Monday, December 29, 2008

Tanuki's Dylan Chronicles: A Manifesto

The Tanuki happens to be a big Bob Dylan fan. One of the biggest, what's technically known as a "sick" Dylan fan. Has been for upwards of two decades now. Unhealthy completist that the Tanuki is, that's led him to collect rather a lot of Dylan. And, inveterate mixtape maker that he is, that's led him to experiment with different ways of anthologizing Dylan. A couple of years ago the Tanuki finally hit on a scope, an approach, and a final product that satisfied him: he called it Chronicles. Of course, the recent release of Tell Tale Signs shot that all to hell, gloriously: the Tanuki is in the process, therefore, of revising the thing. Accordingly, as the mood takes him and he finishes a volume, and the notes for it, he'll write about it here.

The Tanuki also wrote a sort of apologia for the project:

Chronicles Made Manifest

Q: Why “Chronicles”?
A: It’s a pretty obvious name, and I think – I’m sure – that at some time in the distant past I actually made a different Dylan anthology using that title. As such, I think it’s a fairly unimaginative name, and my thinking on the title had evolved toward something like “Special Rider” (after one of his publishing companies) or “Skipping Reels Of Rhyme” (from “Mr. Tambourine Man”). But those feel a little gimmicky, which is an aesthetic I don’t mind with some artists but which I wanted to avoid with Bob. And then Dylan came out with the first volume of his memoirs, and titled it Chronicles, and suddenly it seemed like a good idea again. Not so much because it had Bob’s imprimatur, but because what I was aiming at doing would make such a perfect soundtrack to Dylan’s book, if he ever finished all the volumes.

Q: Why chronicle?
A: It’s an old-fashioned approach to criticism, dangerously close to the intentional fallacy, but I like to understand the music of my favorite artists in the context of their careers. So sue me, I do. I like to put it all in order to understand when they learned how to do what I love them for doing, and when they forgot how to do it. And when they learned how to do something else I didn’t know about but come to think is almost as valuable. Etc. In the case of Dylan this is an unusually rich vein to mine. He’s gone through so many changes, and had so many artistic triumphs at every step along the way, that the chronological approach is particularly rewarding.

Q: There are lots of Dylan anthologies on the market now. None of them do the trick?
A: None of them do the trick. They all focus on the glory years and only glance at the later epochs – meaning anything past 1975. Even Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 has that problem, and it starts in 1973. They don’t tell the whole story. They don’t even try. But I can’t really fault them. To tell the story right you have to go into far more detail – make far more discs – than any commercial anthology would ever dream of. This is even true of the ‘60s, which have been fairly well-anthologized by Columbia. “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” is one of his masterpieces, essential to an understanding of his career, but at 12 minutes it’ll never be on a disc marketed to the punters. And even the casual Dylan fan will have the album it’s on. So the whole story can only be told as a fan project, not for sale. Roll yer own, I always say.

Q: Why can’t we just listen to the albums?
A: You can and you should. But Dylan’s best work is not all found on the canonical albums. Any Dylan fan knows this. Many of the rarities – i.e., soundtrack songs, non-album singles, archival material released on one compilation or another – are just as important as his main albums. “Things Have Changed” is, in its own way, just as essential as Time Out Of Mind. And then there are the unreleased things. The infamous bootlegs. There are still quite a few significant studio recordings that have never been released, from every stage in his career, many of which rank up there with his best work; furthermore, none of his tours has been adequately represented on official releases. For most artists, if you listen to the records, you get the picture – as much of the picture as you need to get. With Dylan, you only get half. It may be the best half, but not by much; and particularly if you’re interested in the story, you’re not going to be satisfied with half.

Q: So Chronicles is meant to replace the albums?
A: No, and it’s not meant to replace the bootlegs either. It’s meant to put each in the context of the other, to tell Dylan’s story in as much detail as is practical, drawing from albums, rarities, and bootlegs without regard to source: mix it all together, the thinking goes, and you can finally begin to emerge with an understanding of this artist. An example: my disc for the Nashville Skyline period covers 1968 through May of 1969. It starts with the Woody Guthrie tribute concert songs (live; rarities), looks at the Thanksgiving ’68 George Harrison collaboration (bootleg), examines the Johnny Cash session of February ’69 (bootleg) and the Nashville Skyline album (canonical album, most but not all of which I’ve included), and finishes up with an extended look at the post-NS spring ’69 studio sessions, some of which ended up on Self Portrait (canonical album; also bootleg). Taken together like this, we see how the Nashville Skyline record both fits in with and radically departs from what he’d been doing immediately before it, and how close in time it is to some of the most maligned Self Portrait tracks. We begin to see what a temporal patch-job the latter was, and can appreciate the ’69 SP songs on their own, and how they’re not too different in spirit from what he was doing with Johnny Cash – exploring country covers, exploring music. Which is essentially what he’d been doing with the Band in 1967, and at the Guthrie concert, which is the last gasp of the Basement Tapes, really. It’s a compelling narrative, and good listening, too, since the Guthrie-concert tracks and several of the Cash tracks rank with his best work of the late 1960s. And the discs remind us that he did more work in the late 1960s than the official albums would lead you to believe.

Q: Hmm. It sounds like it could replace the albums. At least, that disc sounds more satisfying than Nashville Skyline on its own is.
A: You may be right.

Q: Isn’t this an incredible waste of time? An amazing example of trainspottery?
A: You may be right. Then again, if you have to ask…

Q: What would you do if Columbia/Sony ever did release something that gave as satisfactory an overview of Dylan’s career as this Chronicles series does?
A: Apologize to Al Gore for wrecking his career, and Old Scratch for wrecking his home.

Q: Where can I get my hands on the Chronicles discs?
A: You can’t. They’ve only been released in Heaven, where they keep good company with a lot of Akbar & Jeff comics.

Q: Where can I get my hands on the bootlegs that go into these, then?
A: I haven’t the slightest idea.

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