I like soft kisses rather than, um, the alternative, because soft kisses feel like they can last forever, while the other is more about the present. Time and a place, of course.
I bring this up because John Wesley Harding is a soft album. It’s a soft album that followed Dylan’s hardest albums: Bringing It Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, hard albums because of the electric guitar; Blonde on Blonde a hard album because its challenging and overwhelming nature. And interesting, given the apocalyptic scene of 1967 – a year of Sgt. Pepper’s, Forever Changes, Jimi Hendrix, Hendrix again, Jefferson Airplane’s best album, Pink Floyd’s debut, a year that Dylan made possible (limiting our scope to music, and psychedelic music only) – Dylan would retreat to the sparer, softer folk of his early years. And, of course, I’m reminded of that line from Glengarry Glen Ross: “What is our life? … It’s looking forward and it’s looking back” (I’ve been thinking about that speech a lot these days); the tenderer voice Dylan sings here, with the steel guitar of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, look towards Nashville Skyline, where the retreat furthered.
And the apocalypse is all but explicitly referred to on “All Along the Watchtower.” The opening lines, “’There must be some kind of way out of here,’ said the Joker to the Thief” indicates trouble from the get-go, a world that not even two trouble-makers want to partake in, and that’s before Dylan goes into detail: “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief / Businessmen, they drink my wine / Plowmen dig my earth.” Add Dylan’s harmonica introducing the track – “The wind began to howl,” linking the beginning of the song to the end, sonically – and we have one of Dylan’s best openings ever (after some of the more obvious picks). Jimi Hendrix does something similar, but with an electric guitar instead of a harmonica.
Anyway, I don’t have a lot to say about this album, so I’ll just lay them out in one paragraph, right here. First and foremost: the rhythm section here is just as important as Zimmerman, and frankly, if not more: Charlie McCoy provides melodic colour in his bass playing and Kenneth Buttery does – simply put – some of the most understated badassery in drumming you’ll ever hear. Take, for example, “As I Went Out One Morning,” where Dylan sings the title words and Kenneth Buttery does a drumroll, to signal Dylan’s movement or perhaps the morning sun. And consider McCoy’s counterpointing, not just in that song, but also “Dear Landlord.” Similarly, both get “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” to where it needs to go. But that’s not to write off Dylan: he sings “Drifter’s Escape” like he knows what an excellent rhythm the three of them find, and puts himself into a foreigner’s shoes through “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” Elsewhere, they perk up a bit on the fast-paced “The Wicked Messenger” (where Dylan expertly spins the melody, despite the tempo, and I don’t just mean “perk up” to refer to the melody, but also the song’s conclusion) and “Down Along the Cove”, where Dylan discovers Jerry Lee Lewis, who had then discovered country just a few years prior. Each is a good song, though I don’t think anything here is as good as “Spanish Harlem Incident” (from Another Side of Bob Dylan) or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan). Worse than either of those, but it’s certainly warmer and more colourful than The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Soft kisses, always and everywhere.