' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Month: October, 2012

‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’: Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Tempest

In relation to Tempest, I recently found the following quote from Greil Marcus, which, rather surprisingly, summarises my own feelings about Dylan’s current band very well:

‘The band that Bob Dylan works with now is not a strong band. They’re not a challenging band, except for Charlie Sexton, the lead guitar player. There’s no one with an individual sensibility, with his own grasp of a song and where to take it, to challenge Dylan as a singer. The music for the most part is backup. It’s often a repetitive figure played over and over again, so that all your focus is on the singing, on the voice. But Bob Dylan has always sung best, he’s always been most alive, combative and finding surprises in a song, when a band is challenging him, when the musicians are going somewhere he couldn’t have anticipated. I don’t think that’s happening here.’

What I think stands out out on Tempest is how mechanical the Band sounds throughout – except, perhaps, for ‘Duquesne Whistle’ and the guitar solo on ‘scarlet Town’. On the rest of the album what is lacking is the looseness and the sense of spontaneity that you find in Dylan’s best work. There seems to be no space for the musicians to express themselves in.

This leads, I think, to the sense of tedium and monotony that sets in on the longer songs on the album…

In the same piece, however, Marcus also praises ‘Tin angel’ – which I find a monotonous song, with lyrics which are markedly inferior to those of the Child ballads on which the song is based…

Indeed, I don’t really understand how anybody can see clunky lines like this as good…especially by Dylan’s standards:

‘He pondered the future of his fate
To wait another day would be far too late’

‘You are making my heart feel sick
Put your clothes back on, double-quick” (The Boss)’


“Oh, my dear, you must be blind
He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind”

These are surely contenders for the next edition of ‘The Stuffed Owl’.

I also feel as if part of the problem with ‘Tempest’ is the way in which Dylan works in strict forms (like the ballad form of both ‘Tin Angel’ and “Tempest’) which require a kind of regular rhyme and rhythm. It seems to me that most of Dylan’s best work as a lyric writer comes in looser forms where he uses internal rhymes, stretching out lines, etc. etc…

It takes a very particular kind of skill and disciple to work in those kind of forms and avoid becoming montonous…

To my mind, at least at present, Dylan does not have that kind of concentrated discipline anymore. I also think his borrowings add to this problem, because he is continually faced with the difficulty of finding rhymes for lines he has not written – and this sets up many of those times where he lapses into bathos or into, as Michael Gray has pointed out, a kind of McGonnigalesque style …

Dylan-Joni Mitchell feud

Rather surprisingly, much of the commentary on Joni Mitchell’s (admittedly over the top) remarks on Dylan and plagiarism tends to skate over the fact that they were probably influenced by a statement which Dylan himself made to her. She referred to these in an interview she did with Morrissey some time ago:

” I know Dylan said to me at one point that he, you know, he couldn’t write anymore, and I said, “Oh, what about this and what about that?” And he said, “Oh, the box wrote it.” I said, “What do you mean ‘the box’?” He said, “I write down things from movies and things I’ve heard people say and I throw them in the box.” I
said, “I don’t care where you got your bits and pieces; you still put them all together.”

The important line here, I think is Dylan’s plain admission that his borrowing began at a point where ‘he couldn’t write anymore’. This admission of suffering from writer’s block is very different from his claim in the Rolling Stone interview that ‘borrowing’ is simply something songwriters do…

Unlike Woody Guthrie, for example, who often borrowed the melodies for his songs from people like the Carter family, but generally wrote his own lyrics to those tunes,in recent times Dylan has appropriated both words & music…



Bob Dylan’s Tin Angel 2

Would add that ‘Tin Angel’  also has echoes of another far superior folk ballad – that is, ‘Little Musgrave’ in its English version (a great version of which was recorded by Planxty) – this can be heard here:

and ‘Mattie Groves’) in its American. A sample of Paul Clayton’s recording of the song can be found below …


Bob Dylan’s Tin Angel

Am not sure if anyone has pointed out that Bob Dylan’s song ‘Tin Angel’ – at least in its first verse – is partially based on the old song, ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’. The best version I know of that song is by Planxty on their brilliant first album:

It was late that night that the lord came in,
Inquiring for his lady-o.
The servant girls they replied to him all,
She’s away with the Raggle-Taggle Gypsy-o

Oh saddle for me, me milk white steed.
Me big horse is not speedy-o.
I will ride and I’ll seek my bride,
“She’s away with the Raggle-Taggle Gypsy-o.

Oh then he rode east and he rode west.
He rode north and south also,
But when he rode to the wide-open field
It was there that he spied his lady-o.

You can hear the Planxty version of the song here:

Martin Carthy also recorded a version of this song as the ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’ – his version can be found on the Topic album, ‘A Collection’. It can be also heard here:

The American version of the song is ‘Blackjack Davy’, which has been recorded both by Woody Guthrie and Dylan himself.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I like the bloody & portentous Cormac McCarthy-esque story which Dylan has added to the bare bones of the original song (which I much prefer).

I have always found McCarthy an insufferably tedious writer, and a vastly over-rated one…

His influence on Dylan on both ‘Tin Angel’ and ‘Aint’ Talking’ has, in my view at least, been all to the bad.

Ironically enough, ‘Tin Angel’ is also the name of a song by Joni Mitchell – it is on her album, Clouds, and was also covered by Tom Rush. The Tom Rush version can be heard here:

This may be a commentary by bob on the whole plagiarism row between him & Joni (seconds out, I hear you say)
Tin Angel was also, it seems, the name of a folk club in San Francisco in the 1950s. The name was also later used for a similar club in Greenwich Village…