Bob Dylan at 80 and I don’t care

Robert Allen Zimmerman was born May 24, 1941 in Minnesota. That makes him 80 years old today. Happy Birthday Bob Dylan and now can we move on to a much more interesting topic? How about, oh, Jimmy Page?

But wait, you might say. It’s Bob Dylan — you can’t just move on! No? Sorry (not sorry) yes! Why dwell on a poet who couldn’t sing but did anyway, and who played decent guitar but apparently considered instruments (including his voice) as unwanted baggage for his poetry.

Yeah, okay, everybody loves Bob Dylan. Just not me. Which is not to say he wasn’t great at what he did, just that his work is not my cup of tea. Of course there was good music hidden in it but in my opinion it took others — actual musicians — to bring out the magic.

Since everybody who pretends to hate Led Zeppelin likes to accuse the band of stealing songs (because obviously none of those four guys could possibly come up with their own music) let’s talk about one of the most amazing stolen songs that Led Zeppelin performed: In My Time of Dying (link: Earls Court 1975), stolen from Blind Willie Johnson (link: 1927 recording) – that is, stolen by Bob Dylan in 1962.

The song was a traditional gospel tune. Mr. Johnson was probably the first to commercially release the song, then called Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Dylan changed the title when he recorded it on his first album. I don’t see any evidence of credit there for Blind Willie Johnson or any of the other musicians who had subsequently recorded it. In fact the album liner notes say that Dylan had never sung the song prior to the recording session and that he didn’t recall where he first heard it. Uh huh — but hey, it’s Bob Dylan and nobody’s taking him to court claiming copyright violation.

Led Zeppelin recorded their version of In My Time of Dying for their 1975 album, Physical Graffiti — a double album of one masterpiece after another. Zep didn’t bother crediting anyone besides themselves for the song, not even Dylan. Which serves Dylan right for having snubbed Peter Grant the year before at a party in Los Angeles, but that’s another story.

This is the real story about the old gospel tune: Led Zeppelin took what was and made it into their own. It’s always the four of them, but Jimmy Page takes it to another level. His slide guitar channels the dark magic of blues sung by the people who lived it.

Page uses his two-pickup 3021 model Danelectro to create a shivery, slippery slide intro. Bonham and then Jones join in, and, after a long chord, Plant comes in with the lyrics. Well, well, well. I’m dyin’ just listening to the signature Led Zeppelin approach: tight but loose, with pauses so pregnant that quadruplets are conceived and born by the time the next notes crash over us.

Page’s fret hand is up and down the neck, his focus on the instrument, with the occasional magical gesture that makes me gasp with its theatrical perfection. He’s working it hard — the music, the magic. They all are. This is not your grandfather’s blues.

Not Bob Dylan’s either.

At 10:45 in the Earls Court performance, when Plant and Page do the call/response, the audience briefly cries out in acknowledgment and then the place is silent again until the end, when the place erupts. As it should.

Heavy stuff, friends. But then, that was just Led Zeppelin at Earl’s Court on Bob Dylan’s birthday. Go to 10:45 on the Physical Graffiti remaster version and listen for a few seconds…

Ya gotta love them boys.

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