From covers to original. I told you the story of how this album came into my life 20+ years ago, but it was still young then, and it's old now — and it bears repeating. The story begins in Spring 1978 when my parents told me that one of my older cousins had a spare ticket to a concert by someone called Bob Dylan, and he'd asked if I'd like to go. I'd never heard of this Dylan bloke — he'd never been on Top of the Pops as far as I could remember — and I was wary of pop stars that my parents knew more about than me: usually that was not a good sign. I declined, and my parents seemed happy with that. I know these days lots of 12-year-olds get taken along to see Dylan by their parents, but in 1978 that would have been a big deal. Imagine being able to say that Dylan at Earls Court had been my first gig! (Genesis at the Brighton Centre doesn't have quite the same cachet, does it?)
Later I saw that this Bob Dylan had a new album out. It was in WH Smiths. The cover was enigmatic. I assumed that was Dylan in the picture, but you couldn't see his face, he looked like he'd just come down those stairs and was about to cross the road or hail a taxi, and he wasn't dressed like the people I was used to seeing on Top of the Pops, from Sweet to the Boomtown Rats. I'd spend hours in those days just picking up the same bunch of album covers, day after day, week after week, as though I'd see something else in them that I hadn't seen before. There wasn't much else to do in Woking town centre apart from look at album covers; and I couldn't afford to buy more than one a month.
A bit later still, Mr Dylan actually had a song in the charts, Baby Stop Crying. I listened particularly closely. I thought it was terrible: repetitive, tuneless and such a grim voice!
But there still wasn't much else to do in Woking town centre. One day I bought the album despite all my reservations. I think it was the cousin thing: those cousins were the closest thing to older brothers that I had. I distinctly remember rationalising it to myself: "I may not like it now, but in time — a few years perhaps — I'll grow into it". Yes, I'm sure I'd picked up the idea somehow that Dylan was sophisticated, an acquired, adult taste. And by this time, I'd become a teenager, and acquired adult tastes had an extra allure.
Having only about five cassettes to my name (I'd sold the Abba ones to my sister; another sign that I was leaving childish things behind), they all got played frequently. Quickly I came to love this Street Legal. There were things I found strange about it: the backing singers; the repetitiveness was fierce, especially on No Time to Think; and what the hell was he doing singing about a pony that fox-trots and is named after the devil? Our family was holidaying near the New Forest that summer, so I pictured a New Forest pony with an evil eye and a slightly lewd canter. I didn't really know what to make of any of the lyrics, but I found I quite liked not knowing (and I still do), and individual lines came out at me and demanded attention for reasons I couldn't put my finger on.
However, back at school, no one seemed to listen to Dylan. With no one to share my enthusiasm with, that enthusiasm waned quickly, as it does when you're 13. My cassette copy was soon lost or passed on. It wasn't until five years later, having left school, that I heard Street Legal again. Jeremy played it when I was staying at his house in September '83 (mentioned here), and I found I liked as much as I ever had, and for a growing number of reasons. I think I bought this LP copy very soon after I got back home, before going up to Cambridge.
It's quite worn now. It still gets played as much, if not more than, my other Dylan albums. I love it. Well, if I'm honest, I'm still a bit put off by the pony, but everything else is fab. From the first line where he looks back on his career ("Sixteen years…", now almost three times that long) and the righteous indignation of the "Gentlemen, he said, I've shined your shoes, I've moved your mountains and marked your cards, But Eden is burning" right through to "If you don't believe there's a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars." (And if you ever need a pop trivia question, try asking people to name albums where the first track fades in and the last one fades out: Street Legal is the only I can think of.)
Senor has been a favourite since 1978. The sax solo is not flashy, but is superb, and the couplet with Armageddon in the opening verse. We Better Talk This Over is another. The way the piano and guitar drive it along with such a light touch. On my recent listen, though, it was the drums I was attending to, since Ian Wallace sadly died in February, and one of the tributes I read to him on the web particularly mentioned his work on this album and the inventiveness of the fills on No Time to Think.
There are so many other parts of this record I could mention, but I've already gone on too long. There are already a couple of Dylan albums in my Top 50, and we haven't got to Blood on the Tracks yet, but I've decided I have to add this one as well.
|MusicBrainz entry for this album|