Category: Bob Dylan’s Bad Dreams

Bob Dylan's 3rd Bad Dream: "Million Dollar Bash"

Bob Dylan is my favorite singer/songwriter.  Original, I know, and I’ll spare you the diatribe about his greatness as his standing among the 20th century’s greatest performers and personas is well established.  He is immortal as far as the history of music is concerned and bears responsibility for some of the best musical and lyrical offerings ever produced.  That being said, Dylan’s undertakings became more mercurial as his career went on, and in addition to having written some of the most powerful and groundbreaking songs of his generation (or ever), he may also have lashed together some of the worst I’ve ever heard.  This ongoing series entitled Bob Dylan’s Bad Dreams seeks to bring those forgotten anti-classics into full view with naught but love and admiration.  The idea is to keep this list going on a semi-regular basis until I run out of things to say.

Album: The Basement Tapes (1975)
Link: Lyrics/Audio

While The Basement Tapes boasts one of my favorite album covers, the same can't be said for some of its musical offerings, though, overall, it's fairly decent album.  Recorded mostly in the basement of Big Pink by Dylan and members of The Band—in a pairing that usually produced some spectacular work, which includes (you snobs) some of the fantastic drunken songs at the end of Self Portrait—it may be a little unfair to hold this one up to the standards of a studio release. These were bootlegs, after all, and for the most part, Dylan and The Band were probably just fucking around for most of this one.

Still, someone got the bright idea that these sessions should be collected and then sold to fans for money.  (According to Wikipedia, we can thank Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner.) In case I've inaccurately stated my position, let me assure you that I'm always ecstatic when a trove of unknown, or even amateurish, Bob Dylan recordings are unearthed and then released for public consumption.  These often mediocre cuts become a part of the strange legend of Robert Zimmerman, of which Dylan's dark years—we'll say the period between the late-1970s and 1989, until the release of Good As I Been to You—are certainly a major part.

But what Bob was on during The Basement Tapes is another question altogether, and one I'm loath to ponder for too long.  Take this gem from the first verse:

Well, that big dumb blonde
With her wheel in the gorge
And Turtle, that friend of theirs
With his checks all forged
And his cheeks in a chunk
With his cheese in the cash
They’re all gonna be there
At that million dollar bash
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
It’s that million dollar bash

Just what the hell that means, I don't know.  And I don't think I want to know.  Most likely, Dylan was simply being absurd, spitting out a collection of verses so random and meaningless he didn't even know they would one day see the light of day.  So I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.  I'm willing to accept that this transgression was not as premeditated as his first two bad dreams:  "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" and "They Killed Him."  I'm willing to accept that even Bob Dylan, through his first fifteen years as a performer, could have perpetrated a massive flub like this one.  But I am not willing to let him completely off the hook, because he should have known better.

Besides, I kind of like it.

Bob Dylan's 2nd Bad Dream: "They Killed Him"

Bob Dylan is my favorite singer/songwriter.  Original, I know, and I’ll spare you the diatribe about his greatness as his standing among the 20th century’s greatest performers and personas is well established.  He is immortal as far as the history of music is concerned and bears responsibility for some of the best musical and lyrical offerings ever produced.  That being said, Dylan’s undertakings became more mercurial as his career went on, and in addition to having written some of the most powerful and groundbreaking songs of his generation (or ever), he may also have lashed together some of the worst I’ve ever heard.  This ongoing series entitled Bob Dylan’s Bad Dreams seeks to bring those forgotten anti-classics into full view with naught but love and admiration.  The idea is to keep this list going on a semi-regular basis until I run out of things to say.

Album: Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
Link: Lyrics/Audio

"They Killed Him" has to be right up there with "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" for the worst Bob Dylan song of all time, and the only thing that prevents me from awarding it the title outright is the fact that it's a cover of a Kris Kristofferson song.  I've never heard Kristofferson's version so I can't comment as to the original's integrity.  Even so, Dylan must bear some of the blame for picking a song with such trite lyrics for an album that bears his own name.

Chronicling the plights of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ, the song opens with a laughably elementary horn melody and lauds each character for standing up for the rights of the afflicted and then gasps in disbelief at their untimely ends with a group of Gospel singers piping up "My God, they killed him".

Calling this an exceptionally bad song isn't meant to in any way discredit the works of Ghandi or King, mind you.  Both were indelible figureheads for civil rights and great men in their own respects  (same for Jesus Christ but fictitiously so), and perhaps both Kristofferson and Dylan could be forgiven for falling without restraint into mawkishness.  After all, the assassinations in question are certainly among the most depressing when one looks back at the fight for humanitarian rights in the twentieth century, but Dylan takes a hit for the bridge in which he enlists a children's chorus to provide a monotonous song its sentimental hook.  There is hardly a more insulting move than this.  The Rolling Stones did it with "You Can't Always Get What You Want," but there was a strange irony that somehow managed to forgive the move.  Here, Dylan is clearly getting his rocks off acting as Messenger.

I've never had a problem with Dylan's voice, whatever the iteration, from the talky vocals during his folk years, to the frog-throated warble of his country years, or even the croaking he began to employ with advancing age.  It was the luminary David Byrne who said, "The better the singer, the harder it is to believe what he's saying."  But Dylan's nasally whine on "They Killed Him" makes him sound like a man who's given up, and it's difficult to believe this is the same musician that wrote "Highway 61 Revisited" or "Subterranean Homesick Blues".

So let's take a quick inventory: bad horns, bad Gospel choir, bad children's choir, self-righteous/mawkish front man.

What did the Eighties do to Bob Dylan?  My God, they killed him (temporarily).

This article is cross-posted at Foolish Human.

Bob Dylan's 1st Bad Dream: "Man Gave Names to All the Animals"

Bob Dylan is my favorite singer/songwriter.  Original, I know, and I'll spare you the diatribe about his greatness as his standing among the 20th century's greatest performers and personas is well established.  He is immortal as far as the history of music is concerned and bears responsibility for some of the best musical and lyrical offerings ever produced.  That being said, Dylan's undertakings became more mercurial as his career went on, and in addition to having written some of the most powerful and groundbreaking songs of his generation (or ever), he may also have lashed together some of the worst I've ever heard.  This ongoing series entitled Bob Dylan's Bad Dreams seeks to bring those forgotten anti-classics into full view with naught but love and admiration.  The idea is to keep this list going on a semi-regular basis until I run out of things to say.

Album: Slow Train Coming (1979)
Link:  Lyrics/Audio

I'm not sure if "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" is the worst song Dylan has ever recorded, but it's certainly close.  Coming off the earlier portion of his descent into Christian-themed music and through twelve verses of banal, unironic descriptions of — for the most part — farm animals, Dylan alludes to the story of Adam bestowing names upon all God's creatures:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl in the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.  And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

Genesis 2:19-20, King James Version

Dylan, however, tends to phrase Adam's exploits in this regard with considerably less poetry than the indelible King James Version of the Bible.  Take, for instance, my favorite verse of the lot:

He saw an animal up on a hill
Chewing up so much grass until she was filled
He saw milk comin’ out but he didn’t know how
"Ah, think I’ll call it a cow"

He couples his childish lyrics — and really, this song's only legitimate home is within the disease-ridden confines of a Kindergarten classroom — with a hefty serving of backing Gospel singers as would be his wont for some time.  (There will be other entries that deal with more egregious uses of the Gospel tradition, which I do like, by and large.  It can, however, be abused and mutated to horrendous effect.)

To end off what amounts to a musical version of a See 'n' Say, Dylan concludes the song with an ellipsis as if challenging you to name the animal he is describing in the last verse.  Go ahead.  See if you can guess, but you have to actually listen to the roughly 4:20 that precedes this point in the song because I did, and it's very lonely out here.

This article is cross-posted at Foolish Human.