Friday, December 11, 2009

Every Bob Dylan Song will return...


Aren't I a tease?

Thank you all for your support and well wishes. A full explanation - and something both a bit special and a bit off the beaten track - is forthcoming. Stay tuned. Read more!

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #156: Father of Night

"Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax - YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I'M LIVING IN THE (expletive) PAST!" - John Goodman in The Big Lebowski

Now, while the previous song had baffled me in a way that I'm embarrassed to think about even now, "Father of Night" somehow manages to make a perfect, almost serene sense. On an album that has evoked such gentle images of pastoral life and quiet solitude (except with a lady, of course), there's something kind of nice about Bob offering up his version of a Jewish prayer as the album's end, sort of a droll Hebrew equivalent of T.S. Eliot's "shantih shantih shantih" or something. And the presentation is gorgeous - running a mere 92 seconds (surely Bob's shortest song ever), opened with a nifty little bit of singing from Bob's backup singers that occasionally repeats throughout, Dylan offers up a simple and plaintive paean to the God of the Torah that he'd worshiped as a young man. It's beautiful, no two ways about it, and a fine ending to an album that hearkens for the simple life he knew as that boy in Hibbing, before rock and roll, Woody Guthrie, and fistfuls of barbituates changed everything.

One of my friends from Michigan is an atheist raised in a Jewish family, and while she continues to not believe in a God, she still makes it a point to observe all the Jewish holidays and traditions and pay homage to the faith in which she was raised. I'm not going to lie - I found that odd when I'd first heard about it (she's not going to read this, so I feel safe mentioning it, although I'm sure she'd be fine with it anyway), as most people that don't believe in God tend to have something less than a favorable opinion about faith in general, and especially in the traditions and occasional prejudices that make up the world's religions. But the more I thought about it, the more respect I have for her stance - even though she has objection to the one principle that binds this entire group of people together, she finds enough worthy in the sort of cultural framework that's sprung up around this group and their devotion to that principle that she's decided to remain a willing participant. It really is an extraordinary thing.

I'm jumping way ahead here, but one of the most remarkable facts of Dylan's career in retrospect, something that I think doesn't get nearly the play that it deserves, was Dylan's conversion to Christianity. It isn't that it's not understandable, so much as it was a fervor that gripped him with remarkable tightness and then loosened itself almost as fast (I've seen pictures of Bob in his yarmulke in the mid-80s). What tends to get lost in the whole thing, though, between the controversy over the music he made and his infamous battles with the crowds in Tempe and all that, is just how deeply human it actually makes Bob. After all, what is more human in the experience of life than the search for a greater truth, a higher plane of existence beyond mortal flesh and blood, and the search for the reason why we're here in the first place? I'm not saying that I consider Bob some sort of demigod, so much as I'm saying that Bob's crisis of faith gives us something to hang our hat on, something we can relate to, just as much as the adultery and the boozing and drug use and occasional terrible albums are things we can relate to. Bob becomes much more enjoyable, I'm starting to find, when he's not on the pedestal that (it has to be said) things like this blog put him on.

And a song like "Father of Night", which has no other purpose than recasting the Amidah into a short little tune to close out a short little album, is just as much a part of that equation that makes Bob a flesh and blood man. His faith (aside from the Christian years, of course) has never been much of a talking point; we knew he was Jewish (I mean, Zimmerman? C'mon, now), but it was never overtly shoved in our faces at any point in his career. And when he does decide to pay a little homage to his old faith, he does it in as low-key a way as possible, paring down his language almost to the point where you can see bone, singing simple words to the Lord of Abraham and Ezekiel. As mantras go, it's pretty hard to top.

And that's it for New Morning! Coming up next - the three unwritten songs from the 2nd Greatest Hits, "Billy" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"...then Dylan's second great creative period. I cannot wait. Hope you all join me on the trip! Read more!

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Bob Dylan Song #155: Three Angels

I'm not really sure what to make of "Three Angels". As we come to a close on New Morning, it seems kind of strange for Dylan to suddenly pull out a gospel-inflected (check out that organ!) philosophical piece about angels hovering above us as people go off and live their little humdrum lives, never stopping to see if they can find the ethereal so close to the mundane. It's not that it's a bad song, at all - it's kind of like Bob's "Everybody Hurts", only with a little less universality and a little more slice-of-life lyricism - so much as it's a really odd downer at the end of the album, especially given the one-two-three punch that had preceded it. There's something that just seems a little off, I can't tell you what.

It isn't that Bob hasn't given us character pieces in the past (what is "Ballad of a Thin Man" if not a character piece?) or delved into everyday life in a metaphysical way. What makes the song seem strange to me is that Dylan gives us a really good example of the keen eye that he has as a songwriter, whipping up a little slice of life that gives us well-observed details and people seemingly snatched right off the street - but for what purpose? A two-minute throwaway tacked on the end of the album because it would've sounded even stranger coming after "Winterlude" or something? Maybe it's just the sequencing, then; but that still doesn't explain why there's something lacking about the whole thing. Could it be the length? The weird Christian underpinning that sort of but doesn't really jibe with what's going on with the rest of the album? Maybe it's just another experiment Bob decided to try, giving us a speak-sung O. Henry pastiche set to music? Baffling.

It occurs to me, typing these words, that I'm probably doing a 180 on the stuff that I've typed in the past, where I've chastised others (and myself) for looking for too much or thinking too hard about one of Bob's songs, and that I should just listen and enjoy the song for what it is. And I think I still do that, or at the very least make an effort to do that and not let my feelings about the music get overwhelmed by what I'd like to talk about for the song's blog post. But a song like this...I mean, where do I really go? I've talked about Dylan's nice usage of imagery (the U-Haul truck in particular manages to be the most evocative, and I'm not really sure why), and about Bob reaching into his John Wesley Harding Biblical playbook, only with a little less subtlety, and about how the song touches on a very deep and spiritual subject for a few minutes before coming to an abrupt end. That doesn't seem to leave too much out.

The disappointment I feel at moments like these, where the (usually latent) limitations of this project I've undertaken and enjoyed so often become glaringly apparent, is something I wouldn't wish on any Dylan fan. It can be said about Dylan that even his bad music gives you something to talk about (the last two-three months prior to this album should've been proof of that), and his good music can encompass our whole wide world in terms of subjects of conversation. That, of course, is something that can be said about most great artists in most of the artistic fields. And, let it once again be said, I think that this is a fine song, maybe even a good song. I know that there are bigger fans of this song than I, people that are more likely to tell me something they love about this song that I may have missed, and people that are more than happy to elucidate on why this deserves a deeper look than I'd given it. And believe me when I say that I would be more than happy to hear them out. Read more!

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #154: The Man In Me

I want you all to try something. Take a really good, catchy, emotionally resonant song - say, "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which I've been listening to quite a bit lately. Now, find a scene from any movie that you can think of, one that might match the emotional resonance that "Maps" has, and might sound and look good when paired up with that song. But remember - we're not just looking for something that might work well when "Maps" is playing in the background. We're looking for a scene in which the music and the scene on film work as damn close to perfection as you could ever hope for, where what the director is going for on screen is in sync with Karen O's declarations of unmatched love on "Maps", to the point in which you cannot think of one without the other, and vice versa. Oh, and one more thing - we want this little pairing you've put together to run as the title sequence of the movie you've chosen. Think you can do it?

It says a lot about what incredible filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are (well, with a hat-tip to T-Bone Burnett) that they managed to do just that, pairing a lesser-known Bob Dylan album deep cut with images of people bowling in slow-motion, shoes being sprayed, balls rolling across alleyways...and making it work to absolute perfection. It doesn't even matter that what Bob's singing about - a paean to loving somebody, maybe even his wife, with unflagging emotion and with apparently no hint of irony whatsoever - it still sounds like the most natural pairing in the world (I would find the title sequence on YouTube, but for once it appears that I have been let down). And, at least in my humble estimation, the pairing has now reached the point where you cannot hear "The Man In Me" without thinking of Walter chucking his undies out the window in the "ringer" or poor Donnie confusing John Lennon with V.I. Lenin or "I got a bad headache and I hate the fucking Eagles, man!", and you cannot think of The Big Lebowski (the movie I'm talking about, in case you didn't know) without at least once having Bob pop into your head with those glorious "la la la"s. That's something pretty special, a tremendous example of how music and films can be so gloriously intertwined.

Which gets into the heart of the matter with regards to "The Man In Me". Look, I love the song as much as any of you - it's almost impossible not to just like on its aesthetic level. The harmonies at the beginning and chorus, the way the song just explodes to life, Bob singing with unencumbered joy (not something we always get out of him), that fantastic part in the middle eight when Bob sings "but oh, what a wonderful feeling" and the organ in the background matches him step for step. But, I mean...we all know that Dylan can do better lyrically, right? Eyolf Olstrem (yet again) gets it perfectly, when he says the song is "just TOO sweet - things that are too good to be true usually aren't" and notes that while something like "Sara", another song that trucks in naked emotion (of a different kind, true), has its own intrinsic seriousness, "The Man in Me" has "la la la la la". Which, I mean, is fine; but, in the end, when all you've got is Dylan having fun, that only takes you so far.

All the same, that fun is still there, it makes the track worth hearing at least once in your life, and it took a couple of geniuses to draw it out and use it for all it's worth. In my mind, one of the most flattering compliments anybody can pay to a song is to find its niche and to actually pair it with something tangible in that way that filmmakers can. I mean, we all have memories attached to certain songs that set them apart from everybody else - I, for example, have a memory related to Macy Gray's "I Try" that I'm not going to share but means the absolute world to me. We all know that that is what helps make music so special - our visceral reactions to it, and the way that songs and albums and musicians can be threads in the fabric of our life (pardon the cliche). It is something else entirely when somebody has the brains to make a song the fabric of many people's lives, simply by matching that song to something you'll never, ever be able to forget. Think of how many of us now imagine "As Time Goes By", or "Perfect Day", or "Stuck In The Middle With You". To get so many people to hear a song and think about the exact same thing is a skill, and one that precious few people could ever hope to attain.

I'm not saying that "The Man In Me" would have been consigned to the dustbin of history if T-Bone Burnett hadn't told the Coens "maybe it'd" over a decade ago. The song has enough creative merit on its own that it probably would've been a cult favorite, the same way that you could say that this album has become something of a cult favorite (and, for symmetry's sake, the way that The Big Lebowski is very much a cult favorite). What I am saying is that the song now has a very special appellation to it, which sets it apart even from some of the best songs in Dylan's catalog. I close my eyes when I hear "Like A Rolling Stone", or "Blind Willie McTell", and I see what I want to see in my mind's eye. I close my eyes when I hear "The Man In Me", and I see The Big Lebowski. And many, many other people can hear that song, close their eyes, and also see what I see. I don't know about you, but that's something quite meaningful to me. Read more!

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #153: One More Weekend

And with a reprise of that descending blues riff Dylan likes to whip out whenever he's in a rockin' (or, excuse me, "rawkin'") mood, we get one of the most outright fun songs Bob had written in years, a combination of Bob hearkening to the '50s rock-n-roll "two chords and a cloud of dust" mentality (he even starts the song "slippin' and slidin'") and the swaggering bump and grind of "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat". One wonders what impetus Bob had to interrupt all the pretty, low-key piano-driven tracks (there's piano on this song, make no mistake, but it's mixed pretty low to let some slide guitar work carry the day instead) to break out some barroom raunchiness, but it's a pretty good change-up on this album and something of a welcome mood shifter. After the quiet genius of "Sign on the Window", it's pretty neat to immediately break in with Dylan indulging ol' Elston Gunn.

I suppose if you wanted to buy into the theory brought up in the last post (that the songs here had as much to do with Bob screwing around as anything else), this might be the star witness in the case, so to speak. Quoting bits out of the lyrics doesn't make as much sense as actually reading the lyrics themselves - just look at some of the stuff he talks about. He compares himself to a weasel, for the love of Pete! Sure, you can argue that Bob's trying to sing a song to his wife about spending one more weekend together like things used to be - leaving the kids behind and all that - and just being together. But...I mean, take a look at those lyrics again. Does that sound like the kind of thing you'd sing to the woman you roll over and take a look at every morning, or to the woman that you have a crazy, looking over the shoulder, sleeping together in tawdry motels relationship with? I have a pretty good idea what the answer to that would be.

Okay, I know that I've had the occasional flight of fancy that hasn't really worked out, but try to go with me here for a second. You're listening to this album, one that not only has a general lyrical theme of pastoral life, of songs of love and devotion (to whoever), and of doing things the simple way, but also has a general instrumental motif of piano, loose band arrangements, and so on. In other words, you've got a mood going on this album. And then bang - you've suddenly got a song that's basically a slowed-down, loosey-goosey version of something off of Loud, Fast, and Out of Control, Dylan basically saying "come on, baby, let's go downtown" to some random woman that may or may not - probably may not - be his wife. In other words, the mood's been blasted to smithereens by some nasty lead guitar, and we've gone from strolling in a winter wonderland to whiling away some weekend doing Lord knows what. What are we to make of that?

What we can make of that, I think, is that Dylan's basically written himself the equivalent of an interlude to his little one-act about country life, almost like he's throwing in a dream sequence for the hero to fantasize about when he's peeling potatoes or reading "Jack and the Beanstalk" or something. Consider that the album then goes from "One More Weekend" directly into "The Man In Me" (which I've always figured was meant to be the album's centerpiece and linchpin, especially since the last two songs are short and almost anticlimactic), one of Dylan's most simplistic and direct declarations of love. If you want to assume Dylan's singing about somebody other than his wife in this song (and, I suppose, every other song here by proxy), I can certainly see that. But if you take the album on its face value and assume Dylan's being the family man both in life and in song, then "One More Weekend" takes on a completely different role. And, let's be honest, it's a pretty strong little bit of temptation, to head off on a cruise somewhere away from the kids and from his remote country home. You almost can't blame Bob for eventually succumbing to it. Read more!

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Bob Dylan Song #152: Sign on the Window

A quick word or two about the actual song itself, one of my favorite Dylan songs of all time (the "sneaky favorite" of mine on this album, lest you were wondering). There is a bootleg version of this song floating around with a string arrangement kind of rivet-gun attached to the master take, along with (I think) some extra backup singers doing work or some such added frippery. As you'd expect from my description, the extra instrumentation kind of ruins the song, almost Disney-fying one of Dylan's most gorgeous songs and drowning its more simple, piano-driven beauty in the same sort of glop that ruined "The Long And Winding Road". The actual album take, the one that I love so much, works because there's a measure of understatement - the backup singers that are on the track are muted, and the flute solo after the middle eight (well, middle four) works in glorious counterpoint to Bob's piano. And the lyrics - oh, how I love those lyrics. The first verse, with its punch to the gut imagery; that fantastic "Brighton girls are like the moon" line; and, yes, the third verse, which apparently is more divisive opinion-wise than I'd expected. It all adds up to maybe Bob's greatest forgotten masterpiece, and one that maybe will get the attention that it deserves.

Now, then - that third verse. In the "Time Passes Slowly" post, one of the commenters wrote out a long, somewhat detailed comment about how Bob's actually writing songs to and about his mistress, both on this album and on Blood on the Tracks. His reasoning makes quite a bit of sense - it really doesn't make sense to just assume "Simple Twist of Fate" is actually about Sara, does it? And that sort of reasoning tends to color the rest of the album; songs about the good ol' country life, about a woman like you (who?) to find the man in him...they're not really about being happy and married, are they? It's the sort of realization/theory/what have you that makes you reevaluate what you thought about the man; hell, what you think about life in general.

And that's why I'm choosing to ignore it.

No, I'm kidding. I would just prefer to believe that Bob, at that particular moment in his life, meant exactly what it was he was singing about, that he was enjoying himself and the life he'd carved out for himself, or at the very least comfortable and accepting of it. Another commenter, in the "Day of the Locusts" post suggests that Bob's bit about how being a family man must be what it's all about "feels more like uncomfortable resignation to me than joyful he isn't quite convinced". To me, though, I don't necessarily think it has to be either - Bob's never struck me as the kind of guy who has too high highs (although he's probably had too low lows - think about his mental state during the '76 version of the RTR), and I also think that he's not one to put on a face for the hell of it (if you ever saw pictures of him in 1966, he sure as hell isn't hiding his discomfort and agitation about what's going on around him - the only time he doesn't look awful is when he's on stage). I think Bob's singing those words simply because those words sum up his frame of mind; maybe there's some resignation in "that *must* be what it's all about", but I see him firming that up in his mind, thumping his chest and saying "yes, that really is what life is", just like God knows how many men whose lives have changed when they see their offspring for the first time. Dylan may not have had that frame of mind for long, but he still probably had it (unless you're giving him no benefit of the doubt whatsoever), and that surely counts.

One thing I think doesn't get enough attention, which probably makes sense given how relatively obscure this song is, is just how wild the stuff Bob's singing about in that final verse must have sounded, even after Bob had spent a few years out of the limelight. It's a really remarkable thing; Bob, counterculture icon, writer of "Like A Rolling Stone", telling us that getting married, having kids, and fishing in a cabin in Utah is really what life is all about. Perhaps on a smaller scale, but certainly on a scale, this has to be like what Bob's folk music fans must have felt like when Bob went electric, no? Think about it - you've got your mindset about how the world works, about what this and that means, and your hero, the man you trust above all else to both side with your viewpoints on how the world works and espouse those viewpoints to everybody else, has turned his back and become The Enemy, so to speak. Now, the transformation from electric warrior to "marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout" was slower and more pronounced in this case, but...I mean, really? We're busting our ass out there having protests and calling Nixon a douchenozzle and talking about free love (which, I'm assuming, didn't just die out after 1967) and changing the world, maaaaan - and Bob's singing about kids and shit? What a fucking asshole!

The irony, surely, is that the radical generation of the 60s eventually found themselves thinking Bob's way in the end. It shouldn't be a surprise; how many people say "aw, I ain't ever having kids, I ain't ever getting married - nobody's tethering this bird down, I'm gonna spread my wings and fly!", only to end up at a company BBQ with the mortgage and the station wagon and the son named after your wife's dearly departed father, wondering just how in the hell you got there? Life has a funny way of taking us in places we never expect (unless you're a child prodigy or something); surely Bob at 20 with his Sherpa outfit and blues repertoire or Bob at 25 with his cool-ass shades and Telecaster had no idea that he'd be 29/30, scraggly thin beard on his face, talking walks down a dirt path in the forests of upstate New York and carefully avoiding a world that still wanted to look for him. Maybe that's the real resident emotion of "Sign on the Window" - a sort of bemused wonder, Bob shaking his head with a wry smile at the way his Game of Life went, more pegs in his car than he'd expected and a totally different house than he could've imagined at the start. And maybe he doesn't just have to be talking about marriage and kids - maybe just the fact that things, and outlooks, can change is really what life's all about. Read more!

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #151: New Morning

If there's a phrase that you might be able to use as a definition for the generation that I grew up in, for better or ill, it might be "Generation Irony". "Irony", to be honest, is something difficult to pin down; much like the infamous pornography test, you'd probably know it if you saw it. But it's become redolent in our society, something that, when properly utilized, can make something funny and interesting on a deeper level than it might have been otherwise...and, when not properly utilized, is just as aggravating and worthy of disdain as my elders (and even some of my peers) say it is. I think of the brilliant quote from the "Homerpalooza" episode of The Simpsons, in which a Gen-X teenager is asked if he's being sarcastic (the bastard cousin of ironic) and the response is a weary, depressed "I don't even know anymore." There's only really so far you can go with irony, with being detached from what you might consider real life, before that line is completely washed away. And that's not a good thing.

Many people, I think, would agree that the concept of America as an ironic culture kind of came about as a result of America becoming a distrustful culture - i.e., the Watergate scandal, coming on the heels of the Pentagon Papers and the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. I'm not going to sit here and say that the idea of distrusting authority as a whole (and the government in particular) came about solely because of the 1960s (which, I imagine, some might lead you to believe); what I will say is that if you're looking for a flashpoint, that's as good as any, and few events say more about why authority SHOULDN'T be trusted than Nixon's slow, painful slide into disgrace. The thing that should be noted about distrust of authority and the bringing of irony into our culture is that it's a genie that most definitely cannot be stuffed back into the bottle. And I would argue that's certainly a good thing; it's better that we don't go tripping into the world as a bunch of doe-eyed innocents who trust everybody in a position of power over us. But there's something kind of sad in that we can no longer be doe-eyed innocents (well, it's possible, but probably not recommended unless you're Amish or something), and that the ability to have that sort of unswerving faith in authority has been shattered forever.

I think about these things when I listen to "New Morning", a track that (from all appearances) seems to be unencumbered by irony on any level. Wikipedia's description calls it "wry", but even that seems somewhat unconvincing; when you're dealing with lyrics like "This must be the day that all of my dreams come true/So happy just to be alive/Underneath the sky of blue", the only way you can really call that "wry" is if you're actively trying to make it so. That is, I think, one of the things that can make this album somewhat difficult to deal with - Dylan, who you could argue was one of the most ironic and detached artists to ever live during the Electric Trilogy era, has put out an album with nearly no preconceptions, no hidden agendas, and no motives other than to be a collection of songs about where Dylan's head was at during this part of his life*. Even Nashville Skyline, an album where Bob had his heart imprinted directly on his sleeve, could be excused as a genre exercise (which, we can agree, is a little bit ironic), as this album could to some extent. But the actual lyrics?

I must confess that, to my modern ears, my love for this album does occasionally waver a bit when I mull over this particular conundrum. The songs are good, make no mistake...but is Bob really as invested as he seems to be (and as I'd like him to be, trusting soul that I am)? Should I be suspicious of just how soaring that chorus, all major chords, sweeping organ runs, and Bob leaping headfirst into one of his simplest and most memorable refrains, sounds blaring through my headphones? What am I to make of Bob singing about yet another pastoral setting, rooster's crowing and rabbits running and a freakin' groundhog, of all things, popping up? Do I trust my instincts and believe that Bob's really singing about something that he cares about, which makes the song a not half-bad pop ditty that manages to be just a little, teeny-weeny bit life-affirming? Or do I go with what some writers (and, IIRC, one or two commenters on this here blog) have suggested, that Bob was putting on a show for us rubes, either pretending or trying to convince himself that the country life was the one for him, probably not meaning it deep down inside?

You know what? I think I'm going to stick with my instincts here. There's too much unassuming joy here, in the (somewhat amateurishly, but whatever) picked acoustic solo to start the song, Dylan putting what sounds like his all into singing "so happy to just hear you smile", and that truly anthemic chorus, to simply discount or try to explain away. What the hell; sixties or no (yes, this is 1970, but you know what I mean), there was still room in the world for a paean to living the life of a quiet country gentleman without having to assume that it's a pile of bullshit. Hey, this whole "benefit of the doubt" thing is kinda cool. I should keep it up.

*well, there's "Day of the Locusts", but you could even argue that that's just Bob singing about his own insecurities, which is also a very direct thing to do, right? Read more!

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #150: If Dogs Run Free

When I've talked about the "jazzy" side of New Morning, I'm usually thinking more about the distinctive piano playing style (compare and contrast with what he's doing on, say, "Ballad of a Thin Man"), the light band accompaniment throughout (never have I heard so many drum brushsticks played on a Dylan album before), and Dylan's loosest arrangements yet (see "Time Passes Slowly", which basically stops on a dime so Dylan can indulge his ivory-tickling side). That's not to say that all jazz can be described that way, just that in terms of how the album sounds, it's easier to use those sorts of comparisons than to suggest Dylan created some brand new genre out of whole cloth or something. And there's no better distillation of the mood of this album than "If Dogs Run Free", one of the few songs Dylan has ever written that could persuasively argued is its own island in his catalog. Sure, the song is in line with the jazz-based styling of much of this album, but none of those songs are so, well, outright jazz; we have scat singing in the background, Dylan banging away at the keys like a lounge singer with a brandy snifter on his piano for tips, a guitar playing random and aimless lines, and Dylan speak-singing his lyrics in the most casual way possible. It's really something else.

Now...does that actually make the song GOOD? That's a little harder to say. On the one hand, you really do want to give Bob points for trying; the song has the relaxed feel down cold, like Dylan really wanted to get some snaps of approval from the engineers after the take was laid down. And it's hard not to love the song's goofy, stoner-philosophy ramblings, one of those post-Electric Trilogy moments where Dylan just lets his mind wander and he babbles on about whatever pops in the ol' melon of his (quite frankly, I don't know how THIS song didn't end up in The Big Lebowski...oops, a little hand-tipping there). On the other, the scatting is more distracting than anything else, and the song might be a little too relaxed, more experiment than actual tune. Experiments are fine, but at a certain point you have to stick the tunes in there, or else you get the Panda Bear album*. "If Dogs Run Free" sorta wanders around the tune, like someone circling a mall parking lot on the final pre-Christmas weekend, but it never manages to pull into a space.

Kudos to Bob for trying, though. In the post for "Wigwam" I made mention of how you could see Dylan reaching for something really big and ambitious with the sprawl of Self Portrait, only for one reason or another it never quite came off. Well, here's the thing: this album actually DOES have effort behind it, and that's what helps put it an extra peg ahead. One of the lazier criticisms people will lob against jazz is that it's intrinsically lazy in its composition, that the free-form nature of the modal stuff Miles Davis helped usher in or even something like "If I Were A Bell" might as well have been put together in the studio 5 minutes before the tape started rolling. Not only this is incredibly simplistic, but rather insulting to guys like Gil Evans, who put together remarkable arrangements thanks to having good ears for what works and what doesn't. And I think that Dylan, both on this album proper and this song especially, had to have his good ears working if he wanted the whole thing to work. This is, after all, uncharted waters for him; if he didn't put in some work and give his arrangements at least a little structure (and I do mean "little" at times), the whole thing would fall apart. If you've heard bad jazz, you know what I mean.

"If Dogs Run Free" is not my favorite song on here, but it might be the most representative. Just like some of the best comedic improvisers get there from hours and hours of practice, a song this relaxed and this surface-level effortless had to have come from Bob using his songwriting instincts to patch together every seemingly aimless element of this tune and duct-tape it all together into something that, while not a classic, at least works. That was one of the great problems of the last album - he patched together a lot of shit there, too, but it just didn't work. Here, though, the arrangements hold together, the wandering goes into interesting (rather than soporific) areas, and many of the songs, at their core, are just straight-up good. Believe me, this album wouldn't have been as well-received as it was in 1970 just based on it not being Self Portrait - there had to be quality tracks for those critics to latch onto. And those quality tracks are there, make no mistake about it. And, for that, I think I'll give Dylan some snaps.

*I've said before that I'd rather take a year off the end of my life than hear Person Pitch again. That's rather harsh, in retrospect, but it's always aggravating when a band takes material that might make a pretty darn good EP and tries to stretch a whole album out of it. At a certain point, you realize you're just listening to fat that should've been trimmed. It's not pleasant. Read more!

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #149: Winterlude

Eyolf Ostrem, curator of the astoundingly awesome Dylanchords website, has a nice little line in reference to "Winterlude", where he says the song "has this corny, guy-on-the-sleeve-of-Nashville-Skyline-ish, country dude thing going on". That, honestly, about sums it up. So that's the end of the post. Good night, everybody!

Okay, fine. The reason I really enjoyed reading this line is that you can take the reference to Nashville Skyline as either a compliment or an insult, depending entirely on how you feel about that particular album and the songwriting metier Bob indulged himself in while recording it. As ten posts previous to this one should attest, I like Bob's style on that album just fine; there are many, I'm sure, that disagree. But for those on my side, it would seem somewhat strange to enjoy a song like "Tell Me That It Isn't True" and not go for something like "Winterlude", which almost seems to revel in its droll waltz-like tempo, its moon-June rhymes (but then, of course you'd want to rhyme "Winterlude" with "dude", am I right?) and its peaceful imagery of ice skating rinks and cozying up by the fireplace. I'd already written about the domestic tranquility that Bob brings to this album, and here he basically takes that tranquility to its logical extreme, painting a picture like the kinds that made Norman Rockwell a rich man. That, I'm sure, will put people off.

I will admit that I do find the song a little slight at times, what with some of the more saccharine-sweet imagery ("go down to the chapel, then come back and cook up a meal"? When do the neighborhood carolers come by?) and goofy rhymes ("darlin'" with "quarrelin'" - actually, that's not all THAT bad) kind of grate a little bit. I freely admit that I give songs like these a little bit more leeway, simply because I like the tone of the album so much, but I do have my limits, and "Winterlude" brushes right up to the edge of them. The song, really, works best as part of setting that tone, with its tempo reminiscent of "To Ramona", the gentle backup singing, and Dylan painting those pictures right out of the 1950s we all imagine but probably didn't really exist in that way. It would sound out of place on most any other albums Bob's put out (even Nashville Skyline, really), but it sits just fine here, and that's a good thing.

We all know, I'm sure, that quote Dylan said about his songwriting style, the bit about having to learn to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously; I'm sure I've even quoted it somewhere on this blog. I think about it now because, were that actually true, I can see this song as part of that process, a process that Bob embarked on more or less non-stop for the four years between his neck break and the recording of this album. In those years, Bob goes from the left-field Americana of The Basement Tapes, to the spare mystical folk of John Wesley Harding, to the straight-up country of Nashville Skyline, to the quasi-Western balladry of Self Portrait, and then finally to the jazziness of this album; that sort of stylistic ping-ponging suggests a man trying to get a handle on where his music ought to be, now that it can no longer return to where it used to be (as, of course, it hasn't returned to since). I've been guilty of penning a few bits of doggerel myself, and while nothing is nearly as good as even "Winterlude" is, in this song I see some of what I used to do as a songwriter, grasping for easy rhymes and already built-in emotional imagery, relying on four chords to carry the day, letting sentiment inform my lyrics in occasionally embarrassing ways. It's kind of endearing to think about that and then hear this song, quite frankly.

One of the reasons this album gets overlooked so often, I think, is that you can hear that casting about more on this album than any other pre-1974, even more so than Self Portrait. At least that album was just throwing all sorts of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Here, Bob knows what he's aiming for, he's got his arrangements down and the tone he wants for the album set...and there's something there nonetheless, something that can put people off if they're not in the mood to buy what Dylan's selling. It's funny to say about an album so gentle and unassuming, but it's really an album that needs to be played in a certain frame of mind, or else you're just not going to like it. I wouldn't even go as far to say that's an excuse to say to people that don't like the album no matter what; you can like what you like, obviously. But I find it funny that "Winterlude" shares at least one trait with Metallica's "One", a song that couldn't be more different musically - there's a time and place to listen to it, and if you ain't there, it's not gonna work. Read more!

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #148: Went To See The Gypsy

One of the things I really like about New Morning is just how relaxed all the songs tend to sound. "Laid-back" is a positive quality that often proves both ephemeral and rather subjective - after all, one could call the previous album "laid-back", and it wouldn't really be a compliment. But with this album (subjectivity again), it feels like Dylan had captured the casual quality that he'd infused into his life after making his escape from the grind of being a full-time musician, with songs that speak to his more relaxed state of mind. Take this song, "Went To See The Gypsy" - the tempo isn't particularly fast, the guitar licks don't so much sting as add spice to the track, and the organ track isn't as powerful or intrusive as other organ tracks on Bob's songs. This song could have been overwhelmed by more instrumentation, or even an arrangement similar to something on Self Portrait, but in the capable hands of the New Morning band everything sounds pretty darn good. Lest you thought Dylan's arranging instincts were dulled on the last album, here's proof that they were still there and in fine form.

The generally held belief about this song is that it has something to do with Elvis Presley; I can't remember if Dylan ever talked about there being some sort of dream involving Elvis or something (he never did meet Elvis in real life), but that story has been sunk into the Dylan legend at some point. There are a few clues to this in the lyrics - "big hotel", "he did it in Las Vegas/and he can do it here", and so on. Dylan's denied it, but big whoop-whoop - I wouldn't be surprised if at one point or another he's denied that Slow Train Coming is an album about God. We all know about young Elston Gunn; actually writing something that pays some sort of tribute to his boyhood idol (even if it's actually referring to the Vegas-era, maximum excess Elvis) would make a lot of sense. And the reference to "that little Minnesota town", where young Bob heard all those rock-n-roll records, helps cements that idea.

Then again, can this really be said as paying any homage to Elvis? After all, the gypsy of the song (and the pretty dancing girl, surely meant to be an embodiment of temptation) basically says two lines and disappears when the narrator goes looking for him again. That dancing girl told the narrator that the gypsy could do all these amazing things, and yet at the end that narrator finds himself back in his small town up North, just staring at the sun rising up, a banal image that manages to be infused with so much poetry. I bet I'm not the first person that thought about the Bob of Greenwich Village, making the move from rock rebel in leather jacket to folk hero in work shirt and blue jeans, perhaps seeing those rockers he idolized as myth, something that fades away if you look too closely, and the lives of those in those small towns (the subject of so many folk songs) as something real and tangible. It's kind of a bittersweet image, something akin to what it's like to grow up and realize that what you held true as a youth turns out to be something entirely different as you grow older.

This is, of course, something we all can sympathize with. If there is one lesson that adulthood (and many of our finest entertainments, from Mad Men to The Replacements' "Unsatisfied") has taught us, it's that the great big wide world we were promised as youngsters somehow manages to become smaller, pettier, and far less satisfying as we grow and mature. I know that's oversimplifying things, and that for many people (including myself, lest you think I'm already some muttering old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn) you can find all sorts of ways to be happy, or at least content, with a life that you could not have imagined ever wanting ten or even five years ago. And yet there is always that vague feeling in the pit of my stomach, this notion that somehow things got turned around and scrambled somewhere down the line, and that I probably missed the boat on something that would've changed my life and brought me infinite joy, but I never even knew that boat existed. I cannot be the only person that has felt this way. I know this is a downer, and I apologize.

I can't help wondering, as I listen to the song again, if that interpretation of "Went To See The Gypsy" is really true and Bob was really thinking about that moment in his life where, after all that zigging, he decided that he wanted to zag instead. Maybe, as he penned the lyrics, there was a slight rueful smile on his face, as he thought about the baby-faced, early-twenties version of himself, wondering where that gypsy went and if it wasn't better to turn away from pretty girls in Vegas (so to speak) and sing about what he saw in front of his own eyes, whether it was the sun rising over Hibbing, a girl he wished he could've brought to Italy, or the injustices of a world that promises so much and so rarely delivers. Of course, things turned out far more complicated than that, and it would not be long before the work shirts were placed in mothballs and the leather jacket pulled out to be worn once again. And that is why Bob is who he is - he surely had the same fears as I have, and he surely felt at some point that he'd missed a boat somewhere...and then he just got on another boat and sailed to where he wanted to sail. One day, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to do that as well. Read more!

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #147: Time Passes Slowly

Of all the left-field choices that ended up on Biograph (still the gold standard of albums that make an attempt to do a career retrospective of the man; the fact that it hasn't been bettered 20 years later is kinda sad, if you ask me), "Time Passes Slowly" might take the crown. And that's nothing to say about the quality of the song; it's just that valuable real estate on this box set is being held by a two and a half minute pop (well, pop-ish) number on one of Dylan's lesser-known albums. Then again, one could easily argue that this is what makes Biograph so damn great - there's any number of more well-known nuggets that could've made it on the album, and yet we get a fine piece of work from, yes, one of Dylan's lesser-known albums, sitting proudly in between "I Believe in You" (one of Dylan's best Christian-era numbers) and "I Shall Be Released" (which needs no explanation). And where Biograph is arguably at its best is when it showcases stuff we might never have heard, like "I'll Keep it With Mine" or something from the New York sessions for Blood on the Tracks, as well as that lesser-known stuff. We can hear "Like A Rolling Stone" any old time - why not shine a spotlight on something different?

And "Time Passes Slowly" is certainly something different. A long while back, writing about "Queen Jane Approximately", I wrote a little bit about Bob Dylan's piano work on Highway 61 Revisited. Well, his piano playing on that album sounds primitive compared to the glorious work Bob unleashed on this album, and most particularly on this song. Dylanchords proprietor Eyolf Ostrem, in his tablature for this song, mentions a "short, glorious piano break" right after the second verse, and he's absolutely right on the money. Seemingly out of nowhere, acting as a counterpoint to the skronky 70s-style guitar solos that have been splashed all over this song, Dylan plays an understated, yet absolutely marvelous few bars that don't so much show off Dylan's talents as let us know that he does, indeed, HAVE talents. It's really something you should at least hear once - and hey, maybe that answered the question I posed above, as to how this made it onto that supposedly definitive retrospective. Bob isn't above showing off a little, is he?

While I'm thinking about showing off, it's pretty interesting to listen to the song and see what kind of subject matter was on Bob's mind at this time. I've written a lot about the 1960s in this blog series (perhaps far more than I should have), but one thing that might not have been mentioned here is just how much actually happened within those ten years. Now, obviously, a lot of stuff happens in EVERY decade, but it's astonishing to imagine that three game-changing Presidential elections, a gut-wrenching string of assassinations, the emergence of a potent counter-culture, a rift opening between Nixon's "silent majority" and, well, everybody else, and a general shift in the way that people viewed the world all happened in those years. If ever a band could encapsulate the era they came from, it was The Beatles, who essentially packed their entire recording career into seven years, changing not just the record industry, but the entire entertainment industry, in their wake. It seemed like you couldn't open the paper without reading about at least one thing that unalterably changed the world.

And what's Bob singing about in "Time Passes Slowly"? Lazy days in the mountains, searching for a honey to call his own, and how our lives, so finite in the big picture, tend to move so slowly along from day to day (have you ever had an hour, say, at the airport, with nothing to do? It can be goddamn interminable, can't it?). You could suggest that Bob was out of touch in those days, living up in Woodstock and baking bread with his kids or whatever; that couldn't possibly be true, but whatever. The point is that he seems to be reveling in that lifestyle he'd created for himself, separated from a world changing so fast few people could properly keep up, content to gaze at the stars, "lost in a dream", "no reason to go anywhere" (these are quotes from the song, of course), quietly sitting in a self-created bubble. There are probably a few of us for whom that sounds pretty nice. And it certainly seemed pretty nice for Bob in those days - which is why he chose to write about it, I assume.

I suppose you could also take the tack that Bob might be taking a more wry take on this sort of thing (as has been suggested about the album's title track). After all, some of the lyrics could be considered a droll parody ("we sat in the kitchen while her mama was cookin'"? Really?), and Bob's never been above a wink to his audience, or even just to himself. But I like to think that he was straight-faced here (as, also, in the title track), and that he was content with where he was in life. We know that the reverie wouldn't last and Bob would find himself stepping back in the real world, so it's pretty neat to hear him lost in that bubble, waiting for what the next day would bring in his cozy secluded home. Read more!

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #146: Day of the Locusts

Author's note: the blog title links directly to a post about "Day of the Locusts", Obama, marijuana, and the trouble with online town halls. Give it a read, won't you?

For a guy like me writing a project like this, actually having a story built in to the story makes things a little bit easier; thus, I find myself having to thank Bob for a song actually written about something that happened in his real life. For those that don't know, in June of 1970 Bob was invited to Princeton University to be given an honorary doctorate. Still technically in his twenties at this point (you tend to associate honorary doctorates with older folk - at least, I do), and not exactly comfortable with The Man as it is, Bob had a host of reservations about accepting the award. It was only upon the urging of his wife and David Crosby (and, apparently, one of Crosby's joints - Almost Famous has a great deleted scene about the wonders of "Crosby pot") that Bob got himself to the ceremony, accepted the degree, and then got the hell out of there. And, as a result, we got this song, one of the snarkier and more cynical of Dylan's wilderness years.

Apparently during this ceremony there was a cicada infestation in Princeton (nasty little bastards, those cicadas are - I went through two iterations while living on the East Coast, and they are horrible insects), which is where the "locusts" of Bob's title comes from. Locusts, as well, are really terrible little bastards (there's a reason there was a plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians and not, like, a plague of butterflies), and one can only assume that Dylan did not mean for the locusts making noise for him to be any sort of compliment. You could probably even imagine Bob, stoned out of his gourd and distinctly uncomfortable wearing a robe and mortarboard, smiling a dry little smile to himself as he saw those insects crawling all over the campus. If nothing else, it's probably as fitting an image as he himself could have conceived.

As an actual song, it's one of the most fun on New Morning proper, with Dylan and old friend/teller of tall tales Al Kooper combining with electric piano for the verses and a powerful organ on the chorus to tremendous effect, as well as an up-tempo arrangement that practically charges with energy, matching Dylan's wicked lyrics. It would take somebody with Dylan's temperament to see what many consider a massive privilege and instead find himself imagining a tomb-like atmosphere, dead quiet, something out of Scanners, and Bob himself making a Bonnie and Clyde-like getaway with his sweetheart in tow. And, as you might expect, it's pretty darn funny, as well; one kind of wishes he'd been able to write about that Tom Paine dinner the same way he wrote about this, so that there wouldn't have been such a stupid fuss about the whole thing. This is one of the few songs in the wilderness years that make me think of Electric Trilogy Bob, not so much in the lyrics as in the droll sense of humor Bob's always had.

It should be noted, for the record, that a song like this also stands apart because it seems to run contrary to where Bob was at this point of both his life and his career. As will be mentioned in the "Sign on the Window" post (no, I'm not contractually obligated to mention it every post I make for this album - I have a good reason here), Bob appears to have carved out a new niche for himself as a family man and a quiet retiree (of sorts), something that most of his audience would probably have a pretty big problem with during that time. And, from all appearances during that time, Dylan was trying his damndest to live up to that niche. If any of you have seen the photos of Bob up in Woodstock during this time of his life, you'd have seen a man with a thin beard and reading glasses, messing around with his children, or reading a book somewhere, or strolling down some pathway in the forest around his property. In other words, you'd see a man who nobody in their right mind would've guessed was some kind of Spokesman for a Generation (much like nobody would've guessed that present-day Henry Winkler was the same man as the Henry Winkler who played Arthur Fonzarelli). Bob worked pretty hard to reach that place in 1970, and you could hardly blame him for being proud of it.

With all that said, it's both refreshing and even a little reassuring to hear Bob singing about how what many people would consider a great honor was, instead, both a massive pain in the ass and something that made him distinctly uncomfortable. You can change a lot about who you are as a person if you try hard enough, but it's damn near impossible to change who you are at your core. And who Bob Dylan is at his core is a man that can't help but Question Authority (as the button once said), doesn't feel comfortable in high society, and doesn't want a title pinned neatly to the front of his shirt. In other words, he's the Bob that so many people fell in love with during the mid-60s, and continue to fall in love with today. And that Bob showed himself under the layers of gentle smiles and country-man peacefulness in "Day of the Locusts", still uncomfortable with a label, ill at ease with something the general public would be happy to receive. Just knowing that that Bob is still there must have been quite a relief in those days. Read more!

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #145: If Not For You


On June 8th, 1970, Self Portrait was released to a disbelieving, astounded, and even totally pissed off listening audience. On July 23rd, just over six weeks later, the infamous Rolling Stone review of that album hit the newsstands. And, to the general surprise and almost relieved joy of said listening audience, on October 19th of that year New Morning began appearing on record store shelves. Just for the record, I'm certainly not in the camp that believes New Morning came out so soon to stem the critical beating Bob was taking in the wake of the disaster he'd just released (and I'm DEFINITELY not suggesting it had anything to do with the RS review - I may be crazy, but not that crazy), no matter how many people have suggested that that was the reason for the quick release. I find it more akin to when Radiohead released Kid A and Amnesiac, two stylistically similar albums, within eight months of each other. And it's not as though Bob had never done this before - maybe not within that short a time, but Dylan did release four acoustic albums basically within the span of two years, after all. It's just worth noting how short that time period was; the teapot-sized tempest surrounding Self Portrait didn't have any time to really get going before Dylan snuffed it out with an album that essentially serves as the Gallant to that anti-opus's Goofus.

In fact, the closest stylistic link to this album would in fact be the one that immediately precedes it - there is, after all, a preponderance of backup singers, mellow arrangements, and a laid-back feeling all throughout. However, we have two rather significant differences here, which help explain the latter album's enhanced reputation. The first, at least in my opinion, is that there's a jazzier feel to this album, the arrangements owing more to that particular free-form genre than to the blues, and parodoxically (at least, considering Dylan's blues knowledge, even at that young age) Dylan manages to do better with that style of music and this set of songs. The other difference, of course, is that there are better songs here. Funny how that works, no?

It says a great deal about the puckish nature of our man Bob that he would devote a chapter of the first (and, one can only hope, not last) volume of his own autobiography series to this album, one that has its share of cult follower appeal but is by no means a major work in his catalog, over any number of more famous masterpieces in his career. It also says a great deal that the actual telling of the circumstances of the album, with some of the songs being written for a musical that Bob would end up quitting after a few months, is pretty damn interesting - then again, any information about the wilderness years, with Bob mentioning a certain number of people he'd like to stick in his own personal Room 101, would probably be of a great deal of interest. And then there's the contentious nature of the sessions, which took place as the world reacted with scorn and shock over Self Portrait, and Bob found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to follow (horrors!) a bad album, or at least a critically disliked album (or, in this case, both). Under the circumstances, with the pressure on and all sorts of people beating on his door, it seems entirely remarkable that Dylan was able to record at all, let alone record an album, a wealth of outtakes, and a treasure trove of cover versions that could very well have made a second (and maybe better) Self Portrait. And that resulting album is GOOD? My stars.

Now, just HOW good this album is, that's a topic of debate. There are those that consider it Bob's lost masterpiece, the classic nobody talks about but really should. There are those that think it's really not that great, and only benefits from a halo reputation based on not being That Album. And then there's just about everybody else, that thinks the album has its merits, its weak points, but in the end is certainly worth the 36 minutes it takes to spin from front to back. I happen to fall in that third class, as you'd probably expect, but leaning a bit more towards the first - songs like "One More Weekend" and "Sign on the Window" (ESPECIALLY "Sign on the Window" - if ever there was a song that needs the "The Man In Me" treatment, it's that one) give the album an extra edge when debating the second tier of Bob's great long players. And the best thing about the album, especially in the wake of his last album, is that it holds together marvelously; a unified set of good songs will almost always get the edge over a disjointed set with some classics and some stinkers. In the end, New Morning is an album that probably deserves a critical reappraisal, and I hope one day it gets it.

The last thing that should be mentioned about this album is that, in many ways, it closes the book on the initial era of Dylan's career. In the obvious sense, it's the last official Dylan album* for three years, a pretty darn long time in the context of his career (hell, Bob put out an album just over a year after he BROKE HIS NECK), and when Bob returned he was practically a classic rock artist, something that would dog him through Tour '74 and would only dissipate when he bucked that title with his absolute masterpiece and the most vital live work of his career. In a more theoretical sense, New Morning is where we stop thinking of Young Bob, the counter-cultural Voice of the Sixties, the Man of Myth and Legend. When Bob Dylan would finally re-emerge from his self-imposed "slumber", it would be as Older Bob, the Middle-Aged, Wiser Man of the Seventies, not as out-there as he used to be, but just as capable of creating amazing music. In a sense, it's like pre-retirement and post-retirement Michael Jordan - the amazing basketball player with the highlight-reel dunks and boundless athleticism replaced by a smarter player with less hop in his legs but a bottomless well of tricks and skills that put him on a level above everybody else. And, with that in mind, New Morning takes on an even more nostalgic quality, as the Bob Dylan the 60s knew and loved gracefully exited, stage left. The king is dead. Long live the king.


It should be noted, then, that we actually kick things off on New Morning with what might be considered something of an inauspicious start, with my personal "wait, this is considered a classic?" song, "If Not For You". This is not to say that I don't like "If Not For You" (we'll get to my complaints in a moment), just that I don't hold it in quite the same regard as, say, George Harrison did. As a way of getting into this song, one thing I didn't mention in the introduction is a second dichotomy that links this album with its predecessor, one that Greil Marcus mentioned in the RS review (mentions of that will be much rarer now, I can assure you). He refers, as you no doubt remember, to Self Portrait as "such a...friendly album", which was also no doubt supposed to be a bad thing. Given how well Dylan tends to do unfriendly, and given that the idea of Dylan with a smile on his face was still relatively unsettling at the time, maybe it was, who knows.

Well, here's the kicker - New Morning is easily as friendly, if not even more so, than Self Portrait could ever claim to be. Just take this very first song - from the bouncy, electric piano-laden, casual guitar lick driven arrangement, to those moon-June rhymes as Bob declares his undying love to some anonymous person (the "and you know it's true" is a particularly nice touch), you have a song that's almost impossible not to love. It's almost like Dylan's version of an adorable dog that you can't help but want to pet; it makes no other intimations than to be a nice, poppy little song, and to think of it as anything else would be entirely disingenuous. Trying to pick some sort of deeper meaning out of this song is both fruitless and besides the point. It's a fun song. Bob's certainly allowed his share.

Where my problems with the song lie, then, is in that very arrangement that Bob ended up using for the official version. This is obviously a matter of preference arising here, but I consider myself a much bigger fan of the take that made it onto the first Bootleg Series, with George Harrison riding shotgun. Taken at a slower tempo, with a nifty little slide guitar arrangement cropping up between the verses and Bob chiming in with some always-welcome harmonica, this particular version (which Harrison would end up utilizing for his own version of "If Not For You") gives the song a more laid-back feel, one that might not have worked quite as well in the context of the rest of the album, but one that suits the song far more than the bouncy, yet slightly jumpy official arrangement. Dylan, for whatever reason, ended up scrapping that take (perhaps it was never meant to see official release - maybe it was meant as guideline for Harrison's eventual version), and going with one that has its own merits but seems distinctly inferior. Ah well, that's just me.

Inauspicious start or no, I still believe that Dylan could not have chosen a better way to kick things off for this album than "If Not For You". Even with the simplistic lyrics, it's still miles ahead of anything on Self Portrait; it'd have to be pretty hard not to be an improvement in that department (although I'd argue "All The Tired Horses" is the better song...). But what's most important is that Bob established right off the bat that while he was still the Bob with a smile on his face (well, until "Day of the Locusts" turns that smile into a sneer), this was a Bob with a stronger focus behind that smile, one that was eager to remind us that he could still write songs with vitality, songs that had life to them. It's not the greatest possible return to form, but it is a return to form all the same, and a welcome one indeed.

*note: that rationale is why I'm going to leave the 1973 album Dylan be. It may be in print thanks to iTunes (those bastards!), but let's not forget that it was only released by Columbia Records as a big middle finger to the recently departed Bob, and I don't think that makes it worthy of this little project. My apologies to those hoping to read my thoughts on "Big Yellow Taxi". Read more!

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #144: Alberta #2

And so, here we are, the end of the road that is Self Portrait, and we manage to end with a song that's both a fitting closer and one heck of an anti-climax. Perhaps those aren't even contradicting terms. It seems to make sense that this album would end with "Alberta #2", essentially a cover of another song on the same damn album, and a song as good as any to put this sucker to bed. As far as the song goes, it's probably the better "Alberta" - the song's structure is more suitable to an up-tempo arrangement, and Bob at least puts on a pretty good effort here. Of course, nearly any song would serve as something as an anti-climax for an ending to this album (with the possible exception of "Wigwam", which instead serves at the penultimate track as a final bit of perversion from our man Bob), so perhaps it's not worth worrying too hard about. At any rate, in true nature with the rest of the album, it's a pleasant few minutes that shows up, does its bit, and then abruptly comes to a close. And, anti-climax that this song is aside, there might not be a more fitting real ending than that tape screeching to a halt, like somebody stopped the reel too soon and nobody bothered to correct it. I kind of like that.

The final topic the RS review mentions, one so apparently important that it gets two whole sections, is the notion of Self Portrait serving as Dylan's version of the auteur theory, one which was catching hold as the 1960s progressed and the French New Wave had helped redefine what film could aspire to be. Seeing as how this collection of motley tunes has been named in a way that you can't help but immediately fix onto the man himself, one could easily infer that this album is in fact ABOUT the man himself, capturing the mannerisms, quirks, and all the little things that make Bob Dylan Bob Dylan. And, for those that subscribe to the auteur theory as something good and worthwhile, and want their art to bear the unmistakeable stamp of its creator and even act as part of the overall arc of said artist developing in his craft, this is a really, really good thing. Marcus, rather obviously, disagrees - he finds the idea of somebody wilding out over Dylan covering a bunch of other people's songs vapid, and it's hard to disagree.

Marcus also brings up the idea that approaching your craft as an auteur would is limiting in an artistic sense - that by imposing yourself upon everything you create, you and your works become more insular, self-contained, and this method of making art ultimately will collapse on itself. I'd like to point out that Emily Dickinson seemed to do just fine in that regard, but that's surely an exception, so we'll take Marcus at his word. And this is the sort of thing that can work both ways - both negatively, as Marcus would have it, but more positively than he'd give it credit for. Marcus is correct in saying that this insular way of dealing with the world can limit ambition, perhaps even stifle it entirely, and art tends to be better when it takes on the world and you don't have to play an endless guessing game as to which song has to do with which incident in the artist's life and what the artist was feeling at this particular time (which, of course, is practically unavoidable with Dylan, but we can agree that that's not the best way to listen to his music). Allowing his music to be overwhelmed with his own fame is the worst thing that could happen to Dylan, and an album like Self Portrait, constructed in a way that practically invites guessing games while not being strong enough to stand on its own merits, would get swallowed in a second. Not being a seer, of course, Marcus certainly had his reasons to worry.

And yet...I suppose I am already stepping on an entire series of future posts, but I cannot help but look five years into Bob's future, to find an album that would very clearly fall under the auteur theory that Marcus described, and yet is so powerful and brilliant that it dismisses any mere criticism like "oh, this is too much about Bob" with a wave of its hand. Now, obviously, it does not hurt to have a collection of astounding songs in your back pocket to help push aside those charges of navel-gazing, as Blood on the Tracks does. But what we're dealing with in that album is a song cycle that surely has everything to do with the artist that created it (despite his past claims to the contrary - I mean, come on, dude), that doesn't so much take on the world as shape the world into a stage for this little ten-act play Dylan has written, and has led to guessing games for well over 30 years (I don't think ANYBODY has still gotten a hold of what "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" is all about) - basically, then, Dylan's own version of Stolen Kisses. And it is an unqualified masterpiece. Surely, then, it's not just the pen, but how you wield it.

I don't think that Marcus was arguing, in the end, that an artist shouldn't be able to stamp ANY imprimatur unique only to them on their own work; after all, so much of what gives art its personality comes from he or she that created it. But what he was saying, and with regards to this album, is that when you stamp too much of yourself onto your work, you're running down a rabbit hole that only leads further and further down. And in those days, when nobody knew what Dylan was capable next, only that he'd released this disheartening collection of a few jewels buried under a mountain of slop, you could be forgiven if you saw Dylan chasing down his own personal rabbit hole, maybe never to be seen again. Thankfully, we know how that story ended. Bob came back from the depths of his own navel, recorded some of the greatest music we or our future generations will ever see, and proved every person writing his premature career obituary totally wrong. And, ultimately, that's what makes Self Portrait such a tough listening experience today - it brings us back to those dark times, when Dylan might have been lost to a lifetime of desultory covers and increasingly painful originals. We may know how the story ends, but that doesn't make me want to go through that story just to read the end all over again.

And that's it for Self Portrait! Whew. Coming up next - good music! No more using somebody else's words as a crutch! Thank you all so much for the reading and support; we're entering a new decade of Dylan's career, and a whole new spectrum of ideas to write about. I, for one, simply cannot wait. Read more!

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #143: Wigwam

I'm going to be completely honest - I'd wanted to spend a chunk of this post talking about how Wes Anderson used "Wigwam", a goofy instrumental that sounds like Bob recorded it after a night of tequila and cigars, to surprisingly emotional effect in his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums. However, two separate things stopped me from doing so. The first is seemingly obvious - with time running out on this album, there's much bigger fish to fry in terms of stuff to talk about, and it might not be prudent for me to take up valuable real estate talking about how much I like that film. The other reason, equally obvious, is that I could very well talk about the topic of movies and music linking together not too long from now, in a more appropriate setting (no points for guessing what that future post might be). So, with that in mind, I'll have to think of something else to say here.

What I do think bears mentioning is that this song is pretty hard not to like - I mean, granted, it's kinda dumb and kinda wacky (not in a good way) and is just about the worst possible (or maybe best possible?) "centerpiece" for this album. On the other hand, it doesn't try to be anything that it's not, and basically acts as the musical equivalent of extending a warm handshake with a big smile on your face. That sort of refreshing directness is the sort of thing you don't get in Dylan's career in general, and only in fits and starts on this album in particular, and is a welcome sound as the album finally winds its way to its end (it's over 60 minutes, you know; think of that!). And the horn section, managing both to be a grand brass arrangement and a remarkable parody of a grand brass arrangement, is the sort of musical touch that you easily wish Dylan had made more use of throughout this album. The best thing that I can say about this song is that it probably sounds best if you're outside on your porch, cooler full of beer on ice, staring at a really gorgeous sunset. That's a pretty darn good thing to say about a song, don't you think?

Now, then. The RS review, having winded its way through all sorts of crap, saves its two most interesting topics for last. The first topic, labeled "vocation as a vocation" (I always figured at least one of those was a "vacation"; it's hard to believe that it's not), discusses the prospect of Dylan having a calling and the consequences of if he decides to live up to it or not. That vocation, of course, is being a writer and performer of music, but Marcus has chosen to mix that in with a possible new vocation, as seen through the kaleidoscope of this album - Dylan as keeper of the spirit of our country. Marcus suggests, not without reason, that Dylan may have been reaching for it on this album, with its odd collection of folk songs, country music, blues, and Dylan's own particular brand of American music (filtered through his own country phase, country music being one of the most truly American forms of music that exist). But thanks to the overall half-assedness of the whole enterprise, Dylan displaying both considerable ambition and the lack of ability or desire to take that ambition to its natural conclusion, an opportunity has slipped both through his and our fingers. Instead, we're left with a man that (quoting Marcus - maybe my favorite and surely the most interesting bit of this review) is "hardly a prophet, merely a man with good vision".

It bears asking what, exactly, is wrong with having that good vision; it surely beats having no vision and not even seeing the zeitgeist, let alone having any part of shaping it. Where I think Marcus does have a point, though, is that you can hear the makings of something very special on this album, only to be tamped down by sugary sweetness and general lack of any spark. I find myself yet again having to assuage the readers of this blog that I don't hate Self Portrait, not nearly as much as I constantly find myself bored and disappointed by it. But it's only thinking about this idea of Dylan finding a calling for himself as a keeper of the red/white/blue flame that I actually, just a teeny tiny bit, find myself resenting Bob for recording this album. It's surely not Dylan's responsibility to BE that keeper of the flame, of course...and yet you hear some of the blues stuff that works, the left-field cinematic grandeur of "All The Tired Horses", the remarkable takes of "Copper Kettle" and "Living The Blues", and all the ways that Dylan showed he knew his shit w/r/t music before he was ever given a radio show to prove it, and, well, I don't know. You can make too much of anything if you want to, but if you don't make too much of anything, there's no point in caring about anything, now is there?

The funny thing is that, as he reaches the twilight of his career, Dylan has become that very keeper of the American flame Marcus had hoped he could be way back in 1970. Ever since the recording of those mid-90s folk albums, Dylan has taken just about every opportunity to integrate as many strains of the music he's loved his whole life into his albums, from the white-hot rumble of "Rollin' & Tumblin'" to the shimmy and shake of "If You Ever Go To Houston" to the almost indescribably gorgeous Apocalyptic vision of "High Water (For Charley Patton)", a four-minute tour of Bob's blues record collection scored to that amazing banjo track. And somehow, nearing his eighth decade, Dylan has managed to become even more an American figure than he ever has, shrouding himself in the past and eluding any attempt to understand what he's on about. Maybe all Dylan needed to reach that vocation was just a little more time. Either way, you can put together enough tracks from the last twenty-odd years to create that Western Marcus had seen Dylan nearly writing with Self Portrait. And that Western would be every bit the equal of The Wild Bunch, that is for certain. Read more!

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #142: It Hurts Me Too

As we finally begin to wind down this massive album (forget law school; I feel like I started this damn thing somewhere during my undergraduate studies), I find myself welcoming a song like "It Hurts Me Too" with open arms. It's not particularly great or anything - Dylan basically gives a bluesy, stripped-back rendition of a song that is probably as old then as Bob is now, claiming the track for himself (as is his wont - more on that in a second) while not doing too much to overwhelm the tune. What makes it a more fun listening experience, then, is that it's stripped-back, a more cozy listening experience than the Disney-fied takes on some (hell, most) of the songs on here, a bit of an oasis from all the puffery and what have you that makes up this weird, weird album. It probably says a lot that all I'm really asking for at this point is three minutes of innocuous, pleasant blues, but that's where I am right now. There's the pleasant I've had to get used to, and this kind of pleasant, and I prefer this kind of pleasant.

When talking about "It Hurts Me Too", the RS review brings up Dylan's legacy of occasionally pilfering songs, some from the public domain, others from more well-known tunes, and turning them into his own. This is, as longer-time readers of this blog will know, something that I've touched on a few times (usually to the effect of me getting torn a new one - such is life). One can be thankful that it's become rather a dead issue, something that has more academic value than anything else. I think, at this point in our lives, we can forgive Dylan for his occasional (some might say "more often than necessary") nicking of older songs and recasting in his own vein. After all, Dylan has certainly built up enough goodwill over these many years that when he finds himself in a controversy (such as the Love and Theft/Confessions of a Yakuza imbroglio) most of us are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Then again, we're talking about 1970 here, only a decade into Bob's career, when the topic is undoubtedly fresher (I kind of envy the RS crew, being able to write about this godforsaken album without the weight of 40 extra years of amateur sleuths - cough - taking a stab at figuring it out) and the wounds a little fresher as well. The RS review takes a nasty jab at Bob, suggesting that with all the songs Bob claims as his own on Self Portrait, Bob'll make a few extra shekels and "thousands of people will get a phony view of their own history". That might be a tad overblown, but certainly still a point to consider. Dylan has already had enough barbs flung at him at this point, what with the theft of folk melodies and his numerous career choices and what have you (I'm reminded of that Oscar Wilde quote, for some reason...), and the notion of Bob co-opting a genre of music for his own means is a worrisome prospect indeed.

Which, then, brings up maybe the one avenue of this damned album I haven't gone down yet - what the hell is up with Bob putting his name to so many of the songs that are clearly not his? The whole Self Portrait thing is a horse that's been well-beaten to death, so I'll try to leave that aside as much as I can. But the idea that Bob stuck his name on many of these songs (as the RS review intimates - "plagiarism" is a nasty charge to throw out there) does give us pause - you have to wonder, amongst other things, why Bob would go through the trouble when there were plenty of people that would say "what did you have to do with writing 'Belle Isle', exactly?", or what Dylan would actually gain from suggesting he might've had something to do with a well-known blues song that may very well have been written when Bob was still in footy pajamas. And the more I think about it, the more I find myself playing devil's advocate (as I often do), imagining that Bob might have been winking at us, or just outright saying "yeah, I've nicked some stuff before - deal with it", or something like that. I hate it when things don't make sense, and there's a lot about this album that doesn't.

As you might very well imagine, I'm glad that these series of posts are coming to an end, so that I can write about songs that are a) good, and b) don't have such an oppressive weight hanging over them. But I can't help but finding myself a little wistful, at the same time. Don't worry, I haven't lost my marbles (yet); it's more the idea that I won't be dealing with the history of Bob in quite the same way ever again. I'll be writing about classic albums, including one candidate for the greatest album ever recorded (certainly the greatest album about lost love ever recorded), I'll be writing about terrible albums (including one or two that might actually top this one for sheer awfulness), and I'll be writing about mediocre albums (it'll be fun to see which ones end up falling in that camp, considering it's been years since I've given a few of them a spin). But I can pretty much guarantee that I won't be writing about an album with THIS much baggage attached to it, one with as many talking points as the health care debate, and one that has confounded and even outright angered listeners for damn near four decades. That's something special. It's a pretty crappy world to immerse yourself in, but it's easy to immerse yourself all the same. Read more!

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #141: Take A Message To Mary

There's something kind of amusing and ironic, in my opinion, that what could be easily construed as the most depressing song on this album boasts arguably the album's most energetic arrangement. Those of you that know the Everly Brothers arrangement (a more gentle, acoustic-based affair, as proven by this amusing video - ah, the 50's) might be surprised to hear the tempo sped up, the backup singers in full voice, and a more driving rhythm section than, perhaps, the song demands. You probably won't be too surprised, though, to hear Dylan utilizing his country croon for the song - seeing as how the Everlys put their own stamp on the song (courtesy of Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, writers of "Bye Bye Love" and "All I Have To Do Is Dream", amongst others), Dylan probably felt it more prudent to use the voice you'd probably more associate with "singing" for him. It's probably a wise choice, in the context of this particular song, at least.

It is, perhaps, that combination of Dylan's country voice and the relatively peppy arrangement that makes this song stand out; it might not stand out in the sense that it's good, per se (as noted above, the song should probably lope along, given its subject matter - bringing it out to a trot might not be the best idea), but it's certainly different. Think of the more up-tempo songs on this album - you've got "Little Sadie", the Isle of Wight tracks, and that's basically it. Now, we're not talking Ramones or Slayer fast here; it's really all about degrees on this album. But when you're listening to the aural equivalent of a nice bowl of vanilla pudding, a bowl of vanilla pudding with some raisins in it is going to flip your metaphorical wig. Here, then, is one of those raisins. It's fun to listen to once or twice, that much is certain, and given how some of the songs on here don't even reach that damning-with-faint-praise status, I suppose that's a real compliment indeed.

A few days ago, I was flipping through (I think) Mojo magazine, which had dedicated a significant chunk of space to The Beatles on the eve of the major album remastering project (which I will be buying into, rube that I am). One of the articles therein talked about some of the lesser known accomplishments of the group, and the one that I'm remembering (you'll see why in a second) is "they killed Tin Pan Alley". What that means, in so many words, is that the group (by favoring their own compositions over that of professional songwriters - IIRC, A Hard Day's Night was the first album released by a group that contained only their own songs) brought an end to the system of popular artists recording music churned out in songwriting factories, helping to make it possible for singer-songwriters to emerge and bringing some much-needed grit into the world of popular music. In fact, our man Bob was brought up as a key example of this - who knows how his career would've turned out if he'd been forced into the role of mere songwriter, writing "Boots of Spanish Leather" for some cat with a better voice but lesser soul to put their grubby mitts on it? In that sense, we're all better off for the Beatles taking the fate of American popular music out of the hands of guys in ties and handing it to the musicians themselves.

Now, obviously there's nothing bad that can be said about that - you could certainly make a case that indie music might never have existed without a market for music recorded by their writers, and everybody from Tom Waits to Joanna Newsom owe their livelihoods to that. But I think that there's a flipside to this coin, one that we might not care too much about today but still deserves some consideration. This is about the most obvious example I could care to think of, but I look at the career of one Elvis Aron Presley, a musician who achieved everlasting fame by recording the songs of other people. Now, while Elvis may have a few songwriting credits to his name, we can be reasonably certain that he really didn't do much in that regard, and any actual songs he may have written probably wouldn't have been much of anything. So we have a career entirely based on songs not by Elvis - and we can agree, I would hope, that his vast catalog contains enough legitimate classics to justify its existence. And does anybody complain about a lack of emotion and soul in "Suspicious Minds" or "Can't Help Falling In Love"? Of course not. Like any good recorder of covers (one might say, if they're in a wry mood, that Elvis' entire career is that of covers, like a one-man Me First & The Gimme Gimmes or something), Elvis managed to make songs that weren't his own, well, his own, simply because he had that special something that allowed him to do so. And he wouldn't have had the chance without great professional songwriters to help him along. That, I think, deserves some consideration.

It's certainly true that modern professional songwriting is often not much to think about, and that for every "Since U Been Gone"s we get a truckload of whatever stuff Jordin Sparks has committed to plastic. And I'm not suggesting that "American Idol" is a particular good thing in any way, shape, or form. But I do believe that we have a place in our music-listening lives for professional songwriters like the Tin Pan Alley denizens of old, and that perhaps one day we can have artists that cross over the increasingly splintering divides in popular music, somebody who can satisfy those people that like a catchy tune while rendering the credibility issues that most indie fans would quibble over moot simply by the power of their music. Is that likely? Probably not. But a boy can dream. Read more!

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #140: Take Me As I Am

I feel it's worth mentioning that it's about at this point in writing the Self Portrait reviews that I've finally experienced that moment where I wanted to throw in the towel - I'm four songs from the finish line, once I get this post done, and that finish line has never felt so far away. For the record, it's not entirely this song in question that's made me lose my will; it's more like a catalyst than anything else. I have no qualms with this kind of schmaltzy country music, with the pedal steel guitar out in full force and the ladies in the cowgirl getups singing away in the background and the drummer tapping that snare in that well-known way and the saloon piano tinkling away in the background and Dylan stretching out his country croon almost to the point of self-parody (and say what you want about that voice, but he never came as close to that point as he did here), I really don't. Who amongst us doesn't like "Stand By Your Man", for instance?

It's just that the cumulative effect of this album has finally caught up to me - I only played this album all the way through once in preparation for this seemingly never-ending series of posts, and it was roughly at this point that I finally had to take a break lest I fell asleep or blacked out or something. And even going post by post and song by song as I am now, I still find myself wanting to lay my head down on a cool, cool pillow and float off to dreamland. The issue is that there are already enough songs like that on this damn thing - do I really need another one? The RS review argues that the album might not look so bad if there'd been some editing and we'd gotten just the Nashville stuff like this; I feel, however, like putting this stuff back to back would've actually made the album even more boring. And it's a really painful thing to listen to an album by your all-time favorite artist and be bored by it. I can only imagine what his studio band must've felt - some of them had actually played on his Electric Trilogy and his great post-crash albums, some of the best music anybody has ever recorded, and now they're tap-tap-tapping their way through Country's Greatest Hits and "Little Sadie". Hard not to feel for them.

And now the bit I've wanted to discuss for a few posts, the section in the RS review linked to this song. You can read it in the link above; I won't bother summarizing it here. I find it amusing that, nearly 4 decades on, people are STILL talking about why exactly Dylan chose to name this collection of covers and live tracks and assorted nonsense Self Portrait, attempting to crawl into the mind of a man who a) is smarter than all of us and b) has made his reputation on being unpredictable. To me, what helps give this album so much mystery is that it's the first unpredictable move in his career that led to something not good - or, if you want to be charitable, something that the majority of us doesn't agree is either good or an outright masterpiece. The review speculates that Dylan is defining himself on somebody else's terms, but I don't necessarily think that's true - after all, we've never really known what it means for Dylan to define himself on his own terms anyway. This was a man who had worn what, four different faces by this point in his career? Bob Dylan's not even a real name, for the love of Pete. What's one more face, even if it's the face of the musicians he's loved?

The really important part of that blurb is the second part, complete with Duke of Windsor comparison. And that brings up something that not only Dylan, but every artist of any particular influence (aesthetic, political, or whatever) has to deal with - the idea of where that artist's responsibility lies. The RS review makes it all too clear where they feel Dylan's responsibility lies - the very next blurb suggests that we are tied to him "whether he likes it or not" (as to that question, I have a pretty good guess) and states that because H61R changed the world, his subsequent albums must also do so, "but not in the same way, of course" (gee, how charitable of them). Basically, according to them Dylan has already made himself a person of influence, and is bound by some sort of law or honor or whatever you want to remain a person of influence and to use that influence to shape the rest of mankind. Well, at least in an acceptable fashion - no more of this country bullshit, okay? And if he decides not to do so, because of this or that or the other thing, he's just another Puppet of The Man and a two-faced traitor like anyone that made himself a public figure, gave himself to us, and then had the indecency to snatch himself away.

I would hope the tone I adopted tells you how I feel about this; that kind of selfishness is almost laughable, even with the understanding that the times this review was born in could bring about that level of dramatic emotion. That Bob wanted to share his music with us is not just something incredibly special, but something precious few individuals are lucky to have ever been able to do. And that, by virtue of luck and circumstance, the music he recorded helped shape a crucial period in American society - that's simply not something Bob is accountable for. To be honest, the man's not really accountable for anything (well, other than not killing or raping or whatever...sorry, too much criminal law already). If Bob had never recorded another album after 1966, it would have entirely been his right. Quite frankly, if every artist that's currently on this planet today wished to stop recording or making albums or writing books, that is also entirely their right. To try and snatch that right away, and demand the artist no longer create art, but Shape The World, is beyond any of us. Quite frankly, were I in Bob's place, you'd have had no shortage of pictures of me getting on a plane somewhere. And I'll tell you this - I'd have never looked back. Read more!

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