Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #91: Please, Mrs. Henry

Many of the songs on this album could be potentially classified as "weed" songs; knowing that a fair share of the stuff was lit up during the sessions, that makes a lot of sense. "Please, Mrs. Henry", on the other hand, could very easily be classified as a "drinking" song, both in the lyrics of the song - a hilarious string of non sequiturs with the loose thread of a drunk pleading to his landlady/bartender/whoever about Lord knows what - and in the loosey-goosey arrangement of the song. Dylan slurs his way through the lyrics (at certain points he sounds like he's parodying his Blonde on Blonde singing style) and chuckles in the final chorus, with Danko and Manuel grinning their way through the backup vocals. Dylan (who, apparently, was the only guitarist on the song) drops in goofy little fills after the "I'm down on my knees" line, a perfect match to his blathering about filling up someone's show and biting like a turkey. Even the organ Hudson plays is like an aural punchline, a perfect match for a song this silly. Of all the songs on the official release, this one might actually take the prize for "funniest tune", in all its nonsensical glory.

What I like about the song is that, in some ways, it kind of parodys the boastfulness of drunken oafs when they've had a little too much; who among us either has had to put up with this kind of blather or (hopefully not too many of you) actually SAID this kind of blather at some point in your lives? I vaguely remember, in my college days, reading stories about contests where people would stand up and shout out a string of boasts about themselves, like telling autobiographical tall tales or something like that. I might be remembering this wrong, but the oral tradition is such that at some point something like this has to have occurred. Dylan, in "Please, Mrs. Henry", takes this kind of boastfulness to its logical extreme, shouting out a bunch of stuff that sounds like boasts, until you take a second to think about it; does saying "I can crawl like a snake" really sound like something you'd want to be able to do? I'd honestly like to think that Dylan had the 1960's version of an obnoxious frat boy in his head while writing this song, even though I'd guess he was probably thinking of some Yosemite Sam-type from an old Western story.

One of the commenters for "Apple Suckling Tree" made mention of the fact that I didn't talk enough about the musical attributes of that song and suggested that I'm looking more for hidden meanings than paying attention to the music itself. That was something of a bucket of cold water to the face, considering how much I've made of Dylanologists combing haystack after haystack for that one needle, so I think giving the Band their due is in order here. John Howells, curator of the fine Dylan resource Bringing It All Back Homepage, wrote something very interesting about the Basement Tapes:

Everytime I listen to the Basement Tapes I always get the feeling that I'm hearing the lost and sadly neglected recordings of an unknown artist who died as an early age and is just now becoming known through a recent discovery of a cache of obscure recordings. This is similar to the feeling I get when I see a James Dean movie or hear a Buddy Holly song - "what a tragic loss". This is odd because I know that nothing of the kind happened with Dylan. Still, these recordings have a timeless quality not unlike those recorded by Robert Johnson in a makeshift hotel room recording studio or early Hank Williams demos.

I suppose there is a whiff of pretentiousness to this - look, dude, the songs are incredible enough, no need to stick DEATH into the equation - and yet Howells hits on something very primal about these recordings. When you're listening to music, most of the time you can pretty easily point out the era that that music was recorded in (you try convincing somebody that "Only You" by Yaz was recorded in any decade other than the 80s), and that can color even the greatest music, because that music is inextricably linked to a certain time and place. With the Basement Tapes, on the other hand, unless you knew the circumstances of the recordings, you can't really pt your finger on when these songs were recorded; the music is so elemental, the lyrics so crazy, and the performances so laid back and bereft of any kind of self-consciousness. And that's not to say that the Basement Tapes are the pinnacle of recording because of that, but it's something that helps give the songs their everlasting mystique, which does count for something.

And I think that the Band deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that. It is one thing to be students of folk music, to know the ins and outs of the "John the Revelator"s of the world, and to know how to play music that sounds like those old vinyl singles from decades long past. It is another thing entirely to actually make that music sound like those old vinyl singles, to give your recordings that feeling of days long past, when music was more rumor and hearsay than anything else. The Band of 1967 could definitely do that - it's amazing that the same group (give or take a drummer) that pounded out the wild rock of the '66 World Tour is banging out "Please, Mrs. Henry" and making it sound like it could have been played on a vaudeville stage. That takes both remarkable talent and the ability to channel that talent into a cohesive force, and every member of that group knew how to turn the sum of their parts into a remarkable whole.

Unfortunately, the official release has a certain amount of taint to it because there was a need to make the Band's contribution even more profound than it already was - not only do we have the Band songs that were not recorded during the same sessions (a few were recorded in 1975, for Pete's sake), but there were also added overdubs to the original songs to sweeten them in a way that they didn't need sweetening. And that's a real shame; it makes the Band look bad by giving themselves a role that they didn't have, casting a bit of a cloud over the role that they did. And their role was of partners with a master, the men who took some of Dylan's weirdest work and shaped them into viable, interesting, and often brilliant pieces of music. For that, they deserve all the credit in the world.

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Pearce said...

Good stuff. You're dead on with your "funniest song of The Basement Tapes" assessment, I mean how can you not listen to this song and chuckle at least a little.

Admittedly I'm no Dylan expert and I know amongst Dylan fans there is a lot of resentment for The Basement Tapes, but I didn't know that The Band recorded some of the songs in 1975! That's crazy. Which songs were they?

Oh and this isn't related to the post but don't you think The Basement Tapes has one of the coolest album covers among Dylan albums. Gotta be up there with Desire and Freewheelin'

Unknown said...

Tony - great stuff. Regarding what you and Pearce (in comments) touch on regarding the Band adding songs recorded in 1975 (e.g., "Ain't No More Cane" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry") and doing the overdubs ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" the most egregious example of overdubbing - Robbie magically plays both drums and electric guitar!), that was the brainchild scheme of Rob Fraboni and Robbie Robertson, not the rest of the Band. Most of the other Band songs on the official release were recorded in 1968 as "Music From Big Pink" outtakes (e.g., "Bessie Smith" & "Long Distance Operator) and were not not part of the Dylan/Band Basement sessions.

It's a shame that was done. For example, the Basement session of "Please Mrs Henry" is great, with Danko on trombone and Dylan actually saying "I went down to the whorehouse" rather than the "pump house" swapped in by Helm on the official release.

Funniest song from the basement sessions is hands down "I'm Your Teenage Prayer" followed by "Get Your Rocks Off" and "All American Boy", in my opinion. Here's my youtube post of "Teenage Prayer"

Pete said...

One of the joys of the Basement Tapes is hearing Richard Manuel be happy. We hear a lot about the Levon/Robbie split but not enough about what happened with Richard -- his gradual disengagement from writing and (I suppose) influencing The Band, even as they became the "stars" their initial appeal denied. I find it touching that in the 1990s the re-formed, RR-less Band, whose records I enjoy a lot, made sure that Richard was included, long after he was gone.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

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

Al said...

The song is mainly about not having a dime for a pay toilet. Perhaps you folks don't remember those things.

Mathias said...

Hi, interesting post. It's been a while now, but taking into account the timeless character of the music you might still be interested.
The " goofy little fills" are not played by Dylan, he played rhythm guitar and the riffs in the refrain were played on a mandolin, which makes them sound so strange because they are typical blues guitar riffs which are probably hard to play on a mandolin.



Mathias said...

Hi, interesting post. It's been a while now, but taking into account the timeless character of the music you might still be interested.
The " goofy little fills" are not played by Dylan, he played rhythm guitar and the riffs in the refrain were played on a mandolin, which makes them sound so strange because they are typical blues guitar riffs which are probably hard to play on a mandolin.



Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello again, thank you for posting this piece of analysis. Listen to every version of every song from inside Bob Dylan's Music Box,-Mrs-Henry Join us inside and have fun.