Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #69: Pledging My Time

Having heard Dylan's numerous shout-outs to the bluesmen that captivated him in his formulative musician years, one can't help but feel a lack of surprise that Dylan would finally get around to the slow, crawling blues style made famous by Elmore James and Muddy Waters. "Pledging My Time" is Dylan's tribute to that loping, shuddering type of blues, his harmonica popping in at every free moment, the band whipping up a tight groove behind him. What the hell, Dylan even appropriated the riff from James' legendary "Dust My Broom" for the song (although he's hardly the first person to ever have done so). It's a remarkably faithful assimilation of this style, and yet it somehow feels like it belongs on this album, like the album's fabric works to turn it into another extension of the mini-universe, instead of a blues song that happens to be a part of the album, if that makes sense.

The first couple times I'd listened to Blonde on Blonde, I couldn't make it the whole way through - the music was just too overwhelming for me to take in all at once, and I hadn't listened to enough music in general, let alone Dylan, to be able to ride that feeling out to the end. So I'd start playing the album, grooving along, and then right around the midway point I'd have to turn it off. Thinking back on it now, I can't properly explain the feeling; there's a little bit of shame to it, but I also find myself bewildered, because it's not like I never liked the album or anything like that. Perhaps it's similar to that psychological feeling of nausea certain people can get around fine art, in which both the remarkable artistic qualities of the work in question, coupled with a massive sense of the history and time mingled into the proper appreciation of that work, causes a strange physical disorientation that can leave patrons utterly confused. It's a weird phenomenon, and a very human one as well - knowing that fine art has the capability to affect us both in soul and in body is pretty cool and a little humbling.

At any rate, because I really liked the album and yet couldn't quite bring myself to finish it (at first), I ended up listening to "Pledging My Time" an inordinate amount of times more than most of the album, and it's grown to be a favorite of mine. I've always loved that slow, grinding rhythm, a rhythm that could be heard in millions of bars in the South and was being exported onto an album that boho hipsters would blaze up to on a Friday night when they'd exhausted their repertoire of Sartre theories. I've always loved that crazed, siren-like harmonica note Dylan blasts out after the third verse, a squeal that almost sounds like some kind of cry for help. And I've loved Dylan's relaxed, sleepy vocals, especially the calmly casual way he delivers those two lines that serve as the chorus (am I the only one that first heard the song and always figured Dylan was supposed to sing "hoping you'll come through to...me" like a more conventional songwriter might? I mean, it doesn't work, but that "too" always seemed so abrupt). The song's almost too damn cool for the album it's on, and that's saying something.

Another thing I love about the song, and that I can appreciate about it now that my musical tastes have matured, is how perfectly placed the song is in the album's context. One thing that can be overlooked in assembling albums is the pacing of the album itself; I mean, it's not really a problem when you're Motorhead and your biggest concern is which balls-out rocker needs to go after the last balls-out rocker, but in general you really do have to worry about where the songs should go, what should kick things off, what should be the closer, and so on. Great albums have their own immaculate logic in the pacing, perfectly designed so that your mood is altered the way it's supposed to be altered, that you're not burned out by too many consecutive rockers or lulled to sleep by too many consecutive ballads, and that your interest is held all the way to the end. And I think Blonde on Blonde has that immaculate pacing, going from the drugged-out grunge of "Rainy Day Women" to the bump-and-grind "Pledging My Time" to the ethereal "Visions of Johanna" to the deceptively gentle "One Of Us Must Know" and so on down the line. A few jumbles in the tracklist could have thrown things off, but Dylan made no wrong steps here.

One last thought about the song: when you get down to it, Dylan is essentially taking a well-worn blues song structure, complete with blues elements like stinging guitar licks and wailing harmonica, and tacking on his own cryptic, off-kilter lyrics (although, when read, the lyrics to "Pledging My Time" are like David Mamet dialogue compared to the rest of the album). We all know that blues songs, while often showing songcraft and artistic flair the equal of any genre, tend to stay in a limited realm of lyrical subjects, generally either about death, hard living, or mean women. So what if Dylan had taken "Pledging My Time" to its natural conclusion, buoyed by his own love of the blues, and recorded an entire blues album with his own songwriting style? Is there any possible way that could have worked? What the hell - there's still time, to be frank. Somebody want to shoot Dylan an e-mail?

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8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dylan was already a master of the apparent contradiction that encapsulates life's contradictions, i.e., "I got a poison headache/ But I fell alright," and "Well, they sent for the ambulance/And one was sent./Somebody got lucky/But it was an accident." BLONDE ON BLONDE is filled with wonderful examples of his stoicism. A world weary fatalism, studded with specific detail, fills this brilliant work. Finally, while we know Dylan was suffering a lot during this time, the songs are virtually free of the usual singer/songwriter's self-pity.

Anonymous said...

CORRECTED: Dylan was already a master of the apparent contradiction that encapsulates life's contradictions, i.e., "I got a poison headache/ But I feel alright," and "Well, they sent for the ambulance/And one was sent./Somebody got lucky/But it was an accident." BLONDE ON BLONDE is filled with wonderful examples of his stoicism. A world weary fatalism, studded with specific detail, fills this brilliant work. Finally, while we know Dylan was suffering a lot during this time, the songs are virtually free of the usual singer/songwriter's self-pity.

J.D. said...

Interesting post. You aren't alone in noticing the idiosyncrasy in the way he delivers the chorus. That's one of the best things about Dylan, for me: everything he does is different from expectation. That delivery is a microcosm of his whole career, isn't it?

Which, along with your final comments, opens up an excellent question, and I'd love to hear what you and your readers think: will Dylan do another album of new material, and if so, when and what will it consist of?

joe butler said...

it would be very sad if dylan didn't record again. Although his oevre would be immense if he decide to retire. The whole persona he's developed of continual movement would suggest he's not done yet.
The narrative of PMT is worthy of comment; after the plaintive plea for a nights companionship the ambulance gets called, why so? what happened?
Tony bring on Johanna

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde rated & discussed

Moose said...

It long of stinks in a way reading this blog 4 years after the last post, but it's great in one sense, knowing that jd and Joe butler have gotten 2 studio albums, the witmark demos, and a great reworking of self portrait and new morning.

Moose said...

It sort of...

David George Freeman said...

Yes another piece of musical history explored. Done enough exploring? Then come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/492/Pledging-My-Time and listen to every version of every song.