Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bob Dylan: "Repossession Blues" (1978)

Dylan opened his '78 shows revue-style, with the band doing a Vegasy instrumental version (heavy on the sax) of one of his songs ("A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" for the first half of the year, then "My Back Pages").

Then Dylan would come out and kick things off proper with, not one of his greatest hits as the overture had implied, but a blues cover. "Love Her With A Feeling" and "She's Love Crazy" were standard choices; in the year-end US shows he did a very inventive arrangement of "I'm Ready." But my favorite - or at least, the one I think works best in the context of the events of the year - was this one, "Repossession Blues."

Olof credits it to one Roland James, about whom I know nothing; I've never heard anyone's version but Dylan's. Musically it's a standard blues, with standard but effective lyrics about poverty ("they took my television / now they're comin' for my radio"). What makes it so appropriate, of course, is that Dylan got divorced in 1977, very famously, and lost (or so it's speculated) a considerable part of his not inconsiderable fortune in the settlement. Wags dogged the tour with the nickname "The Alimony Tour." I don't tend to care too much about Bob's personal life, but at least in the '70s, he was very clearly (if coyly) making the state of his marriage the subject of his art, so is it even remotely possible that there wasn't something self-referential going on in his choice of this song?

Of course, Bob being Bob, he only performed it twice. He never makes the obvious move (except when the obvious move is to avoid the obvious move, in which case he makes it...). The best-known version is the one I'm going to link you to right now: it comes from the early-'78 rehearsals in Santa Monica, before they took off for Japan. He then performed it once and only once, in Osaka on February 24. The live version is pretty much the same as the rehearsal version, and they're both wonderful.

What this displays is Bob's mastery of the blues. Among many, many other things, Dylan is one of our great singers of blues songs. Here he's in a relaxed mood, not overselling the song, just letting it roll forward with all the unprepossessing drive of a new Chevrolet Bel Air (worth every dollar you put down on it, I guess). And he's not trying to sound like anyone here, not trying to sound like that mythical black janitor in Columbia Studios in '61: he's singing from the center of his own '78 conception, voice laden with sarcasm and tension.

It's a key track, one of the most important of the year, and if I ran the zoo it would lead off any representation of Dylan's work in 1978.


The Chief said...

Where to begin . . . Roland JANES is a Memphis guitar player who got his start at Sun Studios--played on many cuts incl. a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis's stuff. I believe he also plays the lead on Bill Justis's "Raunchy"--he also started several indie labels in Memphis in 60s and 70s, incl. Rita Records with Billy Lee Riley--Billy cut the original "Repossession Blues" for Rita under the nom de disque "Lightnin' Leon". Dylan's a big fan of Billy Lee Riley (and Sun Records, naturally).

Tanuki said...

Where to begin? Getting the dude's name right would be a good place, I guess. No wonder I could never find any info on the him. Now I realize I have him in my collection already, at least what's on the various Sun comps I have. Just nothing from Rita. Have to check this out.

Thanks for the info, Chief!