So, Dylan’s albums from John Wesley Harding (1968) through to Planet Waves (1974 )had fans and interested observers puzzled. In retrospect, the Americana genre emerged from his work at this period, in cahoots with The Band (especially their first two), The Flying Burrito Brothers (Gilded Palace of Sin). The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and Crosby, Stills and Nash (their first LP in particular). By the early 70s, the floodgates had opened and The Eagles et al cashed in.
The benefit of hindsight notwithstanding, I still think that the albums from 1969 to 1974 are among his weaker albums, despite the plethora of good-to-great tracks, interspersed with the throwaways and never-should-have-beens. But then again, given that The Basement Tapes gave us well over 100 tracks, Dylan had raised the bar to a ridiculous height. Even the excoriated Self-Portrait featured tracks that, now that we know and have become accustomed to The Basement Tapes and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, no longer sound like out-of-whack anomalies. Just listen to gems like Days of ‘49 and I Threw It All Away. Back in 1971, though, the average British teenage listener like me had no context in which to place this music. It certainly didn’t sound like Dylan in his ‘big hair’ or ‘protest singer’ incarnations. Planet Waves finally sounded more like the Dylan we thought we knew and loved, but this proved to be only the start - Dylan re-emerged in 1975 with both his muse and his mojo intact, and the next phase of his ever-developing genius was given shape and form by Blood On The Tracks, almost certainly, in most people’s minds, in the Top Five greatest Dylan albums of all. And many though that he was a spent talent at this stage!
Looking back (which we were advised not to do in the film, like Orpheus!), it is clear why Dylan seemed out of step with his contemporaries (even though it’s now obvious that he was several steps ahead, as ever). The most popular ‘progressive’ genres, in the newly developing field of ‘rock music’ of the late 60s/early 70s were:
Late Psychedelia (the west coast San Francisco bands, for example); Prog Rock (take your pick of art school/public school types); ‘Space Rock’ (Pink Floyd, Hawkwind). In Pink Floyd, you had a band which crossed all three genres!
Dylan seemed lightweight in comparison, lacking in heavyosity. Who would have guessed that, at the age of 76, it would be he that would be putting out a triple disc, while all his competitors were dead, retired, burnt out or just plain too old to rock and roll? Nowadays, if something is worth doing, it’s worth over-doing, and Dylan′s latest Great American Songbook compilation, Triplicate (plus his never-ending live touring) is yet another sign that Bob Dylan’s talent is a unique one, and his career presents both the scholar and the fan with a life and a work that is absolutely sui generis. As in his timeless song Watching the River Flow, Dylan’s recordings can be dipped into time and time again, and yet every time it is the same and yet not the same.