Paul Simon v Al Stewart on Dylan’s latest song “Desolation Row,”

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The release of Dylan’s masterpiece “Desolation Row” spurred a seething debate between Paul Simon and London’s up-and-coming folk singer/songwriter Al Stewart. When it was over Paul didn’t speak to Al for a month. Here’s how Stewart remembers it:

“I had become obsessed by Highway 61 Revisited, and I played “Desolation Row” over and over again.  In fact, the record came out in the West End of London two days early, on a Wednesday evening, and it came out everywhere else on a Friday.  I spent the entire day of Thursday learning the lyrics (to “Desolation Row”).  On Friday, the day of its release, I went to two different clubs in the West End of London and performed it.  I’m sure I was the first person in the U.K. to sing “Desolation Row.”  Paul came in and listened to it, and all he said was ‘Rehashed Ferlinghetti.’ That was his sole comment.

“I had no idea what he meant, it sounded like cold Italian food. So Paul set me right, that all Dylan was doing was copying Ferlinghetti, and therein ensued a three-hour argument.  He said No, it’s rubbish, it’s stream of consciousness it doesn’t mean anything, and it’s old hat.  I think at some point in my 19-year-old mania I said ‘You’re going to be damned lucky if you ever write a song as good as this!’  And that did it, Paul just kind of clammed up and walked out, and didn’t talk to me for a long time.  It passed, but I do remember that because I probably shouldn’t have made that remark.  I do apologize for it all these years later, but you get annoyed and I thought “Desolation Row” was the second coming of God and “Homeward Bound” wasn’t.”

Homeward Bound
The Life of Paul Simon

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Tom Junod’s Bob Dylan

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Just when you think you’ve read every word you can stomach about the mysteries and weirdities of Mr. Bob Dylan, here comes Esquire’s Tom Junod (and Jeff Tweedy, with a big assist) to lay it down in a whole new way.

And yet he has not given in; he has preserved his mystery as assiduously as he has curated his myth, and even after a lifetime of compulsive disclosure he stands apart not just from his audience but also from those who know and love him. He is his own inner circle, a spotlit Salinger who has remained singular and inviolate while at the same time remaining in plain sight.

New music alert: Jake Bugg’s “Shangri La”

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MTViggy

The man is 19 years old but somehow radiates the bitter, sardonic energy of Bringing it all Back Home Dylan and With the Beatles era Fabs.

Just check out the first single (and opening cut) from Shangri La “Slumville Sunrise” and hear how similar Bugg’s internal geography (see also: crumbling industrial cities of northern England) reflects the Beatles’ hot/cool currents of rage and hope:

Slumville Sunrise,nobody cares or looks twice
…Every bruise, every flower/illuminated by the morning.

And the sound: guitars, bass and drums. Often — but not always — in the electric 4-piece format, with Bugg’s adenoidal snarl rocketing above. Produced by Rick Rubin (an indication of the corporate support Bugg earned with his much lower-fi debut Jake Bugg, is just exactly right: Clear recordings of great performances with no/little audible monkeying about.

Still, the anti-Bugg vibe coming from England can’t be ignored. Bugg’s first album topped sales charts in the UK, elevating the artiste from the bruises-and-flowers streets to the flowers-and-more-flowers boulevards of modern stardom. Fancier clothes, hotter girlfriends, you know the drill, and Bugg wasn’t shy about diving in. So grr, and also what’s with the squadrons of mercenary songwriters sharing credit for Bugg’s tunes? Is the kid a corporate-driven alt-culture Monkee? Is he even close to being, you know, legit?

I think he is. If only because I can’t stop listening to Shangri-La. No telling if it’ll stick with me beyond this moment but for now it’s all righteous bruises and flowers in my ears.

Check out Shangri-La on NPR’s First Listen page: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/14/244834372/first-listen-jake-bugg-shangri-la

And here’s the video for “Slumville Sunrise.” Yes, the narrative bookends are long, un-fun distractions, but once the music starts it’s a whole other story.

Shot of Dylan, part 2: Chuck Plotkin on producing Bob Dylan’s "Shot of Love."

When we left off yesterday, the great record producer and mixer Chuck Plotkin kickstarts Bob Dylan’s next album by inviting him to record at his own Hollywood studio, with no contracts, no deadlines and no expectations beyond recording a few demos to make sure they catch the spirit of Dylan’s latest batch of songs. And the story continues…

It hadn’t happened like that, he might not have gone into the studio. Not because he had doubts about me, but he wasn’t ready to commit. And I could tell we needed to commit just enough to get it down before it flew away.

“The Groom’s Still Waiting athe Altar” came really early, right in that first batch of songs. And the reason it didn’t get on the (first pressing of the record) was because we cut it too slow. Once he got the words right he said he didn’t want to sing it again. So the track was too slow, and didn’t feel right.  But we needed a b-side for the first single, so I went back to the track to see what I could do I had a way of speeding up the tempo without changing the pitch of his voice. It’s a kind of complicated process — I had to do it a track at a time – kick drum; then snares, then cymbals, then the bass track, and  etc. It wasn’t easy then — now it is — but then it was a task, and I didn’t know if he’d tolerate it if he were actually  in the studio. So I just went in and did it alone. And when it came time to discuss the b-side of the first single I said, ‘how about Groom?’ He said, ‘well, it was too slow.’ And I said, ‘Well, I dunno. It sounds great now! I don’t know what we were thinking! Just check it out!” So we listened together and he really liked it.”

The thing with some artists is If they want to be non-compliant, and they’re compulsively that way, you can’t give them something not to like,  because then they won’t, and what they actually hear won’t make any difference.

But just think about what it must be like to actually be Bob Dylan. When we were about to get started I got a call from him an hour after the first session was supposed to start. He was in Minnesota, so there wasn’t going to be a session after all.  Now, it’s nice that he did call. But he knew he wasn’t gonna be there the day before, and he didn’t call then. He was late to sessions all the time. He’d come in two, three hours late and say, ‘I took the wrong turn off the freeway and ended up in East LA!” I’d have to calm the musicians down, say, ‘Hey! It’s Bob Dylan! I couldn’t write one line that interests me as much as the worst line he’s ever written interests me. And if anyone wants to step up and be Bob, we can whine and grouse about it. I don’t know what it takes to BE Bob. Do you?

Jim Keltner is one of the great drummers in the biz, maybe the best of his generation. And he’d come out of sessions looking pale. Said something like, ‘Hey man, Bob’s standing there glowering at me! He’s glowering at me!’ I said, ‘I think what’s happening is that he wants to play against the grain. He wants to play triplets, or a shuffle, against the straight time. Or if you’re playing a shuffle he wants to play straight. Because that rub feels good to him. But you’re going with him. Don’t follow him – just close your eyes and play! You’re a great musician; close your eyes,  play and don’t worry. And if he starts doing that, don’t yield. Hold fast, or else you’re fucking him up. He can’t mess with the feel if you’re following him.” 

I ended up playing drums on one song. I’m not a good musician, but if there’s a drum kit around I usually sit down and play, just keeping a beat. Anyway,  Ringo had come in to play, Keltner was still playing, and Ron Wood was there, too. A big session, and everyone was there on time. Except for Bob, who was six hours late. Six hours. We just played music til he got there. Anyway, Bob had botched one song, and we needed to play it again. They were having trouble getting the feel down, so I just sat down at Ringo’s kit and started to play what I thought the feel should be. Wanted the feel in the room. Ringo comes back and says – “There! That! That’s the feel of this song! So you stay there and I’ll play the other ones!”

Now, I’ve never played drums on a recording session. And now this is Dylan, in my funky little studio in Hollywood. I’m sitting at Ringo’s kit, playing the hi-hat, kick drum and snare, and e’s playing toms and cymbals. And right over here is Jim Keltner, also playing drums. Bob isn’t paying attention but the feel is working. We get a take.

A couple of months later I came out on the road to check in on the tour. This was in Cincinnatti or something. And when I got to the show I saw that they had two drum sets on the stage. I wasn’t sure why, but didn’t give it much thought. But then Bob came over and insisted  I sit down and play a song with them. “If you can play with Ringo  you can do this!”

So what was I going to do? When the song came up I sat at the second kit and tried to keep the beat. All you can do is play the song. 

Shot of Dylan: Chuck Plotkin recalls producing "Shot of Love" – Part One

Chuck Plotkin, best known for his crucial role in Bruce Springsteen’s production team, has worked with a wide variety of other artists, too. Now, just in time for Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, he recounts his role producing Bob Dylan’s under-appreciated 1981 album, “Shot of Love.” The second half of the story will follow tomorrow.

I got a message call in my studio in Hollywood that Bob Dylan was calling. I figured it had to be some friend of mine jerking my chain. But then I got another message a day or two later and thought, this is weird….maybe I should call back!

So I dialed the number and instantly began to panic. I mean, what do you say when someone picks up the phone? “Is Bob there?” I figured I can’t say, ‘is Mr Dylan there?” So there I was just trying to return the call and I I didn’t even know what to say. So when someone picked up I said, ‘This is Chuck Plotkin returning Bob’s call.’ The voice on the other end says: “Bob who?” and I thought, oh shit. But later I found out that there were like four Bobs who worked there. A lot of Bobs at his place.

So he gets on the phone, and is completely sweet. He must know how uncomfortable and weird it is for people he hasn’t met to call him back. He said, ‘Geez,  David Geffen said to call ya. I’m not sure if I’m ready to make a record or what. I’ve made a lot of records and I’m not very good at it. I need some help. Are you free? So I drove down to Santa Monica and it worked out nicely.

He was auditioning producers, is the thing. So I got there and as I walk in I hear the last 16 bars of something, I can’t make out the words. When they stop he says, ‘whadja think?” So I said, ‘I didn’t really hear it, would it bother you to do it again?” He said, ‘Sure, we’ll just play it again!” so it was like that. He was just very observant; very empathetic when someone new was coming into his thing. And in the end I told him that what I loved was that there was a fragment of his voice – his inner voice – that I remembered  from that time when I first heard his music. May not be important to anyone else, but makes me feel….well, I get a particular feeling I associate with it. 

So I got to make the record with him. It was weird, I could tell he was writing, going through something right then, so I said, ‘There’s something happening here; let’s just go get it before it flies away. I have a studio, won’t cost anything to work there. I’ll set aside a week, and think of it as demos. We’ll record some stuff and if it works, great. If not, no problem.” 

“Don’t you want a contract?”

“I’m not concerned. If something comes out of it you’ll figure out what to pay me, and you’ll pay me something. I mean, I’d do it for free anyway, so let’s just see what happens.”

“You sure?”

“Sure.”

And that’s when we began recording.

(Tomorrow: What happened next!)