Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #87: Goin' To Acapulco

Did any of you guys know that "Goin' To Acapulco" is about a prostitute? At least, that's the impression that I've gotten about the song, after having listened to it enough times and given the lyrics a thorough once-over. I mean, I could be wrong; I've always been naive about catching sexual references, and it's entirely possible that I'm overcompensating when it comes to cases like these. But in this case, everything just seems to make sense. You've got this guy who's talking about seeing a woman named Rose Marie - who just happens to live down Mexico way. You've got a multitude of food metaphors that all seem to add up to something other than just eating ("everybody's got to eat" - sure, okay; "I can blow my plum"...er, all right?), as well as a really odd reference to pumping on a well when it breaks down. And you've got the narrator talking about how "it's a wicked life, but what the hell", which - unless he's talking about how evil it is to get a bite to eat - points towards something kind of hinky going on down there. I suspect I'm not blowing anybody else's mind by putting this together, but it's nice when I can occasionally work out things like these on my own.

Of course, it would be one thing if the song was just about taking a trip down south to give your favorite working gal the ol' pickle tickle. But when you take everything into account - Dylan's exceptional vocal performance, and the Band's stirring and sympathetic backing, with Robertson's gentle guitar riffs and Hudson's equally gentle organ track standing out - the song becomes something deeper and more beautiful, the same way that "Roxanne" would be a ham-fisted bit about a prostitute without The Police's powerful performance to back it up. In the hands of Dylan and the Band, the tale of going down to see soft gut (whatever that means) takes on a more emotional resonance, matching the wistfulness of the narrator talking about ditching all his troubles and having some fun in Acapulco. In that sense, "Acapulco" is less a location for this Rose Marie and more a state-of-mind kind of thing, the equivalent of those black-and-white cruise commercials they played nonstop in the early '90s. Everybody's got their own Acapulco, and sometimes you just need to get away from your busy life and make your way there.

Coincidentally, my own private Acapulco happens to be in Mexico - no, it's not Acapulco, but it's close. Many years ago (over a decade, incredibly) I went down to Cancun for a family vacation; thankfully, it was not during spring break (woo!), so we weren't overrun by thousands of drunk college kids looking for their own personal lost shaker of salt. That didn't mean that being in Cancun isn't an overwhelming and occasionally aggravating experience, and after a few days we decided to find ourselves another place to while away the rest of our trip. And then we settled upon a small (at least at the time, according to my memory) village called Playa Del Carmen, right on the toe of the boot that is Mexico. And I just remember having a much, much better time, away from all the tourists (or, at least, that many tourists), being able to see a Mexico unspoiled by hordes of outsiders. I can still see the beaches of the city, sand as white as a ball of cotton, the light blue water just stretching out and out and out.

Not too long ago somebody told me that Playa Del Carmen, as was probably inevitable, had become "way more touristy" since I'd been there, almost like a miniature Cancun. That's sad on just about a hundred different levels, but again, not particularly surprising - there are increasingly fewer secrets in this world of ours, and it was probably only a matter of time before that idyllic hamlet (again, in my memory) would be taken over and changed irrevocably into a place where you could down tequila shots and do things you won't be proud of five years later. And that's a depressing thought. Now, as I've taken pains to mention, I'm simply going on my memories of how I saw the town - it's entirely possible that the tourist-ification of Playa Del Carmen was already beginning and I just missed it. But then, how else do places like that receive their reputation other than the memories and experiences of those that visited them? If your mind tells you that you had the time of your life, then you had the time of your life, no ifs ands or buts about it. It's the same thing in "Goin' To Acapulco" - we can't possibly believe that Rose Marie ever does the narrator wrong (the "hooker with a heart of gold" thing), but the narrator says so, and that's what really matters.

Just for fun, take a second and imagine the narrator of "Goin' To Acapulco" actually existing, let's say in the bygone era that Greil Marcus has the song existing in, and the life that he might lead. You can see the man, probably a farmer, maybe even a Civil War veteran, thinking about how stern and serious his life is ("if someone offers me a joke/I just say no thanks" - actually, come to think of it, how annoying are people like that?) and how much he enjoys when he can sneak off and lose a few days in Mexico with Rose Marie. Aside from the fact that the guy would've gotten there on horseback instead of JetBlue, that sounds a lot like us, doesn't it? The idea of keeping fantasies (or even, occasionally, living them) as an escape from the drudgery of reality has existed for a long time, longer than Walter Mitty, longer than nearly anything. And few things are as crushing as when that real life infringes on our fantasies and destroys that bastion of happiness we all have. But the memories are still there - and I can cue up "Goin' To Acapulco" and dream of that white sand and blue water any time I want. Read more!

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #86: Million Dollar Bash

Probably the catchiest song on the entire Basement Tapes sessions (if not the best), "Million Dollar Bash" is one of those Dylan songs that has become popular simply because it's so hard not to love. It didn't hurt that Dylan slotted it on Biograph, but you could easily argue that its enduring popularity gave it that spot in the first place, so beloved is this tune. Carried by an astoundingly simple melodic line, the Band giving him a relaxed arrangement that actually makes the song more casual than the session's history would suggest, Dylan puts together a classic song out of entirely confounding lyrics, a laughably low-rent chorus ("ooh baby/ooh wee/ooh baby/ooh wee/it's that million dollar bash" - Shakespeare, this ain't) and his remarkably dry wit. The song is both exceptionally catchy - somehow that hook manages to stick itself in your brain immediately - and eminently quotable (right from the very beginning, with that bit about the big dumb blonde; how often does he ever write lines like that?). I still remember the first time I heard this song, a staggering change of pace from the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited, and laughing at the "I punched myself in the face with my fist" line. I still get a kick out of that line today.

And I'm still not entirely sure what the song is about, or if it's really meant to be about anything at all. If I had to guess, aside from being a big get-together, the "Million Dollar Bash" is sort of the equivalent of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, a MacGuffin that can be more or less anything you want it to be. Obviously it's something pretty special, since everybody in the song - Turtle (presumably not this Turtle), Silly Nelly, Jones, etc. - are heading down there to meet up and have themselves a good old time. And the narrator, in whatever plot the song can be said to have, after complaining about the hard life he has to put up with, eventually gets out of his work by injuring himself (I'm guessing that's what that business about hitting himself means; who knows, it might have been the inspiration for Jack's Smirking Revenge) and heads over to the big party. Maybe that's what the whole Million Dollar Bash business is meant to be about - in a crazy world of menial labor and wacky characters, there's always something to look forward to at the end of the day. Yeah, probably not.

But there is something interesting contained in the song that Dylan may or may not have been thinking about. You'll note the fact that everybody in this story - we'll assume that we're talking about a small rural town in America, as opposed to Greenwich Village or Los Angeles or something - are all heading to the same place, at the end of the day, to meet up with each other and just hang out or whatever. And you can see just how much the narrator wants to be there, as he talks about it all through the song and finally gives himself a haymaker so that he can make it in the end. This is, from what I've read in my occasional dabblings in American history, a very common picture of what life was like in the days that the Basement Tapes seem to be deliberately invoking (according to, well, everybody that's written about the damn things), where the community would get together after hard work to unwind and to be with each other. Dylan, in his own off-kilter way, is evoking that image for a society not too far removed from those days, still getting used to the idea of not having that in their lives, as the majority of the country had become suburbanites at last.

I'm reminded of the semi-famous essay/book "Bowling Alone", where Robert Putnam wrote about how Americans were losing their sense of civil engagement and social participation - for instance, the decrease in bowling leagues, which lent the title to the essay/book. This erosion of a collective sense of togetherness, coupled with a rise in a society dependent on independent activities (like watching TV, for example), would eventually cause a crisis not just in terms of our interaction with each other, but with the very foundations of democracy itself. And even though Putnam has come in for his share of criticism (for instance, the mere fact that this sort of worry had been around at least since the 1920s with the advent of radio), there is still a general fear amongst some that we are losing our ability to come together in a social fashion. Look at all the criticism heaped upon, say, Twitter - apparently because people will be so caught up in their 150-word descriptions of what they ate for lunch or what they thought of the latest episode of Lost, our desire to actually meet each other in the flesh, either just one-on-one or in groups, will eventually fade away to nothingness. The Internet, video games, DVDs - all this will lead to a nation of (to borrow a term) "three hundred million people, three hundred million cabs". And no matter how much nonsense this may be or how much evidence there is that people are finding new and different ways to have communal experiences, this fear will always exist, simply because there's no way to go back to the America of the 30s and 40s, of unlocked doors and weekly barn dances and so on. That genie isn't going back into the bottle.

"Million Dollar Bash", purposefully or not, recalls that time when the genie was still in that bottle, and when tight-knit communities were not just the province of what is occasionally and unfairly dismissed as "flyover America". I wonder if that's given the song new appeal to the older generation (outside the fact that it's just a really great song), as they can remember when there was still a time when people got together, had coffee and biscuits or what have you, and just shot the shit about life in general. In a way, it's kind of sad that that America doesn't really exist anymore, or only exists in increasingly isolated examples. All the same, I'm glad to have a generation where there are so many ways to enjoy oneself on a Friday night, with or without other interaction, not entirely tied to one all-encompassing event. We traded our supposed sense of community for a wider open world of entertainment, and I suppose if I had the choice, I'd make that trade again. Read more!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #85: Odds and Ends

It is times like these where both the inherent strengths and weaknesses of this project I've undertaken become entirely evident - and I'm pretty sure I won't have a time where both are in such strong display as for the series of posts for The Basement Tapes, a collection of music that continues to confound and amazes four decades since their recording and three decades since their release. I will readily admit those weaknesses right up front: I haven't read Invisible Republic or heard The Anthology of American Folk Music (at least not in ages), and plenty of the allusions and references and outright thefts are going to go over my head. And I will equally readily point out what I believe are the strengths: by being free of all those scholarly reference points and avoiding the well-trod ground of trying to figure out what in God's name Dylan and the Band were up to in Big Pink, I think I can possibly shed light on some aspects of the songs that may be glossed over in favor of saying "hey, maybe Dylan's talking about the Johnstown flood in 'Crash on the Levee'! History really DOES come alive!!!!" I mean, you do not have to search hard to find that kind of stuff; I'd certainly hope that if you're still reading at this point, you're not expecting that from me anyway.

I wrote about how difficult it is for artists to genre-hop in a previous post; it is a talent that precious few musicians, even the great ones, can pull off with any type of success. I would dare say, though, that the change in musical style Dylan made between 1966 and 1967 is as great a change as anybody has made in their career, including Dylan himself. Even at that point we knew that Dylan was well-versed in musical styles, that he had great respect and knowledge of Americana, and that he was no stranger to weirdness in his music. But nobody could ever have dreamed of Dylan, with his musical cohorts the Band, cranking out a mess of songs that took all of those threads running through American music and synthesized them into something that occasionally defies description. In those songs you can see two different worlds colliding - the rock-styled insanity of Blonde on Blonde and the razor-sharp lyrical directness of John Wesley Harding - and reshaping the path of Dylan's career. I'd bet that Dylan, having himself a lark of a time with his friends, never could've foreseen that.

And the fact that Dylan was having such a good time goofing around is, to me, the most important aspect of those sessions. It occasionally tends to be forgotten that Dylan wasn't trying to record a new album here; hell, the only reason some of the songs were copyrighted was because Columbia required them to be in his contract. The Basement Tapes, at their core, are just a group of talented musicians jamming, having a whale of a time, while one of them recovers from a serious injury and tries to figure out what to do with the rest of his career. Maybe that's why they're so damn loose and funny - they always figured that nobody was going to hear them make up these silly songs about God knows what, and without having to impress studio executives or worry about a general audience, they were free to let their inner Muses just do whatever they pleased. And that kind of fun is entirely infectious - it's hard not to listen to a song like "Please Mrs. Henry" with a smile on your face. I can only imagine how big the smiles were on the faces of the guys recording the song; then again, it might just have been from the weed.

A song like "Odds and Ends", chosen to be the opener for the official release, gives you a pretty good view of what the sessions were all about. After all, not all of the songs were fully-formed masterpieces like "This Wheel's On Fire" or "Sign on the Cross", where an obvious amount of craftsmanship and care went into turning the song from a wacky one-off into something worthy of album status. Most of them were, indeed, wacky one-offs, inside jokes (think "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg"), and improvisations that seemed just to be Dylan tossing off whatever crossed his mind while the Band follows along as best as they can. "Odds and Ends" fits more into this mold; sure, it's a fun song and all, but it's less than two minutes long and bears the stamp of the group just having a good ol' time. Dylan put together some lyrics about a devilish woman that treats him wrong and spills juice on him (material that lends a lot of credence to the Anthology influence theory - well, maybe not the stuff about the juice), tacking on a surprisingly meaningful chorus ("lost time is not found again" - how true!), and the Band just rocks along behind him. Most remarkable, though, is that the venom of Blonde on Blonde, recorded a mere year before, is entirely absent. Dylan's singing about a woman treating him wrong, but without the malice and the twisted wordplay it comes across a lot more innocent and fun.

That innocence and fun gives The Basement Tapes the special charm that sets it apart from so much in popular music, as well as from the rest of Dylan's catalog. Dylan's always had something of a puckish sense of humor - why the hell else would he stick his visage into a commercial for Victoria's Secret - and that sense of humor was evident all through these songs. We'd never again get to see Dylan so charming and playful, so off-the-cuff, so willing to sound silly on tape, and so unguarded in his lyrical stylings. And, thanks to the remarkable adaptability of The Band, he could take all those goofy little ideas floating around in his head and transform them into entertaining and historic pieces of art. Not bad for a couple of jam sessions with your boys.

Author's note: For the sake of my sanity, I will only be covering the songs officially released in 1975, along with "Quinn the Eskimo" - there may be a tie-up essay covering the unreleased songs, and I might do individual posts on the more famous unreleased stuff. I haven't entirely decided yet. And, obviously, I won't be covering any of the Band songs. "Katie's Been Gone" is a pretty good song, for the record.

ETA: In the interest of maintaining some semblance of a chronology, I've decided to include songs like "She's Your Lover Now" and "I'll Keep It With Mine" in the Bootleg Series/Biograph series of posts, i.e. their dates of official release. I felt that the non-album singles, having been released in the 1960s, should be lumped in with the 1960s songs. Thanks to the anonymous poster for pointing this out.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #84: Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?

For all of the trail blazing that Bob Dylan did in the first stage of his career, expanding the ideas of what you could do with music both in terms of length and subject matter far more than any other musician, it's worth remembering that in many ways he was writing about the same stuff as many other musicians of his time were. Sure, he was writing about those things in wildly different ways (I'd daresay that Mick Jagger never thought to use the same wordplay Dylan did - well, at least until he wrote "Jigsaw Puzzle"), but there were still a fair share of jilted love and non-jilted love songs scattered across the discography of the Electric Trilogy, not to mention the folk songs that dealt with topics that many other lesser folk musicians were writing about. And this is definitely not a knock - I mean, if there are (supposedly) only seven basic plotlines that every story/movie/what have you draw from, then surely Dylan can be forgiven for touching on the same subject matter in his songs. Like any good film, it isn't so much the subject matter as what you do with it; even the most basic underdog story can take flight in the hands of a master craftsman.

And so, with "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", we get master craftsman Bob Dylan taking on the time-worn conceit of "your man doesn't appreciate you, you need to get away". What's interesting about this song is that Dylan's narrator never actually says "you need to get away...and come to ME", which is where a lot of these songs tend to go lyrically. In fact, the narrator even says "you can go back to him any time you want to", an odd suggestion given what a real jerkwad the boyfriend (or whoever - controlling father, maybe?) that's holding this woman down. I mean, he even mentions how the woman's "face is so bruised", a really uncomfortable image that gets tossed off almost casually by Bob. That actually makes the song a lot more interesting that maybe it should be - why is Bob saying this stuff? This guy is clearly an asshole, and yet Dylan says "you can leave him, no prob - hell, you can go back to him, if you want to"? Maybe that's where all that "Dylan = woman-hater" business came from.

Perhaps that's the reason why "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" doesn't have quite the same reputation as the other singles of this era (I've always found it odd that somehow this got A-side status, especially given any other number of options). It's a really odd duck of a song, mainly because those lyrics are so wickedly incisive - as they tended to be during this time - but somewhat conceptually muddled, thanks to that "you can go back to him" bit. Perhaps Dylan's trying to make a point about how women can find it so difficult to escape from an ugly relationship, no matter how gigantic an asshole the man in question is, or how badly the woman in question is treated; the "Trailer Trash Woman On Cops" theory, as it were. And this is certainly a true point - any of us can point to someone we know that found themselves trapped in a horrible relationship, knowing full well that their situation is a wreck, and yet unable to extricate themselves out of some misguided sense of duty, or perhaps just because they love that person, no matter how horrible they are. Somehow, though, I don't think so - the jaunty arrangement Dylan whipped up, with that organ that zips in like a flash of lightning, kind of belies any more sympathetic sentiments you'd like to tie to the song. Even when Dylan's singing "don't say it will ruin you/please, don't say it will haunt you", it sounds more like an annoyed exhortation than any attempt at comfort. Amazingly, Dylan spends the whole song knocking the man, and yet the woman comes off just as bad. The little snippet from "Positively 4th Street" he tacks on at the end, apparently just for funsies, doesn't help matters much.

Then again, it might just be a matter of perception. Not too long after the release of the song, Jimi Hendrix covered the song with the Experience on one of his many BBC sessions (it can be found on the official release), and would cover the song live as well. He gives the song the usual heavy Experience treatment, sacrificing some of the more charming aspects of the original (like that nifty organ, of course) for a heavier attack, allowing his still-astounding guitar chops to carry the day, and singing with that charmingly amateur voice he'd have his entire career. But - and here's the important part - while singing the lyrics from the song exactly as written, with absolutely no change at all, it still feels more playful, like he's being cheeky about it, but not in the same nasty way Dylan's being cheeky about it. And yes, there is a difference - there's a very fine line between being a smartass, and being an ass. So you have Hendrix, who wrote psychedelic-tinged songs without much meanness to them, and you have Dylan, who couldn't walk down a street in 1965 without coming up with a song with at least some meanness to it, performing the same song in very different ways. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Dylan's version is going to come off as the meaner one. That's just how perception works.

What makes Dylan's career so fascinating is just how these dichotomies work - the fact that so much analysis of his writing and his lyrics stems entirely from the perceptions we place upon him, and upon the inevitable biases that spring up from those perceptions. We then see things in his career because we expect to see them, which can make things quite handy, but often might pay him shorter shrift than we mean to. It's sort of like how Street Legal takes a critical beating because the arrangements are often overblown, which also leads into criticism of the 1978 world tour (thanks mainly to the Budokan live album, which honestly isn't that great), in which Dylan's back catalog received the same Michael Bay-style treatment. Never mind that Street Legal has some of the greatest lyrics Dylan ever wrote, or that the 1978 world tour has some really fantastic performances if you want to find them (although I will say that my favorite performances are entirely from the tour rehearsals). We have the ideas we know about Bob, and we go with them. I'm as guilty of that as the next guy - it's human nature, when you get down to it. We just have to try to do the best we can to avoid that pitfall, every chance we can. Read more!

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #83: Positively 4th Street

In the wonderful essay he wrote for the official release of the 1966 Manchester show, Tony Glover mentioned the release of "Positively 4th Street", Dylan's follow-up single to "Like A Rolling Stone". I wish I could remember exactly how he described the song, but it was something to the effect of "a paler version of 'LARS' with inferior lyrics". Which sounds harsh, certainly, but I'm pretty sure that's the opinion that many of this site's readers may have about the song. On a surface level, the songs have quite a bit in common - the arrangements both prominently feature signature organ lines, and the lyrics are a harsh indictment of somebody that the songs' narrators seem to know a lot about. And when you compare the two songs that way, "Positively 4th Street" is always going to come out the loser. That's why I said it was unfortunate in the last entry that Dylan chose to play both of them at the same show in '66 - by playing them back to back, not only does it highlight how similar they both sound, but it actually robs both songs of their power because of those similarities. That's never a good thing.

"Positively 4th Street" has always sort of been "LARS"'s little brother, from the moment that it was slotted to follow "LARS" as Dylan's next single. It's hard enough to have to be the follow-up to that masterpiece, but its very nature tends to open it up to a lot more criticism than it might deserve. I mean, "Positively 4th Street" is a great song. It might not be up there amongst Dylan's best (depending on who you ask), but it's certainly worthy of consideration. After all, the song came out of the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, where Dylan was just a factory of great songs to begin with, and he had the same crack band behind him to give the tune life and power. Everybody remembers that organ bit, but for me the real highlight of the musical portion is Michael Bloomfield and Dylan's guitars interacting with each other, the rhythm guitar track laid on particularly thick and Bloomfield's fills just working its way around it. I've always loved that jangly guitar that (I assume) Dylan's playing, and it's probably at its most prominent here.

So you've got that exceptional band laying down the music, but that's only half of the battle. What is most interesting to me about the lyrics to this song is how utterly direct they are, especially in this period of Dylan's career. I would say that they have more in common with the emotional soul-baring of Blood on the Tracks than most of the Electric Trilogy, but even the lyrics of songs like "Tangled Up in Blue" have that impressionistic mind-picture quality (with the heartache neatly mixed in) to link them with the Dylan of the 60s, so that you knew you were listening to the same guy even when everything sounded so much more different. There's no wild imagery, no oddball poetic touches, nothing to soften the acidity of Dylan's lyrics here. He's just laying his anger and bitterness right out there, in twelve verses that spare absolutely no quarter. And I can certainly see how people might not like that, in their lack of any sort of literary cushioning, and would demean the song for it. I actually find Dylan's directness bracing, and kind of refreshing; after all the "Dylanesque" songs I've posted about, it's kind of nice to get a song that dispenses with the Tarantula shit and just gets nasty.

I realize that this appeals entirely to the baser instincts of both myself and mankind in general, but there's something kind of...I don't know, brilliant about the way Dylan could just release that venom into such an exceptional song. The venom isn't entirely coherent and seemingly bounces between pathos and self-pity and anger from verse to verse, but it's still there and it's still tremendously potent. And it's hard not to be jealous of that talent - Bob's ability to take these pent-up emotions and just let them go, in those words, is something I've often wished that I've had throughout my lifetime. And it's not because I'm some sort of hateful guy; on the contrary, I always do whatever I can to be nice to people and to avoid conflict (some of you that actually know me in real life are probably rolling their eyes, but I'm being serious here). All the same, I've had my moments in my life where I've had some anger towards somebody, and I've wished I had the ability to just bring it out, to really sting somebody with my words and make them feel as badly as I felt. Sadly, I don't have that kind of ability. But Bob does, or did, and we have the proof.

I often wonder if Dylan, as he's reached the twilight of both his lifetime and his epic career, looks back at the songs that he wrote as a young man, often full of vitriol and sharp words against his foes (real and imagined), and feels any regret about the way he wielded that sword he kept tucked away in his mind in those years. We know that he's felt remorse about "Ballad in Plain D", saying that he "wishe(s) he'd left that one alone", so it's entirely possible that he feels the same way about songs like these. I wouldn't doubt it - after all, the things that seem so very important to you when you're a young man (Bob was in his mid-twenties when he wrote these songs; it is impossible to conceive of somebody that young being that successful at his craft, unless he plays professional sports or something) seem much less important, maybe not even important at all, in your older days. Somehow, though, I don't really think that's how Bob feels. I like to think that he looks back on those days, when everything moved and changed at a speed nobody could conceive, smiles that little enigmatic Bob smile of his, and says to himself "man, that was a hell of a burn, wasn't it?" And not of malice, or because his hatred still burns within him - simply because it was one hell of a burn. Read more!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

EBDS Special Post #2: The 1966 World Tour

Author's note: And now, to cap off 1966 Week here at EBDS, is my own little essay about the 1966 World Tour. I hope that you all enjoy it - believe me when I say that this version was not the first I'd set to paper (so to speak). Next week will be the resumption of individual song posts, with "Positively Fourth Street", "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", and then a dip into the wild and wonderful world of The Basement Tapes. Hope to see you then!


It seems impossible, even for those that lived it, to put Bob Dylan's 1965-1966 tours into any sort of context, even as the legends practically demand some sort of context, so as to not allow the shows Dylan played to reach a stature that would not so much obscure the music as swallow it whole, like Saturn devouring his son or something. After all, no less a Man of Import than Martin Scorcese chose to end his exceptional documentary on Dylan's career with Dylan's fabled performance of "Like A Rolling Stone" in Manchester's Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966 (complete with the "Judas!" moment, one of the most famous fan interactions in music history). The recording of that Manchester show, even after a decade of official release, still bears the stamp of legend, of generations of tape traders passing down copy after copy, even getting the date wrong because it makes the story that much cooler. Every new recording from the 1966 tour is greeted with slavish devotion from Dylan fans worldwide, and there are probably still folks attempting to break into Columbia's massive vaults so we can FINALLY get a full copy of the Dublin show we've heard so much about. The 1966 world tour - a tour that nearly ground one of the greatest musicians to ever live down into a pulp; a tour filled with controversy and anger and a lot of emotions you just don't get from a band playing music, for Pete's sake; a tour that gave us music of a kind that we may never hear again, for better or for worse - is dangerously close to being less about Dylan playing music on stage, and more about the legend of Bob Dylan; considering how muddled that legend tends to get, that's dangerous ground indeed.

The shows that Bob Dylan played between his first electric band concert at Forest Hills in 1965 and the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 did not take place in a vacuum, where people showed up and booed and cheered and did whatever else for no particular reason. They took place in an era where popular music was moving so fast that it seemed impossible to keep up, embodied in the spirit of a band that moved in two astounding years from the well-crafted pop ditties on A Hard Day's Night to the free-ranging mindblowers of Revolver with hardly any pause in between. And they took place at the point of a man's career when he decided that he was no longer satisfied with both a brand of music and its distinctive sound, but was happier to play music with amplifiers and to sing about whatever the hell he damn well pleased. And, to compound all of this, the bulk of the shows that man would play in 1966 were on the other side of the world, with an audience struggling to keep up with the changes he was going through, who only a year ago had demanded a set that played to his past while only glimpsing at his future. With all that coming together, I will say that it's hard for legends NOT to spring up immediately; after all, if there was a time for legends to grow, it'd be that time.

And yet, even with all those elements coalescing into a perfect storm, you still have to imagine what it must have been like to have been at one of those shows, to actually see that storm bearing down upon you. Let's say you're in Manchester, heading to the Free Trade Hall to see Bob Dylan that night. Maybe you saw an ad in the local paper, or your mate Nigel told you about it a few days ago. Apparently Bob had been in Liverpool a few nights ago - that must've been a blinder, yeah? You're a big fan of his acoustic records - you've worn out the grooves on Freewheelin' in particular, and you go to bed every night with "My Back Pages" dancing through your head. You've turned on countless friends to his music, his politics, his way of life. And, somehow, you can't really understand what this "Subterranean Homesick" whatever is blaring out of your transistor radios these days or why Dylan's on record playing loud guitar and going on about losers and cheaters and God knows what else. Still, Dylan doesn't show up in your hometown every day, and you regret not seeing him do "The Times They Are A-Changin'" last time around, so it'll be a treat to watch him play it this time. Hell, you'll make an evening of it - Dylan on stage, then a few pints with the boys. It's either that or another night in front of the telly, and all the programs are rubbish anyway. This will be a blast.

So imagine your surprise when you see Dylan on stage that night. He looks like he's had one too many late nights, bone-weary, thin as a rail, eyes burning with a sleepy intensity that only comes from the right mixture of drugs, and dressed like every Fancy Dan you ever hated seeing when you'd go down south to visit your Nan in the big city. But he's got that acoustic guitar, and that's all that really matters. Maybe the songs aren't exactly the ones you're hoping for - no "Hard Rain"? no "All I Really Wanna Do"? - but what the heck, you applaud as appreciatively as everybody else. Never mind that he's doing strange things to the songs, drawing out words and syllables in ways they were never meant to be drawn out, playing astounding and seemingly endless harmonica solos almost like he's having a laugh, and tuning his guitar for minutes on end between the songs, at least while he's not slurring his speech and muttering about God knows what. He's playing his songs the way they were meant to be played, without that annoying band mucking up the songs behind him. And when the 15-minute intermission comes, you head over to the bar to snag a pint and relax - the next half should be just as good, and surely THAT'S when he pulls out "Hard Rain".

And then...

It's about halfway through "I Don't Believe You" that you realize that this is not a joke, that Dylan's actually going to keep these gussied-up Yanks on stage with him and play this booming rubbish, and that the gentle acoustic set was merely a setup for this gruesome noise. Your dander immediately rises - betray us and play this garbage, will you? A significant portion of the crowd begins to slow clap, and you join along (not really sure why - whose bright idea is it to show extreme disapproval by slapping your hands together in rhythm?), as Dylan stares blandly at the crowd and keeps on singing and strumming his guitar. At one point he blathers into the mic until the naysayers quiet down, then calmly mutters "if you only wouldn't clap so hard" - and some of the punters actually laugh! Your anger boils at this waste of money - there's no way you'd have paid your hard-earned money to see this shit if you'd actually KNOWN - and you begin to shout at the stage, hurling every insult you can think of, just hoping that Dylan would finally feel the shame you desperately want him to, shoo his gang of hoodlums off the stage, and pick up his acoustic and begin anew. And finally, as you can feel the show winding down, your anger at full pitch as horrid rock song after horrid rock song have assaulted your senses, you realize that you can turn and storm out of the hall...

...or you could try shouting something else - something that might really hurt.

And that, to me, is the real element of the 1966 tour that deserves more attention. The battles that Dylan had with his audiences are known the world over, as much the calling card for the '66 tour as the music itself. But, as silly as it seems now, we need to remember just how hurt those people were that booed him, and clapped slowly, and shouted epithets, and compared him to history's most evil traitor. I've given my share of ribbing to the more serious folk fans of Dylan's audience, but I'll never doubt their sincerity, their devotions to the causes that matter to them, and how painful it must have been for their most powerful voice to do a runner and head over to the worst possible ilk he could ally himself with. They came to see their hero, and they saw a villain in his place - worst of all, many of them had no idea that transformation had even happened, and that the hero had left a long time ago. And they booed, and cursed, and damned themselves to the wrong side of history forever and ever. There's something poignant about that, I would say.


Okay - I'm going to preface this part of the essay with a confession. The revelation that led me to put this section together only occurred to me a few months ago, and in fact may not be entirely new hat to many of you readers. In a way, it's almost embarrassing - this was right in front of my face for all those years, and I never got it until just recently. All the same, I think it's interesting to write about, and I hope that I do this little theory justice. We shall see.

One thing we all know about the 1966 tour is just how much torment, both physically and psychologically, was laid upon our hero's head during his sojourn across the world and elsewhere. Just about any photograph of Dylan not on stage taken during that time, when he was without his metaphorical suit of armor and at his most vulnerable, bears out how brutal a toll he was suffering during that time. The hollow cheekbones poking out of his flesh, the eyes puffy and sunken from lack of sleep, pale skin from days writing songs in hotel rooms and nights pumping out music wired to the gills - all of that belied just how tough things were for him. Imagine being in his shoes, taking drugs with something close to relish, playing killer sets night after night, and getting the shit booed out of him for it. And I would never wish that on anybody again.

And yet...you do have to wonder about that torment, don't you? After all, Dylan was a big boy back in 1966 - he certainly had to know that it was not good for you to take a pharmacy's worth of crap and then stay up all night banging away on his typewriter with Robbie Robertson. He was certainly well aware that he was going to be booed just as hard in Cardiff or wherever as he was in Pittsburgh, or Boston, or any of the places where he'd debuted his electric band (with a few notable exceptions - the Hollywood Bowl show is exceptionally free of audience abuse). And, of course, it's certainly possible that he just didn't care about what was going on with him in those years, that he knew that he was hurtling over a cliff with his wild lifestyle and seemed to welcome that cliff with open arms. It's hard to feel sorry for a man that's actively seeking to kill himself, even when he knows that's exactly what he's doing.

And then there's this. One thing that always bothered me about the 1966 World Tour is that, from just about every show I managed to get my grubby hands on, nothing ever really seemed to change. You had some more widely varied setlists in 1965 as the original touring band was finding its feet, and there was an occasional surprise like the "Positively Fourth Street" from Sydney (one time they actually played "Positively Fourth Street" before "Like A Rolling Stone" - a miscalculation, if you ask me), but basically the fifteen songs played in Manchester were the fifteen songs played all throughout the world tour. And, the more you listen to the shows, you start to realize just how academic some of the changes between the shows themselves actually can be. Sure, you're obviously going to have your favorites based on performance, whether it's a really superb "Mr. Tambourine Man" harmonica solo or a particularly driving version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (for example, my electric set of choice has always been the explosive Liverpool set, between the hard-charging performances, the "there's a fellow out there looking for a savior" bit, and the great story of the lady walking to the stage and handing Dylan a note that said "tell the band to go home"). The asides to the crowd, the way Dylan dealt with slow clapping, Dylan coughing and tuning away for eternity on end - all of these became almost like catchphrases on the tour. Hell, even the performances bore signs of this, with Dylan yelling "all right!" at certain points, shoving in those incredible/interminable harmonica solos...even Robertson & Co.'s solos tended to sound the same, show after show, night after night.

Now, there could certainly be some good reasons for this - no time to rehearse between the songwriting and drug use; Mickey Jones replacing Levon Helm and making the learning of new songs pointless; hell, maybe the band just didn't feel like changing shit up if they were going to take a beating all night. But I think it goes further than that. I mean, considering that Dylan always started with that acoustic set, almost like lulling his audience to sleep before springing his trap...or the fact that he almost always has to say "it used to be like that, but now it goes like this"...or that Robbie Robertson's or Garth Hudson's solos practically never deviated from night to night...that definitely has to count for something. Think about the songs that he played - absolutely no folk songs, outside "Baby Let Me Follow You Down", along with the recasting of some acoustic favorites into electric beasts - and why he chose to play the songs that he did play. And then we've seen what Dylan has done for the rest of his career from the face-painted manic carnival of the Rolling Thunder Revue to the fire and brimstone bully pulpit rants of the 1979 gospel tour to whatever Masked and Anonymous was supposed to be, and things start to come a little more into focus. And then we finally remember that famous Dylan quote - "I'm just a song and dance man" - and things become crystal clear.

What the 1966 World Tour has come to represent, at least to me, was Dylan creating a piece of performance art the likes of which we've never seen. Every bit of his show, from the opening bars of "She Belongs To Me" to the final cymbal crashes of "Like A Rolling Stone", was carefully cultivated for the maximum impact in terms of audience reaction, both from an enjoyment standpoint (for his electric fans) and in sheer provocation (for his betrayed acoustic fans). Every "offhand" remark, every biting guitar solo, and every note pounded out by his band had a meaning, like lines in a particularly wicked two-act play. And though there may be room for deviation - like, for instance, a muttered aside about a folk music guitar, or a droll little tale about a Mexican painter - the script was faithfully adhered to, night after night, by the poet and his players. And the result was magical, every night, just as much as it was provocative and even vicious at times. So maybe you can't have too much sympathy for the worn-down Dylan of 1966. After all, if he didn't want the boos, he shouldn't have written out those lines.


Now, just because the 1966 World Tour was not strong in terms of deviation, that doesn't mean that every performance was totally rote and interchangeable. Just like you can catch the Royal Shakespeare Company on a good night or on a great night, fans of the 1966 tour have their favorite nights, and even their favorite performances within those nights. The beauty of music (aside from, well, its beauty) is its subjectivity - we can talk about "intensity" and "great solos" all we want, but in the end it's simply our own personal preference, sparked by something in our minds we can't even name, that leads us to what we like and what moves us on that level that music moves us. And that's why we can say that the Liverpool electric set, or the Sheffield acoustic set, or Edinburgh's "LARS", are the highlights of a tour practically littered with highlights.

And that, surely, is why the hunt for 1966 recordings (in good sound, of course - as nice as Away From The Past is to have, I really don't want my listening experience to be a *chore*) has continued for over four decades, even with scads of great sounding live recordings out there, even with a flippin' OFFICIAL LIVE RELEASE, for Pete's sake. There's that belief that, no matter how good the stuff we already have is, there's got to be that one blowaway show hidden in the vaults somewhere that will really knock us off our feet, that will make Manchester sound like an off night, and will open up the secrets of the universe and reveal the meaning of life. I mean, look at the stuff we already have! Astonishing performances of "Visions of Johanna", full-tilt runthroughs of "I Don't Believe You", the single performances found on b-sides and Biograph - surely there has to be better stuff that we've never heard, right? Until the full tour is finally out there for all of us to hear, we'll never know. But it's as close to the Holy Grail as us Dylan fans get - so many amazing songs out there, and still we need more.

Personally, I could live without that many more acoustic performances - I've gone back and forth over how I feel about the acoustic sets for years, and I've finally decided that I really do like them, but there's still a little standoffishness I hold towards them even today. For one thing, I've always felt like there was a little meanness to those performances, like Dylan went out there thinking "I'm going to really stick it to those folk weenies" and then went at that full hog (and I'd think so even without having heard the "folk music guitar" dig). It's not that I don't think he's enjoying himself, but he's enjoying himself in the way that a kid might enjoy holding a scrap of meat just out of the reach of a hungry dog. And yet there's still so much craftsmanship and genuine energy in those performances, between Dylan's relish in snapping off those syllables and his genuinely soulful harmonica blasts (winding and sometimes boring they may be), that it's hard not to like them in even the smallest way. You can find some real beauty in those performances, and I'll never say anything different.

But it's the electric performances, like I assume it is for most of you, that are the real draw of the 1966 tour. Listening to these performances, even today, is like being swept up in an angry, noisy wave, where every song seems to flow into each other with natural ease even as they clatter and burn with powerful emotion. And that emotion, to me, is what really gives the electric sets the extra oomph and a power the acoustic performances (for all their strengths) never quite reach. With the acoustic sets, Dylan's only interested in the songs for his own sake and performs accordingly - he could give a shit if anybody in that audience likes them. But with the electric performances, there's the feeling that he wants them to be loved, not just by the fans that enjoy his electric stuff, but by those that proved so hard to convert - maybe he knew he couldn't convert them, but damned if he wasn't going to try. And that fervor fed into the band, leading them to crank out powerful, thunderous arrangements. I dare you to take the eight songs that make up those electric sets (nine if you want to include "Positively Fourth Street") and find any arrangements from those songs, from any other year of Dylan's long and storied touring lifetime, that better the arrangements from over forty years ago. That takes some strong doing, and all credit in the world goes to the Hawks and Mickey Jones for turning those songs into monsters on stage.

And then, with one ill-fated motorcycle ride in New York, it was all over. Dylan would go into seclusion, the Hawks would move on to better things, and the madness surrounding the 1966 World Tour (if not the stories of the shows themselves) would slowly fade away. It would be 30 years until that madness could be revisited, thanks to Columbia and their exceptional vault of tapes. In those thirty years, tapes of the concerts would be passed around like copies of the Bible in the Middle Ages, to be heard and cherished by the chosen few, building a legend that would grow as every year passed on. I consider us all very lucky to have those shows, and to be able to go back forty years to a night where Dylan would confront both his past and his future, in fifteen incredible songs. We'll never again see the likes of it. Read more!

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Special Guest Post #2: Justin Shapiro on the 1966 World Tour

Author's note: When I originally conceived this site nearly a year ago, I envisioned the occasional guest post as part of the overall tapestry - partially because I wanted voices other than mine to be heard, and partially out of my abject laziness. Well, the laziness is still there (although I'm working on it), and now I finally get a chance to have that voice speak. Justin Shapiro, commenter extraordinare, the man who convinced me to make this blog a reality, and easily the biggest Dylan fan I know, has been kind enough to offer some thoughts about Dylan on stage, in 1966 and beyond, as part of this special week. I hope you enjoy what he's written - it's as sharp, erudite, and hilarious as his comments are, only there's more of it. This is the first of what I hope will be more contributions to EBDS.

When Tony Ling asked me if I would contribute to 1966 week on his website, I said, “Eh? No. It’s not 1966 this week.” Then he explained his concept, and I said, “Oh, I see. Still, no.” Then he asked again and I said, “let me answer your question with a question: yes.” “Good.” “Wait, it has to be good?” “Of course not.” “Okay then.”


“This is about a painter down in Mexico City, who traveled from North Mexico up to Del Rio, Texas all the time; his name’s Tom Thumb, and uh, right now he’s about 125 years old but he’s still going, and uh, everybody likes him a lot down there, he’s got lots of friends, and uh, this is when he was going through his BLUE period, of painting, and uh, he’s made COUNTLESS amount of paintings, you couldn't think of ’em all. This is his blue period painting, I just dedicate this song to him, it’s called ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s BLUES.’

[A scream!]

You know Tom Thumb?”

I like how the above monologue about Mr. Thumb, spoken as an introduction to the song by Bob [Dylan] in Melbourne in April 1966, becomes more and more of a portentous parable about its speaker with each passing year, leg of the Never Ending Tour, and album (he’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about).

The countless amount of Bob Dylan paintings we’ve been made privy to has become even moreso with the (gradual, sporadic) advent of the Bootleg Series; in this new generous age of increased 1) reverence for and 2) output of material from Dylan’s musical career, it can be easy to forget that the three likely most-celebrated live albums by Bob Dylan have all only come out, belatedly, over the last ten years. Bob’s longstanding inability to compile a truly successful, representative live album for a tour has made for one of the great sources of Dylan- related consternation for Clinton Heylin, along with everything else he’s ever done, ever. There’s little question that, the compellingness of the Hard Rain album as a standalone document notwithstanding, the matter of assembling a record, via record, of Bob Dylan in concert (and probably Live 1963: Bob Dylan In Concert, in due time) is far better left to Jeff Rosen many years after the fact than Bob Dylan in that moment.

But not every call that Dylan made with regard to releasing his live material was a misfire in the vein of Real Live or Dylan and the Dead. Paul Williams mentions in Performing Artist that “the first live Dylan recording ever released to the public, and the only one until 1970 (nine years into his career)” was the 5/14/66 “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from Liverpool. It was the B-side to the single for “I Want You” and, twenty years before three songs from’66 appeared on Biograph and thirty years before the Bootleg Series Vol. 4, this “Tom Thumb” stood as the only ‘official’ documentation of that tour.

In the second volume of Performing Artist, while discussing an artist performance of “Dead Man, Dead Man” from New Orleans in 1981, Williams notes that this marked “the third time in [Dylan’s] career that he had chosen to share an otherwise unavailable live recording with his listeners via the b-side of a single” (1989’s “Everything is Broken”), along with the above-mentioned “Tom Thumb” and the legendary “for Leonard if he’s still here” version of “Isis” from Montreal in ’75 (best-known from Biograph but first the b-side of “Jokerman” in 1984). “If one were to consciously select one live track to per decade to sum up what Dylan was reaching for as a performer in that era,” writes Williams, “one could hardly improve on this short list.” This observation always stuck with me, and today I wondered if it still applied to Bob Dylan in the next two decades, if there was still an unconscious correlation between live cut b-sides and Dylan-decade-definitive performances.

The ’00ughts were a no-brainer: “High Water” from 8/23/03 in Niagara Falls was released as an iTunes bonus download, the contemporary equivalent of the b-side, for the single of that “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way” remix thing, was subsequently released on Tell Tale Signs and described in essentially every review of the album as ‘smoking,’ ‘scorching,’ ‘torrid,’ ‘incendiary,’ ‘the work of a serial arsonist,’ or any of many adjectival variations of ‘hot.’ As a High Water mark of the keyboard-catalyzed sound of live Dylan from ’02-05, it definitely fulfills Williams’ criteria as “the work of a brilliant rock and roll singer performing with a band that is right out there on the edge trying to push him over at every moment.”

The Nineties are less of a layup, but Sony/Columbia/Dylan did put out a handful of Never Ending Tour recordings as extra tracks on the CD single of “Love Sick,” the then-contemporary, already-antiquated equivalent of the b-side. These are all performed with the Larry Campbell-Charlie Sexton edition of Bob Dylan & His Band (my personal favorite). I’ll take, then, the notorious Grammys performance of “Love Sick,” which forebodes its way through streets that are dead (to tritely literalize the lyrics) and even features Dylan himself – not Sexton or Freddie Koella or Robert Robertson or Scarlett Rivera’s violin – uniquely ‘shredding’ a guitar solo.

There you go, then. Five performances from five decades of five songs from five decades. Dylan’s still going and everybody likes him a lot. The first one is from his blue period, but he’s made countless of these such paintings and I couldn’t think of ’em all.

But I know Tom Thumb.

“Some people preferred my first-period songs. Some, the second. Some, the Christian period. Some, the post-Columbian. Some, the Pre-Raphaelite. Some people prefer my songs from the nineties.”
- Bob, interview with Bill Flanagan re: Together Through Life, 3/18/09

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues - 1966
Isis - 1975
Dead Man, Dead Man -1981
Love Sick - 1998
High Water (For Charley Patton) - 2003 Read more!

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #82: Tell Me, Momma

Author's Note: This is the only old piece of writing that will appear on this website. About three years ago - has it really been that long??? - I started writing a book about a guy who lives his dream job of writing music reviews for a living (big stretch, I know) and has all sorts of wacky adventures along the way. Part of the novel would include actual reviews written by said guy, including the article I'm presenting here now. The book never made it past the first chapter, but the article still remains. I originally posted this on my MySpace blog, but since very few people even know I have a MySpace page, this will almost certainly be new to all of you. Please enjoy the first entry of 1966 World Tour Week, and one of my favorite pieces written by myself.



The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England, May 17th, 1966. A smoky concert hall, lights dimmed, an eerie quiet hanging over it all. The jam-packed crowd, having seen the man they came to see deliver a stunningly gorgeous set of acoustic music, watches as roadies slowly load amplifiers, guitars, and a drum kit onto the stage. Some of them murmur in trepidation, others rub their hands in delighted anticipation. Five young men walk onto the stage, with no heraldry whatsoever, dressed nattily in the finest Carnaby Street attire. They settle behind organs, tune guitars, tap snare drums. Then, like an ghost suddenly emerging from behind a locked door, another young man enters stage right. His hair piles skyward in unruly curls, sunglasses mask his weary eyes, and he is dressed in a sharp checkered suit with unbelievably stylish boots. Strapped to his back is a Fender Telecaster, an instrument that is decidedly not for acoustic music. He plugs in his guitar, and the murmurs increase in volume. As he strums a single chord, the pounding beats of a bass drum are heard, and suddenly the band explodes into action.


"I accept chaos..."

-Bob Dylan


Of all the emotions that govern us as people, fear may be the one that drives us hardest. Love, greed, hate, sympathy - all of these have their supporters. But fear speaks to something deeper, more primal within us, forcing us to look deep within ourselves and confront whatever hides down in the places we don’t want to go. Fear is immediate, understandable, and unfeeling. It affects us in ways we do not want to admit.

And of all possible things to fear, maybe the thing that we fear most is change. Think about just how malleable our lives really are. We may think that it’s as simple as birth, school, work, death - but every single day we face something different than the day before. It can be simple - realizing one day that the burger joint you went to in high school has been torn down for a faceless fast food restaurant, and suddenly feeling your age that much more. It can be complex - realizing that upon the death of your father, you have lost a link to the past that can never be replaced. Either way, the same fear is there - the fear of being manipulated by forces far beyond your control.

There is no person in the world of music that thrived on the fear of change more than Bob Dylan. Certainly, given a musical career pushing four decades, he has had more chances to do so, but he has undoubtedly made the most of them. Consider: he became the leading folk singer of his time, then with little warning modeled himself as the new face of rock and roll. A few years later, he recorded an album entirely of country music. A decade later, coming off one of the most successful runs of his career, he made an album of songs about God. His entire 80s input was confounding, the work of a man constantly in flux. And he finally reinvented himself as a troubadour straight out of the Civil War, singing songs about Armageddon and about Gatsby in the same breath, as strange to us now as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" must have been blaring out of transistor radios in 1965.

I have no doubt in my mind that Bob Dylan is the greatest musician that ever lived, and his defining characteristic is his defiance of people’s fear of change. I’m not saying that he was not afraid himself - certainly he was just as scared of the future as anybody else would be. He didn’t know if he could successfully build a new audience from scratch while simultaneously alienating a old one; he had no idea if people would accept him singing in a Nashville twang backed by steel guitars; and he certainly didn’t know if people would accept him screaming about the Lord and how he wanted to save our souls. He is the greatest musician because he feared the idea of change, and went ahead and changed anyway.


"The two loudest things I ever heard in my life were a jet plane taking off, and Bob Dylan and the Band."

-Marlon Brando


So what of this song, then, the opener of one of the most famous rock concerts ever performed? Well, having finally heard it upon its official release in 1998, I shake my head and wonder why it never saw the light of day. Perhaps it was Dylan’s motorcycle crash and his desire to wipe away as much of his previous life as he could. Maybe it was just fate - being a factory of great songs at that point, he could certainly afford to leave one or two behind.

And yet the song itself is so powerful, so joyfully alive, that it practically cries out to be heard. With the Band’s cacophonous din behind him - stinging guitar lines, rock-solid bass, and drums so loud they’d give John Bonham pause - Dylan sneered out a simple request for a lady he knows to tell him "what tearing up your mind". Certainly the subject matter is familiar to Dylan, and yet there is a really wicked venom when he sings "What’s wrong with you this time?", stretching out that last word to its absolute limits, that even a song like "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" would be hard pressed to top. Maybe that’s why it disappeared - maybe it was even too vicious for a man noted for viciousness in 1966.

And as the song rattles to a close with a flurry of snare shots and a final loud chord, you can feel the crowd start to realize that there is something special going on. As the show rolls along - a wild "Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat", a truly epic "Ballad of a Thin Man" - you feel this intensity, this scary anger building amongst those that cannot understand this music, that cry out for the man who sang "The Times They Are A-Changing", and that feel only the blackest hate for this evil demon who has stolen their hero’s face and makes it snarl lyrics about sword swallowers and goddesses of gloom. And that intensity builds, and builds, and builds, and finally some misbegotten soul screams "Judas!" at his former idol, and somehow the legacy of what Bob Dylan truly is falls into place, as you realize that no mere mortal would be compared to the man that sent Jesus Christ to his death.
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #81: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Probably my favorite story about Blonde on Blonde is Kenny Buttrey's account (as found in Behind the Shades) of recording "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", the only possible choice for the album's closer and the entire fourth side of the double album. According to Buttrey, Dylan basically ran through a verse and chorus and said "we'll see how it goes from there", not letting them know that he was planning an 11-minute epic, and the band went into recording thinking they were recording a 3 minute song at the very most. And much like in "Visions of Johanna", the players would begin building and building towards the natural climax, only to have to stop and pull back to a more relaxed tempo when Dylan launched into yet another verse. By the end, as Buttrey tells it, the group was cracking up because they'd had so many false peaks that the actual finale would only be an anticlimax. I'm not really sure how accurate this story could be - after all, the band had already recorded "Visions of Johanna" and were surely aware that they weren't just gonna be cutting 3-minute radio songs - but it's still a funny tale nonetheless. Given Dylan's legendary lacksadaisical recording habits, it's probably not too far-fetched at any rate.

There's something incredibly poignant about listening to this song, and not just because it's a gorgeous, heart-wrenching love song. As the final song of the whole Electric Trilogy, this is the last real glimpse the world would ever have of the surreal Dylan that most of the public consciousness associates with his name. There are flashes of it later, to be sure - a verse here, a line there, sometimes even a song that comes close to approximating that 60s style - but for all intents and purposes, this was where the Dylan of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile" would take his leave. After the motorcycle crash, things would never be the same again, both for Dylan's life and for the way he would write songs. I'm not saying that that's a bad thing; as I'd written before, Blonde on Blonde could very well have been a dead end creatively to begin with, and there was always the chance that Dylan would have changed the way he approached his music anyway. But to listen to this song, knowing that the first song on his next album would be a million miles away, is still an emotional experience.

And, of course, another part of the emotional experience is the nature of the song itself, maybe the most mystical and baffling in Dylan's canon (and that, surely, is saying something). To me, "Sad Eyed Lady" is the ying to the yang of "Ballad in Plain D", in just about every way possible. One song was performed acoustically; the other, with perhaps Dylan's greatest band, either studio or on stage. One of them details in painstaking detail the end of a relationship, the other glories in a love already bursting into full bloom. Both of them use striking imagery, but one uses it in the context of a narrative like most other songs, while the other seems to use the imagery purely for imagery's sake, like "Last Year At Marienbad" (a gorgeously filmed movie that kinda, sorta tells a story, if you're willing to take a few intellectual leaps). And, most crucially, one of them shows Dylan at his least powerful musically, where his emotion gets the better of him and overwhelms his words, whereas the other shows Dylan at his apex of control over his musical faculties, channeling his emotion into his music and creating a song that still has incredible power over forty years after the fact. "Sad Eyed Lady", while not the last song recorded for Blonde on Blonde, might as well have been; the "thin, wild mercury music" tag, for all its applicability to other songs on the album, seems to fit best on this one.

As we all know (because Dylan found it fit to tell us), this song was borne out of sleepless days and nights in New York, Dylan scribbling away to craft the perfect song of devotion to his beloved. I've never been sure if that's true, partially because I wouldn't have put it past Bob to squeeze that confession into a song that was seemingly meant purely to help save his marriage, but I wouldn't bet against it being true either. For an album that trucks in images of desolation and loneliness, it actually gives the whole song cycle a different feeling to end it with something so full of beauty and affection, where Dylan points all these weird and wild figures towards the woman that'd stolen his heart (for all the craziness of the lyrics, "who among them do you think could resist you?" seems pretty damn direct to me). The final line of the chorus - and the final one of the song, and the album - asks a question asked a few times before on the album, where the narrator wonders if he should simply wait. But while you could never really be sure of what Dylan's waiting for in those other songs, here you know exactly who that narrator is speaking about. It's a really sweet moment - all those songs about emptiness, and the final track shows what Dylan sees as the perfect thing to fill that void.

The full impact of the song, of course, comes from having listened to Blonde on Blonde the full way through, letting every other song wash over you, going from the quiet sadness of "Visions of Johanna" to the joyous bounce of "Most Likely You Go Your Way", and finally reaching the end of the album Dylan considers the closest he ever got to whatever sounds inhabit that head of his. It's almost a valedictory moment, in a way; the end of a long and remarkable journey is in a song of astounding grace and purity, nearly overwhelming by virtue of actually stretching out Dylan's hallmark style to over 10 minutes in length. And it's also something that can make you smile, in that all of those surreal word-pictures have led us to Bob singing a song about a woman, his eventual wife, and the only person he would have (more or less) abandoned his career for at the very height of his popularity, when seemingly the entire world was begging for his return. That, my friends, is how you bring an end to a masterpiece.

And that's it for Blonde on Blonde! It's been a long time in the making, but we've finally ended the Electric Trilogy and what many consider Dylan's peak as a songwriter. Next week will be devoted to the 1966 World Tour, then I'll touch on "Positively Fourth Street" and "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" (as a commenter rightly suggested I do) before moving on to something entirely different. Thank you all so much for sticking with me, and I hope you keep reading my humble little blog. Read more!

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #80: Obviously Five Believers

While searching for topics to write about with regards to this song, I popped "fifteen jugglers" into Google and came up with a book called "Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers" by a professor named T.V. Reed. In the book (from what I gathered before my eyes crossed and I blacked out), Reed argues that the act of literary criticism is unavoidably tied in to politics and political movements and that it is imperative for critics to acknowledge this and make themselves more knowledgable to radical political movements, or something like that. At any rate, the reason I bring this up is that the book's title is a direct quote of one of "Obviously Five Believers"'s lines, which Reed explains as such:

"Drawing on a metaphor from Bob Dylan , I want to suggest that among those much-needed word and world jugglers we call postmodernists, there are and must be some believers, believers in political values and practical strategies for social change that move both inside and outside of the postmodern."

What is remarkable (or, maybe, sad) is that I actually reasonably understand what Reed is going for here - for those that can create postmodern art, there must be those that can weave the social movements and what have you into the mix. Now, what this makes me think - other than "I'm probably better off not going to graduate school - is "why did Reed choose this song to quote from?" I'm not saying that the metaphor doesn't work, so much as I'm wondering what the impetus was to pluck a line out of a song and use the line to express an idea Dylan could not have had in his mind when singing it. Maybe Reed's just a really big Dylan fan, who knows.

I bring this up because I've occasionally made mention of how malleable Dylan's oeuvre really is - in the way that you can take a line, a verse, an entire song, or an entire album, and shape it into what you want to shape it into. Think of the reams of books and articles written about Blood on the Tracks, or "Like A Rolling Stone" - what the hell, you could probably put together a great little piece on the way he sings "I can change, I swear" in "You're A Big Girl Now". And Reed's book, taking its title from a line in a semi-obscure song (well, as obscure as a song on Blonde on Blonde's gonna get), is perfect proof of that malleability. From a seemingly nonsensical bit of prose, Reed found the perfect metaphor for a scholarly piece of work that covers topics so far over my head I'd need to stand on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's shoulders to touch them. It is only the great artists of history that can be used in that way.

Speaking of scholarly texts, a Dylanologist could probably have a field day with "Obviously Five Believers", yet another example of Dylan plundering the blues and making their tropes his own. The moment where the verse structure changes, turning into an E-D-A chord progression, is right out of Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More" (yes, I got that from Wikipedia - but even a cursory listen to the song in question instantly confirms it. The cranking, almost ugly guitar riff throughout, Dylan's harmonica blaring something straight out of the Mississippi Delta, the rest of the band galloping away - you'd be hard-pressed to mistake this kind of music as anything other than some high-octane electric blues. Even the lyrics, as hard to grok as anything else on the album, borrow from well-worn blues motifs (loneliness, singing about mamas; even a black dog, for Pete's sake!) to help further the song's mood. A much more well read blues fan than I could probably play "spot the reference" the way I can with an episode of The Simpsons; in a way, that's part of the fun of the song. And, leaving aside all the scholarly stuff, this song just plain cooks.

I'm always of two minds when it comes to scholarly analysis like the kind Reed is engaging in through the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post. On the one hand, it always seems like intellectual wankery, like the justification of six years of pursuing highly specialized English degrees through dense and ultimately purely academic work that will only be read and discussed by fellow academics. On the other, the debates over what makes our culture work and what we can do to make it better are certainly valid and need to be discussed, and those kinds of academics can be better equipped for handling some of the thornier issues involved. At any rate, it makes me happy to know that even the loftiest of intellectual debates can draw inspiration from something Dylan probably wrote on one of his Nashville speed-trips, his band playing cards and waiting patiently for him to arrive with another new song in hand. Dylan's work has spawned many esoteric works, but their genesis is something we all can understand, and we should be thankful for that. Read more!

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #79: Fourth Time Around

Author's note: Keep reading after this post for a special announcement.


As I'd noted in a previous post, I was a Beatles fan more or less from the beginning of my formulative period, when the interests that I'd have as an adult were being set into stone. As a voracious reader (way more so than now), I read a number of books about the Fab Four, and thus ran across the story of Dylan's meeting with the group in 1964 more than once. It really is remarkable, in retrospect - these two titans of music getting together to smoke some weed and have some giggles. The fact that they were such big fans of each other even before the encounter, with Dylan amazed by the Beatles' "outrageous" chords and the group spinning Freewheelin' multiple times in their hotel rooms, makes the encounter even more extraordinary and legendary. In a day and age where that sort of thing would have been made way, WAY too much of, it's kind of nice to hear about a casual evening where five incredibly talented men had a couple spliffs and then called it a night. And the story Paul McCartney tells about finding out the meaning of life and writing it down never fails to amuse me.*

One thing I remember reading about that encounter is that, from that particular moment, you could see the paths of both Dylan and the Beatles suddenly avert from where they had been heading, into newer and ultimately greater directions. For the Beatles, they began to move away from the catchy pop ditties they were writing about holding hands and so on, instead delving more into story-songs, ruminations on humanity (i.e. "Nowhere Man"), and eventually making the incredible masterpieces that their reputation primarily rests upon. And, for Dylan, he began to realize that there was more to music making than writing about Issues of The Day, and that there was something to be said for wearing snazzy suits from Carnaby Street. Just think - from that one encounter, we got "Like A Rolling Stone" AND "A Day In The Life". Not too shabby, eh?

Ah, if only history were that simple. To be honest, aside from the changes in fashion senses (Dylan trading in his jeans and work shirts for the finest in London haute couture, Lennon wearing that peaked cap to far less nifty effect), you can't really say that somehow this meeting of the minds proved to be the tipping point for two futures to irrevocably change - changing the world along with them. After all, the Beatles' craftsmanship in their earlier songs was so exceptional and unique that you could very easily assume that they would have had that breakthrough anyway - maybe the weed didn't hurt, but it's silly to suggest that they'd never have tried it were it not for Dylan and his Magical Stash. And Dylan, as we've seen, had already begun to delve more into the bizarre and nonsensical, as Another Side had been recorded a few months prior to the meeting. While the desire is there for that meeting to be some kind of logical springboard for Dylan and the Beatles, it simply didn't work out that way.

It rarely ever does. We always want to look at history as a completely linear sequence of events, where you can pick out patterns that allow everything to flow smoothly from one thing to the next, and where some sort of order can be discerned from everything that happens. With that in mind, it would make absolutely perfect sense for Dylan and the Beatles to have their lives changed forever by that one meeting, the same way that it would make perfect sense for, say, Lou Gehrig's career to have been launched solely by Wally Pipp getting sick (actually not true, but whatever), or for World War I starting simply because the Archduke of Austria and his wife happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we can simplify things, we can better process them and make sense of what's happened to us as a human race. Unfortunately, things are never that easy, and our existence is all the tougher for it. Things don't always happen for a reason.

And, when you get down to it, we tend to place emphasis on particular instances in time because we like events to mean more than they do - people, in general, are fans of being able to point to something and say "(x) happened because of that". And that, also, is incredibly rare in human history. I'd love to be able to say that the meeting in August 1964 between Bob Dylan and the Beatles changed the face of popular music, sending Dylan off into the world of dictionary-twisting wildness and the Beatles into a grand future where The White Album was possible to be made. But I can't. Still, I can look back on that meeting with a smile on my face, because it's the sort of thing that we can wish had that kind of power, where we can ascribe so much to it because there's already so much already there. Arguably the greatest musician who ever lived shared a weed-filled evening of laughs with arguably the greatest band that ever lived. I think that's good enough.

* for those that don't know, McCartney got so stoned at one point that he thought he'd discovered the secret of the universe and told roadie Mal Evans to write down his incredible realization - only to find, in the morning, that the only thing written down was "there are seven levels". How very Douglas Adams.


So the obvious reason for the lead-in there is because "Fourth Time Around", according to lots of people (including John Lennon himself, at various points in his life) is meant to be an homage/send-up/maybe some of both of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", one of the highlights of Rubber Soul. It's kind of ironic that Dylan would be goofing on a song from Rubber Soul, commonly considered the Beatles' "weed album" and certainly the most adult album they'd recorded up to that point. And you can certainly see where everybody's coming from on that; the subject matter is slightly similar, and Dylan's harmonica work has faint echoes of George Harrison's famous (and kinda ham-handed, but he can be forgiven there) sitar playing. What the heck, maybe all those Dylan parodies Lennon wrote later in his life were for just cause after all.

I never really subscribed to that theory, and not just because I'm not as paranoid as Lennon could be (Lennon definitely had his moments in that regard). I mean, I'm not going to deny that the verse structures have their similarities, or that Dylan may have had the song in mind; after all, the similarity became more pronounced when Dylan performed it acoustically during the '66 tour. But, to me, that's really where the similarities ended - Dylan's song is much more of his own style, not so much about telling a story as it is about setting a particular mood and seeing it through. Sure, we get a tale, but it's so out-there and blatantly fantastical that it can only really be taken allegorically (what that allegory is, well, is up for debate). "Norwegian Wood" is much more straightforward - we get the couple meeting up in her apartment, talking - and only talking - until late at night, the unsatisfied man passing out in her bathtub, awakening to find her gone, and then burning the place down. There may be an allegory there, especially if you think about the life of a musician out on the road, but the focus is more on telling the story.

For many of those that like to play "spot the meaning" in Dylan's songs, the line that everybody focuses on is where Dylan says "I never asked for your crutch/so don't ask for mine". The two competing theories there are 1) he's singing about Lennon, and 2) he's singing about Joan Baez. I mean, both of them make sense - Dylan surely could have felt that Lennon was leaning too much on the songwriting style that he had developed to make his leap into more "adult" songwriting fare, and we can talk about Baez fitting in there until we're collectively blue in the face. Never mind that Dylan certainly leaned on Baez in the early stages of his career in order to build his following; we certainly know that Baez tried a little too hard to have the favor returned when Dylan took off like a rocket, and still tries a little too hard to this day. No matter which of them he's singing about, it's a pretty powerful statement to say to anybody.

Here's the thing about those two theories - they kind of ignore the 95% percent of the song that precedes those two lines, as though the part about crutches exists entirely within a vacuum. So if you look at the song as a whole, here's what you get: woman basically gives man a truckload of shit, man takes it with wry good humor even while getting clawed at (I love the bit about the gum), woman finally passes out from strain of giving man shit, and man heads off into safety of new woman, or whoever might actually love this man. On one level, you have a typical story of a man getting out of a nasty relationship and finding solace in the arms of another woman, all the while cautioning her to not ask for too much from him. But if I think about the song on a different level, I always find myself coming back to the first woman saying "don't waste/your words, they're just lies", and to that woman breaking him down and saying "what else you got left" (a mirror of "It's Alright, Ma"?), and to him standing in the dirt where everyone walked, and I get a different picture. I suddenly see him talking about his new life as a folk musician, dealing with an audience that hates the new words he's saying (to the point where he calls them "deaf" for not hearing what he's saying, maaaan), being taken in by a new audience that took to him the moment he made his turn to electric music...and warning them about asking too much from him, the same way his formerly adoring folk fans did. How's that for an interpretation?

Yeah, you're right - there's a ton of holes in it, and that's why I can't take myself too seriously when I search for these kinds of hidden meanings. I prefer to just be taken in by the music, that gentle guitar riff washing in and out like the tides, the beat playing both arrhythmically and perfectly in time, Dylan's mouth harp playfully squeezing itself in every chance it gets. And I'd rather listen to Dylan's words, both sharply funny and ethereally out of reach, like a dangling rope that you can never quite put your outstretched fingers on. It's better to think of the song that way - you don't want to get caught up in figuring out if Dylan's aiming his rapier at anyone.


As my posts on Blonde on Blonde are reaching their conclusion, I thought that I'd like to try something a little different before moving on to something even more different. So starting March 16th, Every Bob Dylan Song will be publishing a special series on the 1966 World Tour. Monday will feature an article I wrote about "Tell Me Mama" a number of years back - in fact, it's very much the prototype of what would eventually become this site. Wednesday will feature a special guest post from commenter extraordinare and friend of the blog Justin Shapiro. And Friday will be the long-teased column by me about the 1966 Tour. Hope you'll look forward to reading them and enjoying them!
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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #78: Absolutely Sweet Marie

One of the things that I like about "Absolutely Sweet Marie" is that it's one of those songs that (to me, at least) could have worked just as well played slowly as it does played at its familiar upbeat tempo. In fact, the change of pace even affects the way I hear Dylan's lyrics in the song; what comes across as playful on record could sound wistful, even slightly mournful, when played, say, on an acoustic. Now that trouble jumping a railroad gate, or waiting in frozen traffic, or being followed by a Persian drunkard, takes on a darker, more ominous quality, whereas in the original version those actually sound like a grand old time. That ability the song has, to change its mood in a way that works when rearranged, isn't something every song naturally has. Something like "Oh My Sweet Carolina", for instance, would completely lose its quiet grandeur if played uptempo, while a raver like "Kick Out The Jams" would sound terrible if slowed down from its battering-ram intensity. Songs like "Absolutely Sweet Marie", that can take on different emotions, are always nice to hear.

What I enjoy the most about the album version, in that vein, is the mood that Dylan and his band created; that aura of playfulness that the band injects in the lyrics is a welcome change in mood from the last couple songs. The obvious source of that mood has to be the organ that kicks the tune off, then jauntily bounces along in the background, like a supporting character in a play that need only walk on stage to draw laughs. Dylan's husky voice, which he used with astonishing success all throughout, adds to that mischievous mood - you feel like Dylan isn't so much annoyed as amused when he waits for Marie while being half-sick. And the harmonica solo, placed oddly between the penultimate and final verses, is played with a passion and intensity that actually helps keep that good feeling the rest of the song fosters. Yes, Dylan is singing about a woman that apparently just won't show (maybe it's Johanna's sister...?), but you can feel like he's doing it with a smile on his face.

For most of us, the key line in the song is "to live outside the law/you must be honest", which (even if it's a borrowed line) still resonates today. However, for me the part of the song I always remember is the first middle eight:

well, anyone can be/just like me, obviously
but then, now again/not too many can be/like you, fortunately

The obvious inclination, with something like this, is to assume that Bob is singing both about himself and about some woman that's crossed his path while he was ascending to music demi-god. What's funny about that, then, is wondering why Bob would say that anybody can be just like him - if this blog has argued anything since its inception, it's that clearly not anybody (and, in my opinion, nobody) actually can be like him. We all know that Dylan hates to be considered this way; he's called himself "just a song and dance man" any number of times, and has generally made his fair share of attempts, both deliberately and accidentally, to show us that he actually is human. I'm thinking of most of his 1980s, for instance. In a way, I like to think that the 1965-66 experiences that he had (which I briefly touched on in the "Stuck Inside of Mobile" post) led him to feel this way about himself - when fame and adoration has led you down the path Bob went down, you'd want to take a step back the way he did as well. In retrospect, his retreat to Woodstock was as natural as anything could be.

And that brings us to the second part of that middle eight - where Dylan's apparently addressing some unknown ex of his. Now, it's pretty hard to read that lyric and not think of it as an insult, especially when Dylan tags it with "fortunately", like we're damn lucky there's only so many Maries in the world. But to me, in a strange way, there's actually something of a compliment buried in there, a grudging admiration that the Dylan of the Electric Trilogy wasn't so willing to parcel out. It'd be one thing if Dylan had said "not too many are like you, fortunately" - that's a jab through and through. But he sings "not too many can be like you, fortunately", and that's something entirely different. You could certainly argue that Dylan's singing about Baez or Edie Sedgwick, but to me it's just as likely that he's singing about his eventual first wife, that distant and icily beautiful woman that captivated him for a decade of his life. In that sense, he's glad not too many women in the world could be, exist, and grab him the way she did, and that's a good thing. Love like that isn't always best for your health, nor is it entirely a gift from the gods. Sometimes it can be scary as hell. And if there's only so many women that can shake you to the core that way, well, thank goodness for that.

If you wanted to get crude about it, there's enough implied sexual metaphors ("beating on my trumpet", ho ho) that you could easily imagine that the whole song leans that way. Or, what the heck, you could easily imagine that the song's about drugs and how Dylan constantly spent his nights searching for that one perfect high that would open up the gates to creative Nirvana or what have you. And that's something else I do wonder about with regards to the song's tempo - would Dylan ever have sung a downbeat, slower ode to pot or amphetamines during this era, or at least would it be interpreted that way? Somehow, I have a hard time believing that to be true. But, in the end, we've got the upbeat, joyful version that Bob chose to give us, and all the theories that that version implies. I think I can live with that. Read more!

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #77: Temporary Like Achilles

According to the fantastic How Long Has It Been Since Dylan Played... website, "Temporary Like Achilles" is one of two songs from Blonde on Blonde that has never been performed live (three guesses what the other one is, and the first two don't count). One wonders why, actually - sure, there are plenty of songs that have never seen a stage, but there's so much in this song that Dylan and his live band could sink their teeth into. There's a neat saloon-style piano line throughout, a gentle pace that would've allowed the song to sit neatly in Modern Times without sticking out, and a surprisingly striking middle eight that is almost worth playing the track for alone. And Dylan has some rather nifty lyrics for a lesser-known song - I particularly like "I'm helpless like a rich man's child", which makes sense on so many levels. You could easily imagine the 2009 version of Dylan's performing troupe turning this song into something well worth listening to on stage, couldn't you?

So why, then, has this song been consigned to the "deep cuts" section of Dylan's catalog that I mentioned in the last post, perhaps suited best for mix tapes of Bob songs people listen to when they tire of the Greatest Hits but not for mass public consumption the way a "The Levee's Gonna Break" or "Lenny Bruce" is? I can only assume that I'm not alone in thinking that this is a good song; it's not my first choice for best song on the album, of course, but I've never had the urge to skip over it when giving the album the full listen through. It's a song that fits perfectly in the aesthetic of this album (and, as I said, has the same kind of tempo and relaxed attitude that would've made it suitable for Modern Times). And it's not like this was just some one-off Bob banged out in 20 minutes - the album version is the second version of the tune, after the original (named "Medicine Sunday") was abandoned in the sessions with the Hawks. So why has this song been left behind?

This is just my idle speculation here (which, I know, separates it from the rest of this blog), but I think one of the reasons Bob's seemingly forgotten about it is because the song fits so perfectly in the aesthetic of Blonde on Blonde. A couple months ago, when I started writing about the album, I made mention of how the album is its own little self-contained universe, where it's impossible to imagine it existing without any of the songs that Dylan chose for it. And "Temporary Like Achilles" is no different in that regard - not only does it add to that aesthetic by being more laid-back (as opposed to slower, which isn't always the same thing) than most songs on the album, but it works as a soothing come-down between the blasts of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie", two of the faster and more exciting tracks. In its own small way, "Temporary Like Achilles" is every bit as essential as "Stuck Inside of Mobile" and "Visions of Johanna" are.

And, in another way, the song might be even more essential, at least in terms of making Blonde on Blonde a great album. I'm sure many of you have heard Peter Gabriel's So, his big commercial breakthrough and one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It's hard to deny that the album isn't full of top-shelf songs - "Sledgehammer", "Big Time", "In Your Eyes", just to name a few. The album churned out hit singles like a factory churning out textiles. However, if you give the album an entire listening all the way through, you find yourself only listening for those big songs, and the other songs tend to float by, with no real substance or hook to draw you in and keep you occupied. Maybe that's not Gabriel's fault - after all, two decades of only knowing the singles can skew your perception of listening - but it's impossible now to appreciate the album as anything other than "a bunch of songs I heard on the radio and some crap in between them". And his is not a unique case - there's a reason the Eagles' Greatest Hits has sold so much, and yet nobody can name any of their albums. There are any number of blockbuster albums out there, entirely carried by their singles, that have no real substance once you get past the songs we've all heard a thousand times.

What makes Dylan's great albums so great, then, is that he never really had a classic album in which that case was true. Perhaps it's because of Dylan's writing style, or because he was never a big singles guy, or it was just the times that Dylan recorded in, but his great albums always feel organic and connected from song to song, like a single entity unto itself. And that makes the listening experience so much more pleasurable; when you have tracks that don't sound like they were tossed together to sell copies, but strung together in a logical order, you tend to like those albums a lot more. And songs like "Temporary Like Achilles" serve as that string, gluing together the more famous songs and making something that's far more than just the sum of its parts. I don't know about you, but I'd say that makes the song worth being played, just once, up on stage. Read more!

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