Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #76: Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)

One reason that Bob Dylan is my all-time favorite artist is that he's never been afraid to switch up the way that he plays his songs on stage. From the moment he went electric (he was playing "I Don't Believe You" with a band at the Hollywood Bowl in '65) to the present day and his current jam-band style wanderings, Dylan has always proven that he's the master of his songs, instead of the other way around. I'm not saying that there's something wrong with playing the songs the way they sound on record - plenty of bands can get away with this by injecting the kind of energy you only get in a live setting, or maybe even a different guitar solo or something. But there's something far more interesting and remarkable about an artist that can switch up his arrangements to suit his current touring band, or even his whim at the moment, to create something new and special. And, as I'd written about before, the new song arrangements played on tour can become just as essential as any album the artist has put out.

A key example of this would be "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)", one of the most striking moments in Bob's live catalog. What needs to be remembered about the song is that the live version we all know from Before the Flood would not exist without a strong foundation - i.e., the original recording from Blonde on Blonde. On record the song is surprisingly groovy, one of those rare Dylan tracks that actually has got a beat that you can dance to. Backed by a brass section that only plays one (albeit catchy) tune throughout, Dylan's band whips up a bouncy, jangly beat, guitar and electric organ meshing perfectly, underpinned by almost military-style drumming. Dylan's lyrics here, in a way, actually pair up with "Just Like A Woman"'s, in that he appears to be addressing a woman that he wants to part ways with; there's no real mention of gender, but the final verse seems clear enough. Wikipedia (quoting some other Dylan scholar) suggests the lyrics could be about the '60s sentiment of leaving behind the trappings of an older generation because the new kids just can't relate, and I can certainly see that. What I like most about the song is that Dylan actually manages to insert some pathos into his vocals, adding some emotion to what would otherwise just be a catchy tune.

And then you have the Before the Flood version, a track I've always considered one of Dylan's great live accomplishments. As the opener both to most of the Tour '74 shows and the live album itself, we get a whole 40 seconds on record of the crowd applauding Dylan and The Band, a moment that works on record because it gives us a taste of the anticipation that crowd felt as they waited for their first taste of live Dylan in nearly a decade. And then comes the strumming of a lone guitar, which only amps up the anticipation for something great - then the band explodes into action and you get something great. What was once a blues-rooted poppier tune (and how great - and how very Dylan - was it for him to start essentially a Greatest Hits show with a semi-obscure deep cut?) has now been transformed to full-on rock. The Band has shaped the tune into something leaner and meaner, with Robertson's guitar licks at their sharpest, Manuel banging away on the piano, and even Hudson's semi-goofy synthesizers working in perfect harmony with the rest of the music. And then there's Dylan, belting out the lyrics with nothing in mind but sheer volume, turning the introspective words into an almost joyous, celebratory shout. This time Dylan's not expressing any regret - this is the audio equivalent of saying "hit the bricks, sister". And then the song's over, and for better or worse you know exactly what Tour '74's all about.

In a lot of ways, the Before the Flood version, which I actually heard first (Biograph was a gift in my nascent Dylan fandom years, with Blonde on Blonde right behind), has given me a deeper appreciation of the album version. The two versions couldn't be more different from each other, both in style and in presentation of the lyrics. And that's what's so great - by modifying the way that he sang and played the song, Dylan gave a song two different shades, two different emotional contexts, in which those lyrics could be heard. One version gives you a modicum of regret, where the narrator might not take pleasure from parting ways with somebody he can no longer relate to, and even acknowledges that he simply doesn't have the strength to try. The other version wipes away any traces of regret and weakness, instead giving us a man who simply cannot wait to ditch this ball and chain and move on to greener pastures. Think of that final line of every verse - "then time will tell/who has fell/and who's been left behind/when you go your way and I'll go mine". It's ironic that the younger man sounds like he has no idea who will be the one left behind, whereas the older man has no doubt that it'll be the one he's ditched who'll trail in his dust. That's something very special, indeed.

On many of the shows of Tour '74, Dylan would actually end the concert by playing "Most Likely You Go Your Way" again as an encore, something you don't really see by a live band (unless it's the Dead or something). Maybe he didn't want to bother with learning a new song for the encore - after all, the song he'd close sets with was "Like A Rolling Stone", as you'd surely expect - and just wanted to give one more blast of rock 'n roll before leaving the stage. Or maybe he actually wanted to let the message of that song sink in further, to remind us one more time that he would not be the one left behind, and that his split from the '60s generation (and his move into family life) showed that he, in the end, was right. An odd message, given that basically his entire set was '60s songs, but one that you could imagine was on his mind at some point during that tour. He saw an audience that wanted him to return to his '60s self, and surely could not have liked that in the least. And so he gave them a concession in his setlists, but let them know (not once, but twice) exactly how he felt about looking back.

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2 comments:

redsock said...

i always heard that line as "then time will tell/who has failed/and who's been left behind ..."

Anonymous said...

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