11 January 2008

No Man's Code: Forty Years of 'John Wesley Harding'


Some said he'd died in a motorcylcle accident, others said he was vegetating in a coma. No one outside of Bob Dylan's immediate circle really knew what had happened on that fateful day in 1966 when, following the utter emotional and artistic strain of his musically shattering world tour that had seen 'walk outs' by fans of the 'folk hero Dylan', boos from many of the confused and the infamous 'Judas!' shout in Manchester, England, Bob's bike skidded off the road somewhere out in the hills around Woodstock and he ended up in a neck brace. Perhaps he just didn't fancy another jaunt around the States that Albert Grossman was already lining up? Maybe he couldn't fulfill his contract for the long promised book he was writing? Maybe he was an exhausted wreck who fell off his motorcycle and just couldn't do anymore? Probably all three propositions are true to some degree. Whatever did happen, Dylan now had the chance to get off the treadmill, hide in the hills, re-evaluate his life and art and attempt to finally shake off the 'spokeman for a generation' tag that had made him sick from the very beginning of his career.

In 1964 Dylan had already signed off from the battles others had lined up for him on the final song of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin'. On 'Restless Farewell' Dylan sang 'But it's not to stand naked under unknowing eyes, it's for myself and my friends my stories are sung'. It seems nobody wanted to hear that. He tried again in the same year at the Newport Folk Festival where in 1963 he'd been crowned the 'King of Protest' along with his abominable 'Queen', Joan Baez. In '64 Dylan turned up, still armed with an acoustic guitar but his threads were sharper and his new songs some light years away from 'protest'. He introduced the world to 'Chimes of Freedom' and 'Mr. Tambourine Man' but the folk purists, in their supreme dullness, didn't mind because his guitar wasn't plugged in to any of that 'e-lec-tri-city' so he must still belong to them. He must have thought, 'Oh, Lord, what can I do to make them understand ?' Finally, as we all know, in 1965 Bob went the whole hog and plugged in to become the rock 'n' roller he always wanted to be. Oh, the folkies 'got it' now. He had an electric guitar! He had a band! Get the traitor off! Trouble was, others still saw him as the one with all the answers to society's problems; infact, for many, he was even more so the 'saviour' they had waited for as he became the darling of the growing 'Counter Culture'. After all, his lyrics were weird, 'maan'. He spoke in riddles at press conferences: he must have a message for us!

We all know this story, so I should move on. It's easy for me to mock the short-sightedness of those Dylan fans who, back in early 1968, eagerly slid the vinyl out of the sleeve of John Wesley Harding and, placing it on their turntables, thought 'What the f*** is this?' There was war going on, there were riots on American streets, there were hippies threatening to turn the world upside down with their sex and drugs and mock and roll. What had Dylan finally given them in answer to their prayers? An album that sounded like it was recorded by an tragically religious hillbilly who had stepped out of the 1860s rather than the whirlpool of the 1960s. As I said, it's easy for me to mock. I didn't start getting into Zimmy until the mid-70s; by then he'd slowly made his way back into the arms of the mass of his fans (although he had a shock coming for them' just around the bend'). The first album I'd bought was Desire which was something of a commercial peak. After this I'd grabbed Greatest Hits and then let Dylan drift whilst punk took over. By '79 I was ready for a fulltime assault on Mount Zimmerman and probably bought Freewheelin' next. I had no real idea of where to go after this, so I grasped at anything the second-hand record and book shops happened to have at a good price. Thus, oddly, my next purchases were JWH, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait all on the same day. In retrospect, that's quite bizarre but I think I was lucky because, in my naive ignorance but spirited adventure, I had no massive expectations of what a Dylan should sound like. I just know what I liked and even through all the crackles in this ancient vinyl, I liked everything I heard but I particularly liked John Wesley Harding. If I'd been ten years older I probably would have booed.

The cover of the album is a statement in itself. It was GREY. There was Dylan and three odd characters with him who'd NEVER make the cover of a Beatles album. We didn't know them. The Fab-Four really weren't hidden in the tree bark behind Dylan's shoulder. Why would he indulge in such crap? The previous year had seen the release of Sgt. Pepper's with its Peter Blake cover that shouted 'colour!', 'drugs!', 'self-regard!' and 'look at us!'. Zappa famously lampooned it all with We're Only In It For The Money but The Stones were so jealous that they had to have a 'Counter Culture' album and cover all of their own and made themselves ridiculous with Satanic Majesties. Dylan hated the so called 'alternative' world view of hippies and psychedelia. Musically, he'd always been grounded in Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and the R&B of Little Richard, to say nothing of the massive influence of Woody Guthrie on his early work. Guthrie died just before Bob took off for Nashville to record JWH and he instantly offered to take part in any tribute concert there might be for Woody. Never mind 1964s 'Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie'. For the past year, whilst recovering from the accident, Bob had been holed up in Woodstock with The Hawks, who were about to become The Band, recording songs for fun. Listening now to the well over 100 tracks they put down over this period you can hear the utter rejection of what was going on 'out there'; the refusal to 'speak' for anyone but themselves and the sheer joy of making music that matters. Many of the songs recorded through 1967 were folk songs or old pop songs from a previous era. The Dylan originals that came out of the 'basement' were as powerful and strange as anything he'd ever written but already they were pointing in a new direction. Listen to 'Tears of Rage', 'Wheels On Fire' or 'Lo and Behold!' and you'll be struck by the near religious intensity of these strange narratives that seem to look back and forward all at the same moment.

Oddly, Bob chose to not use The Band for John Wesley Harding. Their sound probably wasn't what he quite had in mind. JWH is rock minimalism. The small band that he used in Nashville featured Charlie McCoy on Bass, Kenny Buttrey on drums and Pete Drake on steel guitar. Dylan himself strums a guitar that sounds like the capo is permanently strapped high up the neck, creating a light, singing tone. All of the instrumentation is unobtrusive. What counts are Dylan's voice, the melody and the words. On the three albums that he recorded in fifteen short months between 1965 and 1966 Dylans vocals became increasingly a reflection of his state of mind until you reach the ultimate amphetamine fog of his vocals on Blonde On Blonde. By late '67 Bob had discovered a lighter but still aching tone that perfectly complimented songs like 'I Am a Lonesome Hobo' and 'Dear Landlord'. These were songs searching for but failing to find redemption; songs of dreams that seem to blame the narrator for the death of saintliness and, in 'All Along The Watchtower', a warning of the coming apocolypse in three verses of elliptical poetry that are possibly the most perfect of Dylan's career. He'd clearly been studying The Bible and there are plenty of scholars who'll point you to the 'Old Testament' and 'Book of Revelation' references but you don't need all that to feel the power of this song. I've always believed that whilst Hendrix's version has its own beauty it ultimately misses the point. As with most of the songs on John Wesley Harding, all that was necessary were three verses, no solos and the truth. Maybe it's the first punk album?

Enough! I've listened to this album hundreds of times, have already listened to it four or five times today and will never tire of it. It allowed Dylan to begin to shake of off the shackles of the previous years.It made possible the great country rock of Gram Parsons and The Byrds (it also allowed The Eagles to inflict their nonsense on us!); it told the hippies that Dylan could never belong to them and he would only ever be his own man whatever anyone thought of it. It may have even been the first 'Alt. Country' record. Over the years, Dylan has paid the price of his artistic integrity but has ultimately won the day and even if JWH had been the last we'd ever heard of him it would still rank as high as any of his other 60s albums in importance and downright musical greatness.



The Purple Gooroo said...

Nice portrait of an over-looked record, Bear...I have to admit that "J.W.H." confouded me, too, when I first listened to it. I definitely was underwhelmed by Zimmy's original of "All Along..", only because I heard Hendrix's version first...I thought "Dylan's has got no balls.." Little did I realise.

I think it's one of those albums that was quite under-appreciated at the time of it's release, but seems to occupy it's own niche--kinda like Skip Spence's "Oar". It's interesting, too--to note that "The White Album" ended up being a bit of a "back-to-basics" venture (at least in record sleeve design if not all of the music contained within)--so maybe The Fabs were still taking a few cues from Zimmy.

I'm still going to score a copy of the re-issued "J.W.H." (and "Nashville Skyline", too) at some point.

Anonymous said...

If you can find them! I've missed out on the SACD versions of both JWH and Nashville and they seem to be deleted now. I don't really think the sound needs 'improving' on either of them anyway, so maybe that's OK.

If I'd been totally immersed in 'classic' period Bob before I got to JWH it would have confounded me as well, I'm sure.

I must make some apology for the strength of my 'attack' on the 'counter-culture' and psychedelics in this piece. I was really trying to convey what many of us Boblings believe to be true about Dylan's position. I admit to sharing his attitudes to some degree but, as you know, I am a great lover of psych-rock and all it's off-shoots but I do have some problem with much of the 'babble' that came out of this period. I can't say whether it's right or wrong but it I can't relate to it all myself.

As far as back to basics stuff goes, I'm sure The Beatles were much influenced by what they had heard of 'The Basement Tapes', particularly George, who is heard discussing The Band in the 'Let It Be' film. Of course, The Beatles were brilliant enough to do their thing without guidance from Bob or anybody else.

Mark D. said...

J.W.H. and Nashville Skyline are definitely my two all-time favorite Dylan rekkids. The peak of his career, weird new voice and all. His finest lyrics, great mellow-sexy atmosphere, a thin-air sense of urgency here and there ("Watchtower" and "Landlord"). Just brilliant stuff.

The Purple Gooroo said...

Bear: No probs on the psych-rock crit stuff. I dig on the counter-culture, but I understand it's failings and excesses, too. In a lot of ways, Zimmy was probably correct to side-step most of it, instead of doing the near-messianic trip of, say, Jim Morrison. Dylan seemed to be (and still does) his own man, no matter what. He caught a lot of flak for that, but more power to him.

Mark: Yeah - I like them as well. He was exploring a new direction, almost completely re-inventing himself with the stark, country-ish sounds. A very ballsy move in 1968/'69.