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.

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11 comments:

Reinaldo Garcia said...

Please let us in on the secret. You wrote: "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." From where is that line borrowed?

Elvis Breastly said...

Per Wikipedia it's paraphrased from the 1958 film "The Lineup."

I just wanted to beat Tony to it.

Anonymous said...

Your point about Bob emphasizing his 'everyman' status is a good one. Another example of that can be found in One Too Many Mornings:

"Everything I'm saying, you can say it just as good."

That said, there - like here in ASM - I feel like he only KINDA means it ...

Abe Hawari said...

You know this song sounds a lot like a Queen Jane Approximately, Tonight Ill be Staying Here With You, and Sooner or Later

Jo Morley said...

Hi

What a contrast there is between this song and "Journey Through Dark Heat (Where Are you Tonight)" ...

Jo

Anonymous said...

There is a band from the 80's called "Jason and the Scorchers" who did a pretty good cowpunk/rockabilly cover of this song. I usually don't care for many Dylan covers, but this one is worth a listen - definitely takes it in a different musical direction without losing what makes the song so great in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Here is the link for Jason and the Scorcher's version - any thoughts?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-cF40OWeak

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

I'd say dylans been dumped by a women, and this women just takes another man. Dylan feels as thou he has been replaced therefore 'anybody can be just like me' and dylan in his nasty way tells this women that she aint a good person haha

Moritz said...

my favourite dylan song... I am dedicating a short film to this! Here's the teaser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhX31GYRrO4

Gronk said...

That's an interesting observation about the couplet in the middle eight, and it kind of sums up my feelings about BoB as an album. I once read Badly Drawn Boy talking about his favourite Dylan record ('New Morning'), saying something along the lines of, "Of course I love BoB, but listening to it is like being strucky by lightning - you don't want it to happen to you too many times. I could listen to NM every day." That's true I think: as undeniably awesome as BoB is, I'm also grateful that he moved on and explored other, less dazzling but often more inviting tropes in his following albums.

One thing I've always loved about this song is his fluffed line, "you and you knew I had some other place to be". Every time I cover this song I try to get that line just the way he sang it.