According to Newsweek, Dylan’s 2001 album Love and Theft was the second best album of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Newsweek’s judgment is fine, though in my opinion, the follow-up, Modern Times, released on the first anniversary of Katrina, was better, both musically and lyrically. The Levee’s Gonna Break is headline news and social commentary transformed into the blues, but that is a whole other story.
Love and Theft was his 31st studio album. It came after 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, and along with Modern Times, is the central jewel of an artistic comeback that put critics on notice. Some purists may scream heresy, but this trilogy is as worthy and weighty as his essential mid-sixties brilliance: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.
Love and Theft is pure Americana with a cast of characters that includes outcasts, bandits, scoundrels and a desperado or two. It is layered with foreshadowing and apocalyptic musings, which is not out of the normal for Dylan. What makes it different or significant here is that the album came out on September 11, 2001. Just another Tuesday when Columbia House determined its release date, but now universally known as 9/11.
We were living in Morrison, a small town carved out of an endless landscape of corn and soybeans in northwestern Illinois. My schedule was full that day. After the nightmare attacks the phone began ringing off the hook. It quickly became apparent that whatever was planned would have to be accomplished on the fly.
Between receiving phone calls and making them in an attempt to track down family members who were scattered far and wide, the work sort of got done. The television coverage of the unspeakable horror kept capturing my attention. If writing was on tap that morning, it surely must have been a collection of disjointed or disconnected half-thoughts.
There was a noontime meeting with a good friend that almost got cancelled, but did not because hanging out with Mike was always a rewarding exchange of experience and perspective. There was never any fluff in our conversations. We’d talk about all of life’s interesting intersections: Music, movies, faith, politics, history, current events, family and vision. Mike was teaching music at the high school in Sterling, fifteen miles from Morrison.
On the drive I listened to the local NPR affiliate, hearing insights that filled me with a searing sense of helplessness and anger. Like everyone, understanding was racing somewhere along the edge of consciousness, but it’d take time to process and come to terms with the new reality of terror. I was anxious to debrief with Mike, but if the truth be told, and since honesty is always the best policy it will be the unvarnished variety expressed here: There was another crucial factor compelling me to keep the appointment. Buying Love and Theft after our lunch was on my list of things to do on that particular day.
There was a great deal of anticipation surrounding it. Rolling Stone magazine had given it a Five-Star Rating. With that kind of recognition, even terrorists flying planes into buildings could not slow me from making the purchase.
A mushroom cloud, maybe. Maybe.
Dead Or Alive
“Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew. You can’t open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view. They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five. Judge says to the High Sheriff, I want him dead or alive. Either one, I don’t care. High water everywhere . . .” ~Bob Dylan~
Out of long established ritual, the first listen would require solitary confinement. Upon arriving home with the CD in hand, my office door was closed and the phone taken off the hook. Love and Theft had my undivided attention. The music took me away and held me captive. The lyrics toyed with my imagination.
Almost immediately High Water (For Charley Patton) stood out to me. Its rhythmic mix of bluegrass and the blues had my head bobbing and hands playing imaginary bongos; its lyrics, featuring real and fictional characters, are laced with hard-boiled gallows humor that made me smile.
With the destruction at ground zero still smoldering, a phrase from High Water was destined to become part of the national dialog: “. . . I want him dead or alive. Either one, I don’t care.” In the days following the devastation, President George W. Bush faithfully executed his duties as Commander In Chief. The nation stood with him. The well-deserved caricature of him being a butcher of syntax and language was not yet quite cemented in the public mind.
In an offhand aside to a reporter asking about Osama Bin Laden, the president talked about the Wanted: Dead or Alive posters of old west fame, then gave a shrug that spoke clearly: Either one, I don’t care. That moment frozen in time solidified Dubya’s cowboy image. It made me stop watching the news and rush to my CD player for another listen.
Volumes have been written about Dylan. His voice, which has become the rasping growl of a master bluesman, gets disparaged by those accustomed to syrupy pop songs. His refusal to bond with his audience has always been something for critics to complain about, yet here is an artist with the mileage of over seventy years on him and still a creative force.
Jim Hoberman was exactly correct when he wrote in The Village Voice: “Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock ‘n’ roll. No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world’s first and greatest rock ‘n’ roll beatnik bard and then—having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning—vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.”