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Bob´s Budokan Box Set


says Norman Warwick

The prime source for this article was published in Paste On Line magazine. We have said it many times before, but this site is staffed by excellent writers and in-depth content, and covers all the popular art forms.

Almost sixty tracks are squeezed on to a four cd box set that expands the frames of, but not necessarily the contents of  Dylan’s panned 1978 Japan tour. If we described them in Premier League Football terms we would probably say ´Shots at goal: plenty. Shots on Target, very few´; Nevertheless, if you look or listen through the highlights reel there are some beautifully crafted goals.

These goals are some gems from his post-Blood On The Tracks era.

There was a time when Robert Zimmerman (left) was a mere mortal, when his face was not yet chiselled into the Mount Rushmore of modern music. It’s hard to imagine, I admit, but it’s true. From where we sit now—over 60 years after he first appeared as the skinny, Midwestern poet named Bob Dylan—his legacy is almost too massive to fully consider. Millions of words have been spilled cementing his place in the history of the world. Not the history of music, not of art, not of pop culture, but of the world. That might sound like an overstatement, but I don’t think it is. In 1978, things were not so secure. Yes, he’d already been the voice of a generation, ripped through his legendary ‘60s run capped by Blonde on Blonde and bled all over the tracks—but, as the ‘70s moved into their later stages, doubters became more and more vocal. Then, Dylan released his third official live record, Bob Dylan at Budokan, (right) and people absolutely hated it.

Here was a record of some of his most essential tracks arranged and performed in a style not one person asked for, at a time when Dylan himself seemed to be desperately searching for what to do next. The reaction was almost unanimously harsh, receiving a single star from the likes of Rolling Stone and a sarcastic Cheap Trick comparison from renowned critic Robert Christgau. Granted, Dylan is never shy about pissing people off but, to many, Bob Dylan at Budokan was, at best, confounding and, at worst, a sign of his precipitous fall from cultural importance. And yet, here we are, almost 45 years later, cracking open a 4-CD, 58-track deluxe box set celebrating The Complete Budokan 1978. Times, they change.

One thing unavailable to the critics mentioned above is hindsight. When we look back now, we can see more clearly the factors that led to his 1978 world tour. From the mid ‘60s on, Dylan’s life outside of music was rarely static, but 1977 was an especially turbulent year. An ugly divorce, his failed debut as a filmmaker and, to a lesser extent, the death of his hero Elvis Presley left Dylan a bit unmoored. He was also undergoing a shift in perspective that would, in less than two years, result in Dylan pivoting to Christian-influenced music, once again entirely changing the scope of his life and work. Where some might have reasonably seen Bob Dylan at Budokan as an ill-informed cash grab at the time, we can now view it as an essential moment in understanding what would come later. Dylan was always searching, reaching and, it should be said, pissing people off—and Bob Dylan at Budokan was no different.

So where does that leave us when approaching something as extensive as The Complete Budokan 1978? Equal parts overwhelmed, astounded and baffled. There’s a lot to work though within this four-and-half-hour box set, but let’s start with the songs themselves. Part of the nature of Dylan’s trip to Japan—in which he and his band played two concerts at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo—was that he was told to only play his most recognizable songs, making the shows, and the record, come across like a greatest hits collection. Of course, Dylan being Dylan, he adhered to this directive in the loosest terms possible, taking his most popular songs—“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” etc.—changing their structure and presentation so drastically that they are nearly unrecognizable to less devoted listeners. When the Japanese official told Dylan to play “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” I doubt he expected an entirely instrumental version featuring an extended saxophone solo (of which not one, but two versions are included within the box set).

It’s here we must again mention the obvious effect Elvis’ death had on Dylan at the time. So much of the critical lambasting he received around the original live record was how much his arrangements—which included a trio of back-up singers, a whole lot of flute and even bongos—felt like some gaudy Vegas act, akin the spiraling, out-of-shape King at the end of his life.

This is the kind of hare-brained idea that only an artist like Dylan could even get off the ground—but when it works, it is kind of incredible. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as a jaunty, reggae-adjacent jam with enough flute for a Jethro Tull album may sound foolhardy, but the song comes across as genuinely fun and even a bit revelatory. Meanwhile, Blood On The Tracks standout “Shelter From The Storm” feels like it could fit snugly on the back-half of Springsteen’s The River.

That said, the album’s misfires are indeed some of the most egregiously ill-advised versions of classic Dylan songs I’ve heard from anyone, much less Dylan himself. Cuts like “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Maggie’s Farm” have to be so crudely wrestled into their new format that they’re nearly unlistenable—made worse by the fact that each gets two separate versions included on the box set. Then there’s something like “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which Dylan plays with the exhaustion of someone forced to regurgitate his iconic protest song so much that he has completely disassociated from its original purpose. How many versions must a man lay down? But then, just as you might grow weary of all these reheated hits, in come the first notes of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” here presented with full horn accompaniment—maybe the best version of the song ever put to tape.

It’s rare I find it worthwhile to approach any music from a consumer product angle but, as you delve further The Complete Budokan 1978, it becomes hard to ignore. This box set purportedly aims to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Dylan’s first shows in Japan and, yet, those shows took place in late February and early March, making its release date more in step with holiday shopping than historical accuracy. Bob Dylan is, at this point, an institution, and this box set, more than anything, continues to drive that point home. His legacy does not need securing and so The Complete Budokan 1978 inherently becomes catnip for completists and of diminishing value to anyone else. There are, I will admit, a few genuinely essential moments sprinkled throughout this project—but there is far more filler. This isn’t just for the Bob Dylan fan in your life, this is for the obsessive Dylan connoisseur in your life. They can even pretend they didn’t hate the original Budokan like everyone else. After all, there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.

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