He Said, He Said: Debating the merits of the newest Bob Dylan CD, 'MTV Unplugged'

By David Browne
May 05, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Unplugged (Music - Bob Dylan)

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I know what it’s like to be a latecomer to Bob Dylan. In the early ’70s, when the voice of a generation was sewn shut except for releasing idiosyncratic albums like his soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, I discovered him for the first time, along with a few other early-teen friends. Starting with Garrett, which I loved, I began consuming his albums. Soon after, I got my first guitar and a Dylan songbook, fashioned a harmonica rack out of the traditional materials (wire hanger), and proceeded to make a folk-rock racket. Years later, when everyone hooted at his Vegas and born-again phases, I just shrugged. After all, I went into Dylan thinking he was out of synch with the times; he wasn’t about to save anybody, especially me.

Dylan has continued to write and record, of course, and every so often a stunner — 1981’s ”The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” 1986’s ”Brownsville Girl,” a good chunk of 1989’s Oh Mercy — would sparkle among the dross, demonstrating that he still had active, working brain cells. But you’d never know it from his concerts, which during the past decade became increasingly shoddy, lackadaisical affairs. Singing in a voice that took on the harshness and intolerance of a deranged street preacher, he tossed off sets almost entirely devoted to songs written before 1968. For a man who once delighted in challenging and confounding his loyal audience, dwelling on the past was the ultimate in defeatism — and giving people what they wanted, when they wanted it, was never Dylan’s style.

MTV UNPLUGGED (Columbia) is merely the latest derivation of this formula, with the savvy ’90s twist of marketing him to an audience that wasn’t even born when he made his first comeback, after his ’66 motorcycle accident. He’s playing with the same band that accompanied him at Woodstock ’94, and while they remain stuck in casual-to-the-point-of-sloppy mode, they do sound better with the volume turned down. The arrangements, highlighting organ and pedal steel, add a hearthlike warmth; thanks to them, Dylan’s gnarled phrasing is much more tolerable. Their playing alone takes MTV Unplugged leagues above recent, wretched live discs like Real Live or Dylan & the Dead, and Dylan himself articulates his old words of wisdom more clearly and forcefully than he has in ages.

Beyond introducing Dylan’s music to Cranberries fans, though, the album has no point. As with his usual shows, the oldies quotient is disturbingly high. ”Like a Rolling Stone” makes its eighth appearance on a Dylan record, ”All Along the Watchtower” its seventh. It’s impossible to deny the greatness of these songs, yet the remakes add little to the originals; the opening chords of ”Watchtower” convey more drama than his reading. At best, the proceedings have a pleasant, jamming-in-the-park joie de Bob. At worst, as in the blues-lite version of ”Desolation Row,” they turn urgent parables into snoozefests.

What MTV Unplugged could have been is apparent in one of its three post-’68 songs, ”Dignity.” It has the ragged urgency of his Blood on the Tracks recordings, and Dylan spits out lines like ”Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find … dignity” as if he’s trying to outrun the apocalypse. For a few minutes, he’s once again the voice of a generation, and not just his own. Hey Bob, let’s try this unplugged thing again soon — and with a few newer songs this time, okay? C+

Call it blasphemy if you want, but the first Bob Dylan album I bought was Slow Train Coming. Released in 1979, with Ronald Reagan’s hoofbeats on the horizon, the album captured Dylan at the height of his weird, fire-and-brimstone Christian phase; in fact, the guy who led me to Slow Train was the guitar-slinging youth minister at my family’s church. Hilarious as it sounds now, I first thought of Bob Dylan not as a tangle-haired, splenetic poet of protest, but as a crusader for conservative Christian values.

Time disabused me of that notion, of course. Bob dropped the Bible shtick; I heeded the critics and crawled back through the canon — Blonde on Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks. As a true child of the ’80s, I never had any idea what the hell Dylan was singing about, but I fell in love with his seagull squawk and the absurd, reckless rhythm of his words — especially killer lines like ”the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” In the end, I wound up with one rock-solid conclusion: Bob Dyl-an likes to confuse people.

This time around, the confusion comes in a strange package: niceness. At its heart, MTV UNPLUGGED is a far more conservative album than Slow Train Coming ever was. Hoping to tantalize the same youngsters who’ve rescued Neil Young, Johnny Cash, and Tony Bennett from oblivion, Dylan has stocked the disc with chestnuts from the Robert Zimmerman House of Hits — ”All Along the Watchtower” (the song Jimi Hendrix did!), ”Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (the song Guns N’ Roses did!), ”Rainy Day Women #12 & #35” (the ”get stoned” song!). Zap it into the disc player next to Unplugged platters by Eric Clapton, Nirvana, and 10,000 Maniacs and you’ve got a perfect toe-tapping soundtrack for a ’90s cocktail party.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Tame as it may be, Unplugged is also Dylan’s most listenable record since Oh Mercy, and a fine primer for a generation that doesn’t know his music. The band soars, the arrangements percolate with surprises, and best of all, Bob enunciates.

Sure, many of the hoots from the Unplugged audience seem to spring not from revelation but recognition: ”Oh, my God! Bob Dylan’s here in front of us, and he’s singing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’!” And by shedding the scrappy, screechy elements of his music, Dylan does come off as unbugged — someone not especially bothered by the state of the world after 1970. But just when you think he’s sagging into nostalgia, Bob pulls a fast one. Heaven knows whether he closes Unplugged with a weary ”With God on Our Side” as a sly commentary on the latest rash of right-wingery. But it’s fun to think so. B+

Unplugged (Music - Bob Dylan)

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