rock”, featuring the Dixie Hummingbirds on vocals and Stevie Wonder on piano and vocals. Complete with false start, “Loves Me Like A Rock” begins around the eight minute mark of this fifteen minute video:
Ever since I saw this video, “Loves Me Like A Rock” is the song that makes me think about Mom. What a great, unselfish person she was. And boy, did she ever love me love me love me.
“After I died, and the makeup had dried, I went back to my place.
No moon that night, but a heavenly light shone on my face.
Still I thought it was odd, there was no sign of God just to usher me in.
Then a voice from above, sugar coated with Love, said,
Let us begin.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.”
In the first verse, Simon introduces the topic — he died, so what happens next? One good thing is he gets to go back to his place. I like the rhyme of “usher me in” with “let us begin”. We now know that heaven requires a bit of paperwork before entry is granted.
“OK, a new kid in school, got to follow the rule, you got to learn the routine.
Whoa, there’s a girl over there, with the sunshiny hair, like a homecomin’ queen.
I said, “Hey, what you say? It’s a glorious day, by the way how long you been dead?”
Maybe you, maybe me, maybe baby makes three, but she just shook her head…
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
Buddah and Moses and all the noses from narrow to flat,
Had to stand in the line, just to glimpse the divine, what you think about that?
Well it seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek,
It’s all his design, no one cuts in the line, no one here likes a sneak.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.”
In the self-explanatory second and third verses, Simon addresses the two great mysteries in life. There’s always the magnetic appeal of a beautiful woman. And while you’re waiting in line, notice that no one is exempt from final judgement. After a short, shimmering instrumental passage, Simon returns with the final verse.
“After you climb up the ladder of time, the Lord God is near.
Face to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappear.
And you feel like swimming in that ocean of love, and the current is strong.
But all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song…
Lord, is it ‘Be Bop A Lu La’ or ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?
Lord, ‘Be Bop A Lu La’ or ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?
‘Be Bop A Lu La’.”
Assuming I have time to think about life before I die, I’m sure to swim in that ocean of love and reminisce about the great times I’ve had. Words to describe my gratitude will not suffice. Life’s a struggle, but when my time gets near, I’ll give up battling and just swim.
It seems like a throwaway, but “Lord, is it ‘Be Bop A Lu La’ or ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?” is the key statement. After four beautifully constructed verses of rhythmic, literate prose, he finally distills what he wants to say. And he’s right, it’s ‘Be Bop A Lu La’.
Paul Simon Song Notes:
Most of these songs are easy to find. The exceptions are:
1. “Hearts And Bones/Mystery Train/Wheels (Live)” can be found on iTunes Festival: London 2011 — EP.
2. “Paranoia Blues (Alt)” can be found on Paul Simon.
3. “Something So Right (Live)” can be found on Paul Simon In Concert: Live Rhymin’.
4. “The Afterlife (Live)” is the official YouTube performance as presented in the blog.
5. “The Sound Of Silence (Alt)” can be found on The Columbia Studio Recordings — 1964-1970.
6. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle (Live)” and “I Am A Rock (Live) can be found on Live 1969.
7. “The Sound Of Silence (Live)” can be found on Live from New York City, 1967.
8. “A Hazy Shade Of Winter (Live)”
“I Am A Rock (Live)”
“At The Zoo (Live)”
“Baby Driver (Live)”
“Homeward Bound (Live)”
“The Sound Of Silence (Live)”
can be found on Old Friends: Live On Stage.
9. “Homeward Bound (Live)”
“The Boxer (Live)”
“Fakin’ It (Live)”
“The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) (Live)”
can be found on the unauthorized live recording 59th Street Bridge Songs: France 1970.
Simon & Garfunkel Songs
Homeward Bound, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★★
The Sound Of Silence (Alt), Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
America, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
I Am A Rock (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
At The Zoo, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
The Sound Of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
I Am A Rock, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Baby Driver, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Peggy-O, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Anji, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Fakin’ It, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Scarborough Fair/Canticle (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
I Am A Rock (live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The Sound Of Silence (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Homeward Bound (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The Boxer (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Anji (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
El Condor Pasa (If I Could), Simon & Garfunkel ★
The Only Living Boy In New York, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Kathy’s Song, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Richard Cory, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Cloudy, Simon & Garfunkel ★
The Dangling Conversation, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall, Simon & Garfunkel ★
A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d), Simon & Garfunkel ★
Old Friends, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Bookends Theme, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Sparrow, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Somewhere They can’t Find Me, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Bleecker Street, Simon & Garfunkel ★
Patterns, Simon & Garfunkel ★
The Sound Of Silence (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
A Hazy Shade Of Winter (live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
At The Zoo (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
Baby Driver (live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
Homeward Bound (live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
Fakin’ It (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
America (live), Simon & Garfunkel ★
Paul Simon Songs:
The Afterlife (Live), Paul Simon ★★★★★
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Paul Simon ★★★★
Late In the Evening, Paul Simon ★★★★
The Afterlife, Paul Simon ★★★★
Mother And Child Reunion, Paul Simon ★★★
Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Paul Simon ★★★
Under African Skies, Paul Simon ★★★
Graceland, Paul Simon ★★★
Something So Right, Paul Simon ★★★
Born At The Right Time, Paul Simon ★★★
Loves Me Like A Rock, Paul Simon ★★★
Dazzling Blue (Video), Paul Simon ★★★
Take Me To The Mardi Gras, Paul Simon ★★
Slip Slidin’ Away, Paul Simon ★★
She Moves On, Paul Simon ★★
50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon ★★
That Was Your Mother, Paul Simon ★★
Dazzling Blue, Paul Simon ★★
Hobo’s Blues, Paul Simon ★★
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes (Alt), Paul Simon ★★
Something So Right (Live), Paul Simon ★★
Homeless, Paul Simon ★★
Hearts And Bones, Paul Simon ★★
Father And Daughter, Paul Simon ★
The Boy In The Bubble, Paul Simon ★
Gumboots, Paul Simon ★
You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon ★
Crazy Love, Vol. II, Paul Simon ★
Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon ★
Kodachrome, Paul Simon ★
Train In the Distance, Paul Simon ★
Duncan, Paul Simon ★
Paranoia Blues (Alt), Paul Simon ★
Proof, Paul Simon ★
Can’t Run But, Paul Simon ★
The Coast, Paul Simon ★
Born At the Right Time (Demo), Paul Simon ★
Getting Ready For Christmas Day, Paul Simon ★
Rewrite, Paul Simon ★
One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor, Paul Simon ★
St. Judy’s Comet, Paul Simon ★
Angi, Davy Graham ★★
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Aretha Franklin ★★
The Grateful Dead are a rock band from Palo Alto, California. The band formed around Jerry Garcia, who grew up in the Balboa neighborhood of San Francisco, but moved to Palo Alto in early 1961. Garcia became the guitar and banjo teacher at Dana Morgan’s Music Store in downtown Palo Alto, and over the course of the next four years, he recruited Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bill Kreutzman into the band. They evolved from a jug band into a rock and roll band, with roots in many styles of music, from Garcia’s love of bluegrass to Lesh’s training as a classical composer. During these formative years Garcia also played music with Robert Hunter, who became a primary lyricist for the group.
As a young man, Jerry Garcia embraced the poetry and literature of the Beat Generation.
“The Beat Generation was a group of American post-World War II writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. Central elements of “Beat” culture included rejection of perceived standards, innovations in style, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexualities, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and explicit portrayals of the human condition.”
Garcia spent much of his free time at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, where he found like-minded souls who shared his desire for free expression. He became friends with authors Allan Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, as well as the noteworthy free spirit Neal Cassady, the subject of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On The Road”.
The Long Golden Road
The Grateful Dead’s journey to worldwide success and notoriety was long. If one might identify when the band caught its “big break”, it happened when Ken Kesey asked them to perform at his Acid Test house parties in the remote, coastal mountains west of Palo Alto. At the time the band was known as The Warlocks; they soon changed their name to the Grateful Dead. They were young, raw and experimental in their approach.
“One day we were over at Phil’s house…He had a big dictionary. I opened it and there was ‘Grateful Dead’, those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ And that was it.”
– Jerry Garcia
Jerry Garcia (1942-1995), guitar, vocals, primary songwriter
Bob Weir (b. 1947), guitar, vocals, primary songwriter
Bill Kreutzmann (b. 1946), drums
Phil Lesh (b. 1940), bass guitar, vocals, songwriter
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (1945-1973), keyboards, harmonica, vocals
Robert Hunter (b. 1941), lyricist
Mickey Hart (b. 1943), drums, percussion
Tom Constanten (b. 1944), keyboards
Keith Godchaux (1948-1980), keyboards
Donna Jean Godchaux (b. 1947), vocals
Brent Mydland (1952-1990), keyboards, vocals, songwriter
The association with the hippie subculture in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, combined with the notoriety of the experimental LSD-25 acid tests, raised their profile to a national level. Growing up in the late sixties in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was unclear the Grateful Dead would become the preeminent San Francisco band. The Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow was the most successful album among local bands, though Jerry Garcia played guitar on several of their songs.
But the Grateful Dead, a quintet of societal misfits, were busy playing and performing all the time, writing their own songs, and utilizing their disparate influences to expand their musical boundaries. They toured nationally, and slowly built a fiercely devoted audience. Bob Weir, the kid, became a strong singer and fine second guitar who loved to sing swinging country songs. Pigpen McKernan, whose Dad was a soul and blues disk jockey, was the band’s soul and blues man. Bill Kreutzmann, the famous football coach’s grandson, hit the drums instead. They became a sextet when Mickey Hart was added as a second drummer and percussionist in 1967. Phil Lesh, the budding classical composer who never played the bass until Garcia asked him to do so, learned how to use the bass as counterpoint behind the soloists to great effect. Jerry Garcia, the reluctant leader, refined his quiet and mournful singing, and became a versatile, inventive guitarist of great renown, with long improvisational solos that thrilled his fans.
To prepare for this profile, I re-read “A Long Strange Trip”, Dennis McNally’s fine Grateful Dead biography.
“Flashback: Jerry Garcia, October 1978″, Guitar Player Magazine, by Jon Sievert
“Deadhead, The Vast Recorded Legacy of the Grateful Dead”, by Nick Paumgarten, New Yorker Magazine, November 26, 2012″
Grateful Dead Lyric/Song Finder
The Grateful Dead Clubhouse Projects
Also, here are two fine blogs about The Grateful Dead and the San Francisco music scene, by Corry Arnold, a high school classmate:
By the mid-seventies the Dead had become a cultural phenomenon, a traveling party attracting huge audiences, with a devoted fan base who enjoyed the atmosphere of dance, drugs and free expression, not to mention the band’s constantly evolving set list. No two shows were the same, and over their career they performed hundreds of different songs. Sometimes the band’s performance was tired and sloppy; at other times, their improvisations clicked, inciting audiences into a state of bliss. They continued to tour and perform throughout the eighties, despite the deteriorating health of Garcia. In 1986, Jerry fell into a diabetic coma, after which he temporarily improved his consumption habits. The band experienced a final prime in their career in the last eighties and early nineties, but were derailed by the premature death of keyboard player Brent Mydland in 1990. Garcia, who tired of the rigors of travel and performance, resumed some of his habits and eventually passed away in 1995. The Grateful Dead disbanded, though the four remaining original members (Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart) continue to perform together periodically.
The Grateful Dead’s large traveling family of musicians, technicians and roadies experienced more than their fair share of tragedies, losing three keyboard players to consumption problems along the way. The band often dealt with these losses in a seemingly cavalier fashion, as if the train was moving too fast to worry about lost passengers.
The Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994.
Either You Love Them Or…
The Dead are perhaps the most polarizing band of all time. With the exception of the Beatles, the Grateful Dead is the favorite band of more people I know than any other. Perhaps five to ten percent of my best music friends built their music listening lives around Grateful Dead concerts. The band did not discourage amateur recording enthusiasts from taping concerts, which spawned a whole subculture of sharing tapes, which allowed their audience to collect far more music than other bands.
“The Grateful Dead epitomize hippie rock & roll, and if you’re a hippie yourself, you might want to invert the ratings above. But unless you are, this is one assertedly major oeuvre that’s virtually worthless except for documentary purposes. The Dead’s long modal jams may be the stuff of mesmerism in concert (though even there, it’s questionable), but they’re simply self-indulgent and boring on disc. The band’s attempts at pop, rock and country are rendered effortlessly irritating and stodgy by the band’s lack of a crisp rhythm section and/or a single competent vocalist.
The Dead are worshipped for their image as hip patriarchs, which meant that as long as Jerry Garcia has that acid twinkle in his eye, he’ll never have to worry about his pedestrian set of chops. Truthfully, there simply isn’t very much about this group that’s impressive, except the devotion of its fans to a mythology created in Haight-Ashbury and now sustained in junior high schools across America. At its peak, the Dead has essayed competence: Workingman’s Dead is third-rate next to (The Byrds’ album) Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, much less anything Gram Parsons ever recorded on his own, but it has a sweet ingenuousness that renders it bearable. Similarly, Live Dead isn’t much less interminable that any other Dead concert piece, but it has a freshness that feints towards vitality. But when the Dead attempt to rework rock and blues standards — as they did on their horrible debut album, and have sporadically since — they are a pox on the face of pop. And the group’s patchouli-oil philosophy, which does nothing more than reinforce solipsism and self-indulgence in its listeners, except when it’s nurturing its Hells Angels fan club, is exactly the sort of stuff that gave peace ‘n’ love a bad name.”
Dave Marsh, “The New Rolling Stone Record Guide”, 2nd Edition, 1983
I took LSD about eight or ten times in my teenage years, always in a controlled environment. These were great experiences that I cherish. Though there have been serious LSD casualties in the history of rock music, like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead managed to use LSD regularly early in their career, and emerge relatively unscathed, while benefiting from the magnificently sensory experiences the drug provides. This is not an endorsement. You have to be with friends, and if you get frightened, it will swallow you in fear, and send you tumbling fast.
Here’s a great video, when the Grateful Dead were invited to perform on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy After Dark” program in 1969. The merry pranksters dosed the coffee on the set, and shared their psychedelic experience with the more conventional Playboy crowd, prompting Hefner to remark, “Thanks for the gift.”
“It’s a language, that’s all, without words — just the images themselves.”, wrote Art Kleps, an early associate of LSD researcher Timothy Leary, and one of the few to consider LSD in Western philosophical terms. LSD, he argued, lays waste to supernaturalism, since, ironically, much of the LSD experience lies in the realm of the absurd, and there is “no room for the absurd in the cosmologies of the occultists and supernaturalists.” The simple materialism of the lower reaches of scientific thought also had to go: “It is materialism that is destroyed by these overwhelming demonstrations of the limitless power of the imagination, not, necessarily, as those who liked to disparage nihilism and solipsism assume, empricism, logic or honor. It is not one’s experience or character that is intimidated, but only certain abstract concepts about the organization of experience.
Most people come out of LSD trips believing in the oneness of all life, the interconnectedness of things, and from that, the philosophically disposed frequently hit on Jungian synchronicity, the notion that things can be on a non-cause-and-effect basis, as in dreams. “If one’s thesis is that ordinary life is a dream,” wrote Art Kleps, “then anything that can happen in a dream in sleep can happen in waking life also, without disproving the thesis. If you can see that, you can see everything.”
– Excerpt from “A Long Strange Trip”, Dennis McNally
Although not commercially released, the Barton Hall concert at Cornell University (May 8, 1977) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Here Bob Weir sings “Estimated Prophet” (audio only) with its uncharacteristic 7/4 time signature.
The Grateful Dead flew in the face of convention; most Americans have dismissed them without investigation. Throughout their career they were odds with the corporate mentality, music executives looking for a hit song and a certain image. The Dead focused on the music, and let their sound engineers perfect a stadium-size sound system, no matter the cost. They built their business around the concerts, allowed the tapers to record the shows, and learned to market themselves independently. And please don’t tell me they can’t play. It would be foolish to suggest they possessed the chops of Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but they are early rock practitioners of modal jazz improvisation, not to mention their facility with folk, country and rock and roll. They are one of rock music’s most versatile bands.
“Early in 1981 the Dead went to Europe to play a few shows in London and then appear with the Who on the German TV show “Rockpalast”, and while in London Garcia gave one of his most extraordinary interviews. Few patently hostile interviewers get within yards of a star, and rarer still is the star who will tolerate hostility. Garcia found it stimulating. The interviewer, Paul Morley, was a cutting-edge young punk from New Musical Express, and Garcia revolted him. “You’re just a part of a perpetuation of bland, blanketing myths,” said the punk. “Does that disappoint you?” Garcia chuckled. “Naah! I didn’t have any expectations…If you start out expecting to fail and expecting the worst then anything that happens is an improvement over that…we’re just starting.” Does it upset you that I don’t dig you? “No! I don’t give a damn. I would be afraid if if everybody in the world liked us…I don’t want to be responsible for leading the march to wherever. Fuck that. It’s already been done and the world hates it…a combination of music and the psychedelic experience taught me to fear power. I mean fear it and hate it…First of all, I don’t think of myself as an adult. An adult is someone who’s made up their mind. When I go through airports the people who have their thing together, who are clean, well-groomed, who have tailored clothes, who have their whole material thing together, these people are adults. They’ve made a decision to follow those routines…I would say that I was part of a prolonged adolescence. I think our whole scene is that…I feel like someone who is constantly on the verge of losing it, or blowing it. I feel tremendously insecure.” “My heated irrationality bumps into Garcia’s sheer reasonableness,” wrote Morley, and it was true. Garcia’s egoless interest in authentic communication, even when it involved mocking him, made for one of the more fascinating encounters in rock journalism.
– Dennis McNally, “A Long Strange Trip”
Growing Up In Palo Alto
While researching the Grateful Dead, I came across these two interviews conducted by the Silicon Valley Historical Association. The first is Jerry Garcia’a final interview; the second is a semiconductor executive who discusses the open sharing of technology among scientists over drinks after work:
The Bay Area zeitgeist. Since World War II, artists and engineers alike shared knowledge and wisdom and pushed society forward. Even in the integrated circuit industry growing south from Stanford University, there was a willingness to share and try things differently.
My Dad worked at the university physics lab, and though their Department of Energy directive was to study the nature of matter in its elemental form, their enduring legacy will be to help establish the ARPANET, the world’s first TCP/IP packet switching network. The ARPANET allowed the world’s high energy physics laboratories to share research in a timely fashion. Embraced by other government and educational institutions to share information, the ARPANET grew into the modern Internet, the most disruptive and important technology of the last fifty years. Its economic importance cannot be overestimated.
Not all change has been good for Palo Alto, from the perspective of a kid who grew up there when things were quieter. The county grew crowded and fabulously wealthy. Housing is unaffordable. The egalitarian nature of my hometown slowly slipped away. I moved away twenty years ago, and I probably won’t move back. If I’m lucky enough to live another twenty years, old Palo Alto still has delightful, quiet neighborhoods, places where you could have breakfast downtown, and then walk around town like my granddad did the last thirty years of his long life. Palo Alto has nice sidewalks.
Can you separate the beat generation movement from the the burgeoning scientific community? The Bay Area saw an influx of young, science-minded talent after World War II; my parents followed that dream in 1956. It wasn’t crowded and the weather is so gentle. There were strong bohemian influences, with lots of people ready to stretch boundaries, at a time when society was ripe for it. In my parents’ case, they were first generation college grads who wanted out of an Ivy League society they didn’t feel comfortable being in.
I’m proud of being from Palo Alto. I’m grateful for my parents to have moved there. It’s such a great town, the flatlands below the coastal scrapes near the Bay. As a young high school student I rode my ten-speed Peugeot bike everywhere. I remember riding no-handed down the middle of Hamilton Avenue at ten o’clock on a Saturday night. Many of us were allowed out late at night, and some of us boys used our bikes when we needed to get somewhere. Here’s a weird memory which fits. Of the few times I took LSD, one time we took a light dose early in the day. It was mid-afternoon, and we have no particular place to go, just sticking around our neighborhood in south Palo Alto. So we get on our bikes and jam down to the 7-11 on Middlefield Rd. and Colorado Ave. Not a long ride; about a mile or so. I’m riding no-handed on and off, no problem, but at some point I lose the bike beneath me, and the bike starts to fall. I sense the crash coming, and jump off the bike on purpose, and land standing as the bike fell on the ground. I laughed, looked at my friends, got back on my bike, and finished the short ride to for Slurpees.
Dead Heads talk about concerts the way baseball geeks discuss statistics. It’s a wonder I didn’t geek out on the Dead; many folks got “collection oriented” when the Dead came around with their repertoire. They were never my favorite band; starting around age five or six, the Beatles were my favorite, followed by Creedence Clearwater Revival for a couple years. Curiously, my next favorite was David Grisman, Jerry Garcia’s long time friend. For a few years I never saw a Dead concert, but saw Grisman play a bunch of times, playing that string swing, once with the great Grappelli, with Dad. It was great when Garcia & Grisman started hanging out together and recording music at Grisman’s house in Stinson Beach.
I went to two Dead concerts, the first one (with parents in about 1967) I don’t remember, and during the second one (Laguna Seca, July 30, 1988), we left a few songs after Los Lobos finished. I heard it was a good show. I did give two angel tickets away that day to fans who showed their appreciation by bouncing away with energy, which was nice.
I’ve got a few stories about the Dead that I could share. Not much. A few connections here and there. Mama used to teach exercise class at the local high school with Janice Kreutzmann, Bill’s mom. The McKernans lived in the same Palo Alto neighborhood, and I met Pigpen’s brother Kevin, though not under the best of circumstances. Mom embraced both the music and implied freedom of the San Francisco scene, but it was Dad who liked the Grateful Dead music best. He recorded a cassette tape of the Dead’s first album for regular play. Here lies a difference between me and the typical Dead fan. Daddy liked the amped-up fast songs on their first album, like “Cold Rain And Snow”, “Beat It On Down The Line” and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”. This kind of hot music runs in my blood. I rate the first Grateful Dead album as among their best.
The Grateful Dead are one of many bands influenced by the beat generation. But they were perhaps the one band closest to the movement, in terms of both physical location and philosophical intent.
How do the Grateful Dead rank seventh among my favorites? For one thing, they have such a large recorded library of music. I can’t possibly take the time to carefully listen to every song to create my personal list of favorites. I’ve collected Dead songs one, two, or a few at a time, over the years. I gravitate towards the fast swinging music more, and the long slow ones less than the typical fan. I’m certain to add more songs to the list.
I like the earliest years of the Dead’s music, from their earliest recordings in 1965 and lasting about a decade. The Golden Road (1965-1973) represents this era beautifully. It’s awkward to say that my favorite year is 1972. It’s a lean year; Mickey Hart was taking temporary leave from the group. Pianist Keith & singer Donna Godchaux joined the band, and Pigpen had become very sick. As a result, Bob Weir is a more prominent part of the soundscape. I also like hearing Bill Kreutzmann drumming by himself. To me, the one drummer sound is more austere and focused. These 1972 recordings show the integral guitar trio and Kreutzmann at their peak. I should probably buy that big box set of 1972 European live recordings. Every Dead Head should own the tremendous new 3CD + DVD box set Sunshine Daydream, a newly issued document that is essential.
My analysis does not give enough credit to singer and keyboardist Brent Mydland. I’ve included a few songs that feature Mydland, when he was an integral part of the band’s sound, but it is not an era I paid much attention to. By all accounts, he was well liked and admired, and in the case of one Dead Head friend, his contributions to Dozin’ At The Knick are among the finest of the band’s career.
Here is a vintage 1972 performance of the band’s seventy-five minute first (of three) set, which conclude with “El Paso”, “Big Railroad Blues”, and a first class version of “Truckin’”. Listen to them go get gone!
Grateful Dead Songs:
More than any other band so far, whittling down the list of songs into a focused overview of their music seems both fruitless and cold. This is a band where there is so much music, over a long period of time, that each person’s list of songs is personal, and will vary dramatically. I’ll offer my favorite ninety or so songs, and hopefully someone will take the time to offer their opinion.
Because the band’s recorded legacy is so complex, I am presenting the list by album, because it is more coherent and efficient. By album, in alphabetical order:
American Beauty (Remastered)
Box Of Rain, Grateful Dead ★★
Friend Of The Devil, Grateful Dead ★★★★
Sugar Magnolia, Grateful Dead ★★★
Operator, Grateful Dead ★
Candyman, Grateful Dead ★★
Ripple, Grateful Dead ★★★
Brokedown Palace, Grateful Dead ★
Attics In My Life, Grateful Dead ★
Truckin’, Grateful Dead ★★
Friend Of The Devil (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★
Anthem Of the Sun
That’s It For The Other One (Suite), Grateful Dead ★
China Cat Sunflower, Grateful Dead ★
Birth Of The Dead – The Studio Sides
I Know You Rider, Grateful Dead ★★
Don’t Ease Me In, Grateful Dead ★
Cold Rain And Snow (Alt), Grateful Dead ★★★
Blues For Allah
Help On The Way/Slipknot!, Grateful Dead ★
Franklin’s Tower, Grateful Dead ★★★
Complete Live Rarities Collection
Viola Lee Blues (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Pain In My Heart (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Scarlet Begonias (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Cassidy (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Dick’s Picks, Volume 4
Dire Wolf (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Dark Star (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Dick’s Picks, Volume 6
Althea (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Dick’s Picks, Volume 8
I Know Your Rider (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★★
Beat It On Down The Line (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Candyman (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Cumberland Blues (Live), Grateful Dead ★
The Other One (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Dick’s Picks, Volume 35
Next Time You See Me (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Dozin’ At The Knick
Just A Little Light (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Row Jimmy (Live), Grateful Dead ★
One More Saturday Night (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Jack Straw (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★
Tennessee Jed, Grateful Dead ★
The Grateful Dead (Remastered, Expanded Edition)
Beat It On Down The Line, Grateful Dead ★★
Good Morning Little School Girl, Grateful Dead ★★
Cold Rain And Snow, Grateful Dead ★★★
Sittin’ On Top Of The World (Alt — Full Length), Grateful Dead ★★★
Morning Dew, Grateful Dead ★★
Grateful Dead From The Mars Hotel
U.S. Blues, Grateful Dead ★★★
Scarlet Begonias, Grateful Dead ★★
Ship Of Fools, Grateful Dead ★★
Live At The Fillmore East, 2/11/69
The Eleven (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Hundred Year Hall
I Know You Rider (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★★
In The Dark
Touch Of Grey, Grateful Dead ★
West L.A. Fadeaway, Grateful Dead ★
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Grateful Dead (Fillmore East, April 1971)
Bird Song (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Live/Dead (Remastered, Expanded Edition)
St. Stephen (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Death Don’t Have No Mercy (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Dark Star (Single), Grateful Dead ★
Turn On Your Love Light (Live), Grateful Dead ★
One From The Vault
Big River (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Franklin’s Tower (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★★
Eyes Of The World/Drums (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Reckoning (Remastered, Expanded Edition)
Deep Elem Blues (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Shakedown Street, Grateful Dead ★
Fire On The Mountain, Grateful Dead ★★★
Skull & Roses
Bertha (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★★
Mama Tried (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Big Railroad Blues (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Playing In the Band (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Big Boss Man (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Wharf Rat (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Not Fade Away/Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★★
Me And My Uncle (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Deal (Live), Grateful Dead ★
China Cat Sunflower (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★
I Know You Rider (Live), Grateful Dead ★★★
El Paso (Live), Grateful Dead ★
Sing Me Back Home (Live), Grateful Dead ★★
Estimated Prophet, Grateful Dead ★★★
Wake Of The Flood
Stella Blue, Grateful Dead ★
Workingman’s Dead (Remastered, Expanded Edition)
Uncle John’s Band, Grateful Dead ★
Dire Wolf, Grateful Dead ★
Cumberland Blues, Grateful Dead ★
Casey Jones, Grateful Dead ★
New Speedway Boogie (Alt), Grateful Dead ★
Songs by David Grisman & Jerry Garcia, which are listed here.
Deal, Jerry Garcia ★★
Sugaree, Jerry Garcia ★★★
To Lay Me Down, Jerry Garcia ★
The Wheel, Jerry Garcia ★
Friend Of The Devil (Live), David Grisman & Jerry Garcia ★★★
Friend Of The Devil, Lyle Lovett ★★★
I Know You Rider, Seldom Scene ★★★★
Bertha, Los Lobos ★★
Bertha (Live), Los Lobos ★★
Not Fade Away, Buddy Holly & The Crickets ★★★
Not Fade Away, The Rolling Stones ★★★★
Not Fade Away (Live), The Rolling Stones ★★★
Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad, Big Bill Broonzy ★★
Rain And Snow, Obray Ramsey ★★★
Cold Rain And Snow (Live), Peter Rowan & Tony Rice ★★★
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Mississippi Sheiks ★★★
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Doc Watson ★★★
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Howlin’ Wolf ★★★★
Wharf Rat, Midnight Oil ★★
Good Morning Little School Girl, Sonny Boy Williamson I ★★
Good Morning Little School Girl, The Yardbirds ★★
Morning Dew, Lulu ★★★
Morning Dew, Jeff Beck ★★
Morning Dew, The 31st of February ★
Ship Of Fools, Elvis Costello ★★
Ripple, Jane’s Addiction ★
Mama Tried, Merle Haggard ★★
Sing Me Back Home, Merle Haggard ★
Me And My Uncle, Judy Collins ★★
Pain In My Heart, Otis Redding ★★
Cassidy, Bob Weir ★
Cassidy, Suzanne Vega ★
Next Time You See Me, James Cotton ★★★
Death Don’t Have No Mercy, Reverend Gary Davis ★★
Turn On Your Love Light, Bobby “Blue” Bland ★★★★
Big River, Johnny Cash ★★
Deep Elem Blues, Les Paul ★
Big Boss Man, Jimmy Reed ★★★
Big Boss Man (Take 2), Elvis Presley ★★
El Paso, Marty Robbins ★★★★