Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Delicious crumbs from the master's table

My nephew Matt, 12 years younger than me, challenged me this week to name my 10 favourite albums of 1974. A good choice for nostalgic wallowing. While he was no doubt listening to Bagpuss and The Clangers, it was a seminal year in my teenage development, largely shaped by The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Matt’s own list of 1987 faves, post-punk and heavily indie-flavoured, contained nothing I ever knowingly heard. While mine for ’74… well, see the inset panel.
It was not in every way a vintage year. Several of my favourite bands – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Caravan – were between outstanding albums, while what I remember as my favourite album of 1974, Brothers And Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band, turns out to have been released in ’73.
It’s not generally considered to have been a vintage year for Bob Dylan, either. Eight years after the motorcycle accident that ended his most productive and creative spell and a year before his return to form with the magisterial Blood On The Tracks.
Nevertheless, there could be no doubt, either then or now, that my 1974 Top Ten had to include two Dylan LPs. Planet Waves has never had the reputation it deserved, even among Dylan fans. While Before The Flood is not just Dylan’s best live album, it’s the best live album by anyone.
But then, with the exception of the 1980s – music’s dodgiest decade and the era of Dylan’s dreary Christian dirges – there’s hardly been a year in the last 50 when he wouldn’t have been a prime contender for the chart.
And now, at age 72, he’s done it again, releasing my clear favourite album of this year so far.
Mind you, it’s nothing new.
While last year’s Tempest was no better or worse than either fans or detractors might have expected, Another Self Portrait is an instant classic. And it was all recorded in 1970-71.
Basically a bunch of 35 outtakes and alternative versions from the recording sessions that produced the poorly-received albums Self Portrait and New Morning, it’s a better record than either. More coherent than the first Self Portrait (an ironic title, since most of the songs were borrowed from other people), more interesting than New Morning. And in nearly every case the performances are better than on the versions we’ve known all these years.
Dylan’s voice on this collection is as varied as the songs, several of which are drawn from the “traditional” folk canon. Almost throughout he demonstrates that the commonly held view that he can’t sing is way off-target – or was back then.
If only it contained his versions of Otis Redding’s Dock Of The Bay and Donovan’s Universal Soldier, recorded at the same sessions. Those would surely have been fascinating.
This latest addition to the “Official Bootlegs” series, Volume 10, isn’t quite the best Dylan album of the 21st century. That was Tell Tale Signs, No. 8 in the set, a superb collection of outtakes and “rarities” from 1989 to 2006, released in 2008, that for me belongs in a Top Ten of all his albums.
But this one will keep me engaged until the next “official bootleg” (a contradiction in terms, surely) comes along.
Crumbs from the master's table, perhaps, but still tastier than most artists' best-prepared gourmet meals.

The morning after the House of Commons passed its most historic vote of modern times, the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown professed himself “ashamed”.
In rejecting a military assault on Syria, Parliament had – according to Ashdown – “greatly diminished” Britain.
“The special relationship with the US is seriously damaged, and Britain is now more isolated,” he claimed. “It was a bad night for the government. I think a bad night for Britain too.”
So that’s what it was all about, then, was it? Britain’s “special relationship” with the mighty US of A.
Which, as we so vividly saw in the Bush-Blair, Iraq-invading years, is the special relationship of a poodle with its redneck owner.
When Ashdown speaks in horrified tones of the “burning children” we see on our TVs he assumes it’s up to Britain to do something about it – as if our imperial past gave us a special role as global cops. As if that was not the role of the United Nations.
And as if there was anything we could do, militarily, other than make matters worse.
Even if it were proven conclusively (which it hasn’t been yet) who the bad guys with the chemicals really are.
So far from being a bad night for Britain, last Thursday’s vote was a rare and unexpected triumph for Parliamentary democracy.
And, I’d suggest – against what seems to be the common view – that it was a good night for the government too.
In asking Parliament’s opinion, and agreeing to abide by its view even against his own, David Cameron didn’t lose status as a leader so much as gain it as a democrat.

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