I remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan’s poem, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” I was sitting on my living room floor with the just-released Bob Dylan Bootleg Series which had come out in 1991. I was floored, literally. I was on the floor, liner notes in hand, not noticing that the sun had set and I was squinting to read the description behind each song, pausing, listening again, and marveling at the fact that a record of this length and quality could have been hiding in Bob’s vaults for dozens of years. Songs consigned to the outtakes files – afterthoughts that were not considered releasable when they were recorded, and that languished unheard for decades.
And then the aforementioned “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” filled the room. It was Bob, onstage in 1967 at Carnegie Hall reciting a eulogy of sorts about his hero Woody Guthrie, who had recently passed away as a result of Huntington’s Chorea in the Brooklyn State Hospital. Dylan was harnessing every ounce of his power at a time when words flowed from his typewriter as fast as he could keep up with them. His voice is rushed, as if the thoughts are pouring out of him at a pace that his mouth struggles to match. That voice is confident, rhythmic, and vulnerable all at the same time; you get the sense that the pages in his hand are still curled as though pulled from his Olivetti earlier that day. And with these words, Dylan delivers perhaps the most personal, intimate, and purely artistic reading ever recorded. Simply put, it’s seven minutes of Dylan giving voice to every notion of frustration, hope, disillusionment, and the appreciation of beauty that I have ever heard, in a way that makes me feel like he understands the human condition – no, my human condition – better than anyone I could ever hope to meet. Dylan out-Salingers Salinger and out-Kerouacs Kerouac, speaking straight from his heart with a candor that felt like he knew me.
I think it was this recording, technically not even a musical composition, that confirmed why Dylan was the artist that I looked up to most. His songs are full of humor, emotion, wit, warnings, history, longing, and wisdom. But with this poem he documents the very essence of life in a plainspoken manner that defies comparison and gets closer to the very core of the human experience than almost anything else I have ever come in contact with.
So forgive me if I disregard entirely the opinions of those who define Dylan only by the tone and timbre of his voice, and use their own poor imitations of “Like A Rolling Stone” as their argument for why they “can’t get into him.” Those folks are missing the entire point. The very roughness, uniqueness, and otherworldly weirdness of his voice is what makes his communication so truthful. It is what makes his art so relatable. When you listen to Dylan sing a song, you are hearing a desire to communicate a story and a point of view. You are not hearing someone trying to impress you or soothe you. You are not hearing someone saying, “Listen to me, listen to how good I am. Notice my beauty.” You are hearing someone who has something to say, and by his very inflection and emphasis, he becomes a master communicator. That, to me, is the most interesting, beguiling and rarest of all things in our culture: an artist’s true voice, piped to the masses through commercial means; a subversive guiding light in a sea of plastic, corporate, watered down, sanitized shit. There were advertisements put out by Columbia Records in the sixties that stated: “No one sings Dylan like Dylan,” and boy, were they right.
At the beginning of this year I started work on a film called Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued. As you might know, Bob Dylan and the Band recorded over 150 tracks in a house in West Saugerties, New York in 1967 that became the legendary “Basement Tapes,” a collection of songs that many believe are the pure embodiment of American music, songs that established the genres of country rock and Americana, and changed forever the musical landscape of rock and roll. These recordings were never meant to be heard by the public. Bob simply ran a tape recorder in a room for six months as a reference recording to create publishing demos. And in that sense, The Basement Tapes are the closest recorded approximation of what it’s like to witness the creative spark as it ignites. The recordings are devoid of self-consciousness, pretention and revision. For the most part, you are hearing first takes, and the musicians are often learning the chords of the songs as the recording is being made.
Recently, a pile of lyrics were found buried in Dylan’s archives that he identified as more prose written during that summer of 1967. Those lyrics made their way into the hands of music producer T-Bone Burnett, who was entrusted with finding a way to turn them into songs. T-Bone brought me into the process, and I found myself in fascinating conversations about which musicians should be given the honor of collaborating with a 26-year-old Dylan. We determined that a record and a film should be made detailing the process of turning these words into songs that could be added to the canon of compositions known as “The Basement Tapes.”
Over the next year, I found myself in the enviable position of being allowed a peek behind the curtain into Dylan’s writing process. Well, more than a peek. I got to look at all the original manuscripts of these lost songs and see not only Dylan’s handwritten prose, but his drawings, doodles, revisions, and edits. I discovered both how fast his pen could flow, and how hard he would work to get exactly the right words. The same man that had penned “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, and “It’s Not Dark Yet, But It’s Getting There” had put his head down and filled notebooks with prose, working like a dog to create songs that he would misplace with nary a thought. Songs that, as you will see, are as powerful and humorous and unique as the ones he is best known for. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to read these lyrics and try to imagine the rhythms and melodies in Dylan’s head as he put down the words.
So what does this all have to do with this issue’s subject, Jackson Browne, you ask? Well, Jackson’s father wanted him to be a trumpet player, a jazz musician. He extolled to Jackson the virtues of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and the like. As Jackson tells it, his father all but extinguished Jackson’s love of music by reneging on the offer to let him study piano after he had spent some time with the trumpet. But when Jackson heard Dylan, it was all over. He was soon squirreled away in his room with an acoustic guitar, trying to write his own take on “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”. Dylan spoke to Jackson, and lit a fire in his brain that has never gone out. At age 16, Jackson wrote “These Days”, a composition that beyond owing a debt to Dylan, signifies the rise of a voice that would take music in a whole new direction. And one night, when Jackson’s dad saw Bob Dylan on television, he looked Jackson in the eye, and said, “That there is the real deal.”
If you love and understand music, there is no denying that Bob is the real deal. Jackson’s father saw it, and understood immediately what his son was trying to do. There probably wouldn’t have been a Jackson Browne without a Bob Dylan. Just think of how many other artists have been inspired by Dylan, and how much richer we all are for it.
Sam Jones, November 2014