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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

New Morning

Bob Dylan

New Morning

My introduction to Bob Dylan was decidedly non-standard.  Of course, there are many Bob Dylans to whom one can be introduced, but popular radio has long since chosen its champions.  Whether it’s the pre-Newport “Blowing In The Wind” or the post-Newport “Like A Rolling Stone”, most people’s entry into Bob Dylan is fairly predictable.  Later they’ll debate the merits of Desire vs. World Gone Wrong, but they all know “Like A Rolling Stone”.

I didn’t.  Growing up, I had no idea who Bob Dylan was.  Music wasn’t a part of our house.  There was a hi-fi system — a pretty nice one, actually — but it was turned on once a year, at Christmas time, to play carols during the month of advent.  The rest of the year, the stereo lay dormant, awaiting next December.

I’m certain it wasn’t always that way.  Nobody buys a quadrophonic hi-fi system to let it sit in the corner.  I would guess it was probably because of us.  Once there’s a baby in the house, the chances for things like music diminish greatly.  And once there were four children in the house, I imagine it was pretty much impossible to find a time of day when at least one infant wasn’t asleep.  So the stereo speakers became little more than lamp stands, destined to sing “Frosty the Snowman” but once a year.

On the shelf, beside the hi-fi system, there were rows of reel-to-reel tapes.  Not 8-tracks, and not cassette tapes (although we’ll get to those), but reel-to-reel tape spools that you would mount on a spindle, thread through the play heads and onto another spindle, then flip a switch to play.  I don’t think most people still had these in their homes, if they ever did.  And I don’t think that many record companies release much commercial music in that format.  The reels were in plain white cases, with typewritten labels that said things like IRON BUTTERFLY, FLIP WILSON, or LED ZEPPELIN.

This bears some explanation.  My father spent most of my early years at sea, on two or three-month tours aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific.  That’s a long time to be on a boat with not much to do in the rare off-hours.  Record players don’t do well on rolling seas.  Cassette recorders were new and expensive.  But on every ship were at least a couple of sailors who had access to magnetic tape and a recorder that could copy them, so I imagine a hearty black market in reel-to-reel tape trading came into being.  However it came about, stacks of those tapes washed up to die on my father’s bookshelf, never to be played again.  He kept the reels long after the player stopped working.  I think they eventually got thrown away, unless they still occupy a box somewhere in my parents’ attic.

A small handful of cassette tapes had made their way into the collection, and survived sitting in the back of a closet with a guitar that my father had purchased in Singapore and never learned to play.  The cassettes were commercial releases, and each bore a label that said “FOR SALE ONLY ABOARD US NAVAL SHIPS AFLOAT”.  One of those cassettes pictured a curly-haired unshaven fellow on the cover.  The name of the album was New Morning.  The name of the fellow was Bob Dylan.

So at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I put that tape into my newly-purchased boombox and gave it a listen.  I wish I could say that I loved it, but I didn’t.  I thought it was awful.  Laughably awful.  Here was this guy, mumbling out of rhythm over weird lite-jazz instrumentation and absurd skat singing.  It didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to me.  I put the cassette back in the closet and continued listening to Duran Duran for a few more years.

In college, I got the more standard introduction to Bob Dylan: Blowing In The Wind, Highway 61, and all that.  Fell in love with Blood On The Tracks.  Learned to play most of World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You.  Struggled to like Oh Mercy.  And then finally found that cassette and listened to New Morning again.

Let’s face it: it’s a weird album.  I can’t really blame my 13-year-old self for turning it down.  If it had been the only album Bob Dylan had ever made, nobody would have ever heard of it.  As a solo album, it doesn’t really stand on its own.  But as a Bob Dylan album — as part of the story of Dylan’s career — it’s fascinating.  Still strange, but fascinating for that very reason.