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One of the first Dylan records I owned was At Budokan. This was 25 years after it came out, mind you; it’s not like it was the new thing being pushed. I'm guessing I ended up with it because it was comparatively cheap at the CD store. 22 tracks on At Budokan vs. only 9 on Highway 61 Revisited? That’s a no-brainer if you’re still on an allowance!
At the time, I didn't know At Budokan was not well thought of (one star in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, C+ from Robert Christgau, #21 in The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time). I didn't know what a Budokan was, or that there was a more famous Cheap Trick album of the same name. I did, at least, know enough of the hits to recognize that these versions were dramatically rearranged. At Budokan was probably my introduction to the very idea that Bob might rearrange his songs live. At any rate, I loved the album. Still do.
One other thing I didn't know then: At Budokan represented only the beginning of a very long year. It was recorded at the 7th and 8th shows of the tour. There were 106 more to go. The biggest tour of his career to date.
He didn't play that many shows out of the goodness of his heart. "I've got quite a few debts to pay off," he told Robert Hilburn. "I had a couple of bad years. I put a lot of money into the movie, built a big house... and there's the divorce. It costs a lot to get divorced in California." The movie was Renaldo & Clara, which had finally come out that January to withering reviews. The big house was a $2 million mansion in Malibu that some reports said was in danger of falling into the ocean. The divorce was to Sara; no surprise to anyone who'd picked up Blood on the Tracks, perhaps, but something that had devolved into a drawn-out custody battle.
Still, if you're pinching every penny, you don't hit the road with an 11-piece backing band. Strap on an acoustic guitar, grit your teeth, and sing "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" every night while cashing the checks. Dylan was willing to compromise only so far, even in the interest of making money. He'd play the hits (the Japanese promoters sent over a request list, which he apparently honored), but not the way you wanted 'em.
I loved many of the new arrangements on At Budokan. A decade after Hendrix, Bob turned "Watchtower" into an explosion of fiddling, not guitar. He went flute-crazy on "Love Minus Zero" and "All I Really Want to Do." I spent hours learning the guitar riff to "Maggie's Farm" alone. The occasional reggae "Don't Think Twice" misstep could be forgiven.
Well, not forgiven by everyone. Reviews called the arrangements slick, disco, “Bob goes Vegas.” Months later, at the start of the fall U.S. tour, an interviewer asked him about it:
I have to ask you, I mean, it must really bug you to have that kind of appellations that are tossed out, like Vegas, and disco and obvious connotations that go along with that?
That’s just ignorance. Those people who would say something like that… they can’t really categorize me, or they couldn’t before, so now maybe they wanna say, well, Vegas or disco. Well, what does that mean, you know? I don’t know what that means. I’ve been to Vegas before and I’ve never heard any bands like this in Vegas. So I don’t know what that means. B. B. King plays in Vegas, Merle Haggard plays in Vegas. So, I mean... what is that... what are they saying, you know? Is that a negative thing, Vegas? I don’t know.
I don’t know either.
I’m not trying to defend or offend Vegas, but to a lotta people it’s important to go there and see who they wanna see. I don’t understand what that means as far as disco goes... we’re not a disco band. I used to hear disco bands in New York, you know, the likes of Johnny Pacheco, you know, and I always considered that disco music. You know, in ballrooms, that’s what it was, it was real disco. What’s happening now is just that people getting together in clubs and pumping it over big systems and they’re dancing to it. And the bass is stronger, and the drums are a little stronger, but mainly it’s the bass. So we are not a disco band either, like I say, it’s just a... I don’t know; I don’t take offense at any of these handles, but they’re certainly not right. I mean, this music I’m playing just supports the lyrics that I write.
Right, right. Well, I agree. I guess, you know, that it meant some sort of slickness that was imposing some artificiality...
See, you can’t win. I mean, you go and do something like Rolling Thunder, which we did in smaller halls – we did play some big halls, but we also played many many smaller halls... and what did they say, they say it’s too ragged, you know, they say it’s just a bunch of Gypsies up there, you know, traveling on the road playing with... making no attempt to do a show. That’s what they say. So, what happens? You get out of your street clothes and you put on something else and they say it’s slick. If they’re out to say something, they’re going to say something and there’s very little you can say against it unless you want to defend yourself against the wind, you know.
He held firm despite the criticism, and these later shows - including today's at Nassau Coliseum, one of the early shows on the massive American fall tour - featured equally "slick" or "Vegas" arrangements. Paul Williams wrote that this final U.S. leg had "more personality, less professionalism, more spontaneity" than the earlier shows. "Spontaneity" seems a stretch, at least in this show, but there are certainly some dramatic changes since the Budokan shows.
The most obvious: Street-Legal had been recorded and released between those shows and this one, so new songs appear throughout, among them "True Love Tends to Forget," "Señor (Takes of Yankee Power)," "Baby, Stop Crying" and the grand finale "Changing of the Guards." They mostly sound like the album versions.
Dylan also mixed up the "hits" he'd be playing, and gave them new arrangements as dramatic as he had the Budokan songs. "Tangled Up in Blue" gets a sort of ambient smooth-jazz backing, without any drums or other rhythmic underpinning. "My Back Pages" is entirely instrumental. "Masters of War" would be a punk song if it didn't have so many guitar solos. And on "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," one of its only three outings all year, there's that flute again.
He did deign to finally add a solo acoustic portion to the set, but did the bare minimum at Nassau: One song, "It Ain't Me, Babe." He also did it as the second song of the second set, which seems wonderfully perverse. Drag all 11 band members back onstage after intermission, have them play one song, then send them off again.
Also of interest, the opening song: A cover of Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready." All year he'd been beginning shows with blues covers. That includes the Budokan shows, although those didn't make the live album. He did "Lonesome Bedroom Blues" and "Repossession Blues." He did several Tampa Red songs ("Love Her with a Feeling" and "She's Love Crazy") and, once, a Robert Johnson song ("Steady Rollin' Man"). He even worked Johnson lyrics into one of his own songs, borrowing liberally from “From Four Until Late” for "Going Going Gone." Two nights before today's show, he caught a Robert "Junior" Lockwood concert in Rochester on an off night. He even wrote a new blues song himself, "Am I Your Stepchild," which was never recorded and made its only every appearance on this fall tour. He was on a real blues kick.
That Bob likes the blues should surprise no one; his most recent Theme Time Radio Hour includes an extended yarn about Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf fighting over Willie Dixon compositions like the one he played at Nassau. This renewed interest in blues covers in 1978 is mostly funny because a 11-piece band - 12 with Bob - is a little much for playing old Robert Johnson tunes. Almost any of his other backing bands over the years would have been better suited for this little blues revival. "I'm Ready" at this show gets a creative big-band arrangement with major roles for his sax player and backing singers, but still comes off as overwrought.
Funny aside about those backing singers. As he's introducing them tonight, he says, "on the left, my fiancée, Carolyn Dennis." He then adds, almost under his breath, "wishful thinking." He'd eventually get his wish: They would marry eight years later. But I can't imagine Helena Springs, the backing singer he was actually seeing in 1978, was thrilled by this introduction.
Today’s show comes early in Dylan’s massive fall tour. By the end of it, he was pretty burnt out. At one of the final shows, a fan threw a silver cross onstage. Within a few days, he'd be spotted wearing it. And the next time he toured, in '79, he'd come with a similar big-band setup, but bearing a very different message…
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