Bob Dylan - Hard Rain
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I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my first real exposure to Dylan came after graduating college, around the time of Time Out of Mind’s release in 1997. Wildly heralded at the time as his umpteenth “return to form”, Time Out of Mind struck me then, as now, as a half-successful meditation on age, conceptually intriguing if not melodically compelling (even Dylan admitted as much at the time). The fawning press and an enthusiastic roommate did, however, send me back through Dylan’s catalog, eager to catch up on what I’d missed.
Consequently, I made a beeline for the most comprehensive compilation I could afford, at the time the Australian 3-disc set, Masterpieces. While similar to Greatest Hits Volumes I&II;, Masterpieces veered away from those collections, devoting a sizable portion of its tracklist to Dylan’s “renaissance” period of 1975-76, in particular 1976’s Desire and critically-maligned Hard Rain (though curiously not much of Blood On the Tracks). The former, though far from flawless, had much to warrant its inclusion on Masterpieces: Scarlet Riviera’s gypsy violin, lush, romantic set pieces like “One More Cup Of Coffee” and, not least of which, sterling harmony work by Emmylou Harris and Ronnie Blakely, then riding high from her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville. Desire rightfully earned its place near the top of the Dylan canon.
But the live Hard Rain was what made me a believer in Bob Dylan. Even up against Masterpieces “must-have” tracks—“Positively 4th Street,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and just about anything from Blonde On Blonde—Hard Rain’s searing reworking of much-loved classics could stand up against anything in Dylan’s extensive catalog.
The notion that Dylan, like Miles Davis, was never content to stay in the same place is a simple one, but one that clearly guided Dylan through to the Rolling Thunder Revue tour on which Hard Rain was recorded. Hanging out with Sam Shepherd and Allen Ginsberg, Dylan was obsessively creative during this period: film, literature, music festivals, whatever came his way. Much like the semi-improvised four-hour movie he was directing at the time, Renaldo and Clara, Dylan’s life in 1974-76 seemed to be an endless run of inspiration, lacking an editor but the more interesting for it. Making music was all he could do to weather the storm that was his marriage, which would breakup for good shortly thereafter, taking with it much of his muse.
Indeed, Dylan lays down the gauntlet immediately on Hard Rain with “Maggie’s Farm,” that renowned declaration of independence that sent an axe-toting Pete Seeger famously running to the power cables during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Then a midtempo shuffle of sorts, the song is completely transformed in 1976; beginning with a rockabilly guitar break (courtesy of Mick Ronson) and the crack of a snare, “Maggie’s Farm” blasts off into somewhere it’s never been. Frankly, there’s no reason anyone would even recognize the song were it not for its classic opening line, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” at one time a fuck-you to the folk scene, perhaps now an likeminded gesture to the newly corporate music industry. Who knows? No matter, Dylan is shouting himself hoarse singing what is essentially a different song entirely—new tempo, key and melody—with Ronson playing vicious James Burton-esque fills no one knew he had in him. As energetic as anything from Live 1966 – 1976 “Maggie’s Farm” is brave, out of control and fucking brilliant as all hell.
“Lay Lady Lay” meets a similar fate, wholly reinterpreted, albeit with a bit more faithfulness to the original’s melody. As on “Maggie’s Farm,” there’s a sense, even though they’d been touring for nearly a year, that the band doesn’t know these tunes very well, that they’re working overtime to keep up with their bandleader. Still, something full of edgy risk and magic is happening (indeed, that was Dylan’s style; on the studio recording of “One More Cup of Coffee,” Emmylou Harris stumbles around, unaware that she’s singing the final take). No longer a sultry come-on, the rootsy “Lay Lady Lay,” augmented by Rob Stoner’s blustery background vocals, ends up sounding more like a bar tune by the Band than, say, the Band itself did on tour with Dylan 18 months earlier.
But it’s the dramatic reinterpretation of “Shelter From the Storm” that is most striking. Without re-writing a word, Dylan transforms a song about a defeated man falling back into the arms of a longtime lover into the ecstasy of what happens afterwards. A quiet respite in the midst of the emotional warfare of Blood On the Tracks, “Shelter From the Storm” here becomes an anthem of joyous escapism, with a Carlos Alomar-like(!!) funk riff a la “Golden Years” and a rush of cathartic energy in each chorus. His singing more full of life than ever, this is among the ten best Dylan performances, live or not, ever.
By album closer, the sneering, nasty and definitively epic “Idiot Wind,” you start understanding why Dylan has gone through such periods of dross, where it seems the guy would sooner stay in bed than make an album (but makes one anyways). You start realizing what a drain this whole process has got to be on him, when every song he performs is such a radical departure from the original. Matching anything on Hard Rain up against 1974’s Before the Flood reunion tour with the Band, it becomes clear that the only one caring much about anything on the earlier tour is Dylan himself. He’s up there playing something new—risking something—while Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson are playing around with something new, namely their new effects pedals and synthesizers. Where the Band sound deader than roadkill, almost completely devoid of their trademark ramshackle energy and ready to waltz one last time, Dylan’s clearly starting his career again, unsatisfied—even unable—to relive the old days. And united with a band on the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue that was willing to match his inspiration, Dylan found the supporting players to mount his “real” comeback.
So why was and is Hard Rain so ignored? It’s not really sure, but by 1976, after the (overhyped) reunion tour with the Band and it subsequent Newsweek cover, after Blood On the Tracks and the Rolling Thunder Review festival, it’s possible that America simply took Dylan’s genius for granted, as if it would always be around (and for anyone who saw him through much of the 80’s, you know it surely was not). By comparison, nobody talks about Hard Rain; the sound quality’s for shit, and even the CD indexing is fucked up, with one starting two minutes into a song.
But help might be on the way. In November 2002, Columbia Legacy is set to release Bob Dylan Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series Volume 5) , the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue (Hard Rain was from the second). Fans will insist that Dylan’s reinterpretive energies gained both strength and audacity as the tour went on. But the set can only improve on what has been, until now, a sketchily documented period of radical invention and reinvention. As with the previous releases in The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 should, like Hard Rain, be another fascinating window into the creative process of a 20th Century genius.
In looking back, Dylan may never have truly regained the spirit and inspiration that guided that second renaissance, from the cash-in tour with the Band in 1974 to the wild artistic success of Rolling Thunder in 1976. He is human, after all. But Hard Rain serves as a reminder as to why Dylan’s flame flickers a bit brighter than ours, and why we just can’t look away.
By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2003-09-01