Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #56: Gates of Eden

It occurs to me, writing a blog about Bob Dylan that is essentially read exclusively by Bob Dylan fans, that there are going to be more than a few moments in which I am preaching to the converted. Sure, we can quibble about what we think about certain songs and albums, their interpretations, which versions we like better, and whether or not Street Legal is a good album (my thoughts on the matter will have to wait - aren't I a tease?). But, when it comes down to it, we'll all agree that a) Bob Dylan was an artist without parallel and (possibly) without peer, b) certain albums of his are better than certain others, and c) certain songs of his are better than certain others, as well. I mean, I'm not going to go off half-cocked and say "Like A Rolling Stone" sucks or something, and all of you that read this know that. And you also will have certain expectations about my Dylan opinions as well, based on your own and those of other Dylan fans you know, and I will more than likely meet those expectations. This is not a bad thing; it's simply what it is.

With that in mind, it seems educational and, perhaps, even instructive to look at Bob Dylan through a different set of eyes - in this case, through the eyes of somebody that is not only not a fan of Bob Dylan, but in fact doesn't "get" Dylan and can't reconcile their opinion with anybody that actually does. We have to remember that as broad-based and worldwide as Dylan's appeal is, he still does not have the fanbase of the Beatles (then again, who does), or an Aerosmith, or perhaps even a Dave Matthews Band or Coldplay. And, when you think about it, that does make sense - Dylan's lyrics, first and foremost, don't have the same easily grasped aesthetic as, well, just about any other artist; how many musicians can you name that are as challenging lyrically as our man Bob is? And, on top of that, few artists in ANY medium have a catalog as challenging and daunting as Dylan's - maybe an Altman in film, or a Faulkner in literature, or a Goya in the art world, but you're talking about the absolute upper echelons of any artistic field. That tends to turn people off. And I'm not saying that just to pat us Dylan fans on the back; I'd love to jump into James Ellroy like so many others have, but I'm too damn scared to leap into a pool that deep and frightening. Dylan, I'm sure, strike many others the same way.


And in terms of putting people off Bob Dylan, when you think of a song that would do the job better than any, you could do worse than selecting "Gates of Eden". I mean, what would the uninitiated possibly think of this song? "The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen", incredibly, is not the most oddball line in the song; the surrealist imagery that flowed so smoothly through "Mr. Tambourine Man" has been tweaked into something darker and crazier, and the phrases flow from Dylan's lips less like smooth waves than jagged spikes that dig into your mind and practically dare you to suss them out. There's seemingly no rhyme or reason to this song, the same way that the poetry of Ginsburg (sorry, I know it's an easy comparison) has seemingly no rhyme or reason to it. And, like, Ginsburg's best work, the imagery is more than enough to compensate - what does it matter if "Gates of Eden" has no plot or whatever to it, when you can chew on lines like "upon four-legged forest clouds/the cowboy angel rides"? But that's my feeling as a longtime Dylan fan - there are people that aren't fans of Ginsburg or, say, Ferlinghetti, people that find these types of lyrics either pretentious, unfathomable, or both, and people that will just plain not want to listen. And you cannot begrudge them that.

Occasionally, when I think about musicians or filmmakers that I like, I try to identify a potential "litmus test" for that artist, something that I could show to a neophyte to see if they would enjoy that artist as much as I do. This can usually be a dangerous prospect, because it is the rare great artist that can have their work summed up in a single item (compare this with, say, Nickelback, who were notorious for writing two hit singles that sounded exactly the same - which, I think, says as much about radio listeners that made them popular as the band themselves) and offering one song alone would do them a disservice. Still, it is the even rarer artist that doesn't have some sort of common thread running through their works, something that may not be tangible or identifiable but that makes you go "yes, this is (insert artist's name here)". For example, if I wanted to introduce New Order to somebody, I'd play them the Substance version of "Temptation", which is both a great dance song and a musically strong piece of work that shows just how talented all of the band members were. Or, if I wanted to introduce Monty Python to somebody, I'd show them Monty Python and the Holy Grail, probably the most accessible thing the Pythons have ever done, but still as offbeat and hilarious as the rest of their oeuvre. The point is that, if you don't like either "Temptation" or Holy Grail, New Order and Monty Python are probably not for you.

Dylan, of course, is harder, simply because there are so many different phases to his career; sure, all of his songs are recognizable as Dylan (if only for the voice, but even that changed drastically between 1962 and 1974, let alone 2008), but there are still a lot of stylistic changes that can throw you off when trying to find that one introductory song. With that in mind, if I wanted to show somebody a song that was representative of Dylan's most well-known phase, as well as an example of his majestic, dizzying talent, I would seriously be tempted to select "Gates of Eden". I mean, "Like A Rolling Stone" is the obvious choice, but even THAT song isn't wholly representative - "Like A Rolling Stone" towers over even his best work, the same way "Paranoid Android" obliterates anything else Radiohead's done or The Stand casts a shadow over Stephen King's collected works. But "Gates of Eden", with its staggering wordplay, nonsensical and thoroughly poetic lyrics, and lack of any unifying elements outside saying "gates of Eden" over and over, might be a truer litmus test - while the wordplay is surreal (thought not as surreal) in "Like A Rolling Stone", the band compensates by churning out a heady brew of rock that envelopes the song and makes you forget just how weird it is in certain points. There's no such fallback in "Gates of Eden" - those lyrics are out there, practically naked, forcing themselves to be heard. And if you can hear them and not run out of the room with your hands over your ears, I think that means you're part of the club.

What draws me to Dylan, in part at least, is that there are still portions of his catalog that are mystical to me; the aforementioned Street Legal, New Morning and its hodgepodge of styles as Dylan sought to recast himself after the "country period", and even Oh Mercy have eluded my understanding and ability to figure the man out. And I hope to never figure the man out, so that his work can always seem fresh to me, and that even when I've finished this project I can return to his songs and find something new constantly to keep giving me reasons to go back and give the whole damn catalog a hearing all over again. I envy those that can listen to a "Gates of Eden", feel that startling joy in their hearts and minds as they realize that yes, these lyrics do mean something to me, I want to hear more of this man, and then proceed to hear Blonde on Blonde and Desire for the very first time. You only get to do that so many times in your life. Savor them every chance you get.

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11 comments:

J.D. said...

You aren't preaching to the choir exclusively. I'm a recent Dylan convert and immersing myself in his work as fully as possible right now, but everything you're saying is still news to me--which is why a blog like this is a gold mine for me. Maybe the transcendent qualities of the Albert Hall performance of Visions of Johanna, for example, is old news to you, but I'm still floating on that helium cloud of awe that follows life-altering discoveries.

So keep up the good work.

Nyco said...

I also see the influence of Rimbaud at his highest on this song, what he says about the poet "becoming a clairvoyant by a long and reasoned disorder of the senses", there are no truths in this song, just visions, "no truths inside the gates of eden".

rob! said...

interesting observation(s)--its very counter-intuitive to suggest a Dylan fan use a non "hit" to represent the catalog to a casual/non-fan. it makes a lot of sense, how you lay it out.

that said, i think i Gates of Eden--as good as it is--wouldn't be in the top 100 songs i'd play for a new Dylan fan.

i find its language so abstract, so challenging (in a way that kinda takes you out of the song, which was probably on purpose) that i think someone new to Dylan would hear

"With a time-rusted compass blade
Aladdin and his lamp
Sits with Utopian hermit monks
Side saddle on the Golden Calf"

...and walk away, shaking their head, looking for the nearest, easily-digestible Nickelback song. :)

(btw, i said it before, but i love this blog!)

Don Chaffer said...

Just discovered this blog. A good read, this entry. I'll have to go back and check out some of #'s 1-55. Hard not to tell you my thoughts on Street Legal, but I'll resist, and wait until the time is right (i.e. whenever it is you get around to that one).

It was interesting to read your comments on what to play or not to play for a neophyte. I work a fair bit with songwriters, and a stunning number of them aren't as acquainted with Dylan as i think they should be. I'm always trying to figure out how to introduce people to him, especially when they've already heard "Like a Rolling Stone," "Rainy Day Women," and "Blowin' In the Wind," and therefore have a sense of him that may or may not be entirely accurate. My general approach is to individualize it. Try to figure out what they may like to hear, and play it for them, but overall, sadly, I have to admit that you're right. Some people just don't like him. I don't begrudge them this, but I still can't help but feel they're missing out on an awfully deep reservoir. Alas.

As to this song, I've always loved it. Had a particularly strong sense of it on a road trip once, and have always felt that it was a companion piece to a "It's Alright Ma..." While the language seems to obfuscate the point, the mood is crystal clear, and the world weariness comes through like a bell. So, also, does the hope. I think a lot of people's tendency is to assume that Dylan is cynical, and I think this damns peoples' reading of him (not saying you're doing this at all, btw. I'm just blathering). There's a quote in the packaging of the new Bootleg Series in which Dylan says something about the distance between hope and despair (or was it despondency) being awfully small. And I think people always worry about taking him at his word on this. He is a writer of hope, and it comes through in this song in the oddest of ways, mostly by contrast.

Anyway, good stuff. Keep it up.

Tony said...

j.d., that avatar is hilarious - I don't know if it was meant to be, but it put a smile on my face. I'm quite jealous of you, believe it or not. That Visions of Johanna that you mentioned? I had the same feelings about it you did, but that was 10 years ago. Like I said, that feeling of discovery is a rare bird indeed.

nyco, thank you for mentioning Rimbaud here.Sorry to correct you, though, but the line is "there are no truths outside the gates of Eden". A small but important difference.

rob!, good to see you back here again. Yeah, I see where you're coming from re: this song, and it is definitely no easy pill to swallow for a neophyte. But, to me, it's the Band-Aid theory - pull it right off and get it out of the way. If you can take a song this out there, something like "Absolutely Sweet Marie" will not faze you one bit.

don, thank you for the kind words. I also believe that Dylan is more hopeful in his music than people tend to believe. To me, whenever he wields his cynicism, it's from a place of hurt or sadness. And, deep down, I believe Dylan's really a romantic at heart.

Nyco said...

Me again. Just to say, that it makes me really excited to see that there are a lot of people that get as excited as me about bob dylan, it really makes me want to cry. I'm from mexico, and there are not many dylans fans around me.

andrew! said...

I run a store, & instead of listening to the radio, I make a playlist on my ipod of music that I think wouldn't offend the average customer. Every now & then, though, a song will come up that I thought was relatively banal & there will be a couple of old ladies in the store & it will be really quiet & lyrics like "all their sexless patients are trying to blow it up". Other times, I'll be listening to a Dylan bootleg in my car with my wife in the passenger seat (who really doesn't like Dylan much) & it completely changes the way I hear a song. If I try to hear these songs through someone else's ears sometimes I recognize the absurdity of it all, with his voice & his lyrics. Other times, I'll shake my head in amazement that she can't see the brilliance of it. This song is a perfect "litmus test" as you say. It's like a dry Pinot Noir for someone who doesn't drink wine too much.

Rob Wadmore said...

Just found this Blog (hope there's someone still here!)
I first heard Bringing it All Back Home on Vinyl back in '76 when I was 19. When I put side 2 it was like an Epiphany...Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, Its alright Ma I'm only Bleeding....it was a heady brew for someone who'd grown up with the Beatles which was more about Melody. Suddenly I discovered the power of lyrics and imagery, then heard the Beatles in a different light. The culprit for all of this was Gates of Eden and Tambourine Man a close second.
These two songs still do it for me when I listen to them I go to faraway places.
So I was 19...then within a few months bought my first guitar and began my journey as a Musician and Song writer. Still on the Journey
Thanks Bob!

Moose said...

Andrew makes an interesting point. I'll listen to Dylan all day, but the second someone is listening along, I become aware of every vice imperfection and harmonica whine.

This song had always made me think about terrorism and fundamentalist views in general.

Unknown said...

The greatest ever. When I took my teenage son to a Bob Dylan concert I told him the only thing that might equal what we were about to see would be living in the time of Bach and watching him play the organ, or listening to Shakespeare read his sonnets, or Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address, but even those might not rise to the height of the bar that Bob Dylan set. I am so thankful to have been alive when an artist like Bob Dylan wrote and performed his music. It could be a very long time before there's another like him.

markjackson said...

A favorite of my Berkshire commune-dwelling hippie parents, played along with Baez, Ravi Shankar, and Ornette Coleman, with much pot-smoke wafting, in '67. I believe it endures because it contains prescient, intuiting of heavenly secrets. I think Bob's talking about Buddha paradises, the cycle of Samsara, and the play of karma and it's opposite, virtue, in earthly existence. The whole purpose of humans, boils down to the two stories the Greeks spoke of: you either live your unexamined life inside the gates of the village compound, or you go on The Hero's Journey and take that ship with tattooed sails, and head for the gates of Eden. The deepest explanation of all these things, after journeying through philosophy's western canon, vision quests, and all manner of searching, that I've found, to date, is in the book "Zhuan Falun." I think it's the manifesto of the Maitreya Buddha, and talks about what goes on inside the gates of Eden. Just my two cents.