Great pieces of art come along with the same regularity of say, your friendly neighborhood nervous breakdown. You never know when the next one might appear, but when it does you've wondered why it's taken so long for it to arrive. Both are inevitable but can come few and far between. Despite the sometimes excruciating delay I would normally say that it doesn't do much good to allow the modification of a masterpiece simply because the next great one has yet to come along. Great art should not be retouched, enhanced, or modified. It shouldn't need it. Still it is hard to quibble with Columbia's recent decision to release one of the all time great records, Bob Dylan's Street Legal, remixed and remastered.
Being somewhat of a fan of Mr. Bob it is sometimes difficult for me to understand why people whose opinions I most respect fail to see the man's genius. I have made tapes for people, taken them to Dylan concerts with me, emailed them a set of lyrics, pointed out a particularly stunning vocal performance, and yet they still seemed unconvinced. Street Legal isn't exactly the record you want to play to convert the unconverted. It is one of Dylan's most confusing records, most difficult records, and utterly void of any kind of joy. As released, the sound of the band (complete with horns and female back up singers) is muddied and often it is difficult to discern one instrument or voice from another. Dylan's singing is the most pinched of his career. He truly sounds as if he's in pain. The whole sound is tight and tinny, compressed and coupled with some indecipherable lyric writing it creates the closest thing to a recorded nervous breakdown I've ever heard.
"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."
It was one of Dylan's first records nearly universally panned by the critics. Rolling Stone's review called it "fake Dylan" and said it was Dylan going the Elvis/Vegas route. Their review was so harsh that it was later retracted with the editor rewriting it and giving a slightly kinder review. Coming at the same time as negative reviews for his current concert tour, and some truly harsh criticism over his first effort at producing a film, Renaldo and Clara, it was a low point in Dylan's up to then, rather respected career.
What makes Street Legal so special? It is music from a man beyond the brink of despair. The type of music one might create if one was licking the wounds left from depending on someone no longer there, with the added pain of knowing that the departed person made the right decision. Conversations and company much missed. "Bullets can harm you and death can disarm you. But no, you will not be deceived. Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt, you can give but you cannot receive." It is music from one desperately reaching out to another just as that other is turning their back. The lyrics are densely descriptive yet they serve to conceal more than they do reveal what's in the writer's heart. "There's a lion in the road, there's a demon escaped, there's a million dreams gone, there's a landscape being raped. As her beauty fades and I watch her undrape, I won't but then again, maybe I might. Oh if I could just find you tonight."
The music is moody and bitter and overwhelmingly confusing. At one moment Dylan reaches out tenderly, "If you're looking for assistance babe, or if you just want some company. Or if you just want a friend you can talk to, honey come and see about me." The next moment he sings with a straight face and with much self pity and a soul that has totally lost all faith and given up any hope of getting better, "All right, I'll take a chance, I will fall in love with you. If I'm a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too. Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow? Do you understand my pain? Are you willing to risk it ALL or is your love in vain?" He is at the end of his rope and doesn't have the energy left to fight the demons. "Let's disconnect these cables, overturn these tables. This place don't make sense to me no more, can you tell me what we're waiting for Senor?" The concluding song, Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) is equally as disturbing as it is beautiful. This is a great writer writing great. It's edgy music and it comes from way deep inside. "There's a new day at dawn and I've finally arrived. If I'm there in the morning, baby, you'll know I've survived. I can't believe it, I can't believe I'm alive. But without you it just doesn't seem right."
The remastered and remixed version sounds wonderful. The instruments and vocals are clear and separated. It sounds current and it sounds great. Still, a lot of the power of the original mix is missing. What added so much to the effectiveness was the whole thing was so damned compressed- the closed in sound added to the claustrophobic feeling of the lyrics. What stands out about the re-release is the skill of Dylan's singing, some of the best of his career. The vocals are now clearly at the front of the mix. This is a man going down with his last breath and the urgency of Dylan's vocals convey that quite effectively. At the very least perhaps this will finally give Street Legal the long overdue recognition and listen it deserves.