Well, it’s been an interesting year. Just in case you hadn’t noticed. In the first three months of the year my writing went along in its normal way and then came the the first three lockdowns we’ve experienced in London because of the pandemic. I started that period floating the idea of online performances and interviews to some artists. Some worked out and some didn’t. I interviewed Nad Sylvan (who is also known as lead singer in Steve Hackett’s band) about his trilogy of solo albums. There was an interview with Bob James and Hilary James which was going to be a stand alone interview but has now become part of a series. Then, there was a long essay about Bob Dylan’s “Tell-Tale Signs” box set.
Each of these was well-received and attracted a very healthy readership. And then my eyesight began to fade. And so everything was delayed until surgery brought about improvement in what was a complicated situation.
So, now this week I was able to interview Bob and Hilary for the second time. Appropriately, this time we concentrated on their Christmas Eyes album – just the right time of the year. At the beginning of the interview, there was a short discussion about my situation, which I’ve left in as a personal marker in the sand.
(This article is an expanded version of a review that I wrote when this album first came out. I was really unhappy about the way that the magazine, who commissioned me to do it, published it. They changed the title. They printed it in a way that removed paragraph breaks and they made editing changes to it without consultation. Needless to say, I stopped freelancing for them shortly afterwards. I revisited the article, originally just with the intention of restoring it to the way it was meant to be but then as I read it and listened to the music, I figured perhaps there was more to say. It concentrates on the spiritual and faith-based references in Mr Dylan’s lyrics but touches on other matters too.)
“Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from `Let Me Rest on that Peaceful Mountain’ to `Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing `I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.”
This was Bob Dylan speaking in 1997 – a period which provides 11 songs on his 3-disc set “Tell Tale Signs” (10 out-takes from his “Time Out of Mind” set and 1 live recording).
(Sometime over the last few years I was approached to write a “blurb” for the cover of a book of thoughts about Bob Dylan by an Australian author, Phil Mason. I’ve never met Phil but I’ve been privileged to help him with his research. By the time the book was approaching readiness, the idea had expanded and I wrote a foreword for the book which eventually appeared under the title of “A Voice From on High”. As well as reproducing that foreword here, I take the opportunity to recommend Mr Mason’s book which can be obtained through Amazon in softcover and for your kindle.)
“Well I’m sitting in church
In an old wooden chair
I knew nobody
Would look for me there”
Bob Dylan – Marchin’ to the City (Disc 3 of Tell Tale Signs 1989-2006)
In 1707, Isaac Watts, the Christian hymnwriter, wrote a lyric called “Marching to Zion” in which he referred to Zion as the beautiful city of God. Now, this was long before Zion had become a short-hand for some Western European political scheme to establish a physical homeland for disenfranchised Jewish people in the middle East (a scheme commonly referred to as Zionism). It is Watts looking forward to the end of an earthly journey where all the faithful people of God, Jew and Gentile, would be gathered in to an eternal home.
Spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks listening to this "new" Bob Dylan cd "Tell Tale Signs" which is proving a very worthwhile experience. More than anything this compilation of outtakes from 1989-2005 has made me realise how much I appreciate Dylan’s back catalogue. I have a fairly unusual take on Dylan’s albums in that against the prevailing trend I see a lot of worth in his albums of the early to mid Eighties – seeing only the period around "Down in the Groove" as the time that he really lost his vision of his music. Couldn’t choose which of his albums I’d take to a desert island so here’s a complete list of what I think of as his crucial records, in chronological order:
The Times They Are A-Changin’ Another Side of Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited Blonde on Blonde Blood on the Tracks Street Legal Slow Train Coming Saved Shot of Love Empire Burlesque Oh Mercy Time Out of Mind Live 1961-2000 (Japan only) Modern Times
If I was going to round it out to 15, then the contenders would be "Bringing it All Back Home", "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid", "Infidels", "Knocked Out Loaded", "World Gone Wrong", and "Love and Theft". Oops, that makes it 20. Really poor Dylan albums: the aforementioned "Down in the Groove", "Desire" (sorry, awful production), and a number of the official live albums.
More on Tell Tale Signs when I’ve lived with it a little longer – and yes, I do have the three cd set and don’t feel I was robbed……..