Oddball Reviews #2: ‘Street Legal’ by Bob Dylan (1978)

This one has history. Mrs O. and I played it to death on cassette in the car, in the far off times before we were married. (I’ll explain cassettes one day, children.) I’ve just purchased it on CD. (Oh, come on, you know what a CD is.) And oh, it sounds good.

In many ways this is classic Dylan, with obscure lyrics that somehow tell wonderful stories. You can put your own pictures to them, or interpret them in terms of your own or in terms of your own life. I seem to recall a theory that they are meant to be a precursor to evangelical era Dylan. Can’t see it myself, but you never can tell. There are some straightforward songs too- ‘Baby Please Stop Crying” is pretty much all there in the title.

The lyrics are set to jangling backings that I would call Americana if I didn’t know better, or feel I ought to know better. Some of the instrumental punctuations make me think of a band playing along with Dylan in a town square, perhaps in Mexico. This is the Dylan whose voice, although idiosyncratic as always, was still holding up well and holding a tune well.

There isn’t, for me, a single duff track. I used to think that ‘Brand New Pony’ was a rather vulgar song, but I’ve changed my mind; how much does he ever mean any of what he writes? I once heard Paul Simon rather wearily explain that his songs were not literal truth. Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Richard Thompson might sigh in agreement. They write songs, not autobiographies.

However, in an outstanding collection, one song stands out for me: ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)’. It can be interpreted as a quest for a girl, or a metaphor for the America of the time, or of course in any way you choose. I see it as a semi-fantastical quest, with the same inexplicable resonances as Stephen Poliakoff drama. A particularly apposite selection:

bob_dylan_june_23_1978Senor; Senor;

Can you tell me where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

Seems like I’ve been down this way before.

Is there any truth in that, Senor?”

In my opinion, this is one of the great Dylan albums, along with ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and ‘Desire’. If you don’t like this one, you probably won’t like Dylan. I utterly recommend it.

Given the controversy over Dylan’s Nobel Prize (do keep up) (yes, he probably did deserve it) (yes, it was churlish of him not to respond) I had better let him have the last word, from ‘Love in Vain’:

I have dined with kings

I’ve been offered wings

But I’ve never been too impressed.”


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