Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bob Dylan’s Street Legal

Bob Dylan is one of most creative persons of twentieth century popular music. It is hard to decide if he is rock, country, blues or gospel musician. But genre difficulties are too obvious to be discussed. It is even not easy to cut clearly if he is more musician or poet, singer or video artist. One can be sure he is phenomenon widely recognizable and deciding about the character of American culture. And like American culture in general, during the last half of the century Bob Dylan had changed his artistic style so many times, one can never be sure of his real direction or true identity. For many listeners even his religious conversions look like he was continuously experiencing his own dubieties or testing public tolerance for infidelity.
After being an icon of American song and poetry in middle of the seventies he started whole process of stylistic transition making his output more rock than folk music, although his 1976 album Desire is starting point of alternative country style. Two years later, in February 1978 he recorded Street Legal, an eighteenth studio album that marked turning point in his career. Maybe it was his answer for changes of show business and social reality in late seventies. It was so much more gospel and rock than any earlier records, and many said it was different from anything did by anybody before. Maybe this was a little bit exaggerating, but for sure there are many differences between music on Street Legal LP and anything Dylan did before.

Bob Dylan’s Street Legal  (1978)

Group playing with success on previous Dylan’s albums, here in 1978 became more flexible. Three electric guitars (Bob Dylan, Steven Soles and Billy Cross) had been strengthen by rhythm section with Ian Wallace on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass guitar and Bobbye Hall on percussion. Such core had been balanced by harmonic and melodic accompany of Alan Pasqua on keyboards, Steve Douglas on tenor and soprano saxophones and with three background vocal female singers (Carolyn Dennis, Jo Ann Harris, Helena Springs). In Is Your Love in Vain? sounds the trumpet by Steve Madaio. Female voices and saxophone made special setup for gospel fervent tune, what would have been common in next decade.
Listening to opening the A-side song Changing of the Guards we can see quite new face of Bob Dylan. Some reviewers see it as cynical self parody and for many it really is, especially those who were keen on Dylan’s recordings from sixties. From some other point of view the opening song of the album is a brave gesture of self-criticism. In this song he declares and in next it demonstrates that in the beginning of 1978 Dylan has still a lots of potentiality, after sixteen years of successful and brilliant career. From the beginning, the whole record has great musical impact. Songs, slightly different in emotional level, in instrumental setup are playing with conventions and raw harmonies. Rhythmic connections to country blues and stylistic elements of gospel makes them opening for new times. And whole album has its integral character and aura which is hard to leave behind.


This year Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday came and gone and probably nothing had happened. He is 70 now, but does it really mean anything more we know the date of his birth? Is he wiser than anytime before? Or more credibile? He was always kind of guy with no age, wise from the very beginning, enough brave to make some careless moves and responsible for his mistakes. From his first songs and exposures, it seemed he is a kind of overmature authoritative young poet who maybe wants to play a French existentialist or Russian dissident. But it was going on in America after Beat Generation when „beatnick” was still one of insulting tags. It is possible this is what made his career even more fighting, rebel and anty-system than two dozens of punk or grunge rockers.

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