Bob Levinson’s skills as facilitator were tested this Tuesday, when the guests in our class turned out to be Mr. Alan Light, music critic and journalist, and Mr. Pat Guadagno, musical musician. Bob Levinson had to conduct the two-hour session between erudite overviews of Bob Dylan’s career, and ardent performances of Bob Dylan’s songs by Mr Guadagno as well as the class’s own Toby Fagenson, whose 12-string guitar first impressed everyone in the room as a show-and-tell object, and then was put to good use. And indeed Bob Levinson made the whole evening move smoothly, and made certain that both guests enjoyed adequate air-time to do justice to their particular Bob Dylan skill set.
Alan Light–whose essay providing an overview of Bob Dylan’s performing history can be found in the Cambridge Companion to BD–began the evening with a great rush of feeling in response to his participation in different memorial events following Michael Jackson’s death. He seemed sincerely impressed and unnerved by the emotional theatrics, their scope and intensity, that he’d witnessed this past week, and also sincerely impressed with the deftness of the hastily assembled public memorial show. Light could not help reviewing for us the inarguable significance of Jackson’s contributions to American music and culture. We are a decorous and warm bunch in room 280 at the 92nd St Y, and we listened with respect. I would have enjoyed seeing the We Are The World video on the large TV we have in the room, but there was no time for that and maybe it’s insufficiently respectful of me to have wanted to see the shots of Bob peering with great fascination at the music sheet in his hand while he sings his bit, as though this man has discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.
After paying our respects, we more or less gently segued to Bob Dylan via comments regarding stardom and public reception. Light reminded us of the astonishing speed of Bob’s rising star in the early 60s. That things were happening literally “in a matter of months.” From the Gaslight to Carnegie Hall. From singing Barbara Allen to writing Hard Rain. The astonishingly intrinsic differences in the young man at the three consecutive Newports. It can be a strange kind of startling refreshment to be offered for contemplation facts one already is familiar with.
Bob Levinson asked Alan Light for his impressions of Together Through Life. He “likes it a lot.” He addressed the criticisms of the album as unoriginal and not rich with the ambitious portent of some of the songs on Modern Times (which Light does not enjoy as much as TTL). Light argued that it’s a mistake to “fault him for setting a different target and hitting that target.” It’s not “visionary,” and “you can’t force that every time.” Hear, hear, I say. Light also calls TTL a “sound record” as opposed to a “words record.” MT is a words record. We all wanted to pursue this distinction: what else is a “sound” record? Predictably, Light identified the thin wild youknowwhat, and the Lanoisian works. I wonder myself about this distinction. One can hardly call Oh Mercy not a words record, but of course the sound remains in one’s mind as a singular flavor, a color. Maybe we can test the sound records with the synesthesia method, by asking whether they do create a color and flavor of their own. A quick run through in my own head tells me that Another Side and John Wesley Harding would be sound records in this way. The recently remastered New Morning would also qualify: the remaster unveils Bob’s strong piano playing throughout, which was not so audible on the previous CD, and which does create a luscious tone binding the songs together.
Pat Guadagno gave us ardent and tuneful renditions of Visions of Johanna and Sweetheart Like You.
Alan Light talked also about the way that Bob Dylan’s albums are almost sketchbooks for the live performances of the songs. He uses concert performances to “improve” the songs. In this way, the album itself changes as the songs take on new faces through the concerts. We are lucky that Bob has not waited long at all, as he did with Modern Times, to start breathing different lives into the new songs from Together Through Life. Important also to see what happens to songs when they’re taken away from their neighbors on their albums and set in different contexts on stage. Pairing the bluesy amble of Jolene with the apocalypse of AATW for recent encores is a when-worlds-collide experience that is not to be missed.
Pat gave us ardent and tuneful renditions of Romance in Durango and I Want You. I may not be getting the order right here, I apologize for that. He is a wonderful guitarist and accompanies himself with beautiful verve.
Alan Light gave us a thoroughly depressing history lesson about the superannuation of print media. He was a founding editor of the magazines Vibe and Trax and it is his professional opinion that the print magazine and the journal as forms of media cannot survive against the immediacy of the Internet. He talked about finding ways to write both substantively and electronically. We all have our fingers crossed with you, Mr Light.
Alan Light played for us a recording he brought of Rosanne Cash singing a perfectly lovely version of Girl From the North Country. Apparently Johnny Cash once gave his daughter a list of the 100 greatest country songs and now she is recording a number of them on an album called “The List.” This reminded me of her exciting rendition of License to Kill which I had the pleasure of seeing her do at the 2006 Lincoln Center tribute. All of which made me think about what a cover version of a song is. Sometimes it’s like a photograph of someone you love. Sometimes it’s like a captivating discussion of the song. Sometimes it’s a love letter to the song. Sometimes it’s an x-ray of the song. Barb Junger’s versions of Bob Dylan songs are love letters to the songs. Jim James’ version of Goin to Acapulco is like an x-ray of the song. I have a very short list of covers of Bob Dylan songs that satisfy any of these categories. Very short, like a micron long. If you haven’t heard The Roots’ Masters of War, that is in a category of its own.
Mention of Johnny Cash led Alan Light to request seeing the footage of Bob and Johnny doing Girl from the North Country on Johnny’s TV special. This is an excellent way to end any evening, but it just made me want to see the footage of them doing One Too Many Mornings in the crowded studio. Bob chewing his gum. “You are right from your side, Bob, and I am right from mine.” “I know it.”