Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #61: It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry

Of all the pleasures that I have in my life, taking the Amtrak from Washington, DC to New York City has to rank pretty high on the list. Express, local, it doesn't matter; few things are as relaxing and soothing as sitting in a train, watching the scenery fly by, being gently swayed by the motion of the train running along the rails. I suspect I'm not alone in this, either. Even in our modern society, there's something romantic about trains, an anachronism that still feels integral to our culture. On top of that, with airline travel becoming less and less pleasant an experience these days, that gives taking the train added cache - no unpleasant security checkpoints with the shoe removal and laptop scanning and all that, or shaky takeoffs and landings, or (at least, for me) the unpleasant feeling of claustrophobia from being in a confined space 20,000 feet in the air. And, speaking just for me, there's something historical about riding in a train, knowing I'm having an experience Americans have had for over a hundred years. I kind of like that.

"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (possibly the best song title Dylan ever came up with) gives me that same relaxing feeling - digging into my trusty satchel of music critic terms, I find that "stately" works best for this tune. Listening to the outtakes of this song, it seems incredible that Dylan would even consider any other arrangement, so perfect is the slow and lovely tempo that he took for the master take. The outtakes, sped up to a more rock-ish BIABH style, has a certain charm, but nothing approaching the final version. Dylan's piano clangs along beautifully, guitar licks punctuate every line with panache, and the bass (the song's hidden attribute) thuds and skronks in the background, holding down the fort while barely being noticed. And Dylan rises to the occasion with a fantastic vocal, adding both a sense of gravitas and a wry twinkle in his singing, absolutely nailing elongated notes like "boss". Highway 61 Revisited might be Dylan's high point as a singer, and this is evidence of that.

Another element of the song that makes it so good are the lyrics, and it's again worth looking at the outtakes to see how the process of reaching a final take can be arduous and yet so worthwhile. Looking at the lyrics to the No Direction Home version, you can see that they're quite different, sometimes only marginally so, but certainly enough that you can spot the differences. And even the smallest differences - switching "sun" and "moon"'s places in the second verse, for instance - have a quantifiable effect; I may be wrong, but somehow it just works better having the moon shining through the trees and the sun coming down over the sea, instead of vice versa. And the glorious "flagging down the Double E's" line is not present in the outtake, replaced by a line about ghost childs and madmen that seems out of place in the master version's gentler tempo (although, perhaps, not as out of place in the faster tempo of the outtakes). It's little things like that that can affect the way you listen to a song, even after the fact.

What is surprising to me, listening to the song today, is how I cannot think of the song with any other tempo than the album version's steady propulsion, which affects how I hear any other versions of the song, outtakes or in concert. Perhaps the closest to the album version is his rendition at the Concert for Bangladesh, with the same measured and low-key feeling, thanks mostly in part to a bare-bones backing group. Otherwise, you have live versions that lean more towards either speeding up the song or slowing down the song, both to deleterious effect. For example, the Rolling Thunder Revue version is a rare example of that group's kitchen-sink mentality actually harming a song, with the massive arrangements that suited "Hard Rain" overwhelming "It Takes A Lot To Laugh", drowning the song in explosive brassiness. And the modern NET versions, slowing the song down to a bluesy crawl, suck out the tune's inherent momentum, that steady propulsion I was talking about. Dylan's always been a great re-interpreter of his own material, but here's a song that doesn't need to be touched.

I wonder, then, what it was that made Dylan abandon his original tack of recording the song fast ("Phantom Engineer", the version of the song played at Newport, was also speeded up) and try the route that led to the master version. Was it just a general dissatisfaction with the quick tempo that marked the original, a realization that the song wasn't working out that way, even though the outtakes are certainly nothing to sneeze at? And if so, how did Dylan reach that exact tempo, effectively changing a rock/blues song into a waltz, and finding the perfect arrangement to fit the lyrics? Questions like that don't really have an answer, I suppose, but they do help to paint a deeper picture of the man as a performing and recording artist. Not everybody can take a good song like "Phantom Engineer" and turn it into a great song. That, as much as simply writing great songs by themselves, is the measure of a musician for the ages.

Author's note: EBDS will be taking a Thanksgiving break until next Monday. Have a happy holiday, and thank you once again for reading my humble little blog. Take care, everyone!

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8 comments:

Justin Shapiro said...

The chronology of the studio session information could prove me dumb, but I always thought that Phantom Engineer split into two songs: the ITALTLITATTC lyrics were given the new waltzy arrangement, while new lyrics were written for the music and became From A Buick 6.

That kind of mitosis is a neat trick -- you kind of see something similar with the Time Out Of Mind outtakes we've just been allowed and a bunch of different songs emerging from Dreamin' Of You and Marching To The City.

rob! said...

i usually like songs fast, and if there are two versions of a given song, i prefer the faster one (Forever Young being a good example)

but i agree with you, to me the best version of the songs is this one, with its perfect, laid-back tempo.

as good as the lyrics are, my favorite part of the song is at the very end, when we hear those seven plunks of the piano keys--there's something about that sound that gets me every time.

happy thanksgiving EBDS!

save said...

A Great side note which certainly can't be ignored with respect to the song is Steely Dan's first album titled appropriately enough "Can't Buy A Thrill"...Dylan, strikes again.
Happy Thanksgiving all...

C60 said...

The middle verse finds its genesis (at least in the Dylan canon) with Dylan's "Rocks and Gravel," which was recorded for the Freewheelin' sessions and appears on the Gaslight Tapes. Here are the "Rocks & Gravel" lyrics:

Don't the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea,
Don't the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea,
Don't my gal look good,
When she's comin' after me?

joe butler said...

the song is just one long sexual metaphor. up all night-if i dont make it-comin after me-etc

what the hell is a double e ?

Justin Shapiro said...

It's a train, innit it

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited rated & discussed

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