BOB DYLAN: STREET LEGAL (1978)
1) Changing Of The Guards; 2) New Pony; 3) No Time To Think; 4) Baby Stop Crying; 5) Is Your Love In Vain; 6) Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power); 7) True Love Tends To Forget; 8) We Better Talk This Over; 9) Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).
And so, goodbye extravagance and exotica — welcome to the Christian era!!
Yes, you heard me right. While it wasn't until later on tour that Dylan had his «epiphany», and it wasn't until Slow Train Coming that J. Christ, Esq., had formally paid three years rent in advance, the honour falls to Street Legal as Dylan's first album to be soaked from top to bottom in religious feeling. Steve Douglas' saxophone, Alan Pasqua's omnipresent organ, background vocals from Jo Ann Harris, Helena Springs, and Carolyn Dennis (the latter of which would eventually go on to become Bob's second wife) — they all give Street Legal a decidedly gospel feel. The lyrics... well, we all know that Bob had played around with Bible imagery since the early days, but not even John Wesley Harding, where he first tried on the mask of an Old Testament prophet several times, had such a serious tone when it came to references of Eden and Armageddon. Never mind that, topically speaking, most of the songs are centered on love and relationships — even on ʽIs Your Love In Vainʼ, Bob still manages to play the part of a prophet, way too busy with his sacred mission to waste time on trivialities.
I used to get very easily bored with Street Legal, and part of it had to do with its «whiny» feel. Too much complaining and self-pitying in that increasingly nasal and elderly tone of his, pitted against too repetitive and simplistic melodies. The fire seems to have gone out, the energy spent; in its place is a crude, unconvincingly constructed, wall of sound and a bunch of gospel dames (and if you remember, last time Dylan used a bunch of gospel dames was on those unhappy outtakes from New Morning that formed Columbia's lame Dylan album). It sounded like a temporary stop-gap, crisis-period album in between the creative peak of Blood On The Tracks / Desire and the eventual born-again rejuvenation, questionable as it was, of Slow Train. In fact, what does it mean, «sounded like»? It was a crisis album, period.
But the more we have to deal with our own crises (and as of now, I am only two years younger myself than Bob was when he wrote those songs), the more chances, I guess, there are of Street Legal beginning to grow on you. Its slow / mid-tempo grooves may have been somewhat influenced by Springsteen, whom Dylan holds in high esteem, especially in the way the keyboards and saxes continuously beef up the rootsy mix, but even if Bob was ever secretly envious of the success of Born To Run, he could never even begin to try and emulate that bombastic pathos — instead, he turns that wall-of-sound thing inside out, using it as a background for a very bleak, very disillusioned, very cynical view of the world. (From that angle, a comparison with Darkness On The Edge Of Town might have worked better, but that record was released just twelve days before Street Legal came out, so it would have no chance at being based in reality).
Eventually, Street Legal does work — in small bursts, perhaps, but the quality of a Dylan record depends proportionally on how many times the man succeeds in pricking the listener, and I count a sufficient number of pricks to admit that I originally underappreciated it. The first prick, actually, arrives immediately. Street Legal is easily summarized by its first ten seconds — the organ as primary lead instrument; a muscular, soldier-of-the-Lord tempo; three lady angels on backing vocals; and a "sixteen years..." greeting that makes it clear — this is a tired man's summarization of whatever he has achieved in the past, and that summarization ain't going to be too pleasant. Don't believe me? Subtract 16 from 1978 and you get the year of Bob Dylan.
Much as I dislike being drawn in into the analysis of Bob's lyrics, they deserve attention here: "Gentlemen he said / I don't need your organization / I've shined your shoes / I've moved your mountains / And marked your cards / But Eden is burning / Either brace yourself for elimination / Or else your hearts must have the courage / For the changing of the guards". In a way, this is similar to the message of Slow Train, despite being stated in much more obscure terms, but the message here is personal as well as universal — the «changing of the guards» is an announcement that, from now on, things are going to be different, and they were: Street Legal, in a way, marks the final and most decisive period of wall-making that Dylan had entered. Except that this time, he wasn't pissed off at the establishment, or at stupid people outside of his immediate circle — he was clearly pissed off at everything and everybody. Divorce had a lot do with it, of course, but there are certain mid-age hormonal processes involved, too, not to mention a basic falling out with the times, the moment for which was quite ripe in the age of disco, punk, and early New Wave, to whose values Bob had no wish to subscribe in the slightest.
The «darkness on the edge of town» hits heaviest on ʽSeñorʼ, all apocalyptic piano chords and Bob's voice dropping down from nervous fuss to somber «ready-to-go-down» decisiveness. No wonder he was all ready-set-go to join the Lord's armies if "this place don't make sense to me no more" and if he "can smell the tail of the dragon". In 1978, it was the bleakest thing he'd written up to that point — past troubles either carried some revolutionary optimism along with them, or were at least just personal (wife troubles), but this here is the first time Bob states that we are all in deep doo-doo, and does so with shivery competence. And who is the mysterious «señor»? Well, you know, "it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but...".
He did not release that creepy piece as a single: the single, as a matter of fact, was rather deceptive, because ʽBaby Stop Cryingʼ is the simplest, prettiest, folksiest tune on here, with Bob consoling a lady by telling her that "you know, I know, the sun will always shine". Yeah right. Is there any truth in that, señor? People who heard the song and then went on and bought the album must have been pretty mad — including Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, who were all too happy to latch on back to their Self Portrait "what-is-this-shit?" mode. As usual, this shit was an expectation-breaker, no more, no less. Just as ʽBaby Stop Cryingʼ and its almost saccharine (for Bob's standards) tenderness evaporate, the next song is ʽIs Your Love In Vainʼ, whose rampant, raging sexism is so blatant, it is hard even to take it at face value (but the critics did anyway), especially when it is arranged pompously enough to match any national anthem. (Come to think of it, any nation that chooses the lines "are you willing to risk it all / or is your love in vain?" for the refrain to its national anthem would be alright with me).
That said, Street Legal does drag in spots. One song that I have not been able to warm up to at all is ʽNo Time To Thinkʼ, whose main hook consists of, literally, a list — apparently, of all the things in which the protagonist has lost faith and which now float around in a meaningless, monotonous wordy mess, be it «China doll, alcohol» or «equality, liberty» or «socialism, hypnotism». Yes, but eight minutes of this "I'm-so-bored-with-all-that" sermon actually gives one plenty of time to think — for instance, to think about how plenty of contemporary punk bands would deliver pretty much the same mesage at three times the speed and did not have to sound like a disgruntled old geezer backed by a half-drunk, half-incompetent New Orleanian marching band (well, that is my not-too-good impression of what Bob made his band sound like on that song). And it has to be like Dylan to take the album's least emotionally charged and silliest-sounding tune and stretch it to absurdist length (third time around — he pulled the same trick earlier with ʽJoeyʼ, and then still earlier with ʽLily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Heartsʼ, although both were better, ʽJoeyʼ because it at least had strange sentimentality, and ʽLilyʼ had a hot tempo).
Still, ʽChanging Of The Guardsʼ, ʽNew Ponyʼ ("her name was Lucifer" — hello there, padre!), ʽSeñorʼ, ʽLove In Vainʼ, these are all minor classics, and the album finds a nice way out with ʽWhere Are You Tonightʼ, which not only has a clever and tense build-up throughout the long verse and all the way up to the explosive chorus, but actually offers some hope — here is Mr. Zimmerman explaining to us that not all is lost as long as there is still a chance to get close to "a woman I long to touch". (The «woman» would soon turn out to be the son of God, but shh, don't tell). Take it all together, and Street Legal still won't be no masterpiece — I'd rank it about the same as Planet Waves, maybe a little more consistent but with no ʽForever Youngʼ to prop up its reputation. But it won't be a failure, either. If anything, it took an extra set of guts for Dylan to embrace this bombastic style at a time when nothing was as much out of favor with the critics as «bombast», and he didn't do it just to piss people off, either. Most of these arrangements carry a «happy funeral» mood, which must have been just the state of mind that Bob was in, anyway. And maybe I do not exactly «love» these songs now any more than I did ten years back, but I can sort of feel a connection with the spirit that wrote them. Just remember not to listen to Street Legal when you are feeling good about life — this is one album that should definitely bear one of those «parental advisories» — «Sulky / Grumpy People, 35+» or something like that.
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