Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #27: The Times They Are a-Changin'

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According to the always-correct Wikipedia, the final sessions for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan occurred on April 24th, 1963. Just about six months later on October 31st, the sessions for Dylan's third album, The Times They Are A-Changin', concluded. In those six months, the life of Bob Dylan had changed in ways most of us could not begin to comprehend, from his professional career to his personal relationships. In a lot of ways, The Times is a product and reflection of that change, the strain it put on him, and the expectations laid upon his head from the moment Freewheelin' had exploded and moved Dylan right into the vanguard of the burgeoning folk revival movement.

Six months, in the great cosmic calendar, isn't a particularly long time; it just barely contains an entire baseball season, and comes three months short of your typical pregnancy. And yet, on the decidedly small scale of life we live on in terms of seconds, minutes, and hours, six months can seem like an eternity. Yet again, once those months have passed by, it's all too easy to look back on that length of time and say "where the hell did that time go?" It's all part of life, a paradox that seems impossible to solve - how that one simple stretch of time can assume so many different forms.

Of course, that length of time and how it feels to you depends entirely upon what you do in that length of time. For somebody out of work and living on unemployment, those four months probably crawl at a snail-like pace, full of all-encompassing dread of the future, days spent watching TV, eating cheap meals, and doing anything to keep the seconds rolling along. For somebody like, say, a cook at a high-class Paris restaurant, the days absolutely fly by; you get up, spend hour after hour cooking meals, occasionally at breakneck pace, then stagger home in agony and wonder how the hell 12 hours of your life just melted away. The rest of us make do with something of a happy medium, where a day can either move quickly or slowly, depending entirely upon the events of our lives; the wait for a delivery from Amazon.com feels like torture, while a week of packing up and moving to a new house can go by in the blink of an eye.

And then you've got Bob Dylan in 1963, whose life leapt from event to event so quickly it's impossible to imagine anybody being able to keep up. As Freewheelin' gained popularity in both the folk movement and in the mainstream, Dylan's stature rose at a meteoric rate. He became romantically involved with Joan Baez, creating a folk-music version of Brangelina (thankfully, without a stupid media-created amalgamation for a nickname). He performed at the Newport Folk Festival as a breakout star, performed a major show at Carnegie Hall five days before the album's release, and played at the famous March on Washington (interestingly, performing two of his more obscure songs). He gained notoriety for walking out of rehearsals for The Ed Sullivan Show because of potential censorship. In short, his career mushroomed at a fantastic rate, culminating in the release of his most political album yet, an album befitting his stature as one of the shining lights of a movement dedicated to protest music and speaking out against society's ills.

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That mushrooming, ironically, is what causes The Times They Are A-Changin' to be so flawed, and a lesser effort compared to the titanic Freewheelin' and the intimate Another Side. Dylan's rising status as a protest singer of note practically forced him to be that protest singer, leading him to release a dour album full of what he called "finger-pointing" songs, devoid of the whimsy and pathos that made the previous album so fantastic and universal. As Lord knows how many other critics have pointed out, the cover image of a sour-faced Bob peering down at us serves as an apt metaphor for the album as a whole - monochromatic, utterly serious, and solemnly judgmental. It's albums like this, I think, that showed why the folk movement was only going to last for so long; if you can't make room for anything other than the Serious Issues Of The Day, you're going to lose people that can only stomach so much of those issues. After all, like it or not, we care about far more than nuclear war and racial inequality.

I've already made a comparison to The Beatles and Dylan in the "Blowin' In The Wind" post, but the happenings surrounding the making of The Times made me think of Beatles for Sale, another album that bears the markings of the burden of fame. Recorded at the end of a 21-month span that saw four (!) studio albums and the catapulting of The Beatles to the top of the musical world, Beatles for Sale was a painful regression for a group that had grown creatively in impressive fashion over that time, featuring a bevy of covers and a dearth of the quality originals of their earlier albums. The weariness of the group is evident throughout, and their songwriting spark is far dulled compared to what came before and what would come next. Beatles for Sale is probably the group's worst album; it bears some signs of transitioning, such as the Dylan-influenced "I'm A Loser" (this was the period where Dylan and The Beatles had become friends, leading to John Lennon wearing a short-brimmed cap to rather comical effect), but has very little to recommend it to non-Beatles fanatics.

The Times They Are A-Changin' isn't quite that bad; in fact, several striking originals have their home on here, a few of which would've actually boosted Freewheelin's stature in my eyes. But there is also a heavy-hearted feeling throughout this album, as though Bob wanted to do anything but go back into the studio and sing the types of songs that made him famous. Even more painful is the fact that several originals didn't make the cut because they didn't fit the album's aesthetic; songs like "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" (IMO, a highlight of the Dylan acoustic period), "Percy's Song", and "Seven Curses" would surely have made the album better, but that wasn't what he was shooting for at the time. One gets the feeling that, even if Dylan had written "It Ain't Me, Babe" or "It's Alright, Ma" at this time, he would've chucked them to the wayside.

What we have, then, is an album with a very narrow focus, designed to strike only a few chords of our broad spectrum of human emotion, performed in a way where you'd need to be in a specific mood to want to listen to it. For some artists, this would be a curiosity; for Dylan, because of the movement he belonged to, it helped make him an even bigger star. And that even bigger stardom, creating even more pressure upon one man expected to lead a movement he wanted no part of leading, caused his withdrawal into more personal songwriting, and arguably helped lead him to Newport '65, to "Like A Rolling Stone", and to the motorcycle accident that concluded possibly the most divisive tour in musical history. The Times They Are A-Changin' marks possibly the only time where Bob was pandering to his audience, releasing an album for others and not for himself. He would not (edited to add: okay, rarely) make that mistake again.

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"The Times They Are a-Changin'" is consistently recognized as one of Dylan's best songs; certainly, it is one of Dylan's most popular. It is one of the songs most non-Dylan fans know, and its appeal has remained for over 40 years. When Dylan went on tour for the first time in 8 years for Tour '74, he opened his acoustic segments with "The Times", always to rapturous applause. To this day, people cheer for the song at concerts when they recognize it, a gesture of respect not always afforded to his classic songs. It occupies a very high place in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and has appeared on countless other such lists. It is one of the most well-known songs in the entire world.

And yet, there is a movement amongst Dylan fans who consider this song to be, at best, sub-par. Leading this pack is noted Dylan biographer/uber-curmedgeon Clinton Heylin, who considers the lyrics mawkish and ungainly, and felt that the song was best used in the Canadian bank commercial Dylan licensed it to a decade ago. Dylan himself has kept a certain distance from the song, noting when a friend saw an early manuscript that "you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear" and making sure to state that the song wasn't meant to be a statement, but simply "a feeling" (a nice bit of disingenuous talk on his part, considering that the song sure as hell comes off as a statement). Unlike his best songs, there's a certain level of artificiality throughout the lyrics, as though Dylan's forcing himself to put into words the sentiments of his generation, as opposed to a song like "Blowin' In The Wind" that actually serve AS the sentiments of his generation. Even the lyrical conceit comes off as simplistic and not totally well-reasoned; if the song really isn't about the generational divide, then why suggest that the older generation, including critics, politicians, and parents, will be swept away in a tide beyond their purveyance (a suggestion just one level above Will Smith's proclamation that "parents just don't understand"), and if it is, wasn't there a less clunky way to say it? In that sense, "The Times" falls flat compared to his truly great songs, and has reached a level of fame far outstripping its actual merits.

So why, then, the disconnect? Why is that so many people adore and cherish the song, while many others think the song really isn't that great? There are plenty of reasons, to be sure; after all, not every song has nothing but fans. Part of it is the context in which the song appeared. I had a response to my "Oxford Town" post that disagreed with my low opinion of the song, stating that the song has much more meaning to those that were alive when the song was originally released and that songs like that make up their internal fabric as much as, say, "Paranoid Android" makes up mine. This is an entirely valid point, and one that I regret not putting more into perspective; it helps explain a lot of the staying power of these songs, even beyond the fact that they're great songs. A song like "The Times" appeals to those that really DID feel that the times were a-changin', that the younger generation were going to change the world, and that love was really all we needed. It may not be a song of the Summer of Love, but the sentiments are very similar indeed.

Another possible reason that the song is so popular is BECAUSE the lyrics are simplistic and easily digestible, and because the conceit is so massive and sweeping in its scope. Subtlety doesn't always play in the arts; we are much more inclined to prefer the massive epic to the more intricate movies or character pieces. Take the 2001 Oscars - the incredibly simple, overlong, chest-thumping epic Gladiator won Best Picture, beating out the beautifully layered, exceptionally profound Traffic, easily one of the decade's best films. Gladiator outperformed Traffic in the box office, as well; the popular sentiment echoed that of the people that vote for the Academy Awards. We (and I include myself in that "we") cannot always deal with complex issues without having them broken down into bite-size pieces, and sometimes in obvious cliches and platitudes as well.

"The Times They Are a-Changin'" is anything but a subtle song, but there is a certain art in that lack of subtlety; after all, Dylan has written songs without subtlety before, and none of those have the staying power of "The Times". But what that song has that the others don't is the scope and emotion-tweaking wordplay that appeals to all of us. "The Times", in its own finger-wagging way, aims to compress the feelings of a burgeoning youth disillusioned with the world they were about to inherit into three and a half minutes, and to many people it succeeded in spades. Whether or not you feel the same, at least you must admit that "The Times" provokes you, asks you to agree or disagree, and sparks debate over its merits that are ongoing to this day. That might not make a good song, but it certainly makes for one worthy of attention, and even of fame.

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11 comments:

Justin Shapiro said...

[Apologies if by jumping the gun and talking about Another Side of Bob Dylan in comparison, I step on the future observations you wanted to make about it.]

I certainly agree that The Times album is a dour listening experience. Even the breaks from the social commentary, the two fine love songs, are about failed/failing relationships. Yay?

There are some stellar songs on there, though, and case-by-case, there's really not a bad one in the bunch. Nevertheless, as a whole listening experience, it does take it toll on you when every song goes grimly -- for Hollis Brown, for the North Country Blueswoman, for Medgar Evers, for her own true love, for Hattie Carroll, for an entire populace beset by injustice and a neverending cycle of war and death. O..h. Well then.

The Times' Dylan is a wicked messenger and the trip isn't a pleasant one. Practically the only joy to be had on the entire record comes from the resulting exaltation by mass murder by drowning. I mean, yikes. The album is effective as hell as a chorus of disapproval, but by the time it's over, I'm practically looking for an eighth shotgun shell.

I agree that it would make for a richer and/or less severe listening experience to have an epic song like "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" to counterbalance the stark grim portraits of starkness and grimness. The song's music-as-salvation muse exploration seems to directly portend "Mr. Tambourine Man," which was written soon after and originally intended for the next album. So if Another Side of Bob Dylan is an antithetical album to The Times (a real perceptive observation by me considering its, well, title), I think they each suffer for the same reason: they each go too far in opposite directions.

If The Times is a perhaps somewhat dire record that features some major Dylan compositions, Another Side is a perhaps somewhat frivolous album that features some major Dylan compositions. Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful Side of Bob Dylan, and it's immensely welcome to hear a Bob Dylan who sounds like he's having fun again, but lightweight amusements like "Motorpsycho Nightmare" and "I Shall Be Free #10" don't necessarily strike me as upgrades over the previous song cycle either.

I think that The Times and ASOBD both benefit as albums from their cohesiveness and unity of vision, and both suffer for going to such extreme ends on the Sides of Bob Dylan spectrum. One is humorless and deadly earnest, the other is havin' a laugh and borderline sex-crazed. I guess the same criticisms that you laid out about Times A-Changin' are all right there in "My Back Pages": he feared he was becoming his enemy by being so polemical with lies that life was black and white, girls faces formed the forward path away from the "rip down all hate" screaming of The Times, etc. The Another Side Bob Dylan may as well be shouting "WHY SO SERIOUS? WHY SO SERIOUS?" like the Joker at the guy on the cover of The Times. (In hindsight, Ledger played the wrong Dylan in I'm Not There.)

What's funny is that, as you've written, he'd already struck a pretty ideal balance on the album previous. The Freewheelin' is a perfect blend of one Side and Another -- serious social statement songs and songs of warmth and whimsy living side by side in perfect harmonica. It doesn't take a lot of effort to go down the list of songs on Freewheelin' and break them into "songs that would belong on The Times" (at one point, he sings "I hope that you die and your death will come soon," for god's sakes) and "songs that would belong on Another Side" (songs on the two albums even share one title).

I think that both The Times and Another Side are great, indispensable Bob Dylan albums. But they're Janus-faced, as if the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan split into two divergent sides of Bob Dylan. As such, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is the best of both Bobs and I-M-O pretty distinctly the best of the three albums.

One of the great oversimplified myths of the whole folk->rock, uh, folklore -- told with a lot more clarity in No Direction Home, if I recall -- is that Dylan abandoned a social conscience when he 'went electric' and started writing craaaaaaazy lyrics. He may have stopped writing overtly 'issue-oriented' or 'political' songs, but the social critic/commentator was still there in full force. For obvious reasons, Another Side is usually viewed as an onward and upward move of Dylan taking a major step forward from the Bob of The Times They Are-Changin' to the Bob of Bringing It All Back Home and beyond. But I think that before he could go from Another Side to BIABH, he needed to get some of that The Times vitriol back too. After all, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is a pretty damn harsh harangue.

Thomas said...

You're totally right when you say that this album partly written to please the listener. A lot of the songs are other versions of songs he had already done before.
* The times is an adaptation of the ideas behind blowin in the wind
* With god on our side is a simpler version of masters of war
* boots of spanish leather sounds exactly the same as girl from the north country
* only a pawn in their game and hattie caroll are both songs that come straight from the newspaper and served to feed the civil rights movement that was going on.

The only really great song, imho offcours, on this album are restless farewell, one too many mornings and when the ship comes in. These songs come straight from the heart.

As for the times itself,
i don't think it's a bad song at all and it still is relevant today. As you said, everybody knows the song and helped shape the icon dylan is today.
As a work of art, this song is not very very important but as a milestone in dylan's career, it is very significant.

Tony said...

Justin, you bastard, I was scanning your post and thinking of a proper metaphor for how The Times and Another Side are split off from Freewheelin' (I'd settled on Freewheelin as ego, Times as superego, and Another Side as id), and you go ahead and beat me to the punch down the line. Thanks, jerk.

And yeah, you did kinda step on some stuff I wanted to observe, but that's quite all right - it was relatively obvious anyway. The real trick is what kind of touches I can put on those points. We'll find out together!

Thomas, you are the man, Thomas (you are the man!). Sorry, wanted to get that out of the way. There are a lot of similarities to Freewheelin', which I think shows just how quick the turnaround was on this album. Not even a song machine like Dylan can churn out that many originals in 5-6 months without a little help.

I agree with your "best songs" list, although I'd add Boots of Spanish Leather. That's just a personal favorite, though. And I think we both agree on The Times - not a great song, but a very important historical song.

Pete Shanks said...

A minor correction, from "Love Me Do: The Beatles Progress" by Michael Braun (published 1964 and I still have my copy). Lennon did not copy the cap! Braun quotes Lennon in Paris, just before their first USA visit: "Paul bought a Bob Dylan record and he was wearing this exact cap on the cover. He even had the button open like mine. Everybody will think I copied it from him."

That said, I think you got the balance about "Times ..." right -- it’s simplistic but amazingly memorable.

Tony said...

Oh, so it was just a coincidence, then? Rats. I'd always thought John had copied Bob - makes for the better story, that's for sure. I still think John looked ridiculous in that cap, though; Bob, for the record, didn't look that much better.

Cody said...

"The Times" is not one of my favorite Dylan albums to listen to, but I'm eagerly awaiting for analysis for several of the songs. "Boots of Spanish Leather" might just be my favorite Dylan song, and I think "One Too Many Mornings", "With God On Our Side", and "Restless Farewell" will be very interesting.

Rob said...

beyond their purview, not purveyance.

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David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, Come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/657/The-Times-They-Are-A-Changin' and listen to every version of every song. Great work...