The men are back 

The fabulous new Johnny Cash, the weird old Dylan

Johnny Cash
The Man Comes Around
American Records/Bloodshot Records

The Man Comes Around is Johnny Cash’s fourth studio album for American Records. The title song comes from a dream Cash had; a dream in which Queen Elizabeth II told Cash—as she sat knitting—that he is like a thorn in a whirlwind. The song is also loosely based on the books of Job and Revelations. Among many other things, Johnny Cash is a Christian. So don’t be alarmed when he begins the album, crackling through a bad recording, talking about the Beast, the white horse and hellfire. It’s a bold intro, but the song doesn’t disappoint, and it’s a brave departure from the standard double picking for which Cash is so well known, as is the rest of the album.

And don’t be surprised when you hear Cash cover Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Lest we forget that Cash is the Man in Black. Lest we forget that Cash is lucky to be alive after enduring a period of drug addiction that’s hard to comprehend. This is a man who used to drive his camper into the desert and spray-paint the windows black so he could sleep during the day and at night pop pills like Skittles (and probably as many different flavors too). Cash’s tremolo gives the song a causticity rivaling even Reznor’s.

There are many covers on the album, from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to a nice little version of the Beatles’ “In My Life.” There’s “Desperado” and there’s even “Danny Boy” (no, not kidding). Sure these songs don’t seem like they’d all go together, but hell, who’s going to tell Johnny that? Besides, they all come out uniquely Cash.

“Personal Jesus,” the Depeche Mode anthem, is the finest song on the album—a raucous and fierce portrayal of hypocrisy, manipulation and deceit. “Feeling all alone by the telephone. Pick up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer. Reach out and touch faith.” The timing of the song seems impeccable, too. We should ask ourselves whether Jesus would give a damn how many shopping days are left until next Christmas.

Cash is a man of extremes, and the songs on The Man Comes Around follow suit. He’s a black-and-white kind of guy, knowing well the darkness, knowing better the light. The Man in Black, not afraid to put “Danny Boy” and “Hurt” on the same album. The Man in Black, not afraid to say life’s fucked up, life’s beautiful. The Man in Black, not afraid to cry.Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series Vol. 5
Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue
Columbia

A band of gypsies they were, musical circus folk, troubadours at the tail end of the American renaissance. At the center of this musical circus was a wiry little fellow, his face painted white, feather stuck high in his hat. By the time the 20th century was three-fourths through, Bob Dylan had defined a generation with his music. He’d been the political folkie minstrel; he’d been the electric rebel. At such a point, many musicians might call it quits. But not Bob. It was time to get a band together, redefine. Time to head out for another joint.

I thought about writing a personal account of my travels with the Rolling Thunder Revue, but then I remembered that I was born in 1980. Besides, former Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman gives a good enough first-hand account of the tour in the double-disc fifth volume of Columbia’s Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. So I’ll spare you the conjured reminiscence, and just write about the music.

The band was big, and almost ragtag. Regulars included Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and, of course, Joan Baez. Hell, even Dylan’s mom joined on stage for a song (It’s alright ma, I’m only performing).

The songs cover a long stretch of albums, from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Desire. The first disc starts out with a screaming “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and with barely enough time to catch a breath, they break into loud and speedy versions of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which loses its poignancy in the faster version. Tracks from Desire stand out, like “Romance in Durango” and “Isis,” played in their original form. Baez joins Dylan for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and the recording is almost silent enough to hear that answer.

Disc two, however, is where the Rolling Thunder Revue really shines. Dylan begins solo, with an acoustic “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” then slips into a sharp “Love Minus Zero, No Limit.” Baez joins in on a powerful “Oh Sister,” and when they scream, “We died and were reborn and left mysteriously saved” you feel saved right along with them. Dylan then makes a plea for those with political pull to work to free Rubin Carter, and launches into a searing “Hurricane.” And it just wouldn’t be right if the stage weren’t flooded with musicians for the big finale, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

So maybe I wasn’t there, but with the power of technology and old bootlegs that record companies portion out to the masses like so many crackers, I can hear what it sounded like, and there are even some DVD features to boot. This is Dylan in top form, at the pinnacle of his creativity, and together with a stellar cast of characters, they put on quite a show.

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