The Nobel Dylan

If you’re under thirty, you might ask, “Who’s Bob Dylan?”

If you’re over thirty, you might ask, “Bob Dylan’s still alive?”

Yes, Dylan’s still alive, though he’s 80 now, and a lot wealthier for having sold his entire recorded catalog to Sony music, a deal worth between $150 and $200 million

That’s a lot of social security.

Dylan, most widely known for folk and folk-rock music, has a career spanning more than 60 years. With more than 500 songs under his belt – many of them covers sung by other artists and movie soundtracks – he ranks in the top 30 most successful musicians of all time (The Beatles being number one, and Michael Jackson being number two). You may recognize not only Blowin’ in the Wind (a top hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary as well), but Quinn the Eskimo (made a hit by Manfred Mann), Too Much of Nothing (another Peter, Paul, and Mary hit), and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which became a major hit for Eric Clapton – all written by Dylan.  In addition, he was a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys, a short-lived group (1988-91) composed of the royal powerhouse of Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. 

Dylan with Rubin Carter, a free man

Dylan, following in the social justice footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, wrote the ballad Hurricane in 1975, based on the arrest of boxer Rubin Carter for a 1966 murder he didn’t commit and who was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Dylan played several concerts to raise money for his defense. Carter was found to have been unfairly tried in 1985, and released. In 1999, a movie version of his story was released, with Denzel Washington playing Carter.

If that’s not enough of a resume, Dylan is the only American songwriter to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 – yeah, that Nobel Prize – for “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  He’s only the second songwriter to ever be awarded the prize, the first going to the prolific Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote more than 2000 songs – back in 1913.

Dylan on his own can be hard on the uninitiated. His voice is nasally and sometimes whiny, and the socially conscious ballad style of the 1930’s and 40’s isn’t in a resurgence as it was in the 60’s, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen. Dylan has a wide variety of songs and styles, and if you don’t like him singing it, look for someone else performing the song (Joan Baez does several, but she can also be nasally and whiny. Her song Diamonds and Rust is allegedly about Dylan.). With a resume like that, there’s a lot to like.

Try these biographies on Dylan, too!

The Double Life of Bob Dylan
Chronicles
Down the Highway
Bob Dylan in America

The Long and Short of It

Music and its forms have always been in a state of flux. While operas often dragged for hours, recording them, when the means became available, was a different problem. When temperamental wax cylinders gave way to 78 rpm shellac discs, you had 5 minutes of music before you ran out of groove and had to turn it over.  Post-WWII, when brittle shellac gave way to more forgiving vinyl, record speed dropped to 33 rounds per minute, allowing up to 22 minutes per side on a 12” “long-playing” record (or LP, for short.). When the 45 rpm single – cheaper to produce, cheaper to purchase – became standard, music averaged 3-5 minutes a side.

If you wanted to get airplay on a radio, music had to be submitted on a 45, thus most popular songs were limited to around 3 minutes in length (Hence Billy Joel’s line from The Entertainer: “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05”). Albums could play for as long as 20 minutes a song on each side. Jump up to CD, and you can now go to 100 minutes. Streaming? The only limit is your tolerance.

So what’s the long and short of it? What are the longest and shortest songs on the road to success? The 50’s and 60’s, with the advent of transistor radios to make music portable, saw an explosion of short catchy tunes, meaning more could be crammed onto the radio, which meant more airtime, more commercials, and thus more money all around. Elvis consistently comes in under two minutes (Let Me be Your Teddy Bear1:43, Are You Lonesome Tonight, 1:25) as do the early Beatles ( From Me to You, 1:56, Please Please Me, 1:59), Summer Time Blues by Eddie Cochrane (1:58), and Hit the Road, Jack by Ray Charles (1:58).  

Albums play around more – If you’ve got 18 minutes of music, but can squeeze one more short track in, you fill it. Styx’s legendary Paradise Theater album has 3 blink-and-they’re-over tracks (AD 1928, 1:07, State Street Sadie – a flash at 33 seconds, and AD 1958, 1:06). Pink Floyd, who loves to drag out a tune, logs in at 1:25 with Pigs on the Wing, a beautiful melody on the Animals album. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s legendary Welcome to the Pleasuredome album clocks in two blips – Snatch of Fury, at 36 seconds, and The World is my Oyster, which is 1:02, perhaps 45 seconds longer than the track needs to be. 

 

But just how long can you carry a tune? Well, outside of perhaps an opera or symphony (Beethoven’s 9th is about 70 minutes long). American Pie takes up both sides of a 45 at 8 minutes 32 seconds, and Hey Jude clocks in at 7:11, perhaps the longest singles on 45s. But when you hit albums and their longer tracks, if you count all nine parts of Pink Floyd’s ethereal “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from the album Wish You Were Here, it totals 26:01, the longest segment being over 13 minutes. You could add Rush’s 2112, at 20:33, Yes’s Close to the Edge at 18:30, or the legendary In a Gadda da Vida by Iron Butterfly at 17:05 – three songs that can carry you clear across the state.  Meatloaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) made it to Number One on the Charts with a time of more than 12 minutes, so length does not affect popularity at all. 

With the pandemic, streaming of music and even live concerts has increased in popularity. While the current trend is to make shorter songs for the attention-short listener, it will be interesting to see in the next five years or so if, freed from the limits of physical media, musicians will increase the length of their songs or not. Genres are losing their hold as streaming crosses boundaries (ie, Jimmy Buffett gets mixed with a lot of country), 24-bit audio capacity has lead to quieter music (less digital noise on soft tracks and streaming services even out loud tracks anyway), music labels are losing importance as musicians self-release songs, and songs are even breaking up their ages-old format and frequently starting with the chorus instead of a verse. We might cringe at the pace of the changes, but in the end, for the musicophile, it’s a wonderful time for variety and a widening range of music.

Rock of Ages

As Neil Young said, “Rock and roll will never die.” 

Here we are, 66 years later, and he may just be right (well, if you don’t count Mozart and the Old Masters who chalk up hits centuries later, like Herb Alpert’s A Fifth of Beethoven). Maybe because they’re cool, maybe it was just Covid isolation, but a number of “classic” rockers have put out new albums, some of which are rather good, no matter what style of music you like. Not bad for a group of people of whom the youngest is 71. I’ve never been a huge fan of Neil Young’s solo work – he’s twangy, he’s whiney, he’s slow and drawling despite unspeakable talent, but his new album Young Shakespeare got me. Sure, the songs are old classics, but the acoustic guitar on this live album is absolutely exquisite. Even if you don’t particularly care for him, give this a listen just for the guitar music. I listened to the album three times in a row. And he’s not even in my top 50 musicians.

Alice Cooper is another rocker I never got into. His first album was in 1969; I was 4, and it would be many years before I caught on to rock. Now he’s back with Detroit Stories, his 21st solo album.  Some of the album is classic metal work, while some of it is bluesy. I found Our Love Will Change the World to be delightfully commercial, and Wonderful World to be both seductive and ironic. Hanging on By a Thread is a direct acknowledgement that not everyone was able to deal with quarantine isolation, and not to give up. The album feels uneven because of the variety of styles presented, but age is no factor here and Cooper’s still got it. There’s a song here for everyone.

Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, is interesting because of its strangeness, in the way listening to Ironhorse play bluegrass Led Zeppelin is strange – good, but strange. Barry Gibb, the only surviving Gibb brother, sings many of their classic disco-era hits with top country singers, in a pleasant country-pop manner – such as Dolly Parton singing Words, and Alison Krauss singing Too Much Heaven. The effect is some nice easy-listening music, not too country and certainly not disco, with the benefit of the lyrics being suddenly understandable. Even if you don’t like country, this is something that should be easy for you to like. 

Paul McCartney released McCartney II in 1980. Now, 40 years later, he releases McCartney III. For someone with hits in five different decades (yeah, Elvis did that, but he was dead for two of them), it’s not likely he’s going to fail with this one. My favorite is Kiss of Venus, but check out the amazing blues guitar work on Long Tailed Winter Bird. This is classic McCartney unleashed, rock, blues, jazz, Beatles, and orchestration, sometimes all at once. Seize the Day sounds like classic late-60’s Beatles. He’s 79 years old and still plucking away like a master. You might not like all the tracks, but the album is worthy.

Badfinger: No Matter What: Revisiting the Hits is probably the weakest of this group. You might not immediately remember the name, but you’ve certainly heard their music, even if it was only the Brady Bunch doing a cover of Day After Day on their first album. One of the problems is most of the band is dead. Like Greenfields, having a different singer do a cover of one of Badfinger’s past hits isn’t a problem, but more like Alice Cooper, it’s the strange mix of styles that kind of sinks the album. Some sound deliberately tinny, 60’s British mono throwbacks. Some sound ethereal and Pink Floyd-ish. Some, because you know the song so well, just don’t sound right, as happens when – well, when someone remakes a favorite song in a very different style. Sometimes it’s done very right, such as The Art of McCartney (If you doubt Cooper’s talent, check out his Eleanor Rigby). This time, the greatness just doesn’t come together.

Peter Frampton hits his 50th year as a solo artist this year (he’s been in bands since the age of 12). His newest release is an instrumental cover album entitled Frampton Forgets the Words, an easy way to release old material. Imagine you’re at a massive outdoor concert – a rock festival somewhere, and you’re walking around the grassy fields picking your way through people, and there’s some really awesome band on stage playing a 50-minute instrumental improv and it’s just a groovy background soundtrack to your life. That’s exactly what this album is. Nothing sticks out, it’s just the perfect background music for your life, somewhat familiar and comforting without you really knowing why. 

If you know the artists, give these a try. If you don’t know the artists, give them a try anyway. You might just find you missed something good.

A Playlist of Inspiration and Hope

Bill, our Head of Adult Services, has put together an online playlist of uplifting songs.

Music unites, inspires and comforts us. Songs express strength, joy and sadness. They are a common thread through our culture and our lives. Music unites us across the country. It ties us together whether we live in Connecticut, Florida or California – and these songs resonate across generations and offer hope in our troubled time.

This song list is dominated by Boomer Generation songs (alas, what can I say? I’m a Boomer) – but they are timeless inspirational tunes that speak to everyone.

Song Sequence

(click on the artists’ names to see more titles by them in our physical collection):

  1. Lean On Me – Bill Withers
  2. In Times Like These – Mavis Staples
  3. The Weight – Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr & others
  4. Bridge Over Troubled Water– Simon & Garfunkel
  5. You’ve Got a Friend – Carole King
  6. Make You Feel My Love – Adele
  7. Secret of Life – James Taylor
  8. If You Want to Sing Out – Cat Stevens
  9. Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles
  10. Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole

***

Lean On Me (Lyrics)

In Times Like These

The Weight

Bridge Over Troubled Water (Lyrics)

You’ve Got a Friend  (Live at Farm Aid 1985)

Make You Feel My Love

Secret of Life

If You Want to Sing Out

Here Comes the Sun (2019 Mix)

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Women Who Rock

Veterinarian. Astronaut. Paleontologist. Actress. President. Everyone dreams up at least one career for themselves when they’re a kid or a teenager and the future stretches out in front of them like a vast, unending ocean. Me? You couldn’t tell from the basic Gap jeans and the guitars that lived mostly in the darkness of their cases, but I wanted to be a rock star.
I never ended up getting a record deal (big surprise), but I still enjoy music immensely. And lately, I find myself reading about music and thinking about the culture around music. It’s got me wondering where all the women are. Why are we so severely underrepresented in rock bands, and when we’re there, why are we only lead vocals or playing bass? Why do we often dress up in skirts and heels, but guys can throw on a black t-shirt and call it a day? Why aren’t more of us in the wake of #MeToo taking our anger to microphones and drum kits, screaming louder than those floppy-haired skinny emo boys whose photos plastered our bedroom walls before their predatory conduct towards underage female fans plastered the news? Or, perhaps more disturbingly, are we already screaming out to be heard, but the world just isn’t listening because a man hasn’t come along and validated our efforts yet?
On that distortion-pedaled, dropped-down-a-half-step note, here’s some titles to stoke your inner riot grrrl:

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
Noise rockers Sonic Youth might be a tough listen for some folks (coughs, averts eyes), but this memoir by bassist Kim Gordon is not. She details her time in the band, her life as an artist in New York, and her marriage to frontman Thurston Moore.
Did you know that the title for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came from Bikini Kill’s lead singer, Kathleen Hanna? Never heard of Bikini Kill? Then give a listen to this history of riot grrrl, the radical feminist punk uprising in the 1990s, the waves of which can still be felt today.
You might go, “Oh, that’s the woman from Portlandia,” but before her foray into comedy, Carrie Brownstein was best known as the lead guitarist for punk band Sleater-Kinney. (IMHO, their 2005 album The Woods is one of the best rock albums of the oughts.) Her memoir presents a candid and deeply personal assessment of life in the rock-and-roll industry that reveals her struggles with rock’s double standards.
If you don’t know Amanda Palmer from the dark cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, or her solo albums, or as a crowdfunding pioneer, you’ll know her as the wife of Neil Gaiman. (How I wish I could eavesdrop and hear the bedtime stories they tell their child!) Part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet, meant to inspire readers to rethink their own ideas about asking, giving, art, and love. Available from us in print and audiobook formats.