Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #62: From A Buick 6

I've had times on this blog where I've questioned some of Dylan's song choices on his albums, where it seems like he placed songs of inferior quality on his albums while casting aside more worthy efforts for reasons only known to himself. Occasionally I will catch some grief for it, because I've missed some sort of significance to the folk/blues traditions Dylan so steeped himself in, or because the song in question has more fans than I could have realized. Ultimately, though, those sorts of debates end up being meaningless, because we're basically arguing over history without any chance of changing it. And, as any of us are entirely aware, Dylan's catalog is essentially a history of his whims, of his instinct as a musician either burning red-hot or waxing ice-cold (i.e. most of the 80s), and of what he felt he could get away with at the time. That knowledge also renders arguments about his song selections moot - if Dylan had wanted "Farewell, Angelina" on one of his albums, he'd have put it on one of his albums, but he didn't, so there.

And then there are the times where seemingly inexplicable song choices make more sense when you know a little bit more about them. Case in point - "From A Buick 6", generally considered the weakest song on Highway 61 Revisited (though, I imagine, more by virtue of degree than anything else), fine song though it may be. One might suggest that "Positively 4th Street" or "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" may have enhanced the album's greatness more if they'd been in cluded, although that's hard to say. But it isn't like "From A Buick 6" takes away from that greatness; the song has its own high-octane appeal. And we all know how Dylan likes to play the bluesman - this is his way of indulging himself, letting loose with a churning three-chord attack, and needing a steam shovel to keep away the dead.

The history of modern blues is, for the most part, a history of newer bluesmen robbing older bluesmen blind, and Dylan has not been immune to the occasional pilfering from his heroes. This song bears the structure of an older song, Sleepy John Estes' "Milk Cow Blues" (not to be confused with another "Milk Cow Blues" - I almost laughed just typing that), although the stinging rock treatment is more or less Dylan's. One thing going for the song is the crack album band, many of whom have blues experience (including Michael Bloomfield, of course), and who contribute to a genuinely exciting backing track. The other is Dylan's infectious enthusiasm; you can tell he's having a grand old time tearing into lines about junkyard angels and sneering "she walks like Bo Diddley and she don't need no crutch". The lyrics aren't particularly anything special - when you get to the "four-ten all loaded with lead", it's almost like Dylan was playing Bluesman Mad-Libs - but Dylan's joy in singing them make them that much better.

It should also be noted that this song has a very interesting place in Dylan's canon - as part of the setlist of Dylan's very first electric shows in 1965, the tentative test-run for the 1966 spectacular. Again, one might wonder why this song got the preferential treatment in those early shows, especially when "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a song that everybody knew at that point, was left on the sidelines for over 20 years. An easy explanation is that Dylan's backing band, which was hastily assembled and not particularly well-rehearsed, would quickly take to the simple blues arrangement, needing only perfunctory rehearsal to nail down the song's ins and outs. After all, once the band picked up momentum, "From A Buick 6" dropped right off the setlist (replaced with "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" - why not go back in the archives and read my thoughts on that song again?), never to be seen again. But I like to think that Dylan, already nervous about his electric performances and the barrage of hostility he received at virtually every tour stop, wanted something familiar to fall back on while he was ironing out the kinks and getting his sea legs on stage. And "From A Buick 6", as classic a blues arrangement as there is, fit the bill quite nicely.

I've made mention any number of times about Dylan's lack of perfection on this site, how in many ways he was just a man with the same emotions as any of us. And even though he was pushing the envelope in any number of ways, reinventing what could and could be done in terms of "rock music", and challenging the notion that popular music couldn't have brains or ingenuity behind it, he still needed comfort in the middle of the hurricane, lest he completely lose his footing and go spinning into the void. A song like "From A Buick 6" was that comfort, and he utilized it both on his first all-electric album and on his first major electric shows. There's something kind of sweet about that, I think.

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10 comments:

rob! said...

interesting!

i have always wondered why Buick 6 was on here, instead of as you say 4th Street or Window, but now it seems to make sense to me--on an album so loaded with huge songs (sonically, emotionally, historically) its a nice break in the album to have something (relatively) simple and even a little goofy, right before diving into the heavyness of Thin Man, Queen Jane, etc.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion but we should be talking about the song after having heard it on one of the Bootleg Series releases because bottom line, it is a throw-away song and detracts from the album. If Positively 4th Street replaced it, Highway 61 would be held in even higher regard than it is--with Buick 6, it's not quite a perfect album.

joe butler said...

maybe dylan put this on the album as an antidote to all the "meaningful" songs that had poured from him up till then. in the same way he put out "self portrait" to send up all the critics and say my work isn't that important really. or maybe Grossman told him to do it.

James Brittan said...

i've always kinda liked Buick 6...to me it has always been the song on the album that explains "i don't know why these songs come to me and i don't know why i follow the trail that i follow....i wish i could unload my head, keep away the dead, and have someone that came from up the road (spiritual place) that understood me enough to sew me up with the 'thread' (wisdom) and lay a blanket on me".... looking for the soul who "don't make me nervous" and will "help me when i'm cracked up on the highway" and when i'm ready to "cross the river bridge" to an unfamiliar place...someone who is not just like the others who may want a piece of his fame or his intellect....someone who is real not fake, unaffiliated with the path he chooses (without need of a crutch) ...it's also almost like a questioning of "is this music going to be the end of me? artistically and literally?" i think it becomes very pertinent to the understanding of what Dylan was going through at that moment in time...in my opinion he may be rationalizing his art and it's new direction and describing it in yet another indirect and personal way...just my opinion..... with that said though, this is by far not the gem of the album, i think we all know that "it takes a lot to laugh" holds that distinction as the purest example of his musical transition (opening things up for further debate ;))

peace luv
b-sharpe

brunocat said...

My band (Dylan Dogs) is now developing a cover of this song.
What is really engaging in From A Buick 6 is the phrasing. The official version, IMHO, does not render enough this crucial aspect. A deeper insight of this song can be achieved listening to the Chuck Prophet's cover. IMO it is revealing.

brunocat said...

Sorry for a second comment...
Don't forget the sexual references expecially in the second verse:
"When the pipeline gets broken and i'm lost on the river bridge, I'm cracked upon the highway and on the waters edge (!),she comes down the troughway ready....!"

Justin Shapiro said...

I don't think H61R good be held in a higher regard than it is. While Positively 4th Street has the same great sound as the album songs, I think you could argue that it's not written in the same image-laden language.

Anonymous said...

Well, obviously it could be held in higher regard, anytime one of these preposterous lists is put out, it's in the running but never at the top (Revolver and others tend to beat it out). As far as lyrical style, granted it is a much more direct song without all of the stream of consciousness send up lyrics of the album. I just threw it out there because it was recorded in that time frame and is a song of the quality level of the rest of the album. Bottom line, you can rationalize it any way you want (and who can rationalize the sins of their hero better than Bob Dylan fans?) but the song doesn't measure up and is the clear weak link on the album.

Tony said...

rob, it does serve as a nice break. And I know that the song has its fans. Just about all Dylan's songs do.

Joe, I know you were goofing when you brought up Grossman, but I always wonder if he actually listened to Bob's albums, let alone had any decisions in the creative process. My guess is an emphatic no. Anybody with a handy copy of Behind the Shades want to get back to me on that?

James, that's a very interesting take on the song. I bet Dylan had many moments like that in this time period.

I hadn't thought about the song in terms of sexual metaphors, brunocat. Thanks for pointing that out - my squeaky clean mind tends to miss them. :p

Honestly, with a little bit of thought I can't really say that Positively 4th Street would help the album all that much; it just sounds a little too much like LARS without adding anything new. From A Buick 6 may be the weak link, but it still plays its own part in the album's cohesive fabric. And I'm amused by the notion of rationalizing Dylan's sins; look, I could rationalize Knocked Out Loaded all you want, but it's still just polishing a turd. If I do that here, it's for the sake of argument. Bob's great, but he ain't perfect.

Anonymous said...

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