Hard Rain : by Tim Riley
Alfred A. Knopf $23
Reviewed by Peter Stone Brown
Tim Riley starts this book, (subtitled “A Dylan Commentary”) with such a rush of words — much like his subject — describing the layers of meaning Dylan’s voice gives to his songs that I had high hopes for it. But the book is riddled with errors in fact, history, spelling and hearing. Wrong facts are quite common in books on rock ‘n’ roll (with the possible exception of those by Peter Guralnick). Whenever I see a factual error, I wonder what else the author got wrong? More disturbing is that some unsuspecting soul will read it and think it’s the truth.
Hard Rain is an up-to-date analysis of Dylan’s songs, albums and films and concerts (though Riley apparently has seen few of those). He cites Dylan’s obvious influences, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, and randomly assigns others such as blues singer and guitarist, Brownie McGhee. I have no doubt that Dylan listened to Brownie McGhee but it was his long-time partner Sonny Terry’s harmonica playing that can be detected as an influence on Dylan. Such confusion runs rampant. Discussing Dylan’s first record, he quotes the chorus of “Gospel Plow” as “Keep your eye on the plow,” when what is actually sung is “hand.” I believe Riley is confusing it with the freedom song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” sung to the same melody and recorded by Pete Seeger on his We Shall Overcome album referred to in the text. Riley hears Dylan sing “The fiddler now speaks” on the last verse of Biograph’s live version of “Visions of Johanna” when he is clearly singing “peddler.”
Riley relies on other books on Dylan which themselves are wrong. He quotes directly from Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home for the the musician credits for Blood on the Tracks because Shelton supplies the names of musicians not credited on the album cover when Dylan suddenly decided to re-record half the album at the last minute. My brother happens to play on that record and is one of the musicians listed on the cover. Shelton got his last name (which is my last name and real hard to spell) wrong. If Riley had bothered to check the album cover, he might have discovered the discrepancy. Shelton is also used as a source for the incorrect number of redone songs. The difference in the sound of the two sessions is obvious. Most of the original recordings were subsequently released on Biograph and Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 making the difference even more apparent. If Riley can’t tell the difference between songs with several guitars and drums and songs with one guitar, harmonica and a bass, why is this man a music commentator? Riley also says The Hawks (aka the Band) back Dylan on “If You Gotta Go.” A simple check of the credits show otherwise and again the band on the track sounds nothing like the Band.
Michael Gray’s The Art of Bob Dylan is the source for the incorrect statement that Dylan took the melody for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” from Johnny Cash’s “Understand Your Man” when it was the other way around. “Understand Your Man” wasn’t even recorded until Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album had been out six months.
In mentioning Woody Guthrie’s involvement with the Almanac Singers a topical song group in the ’40s that also included Pete Seeger, Riley states that Burl Ives and Richard Dyer-Bennett (an art singer who performed classical renditions of traditional folk ballads) and Leadbelly were members. Not true. Riley is misquoting Joe Klein’s biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, where Klein writes that the Almanac Singers used to hold Sunday afternoon concerts in their communal loft where Ives, Dyer-Bennett, Leadbelly and others would perform.
Riley also says that Mike Bloomfield led Dylan’s band at Forest Hills, his second “electric” appearance. He means the Newport Folk Festival. I was at Forest Hills, Mike Bloomfield wasn’t in the band. He correctly identifies the musicians 20 pages later (great proofreading).
As annoying as these errors are, the interpretation and analysis of what the songs are about is way off base. Significance is assigned where none exists (and vice versa). False assumptions are presented as fact. Discussing “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Riley follows a bunch of nonsense about westerns, gangsters and cowboys with, “…the song is as much about the narrator’s heavy heart as about the ethnic resentments that lead to separate codes of justice.” In real life, the lyrics are based on and quote from The Book of Leviticus (The Blessings of Obedience , Chapter 26, verse 19 and 20). The “I” in the song is God. The “immigrant” represents the Jews during Exodus. Once you have that knowledge, the song makes perfect sense, and other interpretations seem silly.
Okay, so you have to read the Bible to know about that song, but Riley gets more ridiculous: Analyzing “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 and 35” (Everybody Must Get Stoned), he says the line, “They’ll stone you when you’re trying to take your seat,” “can be read as a reference to the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott.” What!? Discussing the unreleased, “Get Your Rocks Off,” recorded during the Basement Tapes — a funny nonsensical song where Dylan and The Band crack up while they’re singing — Riley states the line “Cruising down the highway in a Greyhound bus” “alludes to the Mississippi Freedom Riders.” Uh, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and in the case of this song, a Greyhound Bus is a Greyhound bus.
Riley then says “Tears of Rage” is “a soldier’s curse upon his commander… the voice of a man who followed his leader into battle, saw his friends slaughtered for a cause he may never have fully believed in, only to return to find his superior running for political office, turning his back on the values that were so easily sacrificed.” In over 24 years of listening to this song, I never heard that. At its simplest level this mysterious song could be seen as a parent’s anguish at watching a child go out in the world and become corrupted by all the things the parent tried to warn the child against. On a broader level the “father” is God and the “daughter” the subjects who refuse to do His bidding. The use of recurring images such as “thief” found in that song and several others such as “All Along the Watchtower” is ignored. Everything about “Tears of Rage” from the performance to the music and the lyrics suggest a spiritual context as do many of Dylan’s songs from the same period. Just because the song was written during the time of the Vietnam War doesn’t mean the song is about the Vietnam War.
Riley misses the obvious metaphor of “I Shall Be Released,” which he sees only “about a man in prison who hears another man’s cries of being framed.” At its simplest level, the lyrics could be read this way, but again the performance suggests another, deeper level and a companion song to “Tears of Rage.” Bizarrely, Riley views the jokey “Nothing Was Delivered” as the companion to “Tears.” Featuring a piano part copped from Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” it is more than likely about a dope dealer held hostage until he comes up with the goods, with lines like “The sooner you come up with it, the sooner you can leave.” The chorus, “Take care of your health and get plenty of rest” serves as a sarcastic warning from the mob. Riley says the song “is a prophetic snub of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.”
Riley also insists on painting “Visions of Johanna” primarily as a drug song based on using “rain” as drug parlance for heroin. Wrong again, it’s actually a term for meth, but mentioned in one line (if indeed it is a drug reference) it’s a minor part of the song, which is basically about being with one person when you wish you were with another. However, Riley manages to find the narrator and Louise (the person he’s with) chemically addicted, and the setting a drug den. In 26 years of listening, I always thought the setting was a New York apartment in New York with lines like, “In this room the heat pipes just cough.”
Like most critics, Riley skims over Dylan’s later work. Admittedly, the ’80s were Dylan’s most inconsistent period, but fascinating in the range of highs and lows. He somehow comes up with the premise that “Jokerman” (from Infidels) is about Reagan when lines like “Standing by the water casting your bread,” suggest Christ, though ultimately I believe the song is autobiographical.
Not mentioned is Empire Burlesque’s “Dark Eyes” one of Dylan’s most poetic songs ever or that the same album’s “Seeing The Real You At Last” is constructed almost entirely of lines quoted from movies.
Riley’s musical ignorance is at its height when he reviews the two-volume bootleg Blind Boy Grunt and the Hawks, a collection of leftover songs and out takes from the Basement Tapes. On bootleg records, songs are rarely given the correct title since (obviously) the musicians have not been consulted and the tapes are either stolen or copied. On the album, Dylan and the Band sing both originals and covers. Riley correctly identifies two covers, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Hank Williams’ “Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw.” He doesn’t know that: (1) “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” is a Hank Snow hit; (2) “Down on Me” is an old blues song recorded by Odetta made famous by Big Brother and the Holding Company on their first album; (3) “Hills of Mexico” is a variant of “Trail of the Buffalo,” usually associated with Woody Guthrie and a song Dylan still performs; (4) “A Night Without Sleep” is U. Utah (Bruce) Phillips’ “Rock, Salt and Nails,” recorded by several people including Flatt and Scruggs; and finally that “One Single River” is “Song For Canada,” a plea for English and French Canadians to communicate with each other, available on Ian and Sylvia’s Early Morning Rain album. Since Riley mentions Ian and Sylvia three times in the text, he simply should be aware of this song. All of this points to a writer who doesn’t know the scope of his material, hasn’t bothered to take the time to find out and really has no business writing about it at all.
In the introduction — the only part of the book that stands up except for the historical inaccuracies mentioned earlier — Riley correctly states that “Dylan isn’t as interested as in being understood as he is in being felt.” He should have stopped right there.