Down in the Groove
review by Kevin Harvey
Looking to hear a particular track by BOB, I found myself locked, without warning, in the Way Back Machine. Listening to Down in the Groove, I remembered something Lou Reed once said about Dylan’s work- memory tells me it was around the time of the Twenty-five Year Celebration Concert. Regardless of when he said it, it was accurate. The remark surprised me a bit, but it was accurate. Whatever BOB does, no matter how it sounds when it comes out, it eventually sounds right. I’m forced to paraphrase but only a little. I can honestly say that, with the exception of one album, everything BOB has released, over all these decades, has, for me, deepened and improved. (Only Empire Burlesque sounds thinner, brittle, the product of a bad moment in Musical Time. The songs are nearly all good, the performances are fine, only the overall sound of the album is wrong. But enough on that one.)
Before Down in the Groove was released I happened to see its projected cover: A grove of trees, perhaps at the end of a road, very little lettering. I liked it. It felt right. Perhaps the original plan was to call the disc Down in the Grove. All I know is I’ve called it Grove ever since; not to be cute about, but out of honest memory failure. (I had to look at it just now to make sure I wasn’t off the rails, that it was groove.) Over the years Down in the Groove has always placed in the bottom three or four titles in those BOB’s Worst Album polls that are always popping up, polls filled out by misanthropic voter-cranks. (Okay, I do fill some of them out. So?) Here’s what I like about Down in the Grove-Groove: it’s a piece; it sustains a mood. It doesn’t sound or feel to me like a collection of odds and ends scraped together from random barrels. It feels like BOB had something in mind and then went out and made it.
Here's how it went down, how I got back in the groove: For reasons I wouldn’t pretend to understand, I suddenly needed to hear BOB’s version of Shenandoah, one of the few songs that I think everyone, beyond a certain cultural age, more or less likes. At least, I’ve never heard anyone complain about it. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that if you were to closely inspect the back catalog of everyone from Burl Ives to Roger McGuinn, you’d find it, much the way you can follow Sam Cooke’s Tennessee Waltz with Tom Jones’ version. Shenandoah is one of those songs Buddy Epson’s Georgie Russell would have sung to Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett that last heartbreaking evening in the Alamo. (No recording exists, which doesn’t stop me from hearing it.)
I played BOB’s Shenandoah and I liked it. In fact, I like it enough to start the disc at the top. It felt like something was going on here, something I’d missed. Let’s Stick Together is a strong opener; it is also a weird opener. It’s rushed, sloppy, scratchy. A first take? I don’t know, but I like it for precisely those reasons: I don’t get it. After all these years, it stays just out of reach. The track is Pure Garage; but a garage in some 51st State. I think it’s the guitar that doesn’t sound quite right, I wouldn’t stake my life on why it sounds odd; but its quickly over and followed by When Did You Leave Heaven? At which point my wife walked by and asked if the record was from BOB’S “spiritual” period. No insult intended, her voice neutral, I reverted to someone forged in the defensive fires developed buying Elvis soundtracks. I shook my head no, thinking: All BOB’S records are spiritual. Still, an idea is forming, an idea temporarily derailed by Sally Sue Brown- a song that insists the mind wander! There is nothing there to hold it in place. I play the track; something happened. Time has passed. I’m sure of it. But no lyric remains in the mind, no melody, no arrangement. Was it played acoustically? Did I miss an Al Kooper organ? Back-up singers? Strings? Perhaps a double-tracked BOB-duet, singing with himself? The song is so unmemorable, it is scary. Is it the Brown’s? I go back to Hollis Brown, an album track bought the day The Times They Are a-Changin’ came out. I was haunted, on first sight, by the black and white photo of Dylan. As for Hollis Brown, here was pain, injustice, human tragedy, murder! The undeniable workings of the world! It took decades for its power to diminish, to lose its impact, but it did. John Brown, on the other hand, was always a snooze. From the Gaslight to MTV, I never liked it. It was boring the way that Peter Yarrow is boring. (I Dig Rock n’ Roll Music might be the worst song to include the phrase Rock n’ Roll in the title ever recorded. You can start listing the stinkers if you like. I digress but that’s why the parenthesis was created.) Perhaps it is the Browns. Charlie Brown bothered me as kid. (Walked in the classroom, cool and slow. Ugh.) Leroy Brown? Mrs. Leroy Brown? (Really.) Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, a song that once heard refuses to leave the mind. Sweet Georgia Brown! Yes! The gifted Brother Ray, a singer who embodied all forms, all genres, all emotions, in any song he invested in that snaps me back into focus. Dylan is singing Death is Not the End and you believe him. You really do; in fact, you spend the rest of the day singing the phrase over and over to yourself because it is here, after losing the thread by numbing out on Sally Sue Brown, that the force of Down in the Groove clarifies itself. It is not a new idea but rather one that a dedicated BOB listener can sometimes overlook. We knew it coming in; we always knew it, but the recognition lands in the mind-pool like an anvil dropped from the 11th floor: NO TWO Dylan albums sound remotely alike! Not the singing, not the physical voice, not the lyrics, not the chosen attack! Its Bob Dylan. We recognize him, but its not the Bob Dylan we expected. Ever. Play any album. Listen closely, then play the one that preceded it and then the one that followed it. You are listening to three different artists. No singer of lasting impact ever changed so radically from album to album. Down in the Groove reminds you of no other album. Under the Red Sky? World Gone Wrong? Groove doesn’t sound like any of them. And yet it gets no credit.
Had a Dream About You Baby yanks me back from the afterlife into the world of dream. (Bardo 3 in the Illusion Hotel?) Ploughing straight ahead, it might have been sung in an armory in 1959; it does its job. Two songs co-written with Robert Hunter follow. I’ve never talked to anyone who liked them. Silvio is tolerated; Ugliest Girl in the World is not. What I hear in I’m in Love with the Ugliest Girl in the World is a failed 50’s novelty record, something that might have been released on a MAD magazine 45, the B/side of She’s Had a Nose Job. Lighten up. They’re doing the Wilbury Twist. Silvio is next. I’ve got to find out something only dead men know. That death is not the end? Perhaps it was Silvio, tying the album together, who took it upon herself to leave heaven. The song is an overlooked gem.
Context is everything. After all these years Silvio still sounds to me the way it sounded during Nut Time at grad school in Vermont…the last time the Browns- that name again- were in the playoffs. What still interests me about the song itself is you can’t pinpoint a given line or phrase to either Hunter or Dylan. There are days when finding out “what only dead men know’ sounds like pure Dylan, and others when I’m certain that Hunter wrote the chorus. Which is another way of saying that the co-writing is seamless. Leave it a mystery: We’re going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street.
There is dread in the tune; a great deal feels hidden beneath the surface. Lou Rawls, Ray Davis, Willie Nelson, Motor/psycho BOB, are all compressed here, all speeding, ominous and doomed, on the very edge of finding out what dead men know. Listen closely. Shenandoah follows; gentle, spooky, a performance that invokes everything from Davy Crockett to the Hudson Valley painters. A celestial Rank Strangers to Me closes the deal with an image that shimmers, that predicts an inevitability just short of a warning. Down in the Groove, an album that sounds like no other, is a completed work with a beginning, middle, and ending. As surely as John Wesley Harding was a flawless statement, a proclamation, an insistence, a nailing of demands to the wooden door of Rock Culture- the four figures on the cover of JWH are making a conservative statement true to the roots of the time- so, too, is Down in the Groove. Conserve! Who doesn’t want to conserve the things that need saving? Problems arise when powerful people conserve the wrong things; but for now, in JWH and the overlooked Groove, Dylan is scratching the surface of the most basic of human questions: What happens when we die? What happens when we discover that death is not the end? There was someone here to greet us when we arrived; there will be some waiting to greet us when we return. They may be Rank strangers for the moment, but only for a moment. On the cover of Down in the Groove BOB is sitting in darkness, partially lit from an unknown source. Perhaps a source originating in the grove shown on the original, rejected, cover. No matter. This collection, a unique set of messages, was made in a grove in a different country. A grove worth conserving. I’m leaning against the door of the Way Back Machine and nothing is happening.