Up On A Different Level – Bob Dylan’s “Love And Theft” x 2

 

bd1

Two reviews of Bob Dylan’s 2001 album, “Love And Theft.”
The first was written across Tuesday 11 & Wednesday 12 September 2001.
A shorter version was published later that week in
The Scotsman newspaper,
under the title “Genius Of Dread And Mystery.”
The second was written fourteen years later.
A shorter version was published in
Bob Dylan: The Ultimate Music Guide.


bd2

…2001

“The radio makes hideous sounds.”

Thinking about the tinny slur of mallpop FM, Bob Dylan said this, at the start of the week, when the towers of the World Trade Center still stood, in an interview with Time to promote his new album, “Love And Theft.”

One interview a year is garrulous for Dylan, currently relatively hot – after his Oscar win, the success of his 1997 record, Time Out of Mind, and his contemporaneous death scare – following a long period off the middle of the mainstream radar, and so, at the start of the week, newspapers all over flagged this quote up. Little headlines: Modern Music Gives Dylan the Blues and Musically Times They Are A-Changin’ – For The Worse. Something for idling pages to jump on, maybe stir tired controversy, get some boy bander or britney to retaliate with a roll-over-grandpaw retort. At the start of the week. Until some real news came along.

The point missed was that Dylan could have said the same thing at any point across the past 40 years. People still mistake Dylan for a pop singer, due to the way he shot into the American psyche in the mid-1960s, when pop was smaller, and then lodged there. Dylan isn’t pop, isn’t really interested in trying to be pop that way, which is not to get snooty and say he’s higher than pop. He’s lower. Interested in the bottom rung music that folk make, which has never been the same thing as Folk Music. The singer himself, speaking in 1965, called it Traditional Music, and tried to explain: “it comes from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death… songs about roses growing out of people’s brains, lovers who are really geese…”

Untitled-1

“Love And Theft” is soaked in this stuff, old, strange, unfathomable trash, currents in the dusty air, blowing in the wind and collecting under isolated cabin porches, in tenement doorways and in trailer park corners and in empty lots where the carny was just the night before, where people pick up and half-understand faded remnants, and then customise them. In the Time interview, Dylan tips his hat to Eminem, the preeminent trailer trash artiste of the minute: “If anything is controversial, the guy’s got to be doing something right.”

Dylan sees Eminem, in from the park, standing in relation to Snoop Dogg just the way that Elvis, a hick truck driver, stood to Big Boy Crudup. When he sees Eminem, he sees Elvis, ignoring lines of division, censored on the Ed Sullivan Show, shot from the waist up, wiggling his little finger. But “Love And Theft”  is a record that not only can’t look at Eminem without seeing Elvis’ bleached, gyrating shadow, but can’t hear Elvis without hearing Mahalia Jackson, singing lead at a Baptist church in Salem in 1927. And Jackson is soon drowned out by a raw moaning sound rising from other sacred singers, further back, with muddy robes, gathered at the river for a mass baptism. Then, on the far bank, it notices a solitary figure disappearing down the track, walking hungover through the morning, sore, but determined and trailing a guitar case, headed out to a crossroads far away, where the roads from the mountains, the sea, the farmlands and the city meet.

“Love And Theft” is a record made at the crossroads, dazed, still reeling from the party, and happily unsure whether the devil has just been, or is just about to arrive. Dylan dedicates one song, “High Water,” to blues singer Charley Patton. Born in Mississippi in 1891, Patton grew up on a plantation, left early with his guitar, trying to sing his way to some kind of free existence. He wrote and sung words like this: “I’m going away to a world unknown/ I’m worried….”

Stark and simple, easily understood, but battered by dread mystery. “Love And Theft” has this all through it. “High Water” itself mutters about folk losing their possessions, leaving town, things breaking up, then stops to sing a weird ancient ballad, “The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird,” before admitting “dunno what I’m gonna do.” All the while, bluegrass banjo circles and rattles merrily, a celebration sound around stunned desolation.

Dylan here, with his husk voice, is close to another genius bluesman, Skip James. James, an active misanthrope with a healthy suspicion of everyone everywhere, did the opposite of what Dylan does here, continually making songs of celebration sound like high, hollowed-out mean misery. Dylan speaks in the Time interview about how he argues with his teenaged daughter, Desiree, about some of the music she listens to. Set against the tinny slur, the haunted sound of “Love And Theft” calls to mind the image of another teenaged girl, the girl Thora Birch plays in the movie Ghost World, as she sits listening repeatedly to the beguilingly hopeless sound of James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” catching a glimpse of an unexpected secret history, something that’s been denied, hidden beneath the plastic, and maybe, when you dig it up, will turn out to be old plastic, too.

Ghost World is based on a comic book. “Love And Theft” resembles a strange cartoon rendered like a silvery lithograph – the spindly Mickey Mouse of 1928, out of control on the river in Steamboat Willy. On the cover, Dylan, with pencil moustache, looks like Chaplin dressed as Django Reinhardt, and inside sounds like WC Fields, except on “Po’ Boy,” which is the dreamy blues Stan Laurel always wanted to write. Telling good bad old jokes – “I’m sittin’ on my watch/ So I can be on time…” – all these musicians and comedians have been studying Samuel Beckett’s stage directions, though, and specify landscapes of “barren fields” and “sharp hills rising from yellow fields with twisted oaks.”

Dylan here follows currents in the air, not newspaper headlines. He stopped writing finger-pointing songs over 30 years ago, but his record fits the times uniquely. In the way that quote on Monday – “the radio is making hideous sounds” – fitted Tuesday’s reports from Manhattan, “Love And Theft” sounds the same today as it did on Monday, but the frame has changed. From the start, the album talks of skies full of fire, of dark clouds and things falling. On the opener, “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee,” nonsensical twins – political leaders? feuding neighbours? religions? The West and The Middle East? the ego and the shadow? two guys across the road? – poke and fight, in a ridiculous, jealous harmony.

Beneath the crisp, dreamy Thirties chording of “Floater,” the narrator and his complacent fellow smalltown citizens turn inward, ignore signs of stormy weather and pointedly refuse to talk about the little new patch of trees already burning on the edge of town. These songs sound like they come from isolated communities, picking up half-heard news reports from far away, and turning them into nonsense rhymes, good for dancing and wooing and sending the kids to sleep, with stark little fragments of sense still sticking through, warnings dressed up as stories.

As the smoke rises, and people start to talk about Pearl Harbor and recession, Dylan, dressed and playing for a Depression juke joint party, has made the best record of 1932 and 1941. In a song called “Summer Days,” confronted by someone telling him you can’t repeat the past, the narrator, almost choking, startled out of the jump-blues zoot-suited dancehall rhythm splutters, like Gatsby, “You can’t? Whaddaya mean you can’t, of course you can….”

You’re doomed to, if you don’t learn your history. “Love And Theft” is a record that knows its history, and its place in history. Standing at the crossroads of 1932, 1941 and 2001, facing down the lost highway to God knows where.


bd3

…2015

“All the songs are variations on the 12-bar theme and blues-based melodies. The music here is an electronic grid, the lyrics being the substructure that holds it all together. The songs don’t have any genetic history. Is it like Time Out of Mind or Oh Mercy or Blood on the Tracks, or whatever? Probably not. I think of it more as a greatest-hits album, Volume One or Volume Two. Without the hits; not yet, anyway.”
– Bob Dylan to USA Today (2001)

“That was Bukka White, singing ‘Po’ Boy,’ an archetypal traditional folk song. Folk collectors found that song all over the Deep South in the 1900s. Every singer sings it his or her own way, making up their own words, passing it on in a new form. But always, it’s ‘Po’ Boy.’”
Alexis Korner, The Devil’s Music, BBC TV (1979)

“One of Fuller’s most interesting features is his combination of creativity and eclecticism. Though [the allegation] that his 1935 repertoire was based exclusively on blues recordings is doubtless a considerable exaggeration, it is clear that Fuller learned as much from recordings as any Thirties bluesman. Like Robert Johnson, he fits excerpts or paraphrases of other guitarists into a new framework. ‘Mamie,’ for example, features a familiar Blind Lemon Jefferson riff…Fuller quotes from Blind Blake’s popular ‘Early Morning Blues’ (1926) on ‘You Never Can Tell’…Other Fuller allusions are more subtle. There is a suggestion of Henry Townsend in Fuller’s ‘Walking My Troubles Away’…
– Steve Calt, liner notes to Truckin’ My Blues Away by Blind Boy Fuller, Yazoo Records (1978)

“…Fuller was a musician of quite exceptional stature whose blues were widely imitated…and are still the inspiration today of a number of singers famous in their own right. Listen to Brownie McGhee singing ‘Pawnshop Blues’ and you are hearing Fuller’s ‘Three Ball Blues.’ Listen to Sonny Terry singing ‘Custard Pie’ and you are hearing the after echoes of Fuller’s ‘I Want Some Of Your Pie’; ‘Heart In Sorrow’ is Fuller’s ‘Lost Lover Blues’ – and the list doesn’t end there.”
– Paul Oliver, liner notes to Blind Boy Fuller With Sonny Terry And Bull City Red, Arhoolie Records (1967)

The usual Sugar Hill method was, they’d go out nights to discos to see what people were dancing to, then take pieces from different records: isolate one portion, and use that as a springboard for the rappers. Sylvia Robinson would be instigator. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is the classic example: a direct take from Chic’s ‘Good Times.’ It was like pre-sampling: we’d learn the groove and physically play it.”
Skip McDonald, of the Sugar Hill Records house band (2013)

“The roots are hard – a little bit harder to define…the influence is all sort of mashed-up, y’know, like the influence isn’t in its given form anymore. The influences are…I know it all now. I’ve known it for quite a while…I know how to do it now. I know the music…”
– Bob Dylan to Nat Hentoff, unpublished Playboy interview (1965)

“Bring me my boots and shoes”
– Blind Boy Fuller, ‘Boots And Shoes’ (1937)

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
– T.S. Elliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920)

“Room service? Send up a larger room.”
– Groucho Marx, Room Service (1938)

Look along the spines of your Bob Dylan LPs, and you will find only one set of quotation marks. Recorded by night in New York City in May 2001, as he turned 60, Dylan’s 31st studio album is not called Love And Theft. It’s called “Love And Theft.”

2a

The title is likely lifted from the American academic Eric Lott’s 1993 book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, which traces the origins and development of blackface across the 1800s and early-1900s: poor young white men blacking-up on the stages of travelling shows to perform imitations of songs sung by black slaves; and, sometimes, too, black performers donning blackface, so audiences wouldn’t realise they weren’t white, setting off the weird, knotted loop of appropriation, assimilation and masquerade that has characterised the entire mongrel history of American popular culture, which has often been a ram raid on African-American culture.

Lott’s title stresses that this was a complicated affair. Of course, the white performers’ broad, eye-rolling caricatures were a vicious racist pantomime, lampooning black musicians even as they profited by stealing from them. Tangled up in the theft, though, was jealousy and, sometimes, appreciation, admiration.

Even more than the title, though, it’s Dylan’s pointed use of those quotation marks that is the key to “Love And Theft.” On a first listen, trying to keep up with the record while being knocked flat by how great and strange it sounds, you will notice nods and references to other songs and other texts as they fly by, just as they have always flown in Dylan’s songs.

You hear what you’re attuned to hearing. So, maybe, down in the flood, you recognise the love-in-vain and dust-my-broom echoes of Robert Johnson in “Tweedle Dee” and “High Water,” same as you might have recognised Johnson’s phantom nodding in the corner alongside the spirit of Little Walter when Dylan sang “Pledging My Time” in 1966. (Chris Shaw, Dylan’s engineer on “Love And Theft,” told me that, going into the recording sessions, Dylan originally planned to “face into the corner of the room and sing into it,” as Johnson is shown doing in the makeshift 1936 hotel-room studio depicted on the cover of King Of The Delta Blues Singers Vol. II.)

Or maybe you’re struck by how “High Water” suddenly, briefly, becomes the weird ancient ballad, “The Coo Coo Bird,” famously included on Harry Smith’s fabled Anthology Of American Folk Music. Perhaps you identify the opening lines of “Lonesome Day Blues” as the opening lines of Muddy Waters’ 1951 Chess tune, “Lonesome Day.” Or maybe you’re struck by the moment in “Summer Days” when, confronted by someone telling him “you can’t repeat the past,” our hero is startled out of the zoot-suit jump-blues rhythm to splutter like Jay in The Great Gatsby: “You can’t? Whaddaya mean you can’t? Of course you can!”

The longer we’ve lived with “Love And Theft,” however, as more people have put their own observations and discoveries together, or fed more lyrics into more Google Books searches, the more the magnitude of Dylan’s poaching from other sources has been revealed and investigated. Controversy and cries of plagiarism erupted when it emerged that some “Love And Theft” lyrics were reworkings of lines from Junichi Saga’s 1991 novel Confessions Of A Yakuza – but for fans who recalled how quotes from blues and Bibles and Bogart movies have always filtered into Dylan’s songs, this was nothing new.

Meanwhile, Dylan, like every other blues, folk and rockabilly cat before him, has been taking tunes where he could find them from the first, lifting Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre” as the model for “Song For Woody” on his debut album, and using the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” riff to hotwire “Highway 51” on the same LP, and reworking it again a few years later into “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

So, on “Love And Theft,” “Tweedle Dee” takes its tune and arrangement from Johnny & Jack’s obscure 1961 single “Uncle John’s Bongos”; the rustic surrealism of “Floater” owes its melody to “Snuggled On Your Shoulder,” as crooned by Bing Crosby in 1932; “Moonlight” comes in on the tune of 1930’s “Memories Of You”; “Bye and Bye,” replays Billie Holiday gliding through “Having Myself a Time” from 1938, and the epic closer “Sugar Baby” takes some of its weary glow from Gene Austin’s 1927 hit, “Lonesome Road”; and on and on. Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, unless you’ve heard Ray Charles doing “I Believe To My Soul.”

3

What’s new, perhaps, is the sheer depth and scale of the collage: the game is the same, but it’s up on a different level. (Chris Shaw said Dylan hired him because he’d heard his previous work on Public Enemy records, and the density of “Love And Theft”’s warp and weft of sources recalls PE’s great sprawling sonic collage, Fear Of A Black Planet).

Uncovering and listing off the individual sources, cracking the genetic code of these songs that “don’t have any genetic history,” is a fascinating exercise – picking apart how “Po’ Boy” leaps from Baudelaire (“time and love has branded me with its claws”) to Blind Willie McTell (“had to go to Florida dodging them Georgia laws”) to Groucho Marx in the space of three lines. (“Po’ Boy” owes its melodic debt to “Wanderin’” a folk tune first collected by the poet and folklorist Carl Sandburg in his An American Songbag in 1927. In his introduction to that book, Sandburg reports on a recent lawsuit between two musicians both claiming to have written “Livery Stable Blues”: “Musical history in America already has its traditions and controversies… The years to come will see plenty of argument on other moot matters…”)

But this shouldn’t obscure the odd, resonating, unifying atmosphere Dylan generates from his electronic grid. With those quote marks around the title – with the title itself – he draws our attention to the cut-and-paste technique. Yet somehow, even knowing what he’s doing, you can’t work out how he does it. The effect is an aural gothic-Americana equivalent to the sly, unsettling collages the surrealist Max Ernst created by cutting and pasting together new images using ancient illustrations by the likes of Gustave Dore: at first look, it seems old-timey; then you begin to realise something weird’s going on.

Something else is going on, too. Listen as he leans into “Lonesome Day Blues,” and you hear Dylan roaring and wailing in a way he hasn’t quite in a studio since 1966. One of the truly striking aspects of “Love And Theft,” with its raging blues and its magpie eclecticism, its thronging cast of characters (Charles Darwin, Big Joe Turner, Othello and Desdemona, The Masked Marvel, Don Pasquale…) and its hovering, shimmering, glowing Huck Finn absurdities, is that it is very much the kind of album you might have expected the man who made Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and The Basement Tapes to make next.

Significantly electing to become his own producer, as he entered his 60s, Dylan suddenly reconnected here with the stubborn shade of his 1960s, as though he had finally worked out a way to do consciously what he used to be able to do unconsciously. The alchemical equation he discovered with “Love And Theft” set the pace for Dylan’s 21st century streak. It’s not just that his subsequent albums Modern Times, Together Through Life and Tempest see him using its template again and again; both his film Masked And Anonymous and his great Theme Time Radio Hour show also come exploding out of “Love And Theft.” Even the dreamtime noir of his standards cover album Shadows In The Night lies in its shadow: “Love And Theft” begins by taking old recordings then working with them and working over them. With Shadows, it’s like he’s stripped away all the masks and the layers to reveal the sources. For all this, and for all the connections, though, “Love And Theft” stands alone. By any reckoning, it is one of his very greatest records.

4