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.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

10 comments:

Michael said...

Good stuff, as always.

The Jim James version from I'm Not There of this one is incredible ... as much as I didn't like the Richard Gere stuff in that movie, I loved that scene.

Side note: I put in Saved the other day because I hadn't listened in ages ... and ... well ... have fun writing about that one, haha.

Anonymous said...

Forever and always I cannot hear this song w/out thinking of the I'M NOT THERE movie. Though the movie itself was a mixed bag, mediocre at best, the use of "Goin' to Acapulco" was downright stunning. One of the best Dylan covers EVER. Hats off to Jim James & Calexico for their fine rendition!

Steve Wilcock said...

This is definitely one of those cases where a cover version opens your eyes and ears to a tune. The Jim James and Calexico version on the "I'm Not There" sound track really makes you sit up and listen and go back to the original to see what you've missed.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm off base here, but I always thought that Dylan's delivery, and Jim James' too, insinuated that the singer was saying he was going to see a prostitute and he was none too proud of his actions. He's waiting outside the Taj Mahal, a representation of love, and no one is around, so he is without a lover. Why not spend his time with a prostitute? As the song goes on, it is pretty clear that he is disgusted with himself and his behavior, whether it is for using Rose Marie for his own pleasure or for just being detestable in his lack of dignity. He knows Rose Marie doesn't even really care for him; she just "sits there and waits for [him] to come." She does what she is paid for and he knows it.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Basement Tapes rated & commented

np0804 said...

I just saw I'm Not There and thought that this song was the musical highlight -- and I thought the whole film was very imaginative and thoughtful, and it is a pleasure to see a director go where he wants and not do a typical biopic. Anyway I had never heard this song before and am doing a little research. Enjoyed reading the post.

Pulp Revolution said...

Just a quick thought here: How many Dylan songs use the "well" imagery? Subterranean Homesick Blues, Cat's in the Well, Goin' to Acapulco....

Anonymous said...

Who sings "Goin' to Acapulco" on "The basement tapes"? Available lists say that the vocal is Dylan, but to me it sounds nothing like him. I don't know any other songs from that era wherein Dylan sings in that register. It sounds more like Manuel to me. Any ideas?

Stone Soup said...

The track on the basement tapes is by "Invisible Republic" and is a beautiful version

Matthew Hamilton said...

It's definitely Dylan singing in a higher octave.