Planet Waves

In the mid-1970s, Bob Dylan produced a string of albums of mind-boggling brilliance. Each one is like the greatest hits collection of a lesser artist. Even at the height of his 1960s impact when he plugged into the consciousness of a whole generation, he had never before produced songs with such broad emotional reach.

Back in the sixties, Dylan had been besieged by idiot questions from ill-prepared journalists, as you can see from Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. By the mid-1970s, that slack and arrogant reporting had faded away, but Dylan was facing a huge personal crisis due to troubles in his marriage to his then-wife Sara, The Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

That personal sorrow produced the heart-rending keening that shivers through 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Just less than twelve months later, Dylan released an even finer album in Desire, an album that I love so much that I bought it on CD before I even had a CD player.

Despite his own personal woes, Dylan was still able to add fun and upbeat songs to his repertoire, like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts on Blood on the Tracks and Romance in Durango on Desire. However, just before those albums, Dylan produced what I consider to be his finest work of all, the gorgeous, passionate and positive Planet Waves.

When this album is mentioned at all, it is rarely included among Dylan’s classic works. Many people probably only know its songs from live performances, such as Dylan’s turn of Forever Young on another Scorsese documentary, The Band’s Last Waltz. For anyone who has never listened to the album before, I really recommend it as a complete immersive experience. It also features some of Dylan’s finest singing, putting the lie to those people who claim that his voice is a sort of nasal wail.

The Mighty Bob

In the middle of the album is one of his most profound compositions, the already mentioned Forever Young, which is played twice: first slow and then fast. That seems a bit odd on CD, but on the original vinyl, one version ended side one and the other began side two. You had to turn the LP over before hearing the other version of the song, and sometimes that never happened as people just left the record on one side of the turntable.

Dylan recorded Planet Waves with The Band, who are all highly talented and versatile musicians, steeped in the music of the old South. Even so, the story goes that when they finished recording Forever Young in the studio, everybody fell silent, and there was a moment of quiet as though they were all slightly shocked by what they had done.

It’s an awesome song and the beating heart of a cracking album. I particularly like the way that Dylan uses the harmonica like a second voice in the song.

Of all Dylan’s albums, Planet Waves is the one I play the most. Every time up I come up against that song, it stops time all over again. It’s funny how with all the really great songs, every time you listen, it’s like hearing them again for the very first time.


5 responses to “Planet Waves

  1. Ah Mr Savage, you are a man if such exquisite tastes, by which I mean, of course, much like mine. You are quite right, a great album that I for one do not listen to enough. I have got it on right now to accompany on my bus ride home, with a Flashman novel (guilty pleasure).
    I think it is worth mentioning that while Bob did get some cheerful stuff on Blood on the Tracks, a lot of it is pretty pained. Idiot Wind has got to be one of the nastiest songs ever written, and one of my favourites.
    Apparently the new version of Self Portrait is amazing and makes up for the original. Have you heard it yet?

    • Idiot Wind is so cruel, isn’t it? “You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” That song is going to be in my head all day now.
      I saw a news story about the new Self-Portrait but I haven’t picked the album up yet.I do love the voice he uses in that era, especially on Nashville Skyline. That is another great album.
      I also want to see Dylan live again because he’s always on his Neverending Tour but I never seem to catch him when he’s in Barcelona. Dylan will be in the UK in November this year though in Glasgow, Blackpool and London, pop pickers, although I think you’re a just a little too busy to make the journey…

      • I have seen him three times live. Two of the concerts were absolutely awful, he either played really obscure songs or mangled his best ones, e.g. Like a Rolling Stone in some sort of bossy nova style. At the first one he just seemed to completely not want to be there. But one concert, in Madrid was incredible. I was going through a bad time, had to scrape together the cash to pay for the concert and needed Bob to be good… And he was, just fabulous, played all my favourites, perfectly. Masters of War was particularly poignant as it was during the bombing of Serbia.
        I think that is the way the Never Ending Tour goes, lots of bizarre or poor concerts and then the occasional blinder. You pays your money, you takes your chances! But if you are enough of a Dylan saddo (i.e. you or me) just being in the same room as him has value.
        BTW, you are not going to be in the UK Oct 1st, we need a quiz team member to replace Neil Wood and David Baker – big boots!

      • Are you allowed to recruit a ringer for your team? I’m waiting on my new passport at the moment so I can’t leave the country unless I get one of those papers from the British Consulate: Or I ascend to the throne, because the Monarch doesn’t need a passport, apparently.
        I have seen the Mighty Bob four times and I have had similar experiences to you. He did a rubbish gig at one of the Prince’s Trust’s concerts in front of thousands of people, but he was absolutely mesmerising in small venues like Cardiff International Arena. I also remember a great performance of Masters of War at the Hallenstadion in Zurich in the midst of one of the Nato bombardments of Iraq. Like you, I thought it was one of the best live performances I have ever seen.

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