“Could Dylan’s Most Hated Album Actually Be His Best?”
In 1978, Bob Dylan released an album of radical change. It spoke straight from Dylan’s wounded heart and was called “Street Legal.” And the American critics hated it! A little backstory:
One year previous to the release of “Street Legal”, Dylan had divorced his wife whom he loved very much…her name was Sara. On top of that, Dylan was supervising the editing of his 1975 film, “Renaldo & Clara” which was not going well. The critics hated that too. So, in a vast departure, Dylan decided to take over Elvis’ place who had died in 1977 and mix the sound with Phil Spectors “Wall Of Sound” to get “Street Legal.” And in my opinion in 2012…it worked.
I first discovered “Street Legal” in 1983 while I was working as a songwriter in Nashville. I was 24 years old and I had to leave a beautiful young woman behind in Seattle when I left for Nashville on a plane. So, I could relate to the sad lyrics that were contained on this album. Dylan was laying it all out on the line quite clearly instead of useing metaphors and symbolism as people were used to. The critics were outraged! Who did Dylan think he was…Bob Dylan? Gone was the little harmless troubadour with an acoustic guitar and harmonica exchanged for lavish outfits and backing vocals supplied by three female background singers who could really sing out loud and wail! This was certainly over the top but Dylan always did like a good carnival!
“Street Legal” was full of lines like this: “I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings, And I’ve never been too impressed.” Or: “If you don’t believe there’s a price, For this sweet paradise, Just remind me to show you the scars.” “Is Your Love In Vain?”, “Baby Stop Crying” & “Senor” are straight up masterpieces. Really I like every song on the album. Evidently the 1978 critics were not listening to the lyrics very closely instead drawing conclusions of misogyny and so on.Was Dylan just bitter about Sara…I don’t think it’s that simple and the critics were in way over their heads.
The players included: Ian Wallace, (Elvis’ former bass player) Jerry Scheff, Billy Cross, Steven Soles & David Mansfield. The album was produced by: Don DeVito who remastered the album in 1999 digitally. The album was recorded for the most part live in the studio in four days it is reported. It was recorded in Santa Monica, California in a space Dylan had rented out for rehearsals. They used 24 analog tracks. And of course Bob was at the helm on electric guitar and vocals.(No harmonica for Dylan’s Elvis persona).
To summarize: a-lot was going on in Dylan’s life in 1978 but he was brave enough to soldier on with a completely new sound and set up that today sounds as fresh as if it were just recorded. I was shocked when I listened to the album again recently and realized just how timeless it was in 2012. Dylan really did complete his mission and transform himself into something new and very bold. The critics of 1978 were just wrong about “Street Legal.” Check it out for yourself. If nothing else the lyrics, as Dylan has always done, will amaze you I think.