Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #98: Nothing Was Delivered

You could very easily argue that this is the most country-inflected song from the whole sessions; so much so, in fact, that the Sweetheart of the Rodeo version almost seems redundant. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that the more I've started liking country music (mainly through Johnny Cash, which I suspect is where most people start when they delve into country music), the more I've enjoyed listening to this song. Robertson gets in some great licks, Manuel's piano and Hudson's organ intertwine beautifully, and the chorus features some of the best harmonizing on the official album (which is saying something). I've written a few times about how I couldn't understand why some of the lesser known songs made it on to the official album, but this particular lesser known song actually deserves more recognition than it actually has received.

Uber-commenter Justin Shapiro took me to school a little bit in the comments for "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (as is his occasional wont); it is kind of depressing that I'd forgotten about the various Cash and Sun Records covers that had cropped up during the sessions, as I actually have a few of them on the ol' iPod at the moment. So I think I might have to retract the notion that I'd forwarded that it was the Band that pushed Dylan towards the more rootsy and country inflected material of the sessions; in fact, it's just as possible that Dylan had had the idea of recording that material the second he started rolling tape with the Band up in Big Pink. And that notion gives a more interesting slant onto the sessions as a whole, one that speaks to where Dylan was in his life. And, before I get into some speculation, it's entirely possible that Dylan was just recording that kind of music because he'd been listening to a lot of it while taking his sabbatical, or that he was just in that kind of mood at the time. As I myself am wont to do, I could be overthinking things here. Then again, that's what I do, isn't it?

Another thing that has been mentioned a few times throughout this project to date has been the staggering fact that Dylan was a young man when he'd reached the pinnacle of his career. A lot of us like to think that our teenage years is where we fully grow and mature into the adult that we'll be for the rest of our lives; if nothing else, at least we can say "well, (x) happened in when I was in high school, so that explains why I'm like (y)". But I think that gives short shrift to how important our twenties are, not just as the decade where we can still do youthful things like wear sports jerseys without looking a little foolish or blast our car stereos loud while cruising down the highway with the sunroof open (as opposed to playing our music at a reasonable level with the windows up and the AC on), but as a decade where we're still developing and getting a handle on how we approach our own lives. There is a theory that posits that humans reach their peak as a total package, so to speak, in our early to mid-thirties, where we still have the majority of our physical powers combining with a considerable wealth of intelligence to create an individual as well-rounded as we're going to get. As you can probably guess, I absolutely subscribe to that theory.

As remarkable as the music is that Dylan made during both his acoustic period and the Electric Trilogy (as well as a lot of what he recorded during his "Woodstock period"), it needs to be remembered that it was a man still in the process of maturing that was recording that music. Sure, he often displayed both intellectual acumen and songwriting chops far beyond his years (a twenty-two year old wrote the songs on Freewheelin'), but this was still a man that hadn't learned, say, about what it meant to be in a marriage (which any married person can tell you is light years away from being in a relationship), or what it meant to struggle with your chosen field in life (Dylan didn't record an outright bad album until he was nearly 30), or most of the things we take for granted in our younger years. And it doesn't seem like a coincidence that once Dylan had gone through some rough patches in both his professional and personal lives, refining his lyrical style from the dazzling semi-insanity of the Electric Trilogy into something more grounded in reality while still retaining his own voice, and simply becoming more of a well-rounded human in his fourth decade on the planet, that Dylan summoned up the wherewithal to record the greatest accomplishment of his career. To me, everything that Dylan had been up to that point is contained in Blood on the Tracks; it's not just about Dylan's failing marriage, but about the man in that failing marriage, and how he'd managed to get there.

The Basement Tapes represented a major step in that process, one which importance cannot possibly be overstated. Dylan, sitting at home and out of the public eye for the first time since he was just out of his teens, knew that he needed a change in his life, both in how he lived it and in the music that he made. He ended up making that personal life change, swearing off the hard drugs that nearly killed him and becoming more of a devoted family man. And he also changed the style of music he made, turning his back on the electric music that most of the world knew him for and embracing a style that nobody could have guessed he'd embrace (well, other than those that knew him personally and those that were paying really close attention to his recordings). He was saying "farewell to all that" to his younger life, taking a step towards the maturation of middle age, looking for the next definition of who he was. "Nothing is Delivered" is evidence of that - a fun recording that speaks volumes about the man that recorded it.

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