The last time he released an unflawed gem, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and sent the country into a downward spiral of pain and confusion. On the same day. Now, Bob Dylan has released "Tell Tale Signs" just in time for the arrival of what's shaping up to be the new Depression.
Coincidence? I'm starting to doubt it.
"Highwater risin', rising night and day/All the gold and silver are being stolen away/Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind/He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine/Nothin' standing there/High water everywhere."
It's pretty tough to read these lines from "High Water (for Charley Patton)" as simple lyrics. They have the authority of scripture and are delivered via the dispassionate observational tone of the omniscient seer. Not bad for a rock song.
The point is, Dylan's art is best enjoyed while the world is crumbling around you. There's some cold comfort in his narrative stance of righteous disgust.
Early on, Dylan's best work arrived amid tumult, war, social upheaval, the influx of hallucination-offering drugs into the counterculture's would-be utopia. In the '70s, he stood to one side and watched it all fall apart, penning fables in the mode of "Isis" that were pearls before the swine, since really, who needed a modern-day Homer's observations when there was all that cocaine to snort and disco-dancing to do? The '80s were a bummer for nearly everyone, not just Dylan, and he did manage to croak out more than a dozen masterpieces, the best of them arriving like news bulletins from a soothsayer with an inside track on man's inevitable fate.
By the time the fashionistas grew amenable to the idea of admitting Dylan back into the hallowed halls of the "legitimate rock icon" once again -- right after he released "Time Out of Mind" -- he was willing to thank them all by insisting that "Things Have Changed," probably not what those who'd drape him in the garments of a savior wanted to hear.
"People are crazy and times are strange/I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range/I used to care/But things have changed."
He'd underscore this in "Mississippi," by telling the assembled (again, on the very day the planes hit the towers):
"Got nothing for ya/I had nothin' before/Don't even have anything for myself anymore/Sky full of fire, pain pouring down/Nothing you can sell me/I'll see you around."
Now, "Tell Tale Signs" is here, and of all the "Bootleg Series" releases -- this is the eighth installment -- this one packs the most chilling reflections Dylan has yet penned. When still just a kid, Dylan wanted to be Woody Guthrie, whose "Dust Bowl Ballads" captured the zeitgeist of the first Great Depression, when it was easy to believe that America, as a big idea, had gone bust. You don't have to believe that we're in the same oarless boat headed toward an even bigger waterfall today. But it might be a good idea if we were honest with ourselves.
"Tell Tale Signs" starts with a stripped-down early take of "Mississippi," which is appropriate. (See above.) The search for "Dignity" is, of course, doomed to failure, and this version finds Dylan spitting the words, more than singing them. He's bearing witness, after all; it's all got nothing to do with him.
"Tell Ol' Bill" is cloaked here in the raiments of pure genius, and it's a latter-day masterpiece that outstrips anything on "Time Out of Mind," truth be told. You can read it as simply the personal reflections of a man at the end of the line, sure. But you can also read it as "My Country, Tis of Thee's" brooding brother. To wit:
"The river whispers in my ear/I'd hardly a penny to my name/The heavens never seemed so near/All my body glows with flame/The tempest struggles in the air/And to myself alone I sing/It could sink me then and there/I can hear the echoes ring."
The whole thing is giving me the creeps, by this point. And I really believe it's supposed to.
In Buffalo, we know all about this, and so I accepted it as wholly logical and probably inevitable that, on the same day "Tell Tale Signs" fell into my lap, a homegrown collection known as "...Whose Names are Unknown: Music From the Great Depression" landed on my desk with an ominous thud. The labor of love of producer and, apparently, Great Depression historian Tom Naples, "...Whose Names are Unknown" finds Buffalo musicians such as Alison Pipitone, Jerry Raven, Chris Panfil and the Thirds, et al, tackling Dust Bowl prayers like "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?," "Dust Pneumonia Blues," "I Ain't Got No Home" and "Pastures of Plenty." The record is absolutely haunting and well worth checking out. (Do so at www.musicfromthedepression.com.)
While you're there, scroll through the poignant photos Naples has assembled, and ponder some more lyrics from "Tell Tale Signs."
"Highwater rising, six inches above my head/Coffins droppin' in the street like balloons made out of lead/Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm gonna do/Don't reach out for me, she said, can't you see I'm drowning too?/It's rough out there/High water everywhere."
Uh oh. . .