It’s a strange thing the first Dylan album. You either love or hate him but you are forever changed having heard him. It’s an as they say life changing moment. What however if your first time is an album that falls into the derided Dylan album category. It seems like everyone should hear Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks first, be bathed in the beauty of the words, the rhythms, the high speed imagery and the stories.
I had a habit in the past of thinking the best way to get into a band was to get the live album, better still if it was a double as that’s twice the volume of songs isn’t it. So when faced with a several hour drive with my new love up the A1 from London to Newcastle in a hired Fiat Uno there was a need for some tunes for the journey. This being a spur of the moment thing there was no time to make the obligatory road trip tape. In fact I had a brief moment of panic, deciding at the last moment to leave the choice to the neighbor, asking him for 4 or 5 tapes he could choose, “and oh yeah do you have any Dylan?”
So we set out with an assortment of tapes, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, Mott the Hoople, John Prine, The Band and some others all greatest hits collections from his drives. Nestled amongst all this was the Dylan tape, the only one he had on tape and joy it was a double live album. I was obviously aware of Dylan, had heard many songs but never sat down with an album and here we were setting out for a long sit down for several days on the way to Newcastle.
So the first Dylan I heard all the way through was Live at Budokan. A universally it seems panned album. Show band Dylan, massive backing band 3000 backing singers, reggae flutes and incredibly jaunty versions of songs, or cod heavy metal at times. Most consider it a travesty. However in the full flush of young love it was the perfect soundtrack to that road trip. Now when I hear the strange flute on Tambourine man I smile and settle in for a long happy listen that takes me back to golden hair spilling out of the car window as we attempted to pick up speed to pass another car in a white Uno going uphill.
Yes there are without a doubt better Dylan albums but none of them remind me of that glorious summer. Here they all are, the hits in almost unrecognizable versions. I have to admit to Live at Budokan being my favorite Dylan album. The day I did this in the Dylan club meeting in the smoky bar in Liverpool they threw me out and refused me entry, luckily I had gotten the GP’s bootleg I went for before admitting this shameful fact.
So it may be a coke fueled frenzied album. It may tear apart classics, reinventing them into strange distorted versions of the original, but damn it sure is a fun album that shows in my opinion that when asked to do a greatest hits tour Dylan does what he does and gives you what you didn’t know you wanted. All you need to hear is the slinky, strange sexy version of One More Cup of Coffee with it’s staccato latin rhythms and congas, oh the congas, to know there is something else happening her. The thing is you have no real way of knowing what it is that is happening. Like A Rolling Stone is relentless, the backing singers hitting every last phrase with Dylan and wailing those lines out like a Greek chorus. It’s a march through the hits, Oh Sister, All Along the Watchtower, all recognizable and yet twisted and torn.
That last sentence would make those men in the Dylan club back in Liverpool very happy. The real thing is if you are not to wedded to your Dylan mythology it’s an interesting listen. Of course now it has become part of that mythology, hated by most loved by some. For me it takes me back to that wonderful week as I grew to know my future wife, getting to know what the rhythms of our life would be. Of course if you ask her about Live at Budokan she probably doesn’t even know Dylan made a live album in Japan. She has however a great affection for The Band’s Last Waltz album which was in the player that week too. Just goes to show she has infinitely more taste than me.