Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #58: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

For a career as steeped in symbolism and "historic moments" and reams of interpretation as our man Bob's is, one could suggest that "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" has as much history attached to it as any other of his songs. First of all, he chose this song as the final song on his last album to feature acoustic-only songs for a good long while, a song that (to some) shows Dylan waving yet another farewell to folk music - only this one's at the end of an album, so it's the one that means the most, right? And secondly, this was a song he chose to play at his legendary Newport Festival 1965 set (not end it, as many think), where Dylan unveiled his electric music on a live stage and shocked the crowd, to the point where he had to come back out and play acoustic songs to placate his audience. And, again, that choice of song was seen as one more goodbye to his old folk audience, the Dear Jane letter written to his former lover as he moved on to his new mistress. I mean, you can't ask for more symbolism than that, can you?

On the Internet, there is an analysis that one man did of Dylan's Newport '65 set, where he listened to his tape of the set and made careful study of the crowd reactions to Dylan's legendary three-electric/two-acoustic headlining set. The author comes to the conclusion that the crowd was not, in fact, angry at Dylan for going electric, but for the brevity of his set and various problems with the PA throughout. He makes a compelling argument - and, if nothing else, I'd love to get my hands on the crystal-clear tapes he listened to in order to dispel the myth of what happened that day. What seems strange, though, is that there were so many people that wrote that the crowd booed Dylan, that there were actually arguments between audience members about what Dylan was playing, that Dylan was shaken up backstage and nearly to the point of tears, that he wasn't going to go back out until he was convinced to go if only to placate the raucous fans, and that (my favorite part) it was Johnny Cash that placed an oversized acoustic in his hands before he stepped back out on stage. In other words, if it's a fanciful legend that Dylan was ill-received at Newport, it's one with a lot of conspirators.

What isn't a legend, though, is that Newport 1965 was a turning point, maybe the turning point in Dylan's career, when he realized that there was no going back and he'd have to see his new music style out to the bitter end. And as we all know, that end was bitter indeed. It's fascinating to imagine that people could get so worked up about something that seems so unimportant today, to the point where they'd boo him, heap abuse upon his head, castigate him in the press, and even compare him to history's most infamous traitor. In a sense, there's something kind of cool about that - does anybody really care about music, or maybe even anything, to that degree anymore, where our passions could be inflamed by what we feel is a betrayal from a man who we believed not so much espoused our ideals as outright embodied them? Have we reached a level of ironic detachment where we only yawn and sigh when something that ought to hit us that hard comes and goes? And yet, on the other hand, there's something a little scary about the whole thing - I mean, it's really just music, for God's sake. If you get that worked up about a guy who played folk music about Issues switching to electric music about, uh, Not Issues, I'd hate to see how you'd react to something really important. It's a funny double-edged sword, and it says a lot about Dylan's performance at Newport that it's even a subject of debate.

"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", to many people, anticipates that debate, and lets down his old audience as gently as it can. One thing I've always noticed in Dylan's more out-there lyrics is that the imagery is always a little frightening and off-putting; it's not like he's singing about unicorns or teddy bears or things like that. I mean, that verse about "seasick sailors" and "the carpet, too, is moving under you" is enough to make a person a little worried, wouldn't you think? And maybe that's the point of Dylan's songs - by being so forceful and a touch spooky in the words that he sings, he's trying to impress them more in your head, and (more importantly) force you to think long and hard about them, creating your own interpretations and theories and what have you. In this case, the leap is somewhat easy; all the imagery seems to be pointing towards a world constantly in flux, including the narrator himself, and all you can do is strike another match and go start anew. And if you don't, you'll be inevitably left behind.

I find myself wondering occasionally about what Dylan must have been thinking about, standing on that stage at Newport, letting loose with his wild electric music and announcing that the Dylan of the Times cover was gone for good. Maybe he had a bit of sadness in his heart at the audience and friends he was leaving behind, or maybe he felt the guitar in his hands had the same power as a machine gun (as per Todd Haynes' cinematic interpretation). And I wonder how he must have felt stepping back out on stage with an acoustic, hearing the roar of a crowd that not only loved him, but (maybe) loved seeing him with that acoustic, singing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and knowing that that crowd didn't care what he was singing but only that he was singing it in a way they could appreciate. Maybe he really wrote the song with the interpretation so many have afforded that song in mind, and maybe he saw the faces of the people he was addressing that song to, people that had helped build up his career, placed him as the leading light of a musical movement, and watched in numb horror as he turned his back on everything they care about. And, at that moment, he must have felt something very few of us will ever feel in our lives, and something I pray to God that I never will.

And that's it for Bringing It All Back Home! Coming up next, Highway 61 Revisited, and a song that a couple of you readers may have heard before. And believe me, that post is gonna be epic.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

7 comments:

rob! said...

a beautiful song. i have a version of it he did on what sounds like a British TV series from around the same time that's even better than the album version (if possible).

interesting how, depending on his moods, Bob can tell an audience something they might not want to hear--this song is a firm goodbye, but its gentle and reserved.

unlike Positively 4th Street, which has a similar message, but is much more of a f**k you.

joe butler said...

this song, alongside the move to electric, the speech at the tom Paine award ceremony, the change in clothes fashion, and the end of the affair with suze, can all be interpreted as a break with the old left. Van Ronk said dylan was either not interested in politics or he had a deeper understanding than anyone imagined.
http://joebart.blogspot.com/2008/04/its-all-over-now-baby-who.html

Cody said...

I liked that you focused your post on the historical aspect of the song and how it was significant to the point in Dylan's career rather than analyzing what certain lines or lyrics might mean. Not that I don't like reading that kind of stuff, but this is one of those songs that you just can't do that with.

Great post, and I can't wait for Highway 61 Revisited. There will be some very interesting posts for that album, I'm sure.

drowningtoo said...

I have four versions--studio, Live 66, Live 75, and a 1995 bootleg from a concert in Prague. I love them all, even listen to them back to back to back to back at times. Prague in particular make me weep--Clinton Heylin wrote of this performance that it was "filled with sorrow for the human condition."

Mike said...

Joe quotes an interesting obervation by Dave Van Ronk. Personally I go for the "deeper understanding" although we make of Duylan's lyrics what our own life experiences bring to them. Hence:
http://mike-servethepeople.blogspot.com/2006/12/its-all-over-now-baby-blue.html

Gronk said...

I've never, ever listened to this song and thought about Dylan's move to electric; always seen it more as a more sympathetic companion piece to "Don't Think Twice". I can only see about 2 lines in the whole song that could even refer to his leaving the folk movement behind.

Who is this orphan, "crying like a fire in the sun"? (A wonderfully evocative image, one of my favourites in all music.) Who's the empty-handed painter? Any ideas, anyone? Or are we all a bit hung up on the idea that Dylan is basing one of his most mysterious and transcendental songs solely on his personal experiences?

Anonymous said...

I think the farewell to the folk music fans is most likely. The orphan with his gun is him with an electric guitar. Likewise, the ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming from Hey, Mr Tambourine Man. It doesn't matter anyway, it's really amazing imagery and Bob won't tell us it means anything other than what it says.