Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #95: Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)

One of my personal favorites from this album. What I love about the song is just how casual it is, how relaxed both Bob and The Band sound while playing a song that, for all intents and purposes, is relating a tale of a disaster of Biblical proportions. Hudson's organ, always utilized to great effect throughout the sessions, is at its most sprightly here, adding an extra pep to the track. Dylan's vocals are playful all throughout, really reaching for those "oh mama"'s in the chorus. And the lyrics to the tune almost serve as a primer for what the Basement Tapes are all about - a sprinkling of Americana, a dash of who-knows-what oddball imagery, maybe some borrowing from an old blues song here and there, and an astoundingly catchy melody to tack those lyrics onto. There is, I think, a reason Bob chose to re-record the song for his second Greatest Hits album (one which, it would seem, he had more control over than the previous one) and performs the song live on a semi-regular basis. It's simple musically and lyrically, yet still packs a punch nonetheless, and is one of the highlights of the sessions.

It is also, in some ways, a precursor to "High Water (For Charley Patton)", another of my personal favorites and quite possibly Dylan's best song of the last 10, maybe even 20 years (plump for "Mississippi" or "Red River Shore" all you want - I'm not buying). Of course, the obvious connection springs right out, so I won't bother mentioning it. But the other connection, at least in my mind, is that sense of calm and relaxation in the face of disaster, which seems to fit Dylan's MO of being above the fray, never devolving into urgency or histrionics, keeping that supernatural cool that allowed that image of him as the ultimate hipster to cultivate and remain to this very day. It's ironic that both of these songs are not what you'd consider a "hipster" tune by any means; still, they both fit in snugly as pieces of the puzzle that is Bob Dylan, by virtue of showcasing his ability to always, always maintain that poker face. Whether or not you are charmed or repulsed by that poker face is entirely up to you.

Perhaps I am overstating the case here; I'm certainly doing so for a song like "Crash on the Levee", which is nothing if not a charming piece of work (a quality that, unfortunately, the rerecorded version doesn't seem to have - that particular take is like one of Dracula's victims, somewhat bloodless and pale). And yet, I keep finding myself thinking of that line I quoted about Dylan not too long ago - how he's "the boy that doesn't love you back". And I wonder, sometimes, if that's something I'd really want in my favorite musician ever. Not in the sense that he doesn't love me back, but more in the sense that it's hard to tell if Dylan really loves anything. We know that he DOES love things - the blues, a good foreign film, Sara Lowndes (well, off and on), Jesus (definitely off and on) - but those are the sort of things that are most often buried in interviews and play no real part in what we consider the Dylan legend. When we think of Dylan, we think of somebody far above the fray (a far cry from the acoustic-era Dylan, a man seemingly concerned with nothing but the fray), more mythic figure than somebody you could really put a finger on.

You could certainly forgive somebody for being frustrated with trying to put that finger on Dylan, especially when they almost inevitably find themselves failing in their efforts. For all the great songs that Dylan has written in his lifetime - including, for the record, many great songs about love and faith and the sort of things that makes a person seem more, well, human - it seems entirely fitting that his most well-known song is an evisceration of someone, and yet one that never entirely seems personal, like Dylan has no intentions of dirtying his hands with something so ugly as ripping someone he cares about a new one. And it's not just his best songs that can give you that sense of impersonality, either; I quote All Music Guide's review of Self Portrait: "That doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth the time to figure it out — you're not going to find an answer, anyway — but it's sort of fascinating all the same." That makes the most sense for Self Portrait, an album seemingly conceived solely to make people go "...the hell?", but you could easily say the same thing about even his great albums, which occasionally have moments where you can't really say what it is that makes them great, other than the fact that they simply are. And that's a hard thing to get your head around.

Still, that's really only one way to enjoy the work of Dylan; there's no requirement that you have to have some sort of handle on Dylan the man before you can really get into his music. I find myself also thinking of Citizen Kane as I type this post - a great movie that has been accused of having no soul behind it, a collection of masterful direction and cinematography that all adds up to the filmic equivalent of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias", where you know the man was great but never get the answer of why that matters. And yet Citizen Kane has enough humanity contained within, such as Bernstein's famous "white parasol" monologue and the heartache of the poor, doomed Susan Alexander, that seem to put the lie to that notion of the movie lacking a heart. Dylan's work, in the end, is the same; yes, the bulk of it has that poker face, but there are flashes of who Dylan the man is contained within his songs, for whoever wants to dig for them, and while it may not add up to a full picture of the man, it allows us to see that there is a man there. And, when you get down to it, just knowing that is really enough.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

6 comments:

walker said...

The Masked and Anonymous version of Crash on the Levee is a fast, frantic, and fierce version that completely changes the way you might interpret the song.
It's amazing how important the music is to Dylan's lyrics.

Anonymous said...

Definitely one of my fav Dylan songs. "Pack up your suitcase / Mama don't you make a sound". Just that lyric alone gets me in that secretive way that Bob always seems to be speaking to YOU about a dark, unsettling situation.

- Rog

Anonymous said...

Derek Trucks' version of this, leading off his latest album, is really a great interpretation. His singer Mike Mattison sings the heck out of it and Derek and the band build a very interesting and kinda spooky arrangement featuring Derek's slide. A must hear...one of the best Dylan covers I ever heard.

Anonymous said...

Crash on the Levee is one of the Dylan songs that simply sounds like it always existed, I think Dylan found it under a log.
It's a modest song that achieves greatness via simplicity.
Sandy Denny did my favorite cover.

- Michael

Anonymous said...

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

Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...

Here's a high-explosive: "Crash on the Levee" is the stripped-down, surreal and Americana "rendition" of Hamlet raging at Ophelia and his mother...

Lo and behold... Williams Point!

=]