Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #39: Spanish Harlem Incident

In a funny way, if Another Side of Bob Dylan is meant to be Dylan's transition album from the straightforward and simple to the wild and poetic, "Spanish Harlem Incident" is an actual transition song, where you see Dylan with one foot in the surreal world of the Electric Trilogy and one foot in the more conventional lyrical styles of the acoustic albums. That would be enough to make the song an interesting listen, but it's also incredibly charming to listen to; even if Dylan wasn't singing to anybody in particular, the lyrics are so captivating that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was. There are some Dylan songs that I wish he'd taken a pair of scissors to, but this is the opposite; "Spanish Harlem Incident" could have been a minute longer and I'd enjoy it just as much.

I try not to talk too much about Dylan's guitar style because it tends to go over my head and I'm a novice at the instrument (even after over a decade of playing), but Dylan's playing on this song manages to be quite interesting indeed. He plays a nifty little cascading riff after the first and second verse that adds to the song; in a musical sense, it adds to the swirling, mystic feel of that gypsy gal dancing in the streets of Harlem. Short of bringing in a flute player or some violins or something, that's as close to a band feel as Dylan's acoustic songs really get, and I appreciate the flourish Dylan brings to the song. Simply bashing out the chords (as is his occasional wont) wouldn't have suited the tune.

But it's the lyrics, of course, that are the real draw, and you can see that all the Rimbaud, drugs, and change in attitude had paid off; Dylan could paint a picture with words before, but never has the picture looked so blurry and dreamy. You can really see the gypsy's feet on fire as she reads his palms, see the narrator's pale face reflected in the moon of a dark night as he stares at those flashing diamond teeth, and hear those drums rattling somewhere in the distance. I'm still not entirely sure what "cliffs of your wildcat charms" is all about, but it really does sound beautiful, does it not? Dylan really captures the feelings of first love and romantic infatuation in those three verses, and does it in a way where those feelings manage to feel even more ethereal than they actually are.

Love stories come in all different shapes and sizes, but the general gist behind them is almost always the same: some ineffable, indescribable attraction developed between two people, and then good things happened. Let's leave aside the "friends becoming more" scenario, because the never happens in real life. Nobody ever immediately falls in love with a person in a rational or logical sense; I seriously doubt you've met somebody and thought "well, that person's genes would intermingle well with mine to produce children both intelligent and attractive; perhaps if I procure this lady's telephone number we could have further liaisons leading towards sweet matrimony", and if you have, I feel sorry for you. Love is many things (a burning thing, a many-splendored thing, hell, etc.), but one thing it generally isn't is rational or logical. We all have a general idea of what makes the perfect mate for us, but rarely do we ever get that; if I found a woman that liked the Red Sox, Dylan's 1966 tour, Clerks, Mikhail Tal's chess games, and Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, I'd either think I'd died and gone to heaven or she was a cyborg sent from the future to kill me. For the vast majority of us, in general love comes first, and then you sweat the small stuff like whether or not the person you've fallen for likes Scorcese films and walks on the beach.

"Spanish Harlem Incident" brilliantly captures the illogical side, the one that sees something beautiful and reacts accordingly, with no thought of "is this woman right for me?" or "will she feed me when I'm sick?" or other such legitimate concerns. After all, flaming feet a-burning up in the streets won't help pay the water bill, pearly eyes don't care if your back needs a massage, and flashing diamond teeth aren't gonna decide if you can afford law school for your 2nd child when you've still got at least a year of mortgage payments due. Those images will, however, inflame your heart with passion and set your mind spinning with lust and desire. Any song that reminds me of those feelings is a song I'm going to hold on to.

PS: Remember the very last post where I talked about Dylan sounding inebriated on "Black Crow Blues"? It's even more pronounced here; if anything, Dylan sounds like he's in a controlled state of sleep, which actually helps the song - his sleepiness adds to the ethereal unreality of the song, as though he's in the middle of a dream and singing out what he sees in the midst of the REM stage. I chose the previous post to talk about drunkenness over this one because this song had something more interesting (to me, at least), to talk about. Just FYI. Read more!

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #38: Black Crow Blues

A quick note: Before I continue with my Another Side of Bob Dylan series, I want to make a promise to you, the readers. From the next post on, I'm declaring a moratorium on any comments on how much more enjoyable, looser, and freer this album us compared to its immediate predecessor. I don't wish to insult any big fans of that album (I happen to like a number of songs on it myself, as you may have read), and continually saying how less dark and monochromatic Another Side is will certainly be boring and repetitive to both you and I. So that is my personal guarantee.

That being said (don't you just love that phrase? It absolves me of so much guilt for what I'm about to say next), songs like this underline the major difference between this album and The Times: songs this loose and charming would have had no place on The Times. Dylan, playing the piano in the same ham-fisted style we grew to know and tolerate around Dylan's 2002 concerts, rolls through an approximation of a blues song, featuring the pining for a lover segment, references to a highway, and the well-worn "repeat the first line of a verse" technique. In a way, this song feels like a distant cousin to "Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)" - or is that the other way around? - both in its tossed-off feel and in the way they appropriate blues chord progressions to make something a little fresher and even a little funnier. And this song is funny, or at least funny's relative clever, with lines like "Well my wrist was empty, but my nerves was tickin'/Tickin' like a clock" that you can't help but like.

One thing about this song that interests me is that (and maybe I'm just attributing something that isn't there) the released take shows the effects of all that wine Dylan drank during the all-night session for the album. First of all, even granting Dylan's lifelong rudimentary piano technique, Dylan constantly makes mistakes pounding on the keys, much like you'd expect somebody with a bit of alcohol in his system. Second, Dylan's voice (to me, anyway) sounds a little thick as he rambles through the lyrics; I will say that he doesn't outright laugh like in the previous song, which to me was a sure sign that either Dylan was a little sloshed or there was a circus clown juggling for him in-studio or something. Either way, the song definitely feels rough around the edges, like it was just some rough outline Dylan had been messing around with that he decided to flesh out right then and there. We know that's not the case, but it still comes off that way, and that adds to its refreshingly DIY feel.

It's interesting that so much has been made about Dylan's mind-melting drug use during the mid-1960s, especially the effect it had on his songwriting and his album sessions (most noticeably Blonde on Blonde, which had a recording schedule impossible to get through without being right fucked up). But I always wondered why nobody has made more of a big deal about Dylan drinking his way through the sessions of Another Side of Bob Dylan. Leave aside the fact that this was supposed to be a major release from a major recording artist on a major label. We all know that drinking does funny things to a person, either in a good way ("you know, I really feel like we're brothers, man!" *weeping*) or bad ("you sat in my favorite bar stool, you asshole!" *punch*). So how is it that Dylan was allowed to bring in a few bottles of Beaujolais, pound them back during the sessions for a Columbia Records album, and be allowed to have the results committed to wax and shipped out to distributors? It makes very little sense to me; I'm not complaining with the results, but there's just something strange about the whole thing.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it; drugs and alcohol have always been part of rock and roll sessions, Dylan DID manage to complete a whole releasable album in one night without firing a gun in the studio or threatening his producer's life, and there's no denying that the drinking helped fuel the looseness that makes the album so lovable. All the same, there's something remarkable and kinda funny about the fact that Dylan can get loaded through an album session and nobody seems to either notice or particularly care. There are so many walks of life in which drinking is absolutely discouraged (the second you hear your taxi driver slur, you're getting the hell out of that taxi), it's always hilarious when there's a profession in which drinking/doing drugs is not only not discouraged, but kind of expected by society. What the hell, maybe it makes music even better. Read more!

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #37: All I Really Wanna Do

the colors of Friday were dull / as cathedral bells were gently burnin / strikin for the gentle / strikin for the kind / strikin for the crippled ones / an strikin for the blind

-Bob Dylan, 1963


As the time to start Another Side of Bob Dylan approached, I had a conversation with fellow uber-fan and long-time commenter Justin Shapiro about the triumvirate of acoustic albums that launched Dylan into the public consciousness, a triumvirate not as well-known as his electric triumvirate but nearly as strong musically and in terms of his career. I can't remember how Justin summed them up (it was better than mine, for the record), but my way of thinking of the 3 albums is Dylan's musical equivalent of Freud's 3 sections of the human consciousness. In this metaphor, Freewheelin' would be Dylan's best of both worlds ego, The Times his stentorian super-ego, and Another Side his blissfully uncontrolled id. This is a simplification, of course, but it seems to work pretty well - especially when it comes to Another Side, the end of Dylan's acoustic period and the key to what lay next in Bob Dylan's career.

The months between the release of The Times They Are A-Changin' and the recording of Another Side were as tumultuous as any in Dylan's life. The death of JFK, commemorated in the lines of poetry that began this post, had an obviously profound impact on Dylan, as seen in the now-infamous ECLC Tom Paine Award dinner speech where Bob said he saw a little of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. In the months afterward, Dylan met Alan Ginsberg and Carl Sandburg, drove across the country "talking to people in bars", ended one relationship (with Suze Rotolo) and started another (with Nico), began his walk down the dark corridor of extensive drug use, and - oh, yes - dramatically revamped his style of lyricism to match the more personal, introspective style he was writing about at the time. The stark clarity and monochrome us-vs-them words of The Times were gone, replaced with wild imagery, poetic phrases, and a dearth of issues-related writing. The Dylan that entered Columbia Studios on June 9th, 1964 was about a million miles away from the man that peered down at us, stern and serious, on the cover of his previous album.

And the album that Dylan of 6/9/64 created is as interesting as any he'd ever record, if not as good. It is an album without clear direction, without a unifying thread, full of amazing songs and somewhat less than amazing ones, practically carrying the weight of his career up to that point on his shoulders. Recorded with a couple of bottles of wine floating in his system, it bears the loose spontenaity that Dylan would bring to his official albums through his whole career. The lyrics are as outright poetic as he'd ever get, with less of the crazed, strung-out absurdity that marked his next few albums, but just as cryptic in many ways. And, as some Dylanologists have asserted, there are coded messages galore throughout, potshots at critics, the folk movement, and anybody Dylan felt like lashing out towards. The album is so rich in so many ways that you could almost excuse Bob for not including "Mr. Tambourine Man", with or without Bruce Langhorne's accompaniment, or "Mama, You Been On My Mind" (but that's just my personal opinion - it's impossible for me to love the song any more).

To me, after living with The Times for a month, Another Side feels like a breath of fresh air, an album that is allowed to open up and breathe without the weight of history and Important Issues resting on its back. As we all know, things were not so easy for Bob when it was released; the folk press castigated him for turning his back on the movement he'd done so much to advance, and the record-buying public didn't take to the album as much as his last two. Another Side has always been a challenge from a historical standpoint, not quite good enough to be in Dylan's galaxy of masterpieces, but far too good to simply be consigned to the dustbins like Down in the Groove. Some praise it as a creatively strong bridge between Dylan's acoustic and electric self, others see it as a simple transition album that holds only weak interest outside of its historical importance. It's a pretty hard album to properly contextualize.

Which is why I won't bother. Another Side has a ton of great songs on it, songs that I return to over and over again in their various incarnations, including the ones on the album proper. It's fun to listen for clues to who Dylan was giving the finger to, but it's just as fun to simply listen to the incredible lyrics to "My Back Pages" and "To Ramona". And, in the end, it's very satisfying to think about how long and hard the road was for Bob to reach this point, the pitfalls he avoided and the barbs he had to dodge, to reach the point where he could write music for himself that he knew he would enjoy listening to and singing on stage. As much as any in his career, this is a Bob Dylan album for Bob Dylan, and that's very cool indeed.


It makes sense, even if Dylan didn't mean to do it, to start this album off with "All I Really Want to Do", both the most playful song on the album and (if you believe some people), the most meaningful as well. "It Ain't Me, Babe" would've served the same purpose, but it feels right as a closing song, and I don't think it'd work as well as an opener. "All I Really Want to Do" lets you know right off the bat that things are taking a 90 degree turn from The Times - it's silly, playful, and delivered with the aural equivalent of a smile on its face (Dylan desperately tries not to crack up during the take, and finally loses it on the final verse). I mean, how can that "all I really wanna do-ooooooooooo" not put a smile on yours?

So, good ol' Wikipedia relates two of the possible "ulterior meanings" behind this song, which on its surface seems like a sweet little tune about a guy telling a girl (or vice versa) that he wants to keep things simple and just be friends, instead of having to deal with a billion headaches or make things more complicated than they should be. Actually, if you read the lyrics you could use them as the basis for justifying a one-night stand - especially the "I don't wanna meet your kin" line - and who knows, maybe Dylan thought that way as well, but didn't feel comfortable outright saying it in those more innocent times. You know what? Let me go ahead and advance a theory that may or may not already have been advanced, but I thought of just this second: Dylan wanted to parody songs like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Puppy Love" and treacly crap like that by taking the songs to their logical extreme, making a goofy paean to platonic love while actually winking and nudging us at the same time. How's THAT for analysis, Paul Williams?

Okay, sorry about that. So the first theory about the song is that Bob's singing to his listeners, telling them that he's not going to do anything more to the audience (i.e. lecture or proselytize to them) other than be friends with them. That's an obvious shift in focus, one that could only have been brought about by the crazy times Bob had just gone through, and seems rather likely as an interpretation. If nothing else, it speaks to Bob's frame of mind at that time, his withdrawl into more personal songwriting, and how easy it is to attribute a song like that to what we already know about the Dylan of 1964. The other theory, which actually seems equally plausible, is that the song is a parody of how men felt about the burgeoning feminist movement, making the amusing stretch that since women don't want to be put in boxes anymore, men will do everything they can to keep things platonic. Given Dylan's stance on women throughout his lifetime, it's not impossible to imagine him smirking as he wrote those lines.

You can have a lot of fun with these theories, or you can start a modest little online writing experiment in which you attempt to expound on these theories while also adding your own personal reflections on the songs being discussed (ahem). But you can take things a little too far and completely ruin your enjoyment of the song, to the point where you wish there was no such thing as Dylanology to get in the way of simply putting the tune on and letting it soak into your cerebral cortex. I mean, for any of you that have read Greil Marcus' infamous review of Self Portrait, think about Marcus' tortured metaphor about "As I Went Out One Morning" in regards to the Tom Paine Award debacle. While it's a cute little idea, and it serves to point out the larger theme (that Dylan's songs inspire that kind of introspection and deep thought), it also showcases just how much stuff can be pulled from our collective asses when it comes to these songs that we all love so much. To bring up Freud again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. We can occasionally forget that when it comes to Dylan's songs.

Thankfully, "All I Really Want to Do" is so upbeat, catchy, and happiness-inducing that no amount of esoteric theorizing can ruin my enjoyment of the track. It's obvious that Dylan enjoyed the song just as much (even though he can't play it anymore, because he has lost the range for that falsetto over the years), since his live performances always had that aural smile every time he sang the song. And after the oppressive attitude of the last album and its resulting pressures on Dylan's young head, doesn't it just warm your heart to hear him laugh on a song, like he's really enjoying himself and everything in his life isn't even there?

Bonus: A clip of Bob Dylan performing All I Really Want To Do at the Newport Festival 1965, from the "Festival" film (I think), complete with the uncomfortable "you know him, he's yours" intro that Bob probably must've chafed at hearing. Take extra caution to note the evil twinkle in his eye and subtle sneer on his face as he plans to ruin the lives of everybody in the audience with his demonic electric music from hell. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #36: Restless Farewell

Before I actually get into the post proper, I just wanted to point out how distracting it is every time Bob puts that emphasis on "farewell" every time he sings it in this song - not because it's a bad musical device, but because I can't hear it and not think of "Farewell Angelina", one of Dylan's great lost classics. Perhaps, like so many other things, that's just me.

So we reach the final song of The Times They Are A-Changin', and in true form with the rest of the album Dylan goes out on a quiet note (although not a somber one, thankfully). "Restless Farewell" bases its melody off of the famous Irish song "The Parting Glass", one of those "look back with a wistful smile" drinking songs that practically demands to be sung loudly in a pub in Dublin in the wee hours of the morning. The Pogues, on their widely-held masterpiece Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, gave the song a beautiful cover; so much so that it's hard not to hear "Restless Farewell" and wish Dylan hadn't given it the Irish touch with a band arrangement. Alas.

Dylan's song takes something of a similar conceit lyrically, with the narrator, full of beer and his memories, bids his friends a good night and heads home (hopefully not in a car - remember, kids, drunk driving is wrong). However, while "The Parting Glass" is more about fondly having one more beer with good friends before heading home to "the fair maid in the town/that sorely has my heart beguiled", Dylan's lyrics take on a more dramatic tone, as he moves from apologetic to sudden fist-shaking defiance at his enemies and his critics. In fact, the shift in tone and his unapologetic words are so disconcerting, it's hard to imagine that Dylan didn't have somebody directly in mind when he let loose with these words. When he sings "the dirt of gossip blows into my face/And the dust of rumors covers me", could he really not have someone specific in mind?

"Restless Farewell", a beautiful song and one of my favorites here, ends things on a very odd note, wrapping up an album of issues songs with a song about no real issue other than Bob Dylan (if you take him as the narrator, and it's hard not to). There's something preemptory about the way Bob sings the song, as though he's already expecting a bollocking and wants to gird himself psychically against it. At the same time, that final verse actually serves as a talking point, a rule of Fight Club, for the protest movement:

But if the arrow is straight and the point is slick
It can pierce through the dust no matter how thick
So I'll make my stand and remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn
A lot has been already written, here and elsewhere, about The Times They Are A-Changin' being Dylan's "protest" album, the one in which he makes dramatic, sweeping statements about the world that he sees and disapproves of, and the one where he spearheads the protest song movement whose sole purpose is to change things through music. The final verse of "Restless Farewell", with its strong pronouncement of self-assurance, shows that Dylan knows his position, and refuses to bend from it. Now, that sounds like a lot of pressure to me, and it would be insane to suggest that Dylan wouldn't feel that pressure in the turbulent year of 1963 (and, of course, we all know that he did). After all, the spotlight is bright on you enough as it is when you're famous, but when you're famous for being somebody who Says Important Things, that spotlight becomes even more glaring and pronounced. Plenty of people have wilted in that spotlight, and you would have forgiven Bob if he had as well.

Dylan didn't shrink from that spotlight; instead, he did something far smarter and moved into a different spotlight, one that he was more capable of understanding and basking in. True, that spotlight wore on him to the point where he retreated entirely into private life, but in the process Dylan became a better songwriter, a better performer, and far more interesting as a musician than he ever could have been if he'd stayed where he was. The first signs of that process came in the very next album, and would reach its zenith with Blonde on Blonde a few years later. In that sense, "Restless Farewell" was exactly as advertised - a singer clearly uncomfortable with his lot in life, bidding adieu to what had once been important to him, moving on to greener pastures. He might not have had that in mind when he wrote the song, but that's how powerful his great songs are - you can ascribe great things to his words, and you would not always be off base.

So that's the end of The Times They Are A-Changin'. Thanks to everybody for reading and sticking with me through the last month of writing. Coming up next time - something completely different. Read more!

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #35: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

I've always had mixed emotions about this song, not least of which because I used to dislike it in my earlier days as a Dylan fan. Back then, the lyrics felt treacly and clumsy (he rhymed "table" three straight times? Jesus!) and the emotional impact Dylan was shooting for sailed right over my head. These days, though, I've warmed to the song and now consider it one of the best of his acoustic era, just like most other Dylan fans do...with one major exception, which I'll get to in a second. I've grown to love that triplicate rhyme, which now feels to me like a hammer rhythmically striking a nail right on the head, and that marvelous chorus with its brilliant final line of "now ain't the time for your tears", and the way that Dylan paints a picture with his pen (like Norman Mailer) to put that horrible incident and resulting trial right smack in the middle of your cerebral cortex. Any number of people have analyzed this song and concluded that it is a high water mark in Dylan's career, and I will not argue against that.

But my mixed emotions now come from the fact that I know a little more about the circumstances of the song, and about the infamous William Zantzinger and his life before and after the writing of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll". The song's still a masterpiece, with language that curls and bends like the Mississippi River and a powerful command of words that builds to that final verse and the punch to the gut that is "William Zanzinger/with a six month sentence". But the man himself, held up as the scourge of all welcoming and tolerant mankind, has undoubtedly been slandered, even just a little, and that makes things a little tougher to get my head around.

Clinton Heylin, who has given me a mental workout as I search for synonyms for "curmudgeon", has reserved some particularly barbed words for Dylan regarding this song, stating that Dylan "verges on the libelous" by his portrayal of Zantzinger in the song. Whether or not that's entirely true, there are still elements of the song that make Zantzinger out to be some sort of demonic figure, and there are very few people actually like that in real life. His crime may not have been racially fueled - it's hard to believe it isn't, but work with me here - but he has now been branded as such for the rest of his life, and that is a label that is incredibly hard to shake. Just ask Mark Fuhrman. There's also the factor of Zantzinger's drunkenness, which we all know tends to put people in a different frame of mind, and while one could argue that that simply brought out his latent racism, one could also argue that it also brought out an entirely different man.

We don't know very much about Zantzinger, outside of his wealth and subsequent infamy, the crime he committed, and his crimes after the manslaughter trial. His wife, in one of the funniest and craziest possible defenses of him, said that "nobody treats his niggers as well as Billy does around here" (I mean, think about that!). But we don't really know the man, or how he lived his life prior to hitting Hattie Carroll with that toy cane, or what he's like around his house, or with his drinking buddies, or with his family. We only have a portrait from Dylan, a man who couldn't possibly have known any of those things either, and that isn't really sufficient. There's Zantzinger the real person, and Zantzinger the Dylan-created straw man, and nobody seems to be able to tell the difference anymore.

I'm reminded of the great baseball player Ty Cobb, who played during the turn of the 20th century and is regarded as one of the 5 best hitters to ever play the game. Cobb came from Georgia, and has more or less been branded a racist his whole life, often with good reason. He has also, according to some, gone out of his way to be helpful to black people, and went on public record as a supporter of integration in baseball. That begs the question of what made Cobb feel a certain way towards black people to begin with, one that obviously had to eat at him and make him question himself from time to time. He did, after all, grow up in a state where virulent racism has been rampant for centuries, in an impoverished area that had to foster even more hatred for blacks, and was basically surrounded with the idea that blacks were an inferior race. I don't know about you, but that seems to be hard to shake.

Look, everybody knows that you're not born a racist. Racism has to be injected into you, more often than not at a young age, and fostered in your mind until you're old enough that the feeling just stays there with only the barest hint of rhyme or reason. And it's not just your parents or family that can do that; society plays just as large a role in helping that hatred flower (Dylan makes that sort of point in "Only A Pawn In Their Game"; he does it better here, IMO). Obviously that can make hatred easy to explain away, and I don't want to do that; grown men and women are responsible for their actions and for the way that they feel. Still, it seems irresponsible to simply say "hey, you're a racist, and that's all your fault". It rarely ever is.

Part of what makes "Hattie Carroll" such an undeniable masterpiece is that it's so effective in making Zantzinger the straw man; putting the metaphorical devil's horns on his head. In those four poetic verses, you get the crime, the motive (or lack thereof), the sympathy, and the gutwrenching aftermath, and you realize how well Dylan managed to take centuries of suffering and conflate all that pain, anger, and oppression into a story of a murder in a Baltimore hotel. The other part of it, though, is the black and white (so to speak) painting of a hero and a villain, necessary because it makes things so much easier that way. Hattie Carroll might not have been a hero in the ancient sense, but she is definitely a sympathetic figure, and it makes painting Zantzinger as the pure villain all the easier. Perhaps it's a necessary evil, but it still doesn't quite feel right, like Dylan cut a corner somewhere along the way.

I'm certain I'm not telling you anything new or blowing your mind, maaaaan; I don't suppose I could, when it comes to a song like this one. There are chapters in books dedicated to this song, for the love of Pete - like trying to summarize King Lear, my effort will only be diminished by "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"'s majesty. All the same, it's worthwhile rolling these issues and thoughts over in my mind, even as I give the song yet another listen and marvel at how those sentences string together and create a whole story from start to finish as well as any screenplay about Hattie Carroll's death ever could. Songs like this one might not tell us a lot about Zantzinger (other than what we already believe), but they can tell us a lot about the man who wrote the song, and - I'm already cringing writing this, but it's true - about ourselves. Read more!

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #34: When The Ship Comes In


This would be my favorite political song on The Times They Are A-Changin', even though it would probably be considered the least well-known of the issues-oriented songs on here. I can't really tell you why - even outside the more ethereal "I just like it because I like it" reasons, there really isn't something that I can put my finger on. Maybe it's the fact that there isn't an overtly political stance behind the song; Dylan isn't being specific about which or whose ship is coming in, only that one is on its way. Maybe it's the gently inevitable clip that Dylan plays the song, with a beautiful mix of minor and major chords, as though his tempo is meant to match that ship cutting through choppy waters towards a port in a storm. Maybe it's the optimistic tone of the song, a beacon of light in the stark black and white shades of this album. Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that.

At any rate, I really do like the song a lot, and I think it's a bit of a shame that Dylan hasn't played the song live since Live Aid (and I still love that - a billion famous songs Dylan could choose, and he picks "When The Ship Comes In"). I wrote earlier about my feelings regarding the 1960s, but if there's a song that sums up that feeling of change being just on the horizon (other than, of course, "A Change Is Gonna Come"), it would be this one. There's such a feeling of hope that resonates throughout the song, both in that the old ways that have obviously failed will be swept aside and that something shining and new will come in to take charge. You can certainly think of the Weather Underground, or the brave people who staged sit-ins in Birmingham, or the college kids who went clean for Gene, playing that song on their turntables and nodding their heads in assent. It's no wonder that there's a YouTube video of Barack Obama scored to this song - I don't think seeing McCain photos with that song playing in the background would have the same effect.

Sadly, there's also a vein of after-the-fact irony that sweeps through the song, not just because change hasn't happened yet, but because of that "the whole wide world is watching" line at the end of the third verse, a phrase that took on much deeper and more tragic meaning a few short years later. A lot of people feel that Altamont was the end of the 60s dream, but I've always thought that that seems a little too convenient and pat (after all, people died at Woodstock too - true, not from being stabbed in the back with a knife) and that the 60s dream was more or less killed by the election of 1968 anyway. The real moment that rot set in, IMO, would be the Democratic convention in Chicago, when America got to see firsthand how wide the cultural gulf in this country really was, at the same time as the candidate most hated by the counterculture ascended to the party's nominee for President in an equally ugly process that saw walkouts and protests on the floor. With the knowledge that Humphrey and Nixon were your choices to lead the free world, could anybody be blamed for having pessimism set in?

For those that have read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, surely you'll remember the chapter where Hunter S. Thompson talks about the end of the 1960s, about how the burgeoning counterculture movement was like a massive wave cresting over the country, and how you could see the exact moment when the wave broke and rolled back, as the Old Order reasserted itself. I've always loved that chapter, even wrote about it for a website article once - not only is it as good a summation of the death of the 60s dream as there is, but it gives the book resonance beyond "hey, aren't people funny when they're fucked up on drugs and alcohol?" There's a remarkable emotion running through that chapter - both a gentle smile and chuckle at his own old optimism, as well as a wistful reminiscing about when that optimism actually didn't feel out of place. It's hard not to really feel that something different was possible, that things didn't always have to be the way they were.

I get that same feeling when I listen to "When The Ship Comes In" - even now, in this most cynical and irony-laden of times, when it feels like change just isn't going to come at all. I'm not an optimistic man by nature, but I still think that it's worth trying to make a change, to create a better world for all of us. And Dylan, in four verses of this song, saw that change, saw the lies our teachers/bosses/politicians told us melting away, saw the natural world gleam and shine to match the arrival of a new day, and saw a new generation taking its rightful place on the seat of power as the Old Order cowered and pleaded and begged, with imagery of the Bible itself serving as a lynchpin for his glorious visions. It may never have happened, but the visions remain glorious, all the same.


So I assume that most of you have seen I'm Not There, and I also assume that most of you were as surprised as I was when I heard that one of the six Dylans would be played by a young black boy who'd never acted in a movie before, Marcus Carl Franklin. Not only that, but Franklin would actually contribute a few songs to the soundtrack, and would be heard singing in the movie. Franklin has a pleasant voice, so that's no big deal, and he does well by "When The Ship Comes In". That, however, is not the issue here; the issue is the fact that, upon further reflection, I should have not been the least surprised by Franklin's casting in the movie, since (in the context of the "many sides of Bob" framing) it makes a great deal of sense.

Outside of Dylan's love of early rock 'n roll and Woody Guthrie, it seems pretty apparent that Dylan was a big fan of the blues, as evidenced in his early covers and (more or less) the entire Bob Dylan album. And, in the interest of making sure we're all on the same page here, the vast majority of blues artists - and, for that matter, early rock 'n roll artists - are African-Americans. It could be argued that modern music started with Robert Johnson, or with Jackie Brenston, or with Chuck Berry, all of whom are black men. And it's no stretch to imagine that just about every important white rock artist of the 1960s, from Jimmy Page to Paul McCartney to Eric Burdon, idolized and emulated African-American artists in their musical styles. Elvis Presley, who didn't feel that the white and black races should mix (a prejudice not unique to him, of course), gave African-Americans all the credit in the world when it came to music. So, in that vein, casting Very Young Bob as an African-American boy seems kind of right, a reflection of the records of the old, weird America Dylan steeped himself in on the road to New York.

I hope I'm not shocking anybody when I say that the emulating of African-American culture has been going on for many years now, occasionally to the point of embarrassment, and certainly to the point where the culture has been bastardized in uncomfortable ways. Lou Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" satirized this feeling (in the most vicious terms possible), while also subtly underlining the things that your typical white man, both ignorant and intelligent, might actually be jealous of in a black man. And we have any number of people that wish they could've been like Mike, or dress like T-Pain, or attempt to collect black friends like they're Hummel figurines or something. We even have any number of standup routines, both genius and terrible, that point out that hey, black people are real smooth and cool, while white people are dorky and awkward! Any number of people, both white and black, have made fortunes simply by hammering on this very issue; one wonders if Snoop Dogg even needs to release any more albums, as he has cultivated a personality of being so very much cooler than any of you white and nerdy folk.

The thing that seems strange to me, though, is that we as a society have taken this for granted; black people are cooler than us, and there's no getting around it. The question, then, is why? Why is this something that we accept as gospel truth? And why is it that the African-American "way of life", as defined almost solely by white people, is the one culture that is held highest amongst all of us, the Platonic ideal we all must strive for? Certainly, other elements of other cultures have been assimilated into what we consider "mainstream" (or as comedian Patrice O'Neal simplifies it, "white") culture, even in its most sterotypical form. Hell, I saw Korean barbecue mentioned in a Hanes commercial a while back! Nothing is safe from our media-saturated society, always desperate for its next fix...and yet the one fix always being joned for is another healthy dose of black culture, of hip-hop and "bling" and rims and cool slang and all the nonsense Cornel West probably has an apoplectic fit over when he hears about it.

I wonder if there's any real answer to the question of why black culture has emerged as the coolest of the cool. Maybe it's ever-lingering white guilt from the centuries of slavery (or "forced labor", whichever phrase floats your boat) that makes whites want to build up anything related to African-Americans, or even Africa itself, to gigantic proportions. Maybe it's the generations of whites and blacks intermingling that's given black culture the inside track, so to speak, in engendering itself to the way white America thinks about the world. Hell, maybe it's something as simple as "Miles Davis was a really cool sumbitch". I don't have an answer for it, and to be honest, it's probably not as big a deal as I'm making it here. But what the hell, when you've seen white people wear Fubu in your lifetime, and Malibu's Most Wanted actually made money in the theaters, it gets a man to thinking.

I would imagine that there was no real cultural notions in Dylan's mind when he emulated bluesmen of the past; he loved their music, it moved him, and that was that. Still, there is a lot of importance in the fact that it's black men like Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson to whom he owes a debt that he could never repay, and it's worth thinking about his legacy in that way. Dylan can never be a black man, but is it a stretch to think of him hammering away on piano under the name of Elston Gunn, or staring out the window of a train headed for Greenwich Village, or in front of a microphone about to sing "In My Time of Dying", and wonder if he'd wanted to be a Marcus Carl Franklin more than a Robert Zimmerman?
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #33: Boots of Spanish Leather


It's hard to believe that it's already been over half a decade since I'd graduated from college, and yet here I am, now able to look back on those years with the proper amount of gravitas and nostalgia (as opposed to, say, 2004, when all I looked back on was how much I liked waking up at 10, watching The Price is Right, then rolling into my first class of the day). I graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English, the prototypical "I have no idea what I want to do with my life" degree. To be honest, if the U of M had offered me a degree in basket weaving, I'd have jumped on that in a second; at least there would be a more fixed career path in the offing, pathetic though that career path may be. At least, with my English degree, I had a number of paths I could take and start from the absolute bottom with, since I didn't have a specialized degree. That's the college experience for you.

As anybody that gets an English degree knows, the vast majority of your time is taken up with papers - lots, and lots, and LOTS of papers. I achieved a certain mechanical grace by the end of my college career in terms of writing papers, to the point where I had an almost exact scientific formula, incorporating block quotes and big words and every possible trick in the book to earn at the very least a B, and occasionally (if all cylinders were firing) an A. That writing style, in many ways, is mirrored in the way I write all my recreational work, including this blog you're reading right now. So you've got my schooling to thank, or curse, depending on how you feel about my little scribblings.

One year, however, I found myself having to take a poetry course, as a prerequisite for my major. Let me state, for the record, that I have very little use for poetry on the whole. I can appreciate well-written poetry, and there are a few scattered pieces here and there that I think the world of, but the genre as a whole is not my cup of tea. The only poet, as a matter of fact, whose work I actually own is T.S. Eliot - partly because I read "The Waste Land" over and over during my poetry class to relieve some of the boredom, and partly because he actually practiced the sampling aesthetic nearly a century before Grandmaster Flash and the Dust Brothers helped pioneer the genre. Eliot's work is rife with allusions to past works, both famous works and his own poems, popular expressions of the day, and even lines lifted directly from other texts. It's pretty cool to see even now, and must've been mindblowing when first released.

Anyway, about halfway through the semester the class was charged with an assignment any poetry class attendee is probably familiar with - the poetry reading. Yes, we would all have to stand in front of the class and recite, direct from memory, a poem of our choosing from our textbook. Now, I've already mentioned that I'd been an open mic participant many times, including during my college years, and you'd think that any butterflies in my stomach had long since disappeared. But that was a different animal - nobody was grading my performances then (at least, not out loud), and a potential failing grade which would surely lead to my failing out of school and becoming a wino on the streets of Ann Arbor was not at risk during an open mic. I'm kidding, of course, but I sweated that assignment a lot more than I should have.

So I'm flipping through my gigantic textbook, wondering to myself if there's any chance I could get away with William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" without being failed on the spot, when I happened to flip to a section marked "Popular Ballads of the 20th Century". For whatever reason, through the numerous times I'd dug through my textbook during that semester, I'd either missed that section entirely or passed through it without any thought. This time, however, in desperation, I gave the section a more thorough once-over, hoping to find something I could easily memorize...and what did I stumble upon but "Boots of Spanish Leather".

Now, this was when my Dylan fixation had reached its glorious apex, where I was spending money on bootlegs, both straight purchases and B&Ps, devouring any books I could find on him (the school's library had an original printing of Ratso Sloman's Rolling Thunder Revue diary), and immersing myself in the man's music. I'd heard "Boots of Spanish Leather" a few times, and hey, it's Bob, so this should be no sweat! A quick visit to Napster (RIP, original version) got me a copy of the song, since I actually didn't have The Times They Are A-Changin' at the, uh, time, and I spent the next few days listening to the song over and over and over, along with reading the lyrics like a young Jewish boy reading the Torah in time for his Bar Mitzvah. I can safely say that, had I not found a Dylan song (of all things), I probably would've struggled to find a poem I could recite right to the very end.

The day came for my recital, and I stood in front of the class, eyes cast downward in concentration, and recited the lyrics to "Boots of Spanish Leather". I still remember rocking back and forth on my heels, occasionally shutting my eyes when a word was a little slow in coming, speaking in a slow, even tone. The lyrics, so beautiful and graceful in song, sounded a little strange and stilted as a spoken-word piece; sometimes the music can mean just as much to a song as the lyrics do. Finally, I finished the song, with maybe one stumble somewhere in the middle, and beamed as the class gently and politely applauded. My teacher applauded as well, a smile on her face, and I knew that I'd been saved by the divine providence of Bob Dylan being great enough to have a song of his printed in a freakin' poetry anthology.

I got an A-. I think Bob would've been proud.


Of the two Bob Dylan songs that use the chord structure of Martin Carthy's interpretation of "Scarborough Fair", "Boots of Spanish Leather" would actually be my favorite by the slimmest of margins. It isn't just because of the story I just told you (although that doesn't hurt in terms of warm fuzzy feelings); the song hits me in a more ethereal way, like I'm listening to a great romance film being transcribed into lyrical form. Anybody that's seen the play "Love Letters" knows that the play's central conceit very closely mirrors that of this song, which alternates letters/mash notes/what have you between two lovers, an ocean apart (in two different senses - see what I did there?) and slowly drifting away from each other, even though it takes the man a little while to realize this. Suze Rotolo, who actually has done a good job keeping herself from being sucked into the Dylan mythmaking vortex, recently affirmed that the song was about her, and her trip to Italy that crushed our young hero's heart. Given all I've written about this album's mood, it makes sense that such a brokenhearted lament would find its way here.

Ted Leo, who I've made mention of here before, named one of his albums The Tyranny of Distance, a reference to a Split Enz (of Neil Finn/"I Got You" fame) lyric, and that's the phrase that immediately pops into my head when I think about this song. That phrase, "tyranny of distance", is apt in so many ways when it comes to a relationship. From an obvious standpoint, nobody likes being away from the one they love, either in a physical or psychological sense - I remember times where I'd literally go weeks without contact from the woman I loved, and it was nothing short of Chinese water torture. There's a reason that most long-term relationships don't last; the farther away you are from somebody, the harder it is to keep your feelings for them intact and the easier it is to stray towards somebody else. That's just human nature.

Dylan gives us both the physical and psychological sense in this song; not only is the lady of the song heading to Spain to see the sights (and, one can imagine, to see los hombres guapos), but she's making it clear that she's over her man. Like one of Doyle's best Sherlock Holmes stories, the feeling that this relationship has reached its Waterloo slowly unwinds over six marvelous verses, the gulf between the two speakers widening and widening, until Dylan's narrator receives the fateful letter where she tells him "I'll see you when I see you, pal" and he knows that she's never coming back. It's hard not to feel for him at that moment - one can actually see in their mind a young man, letter in hand, slowly hanging his head in defeat. And it's also hard not to feel a little satisfaction when that young man pulls himself together, says "que sera sera", and asks for some nice boots as both remembrance, kiss-off, and (let's face it) quality footwear. It's almost a happy ending, in a way.

One more note: my fine friend Wikipedia points out that the famous last line of the song, where Dylan gives up hope of his love's return asks only for "Spanish boots of Spanish leather", is very close to a line from "Blackjack Davey", a folk song Dylan would later cover for Good As I Been To You, one of the two 90s folk albums that have more or less been forgotten due to Dylan's late-career resurgence. In the song, an outlaw named Blackjack Davey woos a young (very young, according to the lyrics - we're talking "put you on a list" young) maiden married to a richer man, and asks her to "pull off, pull off them high-heeled shoes/All made of Spanish leather" before she rides off with him; probably as a symbol of casting aside wealth for love, who knows. At any rate, it shows you how well-versed in old folk Dylan was even then (as though we needed another reminder), and how occasionally something will just stick in your mind, only to be regurgitated in a different form. Dylan has a way of doing that, doesn't he?
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #32: Only A Pawn In Their Game

Author's Note: This will almost certainly be the most controversial post of mine to date; I'm fully expecting criticism and vehement disagreement, and I'm psychically prepared for this (at least, I hope I am). In that sense, I'm doing things a little different - the criticism of the song proper will come first, followed by my usual charming (?) ramblings on what fancy the song has struck within me. Only this time, it's not exactly a fancy. Hopefully any criticism slung my way will be civil - it has been, so far, more or less - and I will make every effort to keep my responses civil as well. Life's too short.


Even today, it still comes across as unseemly to suggest that the white population of America, the majority of people living here (at least, for now) may have things as rough as any minority group out there. After all, anybody with half a brain and a basic curiosity can find poverty in the ranks of African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and so on. Our economy and social structures are built in a way where advancement from the very bottom is the exception to the rule, and most people that have nothing will almost certainly continue to have nothing, both from a financial and a social standpoint. Anglo-Saxons, from this standpoint, built this country and continue to run it in the way they so choose, and if you're not part of their group, you're an outsider. Chris Rock had an amusing punchline in this regard, speaking to the white members of his audience: "None of you here tonight would change places with me...and I'm rich!" Hilarious, of course, but a little telling; the follow-up is more to the point: "When you're white, the sky's the limit. When you're black, the limit's the sky."

This is a very simplified view of things, of course; that same curious person can dig up just as many examples of extreme poverty amongst white Americans, all across the country. Whites may have more chances to succeed in America, but those chances aren't always taken, and in some cases aren't even introduced. Think about Mississippi (where "Only A Pawn In Their Game" was introduced in public), a state whose antebellum wealth was almost entirely tied into slavery, and nearly 150 years later still hasn't entirely caught up; the state's per-capita income is the lowest of all 50. Public schooling is a joke there, industry is a weak presence, and many people struggle just to pay the rent. It is one of the few states where poor whites suffer as badly as poor blacks, and although it's an extreme example, Mississippi is hardly the only state where these conditions exist.

These conditions, if anything, were even worse 40 years ago, and Bob Dylan knew that. When Medgar Evers was shot in June 1963, his killing (and the resulting deadlocked trials of his KKK-member assassin) spoke volumes about the vast racial divide that existed in the 1960s and still exists today. Dylan could very easily have written a song simply about that, about centuries of slavery and of the collapse of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the vicious segregation that took place all over America for 100 years. That he didn't is entirely to his credit (there's enough white guilt to go around without him adding to it); that he chose to write instead about the man that felled Evers and the society that brought him to do it is also to his credit. The song itself isn't so great, but that's hardly the point, now is it?

What strikes me, 40 years after the song's release and its performance at the March on Washington (where, I imagine, its social importance outweighed any clunkiness in the song structure), is how Dylan wrote the song in a way that could actually come across humorously, simply because the rhyming structure is so ungainly and repetitive. Dylan's ever-constant hammering of the rhymes and odd tempo (there are moments where his lines are overwhelming the chord changes) make the song sound less serious than it should be, and this is just about the most serious song on the whole album. Dylan, who apparently had forgotten the subtleties that marked his best work on Freewheelin', fires away with a number of broad generalities - so every Southern politician rose to power on the back of the black man? And every poor white man is trained like a dog to hate blacks? Doesn't speak too well about the intelligence or independent thought of poor white men in the South, now does it? Surely not every man or woman in Alabama or Louisiana was born with strings attached, waiting to be just another puppet?

It is certainly no stretch of the imagination to feel like the corridors of power in the South, especially as the civil rights movement began to grow and foment, had particular hatred towards black men, and had this hatred ever since Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox Court House (I imagine there was less hatred before then as there was a condescending acceptance - after all, these men are doing our jobs for us). It is also no stretch to suggest that the massive pressures of poverty and Southern society upon an uneducated head could poison his way of thinking. But we already knew that, even back then, and nobody needs a song that delivers that point with a lack of subtletly that can make a jaw drop (that fifth verse, in particular, doesn't so much lay it on thick as it slathers it on with a trowel). Few things in song are worse than obvious generalities presented as The Holy Truth, no matter how sincere the performer tries to be.

Perhaps in the 1960s that lack of subtlety was needed; maybe that was the only way to really get the point across, to show us that it wasn't just a man that shot Medgar Evers, but a whole way of life, as though every white-on-black crime has to be that way because the centuries of inequality dictated it to be so. All I know is that I hear the song today, hear the clumsiness and the cliches, and I bemoan the fact that "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" was tossed to the wayside so Dylan could slot in another song that takes the Important Issues of the Day, fashions them into a club, and beats us about the head with them. I should note Dylan hasn't played the song live for 40 years - maybe he knew how hard he was swinging that club back then.


I get into occasional debates with my best friend Mark, as I'm sure you do with your best friends, about any number of topics. We've gone back and forth on sabermetrics in baseball, on Kubrick's best films, and on whether or not birch beer is simply another way of saying root beer (and it clearly isn't - they are two separate sodas). One issue we got into was which band is the greatest of all time. I took the side of The Beatles, which will shock absolutely no one, and he sided with The Clash (another oft-chosen group in that debate). This eventually led us into a debate about the 1960s, and he hit me with an opinion that stunned me at the time: "the 1960s blew it, plain and simple".

I couldn't quite follow his argument because I was legitimately shocked by his statement, but this is what I think his gist was: as much as any era before or since, the 1960s was a time where real change could be made, where real steps to erase inequality and conservatism and the problems that befall us as a society, creating something new and better for all of us. But, through a combination of tragedy, shortsightedness, and in-fighting, the Peace Generation let that opportunity slip through their fingers, leading to Nixon's two election victories and a further deepening of cultural divides that exists to this day. And that very baby boomer generation, stunned by the collapse of their hopes and dreams, turned bitter and eventually became what they swore they would never become. And THAT is why we have the "Parental Advisory - Explicit Content" sticker, eight years of Ronald Reagan, the curtain over Lady Justice, and those goddamn Viagra ads that glom off the Summer of Love to sell penis-enlarging pills.

Now, let it be known that, for the record, I do not entirely agree with this. After all, those tragedies that befell the change-makers of the 60s were not their fault; imagine losing men as important as MLK, Jr., RFK, JFK, and Malcolm X in the span of five years? Imagine being confronted by a "Silent Majority" that viewed you as filthy hippies, hate-spewing Negroes, and ungrateful long-haired college punks, blamed you for the ills that the country suffered, and wanted nothing more than a President who promised the status quo and the occasional bashing of said hippie heads? Imagine living in a time where everything was changing, from the clothing we wore to the music we played on our hi-fis to the movies we watched to the way the youth of America viewed, well, everything? And imagine seeing a pointless war in Vietnam, knowing you could be next on the chopping block, and realizing that the men in charge of your country, your life, didn't give two shits about you. And imagine that you grew up through all that, are still alive today, and see a world that didn't change, the same assholes in charge, and society changing in a way that even the accepting kids of the 60s would have trouble swallowing. That'd bother you quite a bit, wouldn't you think?

On the other hand...in a way, my friend was right. The 1960s, in many ways, outright failed. We didn't get Gene McCarthy or George McGovern in the White House. The civil rights movement, which gave so much to the black community, also helped drive an even deeper wedge in racial relationships, to the point that even 40 years later we still aren't ready for a black President (and we're not - it's getting more clear at this point). The era of free love has given us waves of Internet porn and a society too straitlaced to deal with sexuality head-on. Our political system remains damaged perhaps beyond repair, and our culture has not so much learned anything from those turbulent times as they've learned how to take those times and mold them into something that can be packaged and sold. Remember how I talked about how the mainstream tends to take something truly original, suck the life out of it, and spit it back out to the masses? The 1960s are the textbook case of this odious practice; think of those Time-Life compilations, or C-list celebrities glomming off 60s fashion trends, or the cottage industry that's sprung around Muhammad Ali, or the 4 billion books that tell us "the 60s were where it was at, maaaaaaaaan" or "hey, baby boomers! You're the generation that mattered! Peace and love!" It'd be incredibly disgusting, if it wasn't so predictable.

And the worst thing is that, for many (not all) people that grew up in that time, all the attention and marketing and nonsense has fostered the belief that, yes, the 1960s WERE the only time that mattered, and that we must all strive to return to an era where nothing was solved and where the generation that wanted change only wanted change, with the occasional idea of what to do next and how the generation after them would exist. Never mind that every decade was one of great historical importance, or that immeasurable strides have been made in cultural, technological, and intellectual ways in the last 40 years, or that maybe The Velvet Underground isn't quite as good as everybody thinks they are. Never mind that people thought Shirley Chisholm was a joke when she ran for office, while Barack Obama has been feted as a potential President for nearly 4 years. Never mind that the baby boomers, through their own short-sighted selfishness, have consigned us to decades of "red vs blue" elections, and to a never-ending war between those that still uphold the (valid) ideals of the 60s and those that despise what those smelly hippies stood for. Never mind that maybe all this would've happened anyway, and the baby boomer generation was just as much "right place, right time" as anything else.

There is a small part of that generation that hasn't left the Sixties, that constantly brings everything back to that time, and constantly reminds us that Things Aren't As Good As They Used To Be. I can't help, when I think of those people, thinking about the aging hipsters James Murphy (aka LCD Soundsystem) took to task in "Losing My Edge", one of the best songs of this decade. Murphy's lyrics are a hilarious shot at every cat who strives for legitimacy and the ability to say "I was there at the start, so don't tell ME about The Smiths, jerkoff", at those who wield their musical knowledge like Excalibur (I'm sad to say that I must include myself in this group), and those that turn up their noses at the sad lost souls that suggest that Pearl Jam and Aerosmith really aren't that bad. He ends the song by firing off a litany of artists and bands name-checked by hipsters the world over, both well-known (Eric B. & Rakim, Joy Division, Lou Reed) and more obscure (the Sonics, the Swans, Gil-Scott Heron). Murphy is obviously including himself in this crowd, but he does not spare himself and his pretentions, and the result's an incredible song that punctures many an overinflated balloon.

There's few things worse than an aging hipster, one that snorts at your Unknown Pleasures t-shirt and says "Listen, pal, not only did I wear an armband when Ian Curtis died, not only did I buy the Licht Und Blindheit single as an import when it came out, I didn't even listen to New Order for 4 years!" And there's nothing worse than somebody who crams the 60s down your throat, who can't wait to tell you that if we had another Jerry Rubin the world wouldn't be turning to shit, and who simply has to force another history lesson upon us every time something of import happens. As I've said, these people are a minority; many of the 60s generation have managed to move on, incorporating their experiences into their modern lives, and we are better for it. And there are the people that have turned the 60s into a horrible beast that feeds off of rose-colored nostalgia, people that sneer with glee at how they've perverted the strides that generation made into a punch line or a Fox News insult, and people whose bitterness consumes them and feel that, because they ended up having a shitty time, we ALL must have a shitty time. One wonders if the world that generation helped spawn was worth the trouble...even if we did get Bonnie and Clyde and The Gilded Palace of Sin out of it.
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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #31: North Country Blues

Back when I had disposable income to play around with, one of my favorite little vices to spend money on was Criterion Collection DVDs. Since I don't mess around with drugs or alcohol, those exorbitantly priced DVDs were for me what cocaine famously was to Robin Williams (God's way of telling you that you have too much money), and at one point I owned somewhere around 60 or so, which at $40 a pop is no mean feat. They're certainly worth it, as any videophile will tell you, but at a certain point I realized I couldn't possibly devote enough time to watching them all, and slowly began to take my collection apart, piece by piece. I still have my fair share of them, but they're all movies I return to over and over, and can safely keep in my possession without feeling like a wastrel.

One movie I'd wanted to buy from the Collection, but never did, was the Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, about a coal miner's strike in small-town Kentucky and the brutal living conditions the striking miners operated under. I still want to see the movie someday, partially because of its reputation, and partly because it's always educational to see, as the phrase goes, "how the other half lives". I've made no bones about the fact that I've lived a relatively privileged lifestyle (as seen in the "Ballad of Hollis Brown" post, which was justly criticized, albeit gently, for naivete), and the gaunt, dirt-streaked faces of the miners of that town seem a million miles away from my own. But those faces still make up a sizable proportion of our population, and their problems still remain as relevant today as ever (witness the recent Sago mine shaft disaster, which captivated the nation for at least two whole days; no small feat in today's modern fast-paced news cycle).

"North Country Blues", which would have fit nicely into the Harlan County, USA soundtrack, is Bob Dylan's way of bringing the plight of mine workers into our homes, through our stereo systems. Dylan, taking the voice of a woman in Anytown, USA (effectively, as well - it's no small feat to pull that off), unwinds a tale of sorrow and pain not unfamiliar to the impoverished mining community, as the narrator marries a miner and bears him three children, only to see him slowly waste away as the mine closes from foreign competition (in South America, where "the miners work almost for nothing") and finally leave his family behind. The story's told with brutal detail, as you can smell the gin on the unemployed miner's breath and see the blankness of his eyes, and the narrator's own heartache seeps through every word. In a more subtle way, it's one of the better finger-pointing songs on here, although the finger-pointing is kept to a minimum to properly give the more personal story its due.

There are plenty of jobs, incredibly necessary and integral jobs, that manage to be thankless and painful; there are, however, not many of those kinds of jobs that can actually end your life if you're not careful. The life of a miner must be painful in a way totally incomprehensible to most of us - in some ways, it's as close to the Third World as we can get in America (not to mention the staggering fatality rate of miners around the rest of the world). Much like the farming industry, massive strides have been made technologically in mining, and the dangers of the job are far less than in the 60s, when "North Country Blues" was written, and even the 70s, when Harlan County, USA was filmed. All the same, the prospect of death hangs around the profession, either in the immediacy of a mine shaft collapse, sudden explosion, or mechanical mishap, or in the more drawn-out deaths from lung disease and gas poisoning. And the pay for this kind of work, as it's been since time immemorial, is brutally low; this is not a job for somebody looking to advance in the world. It is hard not to feel sympathy for miners, especially since we know that modern life would not function in many ways without them.

Dylan, in his folk-style memorial to those hardy workers (the song starts "Come gather 'round, friends", after all), manages to build even more sympathy by looking at their world from an outsider's perspective, seeing their very specific misery through another form of misery. From the death of her own family members from mine accidents, to the destruction of her nuclear family through brutal economics, that toughest of American lives is illuminated and brought into clear focus. The solemnity of the album works against this song, actually; on an album without as many similarly dark tracks, this song might've received more attention. Dylan, with only two chords and the merest ghost of guitar accompaniment, sharpens the lyrics even further - there is nothing to distract you from the narrator's resignation to her fate. I don't know if there was anything that terribly sad as the narrator's fate in Harlan County, USA, but for the sake of those miners, I can only hope not.

Special note: this post was written on Thursday, but will be read by most people on Friday. Hopefully you all know what Thursday is the anniversary of, and have kept it in your thoughts, if only for a moment. Read more!

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #30: One Too Many Mornings


Not too long ago, I'd written my thoughts about "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" and how I thought of it as a bit of fluff on an album stuffed with classics, and caught some (perhaps well-deserved) flack over it. I still stand by my statement - after all, to quote uber-poster Justin Shapiro, there are no classic songs without less-than-classic songs - but I will readily admit that, a mere four songs into The Times They Are A-Changin', I am positively jonesing for a song as light-hearted as "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance", if only to break the oppressive mood of this album. I mean, the songs are good and all, but holy Toledo, it's like watching a film simply full of one tragic scene after another. If this was meant to be the sop to the folk music crowd that wanted finger-pointing songs, no wonder Dylan immediately retreated into self-reflection and a touch more humor one album later, because it's hard to constantly keep that finger pointed with pain on your face, anger in your heart, and tears in your eyes.

"One Too Many Mornings", one of the songs that can rightfully be called a more personal track on here, continues in that same sorrowful vein - or maybe it just feels more sad than it is because of its surroundings. After all, "Girl of the North Country" has the same wistful, nostalgic vibe, but its brother songs are less doleful and therefore lightens some of the heartache. Without that same lightening here, the heartache is all that stands out; "One Too Many Mornings" is one of my favorite songs on here, but more for the versions that have followed than the (admittedly fine) album version here.

In a way, this song actually feels more personal than any of the love/pain songs from Freewheelin'; Dylan took great pains to set the mood here, and it shows. You can almost palpably feel the confusion ("the sounds inside my mind"), the longing, and the bitterness as the song's narrator leaves the house he'd once lived in with his lover, gazing back only once to where he and his love had spent nights together, then back out onto the lonely street, awaiting his footsteps as he travels yet another road. Dylan sings the song in a tone so muted that it feels like the microphone's struggling to pick up his vocal, and the harmonica solos, echoing the song's quiet melody, feel like a shadow dogging his pained, weary words at every step.

Now that I think about it, the song is like a prelude to "Don't Think Twice", which features a narrator already traveling along, musing on a relationship that ended badly and managing to extract the emotional knife twisted into him and chucking it aside (it's all right, dontcha know). Here, though, the musing hasn't quite gotten as far, and we see the narrator right in the moment of his relationship crumbling apart, senses heightened with charged emotion (when else do you notice dogs barking with that kind of clarity, unless you're in that state of heightened awareness or you're actively looking out for it?), still bitter at the way things have ended. Some might think of "you are right from your side/and I am right from mine" as a way of apology - but after a few listens, I think of it as another subtle kiss-off, a way of saying "okay, fine, you go ahead and feel you've won; I feel I've won just as much" as he walks out the door. Where the anger might've been suggested at in "Don't Think Twice", here (in my opinion) the final verse lays that anger right out there for all to hear.

I can imagine that many of you have gone through a breakup at some point, and the gut-wrenching anguish and vicious anger that it can cause. I've had the, um, pleasure myself, and all I know is that time didn't so much slow down during the process as it suddenly became material, something I could feel hanging around me like the humidity of a hot summer day on the East Coast, as I bargained and pleaded and finally gave up the ghost. And once that process had ended and I was left alone with my thoughts, I still remember feeling in a no-man's land where everything around me seemed entirely unreal, and the only things with any weight were my own pain and sadness. It's in those moments when humans are often most unguarded, when you have no choice to feel something all too real, the emotions that we spend so much of our lives trying to avoid at all costs. And it isn't even an irrational feeling; I was quite aware of attempting to stuff all that buried emotion into a tiny box to store in the back of my mind, alternately cursing her name and begging God to have her call back, because this argument I'm devising is certain to heal the breach between us. Hopefully that wasn't TOO emo for you guys; just trying to tell the truth here.

Dylan's "restless, hungry feeling" more or less sums up the way we all feel at that precise moment when something you've poured yourself into splinters into a thousand pieces; it's like an animal that charges around blindly, desperate to be sated, and only time and distance (two things you couldn't possibly have at that moment) can put it to bed. It is a feeling I would only wish on my worst enemy, and one I hope to never feel again. "One Too Many Mornings" doesn't bring that feeling back, but every time I hear the song that feeling stirs inside me, a war wound that throbs when the weather turns. And, yes, I chose that metaphor quite deliberately.


I'm trying not to step on my own toes here, since I've briefly discussed the 1966 World Tour in the "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" post and will be writing my own essay (of sorts) down the road here. But I have to say a few words about the 1966 version of "One Too Many Mornings", a version that leaves all others in the dust, including the 1976 version, which is one of the few high points (IMO) of that misbegotten tour. Consider this a trailer for the feature-length, coming in a few months.

One of the coolest things about the 1966 version of "One Too Many Mornings" is the fact that it exists at all; in fact, its existence tells you a lot about the 1966 tour and the many undercurrents running through Dylan and The Hawks' shows that year. If "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" was an interesting selection for the electric portion, this is a downright fascinating choice. After all, from Dylan's most overtly political and issues-oriented album, this is the one song Dylan chose to perform on the tour, either acoustic or electric - he rather blatantly avoided any songs with the slightest whiff of protest around it, and could very well have chosen to skip The Times altogether, but sticks the most personal song on here in the most controversial circumstances imaginable. And, like the other two formerly acoustic songs arranged for electric performance, the Hawks turn it inside out and make it sound amazing, as though that's how they were meant to be performed.

Everything comes together neatly in this short tune, which served as the warmup for the mammoth "Thin Man"/"LARS" one-two punch that closed every show that year. Garth Hudson's plays a smooth organ throughout, and Richard Manuel's piano acts as a counterpoint for the electric guitars churning out their wicked noise. Rick Danko (who actually made the backup shout on the word "behind" - the only backup vocal on the whole tour; I'd originally attributed it to Manuel because I'm a mow-ron) plays his usual solid, powerful bass. Mickey Jones, the tour's secret weapon, drops hammer blows with economic fervor, the snare shots punctuating the end of every line. Robbie Robertson fires off licks during the verses, and delivers a sharp solo when called upon (albeit one that sounds similar for each performance...more on that later). And Dylan, stretching out syllables and twisting each verse into pretzel shapes, sneering and moaning with panache, seems to be enjoying himself as he reinvents this quiet and somber tune into a grinning, leering rave-up. I have no doubt in my mind that, when he gets to the "you are right from your side" couplet, he means it as his own emotional knife twist, a middle finger and Bronx cheer to the distraught folk fans unable to embrace his new self. Perhaps that's the key to why he chose the song after all, leaving aside tracks like "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Tombstone Blues" from the previous year's tours - Dylan in 1966 was out for blood in many ways, and he took every chance he could to measure and cut.

Two audio goodies here will close things out. First, from No Direction Home (which I assume you've all seen, but still), is "One Too Many Mornings" from the Liverpool show, probably my favorite electric set of the whole tour. Any video of 1966 Dylan is especially precious, and to see him in his element is truly special. Second, from the invaluable "While The Establishment Burns" CD of the Genuine Live 1966 monstrosity, comes "One Too Many Mornings" from Edinburgh, which probably would be my favorite electric set if we ever got the whole thing instead of two measly songs. The part I like the best is that, although the band is on fire as usual, Dylan is particularly over the edge, his vocals veering drunkenly across a four-lane highway and just begging to slam into the restraining barrier. In particular, when he screams the "all right!" that became the 1966 version's signature moment, he lets out an awkward, shaky, and downright hilarious squawk that serves as the crash into a concrete wall. Were I in the audience for that show, I'd have probably burst a lung laughing; listening through headphones, that howl just serves as part of the wild experience that was the 1966 tour.

One Too Many Mornings - Gaumont Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland 5.20.66 Read more!

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #29: With God On Our Side

Author's Note: My apologies for the lack of updates; I was in New York and Virginia for the last week with scant Internet access. I should have posted as such before leaving, and I offer apologies to those of you that subscribe and have been waiting for the newest post.


I will admit to dreading writing this post, one of the very few songs so far where that has been the case. There is plenty of issues to write about concerning "With God On Our Side", so that's not the reason; nor is it the prospect of another post that deals with Dylan's apparently blatant plagiarism (although we'll get to that in a minute). The main concern that I had, which probably seems obvious already, is the issue of religion, an issue I try to avoid discussing in my written and personal life as much as humanly possible.

Let's face it - short of your political stance, it's hard to think of an issue that pushes more hot buttons and raises more heated discussions than religion. People have fought over it, even killed over it. The search for God, if God does exist, and the role that any higher power may play over our lives has confounded generation after generation, including countless minds more brilliant and sophisticated than my own. So, in the course of listening to the song and racking my own mind for an issue I could write about to lead things off, I was led to an offshoot of the Christian faith that most of us don't bother thinking about - Christian music. "With God On Our Side" is not a Christian song - far from it - but the notion of God in a popular song led me to think about God in a different kind of popular song.

Have any of you seen the commercials for that mail-order Christian rock compilation? 2 CDs, 24 songs or whatever, just like the Time-Life '60s compilations we all remember that basically had the same damn hits on them (look, there's "Time of the Season" again!). And the commercials are, if you're not a Christian yourself, somewhat discomfiting - clips of earnest musicians expounding on their love for the Lord, matched with audience shots of people rapt in devotion, eyes closed, occasionally singing along. There's some humor in this, but not too much; I'm not one to mock the faith of others, although I'm not fully convinced these people would know the lyrics to these songs without prior rehearsing. But what strikes me about the music being offered is just how - there's no other way to say it - bland it is.

Christian music is big business these days; considering the massive base of fans it can draw from, especially in what's been charmingly nicknamed "flyover country", this shouldn't come as any surprise. And, like good old secular music, you get all sorts of subgenres within, from country (always a place you can find Jesus in, Christian country or no) to metalcore (which I'll admit to not having listened to - anybody that has, feel free to offer your thoughts). I have heard a Christian rap album in my lifetime, and the rapper certainly meant well and obviously had Jesus to thank for turning his life around, but this isn't Fear of a Black Planet we're talking about here. But of all the subgenres contained in "Christian music" as a whole, none of them match the Christian pop genre, which you'll probably remember from Amy Grant, and possibly from Jars of Clay (who had a mainstream hit in the 90s). Once again, this is big business we're talking about - platinum albums, stadium tours, etc.

But, and this might just be me here, the actual music itself is the equivalent of Wonder bread. I might be casting a wide net with that statement, but I can safely say that if that compilation was any real guide to what's popular in Christian contemporary music, we're getting stuff your local coffee house would be embarrassed to air on a singer-songwriter night. The musical arrangements are boring, light, and geared entirely to make a melody easy enough to sing along to, and the lyrics (while, granted, generally hampered by the narrow subject matter) can barely stand up to the treacliest of the "sensitive guy with an acoustic" set. If it were just one thing and not the other, I wouldn't be so bothered, but together it makes for a painful listening experience. Think of a song like Ted Leo & The Pharmacists' "Parallel Or Together?", where the guitars are strummed at double-time and the rhythm pounds at Usain Bolt-like speed. You'd think that in Christian music, where the artists so very much want the listener to feel how much they love Jesus Christ, that there'd be that kind of spark and passion in the musicianship. If there is, it's entirely rare.

I'm not picking on Christian music - I mean, these faults have been noted for decades, and I don't believe that God has no place in popular music. After all, take "Jesus Walks", as thrilling a song about belief as you could possibly imagine. Not only is the beat tremendous, but Kanye West practically bends over backwards illustrating how deep and powerful his belief in Christ is, as well as the fact that he will not allow his beliefs to be compromised for the sake of making money. That's a bold statement, and one worthy of praise. It's funny, though, that West talks about how he hopes that "next time I'm in the club/everybody's screaming out" the chorus of his song - people probably have, but are they really thinking about Jesus when they do? Maybe West erred by making his song too catchy, a song you could dance to but might not always pay attention to the lyrics being rapped. Then again, if you ARE paying attention to the lyrics, you might just be forced to think about what he's saying. And that's a good thing, believe me.

If all Christian music, or even some of it, sounded like "Jesus Walks", who knows how much further the CCM movement could go? That sounds like a tall order - not much secular music sounds like "Jesus Walks" - but one certainly worth thinking about. I know that I'd listen to more Christian music if it had that kind of drive, that unadulterated passion, and an energy to match that of the Lord himself delivering the Sermon on the Mount. I tell you what - 24 songs like that, and you wouldn't have to hawk a Christian compilation in cheesy TV commercials. That shit would sell like "Now That's What I Call Music!" does.


So, okay. "The Patriot Game", for those of you that might not know, is a song written in the 1950s by a man named Dominic Behan about the IRA and the movement for a unified Ireland. Bob Dylan, either subconsciously or totally consciously, took the melody and verse structure and gave birth to "With God On Our Side", then failed to give Behan even the slightest bit of credit (which, sad to say, is too often Bob's M.O.). Behan got angry, which is totally justifiable, and stated that Dylan's entire catalog was now under suspicion (a less justifiable statement, even given the number of songs Bob had ripped off at that point). I can't really take that discussion too much farther; anything I've said about Dylan's songwriting, um, preferences has already been said.

What I will say is that Dylan, by virtue of his rewriting of the tune and casting it in a wider scope, has managed to improve on Behan's original and make the melody as much his own (Behan's tune has the same kind of ironic wink that Dylan's song has, and Dylan surely kept that in mind with his own little satire). Dylan basically offers us a verbal history of war, death, atrocity, and annihilation, all with that same ironic epitath of "with God on our side". What makes the song work especially well, though, is the everyman stance that Dylan takes. He talks about reading his history books, wondering about how God could be with the post-war Germans, and his doubts about one of the Bible's most famous stories. The lyrics helps draw the listener in, successfully couching big issues in plain language.

Basically, the major point of the song is one that has been grappled with for centuries - if the Lord is good and just, why does he allow bad and evil things to happen? Dylan doesn't come straight out and ask that question, but basically lets his examples do the talking; the strongest would be how the Germans, after the horrors of the Holocaust, could have God back on their sides by virtue of being our allies after the war. Christianity has had to deal with those questions forever, and have struggled to come up with anything resembling a good answer; the closest would be "well, the Lord is testing us through suffering like Job, and if we pass that test, we are true and good Christians", which seems a bit insulting if you really think about it. I suppose this is where the idea of Deism comes from, and still holds so much weight - it's a way of believing in God without having to deal with all those little niggling idiosyncrasies that would lead you to believe God doesn't exist.

At the same time, I don't think Dylan's writing an anti-God song, although you could very easily believe that. What it seems like he's doing is attacking the concept of God that gets used in our nationalistic fervors, when we suggest that because we're good and moral Christians we have the evangelical high road, whereas the filthy heathens that practice Islam or Buddhism are condemned to the fiery pit. This is not to be confused with the Personal God; i.e. the one that athletes thank for their sporting accomplishments, or politicians thank when they're voted into office. Those kinds of statements reveal a lot more about the speaker than about the Lord; mainly, the fact that they have enough ego to think that God cares about them hitting a walkoff homer or being a Senator than, say, the populace of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Of course, God has been also used by those with the complete lack of tact to suggest that the wickedness of the city (whatever THAT means) caused the storm to demolish it - proof that the Old Testament Angry Jerk God still exists (no disrespect to God, but he had a Stanley Kowalski-like temper in those days). What that suggests, then, is that God, our Lord and Savior, the Creator and Divine Leader, is meant to be exactly whatever we want our God to be at that particular time. That doesn't really seem right to me.

I'm wandering off track here, so I think it'd be best to close here with something everybody loves - a YouTube video. Here's Dylan performing "With God On Our Side" during his MTV Unplugged taping (I thought about trying to find a duet with Joan Baez, but thought better of it). Dylan, for whatever reason, omits the verse about the Germans - an interesting omission in itself, because it's a very pertinent point, and still emotionally charged today. Now that I think about it, that's probably why it was edited out - MTV didn't need the hassle. Dylan can sing all he wants about how we slaughtered Indians and how he hated those damned Reds, but to sing about the Nazis - screw that!

Sadly, embedding is not enabled for the video, so the link will have to suffice. Enjoy!

With God On Our Side - MTV Unplugged

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