When Bob Dylan’s album “Love and Theft” was released in 2001, a common joke among reviewers and fans was that Dylan should have called the album “Highway 61 Revisited Revisited.” This reference was to Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited and the similarities between the two albums, especially the power of the music produced to support Dylan’s lyrical content. Dylan had worked with great bands featuring a variety of strengths in the 36 years between the two albums, but “Love and Theft” served as a showcase for the road band that Dylan had put together in the late 90s and early 00s; a band that could follow Dylan down any road, right of way, avenue, back alley, country lane, boulevard, donkey trail, expressway, underground tunnel, or garden path that he chose to explore. The force and elation of the “Love and Theft” band’s performance can be heard on the song “Summer Days”:
Compare that song with “Highway 61 Revisited,” which was previously covered on Recliner Notes):
The chord structure, instrumentation, and vocal delivery in the two songs are certainly different, but the verve and vitality are palpable in both. Dylan chose to produce “Love and Theft” himself under the pseudonym of “Jack Frost,” giving the following reason to Jonathan Lethem as part of a Rolling Stone interview in 2006:
“I felt like I’ve always produced my own records anyway, except I just had someone there in the way. I feel like nobody’s gonna know how I should sound except me anyway, nobody knows what they want out of players except me, nobody can tell a player what he’s doing wrong, nobody can find a player who can play but he’s not playing, like I can. I can do that in my sleep.”
The other reason may have been that he knew he had a hot shit band, and he didn’t want anyone else mucking up the sound that he and his band were producing every night on stage. Chris Shaw, the engineer for “Love and Theft”, said as much to Uncut in 2008:
“On ‘Love And Theft’, Bob really wanted to get the live sound of the band he had at that time, which, in my opinion, is the best band he’s ever had. Charlie Sexton, Larry Campbell, David Kemper, Tony Garnier, and we had Augie Meyers in playing organ. His idea was just, basically, get the whole band in the room and get them playing.”
Later in the same interview, Shaw goes on to share a theory as to why Dylan is able to produce the “Love and Theft” sound with this particular group of musicians:
“Whenever things were going wrong, it was almost always because the band weren’t listening to what Bob was saying. And ‘Love And Theft’ is a great record because Bob doesn’t want anything getting in the way of a vocal. There should be no guitar riffs going on while he’s singing, no soloing while he’s singing, no fancy playing while he’s singing, and so, the great thing about ‘Love And Theft’ is, there’s this tension in all the songs, because, all the other musicians are trying to get theirs in while he’s not singing, y’know. Whenever Bob stops singing, Charlie or Larry will try to put a little riff in there, or do a solo. If you go see Bob live, you’ll see these little times when he might turn to the guitarist and give him the eye, like, ‘You’re playing on top of me – don’t do that.’ So, there’s kind of boxing match going on, and everyone’s trying to get their kicks in when Bob isn’t singing.”
The tension that Shaw describes is especially evident in “Summer Days,” as there is a smoldering feel that the whole band could combust at any time. Listening solely to the guitar playing of Campbell and Sexton on “Summer Days” we can hear how they are playing off one another and Dylan’s, while still sneaking in little runs when possible. The relationship between the two guitar players is best expressed by the indomitable Keith Richards, who discusses his own Rolling Stones guitar partnership with Ronnie Wood, using his unique laughing/coughing delivery:
“The ancient form of weaving” is a beautiful description of Campbell and Sexton’s playing on “Summer Days,” honed over years of playing together with Dylan on road. They formed their own two-person guitar weaving guild. Dylan knew he had something special with this guitar partnership and road band and specifically wrote songs for “Love and Theft” to meet the particular strengths of this band.
“We’d go in a rehearsal hall and we just would play for three days. And a lot of times before we did ‘Love And Theft,’ like I remember one period of three days where we’d play only Dean Martin songs. And we’d, you know, we’d play ‘em on the record player, we’d listen to ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’ and he’d sing it and we, then we’re ready, we could do a whole, we could do a gig playing those songs. But we never, ever played them. We just polished them up and that was that. And he would do that with, um, Johnnie and Jack songs and Stanley Brothers songs and, you know, real early, earlier American artists too. And he would turn us onto these things and he’d bring records in and give us tapes of these recordings with real early stuff. And then the next day at rehearsal we’d run through them and learn to play them and most of them we never would play. And the first day we went in to record ‘Love And Theft’ I know he said, ‘Alright, the first song we’re gonna start with is this song.’ And he’d play it for us on his guitar. And then he would say, ‘You know, I want to do it in the style of this song.’ And he’d play an early song, and, like, we started with ‘Summer Days’ and he’d play a song called ‘Rebecca’ by Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner. And then it became apparent to me that he’d been training us for, you know, a year, over a year, to learn these old styles.”
It’s fascinating to listen to “Rebecca” and compare it with “Summer Days”:
While the lyrical content is not the same in the two songs, Dylan and company have borrowed the jump blues framework of “Rebecca” along with one or two of the riffs and transformed it into something new. In this context, the “Highway 61 Revisited Revisited” joke about “Love and Theft” works again as Dylan is revisiting old songs to find inspiration to compose new songs.
The idea of revisiting the past is embedded throughout “Love and Theft”, especially in the song “Summer Days” as explored by Jochen Markhorst in his post on the song. “Dylan’s explicit intention with ‘Love And Theft’,” Markhost writes, is to “resuscitate history.” One example is when Dylan sings:
Well, I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, “You’re a worn out star.”
Dylan is getting the cold shoulder from several women who are apparently repeating the worst barbs that a working artist can hear: you’re a has-been, your best work is behind you. Dylan was once called the “Voice of a Generation,” an unfair title to be sure as that association hung with him well past the 60s. In “Summer Days,” Dylan takes on the idea of being “a worn out star” by taking it and discarding it quickly. He’s got no time for these women and their would-be put-downs. He’s “drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car” and the movement of the band behind him tell us that the luxury car that Dylan commands is moving too fast to even hear the slight.
Dylan takes on the theme of looking back directly within the lyrics of the song by riffing off of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the following exchange from the novel, the first person perspective is from the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway:
“‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’
‘Can’t repeat the past?’ [Gatsby] cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.”
The conversation is about Gatsby’s attempt to reclaim his former lover, Daisy. From everything that Fitzgerald builds into the novel, which culminates in the tragic conclusion of the plot, he shares Carraway’s belief that one cannot repeat the past. In this moment in the novel, he shows how unhinged Gatsby has become in his devotion to holding onto the past.
Dylan cribs the exchange from the novel when he sings:
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.”
Dylan swaps out the gender of the person who says, “You can’t repeat the past,” transforming the conversation from one of ironic tragedy in The Great Gatsby to one of playful flirtation in “Summer Days.” Dylan delights in the idea of pushing against the received wisdom that one can’t repeat the past. He adds the words, “What do you mean, you can’t?” Those aren’t found in the novel, and it adds a further kind of good-natured friskiness to the wordplay. This back and forth, combined with the “worn out star” verse, adds to the sense throughout the song that Dylan is utilizing a vocal delivery that could be described as having a twinkle in his eye. It can also be seen as he throws in “WAAAAAEELLLL” and “YAAAAASSSS” in between lines. This further emphasizes the utter joy with which he is singing the song. Dylan is matching the vitality of the smoking hot jump blues that his band is playing, finding joy in the idea of looking back.
Dylan commented on the songs found on “Love and Theft” to USA Today at the time of the album’s release:
“The songs themselves don’t have any genetic history. Is it like Time Out Of Mind, or Oh Mercy, or Blood On The Tracks, or whatever? Probably not. I think of it more as a greatest hits album, Volume 1 or Volume 2. Without the hits; not yet, anyway.”
As the album is first shared with the world, Dylan is already thinking about it as a platform for revisiting something. A greatest hits collection pulls together favorite songs from that artist’s back catalog, from different albums with different musicians and contexts to create something new. A greatest hits compilation is a form of revisiting and providing a historical summary. Dylan embraces that idea with the release of “Love and Theft”.
Dylan goes on to say the following in the same interview with USA Today:
“All the songs [on ‘Love and Theft’] are variations on the 12-bar theme and blues-based melodies. The music here is an electronic grid, the lyrics being the sub-structure that holds it all together.”
Dylan shares a curious concept in this statement. He sees the joining together of the music and lyrics on “Love and Theft” as a product of electrical engineering; a transference of power from its production source to the end user, the consumer. Dylan sees the music and lyrics unified in this act of power transmission to the audience listening to the album. The match between the music and lyrics are embedded within the work itself as seen through the following lines of “Summer Days”:
Summer days, summer nights are gone
Summer days, summer nights are gone
I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on.
This verse opens “Summer Days.” Dylan sings the last line in this verse as an invitation into the rest of the song. Everything that we hear after that invitation — Dylan’s words, the way he sings, the guitars practicing the ancient art form of weaving, the rhythm section humming away — is a literal portrayal of the concept behind “a place where there’s still somethin’ going on.” Then, Dylan ends the song with this same verse that opens the song. By ending it this way, Dylan is fully embracing the notion of revisiting. The music of summer days and summer nights may be gone, but there’s always a place where one can go to get lost in the music all over again. Inspiration can be found here, in the present and in the past.
Image: Marion Post Wolcott, “Frenchie’s Bar”. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.