A Chance Encounter with Planet Waves

Since the transformation of my living room into a listening room, my record collection has been a woeful, helpless mess. Albums are grouped together more by my fleeting mood or by date of purchase than by anything usefully intelligible, or at all resembling order, such as genre or artist name. If, on some strange and rainy Saturday, I happened to have listened to albums by Mal Waldron, Crazy Horse, and Beach House, these albums will be found shelved together.

What sense does that make?

Some sort of sense, I’m sure, but you know how these things go: It’s all random, man, like life and love and taco stands. Anyway, I had spent a bit of one recent hot summer morning listening to The Flying Burrito Brothers, and I had The Last Waltz soaking on the VPI 16.5 record-cleaning machine, which got me interested in hearing The Band’s Music from Big Pink, a record I know I own. I went to my record shelves and searched carefully, but—surprise, surprise—I could not find the album. It wasn’t near Bob Dylan or The Byrds or anywhere else I could imagine The Band hanging out. I searched and searched and searched until it became clear that had my life depended on finding Music from Big Pink, I would have died. My life would be over. I wasn’t going to find it.

I did, however, find an old, tattered copy of Dylan’s Planet Waves. As I pulled it from the shelf, I thought to myself: What the hell is this? I didn’t even know I had this album. For all I knew, I had never even seen this album. Yet, of course, I had seen it. In fact, at some point, I had even cleaned it—I could tell by the nice new inner sleeve and thick, clean outer sleeve: tell-tale signs and promises to myself to listen.

I set the record on the platter, dropped the needle, sat down on the orange couch, and took a look at the liner notes to find that The Band plays on this record, too. Well, how about that?

These days, I tend to notice sound before I notice music, and the sound here is outstanding. (Rob Fraboni was the engineer.) And, soon, it became apparent that the music is outstanding, too. (Is Dylan ever more at home than when he is with The Band? According to what I’ve read here and, of course, here, Planet Waves represents the only time Dylan recorded with The Band in a proper studio; the album is also the only one Dylan recorded for Asylum Records.)

Why hadn’t anyone told me about Planet Waves? Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about this album?

The artwork was done by Dylan. His notes on the back cover proved controversial, resulting in the album being wrapped in a gold-colored sleeve. I think there were also alternate versions without the racy lines. My version features the complete liner notes, but lacks the gold sleeve. However, the cover does have a border, which, though now faded, I can tell once glittered gold.

Planet Waves—Moonglow: Cast-Iron Songs & Torch Ballads, a music box of love and soul, with tear-jerkers like “Hazel” and “You Angel You,” and heart-warmers like “Something There Is About You” and “Never Say Goodbye,” and a creeping darkness throughout, and the best (and most enjoyable) vocals and harmonica work I’ve ever heard from Bob Dylan. And listen to him sing “Dirge.” I don’t know Dylan well, I admit, but never have I heard him sing like this.

Six stanzas in “Dirge,” and the first goes like this:

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down to suicide road
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you and I'm glad the curtain fell.

The fourth goes like this:

There are those who worship loneliness, I'm not one of them
In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem
The crystal ball upon the wall hasn't shown me nothing yet
I've paid the price of solitude but at least I'm out of debt.

Let’s take a glance at more. In “Going, Going, Gone,” we hear:

I been walkin’ the road,
I been livin’ on the edge
Now, I’ve just got to go
Before I get to the ledge
So I’m going, I’m just going, I’m gone

In “Something There Is About You,” we hear:

Suddenly I found you and the spirit in me sings
Don’t have to look no further, you’re the soul of many things
I could say that I’d be faithful, I could say it in one sweet, easy breath
But to you that would be cruelty and to me it surely would be death

“Never Say Goodbye:”

Time is all I have to give
You can have it if you choose
With me you can live
Never say goodbye

Finally, in “Wedding Song:”

The tune that is yours and mine to play upon this earth
We’ll play it out the best we know, whatever it is worth
What’s lost is lost, we can’t regain what went down in the flood
But happiness to me is you and I love you more than blood

There’s lots more of this in Planet Waves. Critics have called the album “twisted,” and I guess that’s one way of putting it. But I hear a truth, a passion, and a certain terrible, wonderful darkness, an urgency. The album was recorded over just a few November days, and it shows—at times, it drifts off like a daydream, like a chance encounter, a record misplaced upon a shelf full of records; and that’s when I love it the most, in those moments that seem to somehow, in their frailty, linger and burn. I’m glad I found it when I did; had it come at any other time, it might not have mattered.

R.E.L's picture

this makes me want to buy this record...congrats.

Paul S.'s picture

Stephen, I think that the reason that nobody talks about this record is because it is too messy. The general public[and even music loving types] generally go for music that makes sense, like "Blood On The Tracks." "Planet Waves" is all over the place. It's sentimental, then fun, then it swaggers, then it cries. It has two versions of the same song. Dylan sounds drugged for the most part. The album art it weird. It's too much for most people. I remember thinking to myself the first time I heard it "what the hell is this!?" But, to my ears it is one of Dylan's best and most genuine works. One problem with Dylan is that he has always worked within modes and phases such that each album represents his new mode[now he's country, now he's Christian, now he's folk, now he's acoustic, now he's electric]. Planet Waves is mode-less and therefore an aberration in his discography. It's a perverse masterpiece!

Trey's picture

Paul, it was the weird cover that kept me away from the record. Now, with you guys talking it up, I got the itch to buy it.

Bob's picture

Paul, at one time Dylan was folk and exclusively acoustic, and 30 years ago he dabbled in a few born-again records. To characterize his brilliant career in the manner you do, implying he is trendy, flighty and faddish, is ridiculous. Perhaps you think all his records should sound the same?

Paul S.'s picture

Bob,No, I don't think that all his records should sound the same and I think that his knee-jerk changes have actually produced some excellent music that wouldn't have existed otherwise. But, it always seems as though Dylan is playing some part. It's like he gets some character in his head and then goes into the studio and makes an album as that character. That's all well and good and it has produced stunning results but it makes him seem less human. Planet Waves was a very "human" Dylan LP as it seems that he went into the project with fewer preconceived intentions. Thus, to me, it has always been a refreshing listen.