Saturday, June 10, 2017

Street Legal: Overlooked, Under-Appreciated and Strongly Recommended

Bob Dylan's catalog contains so many absolute classics (Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Another Side, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, etc) that it's easy to fall in love with them for decades and forget about his "lesser" albums. You know the ones I'm talking about - the ones that have weak critical ratings. -- KRSONE @

Peer pressure controls most of us more than we want to admit. It begins in grade school. When we grow up Political Correctness as a method of shaping attitudes and behavior is unpopular because most of us want to come to our own conclusions about issues in politics, culture and life.

So it is with music tastes. Albums and groups are endorsed or relegated to the scrap heap by critics and overlooked by the masses as a result. This includes a number of gems by our most recent Nobel Laureate in Literature, the first songwriter to be thusly acknowledged by the Academy. One album in the "neglected" category, to me, is Dylan's Street Legal. which showed up in my email inbox this morning as a recommendation from Amazon Prime. I won't be purchasing it, though, because I have already been listening to it for more than thirty years.

In my opinion, one of the best albums Dylan has ever released. The richness of the writing, along with the large band arrangement with top notch musicians and background singers makes this a joy to listen to.

Like many Dylan albums the opening number bursts out of the gate like a race horse. (I think here, for example, of Infidels, Modern Times and Desire.) And like his previous two albums, there's yet another whole new sound. Instead of Scarlet Rivera's sizzling violin licks we're treated to saxophone accompaniments, and big ensemble and backup singers. Ironically, though sharply criticized in the States (some said "too polished" and others said "too rushed") in Europe the album was hailed as the Dylan's best effort in a decade and it became his best selling album in Britain ever.*

The opening bars resound with energy, with accented echoes delivered by a chorus of backup singers,


Sixteen years
Sixteen banners united over the field
Where the good shepherd grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves

Fortune calls
I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace
Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down
She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born
On midsummer’s eve, near the tower

The cold-blooded moon
The captain waits above the celebration
Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid
Whose ebony face is beyond communication
The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid

They shaved her head
She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale
I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil

I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you

The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times

She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later, the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks
She’s begging to know what measures he now will be taking
He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching on to his long golden locks

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

Peace will come
With tranquillity and splendor on the wheels of fire
But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall
And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating
Between the King and the Queen of Swords

Copyright © 1978 by Special Rider Music

I never tire of this opening number, surrealistic imagery conveying obscure meanings, yet always leaving me moved. Here's a live version of the song on YouTube with the lyrics in both English and Spanish. As they say, Spanish is the loving tongue, so repeatedly watching this video might be a good way to begin your Spanish education.

The context for Street Legal: Dylan's eleven year marriage to Sara had officially ended, and a new phase of his life was emerging. Street Legal contains plenty of foreshadowing of this Gospel phase that was soon to materialize like a Slow Train Coming.

This foreshadowing is best seen in the track "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)." The singer is talking with someone identified as "Señor" which can be translated "Mister" but is also Spanish for the word "Lord." The song opens with a series of questions.

Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

What's going on here? It's dark. It's all so uncertain.

Señor, señor, I can see that painted wagon
I can smell the tail of the dragon
Can’t stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?

And further on, the imagery continues to be vivid and scintillating. 

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

That last line upends me and sends me. Every time.

Avignon, 1981
* * * * I'll close with these excerpts from Amazon reviews, pertaining to the 21st century re-mastered version of the album):

Out of 168, a full two-thirds of the reviews are five star.
-- david jurkiewicz @

Street Legal is one of my top three favorite Albums by Bob Dylan. I actually bought the vinyl record so I could frame the cover. Of course the selections on this album are amongst my favorite and each and every time I listen to it, it's like new again. I highly recommend STREET LEGAL to all Dylan fans and those about to become Dylan fans. 

This is a seriously underrated album. Full of great songs. Changing of the Guards and No Time to Think are epic, New Pony and Baby Stop Crying (both have great vocals) are top-notch, and Is Your Love in Vain and Senor are deep as hell. The finality of Dylan's marriage comes across throughout the album. He sounds doomed. The sound of the 80s is on the horizon. The bad production, a weak spot on the original version of the album, is polished in the Remastered version. 

I liked the original but I like this version a lot better. It brings the songs to life. The highlight is Where Are You Tonight. I listen to this song over and over when it comes on and I can't stop. Every line is brilliant. Every time I hear the song, I learn something new. It's an awesome song and I'd rank it in Dylan's top ten of all time. To me, Street Legal is the final part of a trilogy which begins with Blood on the Tracks and continues with Desire. It's not a happy ending, but it's a great story nonetheless.
-- Lloyd Crespin @

EdNote: I am familiar with the forums where critical reviewers and fans tear this album to shreds. C'est la vie.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Make the most of it.

* Bryan Wowzanek, Ultimate Classic Rock.
** Reflections on six Dylan songs about change.

1 comment:

cm said...

I agree - I love this album!