(Discussed - Blonde on Blonde (1966), Oh Mercy (1989), Together Through Life (2009), New Day Rising (1985), Workbook (1989) and Life And Times (2009))
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Nine was a banner year for pop music. Full of career highlights ("Doolittle" - the Pixies), new beginnings ("Bleach" - Nirvana), false starts (the Stone Roses) and rebirths ("New York" - Lou Reed). It was the year I started my senior year of high school. A lonely time in my life, spent with head phones attached to my psyche, shaping the man I was to become. Which is a not so lonely guy whose headphones are attached to his psyche, shaping the man he hopes to become.
Twenty years is a long time. Things change. There are not a lot of artists that survive. Certainly not a lot that remain in my daily rss feed. Sure, the Cure (1989 contribution, "Disintegration") still put out a record every few years, but I don't rush out to buy them. Are Fugazi ("13 Songs") even still together? Lou ain't been them same sense 'drella passed and the Pixies only exist to piss me off. Even Janet Jackson ("Rhythm Nation 1814") can't buy a hit.
Shining through all this are a couple of Bobs. If polled on December 31, 1989, I'd have said my two favorite records that year were "Oh, Mercy" by Bob Dylan and "Workbook" by Bob Mould. And they both just so happen to have records out this year that are worth talking about.
To prepare for this article, I decided to not only revisit the 1989 releases of the two, but also my favorite record by both. I chose "Blonde on Blonde" (Dylan's masterpiece from 1966) and "New Day Rising" (the 1985 release from Mould's first band, Husker Du).
With all due respect to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35", "Blonde On Blonde" does not really begin until track two. "Pledging My Time" begins what is the most personal and timeless collection of songs these ears have ever heard. "Visions Of Johanna", "I Want You", "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)", "Absolutely Sweet Marie". All classics. All could have been recorded this afternoon. If you don't know this record, stop reading. Go away and don't come back until you've fixed yourself. This record is in my DNA. If'n when we have children, they will come out of the womb singing '"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". But none of 'em will be named Dylan. Dylan is Kelly's boyfriend's name, not that of a child. You people simply have to stop this. Off soapbox, can continue.
I don't recall who introduced me to Bob Dylan, but my introduction to Husker Du is the responsibility of one man. In the summer of 1987, my brother Brooks gave me a copy of "Warehouse : Songs And Stories" and my life changed forever.
As I left work last Friday, for what was my last day of employment, the title track from Husker Du's "New Day Rising" was the soundtrack in my skull. This is a tradition I've taken up sense my first bout with unemployment nearly ten years ago. I know I should be worried and concerned for the future, but something in me (and in that song) fills me with wonderment and a remaining, sustained belief that everything will work out. Life is a journey and this is but a stop at a gas station for a fresh cup of coffee and a quick piss.
Of course, Brooks will be taken aback by my ranking of "New Day Rising" ahead of his beloved "Zen Arcade". I stand my decision, especially if the discussion is on Mr. Mould's work with the band. "Zen Arcade" is a brilliant piece of art, but not much fun to listen to. And, anyway, "Celebrated Summer"'s on "New Day Rising" and it just so happens to be the greatest song they ever recorded. Welcome to the end of that discussion.
After all these years this record still makes me want to get in the car and drive to the beach. Not go to the beach. Just drive there and bitch about the heat. Maybe hit Electric Smiles and search for that issue of the Bob with the flexi-disc that's got the Replacements cover of "Another Girl, Another Planet" on it. Good times, great oldies. Husker Du were my anti-Beach Boys. And I loved'em for that.
If "New Day Rising" makes me want to get moving on the road, Bob Mould's 1989 solo debut "Workbook" makes me want to hit the streets. I've long associated this record with walking. Maybe it was Saturday afternoons at the Chrysler Museum, Bob providing me with the audio tour to adulthood. Leaving our hardcore days behind us, Bob bridged the gap for me to expand my universe. This collection of songs showed me a new and exciting way to appreciate music. A way that included Bob Dylan. So, maybe it was Bob Mould who introduced me to Bob Dylan. Nah, that was probably Brooks, too.
So, despite the desperate need for remastering, "Workbook" holds up. Very well, in fact. "New Day Rising" sounds like it was recorded in 1985 and, for me, it's a dated sound (as mid-eighties hardcore records tend to be). But, "Workbook", with it's largely acoustic arrangements and, oddly, timely subject matter (the credit crunch is so 1989), it feels and sounds like a record for the ages.
Which brings us to Dylan's "Oh, Mercy". This record sure as hell sounds like 2009. WIth it pessimistic view of world leaders and troubled times, it can easily be applied to either Bush administration. "Streets are filled with broken hearts, Broken words never meant to be spoken, Everything is broken'" sounds like the images seen on CNN right now. Hell, CNN should replace the Voice Of Vader with "Everything is Broken". And MSNBC can have "DIsease Of Conceit". Imagine Keith Olbermann closing Countdown every night with that one. Face it, kids, Obama is a small Band-Aid for a large wound that covers this country from coast to coast, L.A to Chicago (I'd like to take this time to thank Ms. Sade for my knowledge of U.S. geography).
"Oh, Mercy" was the rebirth Dylan needed. After ten years of mediocre records, Daniel Lanois lit a fire under his ass that simmers to this day. "Together Through Life" is the latest chapter in Dylan's autobiography and it has the sound of death all over it.
This, of course, is nothing new. Death has been a constant muse to Dylan that only left him, truly, when he made shitty records. Except, of course, for his worst album (also from 1989) which he, ironically, recorded with the Dead.. Not a Grateful Dead fan myself, I take great comfort in the fact that Deadheads and I will always have the shared knowledge that "Dylan And The Dead" is a shitty record and should never be mentioned again.
If you need an explanation of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin", good luck trying to feed yourself. Dylan sounds equal parts pissed off and resigned on this record. The Four Horsemen quickly catching up in the rearview, Dylan finally has become the old bluesman he always claimed to be. "Together Through Life" has the air of old, dusty Chess records and booze and cigarettes and late night hootenannies and sex and life and death and sittin' on the beach, waiting for it all to go down while you lie there gettin' brown. Reflection, in other words. And for the first time, I can start to see that we will one day not have a "Bob Dylan". That's a notion that I'm not ready to sink my teeth into. But it's there and Dylan is not willing to let me and you forget that. Another great album by the greatest of them all.
Twenty years his junior, Mould's looking back, too.
"Life And Times" is a primer for Mould's soon to be released autobiography. Full of Husker and Sugar retreads (I mean this in a good way) and visits to sex clubs and workin' the auto-tune like a older, grayer and gayer Kanye, Bob breaks no ground here and that don't matter. He may not be the artist I make him out to be , but he's the closest my generation's got to a Dylan. Westerberg's doodles on tape, Frank, Kim, Joey and Dave's cash strapped liaisons, R.E.M.'s sucky sucks suck...Maybe Sonic Youth will redeem themselves. I can't even remember their last record. But, I've kept up with Mould through nine (9!) solo records and I keep coming back. They're not all fillet (hell, I didn't' even remember 2002's "Modulate until ten minutes ago), but he has been consistent. Dylan put out a whole lotta dreck in the '70's and '80's (anybody remember "Saved"?) and at least Mould has "saved" us (Ha! Get it?) from that. "Life And Times" may not be the best of this years releases, but it's better than most and that's all I can ask. Together Through Life - A, Life And Times - B