"It took us a week to make Street Legal - we mixed it the following week and put it out the week after. If we hadn't done it that fast we wouldn't have made an album at all, because we were ready to go back on the road."
Bob Dylan 1978.
The years 1977 and 1978 could hardly have been more different in the life of Bob Dylan. 1977 was spent largely editing the film footage that would eventually become "Renaldo and Clara" and just about his only venture into a recording studio was to sing back-up vocals on one track ("Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On") for Leonard Cohen's poor and unrepresentative album "Death Of A Ladies Man." By contrast, 1978 saw a very high profile Dylan. On January 25th, "Renaldo and Clara" was released, in February and March he toured Australasia and the Far East, in June and July he toured Europe and the UK for the first time in twelve years. The climax of this tour was a performance in front of an estimated quarter of a million people at Blackbushe Aerodrome (still a record attendance for a UK concert), and he followed that with a tour of the States, playing sixty-five dates. On February 25th, "Masterpieces," a five album retrospective was released to capitalise on the Far East tour, and on November 22nd, "Live At Budokan," the album of that tour was released. Sandwiched between these two was "Street Legal," Dylan's first album of new material in two years. It was, of necessity, recorded quickly, using the band that had backed Dylan on tour, but without bassist Rob Stoner who was unable to resolve his difficulties with drummer Ian Wallace. Stoner was replaced by Jerry Scheff, a man whose CV included work with Elvis Presley. All nine songs appear to have been written in advance and did not suffer from any in-studio tinkering. The sessions covered a mere four days (April 25th to April 28th inclusive) although there was one later session (May 1st) where Dylan recorded three songs that he had co-written with back-up singer and sometime girlfriend Helena Springs. It is however unlikely that this trio of songs was ever intended for inclusion on the album. "Street Legal" is a good album, strongly written and well performed, with the same spontaneous, live feel that worked so well on "Desire," although the themes here are much darker. The reception it received was markedly different on each side of the Atlantic, with most critics choosing to overlook the undoubtedly muddy production values. Griel Marcus (always a hard man for Dylan to please) was particularly scathing in his review for Rolling Stone, he did however award it three stars.
The poor production is immediately apparent on the first track, "Changing Of The Guards" which fades in with the words "Sixteen years, sixteen banners united over the field/Where the good shepherd grieves," as Dylan looks back over the sixteen years that he has been in "...the marketplace." This richly evocative song sees Dylan focusing on themes that are virtually constant throughout the album, those of betrayal and deceit, never far away in his dealings with the opposite sex, but here it runs deeper. He sees himself being dissected by everyone who wants a piece of him, from the "Merchants and thieves, hungry for power..." to the "Renegade priests and treacherous young witches." Dylan uses strong images throughout, "The cold-blooded moon," "The palace of mirrors" and "...mountain laurel and rolling rocks," before we are treated to the unexpected yet totally fitting role reversal of "He's pulling her down and she's clutching on to his long golden locks." Or is this Dylan empathising with the idealised image of Christ? In 1978 Jonathon Cott interviewed Dylan for Rolling Stone and asked him specifically about the lyrics of this song, Dylan responded with the cryptic "I'm the first person who'll put it to you and the last person who'll explain it to you. Those questions can be answered dozens of different ways, and I'm sure they're all legitimate. Everybody sees in the mirror what he sees - no two people see the same thing." Whatever you see in the mirror, there can be no denying that this is one of Dylan's most infuriatingly inaccessible songs, but that said, the two final verses are the most intriguing, with notice being served of a professional as well as a spiritual change. The apparent paradox of the lines "Peace will come/With tranquility and splendour on the wheels of fire/That will offer no reward..." contrasts with the wonderful metaphor of "And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating," before Dylan closes with the odd tarot card reference "...the King and the Queen of Swords." This is a fine song, and could have been used to close the album if the final track was not so powerful, yet it remains steeped in mystery, even Robert Shelton, in his excellent biography had to admit "I confess the song is still an enigma to me."
Even though "New Pony" is my least favourite track on the album, it has a compelling quality to it that is hard to overlook. The incessant "How much longer?" from the backing vocalists and Dylan's overtly sexual lyrics, combine to make this almost unique in his catalogue. If, as has been suggested this song was inspired by Dylan's apparent infatuation with Helena Springs, I doubt that she would be flattered by the sexist almost mysogynistic imagery. The lines "Come over here pony/I wanna climb up one time on you" leave little to the imagination, and the almost contemptuous manner of the delivery adds to the lascivious nature of the song. (By the way, I cannot be the only one who for years heard "Sometimes I wonder what's goin' on with Miss X" as "Sometimes I wonder what's goin' on with me, sex?"). "New Pony" is not one of the album's highlights, but it is an interesting songwriting detour for Dylan.
"No Time to Think" however, is one of the highlights, and at nearly eight and a half minutes it is the longest song on the album. This major work is an astonishing piece of writing that illustrates Dylan's matchless talent as a contemporary songwriter. There is a complexity and depth to this song that along with the other two outstanding pieces "Changing Of The Guards" and "Where Are You Tonight?" (and to a lesser degree "Señor") forms the core of this album. The intricate internal rhyming patterns that Dylan employs here indicate a song structure that is close to perfection, and the images that he invokes are at once stark and real, and yet shrouded in mystique. We see here the conflict between spirituality and materialism, something that would soon feature prominently in his work, "Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss/In the valley of the missing link" and "You fight for the throne and you travel alone/Unknown as you slowly sink" as Dylan assumes the mantle of both accused and accuser. Prominent allusion to biblical events abound, "In secret for pieces of change" and "Where the lion lies down with the lamb" and the way he substitutes the disdainful "change" for the more usual "silver" is particularly pertinent. Wilfrid Mellors calls "No Time To Think" "...heartless," and even though there is a certain feeling of detachment, Dylan's use of imagery is majestic, as is the complex rhyming structure. This is particularly noticeable in the penultimate verse "Bullets can harm you and death can disarm you/But no, you will not be deceived/Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt/You can give but you cannot receive" where the writing is stunning. Note the overlapping rhyme of "virtue" with "...dirt/You..." a device that Dylan employs on other occasions throughout the song, but here it is particularly effective. "No Time To Think" is classic seventies Dylan, dark, menacing and virtually impenetrable, but a great listen.
"Baby Stop Crying" was the first single to be released from the album and was a huge hit in Britain and Europe where Dylan has always had a more loyal following than in the States. This is a pretty straightforward song with its opening lines "You been down to the bottom with a bad man babe/Now you're back where you belong" setting the scene for betrayal and having a shoulder to cry on. There is a not so thinly veiled reference to the spiritual rebirth with the lines "Go down to the river, babe/Honey, I will meet you there," and even an offer of sponsorship, "Honey, I will pay your fare." Dylan debuted this (along with "Señor") at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles during the warm-up shows for the European tour where it was warmly received.
The track that follows, "Is Your Love in Vain" is the better song, although Dylan does have a tendency to sound a little too needy. After the somewhat clumsy beginning we get the lover's bravado of "I've been burned before and I know the score/So you won't hear me complain," the aspirant beau putting his cards on the table, followed up with the swaggering "I have dined with kings and been offered wings/And I've never been too impressed." Once he has made his position clear, he sets out his demands, which almost border on the sexist, "Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow/Do you understand my pain?" after he has made the oddly dispassionate statement, "Alright, I'll take a chance/I will fall in love with you," which isn't really the way it works. The song had been performed in Japan, debuting at Budokan on February 28th 1978, long before the album sessions, and on the "Live At Budokan" album, Dylan introduces it with "Here's an unrecorded song. See if you can guess which one it is." (March 1st)
"Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)" is another powerful and evocative song that sees Dylan drawing from the well of the Latin landscape that has served him so richly in the past. With hindsight, we see of course Dylan as the salvation seeker entreating the mysterious senor for a direction, he wants to know "...where we're heading" and he speaks of the "...train load of fools" in a far more benign manner than would soon be the case. The religious symbolism is strong, and the repetition of the second verse's "How long..." reminds one of the chorus in "New Pony," as we see a man searching for a place to belong "Can you tell me who to contact here, Señor?" This is compounded by the supplication of "...before I stripped and kneeled" before the gypsy, the outlaw figure that Dylan uses so often in his spiritual metaphors. The gypsy with his dreamlike images of "...a broken flag and a flashing ring" forces him to face reality "I just gotta pick myself up off the floor/I'm ready when you are, Señor." This song, possibly more than any of the other big songs on the album gives some indication of where Dylan was emotionally in the late seventies (again with the crystal clear vision of hindsight) and as he says in the last line of the song, "Can you tell me what we're waiting for, Señor?" Like most of this album, "Señor" is not an easy song to access but it is a superb piece of writing.
"True Love Tends to Forget" deals with falling into the trap of taking a loved one for granted or not seeing someone for what they really are "I'm getting weary looking in my baby's eyes/When she's near me she's so hard to recognise." Dylan even sounds weary when he uses that word, but he concedes that it is a two way street and there is "...no room for regret." Both parties are guilty of the same sin in this relationship "Hold me, baby be near/You told me that you'd be sincere." Much as I like the idea and the overall sound of this song, it always comes across as being unfinished, but there are some deft touches in the lyrics. "Every day of the year's like playin' Russian roulette" and "But this weekend in hell is makin' me sweat" could surely be only Bob Dylan's description of a love affair. The biggest problem however, is with the fade-out, Dylan almost catches the chorus off-guard, and the ending sounds rushed and somehow unsatisfactory, but these are minor complaints.
"We Better Talk This Over" is a gem of a song that is an exercise in wonderfully controlled writing and performance. Few people can describe a fractured relationship better than Dylan, and as he says here, "This situation can only get rougher/Why should we needlessly suffer?" before he uses the wonderfully unambiguous adjective "decay" to describe where this relationship is heading. "...economic directness" is how John Herdman describes Dylan's approach to this song, and that economy is illustrated in the lines "You don't have to be afraid of looking into my face/We've done nothing to each other time will not erase" There is a gentle openness to the writing, because although he admits "You been two-faced, you been double dealing" he is still ready to offer a palliative, "You don't have to yearn for love, you don't have to be alone/Somewheres in this universe there's a place you can call home." His attempts to be philosophical about time healing this rift "It'd be great to cross paths in a day and a half/Look at each other and laugh" are also realistic "But I don't think it's liable to happen/Like the sound of one hand clapping." I love the image that he conjures up with the lines "Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?/Eventually we'll hang ourselves on all this tangled rope" (surely anybody else would have used microscope). But the starkest image, the final nail in the coffin of this affair is "The vows that we kept are now broken and swept/'Neath the bed where we slept" and even though in the final verse he says "I wish I was a magician..." he is pragmatic enough to admit that they have "...both gone beyond" any reconciliation. The songs on "Street Legal" fall neatly into two categories, the four that I like to think of as the "big" songs, and the five minor (there has to be a better word) love songs. Of those five, this is certainly the best.
Anybody familiar with Dylan's albums will be aware of the fact that the final track is often the most important, or the one that he uses to make a statement. The five albums that cover the years 1964 to 1966 all end with a significant song, and 1968's "John Wesley Harding" used the final song to point the way to the country years. Later critical album closers include the master works "When He Returns" and "Every Grain Of Sand" to name but two, but there are of course many others. Thus "Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)" is in some very impressive company, and it certainly does not disappoint. This is an incredible piece of writing, and a song that I listen to a lot. The images, and they are many, are powerful, and the song is so expressive that you can almost crawl inside it. The opening image of the rain drenched train is brilliantly realised, as is the juxtaposition of the tear-stained letter. Visual clichés sure, but Dylan manages to breathe new life into them. The "...neon light ablaze" and the "...green smokey haze" add to the claustrophobic oppression that the song engenders, and our narrator who is clearly in need of some spiritual upliftment is being excluded from the "...laughter down on Elizabeth street." The feeling of loss and despair is evident, but this song deals more with redemption. The unattainable woman who is "...drifting like a satellite" is addressed with the plaintive "Oh, where are you tonight?" echoing the refrain from a much jauntier song in a much different era. He relates his journey or separation, after agreeing that "...sacrifice was the code of the road" and gives us the marvellous description "...strong men belittled by doubt" of his travelling companions. There is a lovely touch in the second verse where he mirrors the two halves of the relationship, "I couldn't tell her what my private thoughts were/But she had some way of finding them out" and "She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair/And discovered her invisible self." He embraces his alter ego, "I fought with my twin, that enemy within..." but realises the futility of fighting against his destiny "...'til both of us fell by the way" as he ponders on the deceit of both parties "...the man you were lovin' could never get clean/It felt out of place with my foot in his face/He should have stayed where his money was green." His salvation is at hand, but even if the path is not an easy one, "There's a white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room/And a pathway that leads up to the stars" he is going to seize it "There's a new day at dawn and I've finally arrived...I can't believe it, I can't believe I'm alive" but of course, there is the caveat, "But without you it just doesn't seem right." And really, that is the point, spiritual rebirth at the expense of physical love, as we are left with the final disconsolate cry of "Oh, where are you tonight?"
Although I would be the first to comment on the inaccessibility of "Street Legal" I would also be among the first to praise it. To me, it is probably Dylan's most overlooked and least understood album. Even taking the notoriously poor production into consideration, American critics were far less flattering than their European counterparts. Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone review was particularly scathing, "With little or no sense of rhythm in the singing," he said, "you can't stay with the music; either it becomes an irritant (and the stiff female choruses used all over "Street Legal" only compound the irritation), or you just stop hearing anything." He went on to say that even poor Dylan albums in the past had contained songs that redeemed them, but "...there are no such odd gems on Street Legal." Rock critic Robert Christgau commented that Dylan was "...too in love with his own self generated misery to break through the leaden tempos that oppress his melodies," while John Pareles in Crawdaddy pointed out that "Dylan still needs a producer." All this aside, Dylan was greeted with open arms in the UK in June, where he celebrated the album's release before rapturous crowds with six sold out concerts at London's Earls Court. The British press had a different opinion, Michael Watts writing in Melody Maker called it "...his best album since John Wesley Harding" and Angus MacKinnon in NME said it was his "...second major album of the seventies." Mojo gave it four stars, and while admitting that it was "...uncomfortable listening" went on to say that "...it offers an insight into Dylan's search for new meaning in his life." Dylan then undertook a brief tour of Europe before returning to the UK for the hastily arranged open air concert at Blackbushe aerodrome, where he performed with (among others) Eric Clapton, who played guitar on "Forever Young." Dylan had been remarkably effusive during the British and European tour, and at Blackbushe he was no different, striding the stage in a black top-hat acting the part of master of ceremonies as he brought his triumphant tour to a close. It was here that he performed the first live version of "Where Are You Tonight?" (most of the other tracks on "Street Legal" had had their live debuts sometime in 1978 - to date, only "New Pony" and "No Time To Think" have never been performed live). Dylan then embarked on a massive sixty-five date concert tour of the USA, where in November he reportedly experienced the epiphany that triggered his embracement of Christianity, but the seeds of that conversion are evident in many of the songs on "Street Legal," an album that while light years away from earlier seventies offerings like say "New Morning" or "Planet Waves" remains an important statement in that decades output.