Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #16: Masters of War

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Just in case anybody was actually wondering, I'm going to make it a point to stay as far away from any discussion of wars, past/present/future, in writing this post. I've never been the most educated human being when it comes to current events (although I try to be, intermittently), and attempting to formulate any opinions that go farther than "war is bad, kthxbai" will only serve to embarrass myself. And, quite frankly, if I'm going to embarrass myself, it's going to be strictly on my opinions on Bob Dylan. So, there.

Instead, let's think about movements in musical history. There is a tendency, when people look back on different eras of modern popular music, to shine a spotlight directly on the cream of the crop and quietly sweep the less interesting/good stuff under the carpet. Even a brilliantly conceived box set like Nuggets or No Thanks! or The Anthology of American Folk Music will tend to focus either on highlights or on lesser-known great songs from these diverse periods of music. You never hear about the crappy bands, the artists glomming onto what's hot to make a few bucks, the groups that get the sound right but don't get the inherent soul that makes a great recording great, the also-rans that help a movement slowly make its way to irrelevance and the great cultural scrap heap.

This makes sense, of course - why would anybody want to dwell on the shit? Take the British Invasion, for example; when you've got classics by The Beatles, The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, The Animals, and any number of great bands, why would you want to listen to some jerkoff who ripped off the chords to "She Loves You" and churned out a brutal piece of chiming-guitar pap? There is enough great punk music out there to avoid any number of idiots who thought three chords, a sneer, and lyrics about hating stuff was enough to put out a 45. There is plenty of forgotten great music out there - just ask DJ Shadow - but there is also a ton of forgotten terrible music out there, and good riddance to bad rubbish.

On the other hand, the ratio of terrible music to good music, like the ratio of just about everything you can think of, slants way towards the side of terrible music. In a sense, that's what musical movements really are: a few vanguard bands pushing things forward, a few good bands making good music, then you've got some one-hit wonders, some bands that don't really make good music but make a lot of money anyway...and then just lots and lots of utter crap. That's why musical movements tend to die; after a while, the dreck overwhelms the quality, and people find something else to start listening to.

The upshot of all this, then, is that you can see how the great bands manage to stay great throughout the years. Every great band, no matter who, are always both of their time and not of their time. Forgive me for making that sound stupidly simple, but I think the point is fair. A band like The Beatles has recorded a lot of songs that sound like the guitar pop of the early to mid 1960s, and then a lot of songs that you couldn't put a finger on, era-wise, if you didn't know The Beatles had recorded them (and yes, there are people that can't immediately recognize every Beatles song ever recorded, if you can believe it). Greatness, amongst other things, lies in being able to transcend time periods, if not outright genres.

This will probably look like an unfair analysis, but I think it's pertinent to the issue at hand. Take a look at "Masters of War" and another famous anti-war song, Country Joe & The Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag". Both songs are ostensibly about why war sucks and is bad. Both songs were performed acoustically, and written in the 1960s. Both of them were inspired by major events of the times - "Masters of War" by Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" speech, "Fixin' To Die Rag" by the Vietnam War. And both of them became very well-known protest songs of the period, practically talking points for the burgeoning anti-war youth movement.

So why is it that "Masters of War" is still considered a classic and "Fixin' To Die Rag" is consigned to the history bins? Look no further than the lyrics of the songs. "Fixin' To Die Rag" is very, very, very specifically about Vietnam. References are dropped about commies, the Cong, and "Vietnam" is said in just about every verse. Most of the lyrics could apply to other wars, sure, but it's pretty apparent which war is being talked about (if not outright being sledgehammered into your skull). "Fixin' To Die Rag" is a funny, goofy, and even thought-provoking tune - although the very definition of "preaching to the choir" - but basically has no real interest outside of being a period piece today. And that's probably just fine with Joe McDonald.

But what puts "Masters of War" on a different level is the fact that it's being written on a whole other level. First of all, it's not specifically an anti-war song, the same way most anti-war songs tend to be. If nothing else, it's a distant cousin to "My Generation" - a song that points the finger at the elderly, the people in power, that have forgotten what it meant to be young and idealistic, and only know how to destroy and kill and make money. It's not as pithy as "My Generation" is, or as visceral, but the general point is there. The song could've been "Masters of Smoking Tobacco" or "Masters of Pure-Grain Alcohol" and it would've had the same impact, because the sentiments would've stayed exactly the same.

And there is the lasting impact of "Masters of War", the reason its relevance has burned brightly for over 40 years, the reason so many artists have covered the song, and the reason why with every new war somebody (yes, including Bob) takes the song out for another whirl. Is the song against war? Yes, of course it is. Does it feel like it's as much a relic of its time as a "McGovern '72" button or Our Man Flint is? Not by a long shot. "Masters of War" will always be timely, always be pertinent, and always be malleable for whatever time it's in - provided, of course, as long as there are young people to hear its words and believe its message.

Final note: on the "No Direction Home" version of "Masters of War" (from the fabled 4/12/63 Town Hall show), Dylan uttered a quote that might, just might, have some relevance to our current times. Here it is:

I believe in the ten commandments, the first one: “I'm the Lord thy god,” it's a great commandment if it's not said by the wrong people.

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It's interesting to note that Dylan, for whatever reason, felt the need to put a little speed into this song as the years went by. At first, he performed the song more or less as found on Freewheelin', which should be expected. Then, as he moved away from performing protest songs, he put "Masters of War" (a defining Dylan protest song if there ever was one) on the backburner for a while. And on the backburner it would stay, as inferior songs got airings on his tours (I mean, I like "Mozambique" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" just fine, but they ain't "Masters of War"). Then, for the ill-fated 1984 "Real Live" tour, "Masters of War" suddenly makes a reappearance (ETA: it actually showed up in 1978 and 1981 - I'd totally forgotten about that, mainly because I usually prefer the 78 rehearsals over any of the actual 78 shows and the 1981 shows...well, I'm an idiot sometimes). And it's fast.

I wonder why Dylan wanted to electrify this song. Maybe it's not such a mystery; of his many acoustic songs, this was more well-suited for a full band treatment than most, and the fiery words deserved an equally fiery instrumentation. Then again, Dylan tended to rip off his versions of the song, especially the Interstate 88 "these go to 11" versions, at a quick tempo; the words could get a little lost in the rush. I guess, like most Dylan decisions, it was just his whim; Lord knows I'm not complaining. Just interesting, that's all.

And then, in 1994, Dylan goes acoustic again, in Hiroshima (of all places). The acoustic version, for whatever reason, seems to be a better fit; the tension is more contained, ready to leap out of the amps, as opposed to the electric versions firing off tension like shotgun shells. This time, you can hear every word, every nuance, every subtle expression of anger and frustration. His band, always made up of professionals, gives it a beautiful treatment as well, with expressive acoustic solos bridging the verses and a gently propulsive bassline moving everything along. I seriously doubt Dylan ever thinks about whether or not he should've used a band for his acoustic albums...but if he does, this is probably what he'd have wanted them to sound like.

So with that in mind, here's video of Bob Dylan and His Band performing "Masters of War" at Woodstock '94. The best part of his Woodstock performance, as shown in this video, is that he more or less performs the same set here as he would've in Wheeling, WV - and it rules. Enjoy!

Special thanks to Justin Shapiro for his help on this post.

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2 comments:

andrew! said...

I don't think it's a coincidence that post 1981 (perhaps sooner?) Bob doesn't sing the verse "even Jesus would never forgive what you do".

ljcurletta said...

Long time Dylan lover here. Though my kids have expressed genuine frustration with today's music and have mostly "oldies" on their ipods, they have definitely not appreciated Bob Dylan's voice. However, I played "Master's of War" for my 15-year-old, and I later found him downloading it to his itunes. No question it is a song for the ages.