Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #54: Bob Dylan's 115th Dream

I'll get into it a little more in the next post, but one thing that's fascinated me about the Electric Trilogy is how many of the lyrics feel almost arbitrarily strung together, as though Dylan had taken a dartboard and used that to determine where the verses are supposed to go, and occasionally even where the individual lines are supposed to go as well. I don't mean that Dylan wrote willy-nilly or had no sense of making the verses work together, lest you think I'm trying to insult him or anything. What I mean is that when it comes to Dylan's work around this time, his words can hit your cerebral cortex and either sink in beautifully or bounce right off, leaving you confused. I think that's why Dylan isn't as easily acceptable to the general public as, say, the Rolling Stones or other such bands of similar longetivity - with the exception of a few key albums, Dylan's work is far more inscrutable, and far less easy to assimilate. And I'm not saying that that makes Dylan's fans more intelligent or discerning because we can assimilate (or, at least, appreciate) his writing style - I'm saying his mid-60's work is not for everyone.



"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" is a key example of how Dylan's work isn't for everyone. There's a lot of stuff going on in this song - historical allusions, goofy wordplay, and a narrative that actually kind of, sort of makes sense. What's funny, to me at least, is that even though there is a Point A and a Point B in this song, and that Dylan clearly had an idea of where he wanted the song to go, there's still an element of the arbitrary and unpredictable, almost as though Dylan was simply letting the lyrics take him where they wanted to go, instead of vice versa. That's what gives the song such an off-kilter rush: the thrown-together feeling runs all throughout, like a Monty Python episode where you wonder how they decided to work in the World's Deadliest Joke sketch and why they put it right after Nudge Nudge (I know they're not in the same episode - that's just for example). There's no real reason why the restaurant verse has to go before he meets the funeral parlor guy, but that's how it is, and it works.



There's something weirdly apropos about Dylan putting together this song with so many elements of Americana (Moby Dick, Columbus, the Bowery), especially when you consider the title of this song. It feels, in a way, like Dylan's winking at the audience all throughout, counting on their knowledge of history - which, if it needs pointing out, was probably stronger back in the 1960s than it is today - and their appreciation of why some of the lyrics are meant to be funny, as well as the fact that he was known preeminently as a folk singer, the leader of a genre rooted very deeply in American tradition (as well, it should be noted, as European tradition - but then how much American tradition originated overseas, anyway?). There's something very meta about that, the same way that Citizen Kane would have been more meta if the original title, The American, had been used instead. Kane, brought to his downfall by his need to own and possess, is uniquely American; Dylan, by turning our traditions and cultural bedrocks into a gag, turns out to be uniquely American as well.



The playful mood of the song is helped right from the very start, with the infamous giggly intro (probably brought on by, uh, the natural buoyancy of Dylan and his producers...yeah, that's it) tacked on to the start for posterity. I love everything about that - the fact that Dylan was strumming his acoustic instead of having the band kick in, whereas from the 2nd take the band immediately roars to life; Dylan still managing to complete that first line, even though he's already laughing; and those hiccupy laughs, of course, that just make me feel like laughing as well. And that infectious playfulness seems to seep through the entire song - there's a silly element to begin with in the lyrics, but the band actually seems to get caught up in that silliness and gives added heft to that goofy feeling. Maybe it's because the chords of the song are the same as another silly Dylan tune, "Motorpsycho Nitemare". Who can really say? But I mean, even the guitar licks put a smile on my face!



"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" puts an exclamation point on Dylan's first ever electric side to an album, and somehow manages to encapsulate everything that made that side so unique, controversial, and astonishing in the history of Bob Dylan, and even in the history of music. You have the plain and simple fact of America's foremost folk singer playing music with an electric band, singing lyrics both literate, inscrutable, and drug-informed, not so much pandering to the popular music crowd as announcing that there was a new voice entering that crowd, one that sang in a different way about different things. Dylan didn't hit you directly with easy to understand lyrics, appeal to the simplest of instincts, or simply get you out of your seat to dance. He forced you to think about what he was saying, he appealed to your mind as well as your heart - and he occasionally could make you dance, but that was incidental. And "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" neatly packaged all of those elements into one crazy song. Talk about something completely different.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, it's zimfreud....sorry tony but i couldn't disagree more about your "dartboard" theory, i've always believed this to be one of dylan's greatest & most underrated songs, carefully constructed & worthy of extensive analysis, but for brevity's sake, my sole point here is to draw attention to just one single verse, taken from bob's website:

Well, by this time I was fed up
At tryin' to make a stab
At bringin' back any help
For my friends and Captain Arab
I decided to flip a coin
Like either heads or tails
Would let me know if I should go
Back to ship or back to jail
So I hocked my sailor suit
And I got a coin to flip
It came up tails
It rhymed with sails
So I made it back to the ship

i just wanted to point this out because i've never seen it written before, & in discussions fellow dylan-fans have told me they never quite picked up on it....he (the narrator) is trying to decide whether to fight to save his imprisoned friends, or to just take off (somewhat selfishly) & "sail" on his own course....conceivably he should have a coin, or at least be able to borrow one, or he could hock anything to get a coin, but of all things, he chooses to hock his sailor suit, implying, i believe, that he started at least with the intention of "doing the right thing" (fighting for his friends), because after all, one wouldn't hock one's sailor suit if one were headed back to the ship....but, (& bob's writing is so precise here), he says it came up "tails" which clearly rhymes with jail (before it rhymes with ship), & then the brilliant "rhymed with sails so i made it back to the ship".....(also, the fact that he says "ship" before he says "jail" would imply that heads is ship & tails is jail)....this part, to me, implying that he started out noble, intending to fight the good fight, but ultimately decided, despite fate, luck & circumstance all pointing at him to lead the fight, to "selfishly" go his own way & to run from trouble....& if all this theorizing on my part were not already crazy enough, here comes the whopper....i actually believe this song is a re-telling, (in comic form, yes), of bob's own journey circa 1964-65...his own realization that he couldn't, or wouldn't, become joan baez or martin luther king, that he was gonna go his own way....but that's another theory for some other time, curious to know though if folks picked up on the heads/tails stuff....all comments welcome....zimfreud

Anonymous said...

Wow that analysis is bang on I think! Well done. I didn't pick up on the heads/tails thing before you read it, but I knew there was something I wasn't getting and I think that was it! Thank you!

Moose said...

3 of my all-time favorite Dylan lyrics come straight from this song.

1. The man says, “Get out of here
I’ll tear you limb from limb”
I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”
He said, “You’re not Him..."

2. I repeated that my friends
Were all in jail, with a sigh
He gave me his card
He said, “Call me if they die”

And like Zimfreud mentioned:
3. I decided to flip a coin
Like either heads or tails
Would let me know if I should go
Back to ship or back to jail
So I hocked my sailor suit
And I got a coin to flip
It came up tails
It rhymed with sails
So I made it back to the ship

It took me years of loving this song before I got the joke in that last verse. Driving to work one day I just went, Holy Shit!