Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #89: Clothes Line Saga

You know, I think "Clothes Line Saga" actually is even funnier without knowing that it was meant as a parody of "Ode to Billie Joe" (which I hadn't heard until a few years ago - how that uber-depressing song topped the charts escapes me entirely), even to the point that the original title was "Answer to 'Ode'". I mean, it's funny enough with that knowledge in mind, hearing how the melodramatic "normalcy" of "Ode to Billie Joe" is skewered by Dylan taking that normalcy to an insane yet logical conclusion. But let's say that you came to the song without that knowledge, and then you hear Dylan spinning this yarn about laundry, for the love of God, with some nonsense about the Vice President losing his marbles just for funsies. And then you've got Dylan's near-monotone singing, like he's actually trying to record the aural equivalent of a poker face, and Garth Hudson's organ's burbling away in the background like it was plucked from a Nintendo video game soundtrack (the 80s version), and the rest of the Band just clanging away, and the song gets even funnier. I mean, it's like an episode of Seinfeld dropped in the 19th century, with the 2nd reel of a science fiction movie shoved in there rather inappropriately. It might very well be the funniest of the officially released Basement Tapes.

Another aspect of the song's hilarious nature is that the lyrics, along with Dylan's delivery of them, seem to be a massive joke that Dylan's desperately trying to pass off as, well, not a massive joke. In an era where songwriters, in large part thanks to Dylan's influence, were attempting to push the boundaries of what lyrics had to be and were moving away from the idea of telling any kind of story (even the simple "boy meets girl, boy likes girl" kind of story), here's Dylan writing a song that's nothing but story, and the most blase story possible to boot. Sure, there's that wacky revelation in the middle, but it might as well have been a revelation about the sky being blue for all the attention that's paid to it. We get an entire verse about how the song's narrator likes to help with the chores. I can't hear the song without being reminded of the Simpsons episode where Grandpa Simpson demonstrates his strike-breaking abilities by telling a story that goes absolutely nowhere and bores everyone around him. But the way the story was told was quite funny ("the important thing was that I had an onion tied to my belt - which was the fashion at the time"), just like the way an otherwise dull story here is made funny by the lyrics and the performance.

That one bit about the Vice President, though, got me to thinking. Leaving aside the fact that the news actually happened in the town where the song takes place, I got to thinking about the way that news traveled back in the earlier days of our grand old republic, even back around the times of the Civil War. We've so readily taken the spread of widely available news for granted that even an era where freakin' newspapers were the only way for us to learn about what was going on in the world seemed positively prehistoric. It seems almost beyond the realm of mere human comprehension, then, to imagine a time where the news only came through thin, highly partisan, and almost entirely localized newspapers, where the talk of the world traveled through telegraph, and where for a person living in Des Moines the news of Washington and New York might as well have been the news of Kathmandu or Peking. The world was a lot larger in those days, and the way that people looked at the world around them was that much different.

And yet, there are still pockets of the world in which the many tentacles of the information age have yet to completely encircle them, including here in the United States. A lot has been made of the whole red state vs blue state thing, especially since the year 2000, but it's very difficult to brush aside the differences between the big cities and the small cities, even after all this time. Recent advertisements have made usage of the slogan "what's happening on Wall Street is affecting Main Street", and intertwined with the ridiculousness of this notion - since when did what happened on Wall Street NOT ever affect Main Street? - is the obvious implication that, for most people living in the small towns that would actually have a Main Street (well, just about every city does, but never mind), what happens out in the big city really does have no bearing on them. And this parochial viewpoint does have its advantages - after all, democracy is a multi-tiered concept, and keeping interest in the local levels helps strengthen the higher levels - just as much as it has its drawbacks. In that sense, you could very well see "Clothes Line Saga" as either a pointed parody or gentle homage to that way of thinking, where people seem far more interested in the smaller parts of their lives than in something as big and far away as a major politician having some sort of mental breakdown.

That is not to say, then, that you wouldn't hear this sort of droll conversation on the back stoops of tenements in the Bronx, or that somebody in Charles Starkweather country wouldn't follow the national news with rapt attention. What I'm trying to say is that, when it comes to the perceptions we have about certain parts of our country versus certain other parts, the general populace (and, it should be noted, most people that hail from other nations) have very well-set expectations of the way that those parts of our country live. And, for the most part, those expectations have a funny way of being met. A song like "Clothes Line Saga", then, can be hilarious not just because of its blank-eyed ridiculousness, but because we all can fully imagine that conversation happening today, in Smallville, USA, where getting home in time for dinner might still take precedence over the collapse of Bear Stearns. This will probably never change. And what the hell, maybe we're better off that it doesn't.

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rob! said...

Ever heard The Roches' cover of this song? They sing it like a couple of stoners relating the tale--which I guess wasn't that far from Bob's version.

Johnny Bermo said...

That's gas. I was listening to the Clothes Line Saga and it reminded me a lot of Ode to Billy Joe, so I put the two into a google search and your blogg came up

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

Rob, You said it..
I can't hear the original anymore without thinking about the Roches' strange incantation on their cover..I absolutely hated it but then it got stuck in my head.

Anonymous said...

First time I heard this song was after the funeral of my best friend's suicide mother. We had to arrange the funeral and had been desperately depressed for a week and after the visitors went away we went home and lay on the livingroom floor in our good clothes and my best friend's younger brother put on this album he'd bought the day before his mother shot herself in the kitchen. He'd come in from work and found her there. Well, we just lay there exhausted from so much pain and sadness and when the clothesline saga came on we started to laugh and couldn't stop. We replayed it about 4 times and laughed until our ribs hurt. It was needed therapy, an antidote to so much grief. Against all odds, we all slept like the dead that night. God bless Bob Dylan. I thought the vice president reference was to discredited vice-president Spiro Agnew. I never knew it was a parody until now. All I know it was what we desperately needed then, a good laugh to stay sane.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.