How Music, Via Two Longtime Favorites, Helps Us to Remain ‘Forever Young’

Call it nostalgia or call it emotional sustenance. Or maybe it’s simply the transformative power of art.

I imagine we all have that pang of recognition when a line of music in the air touches our inner teenager. You can name that tune in two notes. The sounds that shaped our youth usually tend to be the sounds we cling to and cherish forever. Not that we can’t grow and expand our interests and tastes from there. Of course, people do that. But those first loves have a way of conquering the impressionable ear and heart.

The radio — remember that medium? — has long capitalized on a listener’s love of “oldies,” on rocker dinosaurs, on the golden uplift of Beethoven and Bach. I just read that in the music industry, 82 percent of consumption involves catalogue recordings — that is, older music rather than new.

So what if I’ve reignited a thing for two old favorites? I mean, Bob Dylan won a Nobel freaking Prize, man. And Joni Mitchell — in my book, she’s still a goddess.

“Joni Mitchell Archives – Vol. 2: The Reprise Years 1968-1971,” a multi-disc compilation of previously unreleased recordings (Rhino/Warner Records)

At 75, frailties have halted Mitchell’s performing career, but her corporate elves have jump-started a revival. So far, two multi-disc compilations of previously unreleased recordings have come out — outtakes, alternate versions, “live” sessions — from a hugely productive period, 1968 to 1971. These are the songs and indelible sounds — silky, angelic voice; glistening, tidal, acoustic guitar — that entered my consciousness when, yes, I was a teenaged music hound, let’s say something more than five, not quite six, decades ago.

I first saw Mitchell in concert in 1969 on a snowy, early spring night in a college gymnasium in Boston, shortly after the release of her first album, “Songs to a Seagull.” We already knew her then as a stirring songwriter — “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” “Tin Angel” — through recordings by another couple of folk favorites, Judy Collins and Tom Rush. But here she was on the verge of what, to me, became an essential life journey through song; still to come: “Blue,” “Court and Spark,” “Hejira,” and much more.

That this volume of Mitchell’s archives contains a 1968 club set taped by Jimi Hendrix and rediscovered only recently adds an irresistible sense of story to the proceedings.

The careers and lives of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell intersect here and there. Unsurprising, given their reigning legacies as songwriter-poets. I still get chills while watching an intimate scene, now YouTubed, in Martin Scorsese’s recent mock documentary of Dylan’s mid-1970s “Rolling Thunder Revue.” This is the moment when Mitchell shows off a new song — “Coyote,” her coy ode to the playwright Sam Shepard — serenading Dylan and Roger McGuinn as they strum along in Gordon Lightfoot’s living room.

The World of Dylanology

Bob Dylan’s 39th new album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (Columbia Records Group)

Dylan turned 80 last May. On his birthday weekend, I spent a few days plugged into an online symposium emanating from the Tulsa headquarters of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies and the soon-to-be-launched public face of Dylan world, the Bob Dylan Center. (Opening date: May 10. Mental note: New reason to go to Tulsa; it’s a four-hour drive.) Those talks and conversations reminded me once again that in the world of Dylanology, I remain “a thousand miles behind.”

Still, it’s not too hard to appreciate what Dylan has been doing lately. His corporate apparatus has also released repackaged outtakes from the early 1970s and the long-overlooked early 1980s. But last summer he issued a phantasmic, streaming video concert (recorded in moody black and white), a dramatized hit parade called “Shadow Kingdom.”

Then, in November, when pandemic concerns sort of had eased up, he went on tour for a month. Those shows highlighted music from Dylan’s 39th new album (in roughly 60 years), “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” For Dylan partisans, that record, released in June 2020, was one of the curative highlights of the early months of COVID-19, an assemblage of all new, substantial, poetic and eerily of-the-moment songs.

I failed to climb aboard the fall tour, but Dylan Twitter, Dylan fan podcasts, and bootleg recordings from some of the live shows kept me informed. As veteran Dylan watcher and literary scholar Anne Margaret Daniel has written, “Dylan is rising into greater force and power as he ages.”

One of the remarkable things about Dylan’s current project is that he is largely uninterested in nostalgia. The “Rough and Rowdy” tour did not present new versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Aside from “Every Grain of Sand,” his gospel-era concert closer from the early 1980s, he and his band mostly growled and grittily rendered all but two of the new songs from the namesake record. The sets often peaked, as I heard some of them, with his long meditation on history, transgression and immortality titled “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”

As Joni Mitchell gives us ways to expand and refresh our memories, Dylan builds on a monumental foundation of visionary exploration…

This is a performer with wheels on fire. His tour resumes this month (March), though, alas, Kansas City is not on the itinerary.  

Dylan in recent years has also been showing his art here and abroad — metal sculptures, sketches and paintings. One close observer, Scott Warmuth, has been documenting how Dylan’s neo-realist canvases frequently derive from a wide range of movies. Dylan has copied urban street scenes and other imagery from more than 40 movies (“Taxi Driver,” The Pawnbroker,” “Round Midnight,” to name three). It’s not unlike how he has borrowed phrases, ideas, and tropes from literature and music near and far. That is the willfully derivative Dylan. As he parrots Walt Whitman on the latest record, he contains multitudes. And, in his kaleidoscopic song-stream, he always has channeled cultural moments, blues icons, Beat poets, ancient philosophers, rivals, lovers and the news.

Yes, in essence, it’s all a kind of nostalgia transformed. As Joni Mitchell gives us ways to expand and refresh our memories, Dylan builds on a monumental foundation of visionary exploration, a way of honoring and dragging the past — and our faithful hearts and minds — all the way into the chaotic and uncertain future.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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