Street Legal At 40
review by Peter Stone Brown
1978 was a brutal year for Bob Dylan. It started with him uncharacteristically giving innumerable interviews to not only music magazines, but every magazine and newspaper who wanted one, to promote his nearly four-hour film, Renaldo & Clara, which thanks to the critics, was pretty much dead on arrival. The Village Voice had an assassination squad of four reporters destroy it. In Philadelphia, it was shown for one day. I attended the showing and while it wasn’t as bad as the critics said, there was a lot wrong with it. My favorite review of it was by Joe Baltake in the Philadelphia Daily News, who summed it up with, “Inside Renaldo & Clara is a great little movie dying to get out.” The biggest problem with the film was it couldn’t decide if it was a concert film, though it had amazing footage of several full-length songs, a tour documentary, or as Dylan insisted, really had a story line. Thinking about it later I came up with the theory that every man in the film represented Bob Dylan in one way or another and every woman was his (by the time it came out) former wife Sara or possibly Joan Baez. Either way, the great line from “Desolation Row,” I rearranged their faces and gave them all another name certainly applied.
1978 also found Bob Dylan with a new personal manager, Jerry Weintraub, since breaking ties with Albert Grossman approximately a decade before and putting together pretty much for the first time his own band. The Band (although at the time they were Levon & The Hawks) were already together as a unit when he hired them and the core unit of the Rolling Thunder Revue band were also playing together when they were enlisted. Dylan initially hired three people from the Rolling Thunder tour (who at this point were also members of the Alpha Band), bassist Rob Stoner, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield on violin, pedal steel and mandolin, and rhythm guitarist and singer Steve Soles. Most of the other musicians with the exception of drummer Ian Wallace, percussionist Bobbye Hall, and sax player Steve Douglas, who had played with Duane Eddy and was also a member of the Los Angeles studio aces known as “The Wrecking Crew,” were for the most part unknown. Dylan also decided that for the first time he would have a trio of women backup singers. Weintraub had a massive world tour booked, which would start in Japan (Dylan’s first time there) and continue into New Zealand and Australia, then return to the US, with Europe on the calendar for the summer and a tour of the entire continental United States, with some stops in Canada, in the fall. Both Weintraub and the Japanese promoters were pressuring Dylan to do a greatest hits show and in a sense he capitulated, except most of the songs were radically rearranged. Dylan at that point was no stranger to rearranging his songs for live performance, but the 78 tour were by far the most out-there versions yet. Some worked, some didn’t.
Street Legal was recorded upon returning from the first leg out the tour in April, 1978, but before recording, Dylan made a major change in the band, replacing Rob Stoner with bassist Jerry Scheff, best known for being a member of Elvis Presley’s TCB band. It wouldn’t be Dylan’s only nod to Elvis. At his concerts he started wearing stage clothes that were a bit too close to what Presley wore onstage in his final years. For whatever reason, Dylan decided to record the album at his rehearsal studio in Santa Monica, using a mobile recording unit instead of going into an actual recording studio.
To put Street Legal in the context of the times and new releases by his contemporaries, the week before it appeared, The Rolling Stones released their best album in years, Some Girls, that July The Kinks released Low Budget, and in the fall Van Morrison issued Wavelength.
Many music critics decided to continue their assault on Dylan. “Never so utterly fake,” Greil Marcus exclaimed in Rolling Stone. However not everyone (including me) felt that way. Right around the time the album came out, a disc jockey named Steven Clean on WMMR, Philly’s top FM rock station, played the entire album, and said at the end, “What a great Bob Dylan album!” Not long after that, it might’ve been a couple of weeks or maybe days, Clean vanished from WMMR.
Most Dylan fans consider Blood On The Tracks to be his great divorce album, though the actual divorce wouldn’t happen for three years. And it has to be said that Blood On The Tracks has an emotional intensity that remains unmatched. Street Legal reveals a man who has been emotionally devastated and is trying to pick himself up from the ruins. It’s an album that’s murky and muddy in sound – the critics would have a field day with that aspect – but also in lyrical content. While most of the songs allude to a breakup, throughout many of the songs there is a sense of foreboding that at times, especially now, seems acutely prophetic.
The opening song, “Changing Of The Guards” is quite possibly the most alienated song Dylan ever wrote. At the same time it is kind of a return to the what Dylan called “the thin wild mercury sound” of Blonde On Blonde, particularly in the use of the organ, while others have claimed the sax is a nod to Springsteen. The opening line, “Sixteen years, sixteen banners united” clearly refers to the sixteen years since Dylan’s first album, and the sixteen banners, marks Street Legal as Dylan’s 16th studio album (not counting the soundtrack, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. It’s an epic song that is both biographical (“Fortune calls/I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace/Merchants and thieves, hungry for power”) to the mystical and political. One note, on the remixed and remastered version issued in 1999, they let the track go on a little longer to include an organ flourish at the end. While it’s fun to hear, the original track fades out at precisely the right time. Either way, 40 years later “Changing Of The Guard” remains a track I can rarely listen to just once. Every time I play it, I have to play it again.
The rest of side one is a bit more problematic and probably played a big hand in the negative reviews. “New Pony” is on one hand a typical Dylan blues song, but it is also one of the nastiest songs in feel he ever wrote and his vocal is one of his nastiest, especially on the line “Sometimes I Wonder what’s going on with Miss X.” Throughout the song, the background singers answer each line with “How much longer?” which on one hand sort of works, but on the other hand grows tedious.
“No Time To Think” could have been great and remains a fascinating failure, but one with numerous intriguing lines. Part of the problem is the heavy-handedness of the backup singers who sing on alternate verses. While David Mansfield’s violin part is gorgeous, there’s something almost Broadway-ish about the melody, that ultimately detracts from the song. Still there’s certain lines such as “Fools making laws for the breaking of jaws/And the sound of the keys as they clink,” that are hard to ignore.
“Baby Stop Crying” sounds like a copy of a Dylan song. It was released as a single, but ultimately the chorus which goes on too long is overdone and the song goes nowhere.
Side Two, however, is a different story. The critics had a field day with “Is Your Love In Vain?” mainly because of the line, “Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow?” However, in the context of the song – politically incorrect or not – it makes total sense. It’s a great non-love song that winds up being a love song, a portrait of a man who is totally emotionally broken who knows he’s not ready to be anything close to being a fit companion or anyone including himself. It has one of my favorite lines about depression, “When I am in the darkness, why do you intrude?”
“Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is one of the great Dylan songs of all time, and the one song from “Street-Legal” he performed well into “The Never Ending Tour,” the last performance (so far) in 2011. Both ominous and mystical, it veers back and forth between personal and political, opening with the lines, “Senior, señor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?” It is part “Waiting For Godot,” and part cinematic journey. The line about the painted wagon reminds me of Fellini. The tension in the song never lets up, and the final verse about let’s overturn these tables, disconnect these cables, references of course Jesus cleansing the temple of moneychangers, but also is evocative of a band breaking down after a gig or perhaps a recording session.
“True Love Tends To Forget” is the weakest song on side two, but the bridge is memorable as well as the line, “Every day of the year’s like playin’ Russian roulette.”
“We Better Talk This Over” is one of the great overlooked Dylan songs. It is also Dylan pretty much doing Waylon Jennings, complete with Waylon’s marching beat, and I’ve long wondered if anyone ever suggested to Waylon he do the song, because he would’ve done a great version. It’s a song about realizing that a great relationship is over and done with, yet the singer is torn between realizing it’s over and not wanting it to end. At the same time he does so with both compassion and humor, and the realization that both parties are at fault. One of my favorite lines from the song is, “It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half/Look at each other and laugh.”
The album concludes with “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” which is a brilliantly constructed song. Treading on the same musical territory as “Like A Rolling Stone,” the song builds continually as it describes the end of a relationship. Dylan is particularly powerful on the second part of each verse, but especially on the lines, “There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped/There’s a million dreams gone, there’s a landscape being raped,” and again on the last verse where almost shouting he sings, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive/But without you it just doesn’t seem right.”
So after 40 years, is Street Legal a perfect album? Not at all. But its great moments and there’s plenty to go around are truly great and as real as it gets.