(Run For The Shadows)

by Mark Carter

The most exciting thing about reading this monthís issue of Mojo was probably the advert for the next issue, which promises an exhaustive overlook of Dylanís activities in 1978 (ďThe year he mourned Elvis Presley.. .met Sid Vicious.. .found God!Ē). There, amongst the blurb, was a lovely picture of Bob circa very early 1978 in leather jacket and big floppy felt hat. Ahhh....the memories that photo brought back....... 

See, 1978 was the year I discovered Bob. Anyone whoís been reading Freewheelin these past few years may well recall my cartoon history and, if they do, they may well remember that 1978 was probably the pivotal year for me, music wise. Not only did I emerge blinking from the fallout of my earlier Glam Rock inauguration hungry for the Next Big Thing (and the Next Big Things in early 1978 - for me - would have to have included Kate Bush, Blondie and Punk, to name but three) (and Meat Loaf, to name yet another three), but I suddenly had the money to buy records on a more regular basis than at any time before. Amidst all of this came Bob Dylan, wafting in through the airwaves like an early summer breeze and gracing the cover of every newspaper and magazine from the Daily Mirror and the NME through to Readerís Digest and Anglerís Monthly. I heard Baby Stop Crying, I bought Street Legal and that was it -I was hooked. Of course, I didnít know it at the time - it would be a good two years before I did (probably when I realised that I was one of only about two dozen or so people in the whole of the UK who had any interest in buying Saved) and by then it was too late. 

So 1978 has always kind of been ďmyĒ Dylan and, for ages, Street Legal contained what I considered to be the ďDylan soundĒ. So convinced of this was I (sorry, I seemed to have turned into Yoda there for a minute), that, despite at least owning More Greatest Hits, Desire and a couple of others by August 1979, I was still positive that Slow Train Coming was going to sound exactly like Street Legal musically, with just a little more emphasis on God and Jesus. Of course, prior to this, the Budokan album came out and emphasised the ďDylan soundĒ, recasting all of his old classics as though they had been written for Street Legal and presenting Bob as The Entertainer; slick, friendly and happy to please the crowd - not something you could accuse him of either side of 1978. 

Twelve months after discovering him, everything had changed and the mediaís love affair with him (so rekindled during that wonderful long summer of 1978) was over. To all intents and purposes he was on a downward spiral, as far as the media and the general public were concerned, that he would not really pull out of until he nearly bought the farm during early 1997.1 think I said this in Freewheelin once before but no one will remember so Iíll repeat it here; I don't think that 1979 Bob Dylan would have snagged me the way that the 1978 version did, even if hindsight has proven Slow Train Coming and the Gospel tour to be close to the best of his work. There was something in the air during those magical twelve months, I really believe that. 

Perhaps thatís why Iíve always been surprised (and not a little disappointed) when the 1978 tour always appears way down the list whenever these ďBest TourĒ polls are conducted and how itís usually referred to in such disparaging terms whenever Bobís touring years are discussed. It seems to me that what made hundreds of thousands of people deliriously happy back then now amazes or embarrasses them when they recall how deliriously happy they were. Nowadays, the common opinion is that Bob was just a bit too showbizzy onstage, a bit too bland and Las Vegas cabaret. The band were too big, the musicianship of a few members somewhat questionable. Bob was coasting, forced to play Japan and European airfields because he needed the money to pay the bills, adrift between more important periods (Rolling Thunder/Renaldo And Clara one end, getting Born Again the other). Bob had seen Neil Diamond in concert during 1977 and suddenly decided that he wanted to be him. These things may be true, though I personally donít think they are, but it doesn't explain why, say, the 1978 arrangement of All I Really Wanna Do was considered cheeky and amusing in 1978 but is considered tacky and false in 2004. 

I happen to think that the 1978 tour was a fine tour, despite - or because of, who knows? - the fact that I didn't go. Iíd suggest that, with the exception of the 1984 tour, that was the last time you heard a live version of Tangled Up In Blue that was worth hearing. Sure, it was a Greatest Hits tour, just like - as I discussed in these pages a few months ago - many of his tours since have been. But, if he was doing it purely for the money and if his heart was supposedly not really in it and it was all a bit soulless, why did he take the trouble of revamping all of those classics? Why work on them and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse (as we know he did 'cos we've got the tapes) when he could have simply knocked off punter-friendly versions that sounded like the originals in less than half the time that would have pleased the crowds and the promoters just as much? 

Itís also one of the few Bob tours where itís essential to get a selection of shows from beginning, middle and end, simply to see how the revamped arrangements continued to revamp themselves onstage night after night and how Bobís voice went from being refreshed in February after itís 20-month break from the road, to peaking in Europe during June and how it really did sound as though he had been gargling with paint stripper during the November/December American dates. Compare, for instance Mr. Tambourine Man in Japan, Europe and then at the latter US dates (the Nashville video footage is a good example) or the changes wrought on Tangled Up In Blue, not just lyrically but emotionally too. 

Itís also one of the last Bob tours where, by and large, he looked pretty good (o-kay, he may have overindulged on the old eyeliner a tad and the lightening-stripe flares may have been a bit over the top) and he would not look that good again until the 1984 Letterman show and, I would suggest, after the 1984 UK shows - where he brought the man in the long black coat to life five years before he actually wrote about him - he would never quite look that good ever again. Letís face it; the day when he decided that the 10-gallon Stetson was an essential piece of stage wear was the day when his onstage presence and charisma dissolved by at least 50%. 

As for those who would file Street Legal below - for instance - New Morning, Oh Mercy, Slow Train Coming, even Time Out Of Mind, well, I can only say that Iím amazed. Itís a great album, both musically and lyrically - and you can't even moan about the muddy production since 1999, when the remastered CD shunted the girls to the back of the mix, made the drums sound like drums instead of baked bean tins (empty ones, at that) and generally cleaned up the sound so that Bobís vocals were no longer competing against the sax and both - voice importantly - were suddenly crystal-clear. Again, the album seems to be considered nowadays as a kind of stop≠gap; a work that falls between the twinned excellence of Blood On The Tracks and Desire and the fire-and-brimstone that was waiting up the road. The same fire-and-brimstone that some have detected beginning to smoulder on some of the Street Legal numbers. Perhaps itís there and perhaps it isnít. Personally, I've never heard it and I donít believe that Bob put it there but hindsight is a wonderful thing and some experts believe that Bobís years of hell and damnation started there, on the songs that he wrote during the aftermath of an unpleasant divorce in 1977. Well, maybe he was just feeling a bit pissed off at that particular time. You would be too, wouldnít you? Whatever, itís a wonderful album; easily up there in my Top Ten and probably even nudging into the Top Five without too much trouble. Itís even got the best album sleeve he would issue until 1993ís World Gone Wrong, and even that sleeve canít hold a candle to Street Legal. 

If, then, 1978 was ďmy BobĒ and Street Legal ďmy Bob albumĒ, that may explain some of my prejudice, but I firmly believe that both need to be re-evaluated by the Dylan community. I would still rather revisit Dylan in 1975 more than any other year but - and hereís where I blow my little remaining credibility completely - after that, I would elect to revisit 1978 before, say, 1966. There; I said it. 

Besides, itíd be nice to see myself again 26 years ago, if only to warn myself not to buy ELPís Love Beach album.