Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #100: This Wheel's On Fire

During the long and painful Get Back sessions that would lead both to Let It Be and the end of The Beatles as a recording group, a lot of time was spent with the band just sitting around, talking about whatever, trying to kill as much time as they could before getting back to the mind-numbing chore of actually, you know, making music. One of the topics that cropped up was the notion of how a great song doesn't necessarily have to tell a story or even make much sense; if the words match the emotion of the backing, you can make a masterpiece without hewing to musical convention. Coincidentally, the example used to describe this phenomenon was The Band's "Caledonia Mission" - take a look at the lyrics and you can easily see what they're getting at. Of course, we as Dylan fans don't really see what the big deal about this is - after all, we've had album after album of songs where the lyrics serve almost like another instrument more than anything else - but in 1969, when songwriting was still closer to infancy than maturity, this was still a novel concept, one worthy of discussion by the greatest band that ever lived. The Beatles, for their part, rarely made this kind of stylistic leap lyrically, which shows that it's no small thing to write nonsense (relatively speaking) and create something amazing.

I think of this as I listen to "This Wheel's On Fire" (as I type this, I'm winding through the song for the fourth time in a row, to speak nothing of the number of times I've already heard the song), one of the best songs on The Basement Tapes, and yet another tune that has escaped being pinned down for over four decades. People have tried, to be sure - Paul Williams, Robert Shelton, Greil Marcus, all have tried to make sense of those three cryptic verses and that even more cryptic chorus. And, much like Dylan's most extensively analyzed songs, the words seem to serve as mirror for how the critic thinks - Williams sees a fever dream, Shelton plucks images from the Bible and Shakespeare, and Marcus imagines the tune as some kind of fire-and-brimstone sermon. I lean a little towards Marcus on this one; free of the more traditional pounding rock arrangement of The Band's version and the melodramatic psychedelica of the Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger "AbFab" version, Dylan's ramshackle run-through really does deserve the description of "apocalyptic" some have ascribed the tune. There is real drama when Dylan and Danko come together on the chorus and the band builds to the glorious release of "this wheel shall explode".

It's the bit about "if your memory serves you well" that I keep coming back to, though, as I listen to the song. Two phrases echo all throughout the song - that one, and "we shall meet again"; you could easily argue that a lot of the dramatic tone of the song comes from the repeating of those phrases, building a mysterious feeling almost entirely out of thin air. And that mysteriousness seeps into the rest of the song - is he singing about somebody that he wants to see again, or is he threatening that person with something dire if they don't meet again? It's kind of like one of those optical illusions, where you can see either the vase or two faces, depending on how your mind chooses to interpret the image. I, myself, hear the musicians clanging along, Dylan's voice straining (occasionally painfully so) to hit the higher notes with his limited range, the odd disaffected tone all throughout the performance, and I find myself leaning towards the more unhappy point of view. After all, when something is described as "Biblical" or "apocalyptic", it's usually not going to be all sunshine and rainbows.

Most of us, I would assume, immediately associate "Biblical" and "apocalyptic" with horror, destruction, and wrath-of-God type stuff - precious few, I'm sure, immediately think of the Song of Songs or all the good stuff that happens AFTER the Four Horsemen and the Antichrist and the Seven Seals and what have you. On the one hand, this can be extremely tiring, both to Christians that like to think their faith is more than just the Old Testament, Jesus on the cross, and the Book of Revelations, and to nonbelievers who weary of having the concept of Hell and eternal torment and all that shoved down our throats. On the other hand, if you can create something that actually harnesses the emotions and feelings tied in to those connotations, you can REALLY make your creation hit someone on a primal level, because most of us have those feelings already built in to our thinking processes. And it's not always something entirely conscious (it's pretty easy to tell when it is - The Passion of the Christ, for example, or "God's Gonna Cut You Down"); sometimes things just come together in the right way, and you've got magic.

"This Wheel's On Fire" has that magic, and maybe Dylan had it in his mind when he recorded the song (after all, one can only imagine what was going on in that melon of his throughout the sessions), but it seems unlikely. It's hard to consciously write something, let alone get a band to follow along, that invokes the feeling of doom and gloom you would associate with John the Revelator and his extremely fucked-up vision of the last days. And yet all you have to do is hear those minor chords, the Band's winding, menacing performance, and the almost frightening power of "this wheel's on fire/rolling down the road", that last "road" stretched out far beyond how the word was meant to be said or sung, and you know that those musicians hit that feeling right on the button. It's a pretty darn hard act to follow, and it is probably for the best that the song was chosen as the finale for the official album. There are a lot of songs from these sessions that invoke the Lord, that have that feeling of the apocalypse surrounding them, and that have a sense of darkness at their very essence, as though Dylan really did have a hell hound on his trail in those days following his motorcycle accident. And without invoking religion even once, "This Wheel's On Fire" can very easily be lauded as the cream of the crop, as the greatest of them all.

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9 comments:

Anonymous said...

i think your post hit it pretty close.nice series on these songs.it could be the notes by greil marcus mentioning of jerry lee lewis or levon helms book and what rick and richard etal were up to,this song makes me think of driving while uh,drunk or on pills etc,(dont know about last part as such ahem)among other things. thanks !

Anonymous said...

Great post, man. Excellent breakdown for the most excellent song on the album. What a closer...

Anonymous said...

In 1971, while I was discussing AMERICAN PIE with a successful songwriter, he told me, "You can say any nonsense you want in the verses, as long as you have a killer chorus." This song further validates his assertion.

Javier RodrĂ­guez said...

The "if your memory serves you well" line is taken straight from Arthur Rimbaud's poem "Une saison en Enfer". And yes, as haunting as it sounds, it's obviously one of the many times when Dylan decided to "borrow" something from someone else.

Another interpretation of the song points toward a western narrative (writen from a vengeful gunman's point of view).

Great blog, by the way, and greetings from Bolivia!

Justin said...

Happy Tony's centennial, TONY

Anonymous said...

You can rate this song here: http://www.tweedlr.com/songs/376/this-wheels-on-fire

Anonymous said...

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

Scott said...

I get the sense that the "wheel" that's "on fire" is the wheel of life - or kharmic wheel - that spins us around eternally. And, as long as we're alive (caught in the field of time) our "plans" will almost certainly always "fail.". Billy Joel hit on a similar idea with "We Didn't Start the Fire".

This implies that God is talking to the narrator in the verses, promising the protagonist that - no matter what - once he jumps off the "wheel" (of time), he'll meet God "again" in Eternity. "You'll remember you're the one That called on me to call on them To get you your favors done" seems to make an implication about answering prayers - or, about deliberately not answering them.

The narrator (Dylan) gives a defiant, tongue-in-cheek reply in the chorus, promising to set the wheel on fire... destroying it... ending his kharmic journey of rebirth. Or, in other words... If life's just going to suck all the time... to hell with it. lol

David George Freeman said...

Hello Bob Dylan fans... Want to listen to Every Bob Dylan Song, and every version, and lots more? Then finish reading this fine essay and then come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/670/This-Wheel's-on-Fire