John Leland once called Dylan a trickster in his book Hip: The History. He saw Dylan as one of those enigmatic people who we are unable to capture, unable to get a real grasp of. A sense of understanding of Dylan, according to Leland, bestows us with a sense of hipness, even though in silence we must shamefully admit to ourselves that the man totally eludes us. Ironically Dylan’s trickster image that made him an icon of hip, wasn’t something that Zimnmerman seemed to be striving for at the time. Zimmerman has always appeared to be uncomfortable with the iconic status of Dylan, or at least for a large part of his career. I think Robert Zimmerman might have felt he wasn’t all that hot, or at least no better than the Woody Guthries or the Blind Willie McTells who inspired him. So Zimmerman spend his career trying to escape Bob Dylan. Not so much a chameleon, who adapts to his surroundings to gain invisibility, Dylan developed to be a lizard, trying to slither out of his status by alienating his fans. He went electric, he went Country, got religion, but to no avail. Ironically every time Dylan tried to slither his way out, it added to his enigmatic status. Dylan radiated an arrogance that only added to his hipness. By the eighties Zimmerman was sick of being Dylan and threatened to become sick of music all together.
Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8, chronicles Zimmerman regaining a sense of himself and shows how Zimmerman grew truly comfortable with being Dylan for maybe the first time in his career. These days Dylan could rest comfortable on his past achievements, but that doesn’t seem to be in his character. With the audience that once was hip, now settled and mundane, Dylan could spend the fall of his year blowing in the wind. To an extent he’s doing just that. The post eighties Dylan sounds relaxed, at ease with who he his. His voice has grown both harsher and calmer. The wheezing has gone, replaced by a soulfulness that the early Dylan lacked. The current Dylan appears to allow you to get closer, or at least radiates a stronger sense of intimacy. This is a Dylan that allowed Scorsese to make a documentary on him, wrote volume one of his Chronicles and appears on the radio. But who thinks that we are slowly starting to get to know Dylan might be missing the point of what Dylan has been doing in this second phase of his career.
What Theme Time Radio Hour and Tell Tale Signs make clear is that this Dylan isn’t as much opening up himself, but is opening his passion. Dylan is spending his career opening up a door to music that is threatened to be forgotten. Dylan is taking us along the houses of the great Blues and Folk legends that gave him his career. As Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman writes in the liner notes, Dylan is creating his own archaic music. This Dylan realizes that he has finally lost his hip status, that the status of hip belongs to the rappers and the DJs. Yet it is also a Dylan that uses his iconic status to bear open the soul he thinks music is threatening to lose. As such Tell Tale Signs is a fascinating study of a man, not trying to escape, but pursuing something himself, trying to capture the magic that inspired him, trying to unravel what makes music tick. Though many of the tracks eventually found their way to earlier albums, in one form or another, Tell Tale Signs is still a great compilation to own in itself. Not just because most of the arrangements here are strikingly different from what they wound up to be, but because Tell Tale Signs tells a story in itself.
Listen to Tell Tale Signs on NPR
Tell Tale Signs will also be available in an deluxe three disc edition.
About the author: I started blogging out of a fascination with Soul music, Bruce Springsteen and Americana in general. Over at Boss Tracks I'm blogging on Bruce Springsteen and the songs he covered. http://bosstracks.blogspot.com/