Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #36: Restless Farewell

Before I actually get into the post proper, I just wanted to point out how distracting it is every time Bob puts that emphasis on "farewell" every time he sings it in this song - not because it's a bad musical device, but because I can't hear it and not think of "Farewell Angelina", one of Dylan's great lost classics. Perhaps, like so many other things, that's just me.

So we reach the final song of The Times They Are A-Changin', and in true form with the rest of the album Dylan goes out on a quiet note (although not a somber one, thankfully). "Restless Farewell" bases its melody off of the famous Irish song "The Parting Glass", one of those "look back with a wistful smile" drinking songs that practically demands to be sung loudly in a pub in Dublin in the wee hours of the morning. The Pogues, on their widely-held masterpiece Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, gave the song a beautiful cover; so much so that it's hard not to hear "Restless Farewell" and wish Dylan hadn't given it the Irish touch with a band arrangement. Alas.

Dylan's song takes something of a similar conceit lyrically, with the narrator, full of beer and his memories, bids his friends a good night and heads home (hopefully not in a car - remember, kids, drunk driving is wrong). However, while "The Parting Glass" is more about fondly having one more beer with good friends before heading home to "the fair maid in the town/that sorely has my heart beguiled", Dylan's lyrics take on a more dramatic tone, as he moves from apologetic to sudden fist-shaking defiance at his enemies and his critics. In fact, the shift in tone and his unapologetic words are so disconcerting, it's hard to imagine that Dylan didn't have somebody directly in mind when he let loose with these words. When he sings "the dirt of gossip blows into my face/And the dust of rumors covers me", could he really not have someone specific in mind?

"Restless Farewell", a beautiful song and one of my favorites here, ends things on a very odd note, wrapping up an album of issues songs with a song about no real issue other than Bob Dylan (if you take him as the narrator, and it's hard not to). There's something preemptory about the way Bob sings the song, as though he's already expecting a bollocking and wants to gird himself psychically against it. At the same time, that final verse actually serves as a talking point, a rule of Fight Club, for the protest movement:

But if the arrow is straight and the point is slick
It can pierce through the dust no matter how thick
So I'll make my stand and remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn
A lot has been already written, here and elsewhere, about The Times They Are A-Changin' being Dylan's "protest" album, the one in which he makes dramatic, sweeping statements about the world that he sees and disapproves of, and the one where he spearheads the protest song movement whose sole purpose is to change things through music. The final verse of "Restless Farewell", with its strong pronouncement of self-assurance, shows that Dylan knows his position, and refuses to bend from it. Now, that sounds like a lot of pressure to me, and it would be insane to suggest that Dylan wouldn't feel that pressure in the turbulent year of 1963 (and, of course, we all know that he did). After all, the spotlight is bright on you enough as it is when you're famous, but when you're famous for being somebody who Says Important Things, that spotlight becomes even more glaring and pronounced. Plenty of people have wilted in that spotlight, and you would have forgiven Bob if he had as well.

Dylan didn't shrink from that spotlight; instead, he did something far smarter and moved into a different spotlight, one that he was more capable of understanding and basking in. True, that spotlight wore on him to the point where he retreated entirely into private life, but in the process Dylan became a better songwriter, a better performer, and far more interesting as a musician than he ever could have been if he'd stayed where he was. The first signs of that process came in the very next album, and would reach its zenith with Blonde on Blonde a few years later. In that sense, "Restless Farewell" was exactly as advertised - a singer clearly uncomfortable with his lot in life, bidding adieu to what had once been important to him, moving on to greener pastures. He might not have had that in mind when he wrote the song, but that's how powerful his great songs are - you can ascribe great things to his words, and you would not always be off base.

So that's the end of The Times They Are A-Changin'. Thanks to everybody for reading and sticking with me through the last month of writing. Coming up next time - something completely different.

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6 comments:

chris pap said...

tony, i know you're probably a busy young lad, but you should really try to do one song a day. this way it won't be 2034 by the time you get to "love & theft". obviously i'm jesting but i enjoy reading your posts so much that everyday i go on the front page of Expecting Rain and hope to see an update. you're a great writer, keep up the magnificent work!

JohnnyRussia said...

Good stuff.

Regards from a fellow BobCat...

http://www.jackrabbitcafe.blogspot.com

Calum said...

This is a fantastic series. Lots gets written and spoken about His Bobness, but your balanced approach is a great read. Look forward to much more of it.

Cody said...

Another nice read. You definitely made analyzing "The Times" album more fun than most people could have. I'm looking forward to the next batch of songs from one of my favorite Dylan album, "Another Side".

Tony said...

Thank you all so very much for the comments and the compliments. It's an honor to be on Expecting Rain thrice a week, and without them I wouldn't have anywhere near the readership that I do.

Cody, reviewing Another Side is gonna feel like a day at the beach for me after the last album. And I happen to like it quite a bit as well, so you will not be disappointed by the opinions I hold. The other stuff I write about, on the other hand...

Thank you all once again!

Rob said...

Date: Thu, 21 Dec 1995 09:35:01 -0600
To: Karl.Erik.Andersen at nb.no
From: markg at leland.stanford.edu (Mark Gonnerman)
Subject: "Restless Farewell"/ 4 November 1963 Newsweek


"Restless Farewell"/ 4 November 1963 Newsweek


Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me.
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face,
And the dust of rumors covers me.
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick,
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick.
So I'll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn.

--Bob Dylan, "Restless Farewell" (1963)

(As several rmders have noted in posts past, "Restless Farewell" is based on "The Parting Glass," a traditional Irish song.)

"'Restless Farewell' was Dylan's immediate reaction to the 'dust of rumors' a Newsweek reporter had attempted to bury him in the previous week and was probably written at the same time as the eighth and ninth outlined epitaphs
(Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions [1960-1994] [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995]), pp. 26-27).