"It was long overdue. Just a feeling it was time to go on...Suspected they (CBS) were doing more talk than action. Just released 'em and that's all. Got a feeling they didn't care whether I stayed there or not."
Bob Dylan 1974 on his move from CBS to Asylum.
For an album that was to all intents and purposes written and recorded to order, 1974's "Planet Waves" has stood the test of time, and is the record that began something of a creative renaissance for Bob Dylan. His professional relationship with CBS was badly in need of a boost, and his output in the early part of the seventies was, to say the least, uninspired. David Geffen was making overtures to Dylan via Robbie Robertson, a man whose career was also in need of a kickstart, with his band (that is The Band) not having lived up to their early promise. The deal that Dylan was offered was that Geffen, in association with promoter Bill Graham, would mount a live tour for Dylan and The Band in return for Dylan joining his fledgling Asylum label. The idea of going out on the road without an album to promote probably seemed like professional suicide at that time, so Geffen would get a new studio album as well as the live album of the tour. Dylan, who appears to have been emerging from a creative trough, flew to New York from his home in Malibu in October of 1973, and returned some three weeks later with a batch of new songs that would form the core of the new studio album. Sessions were scheduled for, and began on, Friday November 2nd at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles with Dylan and The Band in attendance (Levon Helm was not present at this first session, he joined his bandmates at the second session on Monday the 5th). This first session, that engineer Rob Fraboni said was just to "...get a feel for the studio" produced completed takes of "Never Say Goodbye" and "Nobody 'Cept You" although the latter would not make the cut. The entire album was recorded in six sessions covering less than two weeks, speedy even by Dylan's standards, but with the tour set to open on January 3rd, time was a major factor. Bob Dylan was back in business, both in the studio and on the stage.
The opening track, "On a Night Like This" has all the elements of a traditional love song and none of the complexity of language that Dylan was to become known for in his later 70's albums. The contrast of the outside temperature "The air is so cold outside/And the snow's so deep" with the inside "Build a fire, throw on logs/And listen to it hiss" could be reduced to a cliché in lesser hands, and when Dylan sings "And let it burn, burn, burn, burn" we can be sure he is talking about more than just the fire. Many people (Michael Gray included) hated this song, but it does have a certain charm and is like a sexier version of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," with a totally unembarrassed Dylan giving us lines like "Run your fingers down my spine/Bring me a touch of bliss" and "There's more frost on the window glass/With each new tender kiss." One of the provisional titles for the album was "Love Songs," and "On a Night Like This" was clearly what he had in mind, no surreal language or oblique drug references here. Several takes of the song were attempted on November 6th, in both slow and fast versions, but the take that made the album is from the November 8th session. To hear a very different version of this song, check out Cajun artist Buckwheat Zydeco's 1987 album titled "On A Night like This."
One of the most distinctive things about "Going, Going, Gone" is Robbie Robertson's guitar work. This is a restless song about a man at a crossroads and needing to make some decisions. He has reached a place "Where the willow don't bend" and he's "...closin' the book," he is anxious for some unspecified change, as he says "...I don't really care/What happens next." The repetition of this slow blues number is alleviated with the verse where Grandma tells him "Boy, go and follow your heart," and the line "Don't you and your one true love ever part" is much in keeping with the spirit of the whole album. Nigel Williamson in his Rough Guide... is particularly impressed by this song, he says that it has "...hidden depths," and that it is "...a proud addition to the canon of great Dylan songs."
In "Tough Mama" there is a return to more familiar imagery as Dylan invokes his illusive muse. "Sister's on the highway with that steel-drivin' crew/Papa's in the big house his workin' days are through" he sings with lines that are reminiscent of his work on "Bringing It All Back Home." He addresses his "Dark Beauty" his "Sweet Goddess" with the wonderful "Jack the Cowboy went up north/He's buried in your past/The Lone Wolf went out drinking/That was over pretty fast" as we see the beginnings of a much stronger lyric style than we had been used to from Dylan in this period. Having said that, there is a clumsiness about the forth verse's line "I'd be grateful if this golden ring you would receive," and the uncharacteristic coarseness of "Today on the countryside it was a-hotter than a crotch" and "It must be time to carve another notch" does not sit easily. Sexual innuendo is not a device that Dylan employs often, and when he does it seems forced and unconvincing. The fifth verse has some more great writing, the evocative "I ain't a-haulin' any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore" suggests a man fed-up with corporate bickering and ready to go his own way, and the thoughtful "I've gained some recognition but I lost my appetite" seem to imply a lack of enthusiasm for his chosen path.
Like "Tough Mama," "Hazel" is one of Dylan's earth mothers, (both album takes are from the same session), albeit an unglamorous one, and with her "...dirty blonde hair" she is very different to the focal points of his attention of the mid sixties that suddenly seem so far away. She is, however, a beguiling if evasive creature and he constantly begs for "...a little touch of your love." Not one of the strongest songs in the set, but it is not out of place in an album that is used as a canvas to paint the many faces of love. Dylan performed "Hazel" live for the first time at The Band's farewell concert "The Last Waltz" some three years after these recording sessions took place, but it was not included on the official album, video or DVD release. Sadly, the performance is quite ragged and Dylan's almost shouted vocal gives the distinct impression that he would rather be somewhere else.
One of the album's best songs, "Something There Is About You," is a marvellous piece addressed to a real or imagined object of desire. "Thought I'd shaken the wonder and the phantoms of my youth" he sings as he recalls lost innocence and he follows this with the wonderfully evocative couplet that takes us back to that youth "Rainy days on the Great Lakes/Walkin' the hills of old Duluth." He sees "Something there is about you that brings back a long forgotten truth." The writing is very strong here as Dylan opens up emotionally "Suddenly I found you and the spirit in me sings/Don't have to look no further, you're the soul of many things" and the line that describes calm after turmoil "I was in a whirlwind, now I'm in some better place" tell us that he is at peace with himself, even if he has to keep on searching "Something there is about you that I can't quite put my finger on." The gentle, almost wistful use of language in this song perfectly describes the indefinable quality that draws one person to another. But hidden away in the third verse is the spirit of restlessness that is evident in many of these songs "I could say that I'd be faithful, I could say it in one sweet, easy breath/But to you that would be cruelty and to me it surely would be death," as the one, sweet easy breath that Dylan had been employing for the past few years was about to come to an abrupt end.
Apparently written for or about his children, (or more specifically, his youngest son Jakob, then approaching his fourth birthday), "Forever Young" has proved to be one of Dylan's most enduring works. The song was demoed in June of 1973, and that demo version appears on 1985's "Biograph" but getting an acceptable take in the studio proved to be quite a problem. It was attempted at both of the early sessions (November 2nd and 5th) but it was on the 8th after several tries that Dylan had a take that he was happy with. This is the slow version on the album. The second or alternate version was recorded almost as an afterthought on November 14th, the same session that yielded "Dirge" almost a week after the album was to all intents and purposes, finished. This is the faster version, featuring Rick Danko's country fiddle. Putting two versions of the same song on an album was an unusual step that perhaps gives some indication of its significance to its composer. Taken at face value it can be seen as merely a catalogue of everything any parent would wish for a child; mental, spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing, and when he sings "May you build a ladder to the stars/And climb on every rung" he is hoping that every experience will be a positive one. He makes his point without labouring it and avoids the trap of becoming too preachy "May you always know the truth/And see the light surrounding you," and he ends the song with the wonderful "May your heart always be joyful/May your song always be sung/And may you stay forever young." Dylan has performed "Forever Young" many times over the years, but the two versions on "Planet Waves" will always remain at the core of the album. Interestingly, only Jakob Dylan has followed his father's footsteps and taken a musical path.
The aptly named "Dirge," originally titled "Dirge For Martha" could not be more of a contrast. It is the other side of the coin to the album's closing track "Wedding Song," but it is difficult to know exactly who Dylan is addressing here. Clinton Heylin sees it quite simply as "...a pre-tour address to his audience," and the song's pedigree (it was almost certainly written after the bulk of the album had been recorded) would support that theory. "I hate myself for lovin' you/And the weakness that it showed" is the songs stark and blunt opening, but presumably this affair is now over because "...I'm glad the curtain fell." There is a bitterness here that sets this song apart from the rest of the album, and Robert Shelton (Dylan's biographer) called it "an elliptical essay on morbid dependency" which is as good a description as any. There are echoes of 1965's "Positively Fourth Street" and other mid-sixties work here, and "Dirge" forms a link between those songs and the subsequent album's "Idiot Wind," although it lacks the passion of the latter, "That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin" suggest despair and detachment rather than anger. In the third verse the first person becomes the third, and Dylan uses the odd simile "Like a slave in orbit, he's beaten 'til he's tame," and he takes a well aimed swipe at transient materialism with "All for a moment's glory..." and "In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem." The song comes full circle with the final line "I hate myself for lovin' you, but I should get over that" and the ambiguous use of the word "should" which could mean he ought to be able to or he will in time. Whichever it is, "Dirge" is one of the strongest songs on the album and serves as a pointer to some great writing to come.
Unfortunately, the next song "You Angel You" does not fall into that category. This cliché ridden song is the simplest and the weakest on the album "You know I can't sleep at night for trying" and "The way you smile like a sweet baby child" do neither Dylan nor the album any credit at all. New Riders Of The Purple Sage included a version of this song on their 1974 album "Brujo" and it was a minor hit for them when released as a single.
"Never Say Goodbye" was also demoed in June, but unlike "Forever Young," its transition to record was a relatively painless affair, being the only song to survive from the first session, and as a consequence of Levon Helm's absence, Richard Manual occupied the drum stool. It has one of the most evocative openings of any Dylan song, "Twilight on the frozen lake/North wind about to break/On footprints in the snow/Silence down below" has vague parallels with 1965's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh..." and there is a definite feel of less is more in this beautiful song. He is making a commitment here "Time is all I have to give/You can have it if you choose," and there is a marvellous contrast in "My dreams are made of iron and steel/With a big bouquet/Of roses hanging down" with Dylan showing a more tender side. The final verse with its plaintive "Oh, baby, baby, baby blue" takes us back to the mid-sixties again, but the simplicity of the song never becomes banal or trite.
The album's final piece "Wedding Song" is an intense affirmation of love, presumably to his wife, in which Dylan uses so much hyperbole that one begins to question his motives. There is a sense that up until now he has been absorbed with the idea of being in love rather than actually being in love, and the opening line "I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love" almost seems as if he is trying to convince himself. This is a powerful song with much passion in the lyrics, but Dylan's performance of it seems oddly detached "Ever since you walked right in, the circle's been complete/I've said goodbye to haunted rooms and faces in the street" he declares, which with "You breathed on me and made my life a richer one to live" demonstrates the depth of his emotion. Later in an uncharacteristic flash of personal intimacy he says "You gave me babies one, two, three, what is more you saved my life", and in the next verse, the cryptic "What's lost is lost, we can't regain what went down in the flood" which seems to suggest a new beginning. This is emphasised even more with the closing line of the song "'Cause I love you more than ever now that the past has gone" which serves as an abrupt full-stop. John Herdman in 1982's Voice Without Restraint suggests that the positioning of the song at the end of the album is significant in that it dispels any feelings of restlessness that may have been implied in earlier songs, but others saw it as Dylan apologising for turning his back on his cosy life style and returning to touring. A lifestyle choice coupled with all its attendant craziness that Sara Dylan clearly detested. The song featured sporadically in the 1974 tour.
"Planet Waves" was eventually released on January 17th 1974, two weeks after the tour had begun, and went to number one on the strength of advance orders alone. The delay was partially due to the change of the title ("Love Songs" and "Ceremonies Of The Horsemen" were two early suggestions), and critical opinion was divided. The New York Times said that it "...lacked polish" but The Village Voice argued that this was what gave it its charm. Derek Jewell, writing in London's Sunday Times took a different approach, "There's a vitality shot through with some tenderness, irony and some anger..." he said, and went on to describe it as "...a definitive, disturbing and haunting collection of songs." In The New Yorker Ellen Willis picked up on the more personal aspects of the album, "..."Planet Waves" is what it appears to be - Dylan's aesthetic and practical dilemma, and his immense emotional debt to Sara." For an album that was released as a product to be supported by a tour, precious few songs from "Planet Waves" were debuted in the first two months of 1974. Only two, "Forever Young" and "Something There Is About You" received regular outings, and of these, the latter was dropped about half way through. "Tough Mama" was played at a few of the early concerts and was then dispensed with, "Wedding Song" cropped up a few times, and the first two weeks saw the album reject, "Nobody 'Cept You" played very often, but even that was mysteriously discarded once the album was in the public domain. Of all the songs on the album, only "Forever Young" is heard in live performance these days, and this was of course the song that Dylan sang with Bruce Springsteen on his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. To the best of my knowledge, "Dirge," "On A Night Like This"" and "Never Say Goodbye" have never been performed live. "Planet Waves" has stood the test of time well and has survived the unfavourable comparison with "New Morning" that it received on release. It remains, and of course will remain, the only studio album ("Basement Tapes" excluded) on which Dylan was backed wholly and exclusively by The Band, and Robbie Robertson, a man more familiar with Dylan's musical foibles than most, was amazed at how quickly it was recorded "It was over before we realized we'd started" he said, and Garth Hudson was impressed with Dylan's spontaneous way of working "I think there may have been some first takes there...Best way to do 'em" was his evaluation. Dylan himself was bemused by the apparent disparity between those who were prepared to pay to see him live, and those who were prepared to buy his new studio album. There were reportedly in excess of ten million applications for the 658,000 tickets for the forty shows of Tour '74, and yet "Planet Waves" sold a comparatively modest 600,000 copies. When the dust had settled, Geffen had his two albums on his Asylum label, and Dylan renegotiated a more lucrative contract with Columbia. Both "Planet Waves" and "Before The Flood," the double live album of Tour '74, have subsequently been reissued on the CBS label. The album and the tour proved to be the kick-start that Dylan's career needed, and the next six years or so saw him produce some of his best work ever, and his next tour would be the legendary Rolling Thunder Review.