Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bob Dylan/Cat Stevens

Bob Dylan 1978-1989: Both Ends of the Rainbow

Cat Stevens – A Classic Concert: Tea For The Tillerman Live

Something needs to be admitted right off. Bob Dylan was one of my heroes in the early 60’s, and even from the middle to late 60’s. I began to become disaffected around the time of “Nashville Skyline,” but I still supported each new release as it came out. Until his so-called “Jesus Period”, that is. He lost me at that time, and has only fairly recently won me back.

The reasons he lost me in the late 1970’s should be fairly obvious to anyone after watching the first sections of this film, a British television documentary released in the US by MVD. It wasn’t simply that his subject matter had changed. After all, his subject matter had changed before, and not always to what may have fashionable or to what people may have expected of him. The bigger problem was that the preachy style of his Christian songwriting seemed too simplistic, assuming that the listener would readily accept his conversion without bothering to ask for the explanations we felt would have been forthcoming a decade earlier. What’s more, the arrangements were simply too busy and in too hackneyed a gospel vein to suit his vocal style. This, of course, says as much about his listeners (myself included) as it does about Dylan.

But the overall theme of this DVD is not Bob Dylan’s relationship with Christianity (I’ve heard tell that there’s another, newer release that does indeed concentrate on this topic, though I have not seen it). Rather, it looks at the many changes in Dylan’s messages and music during a turbulent decade in his career, tracing his descent into critical purgatory and his long road back into critical favor. The visual emphasis is on the talking heads of critics rather than performance, but when the critics are authoritative and have interesting things to say, as is the case here, that’s hardly a bad thing . There are short video clips of Dylan performances of this period interspersed among the interview segments. Less compelling visually is a telephone interview with Dylan - the screen shows a tape recorder rolling.

The DVD includes a discussion of Dylan’s role in “We Are The World”, including a classic clip of Stevie Wonder trying to teach a seemingly clueless Dylan his part. Even more embarrassing is Dylan’s appearance at Live Aid. It’s as if Dylan craved desperately to fit in at these big events, to be seen and heard alongside the few other stars of his stature as well as lesser, then-current ones, but he simply doesn’t blend well. Dylan scored far more points at Farm Aid, a considerably more comfortable situation for him, performing “Maggie’s Farm” with Tom Petty.

There is a revealing interview here regarding how Dylan doesn’t pay attention to what other people think he should be doing. Guitarist Ira Ingber specifically discusses Dylan’s lack of focus while working on “Knocked Out Loaded.” It would seem from his comments that the album was more an attempt by Dylan to find his way into new forms of expression, rather than an attempt at slick commercialism or an illustration of eroding talents. It’s as if Dylan wanted to do something new and significant, that he didn’t wish to capitulate to demands that he merely repeat past triumphs. He was searching, but unfortunately, he wasn’t finding. To use Ingber’s phrase, the album had “no coherent plan”, which suggests the conclusion that the album was one long illustration of why performers should never think out loud, then release the results.

The disc further traces Dylan’s artistic and commercial decline, writing fewer songs by himself, falling back on collaborations, seeming not to really care anymore. The exception would be the Traveling Wilburys project, which took him away from the search for 1980’s relevance back to the sounds of an earlier era. The Wilburys revitalized Dylan the artist, as well as renewing interest in his career among a younger audience. Thus, Dylan began to find his way back at last.

With 1989’s “Oh Mercy”, Dylan at last found his way back to listenability, thanks in considerable measure to producer Daniel Lanois, who was determined not to make another Dylan dud. And even though Dylan would fall into decline again in the 1990’s, the fact that he had proven that he could work his way back meant that many people were at least ready to give each subsequent release a chance to impress them.

As a whole, the DVD is objective, consistently interesting, and thoughtfully presented. Extras include more interviews plus text bios of contributors. Unfortunately, the latter are printed so tiny that they were impossible to read on my 21-inch screen, even with new glasses. Time to upgrade!

Among the new breed of singer-songwriters who brought a gentler, more melodic approach to popular songwriting in the immediate post-Dylan era was Cat Stevens. I have to confess I didn’t “get” Cat Stevens at the time. I found his lyrics to be either too precious (“Moonshadow”) or too cryptic (“Longer Boats”) for my taste. Thus I wasn’t too sure whether I really wanted to watch “A Classic Concert: Tea For the Tillerman Live”, a brief (under a half hour) television special recorded in L. A. in 1971.

But darn, this is an enjoyable disc. The atmosphere is relaxed, the performance (in which Stevens is accompanied only by a second guitarist and a bass player – Alun Davies and Larry Steele, respectively) is no-nonsense/no-frills, the melodies hold up very well – I just can’t find any faults worthy of criticism in the performance. I still have reservations about Stevens as lyricist, but the half-hour goes by very smoothly.

There is one extra, an animated short called “Teaser and the Firecat”, which essentially has historical value only. It’s very much a psychedelic-era cartoon, strong on whimsy, short on insight.

But the concert is what counts here. Fans in particular will enjoy this, but even a non-fan such as myself had a marvelous time watching it.