To be completely honest, Street Legal isn’t Bob Dylan’s best album–it’s not even one of his top 10. It’s important to keep in mind that the guy has released more than 30 albums, plus several discs’ worth of bootleg unreleased tracks and several greatest hits compilations. With so many albums out there, it’s easy to let one slip into obscurity. It’s hard to say if even Bob himself likes the songs; I’ve seen him in concert 3 times and never heard him perform a single song from the album. It’s hardly a mediocre entry in his ouevre though. Street Legal is an album that deserves to be rescued.
Rock and Roll legend has it that when Buddy Holly recorded his hits, he typically liked to play them only once in the studios, despite the protests of the producers and his own band. In the 60s, Bob Dylan used a similar technique, often recording songs in one take, or a handful of takes at the most. If a song didn’t work after a few takes, it was often cut out. Many of his best songs contain noticeable goofs, such as Stuck Inside A Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again), where near the end he stutters “the t- preacher…” or in his classic Like A Rolling Stone, when Al Kooper’s uncertainty with the organ caused him to play one beat behind everyone else, creating a signature sound largely by accident. As time went on, his sound became more polished, less caustic, such as his emotional masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, where there’s hardly a wrong note in the entire album. Street Legal is a return to the loose, quick, improvisatory style of his earlier work.
The album is a challenging one. The first time I listened to it, I disliked much of it. The second time through, I liked it even less. After repeated listenings, the thing grew on me. Now, not all of the songs work, and there’s three I usually skip, but when they work, they work.
Here’s three songs from Street Legal that I do enjoy, with my thoughts on them. (*Note: I didn’t make these videos–my thanks to whoever did).
Changing of the Guard
Changing of the Guard is a return to the imagery that would fascinate Bob Dylan throughout his career: the life and death of Joan of Arc. It’s speculated Joan of Arc also inspired his song Visions of Joanna among others. This is a song that’s always fascinating. The lyrics resemble one of William Blake’s visionary poems, and the arrangement is bold. There’s no song quite like this. I always try to piece together the narrative everytime I hear this, but it remains elusive.
Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)
The famous music critic Greil Marcus called this song a pastiche of Sam Peckinpah films. Is that really so bad? When I listen to Senor, it’s not Peckinpah that pops into my mind, but Sergio Leone. Just try to listen to this and not think of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. I also enjoy this song because it’s a return to his rueful, brooding minor-chord style that brought us such Apocalyptic classics as One More Cup of Coffee and All Along the Watchtower. The standout line here is “Let’s disconnect these cables/ overturn these cables/ this place don’t make sense to me no more,” recalling Christ’s indignity at seeing moneylenders in the temples. This song has been covered numerous times. Willie Nelson recently did a cover for the I’m Not There soundtrack.
Is Your Love in Vain
Bob Dylan is renowned for his love songs, but if you look at his body of work, so many of his so-called love songs are actually breakup songs. This is one of his certified love songs, and one of his best if you ask me, belonging somewhere besides Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and If Not For You in terms of openness. The composition is loud and bold, and the music builds on itself as it goes along, climaxing in a commanding wall of sound. One caveat: this song always makes me think of The Light Fandango (which song came first?).
If you’ve never bought a Bob Dylan album before, Street Legal isn’t for you. Check out Blonde on Blonde, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, or Blood on the Tracks first. But if you’re one of those people who think Dylan didn’t do anything good after 1969 (and I’ve met a lot of people who think this) give this album a shot. And make sure to listen to it more than once.
My name is Corey Pung and I have written two books, titled The Madness of Art Short Stories and A Rapturous Occasion. The Madness of Art Short Stories is a collection of tales about the strange lives of artists, ranging from surrealism to realism and everything in between. A Rapturous Occasion is a novel about a middle-aged wealthy couple who let their fear of the Apocalypse nearly ruin everything in their life. Both are available on Amazon in paperback and as ebooks. Check out my author page to find out more.
Are there any other albums like Bob Dylan’s Street Legal that you think never got the recognition they deserved?