Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II (1971)

One of the problems with "greatest hits" compilations is that they're too damn obvious.  With rare exceptions, such anthologies are dominated by songs that you hear regularly on the radio. Bob Dylan's first greatest-hits compilation, released in 1967, was no exception; it was comprised mostly of songs that made the Top 40 (including the non-album track "Positively Fourth Street"), plus "Blowin' In the Wind," which was a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary but not so for its author.  In short, it was typical record company product.
When it became apparent in 1971 that Dylan wasn't going to put out new product for awhile, CBS Records president Clive Davis suggested to the bard himself that a second greatest-hits package might suffice for the time being.  Dylan agreed to one, provided he could compile it himself, and he offered to include new and previously unreleased recordings.  The result is a two-LP greatest-hits set that has a lot of duplications for Dylan completists but is still essential for inclusion in any serious Dylan collection . . . not just because it includes unreleased material, but because all of the material makes the case for Dylan as an artist and as a cultural influence.  
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II concentrates a good deal on songs definitively recorded by other artists. Yes, it has more recent hits - "Lay Lady Lay," Dylan's bawdy yet corny country hit, figures prominently here - but it also has his own versions of songs such as "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," covered famously by Peter, Paul and Mary; "All Along The Watchtower," a hit for Jimi Hendrix; "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)", taken to the charts by Manfred Mann; and a few songs made famous by the Byrds.  All of them range from brilliant to interesting (Dylan's inclusion of his haphazard recording of "The Mighty Quinn," from Self-Portrait, is almost an admission that the earlier record was a mistake), but they are all indelible and provocative.  In between, Dylan selected songs he immortalized himself, which include some of his sharpest and most pointed parables and his most direct ballads, spanning his brittle acoustic guitar accompaniments and his earliest electric rock arrangements, from the desperate "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" to the humorous "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again."  This isn't just a collection of random songs but instead is a summation of Dylan's career and the mindset of the sixties as he helped shape it.  This, not Self-Portrait, is his self-portrait.
The unreleased material also mostly relies on songs originally made famous by other artists, all of the tunes never having appeared on Dylan's own records.  A 1963 concert take on "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" (covered by Elvis Presley and by Rod Stewart) serves to remind the listener of how effective Dylan can be on stage with just his voice and his guitar, while the new studio recordings of tunes made famous by performers such as the Band and Joe Cocker present Dylan covering himself.   The trio of tunes he recorded with banjo player Happy Traum that close side four all have a sense of resignation to them, with Bob treading lightly on "I Shall Be Released" and "Down In the Flood"; he seems to contemplate the words as if he were listening to them rather than singing them.  His and Traum's version of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" radically revises the lyrics and pointedly calls out Roger McGuinn of the Byrds for getting a lyric wrong in the Byrds' 1968 version - "Pack up your money, pick up your tent" instead of the correct "Pick up your money, pack up your tent," which here becomes "Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn," possibly the closest Dylan would come to cracking a joke for the rest of the seventies.
Not to be overlooked here are two new tracks recorded with a full band under the direction of Leon Russell.  "Watching The River Flow," an entirely new song (which starts off the set) and "When I Paint My Masterpiece," having only recently been added by the Band to their repertoire, are astonishing.  The former song is a sly piece of heavy blues and the latter is as colorful and vivid as the paintings Bob imagines himself creating, again changing lyrics (and leaving out a bridge verse) from his original ones like Picasso re-imagining objects on a canvas.  Both songs depict Dylan looking forward to a time when he can resume his career in earnest while enjoying the afterglow of what he's already achieved. As this album was being shipped to record stores in November 1971, though, Dylan seemed ready to enjoy some badly needed privacy.  The choice of pictures for the sleeve and gatefold seems to confirm this.  They're snapshots of Dylan at George Harrison's Concerts for Bangla Desh from  August 1971, but the croppings and close-ups suggest that while he was among friends onstage and thousands of fans in the aisles, he was already in his own private world, lost in his own consciousness.

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