Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #99: Open the Door, Homer

There's something different about this song. I don't mean that it doesn't belong in the context of the Basement Tapes sessions, like Dylan & Co. suddenly decided to break out some gangsta rap or something. I mean that, in some ineffable way, it just feels kind of different, a little set apart from the rest of the set. Maybe it's just because I'm nearing the end of the album and might have a touch of fatigue writing about these songs, who knows. Or maybe it's that minor chord in the chorus, which actually makes the song more harrowing that it probably should be. Or perhaps it's the lyrics, which just come across as Confucius-like bits of homespun advice all strung together. Maybe it's the weather, or something like that.

Doesn't it always seem kind of strange that somebody like Confucius actually existed? I mean, we all know just how difficult living in this world can be sometimes, that our human existence often withers in the face of such overpowering ideas as the possibility of an afterlife or why we have to have wars, and we're always looking for ways to simplify as much as we can and to find ways to bring order and meaning to our complicated lives. Confucius, in his own way, actually managed to do both - his pithy sayings ("Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do", for example) are not only simple and easy to understand, but actually have a great deal of profundity to how we can live our lives. It's a small wonder the man has kept his reputation for so many years; unfortunately, a lot of that comes from people using his name for terrible "Confucius say" jokes. I'll resist the temptation to put one here.*

You wonder if Bob Dylan, a greatly intelligent man (if not an educated man, whatever the hell THAT means), took a few pages from Confucius in making his turn from the undisciplined wildness of the Electric Trilogy to the sparer, sparser songwriting that would mark his middle-sixties output. It's clear that Dylan was simplifying in his lifestyle in general, foresaking the life-draining pleasures of the road and of superstardom in order to keep a close-knit family life and occasionally rock out with his pals. One wonders if he'd have decided to do this if he hadn't broken his neck riding that Triumph of his, but that's neither here nor there. The plain fact is that he decided that those earthly pleasures weren't for him (at least, not at that moment) and that he wanted to pare down his life as much as he could. And that desire, probably by design, showed up in his songwriting of the time. Always a master at synthesizing whatever he was listening to into his own brand of music, this time he was taking all that folk, country, and blues music he loved and mashing them into his own style, and there was no time for drugged-out imagery in the words he now had running through his brain. They might still be hard to understand, but this time it isn't because they were so weird, but because they seemed so simple, hiding their meaning in plain sight.

"Open the Door, Homer", with its three verses of what kinda, sorta sounds like advice, I guess ("one must always flush out his house/if he don't expect to be housing flushes" - uh, gee, thanks), serves as example of that songwriting style. Not to get too into the next album on this little journey of mine, but John Wesley Harding features much of the same cryptic lyrical style, maybe even more so ("The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", for example), made all the starker by the extremely stripped-down arrangements. And he never would have gotten there without a song like "Open the Door, Homer", a song that finds Dylan honing his new approach to writing lyrics, to both exceptional and head-scratching effect. He hadn't gotten to writing parables yet, but he was getting there.

*okay, fine, I can't resist. One I actually heard in my high school days - "Confucius say it is good to meet girl in park, but better to park meat in girl".

I'm so, so sorry.

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iriefire said...

hey there im really enjoying reading youre critiques...keep them coming...but i cant help but notice youve left out "tomorrow is a long time", one of my favourites, "who killed davey moore' "seven curses" and a few others....hope you get around to those ....peace and love...

andrew! said...

There's many correlations that can be drawn between the Basement Tapes & Bob's last three albums. Forms & melodies taken from many old & forgotten & some not so forgotten sources peppered with lines lifted from anyone & everyone. My favorite line (at least the second part of it anyway) from this song is quite biblical, "take care of all of your memories said nick, for you cannot relive them, & remember while you're out there trying to heal the sick that you always must first forgive them." This doesn't diminish them at all in my opinion, I love the Basement Tapes, but I can't help but think that Bob's having a laugh at our expense. Throwing all kinds of ridiculous lines with some meaningful ones leaving you wonder what the whole thing's all about. I guess this could be said about most of Bob Dylan's greatest songs. Thank goodness Bob's not one of those people that goes into great detail explaining the meaning or inspiration of his songs, the magic's in not knowing.

Anonymous said...

You can rate this song here:

Anonymous said...

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

David George Freeman said...

Yes another fine analysis. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box,-Homer to listen to every version of every song.