Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #64: Queen Jane Approximately

The more that I listen to Highway 61 Revisited, the more that I find myself being drawn to Dylan's piano playing throughout the album - obviously, I'm bringing it up here because his piano plays a large part in the musical makeup of "Queen Jane Approximately", lending it a stately air to match the (to coin a phrase) vicious formality of the lyrics of the song. Dylan's playing on this song is a joy to behold - it serves as a glorious, mellifluous counterpoint to the more static organ being played and the forceful electric guitar strokes, sprucing up a song that could otherwise have faded into the album's background, so to speak. As I listen to the song right now, two thoughts spring to mind. The first is "why was Dylan's piano playing so hamfisted on those later NET shows, when he clearly can play better than that?" The second is a bit more relevant - Dylan's piano, in a way, helps explain why Highway 61 Revisited was such a great leap forward from its predecessor, and such an extraordinary album.

Of course, a lot of the reasons why this album is superior to BIABH stems from the songwriting - nothing on that album matches "Like A Rolling Stone", and the highlights here are every bit the equal of, say, "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Maggie's Farm". But another reason for that jump in quality is that, when it comes to that ethereal quality known as "album cohesion", Highway 61 Revisited has the advantage, and it's got it in spades. Part of that stems from being a full electric album, as opposed to the half and half aesthetic of its predecessor. But a much larger part, in my mind, springs from the fact that Dylan's songs, by virtue of both a lyrical and musical style that has been honed to perfection, sound more together here, like somehow their strength would be sapped if removed from the context of the album ("Like A Rolling Stone" being the obvious exception). This would be taken to its logical extreme on Blonde on Blonde, an album that might as well be a black hole (in a good way), but here the balance is perfectly struck, from beginning to end.

And Dylan's piano, given more emphasis here than on the last album, is an example of that sea change, in which the more rambunctious rockers have given way to something more adult, more mature, and yet more adventurous and exciting. That piano is everywhere, always mixed so that you can feel its presence, however Dylan chose to deploy it in the song in question. Sometimes the piano is riding shotgun to the song, like its role as counterpoint to Al Kooper's legendary organ riffs in "Like A Rolling Stone". Other times it gets more of a center stage, as when it kicks off and practically solos its way through "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues". But that piano pops up practically everywhere, and it lends the songs a gravity and weightiness that was missing from the previous album. That piano plays into the album's feel, and Dylan, to his credit, must have sensed that when recording the songs and pressed for more of a role for his main instrument of choice. It's little hunches like that that can take an album up another level.

So I used the phrase "vicious formality" earlier to describe the song's lyrics, and that phrase ties into just how adult and mature this album seems to be. Somewhat akin to "Like A Rolling Stone", "Queen Jane Approximately" features a narrator singing directly to a woman (although not as directly as "Positively 4th Street"), telling her that inevitably things will get hard for her (in particular, the second verse, with roses not smelling so sweet and her children starting to hate her guts), and asking/hoping that she will come to him when this occurs. Much like the aforementioned songs, as well as a few songs to come, the song's narrator does this with something of a sneer on his face - there's never any "if"s in the song, only "when"s, as though the crumbling of her world around her is an inevitability that somehow he can see but she can't. People like that tend to be a bit unpleasant, and that's where the viciousness comes in. And yet the narrator never outright comes off like an asshole, or says "it's all your fault, you b-word" or points fingers - he's merely stating what he feels will happen, like an oracle that doesn't so much see the future as make educated guesses that just happen to be right. That's where the formality comes in.

And that, then, is why I've described this song as "stately", along with the arrangement that allows Dylan's piano to lend its added gravitas. You do not have to look far to see the sympathetic Dylan, or the outright nasty Dylan, or the easily dismissing Dylan - especially not the latter, which plays so much into the legend of mid-60s Dylan. But a song like this, that never actually stands in any of those categories, is much more of a rare bird, and a cool tune to have. In its own way, "Queen Jane Approximately" is a microcosm of the entire album - an artist more comfortable with the style he'd adopted, a band playing to its strengths and creating a lovely backing track, a slower tempo to match the album's more mature viewpoints (I'll talk more about this in the next post), and lyrics that neatly incorporate Dylan's more poetic writing style into songwriting structures, managing to sound both distant and personal, cultivating Dylan's cult of personality while reminding us that, yes, the guy's human - after all, when Queen Jane finds that everything has gone wrong, it's him he wants her to see. Like many of you, I've wondered if Queen Jane was meant to be a real person, and I've always wondered if that person went to see Bob, after things came crashing down, and if she found the relief and comfort she was looking for.

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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

i love this blog

& Queen Jane was the unofficial queen of England for seven days in the 16th century

rob! said...

this song, in lyrical style, reminds me of "I Want You" in that the words to the verses are full of crazy, surrealistic/abstract wordplay, while the refrain is simple declarative statement--"Won't you come see me", "I want you", etc.

psteve said...

Michael Gray says in the Bob Dylan Encylcopedia, and I am pretty sure he's right, that Paul Griffin plays piano on Queen Jane. His playing is so wonderful (see Sooner or Later for another amazing example) and distinctive, it doesn't sound like Bob's playing at all.

Mark said...

Regardless of who plays piano on which songs (Dylan does the vast majority of it throughout), the point about it giving the album a cohesive texture is 100% on the money. I think Highway 61 Revisited is an album that almost begs to be listened to in album form, i.e. straight through. It's not that the songs are bad on their own. Depending on mood, I'll listen to any of them individually on a certain day. However, the songs build off of one another in such a great way that it's hard for me to separate them.

I've always thought it was a nice touch by Dylan to put one of his darkest and most bitter songs ("Ballad of a Thin Man"), in which the narrator has obvious disdain for Mr. Jones, next to "Queen Jane Approximately," where the narrator doesn't see the title character as somebody necessarily good, but he's going to be there when their world collapses. We've all got people like that in our lives. You might not like them all the time, but you're willing to be there for them to lean on anyway should they truly need it. Dark piano song followed by a "lighter" one. Always thought that was cool.

bokhara said...

I love what Tony is doing here - most impressive. Regarding the piano on H61R, I have always viewed that instrument as the driving instrument of this album, more so than Bloomfield's guitar. And I think this album - due to the piano being up in the mix - reflects the great influence Little Richard had on Bob. I think Hank Williams is and was the greatest influence on Dylan but musically Little Richard is a close second, IMO.

Pat Shuff said...

I've always heard this particular Jane as marijuana.

Ryan U said...

I agree with Pat. I've always heard this as one of Dylan's more straightforward songs. When life gives you lemons... smoke a j.

Anonymous said...

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

XZYOE said...

Bob said that Queen Jane was a man, but who knows whether he was telling the truth or not.

Anonymous said...

i tell you that is the 100% paul griffin sound on this song

Anonymous said...

only paul griffin could do the incredible ladder-up triplets from around 3:19 to 3:24. for the record, i am a piano-playing dylan fan named steve vitoff and i have covers of 35+ (!) dylan songs on my yt channel

Anonymous said...

Yep,
Paul Griffin plays piano on every track bar Ballad of a Thin Man.
As much of a genius as Bob is he wouldn't get close to this piano playing. I've been trying to transcribe this piano for ages but it's difficult to hear everything in the mix.
Griffin was an amazing session musician who managed to effortlessly mix different licks from country,blues, calypso styles in any one arrangement.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Griffin_(musician)