Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #55: Mr. Tambourine Man

Out of the entire match I find the 13th game to be the most attractive. Possibly because, even today, when I play through it for the umpteenth time, I am still unable to understand the inner motives behind this or that plan, or individual move...Like a mysterious enigma, it still teases my imagination.

- David Bronstein, on the 1972 Fischer/Spassky match


I've given considerable writing space on this blog to mashups and how much I enjoy sample-driven music, so it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite songs of all time is "Frontier Psychiatrist", from Australian sample kings The Avalanches' masterpiece Since I Left You. For those of you that haven't heard it, the song is a freewheeling cavalcade of spoken-word samples, tied together by the barest theme of cowboy movies, and underpinned by a pounding, insistent hip-hop breakbeat, spaghetti Western horns, and ghostly harmony vocals. What really makes the song work for me is its' goofy sense of humor - a parrot's squawk gets chopped up, the vocal samples put a grin on my face, and the song takes a sudden sharp left turn into a Mexican cantina, with no warning or particular reason other than "hey, this sounds kinda cool". I've loved the song ever since I heard it, and it's a song I always find myself listening to when I'm taking my iPod out for a test drive every so often.

It is also, for the record, a song that absolutely, positively confounds me. I've often thought about what went into the creation of that song, how many drafts and first runs the group went through, and the process that led to the staggering 4 and a half minutes that made up the final product. Think about it - months, maybe years of digging through record crates to come up with the distinct samples to string together in the song; finding the instrumental samples that give the song its particular flair, from the first drum shots to the final Latin guitar flourish; carefully piecing the song together, testing out which sample should go where, if the "man with the golden eyeball" line is in a spot that makes sense; making sure that the sudden shift in tone doesn't completely wreck the song, but takes it in a brand new direction; and, finally, giving the record one final listen, simply reveling in just how everything perfectly meshes together. There's a lot of hard work that goes into making that kind of music (as though other kinds of music are a cakewalk, I know), and it's always amazing when that hard work is rewarded.

All the same, you can put in as much hard work as humanly possible, and it will all be for nothing unless you have a certain something, a creative spark, that allows you to create such astonishing music. And that, right there, is why I posted the quote above and why I talked about a song that probably very few of you have actually heard. The creative element is something that's always interested me, even when it's proven so very elusive in my own life. I've always wondered where that spark comes from, that ineffable quality that you can't see or touch but has still changed lives and altered our very being. And that quality has eluded humans for centuries, as it refuses to be harnessed or properly quantified, no matter how much brainpower and energy we can dedicate to trying to understand it. You look at the paintings of Picasso, or Jules et Jim, or listen to Sketches of Spain, and you can feel that creative spark all throughout, but you will never be able to properly express what it is that makes those works so fantastic, why they were created in that certain way - to put it simply, why they are. And I'd bet that, when you got right down to it, the creators couldn't tell you why they are, either.

I will readily admit that I've wasted hard drive space on unfinished works - short stories, longer novel-lengths, even the occasional (terrible) screenplay. The one time I managed to finish something, I had a little celebratory cigar that night, so happy was I to have finally completed something I cared enough about to see through to the end. But, for the most part, I've never been one to finish what I've started, no matter how gung-ho I am from the start - eventually my attention will be turned elsewhere, either by real life, by my ADD nature of hopping from one interest to the next with little warning, or by simple entropy, and I'll move on. As I've noted, this blog is part of the process of rectifying that; then again, we'll see how gung ho I am about continuing when I get to Self Portrait. But seriously, the creative process is something I've struggled with my whole life, and I've always envied those that have not only reined in that process, but have the tenacity to carry out their visions and make something that others will cherish and enjoy.

The remarkable thing about the quote above is that David Bronstein was a great chess player in his own right, a grandmaster who'd contested for the world title and was renowned for his imagination on the board and his ability to play moves that no mere mortal would ever dream of playing. He had seen just about everything you could see on the board, and it's hard to imagine chess ever truly surprising him. And yet, in that 13th Fischer/Spassky game (where a rook was fighting against five pawns), he saw something that he not only had never seen before, but continued to amaze him long after the game had been played. I love that - that even the best and brightest of us can still be surprised and baffled by something that they know inside out. And that might be the most remarkable element about the creative spark - that a rare individual can create something that not only baffles us regular plebes, but even the most brilliant of us as well. And even when we're baffled by the incomprehensible, we can appreciate how amazing the incomprehensible can be.

There's a nice irony in the fact that Bob Dylan's first album with mostly electric music is most distinguished by its acoustic songs. And with good reason - all four of the songs on the acoustic side are stone cold classics, and at least one of them (the song I'm posting about) is commonly cited as one of Dylan's very best works, if not just one of his most well-known. Quite frankly, even without the Byrds' chart-topping version (overrated, IMO, by the way), I would venture to say that "Mr. Tambourine Man" would have the same level of worldwide fame and renown that it does today, if only because of its extraordinary lyrics and its beautiful musical structure. Who hasn't been hooked by that legendary chorus, by the way the words seem to wind around Dylan's guitar like tendrils of smoke wafting through the air, and by phrases like "deep beneath the waves" and "vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme". There isn't much I can say about this brilliant song - I'd actually like to know how many of you don't love, or at least like, "Mr. Tambourine Man".

What is worth mentioning is that this is right about the moment where people started to actively wonder just how much Bob's drug use was bleeding into his music. I mean, there were certainly flashes of his new poetic, trippy writing style on Another Side, but I would suggest that on this album, and especially on this particular song, that writing style fully coalesced and was utilized in its most perfect form. Everything about "Mr. Tambourine Man" seems to just fit, with every line leading beautifully into the next one, almost like the words are arranging themselves without anyone's help into those majestic verses. Of course, words can't do that, so obviously somebody had to have managed to write all of those lines, arrange them in the way they were arranged, and commit the song to tape (not once, but twice, as a matter of fact). But, again, have you heard those words? Those lines don't read like English, or at least any English I've ever read before. So how can you explain how a human being, with a human mind, wrote those words?

So what must be the logical explanation? I don't think any of us buys that story about Bruce Langhorne and his gigantic Turkish tambourine (I like to think Bob and Bruce had a joint one night and dreamed up that stupid story, giggling the whole time). And it's really hard to imagine that somebody could write lyrics that wild and out there just by himself - after all, we all knew what kind of crazy shit Rimbaud was on when he penned his Dylan-influencing poems. So the obvious answer, then, is that Dylan, taking his first trip on LSD, wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the influence of drugs. And I don't think anybody has ever really disputed that claim, or thinks anything different. I mean, go and read those lyrics again! I think we can all agree that drugs, at least in some way, played a part in the creative process that led to these songs.

But were they the lone reason? I wrote something a while back about how people tend to have this assumption in their minds that drugs not only play a part in the creative process, but are the main reason for so many people, especially musicians, that the creative process even exists. We've all read stories about great musicians and how often they abuse drugs, and we also know that plenty of people have talked about how drugs have stimulated their minds, allowed new doors to be opened in their ways of thinking, and so on and so forth. That leads to an obvious conclusion - people that do drugs become more creative. If only that were true. There's the other side of the stereotypical coin: the lazy druggie that sits on his couch, watches TV, and eats cereal. And while that may not always be true, the thought that hitting the bong magically makes you a genius is just as untrue. Leaving aside any addiction issues, drugs are just as likely to make you think you're writing great stuff when it's really crap, only you don't have the wherewithal to know the difference. On top of that, people on drugs tend to have issues with reining in their muse, leading to overblown cocaine/pot/LSD/ecstasy epics that might sound great on drugs, but sound terrible otherwise.

My typical example would be Sandinista!, the Clash's misbegotten double-album followup to the classic London Calling and one of the great missteps of their career. Blessed with a ton of money and all the resources of a major band, the Clash threw everything but the kitchen sink into their album and produced a staggering mess, with legitimately great songs rubbing shoulders with half-baked ideas, way too much dub experimenting, a goddamn children's choir-sung track, and basically the indulgences of a group that no longer knew how to rein themselves in. Now THAT definitely had something to do with drugs. I know I've also mentioned it before, but another great example would be Be Here Now, where Oasis basically buried their trademark sound under an avalanche of cocaine (and about 20 guitar tracks, courtesy of Noel Gallagher) and created an epic of excess. There are good songs on there, make no mistake, but for the most part the overlong song lengths, overwrought production, and general lack of editing prowess make the album a painful listening experience. Oasis' career in America has never been the same.

What I'm trying to get at is that, ultimately, drugs aren't what makes a musician great, nor could they ever be. They may play a part in the creative process, sure...but in the end, if you aren't already blessed with the gifts that allow drugs to enhance them in that process, it won't matter how much pot you smoke or acid you drop, you're not writing a "Mr. Tambourine Man". Bob Dylan may have ingested enough drugs to kill an elephant in the years of the Electric Trilogy, but he still had to write those great songs, and what allowed him to write those great songs was the same talent that allowed him to write "Blowin' In The Wind", and would allow him to write "Tangled Up In Blue", and "Jokerman", and "Mississippi" as well - and there aren't a lot of people trying to say that Dylan's weed habit or LSD dropping allowed him to pen a "Mississippi", are there? Dylan is a genius on a level few of us could ever match, and that talent, coupled with some drug use, is what allowed him to hone and fashion "Mr. Tambourine Man" into a classic song, one that people have loved for over 40 years. But that drug use didn't put the song in Dylan's mind - it only helped to bring that song out. The song was already there, put together by Dylan's incredible abilities to use the English language in a way few of us could ever dream of doing. And that makes all the difference in the world.

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Anonymous said...

Dylan began writing Mr. Tambourine Man after a wild weekend at Mardi Gras during his February 64 roadtrip across the south with a couple of pals on the way to a brief west coast tour. I always imagine a Mr. Bojangles type figure in a second line parade when I hear it. I wonder what drugs William Shatner was on when he performed his interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Tony - been following the blog since the beginning. Great idea and excellent execution so far.

You are spot on in your description of the creative process. I feel the same way about the excitement when starting a new project, whether it be music, writing, whatever. And also have the same slowdown, uninspiring moments, but you gotta keep going.

The ones who lead are the ones who are able to express their own beliefs, ideas, visions. The way you use Dylan's songs as a springboard into other music, other artists, and most important of all, insights into life itself, is what makes this blog work. There is no shortage of writings about Dylan out there. This is something unique.

Ain't talking, but i'm looking forward to seeing how this all ends.

Tony said...

Paul, whatever drugs Shatner was on when he did his Mr. Tambourine Man, they probably pale in comparison to the drugs he was on when he did Rocket Man at that awards show.

kuz, thanks for the compliment! That really means a lot to me. And yeah, the only way to avoid creative ennui is to keep writing. If you don't stop swimming, you'll drown.

Anonymous said...

This brings back all the poetics stuff I had to read in grad school about artistic synthesis. Throw in some quotes from Shelley's Defense of Poetry ("[poetry] awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought") and Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent ("for it is not the 'greatness,' the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts") and you could transition this into your midterm paper for Sociology of Cultural Texts. MLA-style, please.

This "Mr. Tambourine Man" from Towson, Md. in 2000 is probably my all-time favorite NET performance (it's between this and the Santa Cruz "Blowin' in the Wind" from the end of Masked & Anonymous). It's just a glorious reinvention, and almost entirely vocal-driven. How Dylan hit on this cadence or what made him decide to start singing half a beat ahead of the melody, I have no idea, but his phrasing bowls me over every time -- listening to it really is a trip on a magic swirling ship.

Unknown said...


You are the first person I've ever seen mention the Towson version of the song (though admittedly I haven't really looked). Along with the the Bootleg Series Rolling Thunder version I would rank this as my favorite version. The only aspect in which the RTR version falls short in my opinion is the missing verse. The only thing lacking in the Towson version is the execution of the song's first verse (and it's own truncation of one of the verses, IIRC).

I had the fortune to be at this show (with a musician/non-Dylan fan friend) and I distinctly remember when this song started telling him which one it was. During the first verse I cringed at the delivery. His vocals felt sloppy (I still feel that way having listened to a boot of it for years, but that might be the echo of my initial impression). But something clicks in his timing, phrasing and melodic structure from there on. I went from slightly embarrassed to absolutely astonished. It's the single performance that drove me to seek out the field recording immediately. It has a strange march-like sort'a waltzy feel to me that feels almost like Tambourine Man crossed with Mississippi (L&T version).

I've always wondered if there are other similar arrangements of this song, but haven't had any luck. If anyone knows, please post about it. It's one of only a handful of live performances I've been to that have truly reinvigorated my interest in a song.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask, since you all seem very knowledgeable - I'm wondering where the song structure comes from? If you were to point me toward music that came before this song that could possibly have influenced it, what would it be? (I don't believe anything is really new.. new things are mixtures of existing things - for example, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is most definitely a cha cha cha). Thank you so much for your time.
Bird Yoshikawa

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/428/Mr-Tambourine-Man Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more... including this link.