Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #107: The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

If nothing else, "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" serves as proof positive that Bob Dylan didn't need to write about motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queens to properly confuse the hell out of his listeners. Instead of whatever crazy images the combination of his natural talent and a witches' brew of drugs were causing him to spit out for the Electric Trilogy, we get a long-winded, entirely confusing "narrative" about money, temptation, seduction (?), insanity, and death, all wrapped up with not one, but two separate parting shots. And, in my opinion, if you want to actually try and analyze this song, the main decision you have is to decide which of those is more meaningful to the song - the semi-profound "don't go mistaking Paradise/for that home across the road", or the equally semi-profound "nothing is revealed". Take one path and the song is a morality tale about how the love of filthy lucre and lascivious succubi can cause a good person to come unhinged. Take the other and the song becomes a wicked gag Dylan's playing on us, five minutes of droll sermonizing wrapped up with a simple, direct punchline. Either road is just as correct as the other; that's the fun part, I guess.

If you take the song as an actual morality tale, you're confronted with the idea of Dylan potentially talking about himself (like so many of his songs). Having already brought up the idea of Dylan possibly encoding the seductions he faced on his year-long boos-ridden sojourn across the world, I am somewhat loath to bring it up again here; after all, assuming Dylan did bury that message in "As I Went Out One Morning", why would he possibly want to rehash it in some weird tale about some poor cat who loses his marbles? But at least here the idea of somebody being driven insane by earthly pleasures is more explicit (relatively speaking). The former song has a chained woman begging the narrator to take her South, which could really mean anything, honestly. Here, though, you have Frankie Lee first being sent in a tizzy by his "friend" Judas Priest's roll of ten-dollar bills, then completely going cuckoo for cocoa puffs upon encountering the house with a woman's face in every one of its twenty-four windows (apparently they're staying in MC Hammer's old house) and eventually succumbing to thirst - one has an idea of why, if you take the "woman in each window" thing to its logical conclusion, and it's kinda icky to think about, no? That sounds more like how worldly pleasures can suck out a man's soul, and possibly a little closer to how Dylan nearly lost everything during those crazy years where he was nearly more God than man, musically speaking.

And then there's the second option, which isn't particularly satisfying for those that enjoy parsing Dylan's words, but lends the song a bit of humor that really isn't there otherwise. I'd made previous mention of the infamous scene in "Last Exit to Springfield", possibly the greatest episode in the entire run of The Simpsons, where Grandpa Simpson tells a rambling story that goes absolutely nowhere and bores his audience nearly to tears. Not to get all Professor Comedy on you here, but the obvious comedic value of this bit (other than "I had an onion tied to my belt - which was the style of the time) is in hearing a story so astoundingly stultifying that you can't help but laugh at its dullness. Now think of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" in this way - all the weird emotional shifts (Frankie Lee goes from confused to smiling to scared, like he's bipolar or something), the goofy bits like the stranger asking if Frankie Lee's dad is dead, and all the stuff that almost seems thrown in just to make the couplets rhyme (what does it matter if the stranger is quiet as a mouse?), and the creeping sense that Dylan may just have been making this up as he was going along. And then the little boy says "nothing is revealed" at the end, and it all makes sense, doesn't it?

What's interesting to me is that while songs that the listener can make his own analysis of isn't really a rarity, there aren't too many songs in which you could make the debate that Dylan is actively having a laugh at the people listening to this song. In a purely performance-wise sense, the song has a level of repetition The Fall would be proud of, four chords banging out over and over (with a guitar out of tune - maybe another wink to his audience?), and Dylan speak-singing his strange tale with only the barest hint of emotion. The only real flourish to the song is Dylan's short harmonica solo, cropping up almost out of nowhere and breaking the mood/monotony with its crisp notes. It is Dylan's poker face, then, that gives the song its mystery, both in his vocal delivery and in those strange lyrics, and allows us to wonder if he really is spinning some kind of morality tale. And without any other cues to figure out where his head's at, you can see both that morality tale and the possibility of Dylan just writing a five-minute joke set to music.

It's funny, listening to a song like "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", thinking about those lyrics, how simple and easy to understand the lyrics are in terms of plain writing, and yet how much could be hidden behind those words. Check that - how much we think could be hidden behind those words. You can draw a remarkably straight line from where Dylan had been to where he was going; how the Basement Tapes allowed Dylan to be as weird and literate and off-putting as he'd been since BIABH, only without using the language of Tarantula but using the language of ancient times, the Wild West, and the pages of American history most of us never flipped to in our textbooks. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call "musical evolution", and Dylan has proven himself time and again to be a master of that. You can hear the proof in one of his most cryptic songs, as well as a song as moralizing as any of his gospel-era tunes. Or, maybe, one of his funniest tunes outside of his talking blues period. That distinction is entirely up to you.

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14 comments:

Rob said...

Tony, sorry to be dim, but re. "icky", you obviously imply something to do with sex and those women, but I can't quite see what to do with sex would leave him dying of thirst ... a clue to what you're suggesting please ?

Rob said...

a woman in every window = whorehouse ... frankie lee od's on sex ... but "thirst", still don't see it ...

Tony said...

The suggestion I was making was that Frankie Lee would be so, um, busy that he would have no time to consume food or drink, and would thus die of dehydration. This is what us writerly types call a "bad joke". No need to apologize, and you're certainly not dim for missing it.

For posterity, I'm going to leave the, ahem, joke in the post, so that these comments will still make sense.

Rob said...

ok, got it. My dark and twisted mind was trying to think what particular sex act you had in mind that would lead to dehydration !

Anonymous said...

I think maybe you had to hear the song in '68 to fully understand it's impact. One of my all time favorite songs of Bob, it was truly shocking in a very odd way. The layers of meaning form the archetype of a "Dylan song". Read Frankie as Bob, and Judas as Albert, his manager, and you begin to get one layer. Dylan's father had just died, prior to the recording of the song.

Anonymous said...

Its obvious that Franky Lee is a gambler and he is willing to gambel his life. While Judas Priest he is planning for the long haul and paradice. Franky Lee strays and finds himself in a whore house. He spends 16 days and nights there. He has been one busy man with all the women and exhaustion catches up with him and he dies. Don t read Dylan too deeply. Dylan like most lyisists is just trying to ryhme. Like shake rymhes with make or take

Tony said...

The above post is, without a doubt, my favorite comment ever left on this site.

Rob said...

To "gambel" his life or to *gambol through* life ... ?!! Also, when you say that Judas P is aiming for "paradice" could that be a hidden reference to gambling, as in "dice" ... meaning that it is JP who is the real gambler? ! And does "Franky" Lee die of "exhaustion" rather than dehydration because, Frankly, my dear reader, you're over-analysis of BD will drive you to an early grave ? All of which suggests that perhaps the above post was written by BD Himself ?!

Alex said...

you kind of hit the nail on the head in a strange way. but you make a value judgment. this is one of my favorite dylan songs ever. i get it. or at least i thought i did when it made me cry one time. but like the "meaning" of any dylan song, it's entirely personal. when it comes to you it comes to you.

Kirk said...

The more I listen to this album, the closer it comes to being my favorite Dylan album. So seemingly unassuming, yet so profound. This song is a great example of that. Iam enjoying your blog very much. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Anonymous said...

I think the "thirst" is suggesting that in worldly things such as money and sex there is no satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Anybody else think Dylan was reading the inferno at the time he was writing this classic.

Dan said...

I always imagined this as a parable. Well, Dylan's version of one.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, yes another interesting piece of analysis. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/635/The-Ballad-of-Frankie-Lee-and-Judas-Priest and listen to every version of every song.