Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #20: Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

(1)

About 7 or 8 years ago, when I was a young lad attending school in Ann Arbor, I was going through something of a rough patch with somebody that I cared very deeply about. That rough patch weighed very deeply on me; away from my Virginia home and something of a shy kid, I leaned on my friends in VA for support and uplift in mood, and my mood had been severely affected by the problems I was having with this friend (a female, for the record). Pained by what I felt was a raw deal I was getting, I had what can only be considered a brief loss of mental faculties and began devising ways of gaining revenge on this person that was hurting me emotionally. Not having quite matured in a way I'd have liked, I didn't bother to consider why things had taken such a turn; after all, it was MY feelings being hurt, and she had to pay for my grievances.

Then I hit upon an answer - the sort of answer that you only see in bad Hollywood films (and, occasionally, even a good one). The next time I was home, I would invite her to one of the open mics I occasionally played, since I knew that she enjoyed my singing and guitar playing. Then, once she was there, I would SLAM her on stage with a song that let her know that not only had she broken my sad bastard heart, but I had gathered up and reassembled the pieces, and I was ready to move on, so take a hike, sister! I deliberated long and hard on the song; finally, I settled on a tried and true classic: yes, I decided I'd play "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". My Dylan fandom had reached its peak in this time, and (like so many others before) I'd had the experience of Dylan putting my feelings into a song and expressing them far better than I could ever hope or dream to do. So "Don't Think Twice" seemed like the logical choice.

I never did this, thank God; my sense of propriety reaffirmed itself, and eventually the friendship righted itself. I'm being as vague as possible here to protect both of us, so suffice it to say that influences beyond anyone's control had caused things to go south (sadly, those influences would recur over and over again, but that's another story). At any rate, I'm glad I didn't embarrass myself in this fashion, because I would have felt quite the idiot afterwards. The funny thing, if you can call it funny, is that I'm sure that I'm not the only person that has had that idea before, and surely that idea has actually been carried out in full. In fact, Elliott Smith wrote an entire song about it ("Waltz #2 (XO)", where the narrator sings a karaoke song laced with meaning in the presence of his ex), and you can feel the hurt in his voice as he sings it, like he's a few beer bottles away from heading to his local bar and doing that very thing.

There's something about the dramatic gesture that speaks to all of us; after all, why else would Hollywood bother to stick them into films unless we didn't see them and go "my God, how great was that?" Even though most of us would never have the temerity to hold up a boom box like John Cusack in Say Anything..., we all wish that we've had the idea and we all believe that, were we to pull that on somebody, it might actually work. After all, what woman or man wouldn't be just a little touched by something so grand, so insane, so obviously impossible to succeed that they wouldn't just melt like butter? It works the other way, too - there have certainly been days where we've wanted to cold-cock our boss, or heave a computer out the window, or take a baseball bat to the machine you're working on. We all have impulses to do crazy things in our lives, because we are conditioned to want to do crazy things.

We don't do them, of course, for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that they simply never work. Real life is not Hollywood, of course, and people just are not willing or able to overstep the bounds of cultural decorum and do something insane, no matter how much the impulse is there. And that's a good thing, too - let's face it, our real lives are not lives built for craziness. Most of us follow the same path as everyone else; birth, school, work, retirement, death, and maybe if we're lucky we make a little money, find a partner that loves us, or fulfill childhood/adult dreams we have. The grandest gesture I have ever seen, in my own real life, was when my best friend said "I do" at the altar, willfully hitching his own life to somebody else's. In this world of ours, that is grand enough, isn't it?

"Don't Think Twice", in its way, is the grand gesture many of us have wanted to make at some point; the ultimate kiss-off, the best way to say goodbye to a relationship that has run its course. That Dylan managed to do it at the age of 21 is most amazing of all; most of us at age 21 probably haven't managed to expel the "song/poem/artwork of agony" phase to describe romantic-driven torment, and here's this guy that did it better than 99% of us ever could in the very first year of legal alcohol consumption age. We may never know who he wrote that song for, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that as much that song must've hurt that woman when she first heard it, in a small way she had to have been just a little flattered. And, thankfully, Dylan didn't feel the need to sing it through a megaphone outside the building that woman worked at while a crowd gathered around him and cheered at the end.

(2)

It's interesting, with the benefit of hindsight and a few years of maturation, to realize that "Don't Think Twice" isn't quite the nasty kiss-off we've all thought it is for so many years. The prevailing sentiment could be best summed up by Tim Riley's description of the song as "the last word in a long, embittered argument, a paper-thin consolation sung with spite." And that does sound right, doesn't it? Those wicked punchlines at the end of every verse, the verbal equivalent to a nasty smirk, tend to hammer that point home. It's hard to imagine "we never did too much talking anyway" as any sort of consoling phrase, right?

The thing about that sentiment is that it makes the song entirely one-dimensional; viewed through this prism, "Don't Think Twice" is a constant middle finger waved in the face of a former loved one, a stark affirmation of a relationship not worth the paper the song's lyrics were written on. And, as the young man full of young man anger and young man immaturity I was, it was easy to hear the lyrics and go "yes, this is how I will smite my own ex-beloved!" I'm not ashamed to admit this (well, a little); youth has a funny way of missing out on perspective.

And perspective, to be sure, is what this song is all about. Looking at the song now, what I see is the words of a man whose pride has been wounded, and uses those barbed words to mask a deep and painful hurt. After all, why else would he "wish there was something you would do or say/To try and make me change my mind and stay", unless he wanted the unknown woman to give him a reason to come back? Sure, the jabs and insults are still there, but they come across to the present me as bitter lashing out, the kind of lashing out you do when a relationship has reached the end of the road and both parties involved know that there's no turning back. And even that anger manages to be tempered in places; with the assertion that things weren't so bad and that, at some point, he really did love her, and in that final line of every verse: "don't think twice, it's all right". When all is said and done, no matter what's gone on, there's no reason for hard feelings; it's all right, after all.

Look, the majority of relationships tend to fail; that's just who we are as a human race. The hardest thing in the world is to maintain a romantic partnership, especially one that actually is based entirely on love and not just for economic/citizenship/child-related reasons. Staying with anybody for 2 months, let alone for 2 years, can be a Herculean task. That being said, how many of those failed relationships end so badly that both sides end up with nothing but toxic hatred of the other? Unless somebody murders their partner's relative or blows up their house or something, the odds are pretty good that the relationship's demise comes from something innocuous and entirely common. And, after a period of cooling off, most people realize that things weren't so bad; after all, the downfall of the relationship aside, there had to be some good times, right? Most people know how to move on, and to understand that, in the end, they had a good thing going for a while there.

Perhaps I'm reading too far between the lines with this song and ascribing meaning that isn't there, but I honestly think that there has to be something deeper than "it's been fun, now piss off" with this song. I have no doubt that the bitterness is real; I also have no doubt that there had to be something very deeply ingrained in that relationship to cause that level of bitterness. Casual flings don't elicit that kind of venom; there's a reason one-night stands are so popular. You don't get your feelings hurt from one night stands. You do get your feelings hurt when you're in love. "Don't Think Twice" shows a young man who once had love, lost it, and is doing a very good job of pretending it doesn't matter. I think, if you look hard enough, it's rather obvious that it does.

What makes "Don't Think Twice" so special, then, is that it appeals to both the younger, angrier side of us and the older, more measured side, which is something that isn't always true of music, even great music. How many of us get older and find ourselves not as enamored of the mope-rock that The Smiths and The Cure built their reputations upon? And how many of us listened to, say, Steely Dan or other "cerebral" bands as youngsters? "Don't Think Twice" has something for both of those groups - just take a look at a line like "you could've done better, but I don't mind". The younger group would say "she must've treated him so shabbily - just look at that smartass kissoff! I totally understand what he means!" The older group would smile and say "well, of course - how many of us couldn't have done better at some point in our lives? I totally understand what he means!" And therein lies one of Dylan's greatest skills; the ability to speak to all of us, no matter our age or experience, in one way or another. No wonder this is one of Dylan's most enduring songs; it speaks directly to people of all walks of life, and it always says the right things.

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14 comments:

andrew! said...

Another of Bob Dylan's strengths as a songwriter is that it usually hits on all sides of a subject, even if sometimes it's weighted more towards one side. The song does a great job of saying he's trying to show he's over this relationship, but he shows us that he isn't quite there. If this song had a sequel, it would have to be Most of the Time, which is weighted more towards the side that says I'm not quite over this yet, despite the words he says.

Tony said...

I'm going to have to remember to delete this a few years from now when I get to Most of the Time. :D

You're spot on with that assessment. Whoever had the idea to put that song where it was in High Fidelity had him/herself a Genius Moment.

Anonymous said...

When I broke up with my girlfriend in college, we were on our way to dinner in the car. The fight that ended it all meant that dinner was off and I drove her home. I did feel rather hard done by. It happened that I had the Best of Bob Dylan in the car cassette player, and I played Don't Think Twice over and over again at high volume - for 30 minutes! Other than that I didn't say a word more. I think she got the message.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and the other thing was that she hated Bob Dylan (a slight bone of contention while we were going out). So it was a bit of revenge on that front as well. I know, immature. But I was only 19.

Tony said...

Anonymous - that story put a smile on my face. And hey, she hated Dylan, so even more reason to break things off.

The nerdy Dylan fan in me figures you could've caused even more torment if you'd had the Before the Flood version of Don't Think Twice. Not only is it faster and louder than the original (as you could say of any Tour '74 performance), but there's like 45 seconds of applause before the song even starts on the album, so she'd have had to sit through that and wait in anguish for the performance to start again.

And THAT is why my Dylan nerdiness can be such a pain in the ass.

andrew! said...

I have somewhere an mp3 of Don't Think Twice that I found on the the internet back in 2000 or 2001. I'm not even sure what show or what year it's from (probably 99-'01). The way his voice simultaneously drops & opens up at the end of each line really got to me, then the killer harp solo to end it. It sounds more melancholy than mean spirited. I've been hooked on Dylan bootlegs ever since. I don't think I really want to know what show it's from, I just like to know that a little moment of magic such as this can occur during any show you ever listen to.

I also love the scene in Don't Look Back where he's in the train & his harmonica playing during this song plays in the background mimicking the sound of a train.

Tony said...

I know what you mean about little moments in Dylan shows, andrew. Usually, it's what makes the great ones stand out in any tour; even more so than rare songs, moments where Dylan just blows you away are what separates the Red Bluff 02s and the Madison 91s from the other shows on their respective tours.

And what's great about Dylan shows is that, since most of the tours are so wide-ranging and different, the special moments are also wide-ranging and different. Even the Dead tour had some good moments; the Slow Train that's on the unofficial live album almost makes the whole thing worth it. But you get things like 66 Dylan stretching out syllables, or 74 Dylan's "even the President" applause moment, or 88 Dylan sneering out "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as GE Smith abuses his six-string behind him. Those sort of things are why Dylan shows are like Lay's potato chips. I dare you to listen to just one.

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Jacek Bełc said...

Absolutely. I think you're just completely spot-on with your description of this song, echoing my own thoughts exactly, and that last paragraph is especially excellent. You write it all much better than I could, though. Thank you!

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