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The Zaniest Live Album By Bob Dylan (Or Anybody) Finally Gets Its Due

Bob Dylan
Joel Bernstein

Before we consider the frankly stunning existence of The Complete Budokan 1978 — a new box set compiling the two concerts that formed the basis of the notorious 1979 double-live album Bob Dylan At Budokan — let’s go back to a distant, unknowable time in which the internet does not yet exist. (Not for the average person anyway.) In this quaint era, a young person seeking to learn musical history cannot simply log on, go to Wikipedia, and then park at a streaming platform. “Back then,” as it were, your education had to begin inside of a building called “a library” that housed thousands of things called “books.”

On one such journey taken when I was a teenager, I came across a book published in 1991 called The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time. Now, I must provide some context to explain why this book blew my mind. In the past, unlike today, it was relatively difficult to find a person writing about something they found to be terrible. Haterism just wasn’t a fixture of public discourse as it is in modern times. It wasn’t nonexistent, exactly, but writing a book about your own personal dislikes was considered to be a perverse waste of time, if not irredeemably dickish. Which is precisely why the existence of a book like The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time seemed so refreshing to my young brain. Here, finally, was some unvarnished truth.

Looking at the book now, some choices are odd or just plain wrong, either because they pre-date contemporary critical revisionism (the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 or Queen II) or because they are mean-spirited in a very 1991 kind of way (ranking Paul McCartney and Duran Duran among “the worst rock ‘n’ rollers of all time”). But this book influenced how I thought about the canon in my youth in ways I couldn’t begin to understand at the time, starting with an album I avoided for years because music critics kept telling me how horrible it was.

This brings us back to Bob Dylan At Budokan.

Originally released on August 21, 1978 as a Japan-only release, and then worldwide the following April, Bob Dylan At Budokan was recorded at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall on February 28 and March 1 of ’78. It contains 22 songs, including many of Dylan’s most famous tunes: “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” etc. Judging by the tracklist, Bob Dylan At Budokan appears to be a greatest hits record, except that the songs are played live. But while the album is that in form, it is not in execution a straight-forward recounting of past glories. It is the opposite of straightforward. It is crooked and backward. For At Budokan, Dylan employed an expansive 11-piece band staffed with, among other musicians, three backup singers, an extremely audible percussionist, an ex-King Crimson drummer, Eddie Money’s keyboardist, a blonde guitarist who performed in the Broadway production of Hair, and (most notoriously) a horn player doing double duty on saxophone and flute. That’s right, flute. “But what Dylan songs require a flute?” you ask. On At Budokan, way more than you might expect!

Dylan dramatically rearranged his most famous warhorses, sometimes beyond the point of recognition. The early-’60s kiss-off “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” adopted a reggae shuffle. The quotably jagged “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” now sounded like Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” The aforementioned flute woven into “Mr. Tambourine Man” gave one of Dylan’s most poetic numbers an unusual Ren-Faire vibe. It was all very different. And all very weird. And for the boomers raised on Dylan’s stark and roughhewn ’60s period — especially the authors of The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time — it was too much. They called At Budokan the work of a “man at the end of his rope with no redemption available or conceivable.” They called the arrangements “random,” “indiscriminate,” and “stupefying.” They echoed a common complaint that the album made him sound like a “prospective Las Vegas act.” Most damning of all, they accused Bob Dylan of “full-blown misanthropy directed at his audience.”

The takes on At Budokan hardly improved when I looked it up in other music books. In The New Rolling Stone Record Guide — the one with the blue cover, second edition, copyright 1983 — it was scored with this strange little black box, a sub-star rating reserved for “worthless” records that “need never (or should never) have been created.” (The blurb by Dave Marsh is somehow even more cutting: “This is his worst record by such a wide margin it’s hard to fathom it.”) Over at one of the editions of Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide, the tone was lighter but still dismissive: “I believe this double LP was made available so our hero could boast of being outclassed by Cheap Trick, who had the self-control to release but a single disc from this location.” (The Cheap Trick slander was not appreciated by me, then or now.)

The consensus couldn’t have been more clear: Bob Dylan At Budokan is garbage. The bottom of the barrel. An abomination. And yet, here we are, with a beautifully designed box set commemorating a Bob Dylan album allegedly so turgid that critics in the late 20th century couldn’t comprehend it. In the liner notes for The Complete Budokan 1978, veteran music writer Edna Gunderson argues that Bob Dylan At Budokan is “a late bloomer” and “a crucial turning point” in his career. But the very fact that this box set exists at all is the most violent rebuke to the album’s many detractors. In case anyone needed to be reminded: The Complete Budokan 1978 is yet more evidence that the canon is always in flux. And that today’s trash might very well be tomorrow’s $159.99 retail-priced doorstop.

Let me say for the record that I agree with Edna Gunderson. I am a fan of Bob Dylan At Budokan, and I believe the album is a crucial turning point for the man. The facts of Dylan’s life in 1978 clearly bear this out — he was newly divorced, he was ailing financially after the failure of his directorial debut Renaldo And Clara, and he was inclined to play 114 shows in order to make himself whole again. By the end of the year, he would be on the verge of becoming a born-again Christian. If there is a better example of a guy “going through some things,” I have not yet discovered it.

Moreover Bob Dylan turned 37 that year, an old man by the rock-star standards of 1978. And it was not outrageous to believe that he might be washed up. His previous two tours – with The Band in 1974 and the legendary “Rolling Thunder” campaigns of ’75 and ’76 — both harked back to the previous decade. With The Band it was the “Thin Wild Mercury” sound of the mid-’60s, whereas Rolling Thunder was a conscious attempt to revive the spirit of the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene. For the ’78 tour, a precondition of his 11 shows in Tokyo and Osaka — Dylan’s first ever gigs in Japan — was that the promoter insisted on essentially writing the setlist, ensuring the inclusion of Dylan’s most recognizable oldies. Dylan, perhaps desperate for cash, consented to this intrusion, though with an inevitable Dylanesque twist. This set up the central paradox of Bob Dylan At Bukokan: It’s his most obvious material, presented in the least obvious (and bonkers) fashion.

Only it doesn’t sound quite as bonkers in 2023 as it did to American critics in 1979. What the album’s original audience didn’t know is what informs how audiences today perceive At Budokan, which is this: Bob Dylan does crazy things to his songs. That’s what he does. It’s his brand. Hearing a new arrangement of a Dylan tune you know by heart is a feature of his live shows, not a bug. What’s strange now is Bob Dylan ever playing anything exactly as expected. But that only became the rule after At Budokan. In the ’60s and ’70s, he might play an acoustic song with an electric band, or he might accelerate the song’s pacing or slow it down. But he never revamped his material as dramatically as he does on At Budokan. It’s fair to say that no major artist of Dylan’s generation ever changed their greatest hits to the degree that Dylan does on this album. Nor did they do it with as much flute. So much flute!

Releasing this album was a disorienting action, and fans and critics naturally responded by being disoriented. Now, it’s easy to look back and chide those people for not getting it. But getting At Budokan is a luxury reserved for those of us who did not experience Bob Dylan’s initial run of albums in real time. Like so much Dylan music released after 1978, At Budokan only starts to make sense with the benefit of decades worth of hindsight.

There is also the matter of At Budokan appealing to younger audience precisely because it was initially disregarded. This is a phenomenon that’s bigger than Bob Dylan. To name one of many examples: The ’90s slowcore band Duster currently commands more listeners on Spotify than many other indie acts of the era who at the time were more famous and critically acclaimed. For someone who listened to indie rock in the ’90s, this is bound to be confounding. But it is nevertheless true that based on the criteria of monthly Spotify listeners, Duster is more popular right now than My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, and Built To Spill combined. There are many reasons for this — some related to changes in technology, others to shifts in taste — but this is what I suspect is true: Sometimes younger audiences want to hear older music that hasn’t already been praised to death. Even if it means listening to an album they have been told time and again is a trainwreck. Because even if music resides in a bygone era, it can still be claimed as “new” by audiences who weren’t born when the music was literally new if it was ignored or maligned by their parents (or grandparents).

But what about the music? Is the music on Bob Dylan At Budokan “actually” good, or just “contrarian” good? Again, I’m an At Budokan fan, so I say former. Though I would never argue that it’s a flawless album. Some of the arrangements really are “stupefying,” to quote The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time. I refer to the ascending/descending horn riff applied to “Maggie’s Farm,” which has been proven to induce severe mania inside my cranium if I don’t immediately skip it. And then there is Bob’s uncharacteristically chatty stage patter, which is fascinating (because it’s coming from Bob Dylan) if also occasionally awkward (because it’s coming from Bob Dylan). The bit before “The Times They Are A-Changin’” when Bob says his iconic (if slightly hoary) protest song “still means a lot to me, [and] I know it means a lot to you, too” is frequently cited by critics as the album’s cringiest moment, though I’m not convinced that it’s insincere. (Also, as a fall ’78 truther, I feel that At Budokan is diminished somewhat once you hear Dylan bootlegs from later in the tour, when the band was more locked in.)

Other than that … I dig the flute on “Mr. Tamborine Man”! And I really dig the flute on “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and might even argue (after a few or several beers) that it’s the best-ever version of the song. I even like the unusual vocal arrangement given to “Shelter From The Storm,” which takes the song out of Blood On The Tracks and inserts it into Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite territory. If you don’t agree, The Complete Budokan 1978 won’t change your mind. As the title implies, this box set gives you significantly more Budokan. Of the 36 unreleased tracks, the majority are repeats of songs on the album that will be nominally different to most ears. However, the handful of new numbers do indicate how different At Budokan might have been had they been included. There are the rousing blues numbers “Repossession Blues” and “Love Her With A Feeling,” which point to the incongruously blues-heavy rehearsals Dylan staged before the tour. There are heartfelt laments like “I Threw It All Away,” “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” and “The Man In Me” performed with palpable pathos that surely reflected Dylan’s state of mind. There’s an enjoyably bouncy “All I Really Want To Do,” which sounds like Dylan playacting as the Monkees doing Dylan. And, best of all, there are two jaw-droppingly beautiful renditions of “Girl From The North Country,” with Dylan backed only by electric guitar and Alan Pasqua’s ethereal organ. That the mania-inducing “Maggie Farm” made the original Budokan and not one these “Girl From The North Country” performances is truly inexplicable.

After Bob Dylan At Budokan polarized so many listeners, Dylan claimed that he never intended the album to be the defining representation of this tour. (It was only released America after the Japanese import became a hot seller.) Not even he would claim ownership of his zaniest live record. But in its own bizarre, idiosyncratic way, Bob Dylan At Budokan represents Bob Dylan as well as any record he ever put out. The listeners who were most outraged by this album in the late ’70s, at heart, felt that Bob Dylan was not treating his songs with the same seriousness with which they had invested in his work. They imagined that Bob Dylan was laughing at them for ever caring about Bob Dylan. But for the audiences who came along later, Dylan’s irreverence remains one of his most endearing qualities. It’s what keeps his work vital and constantly evolving. Even when you tell him what to play, he won’t it play the way you think you want. And, then 45 years later, you realize he was right about the flute after all.