Tuesday, September 29, 2009

There's A Slow Train Comin'

I was driving through the mountains the other day just going from here to there.
I put the Bob Dylan CD “Slow Train Comin” in the dash and sat back to enjoy the ride. Dylan is an artist who always takes me back to my roots, to beginnings, to my less than subtle introduction to some of the most amazing music ever performed, or recorded. It got me to remembering so many of the major musical artists I had the good fortune to have seen and heard live, in their prime, and in the full scope of their influence; artists who have not only changed the course of music, but who have melded their own style, and their own thinking into the stream of our continuing consciousness.

One of the most powerful shows I have ever witnessed was the trio Cream at the height of their brief, but profound affiliation. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. Musical Gods joining forces to will the world into existence. They nailed my head to the roof and pummeled me into a willing submission.

I attended the Who’s first American performance of ‘Tommy’, the seminal rock opera.
Pete Townsend, John Entwhistle, Keith Moon, and Roger Daltry. A stunningly emotional, and profound performance, accompanied by all the wild-man theatrics they have become so well known for. The Who would not be denied their place in the pantheon of rock royalty.

I saw Pink Floyd perform the rock opera “The Wall” in its entirety while, over the course of the night, an actual wall was being constructed from each side of the enormous stage, eventually meeting at center stage to completely obscure the band from view as the final notes of the performance wafted out over the wall, settling disturbingly over a captivated and, to say the least, stunned audience.

I absorbed Jimi Hendrix, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience on many occasions prior to the world getting clued in to his transcendent talent, prior to Monterey Pop even, and his explosion onto the international stage. “Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” There was never a more indulgent performer, and never a greater artist at combining raw sexuality with dripping and blistering chops.

I saw Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company more times than I can remember. She pierced my soul like a double-edged sword, one side slicing deep to the core, and the other celebrating the incision. Janis didn’t just tug on the heartstrings, she grasped them tightly with both hands, and ripped my heart out of my chest with a violent tenderness never, ever, ever felt before.

Led Zepplin cranked the decibels to levels never known. They reached a vocal range I didn’t know existed, and a musical transcendence equaled, or surpassed, only by Pink Floyd. Phenomenal is the only word worthy of their performance. I could only stare.

I saw the Rolling Stones in their ‘Gimme Shelter’ days when they were at their baddest, when they were at their most narcissistic, when they were at their absolute best. The Rolling Stones at Altamont, perhaps the beginning of the end of the innocence.

I saw Little Richard. He started it all. Mick Jagger knew that. I saw him pounding his piano like a preacher making love to his congregation. Prancing, preening, shouting, screaming, the gospel of the rock, and of the roll. If Rock and Roll was Jesus, then Little Richard was John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord.

I saw James Brown gettin’ down with dignity. And with lots of sweat.
“I feel good”. The feeling doesn’t get any gooder.

I saw several Buffalo Springfield concerts, from whence Neil Young and Stephen Stills came, and then Neal as a solo artist. I saw the Byrds, originators along with the Springfield, whose members went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash, later adding Neil Young to become CSNY. I saw all those guys. They enabled bands like the Eagles to eventually emerge. Singers, songwriters, musicians with something to say. I loved those bands, rooted, every one of them, in the inimitable Mr. Dylan.

I saw the original Animals with Eric Burden on vocals, later to become Eric Burden and the Animals. “Bring It On Home To Me”, “House of the Rising Sun”, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”, and a host of other blues-based gems that shook our insides like jelly. They were the first band I ever saw live in concert. They opened for Leslie Gore. Leslie Gore. Are you kidding me? Everybody was there for Leslie Gore. I was just a kid, but I was there for The Animals. I understood the Animals.

I found Albert King as a young man. Purity of blues, not as visible as B.B King, but sweeter than honey, and pure as an underground mountain spring. “I’m gonna call up China, and see if my baby’s over there.” He led me to the blues.

Creedence Clearwater Revival with the original southern swamp rock attitude. Their shows were just flat out guttural. As pared down as rock can get. As straight forward as a shotgun brought to an argument.

The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish. The roots of the San Francisco sound. I saw them all many times in their formative days, in the days when music was emerging in the City like weeds in the spring, or flowers in the hair of all the teenage runaways.

Canned Heat (On the Road Again), the greatest boogie band in the world.
Steppenwolf with John Kay (Born to be Wild), Arthur Lee and Love (My Little Red Book), Sky Saxon and The Seeds (Pushin’ Too Hard). The three greatest garage bands ever. The originators of grunge, the bands that made Nirvana (and everything that followed) possible. I saw them way back then. They were intense. And they were originals, all of them. Jimi Hendrix called Arthur Lee his ‘single greatest influence’.

I didn’t get to see Van Morrison until later in life, but he did not disappoint. Van the man can imitate himself better than anybody can.

I never saw the Beatles live, but I never wanted to either. They were a teenie-bop band in their early American tour days. And later on they were not really a live band any more.
I’ve seen a thousand other shows, but those I’ve listed are some of the most memorable.

I mention all these other bands to say this, that as many great shows, and as many profound artists as I have seen over the years, and particularly in the early days, there’s one concert that stands out far and above all the rest. Far and above all the rest. No comparison, no question. Bob Dylan, 1979 at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. The live performance of his new album ‘Slow Train Comin’. I relived the experience the other day driving through the mountains.

The thing that made this concert different from any other I’d ever attended was the degree of passion. Other performances I’d seen had been passionate, but this one had the additional element of the performer actually believing, and believing in (perhaps for the first time) what he was singing. Other performers I’d seen over the years may have felt what they were singing, they may even have felt very strongly about what they were singing, and very deeply, but they did not necessarily believe, or believe in, what they were communicating. Good songs, heartfelt words, clever words, passionate intent, dynamic delivery, but missing was the personal imperative of inner truth that registered deep within their soul and psyche. It was not missing in Dylan’s performance at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco back in 1979.

And it is not missing on the album “Slow Train Coming”. It is, in my view, the album that Bob Dylan may have been put on this earth to make. It is honest, it is inspired, it is prophetic, and it is, perhaps, the most important album ever recorded.

Dig your old album out of storage, or if you don’t have one email me and I’ll burn you a copy of my CD. I don’t think Bob would mind one bit.
I might even send him a copy in case he needs to listen to it once again.

But be aware, listening to this work comes with a warning;
“It could reduce you to tears”.
Listen to ‘Precious Angel’, ‘I Believe In You’, ‘When He Returns’.
‘Slow Train Comin’, Change My Way of Thinking’, ‘When You Gonna Wake Up’,
‘Gotta Serve Somebody’.
Cuttin’ through all the nonsense, and relativity, and straight to the truth, to the heart of the matter.

There’s A Slow Train Comin’, my friend.
It’s comin’ round the bend.