Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #92: Tears of Rage

Often, when it comes to songs on The Basement Tapes, you might need to go through some particularly tough mental gymnastics to wring some sort of hidden analysis out of them, if you were so inclined. That hasn't stopped people (including, it must be said, myself) from trying; it seems entirely difficult to believe that songs this cryptic don't have hidden layers underneath. Thankfully for the punters amongst us that engage in this sort of nonsense, we have a song that almost seductively invites analysis - "Tears of Rage", the closer of the official album's first disc and one of the great masterpieces therein. It seems little surprise that the Band made this one of their signature covers; and, it must be said, of the many Dylan covers in their repertoire, it's easily one of their very best. On an album chock-full of wackiness and mind-meltingly obtuse lyrics, the (relatively) straightforward directness of this tune feels almost refreshing, and the startling emotion from Dylan's vocals (one of his very best), coupled with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko's astonishing harmonies on the choruses, make us want to dig deeper into this little slice of life Dylan's created.

With that being said, this digging has already been done to a great degree; this essay does a great and valuable job in collecting most (if not all) of the musings dedicated to this song. I find myself, like the writer, occasionally scratching my head about some of the theories - King Lear, eh? - but the most commonly received notion about the song, that of a parent grieving over the path that his offspring has taken, seems to be the most viable one. It's also the simplest, which is quite often the case, but that's another story. In this context, the song really rachets up its inherent emotional base, as you can see just how wracked with pain the narrator is over his daughter abandoning him for false idols and for the seductive thrill of the world outside (it's hard not to get a little chill at that line about discovering "that there was no one true", a sentiment you can assume many young folks believed in as the 60s progressed). The chorus sums up all that heartache into four majestic lines, including that beautiful final declaration of the brevity of life, delivered with the assurance of someone who realizes how easy it is to forget that when you're young and how hard it is to forget as you grow old.

I've made reference in the past to the painful divisions in our nation left to us by the 1960s; I will also say that few eras in the history of our nation have left such a powerful and lasting impression as that decade, one that basically pulled our nation out of the World War II generation and pointed us towards our modern day. There are no shortage of books you could read about the Sixties - my current two favorites are Rick Perlstein's masterworks Before the Storm (about the rise of the conservative movement in America) and Nixonland (about the fracturing of America into the blue/red state configuration that dominated our current decade). Both of them do a tremendous job showing us a nation torn with strife abroad and at home, with history moving so fast nobody could keep up with it (with the exception of Nixon, who - it must be said - kept up with it all too well), bookended on one side by one of our most mythical political figures and on the other by easily our most infamous. It must have been a hell of a time to do just about anything, let alone raise a child. And with the constant undercurrents of dissent flowing through our national discourse, you could easily see many like the narrator of this song watching their children grow distant, curse them out, and cause them to weep those tears of rage Bob's singing about.

It's really amazing to think about - we've heard plenty of times how Dylan managed to capture the zeitgeist of his generation, and yet here's a song that, in many ways, captures that opposite side of the coin, the "silent majority" Nixon invoked en route to becoming President in 1968. The key, to me, is the mention of Independence Day at the beginning - maybe just a neat little rhyme Dylan thought up, but one that brings to mind the America that was fought so hard for in World War II, one that was being torn asunder as the Sixties progressed. And you can very easily see a veteran of that war, returning to the suburbs and raising his own family, watching with growing horror as his children, already prone to disobeying him like generations of children before, become unrecognizable as they're swept away in the tide of whatever movement might strike their fancy. What the hell, Philip Roth wrote a very famous novel with that sort of plotline (a novel that I think sucks, but YMMV); there have to be thousands of people that wondered what happened to the child they once held in their arms as that same person was off marching in protest of Vietnam. "Tears of Rage" might not begin to describe that kind of hurt and anguish, but Dylan comes as close as can be, in a song he wrote right in the midst of that maelstrom of history.

Finally, a word needs to be said about the backing arrangement before I go on; I'd hate to write a post about this song and neglect how well The Band create the mood that makes this song so brilliant. Unlike their arrangement for Music From Big Pink, Levon Helm sits things out, and it actually works a little better for the song (IMO, of course), as the backing instruments are afforded a sort of graceful weightlessness without being tied to any rhythmic backing. Hudson's organ, capable of offering so much good humor and musical punchlines throughout the album proper, is at its most church-like and solemn here. Robertson's guitar fills, which he lays down throughout the song like a particularly thick coat of paint, are remarkably sympathetic and almost act as a fourth voice in the vocal mix. Danko and Manuel, relegated mainly to rhythm duties along with Dylan's guitar, hold down the group and help add to the beauty of the arrangement. And then you have those vocals, Manuel's reaching the high notes with effortless skill, Dylan's sandpaper lead soaked with pathos, Danko the counterpoint in between. It all adds up to something truly amazing.

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Unknown said...

Of the three takes of this beautiful song from the basement sessions, I prefer the first take, where Dylan begins with "Listen" and then starts strumming.

Incidentally, Levon sat "Tears of Rage" out cause he was not in West Saugerties. He was down the Gulf of Mexico working an oil rig. Most of the basement sessions were "Helm-less." He moved back up from Louisiana in the fall and only participated in a few of the recordings that were made at the Wittenberg road house. The first time you hear him on the drums is in "Wildwood Flower."

Pat Shuff said...

ToR; Baez; Playboy Mansion

Unknown said...

i enjoy your posts. i haven't looked at the Peter Viney essay, but it's funny - for some reason the song has always made me think of King Lear, too.

I'm no scholar and don't have particular references or anything. I actually thought it might be partially because I discovered the song and the play at about the same time.

anyhow, it was interesting that someone else made that connection.

keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

I love this. But it isn't owned soley by dylan. Richard Manuel was also a big contributor of the melody of this song. Not Dylan. That being said. it's less of a cover and more of a song that Dylan gave to the Band willingly.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a piece of musical history. Join us inside Bob Dulan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.