Bob Dylan – ‘Desire’

So, in 1992 I discovered three incredible albums. Neil Young’s After The Goldrush, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Bob Dylan’s Desire. I used to make my own mixtapes. I had dozens and took them to France, but once these three incredible albums hit my ears my tapes took a back seat. All three dominated my headphones and were the soundtrack to my summer. Neil Young gave me sentiment, sincerity, honesty and hit my emotions with as much ferocity and ruthlessness as words and music can muster. Bowie was the ultimate musical stargazer, the supreme dreamer, romancer, chancer and whimsical rock earthling. And Dylan? The ultimate seductive storyteller and Desire was a book I couldn’t stop reading.

Obviously I was aware of Dylan’s legend, but Desire was my first album experience. The best stories take you places and paint beautiful pictures. They excite and exhilarate you, urging you to discover more. The opening track, Hurricane, did that and more. I heard it, dissected it, loved it and learned it. I read about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, and read some more. The song does his legend perfect justice, with Dylan’s protest able to capture the injustice in a cinematic eight minutes, aided by Scarlet Rivera’s rampant violin and Ronnee Blakley’s backing vocals.

One of my many loves on Desire is the juxtaposition between Dylan’s vocals and his backing singers, Blackley and Emmylou Harris. Many songs, vocally at least, sound like one-takes with Blackley and Harris struggling to match Dylan’s rhythm, imperfect but utterly impeccable. With the exceptions of Hurricane and Joey, Desire is largely an album full of seductive folk tales, it blends and flows to create a beautiful whole, a romantic vision of outlaws, gypsies, drifters and gunslingers, set in some Mexican mountain wilderness. Accordions, castanets, harmonicas and Scarlet Rivera’s sumptuous violin act as colourful characters to the gypsy cowboy theme.

That gypsy vision radiates through songs like Romance In Durango, One More Cup Of Coffee and Black Diamond Bay. The former’s opening is literally searing…

“Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape.

Sold my guitar to the baker’s son
For a few crumbs and a place to hide
But I can get another one
And I’ll play for Magdalena as we ride.”

Desire was the first, and still my biggest Dylan love. Many more albums would follow, containing songs that would surpass these. But as with my biggest musical loves it’s the feel, the emotion, the warmth and the huge sense of taking you to a particular time and place, occupied by the most colourful and truly believable characters, that sets Desire apart.

David Bowie – ‘Hunky Dory’

The summer of 1992, those were some of the best days of my life. But working for Keycamp wasn’t all sunshine and parties. Scrubbing groundsheets in a filthy tent in 100-degree heat with a hellish hangover is no fun. Digging trenches outside punters’ tents to drain away flood water. “How was your ten-hour drive? Welcome to your underwater holiday home.” is not an easy thing to say. But it was mostly sunshine and parties, and music. Incredible music. David Bowie’s Hunky Dory was next.

Bowie was a must-play at Charivari, but I was lazily restricted to his Changes One & Two albums, plus his ’67 self-titled debut. I don’t know why it took me so many years to check out more, but when I heard Hunky Dory, my Bowie-love rocketed. David Bowie is a musical genius, a rockstar in the truest sense of the world and a true visionary. The best albums scream their own sense of identity, and none scream louder than Hunky Dory.

It’s impossible to ignore Bowie’s stunning visual presence, but if it were, the album is still an evocative masterpiece, brilliantly flamboyant and kaleidoscopic. That said, these songs transcended the image, and throughout its 11 tracks never falls far from that lofty perfect perch. I loved it in its arty, cabaret-glam entirety but fell head over heels for the Velvets-inspired Queen Bitch and Kinks-esque Kooks. We must’ve had the 1990 re-released CD complete with four bonus tracks because Bombers was another favourite, showcasing Bowie’s avant-garde and cinematic genius…

“Seemed a good idea
To drop a bomb on the wasteland here
Only one man could be seen
And he was old and so serene
Captain sat in his deck chair
And the red light flashed, beware
Pilot felt quite big-time
As the bomb sailed through the air
Well, they danced and sang
When the bang went bang
When the lights popped out
And the smoke began to clear
It was positively queer”

Featuring the impossible-to-overrate-co-creator Mick Ronson in what was to become the Spiders From Mars, plus soon to be Yes mainman Rick Wakeman on piano, Hunky Dory was a voyage into music-hall decadence as seen through the mind of the ultimate musical stargazer; the supreme dreamer, romancer, chancer and whimsical rock earthling. Bingeing on Hunky Dory in the hot, French summer of ’92 coloured up my already sunny days. Alongside the narrative angst and inward-looking After The Goldrush, Bowie’s Hunky Dory was the most perfect overdose of musical and starry-eyed swagger.

Neil Young – ‘After The Goldrush’

Returning from the States I had most definitely caught a dose of wanderlust. I had no money, so working abroad was my only option. Mi amigo Simon was a Thomson rep, but whilst he was a natural entertainer I was a relative introvert. But I could dabble in French and I knew how to be nice to people, so a job as a rep for Keycamp in France was for me. Those six months turned out to be more fun than should really be allowed, sharing a campsite on Vias Plage with dozens of other reps and hundreds of friendly punters. But best of all I discovered three of my all time favourite albums.

Whilst it was through a girlfriend that I found these albums, I can look and listen back with no attached emotion. We had two seasons in the sun, a winter in Dublin and a month or so in Paris and I can very happily say, thank you for the music. Before we met I spent a few months working hard and partying harder. The most listened to album by far was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. We loved it and did the socks on cocks thing, because. But then peak season hit, and as the sun was at full strength with it came the start of a near thirty-year love affair with Neil Young. I heard After The Goldrush.

Neil Young has one of those voices. And yes, I loved it. Give me sentiment, give me sincerity, give me honesty and most of all hit my emotions with as much ferocity and ruthlessness as your words and music can muster. With After The Goldrush Neil Young delivered that with beautiful, unmerciful aplomb. Vocally, anguish reigns. That high-pitched, pained and tortured inflection adds huge weight to an album of angst, protest, social comment and fragile, tender love.

Tell Me Why is a great opener, but when the title track starts you know you’re going to be in deep. With Neil Young it’s all about the feel, and instantly it felt like an album to devour, with enough lyrical obscurity to provoke the imagination. But, as was my leaning, the more sombre and sorrowful the song, the more I loved it. There I was, partying my ass of in France and totally obsessing over something so beautifully, incredibly down.

“Someone should call him
And see if he can come out
Try to lose the down that he’s found
But only love can break your heart
Try to be sure right from the start
Yes, only love can break your heart
What if your world should fall apart?”

– Only Love Can Break Your Heart

“Everybody’s going out and having fun
I’m just a fool for staying home and having none
I can’t get over how she set me free
Oh, lonesome me”

– Oh Lonesome Me,

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over”

– Birds

With Neil Young living in Topanga Canyon, the nearby Laurel Canyon vibe is everywhere, with an instrumental sparsity bringing the lyrics to the fore. An 18-year old Nils Lofgren was brought in to add guitar and piano, adding magic with little experience but perfect musical smarts, and as with most of Neil Young’s classic early ‘70s work everything feels so loose, so musically free and easy. It’s only Young’s trademark lead guitar that shows signs of strain, no more so than in his castigation of Southern racism and slavery’s disgusting legacy in Southern Man.

If there’s a more sublime and perfectly pained sound than Neil Young’s voice and guitar, I’m yet to hear it, and if there’s a more beautiful album than After The Goldrush, I’m yet to hear that too.