Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #18: Bob Dylan's Blues

And now for something completely different. As a change of pace five songs in, "Bob Dylan's Blues" works quite well - it's jaunty and upbeat, Bob speak-sings in that goofy inflection of his, and he's clearly having a blast puffing his harmonica and working his way through funny, charming lyrics (the best being the final verse: "Well, lookit here buddy/You want to be like me/Pull out your six-shooter/And rob every bank you can see/Tell the judge I said it was all right"). He not only gives out a "Yes!" at the end, but adds a gleeful "woohoo!" as well, as though one exhortation just wasn't enough to convey what a heck of a time he was having. The song's an amusing bit of fluff, two and a half minutes to tap your feet and grin to until we get back to the real classic business.

But there's something else to this song, something that lends the song a little more interest, and it lies in the title of the song - a title that, I'm sure, was not bestowed by accident or arbitrarily. I would guess that Bob WANTED us to notice the title, to take some importance in the fact that a song that mentions the Lone Ranger and Tonto and flits from a smartass love declaration to asking people "watch out so you don't step on me" bears his name in its title. So, then, what's the big damn deal?

Well, what is it that defines the Dylan of the mid-sixties, the one most people know the best, the one that his reputation as some sort of Superman was based on and has rested upon for over 4 decades? It ain't just the fact that he went electric; it's his surreal wordplay, his gift of writing lyrics that looked like cut-and-paste wackiness but flowed from the speakers like magic, and his oddball and oft-hilarious sense of humor. Now, all of those qualities aren't quite there in "Bob Dylan's Blues", but you can see flashes of them, the same way you can see flashes of greatness in Bottle Rocket or in Warhol's first stabs at pop art. And, more importantly, this is the only song on Freewheelin' that actually gives us those flashes - even the classic songs here are more austere and straightforward than off the wall and (why ignore it?) drug-inspired.

What "Bob Dylan's Blues" gives us, then, is the pupating Dylan of the Triumvirate of Excellence, the three-album stretch that more or less secured him lifelong renown even without the rest of his career. This Dylan, unfortunately, would not get to bloom for a few more albums; The Times They Are A-Changin' pushed the austere side of Bob to the absolute limit, while Another Side of Bob Dylan contained a few more flashes but was more of a transition album (in many ways, the ultimate example of a transition album). Of course, "a few more albums" happened within the span of 2 years - it still boggles the mind how quickly Dylan developed between now and Bringing It All Back Home, as quick an artistic development as anybody in musical history. But all the same, that development did take some time, and so we can have a song like "Bob Dylan's Blues" that pointed the way to Bob's eventual transformation, but only with the benefit of hindsight.

It is interesting to think about if Dylan had skipped those last two albums and gone straight to the crazy Tarantula style of lyricism in 1963 (assuming, of course, that it was possible to do that without the years of experience, the crazy happenings that led him away from the path of folkosity, and the pharmacy he carried with him). Would he have changed the rules that early, sparking a musical revolution that taught the world that you didn't just have to sing about holding hands or saving the downtrodden? Or would he have been consigned to the dust bins of history, laughed at as a lunatic, destined to be stuck on one of those box sets I talked about before that compiled the era's forgotten tracks? Would Bob have been shunted aside by Columbia (as they were planning to do before Freewheelin' became a hit), or feted as the next big commercial star (as he was after "Subterranean Homesick Blues" went Top 40)? I suppose, in the end, those questions are academic - but they're fun to think about, and thanks to a song like "Bob Dylan's Blues", that showed a side of Dylan you'd never expect after his debut album, we have a reason to think about them.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

No comments: