Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask an indie rock veteran: What’s the best bad Bob Dylan album?

Illustration for article titled Ask an indie rock veteran: What’s the best bad Bob Dylan album?
Illustration: Karl Gustafson
MaroonedHello there. My name is Paul Maroon. I’m a professional musician who’s played in bands for the past 30 years, most recently in a group called The Walkmen. In that time, I’ve picked up a fair amount of information, some of which is actually pretty useful.

How much money a year do you think a really successful old rock song generates in 2018? For example, Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” is probably on at least a half-dozen albums, greatest hits compilations, box sets, live albums, etc. It’s in the opening credits of Dazed And Confused. But I would think all that no longer generates any cash (if it ever did) after the original license.

I asked some friends to help me piece this together—or at least, make a reasonable guess for a song like this. Get ready: I’m using a small amount of actual data, and I am a little psyched about it. “Sweet Emotion did 9,695 units in “consumption” last week, according to Nielsen, a figure based on track sales, audio streams, and video streams. Averaged out over a year, this would bring in $504,140 of revenue. A band like Aerosmith (just an educated guess here) would have a royalty rate slightly better than most major label groups—say, 25 percent (18 percent is the norm). So the band would be looking at about $126,035, domestically. International, broadly speaking, would be about the same, which puts the earnings for the band at $252,070.

Publishing revenue is the other side of what a song generates. Think public performances, sound exchange (digital use of tracks on, for example, Sirius radio), and licensing. Licensing, as you alluded to above, is TV, movies, commercials, fashion shows, etc. People pay a flat fee for a one-time use. If you license a song for a film, you don’t actually get any further royalties, even if it becomes something iconic (e.g., the pottery scene from Ghost). Publishing tends to end up paying somewhere equivalent to consumption, unless you’re quite particular about how your songs are used. So, we can roughly double the revenues mentioned above, and the band is looking at about $500,000 a year, give or take.

What’s the best bad Bob Dylan album?
—Ingrid in Oregon

This is tough. Not because they all have virtues—you’re not going to find much to savor on 1988’s Down In The Groove—but because as soon as you go on record defending one of these records, you have to, well, defend it. That said, I would probably say Shot Of Love (1981). Although, while thinking about this question—and with the prodding of a friend—I listened to Street Legal, and it’s better than I remembered. But that’s 1978, and that might not be directly in Dylan’s brown period. On Shot Of Love, “Heart Of Mine” is a great song, “Every Grain Of Sand” is good, and I really adore “In The Summertime.” But sadly, it’s not a three-song record, and the rest is not as good—or even good at all. Let’s talk about it.


If you ignore the music, the lyrics are probably the worst part. Your loyalty will be tested by couplets such as “Love that’s pure won’t lead you astray / Won’t hold you back, won’t mess up your day.” And how about this unexpected plea for… I’m not sure, health insurance, maybe? “Doctor, can you hear me? / I need some Medicaid / I seen the kingdoms of the world, and it’s making me feel afraid.” (Worth noting: “Can you hear me?” is a common line in songs, but rarely used for doctors, who can usually hear you.) Even the good songs have their own lyrical clunkers, but in the right context, they somehow become part of the fun. I think I’ve listened to “In The Summertime” 100 times, despite this beauty: “I got the heart and you got the blood / We cut through iron, and we cut through mud.”

Another awfully big problem with Shot Of Love is the title track and opener. If you get past the first four seconds of it (seriously, listen to it) well done. Is this as quickly as a record can hope to turn off the casual listener? I looked around and I couldn’t find anything that degenerates quite as fast—at least among musicians I like. Even Under The Red Sky gets to about 13 seconds. (This is the moment of the third “wiggle.” The record begins with Bob saying, “wiggle,” three times). And if you think his band is going to bail him out, don’t get your hopes up. It’s an ill-advised mix of funk and blues, with the acoustic guitar and a busy little bass plugged directly into the mixing board.

On balance, you won’t find more than one or two good songs on Empire Burlesque (1985), Saved (1980), or Knocked Out Loaded (1986). So in this sense, Shot Of Love rises above the rest—and it never quite reaches the lows seen on something like Slow Train Coming (1979). (“Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” springs to mind.)

Now, get in your favorite chair, grab your pipe, take a break while Rome burns around you, and ask yourself: Where is the line separating bad good Dylan from good bad Dylan? And really, which is better? For example—and again, this is just my highly subjective opinion—I’d rather listen to Street Legal (1978) than Blood On The Tracks (1975), which folks really love, but doesn’t have the mastery of great Dylan. Blood also has plenty of lyrical self-importance and super cloying melodies. Not to mention some truly cheese-dick chord suspensions. Furthermore, Planet Waves (1974) was recorded a year before Blood On The Tracks, and it’s got some extremely low moments—so low it might even be good bad Dylan.


It’s tricky. Bad good Blood On The Tracks offers you “Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town / She slipped in through the side door looking like a queen without a crown.” But good bad Planet Waves is “Today on the countryside it was hotter than a crotch / I stood alone up the ridge and all I did was watch.” Sure, the first lyric isn’t as bad as the second, but come on. No one’s watching. Which do you really want to listen to? I know what line I’m going to be in. The short one.

What is the biggest difference between family road trips and touring? There must be one thing that sticks out.
—Nat in Hamilton, Ontario

Once when I was a kid, driving from D.C. to New Jersey, I got into a fight with my older brother over the last pixie stick. As a compromise, he suggested we rip both ends off and, at the count of three, each start sucking. Except at three, he blew full force and I almost choked to death.


This basic behavior is no different from touring. The difference is that brothers and sisters, especially when little, aren’t shy about verbalizing their problems. An adult might pick their battles, weigh the pros and cons of getting into an argument—perhaps over someone’s foot touching yours in an uncomfortable manner. After a couple days of getting crowded by a bassist on a van bench, you would ask him or her if they would “mind scooching over.” But a kid hates the long game, or hasn’t heard of it. If you explained it to them, they would assume it had to be a joke. This way of thinking is—as seems to be the theme of this column—both good and bad. Good, in that you don’t sit there getting quietly more and more annoyed until you can’t remember the original problem. Bad, in that if you had a bunch of adults getting into a screaming, crying fight every 15 minutes (as my siblings and I used to), it would be a very emotional tour. Were you to be on such a tour, the song for you would be “Emotionally Yours,” off Oh Mercy (1989).

What questions do you have? Send them to me at marooned@theonion.com, and I’ll help where I can. In the meantime, come listen to my scoring work at Henderson-Maroon.com.


Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`