Sunday, June 30, 2013


When historians look back to the first decade of the 21st Century, they may be surprised to see that the best-selling album of that period was a compilation of what was already 30-year-old music.  It was a compilation released in 2000, The Beatles' 1.

Although the compact disc had been around for some 20 years, The Beatles' 1 capitalized on it in a way that was as innovative & obvious-in-hindsight as the Beatles' own best music.  The compact disc had always been 80 minutes (allegedly so that a single disc could hold everybody's favorite golden oldie, Beethoven's Ninth), but here was an album that used the running time space to stuff it with a sort of desert-island treasure trove.  &, unlike pretty much every other "all-you-need-in-one" comp that followed in its wake, The Beatles' 1 had both the depth & the focus: It purported to be simply a running order of every Beatles UK & US #1 hits (which it wasn't quite, but I digress).

At first, Elvis jumped in the fray with his own defensively-packaged "but I was there first..." (true) & "...& had more #1 hits" (also true) disc called ELV1S, lest anyone had any doubt. Michael Jackson then followed suit with an album of #1 hits...& "Thriller," which technically only made #4.  The door was opened for ever-diminishing returns: The Supremes oddly included lengthened edits of their hits (that is, versions that technically didn't hit #1); Mariah Carey's #1 album had all number one hits, but tacked on a few extra (& who really wanted to listen to those—or the old ones either?); The Bee-Gees' "#1" album included songs from albums that hit #1.  By the time Three Dog Night did their obligatory all-in-one album, they at least had the decency to call it The Complete Hit Singles (even though one of their number-one songs was CALLED "One").

Out of all of the artists not to take part in the #1 album sweepstakes, the biggest was Bob Dylan, for #1 obvious reason: He has never had a number one hit single ("Like a Rolling Stone" & "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" each hit #2).  The closest he's come is a close-but-no-cigar (& now outdated) "Best Of" album & a second attempted stab with a single disc summary of the three-disc Dylan.  Neither of them were perfect, which is all that Dylan deserves.

But have no fear—I've spent time crafting my own "perfect" Dylan career overview—a "Dy1an"—if you will, which lasts 79:11.  What follows were my guiding rules:

1.  Only one song from each album may be included.
2.  Every top 10 US pop hit must be included.
3.  Every decade must be included (not counting the one we're currently in).

With that, I made my list.  You're welcome.

1.  "Blowin' In The Wind," The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963. His breakthrough composition, & for many, his signature achievement.

2.  "The Times They Are A-Changin'," The Times They Are A-Changin', 1964. His second-most celebrated folk anthem—the opening "theme song" of his pre-electric sets & a #9 UK hit.

3.  "Mr. Tambourine Man," Bringing It All Back Home, 1965. His last true acoustic anthem &—thanks to The Byrds' legendary #1 cover—one of the few Dylan songs anyone can hum.

4.  "Like A Rolling Stone," Highway 61 Revisited, 1965. The greatest rock song ever recorded? Rolling Stone seems to think so, biased though it may be... #2 US & #4 UK.

5. "Positively 4th Street," Single Release, 1965. A #7 US hit (#8 UK) that was his final kiss-off to the folk world, which was never released on a proper studio album.

6.  "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," Blonde on Blonde, 1966. #2 with a bullet (#4 UK), powered by its "Everybody must get stoned!" refrain.

7.  "All Along The Watchtower," John Wesley Harding, 1967. The most famous Dylan song that no one's actually ever heard Dylan's version.  Probably including Dylan himself.

8.  "Lay Lady Lay," Nashville Skyline, 1969. The biggest song of his "Nashville" period as well as his final Top 10 hit (#7 US, #5 UK).

9.  "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, 1973. Perhaps the most-covered Dylan song outside of the 1960s, which hit #12 in the US (#14 in the UK).

10.  "Forever Young," Planet Waves, 1973. A classic cut from Dylan's first number one album, if you can believe it (I sure as hell can't).

11. "Tangled Up In Blue," Blood On The Tracks, 1975. His finest song since the 1960s off of his finest album since the 1960s, & a minor US hit (#31) to boot.

12. "Hurricane," Desire, 1976. Included only as a nod to its popularity & representing different parts of the span of his career; personally, I find it lackluster & the weakest of all of his stone-cold "classics."

13. "Gotta Serve Somebody," Slow Train Coming, 1978. The best song of his Christian period, as well as his first & best of his "list songs" that he loved to do into the '80s & '90s ("Everything Is Broken," "Dignity," etc.).  Also gave him his first Grammy, if you can believe it (I sure as hell can't).

14. "Blind Willie McTell," Infidels Outtake, 1983 (Released on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 in 1991). What to do about Dylan in the '80s?  He had some minor hits & a sort-of comeback album with Oh Mercy, but this song, recorded for Infidels but not released until the early 1990s, is generally considered his finest song of the decade & often polls in the top 10 of critics' lists of the best Dylan songs.  & this being Dylan, I like the idea of a song that was a true obscurity, saved by bootlegs, & better than many of his most famous songs.

15. "To Make You Feel My Love," Time Out Of Mind, 1997. Dylan's REAL comeback album & 1st (& only, so far) Album of the Year win at the Grammys.  Is it just me or has this song become ubiquitous with movie closing credits?

16. "Things Have Changed," Wonder Boys Soundtrack, 2000. Dylan's 1st (& only, so far) Oscar win.  Also my vote for his most underrated song, period. Listen to again. & again. This thing is epic.

17. "Mississippi," Love & Theft, 2001. Dylan's finest song of the new millennium, despite new songs from each new album being marketing ever since. Released on September 11, 2001, it leaves Dylan standing at the brink of a new era, which seems like just the place to leave him.

Plus, I think that every album since Love & Theft has basically sucked.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Bullet from the Back of a Bush.

50 years ago today, a bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.

Although Evers is only dimly remembered compared to his contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., & Malcolm X, he was well-known in his time as a Civil Rights leader & NAACP field secretary (the first in Mississippi) who fought to overturn segregation in the University of Mississippi.

But it was the desegregation of another college that led to the circumstances of Evers' death.  On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent the National Guard to protect two African American students who had enrolled in the University of Alabama.  That evening, Kennedy made a national address that marked a turning point in Civil Rights. "We preach freedom around the world, & we mean it, & we cherish our freedom here at home;" Kennedy said, "but are we to say to the world, &, much more importantly, for each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?"

In the early morning hours following the speech on June 12, 1963, Evers was returning to his home in Jackson, Mississippi, after meeting with NAACP lawyers.  In his hands were a stack of NAACP T-shirts that said "Jim Crow Must Go."

A bullet was fired from an Enfield 1917 rifle, hitting him in the back, & ricocheting into his house.  Evers staggered a few feet & collapsed on his front lawn.  He was taken to a local hospital & died within an hour, less than a month before his 38th birthday.

* * *

Like Joe Hill or John Brown, Medgar Evers' death was immortalized in many gestures large & small--the Life cover story about his funeral; a key plot point in the smash film & book The Help; even in an episode of the '70s sitcom Good Times, when some FBI agents visit the Walker home & are asked by young activist Michael who killed Medgar Evers to the audience's applause ("We're working on it," is the FBI agent's answer, to the audience's laughter).

But as a matter of fact, someone had been tried for Evers' death--fertilizer salesman & member of the White Citizens' Council (& later the Ku Klux Klan)--Byron De La Beckwith, although two mostly-white juries resulted in deadlocked verdicts.  Three decades later, new evidence emerged (not the least of which was De La Beckwith's own bragging in the years between), & he was found guilty in early 1994.  De La Beckwith tried unsuccessfully to appeal & would die in jail at the age of 80 in early 2001.

All of which is interesting & telling, but fails to bring us closer to Medgar Evers, the person.  Perhaps because he died so early & so young, Evers remains elusive in a way that both King & Malcolm feel more complete--as I unintentially demonstrated above, in talking about Evers we often end up talking around him (his times) than talking about him (his life).

Perhaps the greatest tribute of all is also the most telling--Bob Dylan's early folk song "The Ballad of Medgar Evers," which he shrewdly renamed "Only a Pawn in Their Game," perhaps because he realized that Evers only appears at its first & last verses:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ’neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game

Dylan's "Only a Pawn in Their Game" is perhaps the ultimate tribute to Evers because it is the ultimate statement around him (as opposed to about him).  Evers is the inspiration, framing the song like a Greek epic, but disappearing in the middle three verses that examine the social scenario that led him to be shot in the first place.

As a work of economy & complexity, it is a masterpiece; for my money, Dylan never wrote a better song in his early folk period.  It is less about one man's murder as it is the entire social structure that led to that murder, a staggering undertaking pulled off in a mere five verses.

In its own way, the song is as much about Medgar Evers as it is about Byron De La Beckwith, & system that manipulated him into becoming a murderer in the first place.  There comes from the narrative something like sympathy for De La Beckwith's position, but in the end it is just cold rationale.

The song ties Evers & De La Beckwith together in a gesture of good & evil, famous & infamous, black & white--&, if there's any doubt as to where the singer's sympathies ultimately lie--King & Pawn.