Bob Dylan – My Black Dog Barks And Sydney Shakes (The Godfatherecords G.R. 951/952)
April 13, 1966 at Sydney Stadium, New South Wales, Australia
CD 1: (65 minutes): She Belongs To Me (fade in), Fourth Time Around, Visions of Johanna, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Desolation Row, Just Like A Woman, Mr. Tambourine Man, Intermission.
CD 2: (48 minutes): Tuning, Tell Me Momma, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met), Baby Let Me Follow You Down, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat, One Too Many Mornings, Ballad Of A Thin Man, Positively 4th Street.
As history has taught us, the artist is not always the best judge of his or her own art. When you hear the late, great director Robert Altman, say, discuss his films, the glib, Midwestern ordinariness of his reflections do not tend to do his landmark films movies “Nashville,” “M*A*S*H,” or one of my favorites, the deeply soulful, sepia-toned “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” adequate justice (we can also thank Leonard Cohen’s arresting score for the haunted heart of this one).
Bob Dylan has also long been a prime, occasionally infuriating example of a creator not necessarily equipped (or willing) to critique the scope or substance of his art. Although far more cagey, contrarian, and intentionally opaque, Dylan has proven similarly flip when talking about his music (or not talking about it, as the case may be) over the years. Some of that notoriety has softened as Dylan’s grown older, told his tale in multi-volume autobiographies (after all, you can’t fill 400 pages by saying, “nope, that ain’t what it’s about”), and hosted a radio show (which requires some degree of interactive engagement, civility, and charm).
But Bob nailed the nature of his music at least once, and famously. As New York Observer writer Ron Rosenbaum wrote when recalling a testy 1978 interview with Dylan he had conducted for Playboy magazine, it was Bob who uttered the self-description that would eventually find its way onto several Bob bootlegs: the “thin wild mercury sound.”
“It wasn’t the words that drove him,” Rosenbaum wrote. “It wasn’t the melody, it wasn’t the ideas, it wasn’t self-expression. Rather, it was a sound in his mind.” Here’s Dylan quoted from the Playboy piece: “The sound I’m trying to get across, I’m not just up there recreating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody … I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things.”
“I always hear other instruments, how they should sound,” he continued. “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on (‘Blonde on Blonde’). It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound.”
Indeed, that “thin, wild mercury sound” is what makes the 1965-66 Dylan era such a mad, ecstatic whirl of poetry and kinetic power; a white hot flash of lightning fueled by an electric rush of energy (not coincidentally for him, this dynamic coincided with Dylan’s plugging in for the first time).
Listening, nearly 50 years later, to “My Black Dog Barks and Sydney Shakes,” the sumptuous new double-disc set issued by The Godfatherecords label, Dylan’s magic swirling ship and its deep-end dash into the epic sensory seas of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” and more still sound and feel like no other.
Godfather, of course, has made a name for itself with consistently high quality releases whose painstaking packaging reflects the care taken with the contents within. In their latest undertaking, neither Dylan’s stature, nor that of this particular era, this tour, this recording – an April 13, 1966 concert at Sydney Stadium, New South Wales, Australia – has been lost on the label.
More than a dozen period photographs of Dylan’s epochal 1966 European Tour, rendered in glorious black-and-white, adorn the lovely tri-fold cardboard package, which also includes historically detailed liner notes chronicling the tour as it unfolded. As usual, the black-on-silver Godfather logo nicked from the Francis Ford Coppola film of the same name, is emblazoned directly onto the factory pressed silver discs.
The sound of “Sydney Shakes” is no less impressive and the show’s historical significance in the pantheon of modern music cannot be overstated. Firstly, this is the tumultuous tour where Dylan flouted the folkies by going electric, hiring the Hawks (later to become The Band) as his backing group, and hitting the road to meet his audience head-on.
This is the tour from whence the first, immediately legendary “Royal Albert Hall” bootlegs sprang (in fact, the concert recordings were made ten days earlier, on April 17, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester). This is the tour that produced the cry of “Judas!” from at least one audience member (several “fans” have taken credit) when Bob apparently betrayed him by plugging in. The latter of which begs the question: had said audience member not heard the electric rock and roll Dylan had already made a year earlier on “Bringing It All Back Home”? No matter. The seismic shift wrought by “Blonde On Blonde” would soon radically alter the folk/rock/pop music landscape forever and make the grousing moot.
Prior to the late ‘90s, this strong, professionally recorded show – a clear and vivid mono mix straight from the soundboard – was thought to exist but had, reportedly, never materialized. That is, until the official Columbia Records release in 1998 of the Dylan “Albert Hall” concert. Only then did recordings of the Sydney show begin to surface and circulate among collectors, triggering speculation that the long-rumored recording had been discovered by somebody rummaging through the tour tapes for the “Royal Albert Hall” concert.
According to the indispensable bobsboots.com site, a few notable releases of this show over the years have included Rattlesnake’s “Happy Dylennium”; Be Twisted’s “Shifts and Changes” (which paired Sydney with the April 20 Melbourne concert); and “A Phoenix In April,” which was issued as part of Scorpio’s landmark eight-disc “Genuine 1966” box set. Unless you have any of these (and maybe even if you do), “Sydney Shakes” is a stately addition to the Dylan collectors’ canon of a superb show that remains relatively rare.
As with those aforementioned releases, Godfather’s offering includes the complete show, which was (and is) divided into two halves by Dylan, with an intermission (curiously, more than 17 minutes of it is included at the end of the first disc – part of what seems to have been the original tape, left running for the duration of Dylan taking a smoke break backstage). The first acoustic segment features Dylan alone on acoustic guitar and harmonica delivering a slew of his most lyrically opulent and poetically embroidered songs (a fade-in to the opening number, “She Belongs To Me”; “Visions of Johanna”; “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”; “Mr. Tambourine Man”). The second half of the concert is a crazy carousel of keening guitars, woozy organ, clattering drums keeping a tenuous toehold on time, while Bob and the Hawks revel in his newfound sneer and insolent swagger.
“Tell Me Momma,” which opens the second half of the show, is a barbed exposition of thought and deed, as blunt and direct as the opening set was contemplative and fantastical. “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” buoyed by Robbie Robertson’s guitar and Garth Hudson’s organ, finds Dylan pining for the object of his libidinous desire and devotion. (Is it glitterati model Edie Sedgewick’s “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” he wants to get at, by chance?).
Dylan’s vocals are way out front in the mix during the second half of the show, and his close proximity to his microphone results in some distortion and consonant “pops.” But to me, this “flaw” in the recording actually brings Bob closer to the listener in the room, and only heightens the sense that he’s leaning into the material with gusto and bearing down. Shot through with verve, vinegar, and no small amount of volume, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” close the show back-to-back, and are bitterly withering indictments: confrontational attitude songs that take deadly aim at the condescending critics, clueless straights, purist (and prudish) folkies, and last but not least, all of those fair-weather friends shouting “Judas!” This, ultimately, is the sound of thin, wild, mercury music — mainlined, pure, and poisonous.