My recent acquisition of, and listen to, Bob Dylan’s latest album Tempest, had me thinking. How much money has Dylan made out of me over the years? Does he not owe me a pint by now, at the very least?
There’s an interesting article on music royalties which is worth a look, but basically Dylan could expect to receive up to 25% of 75% of the retail price of a CD or piece of vinyl as an established recording artist. There are of course deductions: there’s the 25% right off the bat for packaging, and then the usual list of band members, ex-wives, and, crucially, blood-sucking lawyers.
As a songwriter, apparently, he gets about 8 cents a go as well, which is why it was really worthwhile him working on that golden voice of his. Compare and contrast Carole King, who started out as a songwriter in the Brill Building with other future singer-songwriters like Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond in the Sixties, before decamping to the West Coast and performing her own material. It wasn’t just the Californian sunshine got her doing that – there were sound economic reasons too.
Anyway, I’ve oversimplified the interesting article massively, so let’s just completely oversimplify it, and say Dylan got a pound for every one of his albums I’ve ever bought, in whatever format. Let’s say he got the same for the three times I’ve seen him live, another pound for my sitting through his interminable epic Renaldo and Clara (boy, I must have been dedicated) and another for my purchase of the virtually unreadable Tarantula, which I read. To. The. Last. Page.
That probably means, by the time you add up all the vinyl I bought and then re-bought on CD, the old buzzard’s made about £40 to £50 off me. Not exactly enough to put his kids through college, but all the same, as a formerly dedicated follower, you might think it would be worth him dropping by and saying, Hey Andrew, fancy a swift Deuchar’s down the Fettykil Fox?
That’s probably unlikely, since he doesn’t seem to have ventured north of Kent on his tour this year. Besides, he could quite reasonably argue that I’ve kind of had my money’s worth off him, given that his music has inspired me for a lifetime, encouraged me to teach myself guitar and harmonica, and helped me discover a whole like-minded counter-culture of artists, writers and poets (Kerouac and Ginsberg to name but two) long before I had Amazon to second-guess my future preferences for me.
And, in this imaginary conversation I would have with His Bobness (assuming I wasn’t overawed a wee tad at the reality of swapping banter with one of my heroes over a pint of IPA) I might have to concede the chap had a point with all of that.
But, I might venture in response, there is the problem of your recent albums, isn’t there?
What problem, he might say, supping his Deuchar’s and glancing away for a second to take a sudden interest in the Fettykil’s recent refit (quite nicely done, really) before turning back to me and fixing me with those eyes bluer than robin’s eggs and saying again, defiantly this time, what problem, Andrew (I’m not sure if he’d call me Andrew or Andy in this scenario, but that’s probably not important right now).
At which point, having perhaps done my own bit of evasive refit-admiring, I hope I would stare him right down and say, the problem of half of all of them being, well, a bit substandard. To say the least, Your Bobness. If you don’t mind me saying so, as a paying punter.
At which point, I’d hope for an interesting discussion on the intricacies of multi-album deals, and the pressure of fitting in recording sessions between instalments of the Never-Ending Tour, rather than a headline in the Glenrothes Gazette along the lines of ‘Major recording artist and local fan thrown out of pub-restaurant for fighting.’ I mean, he’s pretty old now, and he’s only knee high to a grasshopper. It would be kind of embarrassing.
But really, he should be told. Which brings me back to Tempest.
Musically, the album sticks to Dylan’s formula of the past few years of a pleasing folk/blues/countryish admixture – all hillbilly accordions, vintagey guitars and jumpy drums – using his touring band to produce a tight, flexible sound that showcases the good songs well. Dylan himself (under one of his many pseudonyms, Jack Frost) produces, and really by now he would’ve had to have been asleep, or stoned, through every one of his previous albums not to have worked out how to do that by now.
But inevitably, trailing clouds of glory as he does, it’s Dylan’s songs that have to pass muster. One has to have a bit of sympathy for the old devil here. I mean, how do you follow Hard Rain, Like a Rolling Stone, or Visions of Johanna, to name but three? I mean, credit to him for trying – and let’s not forget he manages it from time to time – vide ‘that Adele song’ Make You Feel My Love (for the best live version imho, see her singing it with Jools Holland on Later…).
It’s also fair to say that it ain’t the Bobster’s fault that music critics, desperate to talk up anything he does in the studio past breaking wind into the microphone, hail each new album as The Great Late Period Work. Honourable exception in this case is Alexis Petridis, whose Guardian review pretty much says it as it is.
Fortunately,Dylan-botherers now have a solution for the problem of the curate’s egg album. Unless you’re some sort of retro vinyl iconoclast who doesn’t believe in mp3s, through the blessed medium of Amazon (or iTunes, if you must) you can download the tracks that are any good, and leave the rest on the tree.
For which, my recommendations would be: Duquesne Whistle; Soon After Midnight; Narrow Way; Long and Wasted Years; Scarlet Town; and the daftly amusing Early Roman Kings. If you’re a fan of Nick Cave style murder ballads, you could throw in Tin Angel for good measure. Which means actually 60 – 70% of the album’s pretty damn good, really – a much higher hit rate than some other recent efforts, which Dylan pads out by throwing in a 12-bar blues structured bit of inconsequentiality every second song.
Alternatively of course you can just buy the CD and press the skip button once you’ve worked out what the clinkers are, but this blog accepts no responsibility for any motorway pile ups if you’re doing it whilst driving. Besides, you’ll miss all those emails from Amazon saying ‘if you think tracks 5, 9 and 10 of Tempest are a bit shite, I wouldn’t bother buying….’
Anyway. A very happy holidays to everyone, and Bob, if you’re reading this, I’m a bit busy Monday/Tuesday, but if you’re passing any other time, mine’s a Deuchar’s.
For the younger and less experienced Bob admirers amongst us, there is a flip side to the inevitable decline of the great man; which is to pick a point, and work through his albums in descending chronological order. I am myself still in the 80’s using this technique, spurred on by the great fruits of previous decades on the horizon.
I would however, not recommend this for any potential Mark E Smith fans, as you will have nigh on 30+ Fall albums to sift through before you get to anything good – perhaps Amazon advisories have their place after all.
Speed up till you meet his mid-seventies pomp, then slow down. I always thought Street Legal was underrated; Slow Train’s worth a listen for the Wexler production and Knopfler noodlings, if you can stand the God-bothering.