Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #73: Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again

Having been a Beatles fan practically since puberty hit, I've had the chance to hear my share of obscure stuff, such as the home demos John Lennon recorded during his exile from the music industry in the mid-to-late '70s, some of which are on the Lennon Anthology box set (like most box sets, an example of having to wade through a sea of mud to find some pearls). That's where I got to finally hear Lennon's infamous "Serve Yourself" parody - overrated, lest you were wondering - as well as a few other jabs at Bob's expense. I can't remember, though, if I heard one in particular, in which Lennon apparently excerpted a number of newswire articles and strung them together into a semi-coherent babble, then "sang" the "lyrics" in a Dylan-like voice, ending with the amusing phrase "stuck inside of a lexicon with the Roget's Thesaurus blues again". It doesn't take too much of a brain surgeon to see where Lennon's going with that, of course. Lennon's never had a problem taking the piss at Dylan's expense, even in his older and wiser days.

What I find funny about that parody, other than Lennon apparently making some sort of commentary on Dylan's lyrical style, only about a decade too late, is that, in a certain way, Dylan was doing what Lennon had done before in his music - hiding real feelings of isolation and loneliness in music meant for popular consumption. Everyone knows that "Help!" was Lennon's real cry for help in the midst of the furor of Beatlemania, when he was at his most frightened and overwhelmed by his sudden and immense fame. And while Lennon's lyrics were direct and not difficult to decipher, the bluntness was still obscured by the jangling guitars and tight harmonies of the Beatles at their poppy best (one imagines that Lennon could've brought in "My Mummy's Dead" in 1965 and the band could've turned it into another smash). Dylan's lyrics in "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" are much less direct, full of the same glorious insanity as much of Blonde on Blonde, but at the core the song is summed up by one line - "deep inside my heart/I know I can't escape". No matter the craziness of the verses, between neon madmen and punching cigarettes and the like, Dylan's narrator can only bemoan his fate, stuck in the same kind of purgatory found in "Visions of Johanna".

In generally I try to stay away from too much psychoanalysis of Dylan's songs on this blog - both because it's been done to death by better writers, and because I freely admit that I'm not good at that sort of thing. And yet with Dylan in 1966, it doesn't seem like a stretch to see instances of isolation in his lyrics, no matter how arcane they may seem at first glance. From anecdotal evidence and many indications, this was a lonely, lonely man. Many geniuses often find themselves lonely anyway simply by virtue of their minds acting as buffer from the rest of society, but Dylan's is a case shared by precious few other human beings. And whereas the Beatles had each other to share the burdens of fame and Elvis had the Memphis Mafia to keep himself busy, Dylan (aside from a few companions and The Hawks in 65/66) was basically taking on an incredible tidal wave all by himself. Phrases like "spinning out of control" and "he doesn't want you to see him this way" pop up in Behind The Shades' retelling of this period, and we can only imagine how much further he could've gone before the motorcycle accident. It must've been hard enough on the "Don't Look Back" tour, having to deal with audiences in love with a version of you that you wanted nothing to do with anymore. One can only imagine the psychic blows he took every night in 1966, high as a kite and being booed for making incredible music.

The 1966 tour had not happened by the time "Stuck Inside of Mobile" had been recorded, but there was still enough insanity ruling Dylan's life to allow the feelings of loneliness to creep into his writing. And, in a lot of ways, the imagery of that song, as hard to fathom as it is for many of us, surely felt like a natural reaction to the Dylan of that time - another piece of his suit of armor, so to speak. I mean, here's a man dealing with reporters asking him questions that must've made him want to tear his hair out, with fans begging for a piece of him, no matter how small or - ahem - important to him, with an audience demanding his old self and another one clamoring for his new one, with a private life that involved dumping a huge music star and sparking a new relationship practically at the same time, and with all the madness that comes with being recognized all across the world. How does a man with "twenty pounds of headlines/stapled to his chest" even come close to that sort of mind-bending loony bin lifestyle?

As with the rest of the album, the crack band provides a spoonful of sugar to help the (Texas) medicine go down - in particular, Robertson's miniature solos bubbling to the surface, coupled with that cartoonish organ wrapping itself around Dylan's words. The backing track neatly walks a fine line between underplaying the oddity of the song and actually being too bizarre; one shudders to think about how a lesser band might have ham-handed it up on the organ, or provided a colorless backing to lyrics that demanded an exciting approach. But the band rises to the occasion, and delivers a fine backing performance in spades. And so Dylan, much like his old friend and erstwhile kinda-sorta pupil Lennon, manages to use a brilliant group to disguise his true feelings in a cloak of musical genius. Dylan may not have been crying out for help, but it doesn't take a lot to hear that he needed it.

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22 comments:

Abe Hawari said...

I agree with your comment about Blonde and Blonde. The whole album is nothing but a sad attempt to recreate H61. Its a caricature, its as if it were somebody parodying Dylan, instead of the man himself playing. The way he sings, phrasing and all, on this album is downright too much for me.

Anonymous said...

Abe, If you are going to diss the album, at least get its name right. It's Blonde ON Blonde.

And it's far from being a sad anything. You see, he had moved on again. Well, obviously you don't see.

Abe Hawari said...

Oh come on, we all make mistakes.

All i was trying to say is i view it as a much less mature album lyrically and musically

Jo Morley said...

Oh, Mama ...

I always thought that it was "twenty pounds of headlights stapled to his chest"!

Anonymous said...

Cat burglars love Bob..........

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable. I don't agree. I find Blonde On Blonde an amazing album that is far superior to alot of crap coming out in the 60s. Just listen to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland and tell me that is not a brilliant song, as is all of the other songs including Stuck inside.

Tony said...

So, uh...nobody wants to talk about the actual post, then?

Abe, I'm not entirely sure where you picked up any criticism about Blonde on Blonde in my post; I've made my admiration for the album clear before, and I cannot agree that he's trying to recreate Highway 61 Revisited. The debate about the albums' maturity levels, on the other hand, might be worth thinking about.

Anonymous said...

Blonde On Blonde is an overflowing ash tray covered in honey and drenched in wine.

Pete said...

I think you're correct about the insanity and the headlines; what I'd add is that this led him to see and portray the whole universe we live in as just that crazy, and I think he makes a pretty compelling case! It's there virtually throughout the album, but most obvious and striking on Memphis Blues Again.

As to BoB being an attempt to recreate H61, that's just absurd. I love them both, but I think BoB is a much more conscious and realized effort. The sound of H61 seems to me like an accident (a very happy accident), while BoB seems to me to show Dylan "playing the band" -- using the incredibly facile Nashville session musicians to bring out what he heard in his head. They were used to doing this anonymously (he got major props for listing musicians on the sleeve) and they came in, sat around, waited, and did their job. Bloomfield had, shall we say, other strengths (and weaknesses) and was key to H61; Buttrey's the one I give most credit for BoB -- in a way you could say hat the difference is the difference between those two.

And that's enough generalizations for now! Thanks for resuming writing ...

BlogDaddy said...

I think you nailed this.

I was wondering where wiki got the Lennon Quote on SIOMWTMBA. Lennon had a bit of professional jelousy, they were both putting out albums left and right. Incredible pressure.

But I missed the message that Dylan had hidden in SIOMWTMBA. You are exactly right that he is trying to express this fear & frustration, but keep the song upbeat and moving.

Freewheelin Bob has a lot of personality in the songs. The Moto Phsyco Story and the Bob Dylin Blues. With H61, Dylan starts to move himself out of the songs and into the background.

Desolation Row is a masterpiece and the largest task Bob attempts in his early career. And even though it's a personal song, there isn't a lot of Bob in there. He lets the story unfold as he stands by. Aware that as he steps into the songs, he also steps into the medai frenzy. Don't send me no more letters, no, not unless you send them from Desolation Row.

As he moves to Blonde on Blonde, he really steps back and the music is a little bit better for it. So much expectations, so many distractions. I am sure it was hard to write songs in that environment. But BoB has at lease 8 really great songs. You can see a transition to John Wesley Harding there looking back.

Good Job.

Laurence J. said...

sorry, abe, Blonde on Blonde is a whole 'nother animal from Highway 61, and in many ways superior. Listen to
the guitar work on "4th Time Around", the harmonica/bass on "Obviously 5 Believers", the partying on "Rainy Day Women", the perfect matching of baroque lyrics and baroque arrangement on "Sooner or Later", and on and on...even "Temporarily Like Achilles" (one of Bob's most overlooked songs) is a standout.

Matt Brown said...

I have always found BoB to be among Bob's best work, and in some ways his most ambitious musically. I have never really associated it with HW61, certainly not in terms of overall musical approach and general "feel" (or sound). I will say that BoB is a bit uneven in quality, but I think that is just because it has some of the greatest songs on it he ever wrote. I would include "Visions of Johanna", "Stuck Inside...", "Sad Eyed Lady.." in those, with a few others coming in as "second tier" (Absolutely Sweet Marie, e.g.). "Rainy Day Women" has always been a crowd pleaser, and Bob had often obliged, but it's clearly not of the same quality and caliber as some of the other songs mentioned above.

Abe Hawari said...

OK, sooner or later, im going to write a long, long, essay about my thoughts on Blonde on Blonde on my blog, just so there is no misunderstanding.

rob! said...

For years I thought the one line was "..and me and Millie got busted" when of course its "An' me, I nearly got busted."

When I thought it mentioned some girl named Millie, the song seemed less lonely to me, because I imagined Bob (or the "Bob" in the song) having some friends he has crazy adventures with, like getting busted.

Markku Koski said...

Great insights and mishearings. And now the mystery of Blonde on Blonde is revealed. It means Bob!

Matt Brown said...

About the post itself--about Bob's psychological state in the midst of 1966 when recording: I, too, shy away from engaging too deeply in reading direct parallels from biography into lyrics and music. This is partly because so much more goes into the music-making process than just a writer, even one as compelling as Dylan, easily and directly "translating" feeling and mood into words and sounds. Writing the words is one thing; working them out into the "finished product" is something entirely different.

I think the great virtue of the Bootleg Series, now in its 8th installment, is to reveal the songs that didn't get onto the album, the final cuts and versions that did, and the ones (like Mississippi and Dignity) that waited around until the next album or even several years down the line.

The version of "Stuck Inside..." that comes out on BL, vol. 8, shows this quite well, I think. The basic words and structure is there, but when compared with the final version on BoB, it certainly has a different pace, feel, and overall mood. The lyrics are remarkably similar, however, which makes it a bit easier to get at the kinds of issues Dylan was dealing with at the time.

The lines that stand out to me are, like Tony's, the ones that indicate a feeling of being trapped, stuck, not being able to escape. "Speaking to some French girl, who says she knows me well"--didn't everybody "know him well?" or at least thought they did. And, of course, the final lines: "Here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price, you have to pay to get out of, going through all these things twice"--these say something, too, about what Dylan experienced personally.

But, to close, what I have always thought made Dylan (and all great artists and poets) great is the way that, as deeply personal something may be in where it comes from, that is transcends the personal and speaks more universally. I mean, how many people in their lives have had that experience? What would I have to pay or do to get out of "going through all these things twice"?

That combined personal-transcending the personal is, I think, what has made Bob last as long as he has, and even thrive today as he speaks to newer and younger fans. He was already leaving the claustrophobic confines of the "folk scene" by HW61 and BoB, and really became a mature writer/songwriter as a result.

Matt Brown said...

Correction from previous post: Sorry, I said "Stuck Inside..." alternate version was on Bootleg, Vol. 8. That should have said Vol. 7 (from "No Direction Home").

Anonymous said...

Of the three mid-60's LPs, I find HWY61 to be my least favorite, Blonde on Blonde being the pinnacle and BIABH a close second. Also, I never cared much for this song...not sure why...

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I've commented, I love this blog.
Long story short I also love this song and maybe nobody else feels this way but to me this song is not anywhere near as random as people think. Bob is stuck in the past mindset people have of him, Mobile Alabama the deep south, acoustic folk ballads when he strives to be doing his own thing, electric stuff.
My favorite parts of this song are the lyrics that are intentionally backward, which brilliantly parallels the title....

"Post Office has been STOLEN
and the mail box is LOCKED"
As in the following examples those words are backwards, on purpose it should be 'the post office has been locked and the mail box is stolen"

"SMOKED my eyelids, and PUNCHED my cigarette" again those are backwards "punched my eyelids and smoked my cigarette"

The key line that sums up this song for me is
"And here i sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice"

That sums up Bobs entire battle against himself, his audience, and their perception of him perfectly, thats what this song is.

Anonymous said...

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

David George Freeman said...

Well that is all very interesting but are you stuck inside the words? Then get stuck into Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/601/Stuck-Inside-of-Mobile-with-the-Memphis-Blues-Again and listen to all the great versions instead.

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