Thursday, September 24, 2009

Eric Clapton

On my last day of attending school in my Matric year (1976) at Paul Roos Gymnasium we enacted one last schoolboy ritual. Each Matric boy wore a white shirt covered in all kinds of illustrations and slogans, and all his mates and teachers were asked to autograph the shirt in the available blank spaces. One boy asked his artistic mate to draw a huge image of Jimi Hendrix's head, based on the photograph on the cover of the I Don't Live Today greatest hits album. Jimi had been long dead by that time, but he was still kind of hip and happening. In my case I decided to put my own artistic talents to use and created a smaller image of a bearded Eric Clapton somewhere on the shirt. This drawing was based n a photograph of Clapton at the time of his "comeback" Rainbow concerts in 1973.

Clapton was not then particularly hip, or cool. He was seen as just another pop artist who happened to play guitar and did not feature in the same cosmic league as Jimi Hendrix (partly because Clapton was still alive) or even Led Zeppelin, Free or any of the prog rock bands then favoured by the hip boys in school. I knew this, of course, and my act of putting Clapton on my shirt was more of an anti-cool gesture, a way of avoiding the obvious, than an attempt to be hip, because I was in fact terminally unhip, at least according to the definition applied amongst my peers.

By 1976 Clapton was a pop star of sorts, since I Shot The Sheriff off 461 Ocean Boulevard was a massive hit in 1974, and with subsequent releases, and constant touring. I knew a bit about his back story, the 'Clapton Is God' mythology and in particular his tenure with Cream whose later live recordings were compiled in an album titled Cream's Cream Live that I played until the grooves wore out. The pop music stuff seemed very lightweight compared to the heavy blues of Cream and sounded like an unfortunate regression for a musician who once left The Yardbirds because their music was becoming too commercial.

Clapton's hit singles were a staple of Radio 5, even in its disco incarnation, because they were so pleasantly lightweight they could fit right in with the rest of the play list. The guitar hero was absent from the pop stuff even if he were still playing a lot of guitar on his live shows, which we did not see. The thing is: I read that Eric Clapton had wanted to become so much part of an ensemble and so unobtrusive that the other guitar players in his band, took the solos. For the star of the show this approach, if true, seemed to take being self-effacing to ridiculous levels especially when most of the audience probably came simply to hear God take a solo. Clapton looked kind of scruffy, with his scraggly beard and semi-Cowboy cool outfits, which were probably meant to be an indication of his commitment to some kind of roots somewhere else than mod or psychedelia. It was well known that he had been a heroin addict and it was also common place that he now drank a lot, though he most likely was not yet tagged an alcoholic.

Lay Down, Sally and Cocaine were the songs off Slowhand that caught my attention and made me listen with new interest. Lay Down, Sally was a tribute, I thought, to the Tulsa sound of J J Cale and Cocaine latter was a cover of a J J Cale song. Both were laid back and did not rock too hard, but were at least more compelling than the pop tunes on this album and the preceding albums.

The first time I really sat up and took notice of Clapton's contemporary work, though, was with the release of Backless, because a number of the tracks, specifically blues tracks, were played on the radio and I think it was The Hobnailed Tacky Show on Radio Good Hope that was the main exposure for these tracks. Again, the blues intensity was not quite there, but it was interesting to hear Clapton's latter day take on the blues, since I had by then bought some Decca albums showcasing songs from a variety of blues artists, with Eric Clapton somewhere in the backing band, playing authentic blues. There he sounded like the real deal: intense, inventive, and emotional. The blues on Backless were nice, but on repeated listening, that was all they were, nice. I guess the best one could say for them was that Clapton kept the blues alive in a way, kept going back to those roots even when he was ploughing a very commercial furrow, and was trying to make the modern audience aware of where it all came from.

I never bought any of these albums at the time they were released, mostly because I did not buy many contemporary albums in the first place, and specifically because Clapton's pop stuff did not appeal on the whole. I bought 461 Ocean Boulevard as a CD album somewhere in the early years of the 21st century and a budget re0issue of Slowhand in 2009. My mate Emil Kolbe bought a Japanese version of Backless on his travels as air steward and left the album, along with a bunch of other records, at my apartment for a long time while he was working in the then Transvaal, and because I could listen to it for free I never wanted to buy it.

At the time I may well have bought Just One Night (the 1979 live double album) because I liked live albums, it had his hits and a lot of blues but I refrained from buying it mostly because I did not like tone of his Stratocaster on the blues numbers. It sounded too thin and piercing, and not at all like the smooth, roaring humbucking tone of the Les Paul or SG he used in the Cream days.

I was however buying all the Cream albums I could lay my hands on, of which Disraeli Gears was the first and most revelatory, and owned a couple of compilations of John Mayall songs featuring Clapton, and a 'best of' compilation of Yardbirds tracks, with Clapton's utterly astonishing and blistering solo on Ain't Got You.. These were the mother lode. Eric was young, full of blues righteousness and power and he was playing in smaller combos and in a context where his guitar could shine. His technique may well have improved over the years but there is nothing like the gutsiness and energy he displayed with The Yardbirds, John Mayall or Cream. The story is, on hearing the music of The Band and being tired of the super group hype and tensions of Cream and particularly Blind Faith, Clapton wanted to move away from performances based on technical virtuosity and extended jams and get back to playing songs in a group where he would be just one more musician, but to my mind this also meant that he gave up a lot of his power and energy, although these strengths would have waned with time anyway. and went on a musical journey that was mostly just treading water even if his career remained commercially very successful.

The question is: where does the weight of Clapton's best work lie? To my mind it is n his performances, recorded and live, with The Yardbirds, Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, and then much later with the From the Cradle and Me & Mr Johnson and Sessions for Robert J albums where he returned to almost pure blues. If Eric Clapton started out as a purist blues guitarist, it is only fitting at the other end of his career, that he should return to what he probably does best.

Unplugged was the first contemporary Clapton album I ever bought, mostly because of the great acoustic version of Layla, and because I noticed that there was a good deal of blues on it over and above the versions of more recent pop hits. The late Eighties albums where Clapton was aided and abetted by his mate Phil Collins were successful in the market place, with their glossy production values, but really left me cold, as the Seventies stuff, for all their relative shallowness, was still superior in feel and emotional value, given that they were recorded by the alcoholic Clapton, desperate and slightly unfocused, and that the Eighties Eric Clapton was a man more or less free from the demon alcohol, more intent on rebuilding family life, and the good things money brings, than the psychologically down and out character of the previous decade.

The easy, swinging versions of the recent pop tunes, without the elaborate trappings of contemporary production values, enhanced the songs because the tunes were highlighted and Clapton's often rather limited voice does not have to strain. This album has more blues tunes than the standard Clapton album of the time, and they are also taken at a relaxed pace, that brings to mind the string bands of the Thirties such as the Mississippi Sheiks who were from blues roots but also had a strong element of pure entertainment. These are not truly the kind of blues song where the performer has to dig deep into his memory and experience; they are the kind of songs you play at Saturday night fish fries to get the people into a good mood and to encourage them to dance. It is perhaps not surprising that the album sold so well. It not only had all these excellent performances but also a great deal more authenticity than the pop product. This must have been what Clapton had really wanted to sound like back in the late Sixties, after the extravagance of Cream and Blind Faith.

Not long after I finally bought Layla and other love songs, the Derek and the Dominoes classic with which Eric Clapton really made his mark as individual singer and songwriter, albeit then still convincingly a bluesman. This album is the last hurrah, barring the Live at the Fillmore East set, of Clapton as all out virtuoso guitar hero. After this he preferred to be one more guitarist in his own band, eschewed the fierceness of his youth, went down into the heroin depression and decided that laid back was the new way forward. But Layla is astonishing in concept and playing, and it is as a great a testament to Duane Allman, whose contemporary albums with the Allman Brothers are also incredible examples of how white guys can take blues based guitar playing to different levels, as it is a testament to the power and fury that could be Eric Clapton when he had his mojo working.

Chris Prior, the Rock Professor of Radio 5, played quite a few tunes off Layla over the years, and I had heard some of the tracks in other contexts, but I was nevertheless surprised and enthralled by the songs on this album and the intensity of the playing. It was a toss-up whether I liked the electric Layla or the acoustic Layla better; I certainly very much liked the fire power of the Dominoes rhythm section behind the rampant Clapton and Allman.

Circa 2002 I bought the double CD set of Derek and the Dominoes Live at the Fillmore East, an extended version of the earlier double LP release, which features just the basic quartet with Duane Allman nowhere in sight. The set features several very long jams on the songs from Layla and if one cannot get enough of Clapton's guitar playing, it is heaven, though there seems to be a marked contrast between this Clapton and the Clapton who played with Cream, in that the Derek version just seems to jam somewhat aimlessly, and extends the tunes without much point, where the Cream Clapton seemed more focussed in his playing, somehow more concise and playing with some kind of goal in mind. The later version just seems to keep on playing because he does not how to stop (as Stevie Ray Vaughn once explained away his own lengthy excursions) and does not really know how to make his jamming interesting anymore. Too much of a god thing, I guess.

Live at the Fillmore East gets to be too much after a while, and maybe it was better when you were there and were on drugs. I much prefer the far harder rocking live sets of Cream where all three musicians are worth listening to and you do not have to endure just extended guitar solos.

The second contemporary Clapton release I bought was From The Cradle in 1994 where Clapton not only returned to electric guitar but made a hard rocking blues album of some of his favourite tunes, apparently recorded live in the studio, almost the way the way they made them back in the day. There was such a great striving to achieve authenticity that the band tried to reproduce even some vocal asides from the source records, a trick some reviewers thought a bit pretentious and naff coming from a bunch of mostly white guys and some black dudes who were far too young to have come up the blues way. Be that as it may, it was a very loud album, perhaps the loudest blues album I have ever heard, the playing was full of enthusiasm and good humour and the overall result was thorough enjoyment even if some of the songs were a tad over familiar. These performances were the natural successors to Mayall and Cream, as if the intervening 25 odd years had never happened. Apparently From The Cradle also sold incredibly well, making Clapton the most successful white blues man since Stevie Ray Vaughan. Obviously there is a weird irony there.

The next fed studio albums did not interest me. A mate had a copy of Pilgrim, the follow up to From The Cradle, a weird electronics based moody album of severe introspection that was the polar opposite the energised blues performances of the preceding album, and I listened to it a couple of times and decided that it was not for me. The same kind of vibe hung over the next big mainstream project, Reptile, which was one more exercise in Clapton's journey to MOR-mastery and by no means essential.

The best deals were the series of blues albums that started with Riding With The King, a joyous romp of an album with B B King, and the Robert Johnson songbook albums, Me & Mr Johnson and Sessions for Robert J. Clapton has had a long-time admiration of King and they have been friends since the late Sixties, yet never got it together to do this kind of collaboration of equals until very late in King's life. It is still very enjoyable to listen to two past masters doing what they do best in a happy, relaxed mood, playing and singing mostly other people's songs but having fun because they do not have to prove anything in particular. King's singing and Clapton's guitar make excellent companions, though B B is no slouch at the guitar and Clapton's vocals work out quite well too.

Some 10 years later Clapton recorded a similar type of album (The Road To Ensenada) with his mate from Tulsa, J J Cale, who gave Clapton at least two big hits in After Midnight and Cocaine, and was an influence on the laid back Clapton of the Seventies. This team does not do very well, too much laid back, too little fire. Pleasant enough, but also unnecessary. Interesting that Clapton can do this sort of thing only in the twilight of his own career. It might have been a very different thing if the two had combined their talents back when the Tulsa style was still kind of new to the mainstream.

Anyhow, Clapton had always professed a great deal of awe for the music of Robert Johnson, and has been an avid admirer ever since he bought the King of the Delta Blues Singers album, the record that inspired a whole generation of white blues musicians, and he apparently once had a goal of sorts to record at least one Johnson song per album, the blues quota of his recordings. It took Clapton a long time to get around to doing a whole album of Johnson songs, and then did two for good measure.

I bought Me & Mr Johnson the moment I saw it in my local CD store and played it to death, probably far more than From The Cradle, because it is just so excellent. Once again there is an attempt to bring an authenticity to the performances and there is perhaps too much respect for the material , though there is also a much more modern approach to playing Johnson's songs than just a slavish copying. The fact that Clapton has to have band arrangements already make a difference to the way the songs are performed and anyone who is familiar with Robert Johnson's recordings of these songs may feel that Clapton and the guys are bringing too much of a pop sheen to the material and has removed most of the blues power, and there is certainly a lack of the anguish Johnson brings to his own songs, but the strengths of the set are that the band is respectful of their material. They make it their own without messing everything up, or dumbing the blues down.

The Sessions for Robert J album consists of a CD of tracks and a DVD of the same performances, perhaps a tad superfluous, but I guess the DVD is the unique selling proposition of what may well have been a less than commercial product given that it followed on the heels of a very similar offering. The performances are once again excellent and good entertainment, and the visuals do add some understanding of how this kind of band operates in the studio, although the performances would have been rehearsed for the video shoot and are not simply spontaneous acts of creativity.

Then I made a kind of mistake and bought the One More Rider, One More Car double CD of live performances from some world tour, mostly because it was cheap, and partly because I thought it would be fun. Sadly, this was not the case. Clapton plays with is big touring band, not the tight combos of the blues recordings, and the big arrangements and general feel of pandering to MOR tastes, diffuses the effect and power of the music. One must probably laud Clapton for not simply retreading standards and hits, but the weird version of the venerable blues, Going Down Slow, is not interesting enough to make me like it despite the fact that the band messes around with a classic, and Eric does not remotely sound like somehow who is really at the end of his life and reminisces about the good times he's had. He just sounds lethargic and at death's door. I had consciously avoided buying the 24 Nights double set of the annual Albert Hall concerts Clapton put on during the Nineties exactly because I had heard some of the songs, and they sounded bloated, over arranged and lacking in emotional power, and the One More Rider, One More Car set of performances is really just that kind of showbiz sham again. Lots of flesh, little life.

In May 2005 Cream reformed for a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. I happened to be in the UK and Europe at the time, and had I known, I would have made some attempt to see one of the shows, even if tickets did sell out in the space of two hours. It was not exactly the end of my life not to have gone to the reunion shows but I was kind of gutted that I was there at the same time, yet ignorant of this momentous happening. I made up for this lack by buying the double DVD and double CD sets of those gigs. Boy, was I sorry! Never mind all the good, proper reasons for the reunion given by all concerned, I can only see it as one last chance to milk the Cream cash cow, for on the evidence of the music released, there was absolutely no artistic or creative merit behind the idea or execution. Sure, the three guys are virtuosos on their respective instruments, and have been for years, and the music made by the young Cream represents some of the best rock music, studio executed or improvised on stage, ever to be released, but forty years later that spark was gone.

The opening chords of I'm So Glad does send a thrill of anticipatory excitement down the spine and the performance is not bad at all, but once the band goes to the root of the Cream's more rock oriented repertoire it is soon apparent that the guys most certainly do not have the fire or exact ability they had in their heyday, and in truth they sound like just another blues band with middle aged men who have the chops but not the passion. This is one set where I really felt that Eric Clapton did play too many solos, and none of them inspiring, even if technically proficient. Cream did not return undiminished in power; the group returned as a shell of what it once had been, and it was not good. I never thought a Cream live set could be boring, but this one is.

Some years before I bought a DVD of a John Mayall concert celebrating his 70th birthday and featuring musicians he'd played with in the past, including Mick Taylor, but no Peter Green ,and Eric Clapton who is almost a co-headliner. Here Clapton plays blues and plays them well although even this performance is not particularly energetic or energising. He is proficient and gets the job done, and a couple of times his duelling with Mayall's regular guitar player sets the room on fire, but there is still too much of a sense of a musician going through the motions on material he knows too well to be excited about anymore.

Somewhere in the Eighties I bought a little book by John Pidgeon, a relatively simplified biography of Eric Clapton up to the Rainbow "comeback" concerts, and some years after that I bought Ray Coleman's proper biography called Survivor, and last year I bought Clapton's autobiography, and I have also read various other pieces about him. The basic life story is familiar and when I bought the autobiography I thought I would be getting some deeper insight into the musician and the music he created, and not simply the personal stuff about his addictions, Patti Harrison, the death of his son, and the like, but I was somewhat disappointed. Clapton tells us a lot of personal details that other authors may have missed, and is quite frank about his various addictions, but the prose is extremely matter of fact and simple -- almost as if he did in fact write it all himself -- and therefore often boring, and there is far too little about his music, how certain albums were made, and the artistic struggles one faces when writing and recording music. Maybe it all was so easy for him, and he claims that he hardly remembers anything from the Seventies, that none of these things made much of an impact, but still. It is very nice of Eric to share tales of happy domesticity, and even of his affairs, but these are not what interests or intrigues me. I want to know how Cream recorded, what the hell happened with Blind Faith, and so on.

I've recently bought a DVD telling the Cream story, a quick cash in on the heels of the Royal Albert Hall concerts of 2005, and in it one sees a very relaxed Clapton telling a bit of the story, with further snippets of interviews with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who is the least politically correct and funniest of the three in his continual outrage and general pissed off-ness, and Clapton now comes across as a serious senior statesman of rock and blues who has nothing left to prove and can afford to be magnanimous towards everybody, almost in the showbiz manner of loving everyone and not mentioning anything unpleasant. This may be good manner but is rather bland and simply retreads the clichés already so well publicized.

Interesting thing about this history is that it has a number of clips of Cream's televised performances for European television, and one of British TV, and in common with the way Cream's Farewell Concert (1968) was filmed by Tony Palmer, the cameraman seems to avoid Clapton as much as possible, as if direct instructions had been given. Even when Clapton delivers a major solo, one has to look at Jack Bruce or Ginger Baker, which is not uninteresting, though Palmer tends to focus more on Bruce's face than on visuals of his bass playing, and it just seems outrageous that the filmmaker does not have the simple intelligence to realise that one would like to see how the guitarist plays his solo, especially when it is a virtuoso guitarist, and not look at the drummer when the guitarist is taking a solo flight of no mean proportions. Maybe it was meant to be art, but with hindsight it is just disgracefully stupid.

Just as my favourite Dylan albums are fixtures on my iPod, the Cream albums are as important to me and remain favourites and have been such for more than thirty years. If pushed to pick one (and if it cannot be a compilation), it would probably have to be Disraeli Gears because it gives the best overview of the band's strengths and of Clapton's role in the group, and has an excellent collection of songs. From Clapton's solo career, I think the Mr & Mr Johnson album would be the choice because of the relaxed authority with which he and the musicians tackle these blues standards from one of the great blues songbooks.

Eric Clapton does deserve all the accolades he's received over the length of his career. He's made some astonishing guitar records, he opened my eyes to how lyrical a blues based guitar solo can be and how pure, simple emotional power can drive a song into a different stratosphere. Clapton was the stereotypical guitar legend and though there have been many cult guitarists since he broke free of the constraints of white music and blues so many year ago, there have been none who have equalled or surpassed him in respect of his huge impact. Of course one can debate this topic for years on end, and everyone will have their favourites and their motivations, but to me Eric Clapton at his peak is the most godlike of all of them. I defy anyone to listen to the live version of Sleepy Time Time from Live Cream and not believe that this man could make a guitar go places with your heart and soul no-one else can. It is fashionable to compare guitar players with horn players, and if this is the case, I suggest that Eric Clapton channelled Lester Young when he played that solo. I used to sing along to the solo, it was that wonderful and uplifting and melodious. And if you can sing along to a guitar solo and be entranced and happy at the same time , the guitarist must be a deity.













Friday, September 04, 2009

Bob Dylan

Maybe the man is just a song and dance man or maybe he was, or is, the voice (or poet) of his generation or maybe he was just a guy who sang in a funny voice and had a way with words, especially once he took a few drugs, but for sure he is a towering figure in popular culture of the late Twentieth century and beyond. There are any number of writers, rock critics or merely observers of pop culture, who have made a living out of writing about Dylan, explicating the man and his music, and in general waxing lyrical about his genius. Michael Gray's rather academic book Song And Dance Man comes to mind (in fact the very first full length and learned work, covering Dylan's career up to 1974, that I ever read about the subject), Robert Shelton's No Direction Home biography, Paul Williams' 2-volume series about Dylan as a performer, and Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic and the biography of Like a Rolling Stone. I own all of these and some more.

Dylan was a man of words, and tune, and there are many words about him, some informative and sensible, some overweening and almost too dense in the language to make proper sense. Some of it just seems to be too much. I do not like to intellectualise the music I like and some of these authors appear to be under the spell of their own mind altering substance of choice when they start writing about a guy who is in reality just another musician out of hundreds who defined the Sixties and a zeitgeist and all of the rest of it, but could not sustain that creative force for the length of their careers.

I reckon Dylan finally lost it after Desire and has never been able to regain the mojo he had up to then, and that in fact you need not really listen to anything he released after John Wesley Harding. He may well have written a couple of good songs after that, and possibly improved technically as songwriter and musician, but if you get right down to it, there is nothing compelling to his output over the last 34 odd years. The "born again phase" is no better or worse than anything else released in the Eighties or Nineties, and the albums since Time Out Of Mind are most certainly not the best work of his career. They may shine in comparison to the dire dross that came before, and if one disregarded Dylan's great works, they may be workmanlike efforts that are at least pleasant on the ear, but none of the four albums released between 1998 and 2009 truly stand up to the legacy that was established between 1961 and 1975 when the terrible albums stood out like sore thumbs; since then the better ones stood out like sore thumbs. Sadly there has been nothing unreservedly excellent or definitive since Desire, no matter how you try to justify the man's later work.

Modern Times and Together Through Life have been lauded as masterful examples of Dylan doing what he does best in a retro-archaic musical setting where he mixes blues, folk and old pop styles, to make albums that will stand the test of time. I say that these albums either demonstrates that Dylan is putting us on again with the type of banality he foisted on the public with the Self Portrait album of the late Sixties, for which he was roundly excoriated, or he has really run out of ideas and is now content to recycle blues clichés and lyrics that are equally trite and free of the brilliance he once used to have. All through these albums one hears slightly disturbing echoes of various well known blues tunes and you wonder why he writes these lifeless words. To my ears Bob Dylan now sounds like someone who releases contractual obligations and not like someone who actually has something worth saying, or any interest in saying it.

For the life of me I cannot fathom why any new material Bob Dylan has released in the 21st century could ever be grouped with Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, or John Wesley Harding.

I am not a child of the Sixties and came to appreciate Bob Dylan only when I reached my early twenties when for the first time I actually listened to the first batch of albums with which he made his reputation. A mate of mine at university lent me a handful of Dylan records, mostly the early, folk stuff, and even Nashville Skyline, and I borrowed Greatest Hits Vol II from the public library, which had some of his songs with The Band. My big breakthrough happened when I bought Blonde on Blonde and really listened attentively and repetitively to the songs on it. At the time Blonde on Blonde competed with Sgt Pepper and maybe Pet Sounds for the title of greatest rock album ever made, and for my money Dylan won hands down against the competition, which still seems like callow pop to me.

'Visions of Johanna' is probably my favourite rock or pop song of all time and though I cannot quite say that I hear something new in the lyrics each time I listen to it, I have gained a greater understanding over the years, when certain words or phrases suddenly revealed themselves as different to what I had heard, and when I bought a remastered CD version of the album I also heard all kinds of musical flourishes in this song, and in all of the other tunes, I had missed on the record or earlier CD versions. This is the kind of song where the singer and band mesh together so effortlessly that the entire work of art satisfies fully, unlike some popular music where either the music or the lyrics is the real selling point.

My best 'intro to Dylan' story is one where ignorance and shyness combined to deprive me of pleasure that could have been mine during my high school years when I was totally uncool and sought ways in which to establish my cool, even if only a little bit. Mostly I failed. Anyhow, somewhere along about 1975 or 1976 I was browsing around in Sygma Records in Stellenbosch, with no money to buy anything but still keen on keeping up with new releases, when the guy behind the desk put on a song that sounded like a New Orleans marching band backing some freak who kept singing about "everybody must get stoned." It was a great sing-a-long type of ditty and because I was very much into jazz from the Twenties at the time, the tune really appealed. The reference to getting stoned seemed a tad risqué for the dourly conservative Stellenbosch of the time and my guess was that the sales guy was being a bit of a rebel. Of course I should have asked him who the artist was and what the song was, but I was far too shy to do so and for many years I fondly recalled the song while being blissfully unaware of what it was.

Only when I bought Blonde on Blonde some years later, from Sygma Records, no less, and played the opening track, Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35, did I recognise my old acquaintance from way back. Chances are I might have been looking at the album cover while the song was playing and would not have known this was a tune from this album, firstly because there was no track listing on the back of the gate fold sleeve and secondly because the song title did form part of the refrain.

Back in 1974 "You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)' off Before the Flood was a minor radio hit in South Africa, and this was where I took notice of the artist and during the following years I got to read a bit about his life and musical career and became fascinated with this icon of intellectual rock from the time where rock came of age and went beyond trite, banal lyrics about cars and girls. Dylan was then already in his thirties and moving away from being a revolutionary to merely being another rock artist amidst a whole universe of rock artists, albeit one with a magnificent back catalogue and awe inspiring reputation.

Kerneels Breytenbach, then a rock writer for Die Burger, and a major influence on my thinking about rock music, particularly because he was the first Afrikaans rock writer I encountered, wrote a rave, retrospective review of Blood On The Tracks, which he claimed to be perhaps Dylan's best album ever, and certainly his best since the glory days of the mid-Sixties. He was a bit vague on the details but he was clear on the vision. With this album Dylan put dust in the faces of the competition, raised the bar and generally cemented his well deserved reputation. About 20 years later I actually got around to buying the album and to this day I cannot fathom why it is so highly rated. There are one or two interesting songs, but for the most part the album is kind of static and lethargic and does not sustain interest. Maybe it was a diary of a break up but it was so personal a diary that it should have been kept personal and locked away.

The Cape Town based record store Ragtime Records that finally went under in the early Nineties briefly had a branch in Stellenbosch and when this branch took a nose dive I feasted on the sale records, including Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, which is when I first heard Like A Rolling Stone. I liked the later album better because the acoustic Dylan did not yet appeal all that much and because most of the electric tracks on Bringing It All Back Home, except for Subterranean Homesick Blues and Love Minus Zero (No Limit), sounded like jokes and I could not quite fathom why the poet of his generation would have put out such mundane stuff. Now I can see where his recent output has its roots; even when Dylan was young and full of piss and vinegar, he was not above triviality and being merely funny, but back then critics and fans alike sought deep meaning in even the most trivial of Dylan songs. Now the trivial songs are just trivial.

Anyhow, Highway 61 Revisited is quite splendid and Like A Rolling Stone is just one jewel among many. Something like From A Buick 6 is obviously also little more than a jokey romp, but Desolation Row was a revelation. I played this album to death and, with Blonde on Blonde, it was one of the first two Dylan CDs I bought. I cannot say that any of these albums gave me greater insight into the human condition or changed my life, but I can say that I became a confirmed Dylanophile and started building up a collection.

Of the early "folk" albums I prefer Bob Dylan, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan and Another Side of Bob Dylan because they are the most fun and the least preachy, and contain a great deal of well known tunes, and some lesser ones, that really define what it was that attracted an audience to him. Dylan was young, feisty and had a lot to say and had not yet started taking too many drugs. He was hip and happening but not yet the ice king he became at the time of the Don't Look Back movie. Another Side is probably the best of the early group of "folk" albums because it has the greatest ratio of truly excellent songs.

In my first year at the University of Stellenbosch my English tutor, who otherwise guided us through George Elliott, Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence and the usual bunch of dead English poets, led an in-depth discussion of The Ballad of Hollis Brown from The Times They Are A-Changin' as an example of serious poetry that came from a different source than the poets who were in our syllabus. The point he wanted to make, I guess, was that rock lyrics could be as poetic and intelligent as anything by T S Elliot or Yeats, which was not a new concept by any means, and the most obvious choice would have been Dylan. Perhaps Leonard Cohen could have been an example too, but maybe he was just a minor rock poet and therefore not worthy of discussion, or maybe the tutor thought Cohen would be too obscure for us.

This discussion took place well before I had heard much of Dylan's music and the lyrics were a bit of a revelation, and it was weird to discuss a song by concentrating only on the words and without hearing the tune, though I recollect that the tutor did eventually play us the song. The performance seemed a tad stale after the close scrutiny of the lyrics and there was little intensity in the performance, and this made me believe that Dylan should possibly be rated more as a poet than as a musician. It was only by listening to Highway 61 Revisited that I reached a different conclusion, that there was indeed musical muscle behind the intellect and that it was the combination of the two that made the man such a powerful force in rock.

I just gave up on Dylan's Eighties output. It was bad decade for just about every rocker who came up through the Sixties. There is nothing Dylan released in that decade I would want to own.

In 1993 I finally bought John Wesley Harding as birthday present to myself. I'd read about it quite a bit, the laid back, acoustic based album released in 1967 after the infamous motor cycle accident and as a new direction after the frenetic period of "Dylan goes electric" and the furore that new direction had caused. It is interesting to note that John Wesley Harding was Dylan's contribution in the year of the Summer of Love, psychedelia, Sgt Pepper, Surrealistic Pillow, and all manner of other pop innovations where more intricate music and greater spectacle became the in thing. Dylan went against the grain and this direction and the album were seen as undeniable evidence of his genius. In any event, I immediately fell in love with this album. There is not one bad track on it and only the final song, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, sounds a bit out of place and kin to the fluff on his earlier, and later, albums.

I already knew All Along The Watchtower in Jimi Hendrix's splendid version, and had read about all the other tracks in Song and Dance Man, and it was therefore a bit like meeting a pen friend, but it was a wonderful meeting. If I have to choose one Dylan album as a desert island disc (and cannot choose a best of compilation) it would be a stressful tossup between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding.

This was why, more than the more obvious Like A Rolling Stone, I have such a thing for Visions of Johanna. There is a significant T S Elliot thing going on lyrically and also a solid shot of Allen Ginsberg, and both these guys are favourite poets of mine, plus Dylan's own druggy vision, and underneath it all a subtle interplay of instruments, a hefty yet light as helium interweaving of instrumental voices, to flesh out the visuals Dylan teases us with. Where Like A Rolling Stone is a raw, raucous yell of defiance and exhilaration, and for those reasons, and its length, the pioneer of intelligent rock as pop culture benchmark, Visions of Johanna, quite lengthy as well, is more subtle, engrossing and seductive. I've always loved the words and when I bought a remastered version of Blond on Blonde on CD, I could also hear all kinds of instrumental flourishes and decorations I had not taken note of before. This song is simply an all round joy to listen to.

Greil Marcus wrote an entire book about the genesis of Like A Rolling Stone and its impact on the world, and maybe this one song deserves such accolades and scrutiny, though I am not quite convinced that Marcus can be that serious and learned about what is after all a pop song and still keep a straight face. Maybe he is putting us on in the way Dylan used to put on journalists and everybody else who questioned him on the meaning of his work. Greil Marcus wrote a tour de force, as he usually does, though it is hard to conceive why anyone would bear down that hard on just one song out of an oeuvre that contains many great songs, and many just as good if not better than this one example.

My cousin Raymond also had a bit of a thing for Dylan and owned copies of Before the Flood, Hard Rain, Real Live (all live albums) and Empire Burlesque, a mid-Eighties studio album, and I taped all of them. Before the Flood is the best of the bunch, because it pairs Dylan with the Band and has excellent versions of the usual suspects from both artists. The other two live sets seem like travesties, perhaps good documents of their time but except for a roaring, furious and eccentric version of Masters of War that outstrips the original version by far, on Real Live, the concert offerings are rather pale imitations of the studio versions and not really improvements. It may be part of an artist's creative energy never to perform a song the same way twice, and apparently Dylan and Van Morrison are past masters at this practice, but different is not automatically better. Different can also easily become indifferent and that is no fun.

Empire Burlesque gives Dylan's music a lush, drum heavy Eighties production values sheen that makes him really sound like a pop artist and the songs do sound like pop songs, with a bit of the Dylan style thrown in and nothing is compelling enough to merit repeated listening though I tried hard. I had missed out on the "reborn" series of albums, apart from a few tunes heard on the radio, and I truly wanted to like everything the man released but here I realised that even icons can have feet of clay, and this record was porous clay indeed. He did not have to keep on repeating his mid-Sixties glory days but he did not have to write crap songs and release crap records either.

A couple of years later I bought The Basement Tapes, also a subject of a very learned tome (Invisible Republic) by Greil Marcus who must have had access to more of the basement recordings than the ones on the official release, and whose digging into American culture illuminates connections and diversions that absolutely seems to connect Dylan and the Band to roots I would imagine they may not even have known of. The book was quite heavy going for me, where the album seemed to be little more than a joyful romp by participants who had nothing to prove and who were pretty happy to make up mock folk tales just for the sheer hell of it, down in the basement where they passed the time and did not think of making meaningful art. That is the way the folk process works; the art of it, the meaning of it, seems to be a construct after the fact, put together by intellectual critics like Marcus who wasn't there when the music was made, but sure seems to know more about the creative process than the guys who were there.

The Basement Tapes shows off a happy Dylan, with no apparent need to keep proving himself as the poet of a generation, a guy who could just fool around with his buddies and make music none of them probably thought would ever see the light of day as official releases. This is not the thin, pinched looking Dylan with puffball hairdo and sharp suit of the Highway 61 Revisited period, but the more mellow, family man Dylan in gabardine suit and country hat and rabbinical beard. This is the Dylan who no longer put on his audience and was relaxed enough in his fame and creative space to forego the spite and invective that typified some of his best work of the early Sixties. it is a Dylan who has lost a considerable amount of edge, a man who is on the slippery slope of ageing towards contentment and containment.

Apparently the basement tapes were heavily bootlegged and put out it in all kinds of configurations before an official release and it was for this reason that they became legendary, as all surreptitious activity seems to be, and by the time they were polished up and set out before the general public, they represented a time and a place long ago left behind by Dylan. I guess it was a kind of precursor of the later extended Bootleg series of mostly live and some studio recordings from the vaults that were designed to shed some light on the workings of a creative mind, and to illustrate how his live performances evolved over the years.

Of the Bootleg series I own only the double CD of the famous Albert Hall concert from 1966, the one where a member of the audience calls Bob Dylan a Judas and Bob tells him he is a liar. This is at the start of Like A Rolling Stone, which is then intended to be played "fucking loud" to shut up all the critics and dissenters and folk obsessives who could not stand the idea of an electric Dylan. It is strange to know that there was once a time when such things mattered, and mattered dearly. The electric stuff is just so full of energy and vigour and rock 'n roll guts that I fail to see how an audience could not be moved by it. It's got a good beat and you can dance to it. In contrast the solo, acoustic performances are stiff and mannered and the version of Visions of Johanna just does not cut it. Bob might just as well have done a Peter Sellers and simply read out his lyrics on stage. Then he would really have been the poet his fanatical supporters wanted him to be.

In the Bootleg series there is now also a very much acoustic concert performance of the early Dylan, and a Rolling Thunder gig from the late Seventies, which would be a sharp contrast to the Live at the Budokan album that was almost universally panned at the time because the critics thought he was desecrating his own heritage and royally fucking up with this stupid new direction, and this was well before the "born again" records. Shortly before the release, or maybe just after, in 1979 Dylan played Blackbushe Aerodrome, in England, along with Eric Clapton and others, for a couple of shows to massive audiences that were his first sightings in the UK for many years and the reception was ecstatic and adoring from fans and critics alike, and here he was already adopting the radically revised Budokan arrangements of old, familiar tunes that upset so many when they heard them on vinyl. For many years it had been trite that Dylan set the pace, broke new ground, and that others followed, and that his intentions and vision were inscrutable. Here, perhaps for the first time, at least since New Morning, the knives were out and intolerance for the new was very evident even in respect of a guy who was meant to be permanently in the vanguard.

Then followed the "born again" albums and the same critics who had so loved Dylan at Blackbushe, turned against him and trashed his new world view, philosophy and music. It was so bad that Rolling Stone magazine ran back to back reviews of Slow Train Coming in two consecutive issues of the magazine. In the first review the writer absolutely panned the album. A fortnight later, publisher and editor, Jann Wenner took several pages to explain how wonderful the album was after all. The record was not as bad as all that -- Mark Knopfler played guitar on it and the tunes were okay -- but the ferocious, orthodox religious message and messianic fury was like a red flag to the many bulls who ran rock criticism at the time and who were not prepared to tolerate anybody touting a perceived reactionary fundamentalist Christian religion, especially not if he were Bob Dylan, a Jew to boot.

My exposure to those "born again" albums was limited to the songs played on the radio, one some Radio 5 shows and on the Hob Nailed Tacky Show on what was then still prosaically called Radio Good Hope. None of the songs seemed particularly wonderful or particularly bad. The most preachy ones got no airplay and the rest were just plain tunes with lyrics that did not quite sparkle. The title track from Shot of Love was fun, and I almost bought the record but could not quite persuade myself to shell out money for it.

I did not get the fuss. What difference did the religious kick make? Black gospel music was, and is, great, and nobody ever crucified Aretha Franklin for singing songs of praise to God, but I guess for a Jewish prophet of his generation to get all New Testament on our asses, was too much for the guys who wrote about rock for a living. My complaint was simply that neither the words nor the music was all that intriguing or engaging. Bob Dylan sounded liked a fortysomething guy who had lost his bearings trying to innovate and renovate his life.

Maybe the "born again" music does represent a low in Dylan's creativity but I doubt it. He just got stick for those records, almost knee jerk reaction, because he went so far out on a limb the critics simply did not like. They were no longer afraid to invoke the emperor's new clothes. Everybody had grown up, and when one grows up your idols are no longer so untouchable. And when they appear to be vulnerable, you just want to stick a knife in and twist for as long the consensus of fallibility lasts.

I bought Blood on the Tracks (1975) and the "return to his roots" album World Gone Wrong (1993) within a few months from each other, and where I immediately warmed to the later album, I remained lukewarm and unconvinced about the earlier album, which is generally regarded as one of Dylan's best, if not the best, but to my mind that kind of praise was more of a reaction of relief from critics who wanted him to return to form after the dismal run of albums since Nashville Skyline, than a genuine appreciation. Only about half of the album is truly any good. The rest sounds like filler.

World Gone Wrong contains more non-Dylan songs than any album since the debut and the production values are higher than the debut's spare sound, and may have taken quite a bit longer to record, but to me it is a very entertaining and joyous album, and one of my favourites. Bob is freed from the burden of writing songs or trying to give meaning to the kind of banal lyrics he was, and is, writing. These old blues songs may not be any deeper than anything off Modern Times, but they seem to carry a bit more weight and significance, possibly because none of them were meant to be particularly heavy or meaningful at the time they were written.

The one Dylan album I have shied away from buying for a long time now, is Desire (1976), and I am not quite sure why. Chris Prior, the Rock Professor of Radio 5 fame in the Eighties and early Nineties, was quite fond of Bob Dylan's music and liked Desire a lot and he liked One More Cup of Coffee and Black Diamond Bay the best. Along the way I taped Isis and Hurricane on a long lost reel to reel tape recorder, and like Sara which was on Masterpieces, a 'best of" compilation double CD I had and which was stolen. Somehow I have never wanted to spend money on the album and for a Dylan fan this must be quite stupid because it does seem like a good set of songs, probably better Blood on the Tracks, and maybe it is because I know so many of the songs already. Hurricane is just propaganda, and Joey is just a gangster's tale, but, along with the other story songs, Dylan creates masterful short stories accompanied by music, much like the original function of the heroic ballad or saga: a narrative of epic historical proportions designed to educate an audience in the history of its heroes or heroines, and to preserve that history for posterity.

This is possibly the same effect Dylan was reaching for in Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) from Street Legal (1978) but in the latter song the effect is risible rather than revelatory, though it has one of my most favourite couplets of all time, "Senor, do you know where you are heading / Lincoln County or Armageddon?" Is it a joke? Does it mean something deep? That is the Dylan enigma, right there. I've listened to the album only a couple of times -- a record from the Stellenbosch Municipal Library -- back in the day and found the lush, overproduced big rock band sound not at all to my primitivist taste of the time. It was kind of soft and smooth and had no punch, and that is not what I wanted from music.

In the last few years I bought DVDs of Don't Look Back, Martin Scorcese's Dylan biography No Direction Home, and even a cash in documentary featuring Mickey Jones, the drummer for the Hawks (in the absence of Levon Helm) during the tumultuous first "electric" tour in 1966, where there is mostly just footage of Mickey telling us tales of touring, and very little other footage. I'd seen Don't Look Back a few times before, in grainy and not very well maintained celluloid versions with jumpy visuals and bad sound, but I now own a kind of anniversary special edition, with not much new, in glorious digital format, and the tale the movie tells is still an eye opener of days when rock 'n roll fame, and what you could do with it, was a different thing altogether. The opening sequence with Subterranean Homesick Blues is still one of the best rock videos I've ever seen. It is very simple and very in your face and has an impact that accelerates the pulse to an almost unbearable excitement. It is a cruel comedown to realise that during the rest of the movie the music is purely acoustic and most songs abbreviated in performance.

A lot of the concert footage from No Direction Home stems from the 1966 tour that followed on the tour recorded in Don't Look Back, and is in colour, and is always too short. Just from these snippets one gets a pretty good idea of how almost unbearably exciting those gigs must have been. Bob has his big hair and mustard colour suit and Telecaster, and whips the band and audience into a frenzy and when the boys behind him play "fuckin' loud" (as can also be seen from the Newport Folk Festival footage of Dylan with elements from the Butterfield Blues Band), you can almost see them rise up to a different plane of higher rock consciousness. It was all new and strange and ground breaking. Today even outrage is merely pale imitation. I would have liked to see the Rolling Stones at Altamont; I would have liked to see Jefferson Airplane at almost any gig in San Francisco in 1967; and I sure as hell would have killed to be at the Albert Hall for the Dylan concert in 1966. He was a legend, he was a monster, he was a god of sorts, and he delivered. Love or hate, no audience at the time could have walked away indifferent.

I am not so sure I would want to go to a Dylan gig today. Who wants to hear him do an infinite variety of variations on his greatest songs, especially when he no longer even sounds like the Dylan to those far off days? Paul Williams wrote a two volume defence of Dylan as performer, on record and particularly on stage, and in a sense it seems as if he came up with this stuff because on the one hand he had access to a great deal of bootleg recordings of the man on stage, and on the other hand to get to a point where he can justify the "born again" period by making a convincing argument that those songs truly came into their own only when Dylan performed them with the fiery intensity that breathed life into an apparently abhorrent religious viewpoint, because the on stage passion redeemed the content. Back in the day Bob may well have been a dynamic performing artist whose songs could be twisted and turned and be illuminated from all kinds of angles and still remain mysterious and engrossing, but what good is it if he croaks his way through his repertoire?

The tales Dylan told in John Wesley Harding or Blood on the Tracks are somehow convincing because one feels that Bob Dylan believes in these words -- although some of the stories are pretty thin once you start analysing them -- because he is still young and has some juice in him. Nowadays it really sounds as if the sexagenarian Dylan, youthful rebel no more, is going through the motions, telling a tale he has no real interest in but must persists with, given his reputation as story teller. This is clearly where the teller is more important than the tale.

It is always terrible to state that you only like a band or artist's early stuff. The creative impulse does not suddenly die when you turn thirty, nor does the recording contract come to an end. Once you have made your career path, you gotta stick to it to the bitter end, and it as has happened with a lot of older artists, if they managed to survive, is that showbiz and the audiences out there have been kind enough to elevate former bad buys and social outcasts into elder statesmen of rock or pop. Now they have become entrenched and valuable parts of the establishment they once mocked or attacked and swore to avoid. Now they have become lucrative brands and they make more money than ever. The thing is that they make most of their money retreading those old hits that gave them the breakthrough to notoriety or fame when they were youths, and those old songs are generally far superior to current output, even if the songwriters have really honed their craft over a lifetime, precisely because craft often replaces the passion which drove them in the first place.

It is for this reason I very much prefer the Dylan of the Sixties to the later Dylan, even if I must admit that I have never listened to New Morning or Planet Waves, or for that matter just about every Dylan product from the Eighties. Becoming older and wiser does not make you better in my eyes. Why would I want to listen to the crap stuff when there is still so much good stuff? One day a definitive critical biography will be written (I almost hope it won't be by Greil Marcus, much as I admire the man's erudition and ability to bear down hard on a subject) and it would be interesting to see if the author is going to maintain the fiction that Dylan was a genius who kept on redefining himself, leading the pack even when his course seemed stupid and wilfully obscure, and kept growing in creative powers and stature, even through the previously perceived dry spell of the late Seventies and Eighties, and that there are diamonds in even the worst albums released by him. My take is that the true originality and creativity came to an end circa John Wesley Harding and that careerism and craft took over after that and Dylan slowly but surely changed from being unique and a powerful innovator into a professional musician who realised the value of the brand and carefully nurtured it, sometimes less carefully I guess, and maintained the mystique for marketing purposes whilst turning into just another artist amongst the thousands out there. He remained 'Dylan" in the way the Beatles or Rolling Stones or the Who remained popular in the image of their early incarnations regardless of reality, but amongst the many "new Dylans" who were good musicians but tainted by the odious comparison, the real Bob Dylan was little more than just another "new Dylan" trying to rekindle a glimmer of the former glory.

Does Dylan at 67 really still have all the creative powers he had at 27? I do not think so and neither of his two latest releases convince me otherwise. Forty odd years ago Dylan swam for gold, now he merely treads water.