Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, was born on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. One of his musical heroes is Woody Guthrie. Starting in 1961 Dylan played at different clubs in Greenwich Village. Johnny Cash was an early fan of Dylan’s. Dylan’s first album which was self-titled came out it 1962 and included the songs ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Gospel Plow’. On November 17th and 18th of 1994 Dylan recorded a TV special and live album at Sony Music Studios in New York. The album, released in April of 1995, was called MTV Unplugged. It was his best selling album in years. It hit No 23 in the U.S., went gold, and hit No 10 in the U.K. Backing Dylan skillfully were: Tony Garnier (bass), John Jackson (guitar), Bucky Baxter (pedal steel, dobro), Winston Watson (drums), and Brendan O’Brien (Hammond organ).
Starting things off is ‘Tombstone Blues’. Dylan’s singing voice might be said to be moaning by non-fans. This opener is upbeat blues musically. It includes these strange lyrics only Bob Dylan could come up with: “Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief/Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief/Saying, ‘Tell me Great Hero, but please make it brief/Is there a hole for me to get sick in?’/The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly/Saying, ‘Death to all who would whimper and cry’/And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky/Saying ‘The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken’”. 1989’s ‘Shooting Star’ is an old country ballad in style. It is one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs. It is addressed to one’s former romantic partner: “Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you/You were trying to break into another world/A world I never knew/I always kind of wondered/If you ever made it through/Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you/Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of me/If I was still the same/If I ever became what you wanted me to be/Did I miss the mark or/Over-step the line/That only you could see?/Seen a shooting star tonight and I thought of me”.
Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Vedder are among those who have covered the next song ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Here Dylan’s vocals are nasally on one of the most recognizable rock songs ever. Here are some of the lyrics: “’There must be some way out of here’/Said the joker to the thief/’There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief/Businessmen, they drink my wine/Plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line know what any of it is worth’”. 1963’s folk classic ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ is sung with passion. It encourages the older generation to have an open mind and heart towards the younger: “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/And don’t criticize what you can’t understand/Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one/If you can’t lend your hand/For the times they are a-changin’/The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast/The slow one now will later be fast/The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’”.
‘John Brown’ is a story song about a young man returning home from the battlefield: “Oh, his face was all shot up and his hand was blown off/And he wore a metal brace around his waist/He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know/While she couldn’t ever recognize his face!.../He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move/And the mother had to turn her face away.../’The thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close/And I saw that his face looked just like mine’”. What powerful words! ‘Rainy Day Women #12 and 35’ could have a couple of meanings. It could be addressed to Dylan’s critics who are always looking for something bad. Or it could be about getting high! This version here has a bouncy pop carnival like feel to it. Dylan’s vocals sound like he is on a trip of some kind! Harmonica is used on this track. Here are some of the words: “Well, they’ll stone you and say that it’s the end/Then they’ll stone you and then they’ll come back again/They’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car/They’ll stone you/When you’re playing your guitar/Yes, but I would not feel so all alone/Everybody must get stoned”.
‘Desolation Row’ runs over eight minutes long. It is delivered quietly vocally and musically. It is one of Dylan’s songs known for the many characters he presents: “Now the moon is almost hidden/The stars are beginning to hide/The fortunetelling lady/Has even taken all her things inside/All except for Cain and Abel/And the hunchback of Notre Dame/Everybody is making love/Or else expecting rain/And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing/He’s getting ready for the show/He’s going to the carnival tonight/On Desolation Row”. 1989’s ‘Dignity’ has a catchy beat for dancing. It finds Dylan in elusive pursuit of, well, dignity: “Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve/Somebody said dignity was the first to leave/I went into the city, went into the town/Went into the land of the midnight sun/Searchin’ high, searchin’ low/Searchin’ everywhere I know/Askin’ the cops wherever I go/Have you seen dignity?.../Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/Dignity never been photographed.../So many roads, so much at stake/So many dead ends, I’m on the edge of the lake/Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity”.
Dylan’s classic ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ has been performed by Guns ‘N’ Roses and Whitecross among others. It is a moving anti-war ballad: “Mama, take this badge off of me/I can’t use it anymore.../Mama, put my guns in the ground/I can’t shoot them anymore/That long, black cloud is comin’ down/I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door”. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ dates back to 1965. This version is over eight minutes long. It is an emotion filled rock classic in a class all its own. It warns strongly against pride: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?/People’d call, say ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall’/You thought they were all kiddin’ you/You used to laugh about/Everybody that was hangin’ out/Now you don’t talk so loud/Now you don’t seem so proud/About having to be scrounging for your next meal/How does it feel/How does it feel/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?”
The last song performed is ‘With God on Our Side’. It is a folk protest song that questions using religion as justification for war: “I’ve learned to hate Russians/All through my whole life/If another war starts/It’s them we must fight/To hate them and fear them/To run and to hide/And accept it all bravely/With God on my side/But now we got weapons of the chemical dust/If fire them we’re forced to/Then fire them we must/One push of the button/And a shot the world wide/And you never ask questions/When God’s on your side.../If God’s on our side/He’ll stop the next war”.
Bob Dylan is a legend and treasure just like Johnny Cash, Larry Norman, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. The songs on MTV UNPLUGGED have meat, substance, and deep meaning to and behind them. These are not songs meant to please people, but rather to convey Bob Dylan’s worldview and viewpoints on serious issues and life situations. I’m rating this one 95%. For more info visit: www.bobdylan.com and www.columbiarecords.com.