It was 40 years ago that Bob Dylan truly began his comeback and became a committed artist. Everything that has followed — the tours, the stimulating (and not-so-much) albums, the various poses of Dylan all stem from his activities in 1973.
In 1971 and 1972, he had been metaphorically, to paraphrase Hunter Thompson’s witticism, clipping coupons in Greenwich Village. Dylan failed to put out an album of all new songs during that time and didn’t headline a concert, much less embark on something as lavish as a regional tour.
Whether he was feeling too burnt out or distracted or bored or scared or phlegmatic to create magic, we can never know. But the output speaks for itself, in volumes. He needed to jump-start his career or else risk being associated with nonsense such as Field Mouse from Nebraska, or whatever some such trite song was entitled during that period.
Dylan sorely needed inspiration and, fortunately for him and us, found it. Suddenly, Dylan was firing on all cylinders once again in 1973.
He became a movie “star.” He recorded two strong albums. He girded himself for the rigors and rewards of a stressful North American tour, his first such endeavor in nearly eight years. He threw off a reputation for being introspective and private by revealing (on his terms, of course) much of himself through the lyrics of his new songs, not bothering to edit out the pain and dislocation of a crumbling marriage.
He came under the influence of Sam Peckinpah and David Geffen, a true odd couple in Dylan’s back pages. Peckinpah showed him the value of following your artistic musing at all costs. Geffen gave him a kick in the pants to get him going again (and helped make Dylan very rich). Quite a year.
This was the year in which he finished filming on Sam Peckinpah’s western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” playing a shadowy character named, fittingly, Alias. He also started and finished a challenging soundtrack for the movie (his first such endeavor). Later in the year, Dylan moved his family to live in Los Angeles on a full-time basis, forever pulling up his stakes in New York State. Finally, he reformed with The Band, agreed to tour the U.S. and Canada in a major 40-show/42-day/21-city undertaking, rehearsed seriously for the concerts, wrote a batch of songs for a new album and recorded Planet Waves with The Band.
Quite a year, when you think about it, especially since Dylan hadn’t done anything as ambitious as finish recording a new album in three years.
Dylan reached epic heights in 1974 and 1975. In 1974, he and The Band spectacularly toured North America and released the subsequent live album, “Before the Flood.” Later n the year, away form the glaring lights, Dylan wrote new songs that described a melancholy man’s perspective on romantic failure(s). It, of course, formed the foundation for the brilliant album he recorded in September (in New York) and in December (in the Twin Cities). That was “Blood on the Tracks,” which is such a strong piece of work that it could support numerous bootlegs of outtakes, all of which serve to enhance the released album, not diminish its greatness.
In 1975, Dylan reversed the creative process by first recording an album of new songs, “Desire,” and then taking them out on the road in the Rolling Thunder Revue in the late stages of 1975, this time confining his rambling to the Northeast U.S., Quebec, Montreal and Toronto. These shows are regarded by Dylan experts (whomever they are) as some of his best live performances. He sings with fire and greatly enjoys testing the limits of his phrasing as a singer (just listen a few times to the Montreal version of “Isis!” Whew!!)
But before he could climb Everest in 1974 and Kilimanjaro in 1975, he had to experience 1973. The experiences of that year forced Dylan to face and accept those numerous personal and professional challenges. We don’t really know what went on in his personal life with his wife — nor are we entitled to pry into his personal affairs. Something seemed to disrupt his happy home. That’s about all we know. And that is enough for the gossipmongers to deal with.
I’m more interested in charting how 1973 played such a major role in Dylan’s subsequent successes (and inevitable misfirings now and then) throughout the decade of the 1970s. Dylan “historians” (whomever they are) often skip or gloss over 1973, for some strange reason, without fully appreciating and acknowledging its importance in his career. It’s a mistake to give short shrift to a year that found him recording songs as brilliant and yet varied as “Forever Young,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Tough Mama,” “Never Say Goodbye,” and “Dirge.”
With Dylan, what should matter the most is the music, like it does with Clapton, Neil Young, the Stones, Elvis Costello, the Who and so many other performers. But Dylan is unique among them because he prompts us all to care so much about him.
That’s why you can’t slight 1973 when you assess his work. It was the pivotal year, the one that forced him to step out of his comfort zone and push on. He went back to work, happily for us, his fans.
JONFRIEDMAN QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you also think that 1973 was the pivotal year in Dylan’s career or am I projecting to much on to its importance?
As always, feel free to post your comment and agree or disagree, nonchalantly or passionately. But be civil or be gone from this thread,