Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #108: Drifter's Escape

I've always thought of this as my "sneaky favorite" song on John Wesley Harding, i.e. the one I'd probably pick as my favorite if I wasn't the kind of doofus that would buckle and say "All Along the Watchtower" actually is. One of the things that separates an uber-fan of an artist from a more casual fan is that, at a certain point, uber-fans develop favorite songs or even entire albums that the casual fan wouldn't even think twice about. It isn't as though somehow "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Hurricane" or "Tangled Up in Blue" aren't still great songs and that a long-time fan like myself doesn't love those songs through and through. It's just that, the longer you listen to Dylan, the more you find yourself digging into his catalog and unearthing tracks that eventually take a more deeply rooted place in your heart than the Greatest Hits. I may have made mention of the lesser-known songs on Bob's previous albums that I feel about in that way, but for this album "Drifter's Escape" is my choice. I will say that if Bob hadn't seen fit to put "Dear Landlord" on Biograph, that would have been my choice. But he did, so there you are.

Dylan manages a nice trick in this song, in which he combines both the stock figure of the Drifter/Vagabond/Outlaw of lore (cf. "I Ain't Got No Home") and Kafka's The Trial into one neat little package. There's something almost cinematic about the lyrics, three short verses telling a quick little tale of a man prosecuted for reasons nobody knows, about to be jailed despite the cries of both himself and others for salvation, and a sudden deux ex machina allowing the persecuted man to go free. The obvious way to go with this song would be to try and match that drifter in the song to, say, Dylan himself; other than trying to write something that brings back the railroad hobos of yore, why else would Dylan write such a mysterious tale if it's not a veiled reference to himself? I don't see it, myself, but somebody else might.

What I hear in the song is something that might be more mundane, or might be more interesting. I hear Dylan, once the leading friend of the downtrodden and voice for those without one, getting back to his folk roots, albeit in a more sideways manner, and writing a song about a man with no rights who manages to slip out of a noose despite some evil higher power trying to hold him down. Maybe it's the very deeply buried optimist inside of me thinking this, but I like to believe that Dylan still had some feelings towards the folk movement in those days, and that despite what we know now about his path towards folk music (i.e. a bit more cynical than we'd like), that he really did care about issues and about singing songs that feature people in need of help in our society. The Dylan of 1967 probably had no interest in going back to the pieties of The Times They Are A-Changin' or even the more plainer folk of Freewheelin', just as much as he had no interest regurgitating the weirdness of the Electric Trilogy, but maybe he still wanted to write something along the lines of those folk songs, highlighting a man in desperate plight the same way he'd sing about Hattie Carroll. And "Drifter's Escape" would be the result of that. Who knows, just something to chew on. That's what this blog is all about, right?

Now, maybe this is just me (I should start every post this way from now on), but there's an interesting musical link that I believe ties this song to "Tomorrow Never Knows", the Beatles' choice for closer to Revolver. Now, aesthetically, obviously the songs sound as different as can be; "Drifter's Escape" is all acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, while "Tomorrow Never Knows" is an assault on the senses, a melange of tape loops and sound effects mashed together into what might very well be the first (or at least most famous) psychedelic song ever recorded. But one thing that underpins both songs, and actually serves to give them common ground, is the usage of a drone as the musical bed - the simplest possible chord arrangement, repeated over and over, with everything else given all the more attention because of it. For "Drifter's Escape", the two high ringing chords Dylan bangs out on his acoustic serve as that drone, shifting attention to the song's lyrics (and Dylan having to go out of his usual register as a result, which is always fun). In the case of "Tomorrow Never Knows", the two chords for that song act as the glue that holds together the sound of organized chaos. One musical philosophy, two different applications.

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14 comments:

Md23Rewls said...

Solid post as usual. I particularly like the opening bit about having "sneaky favorites." When browsing a forum like Expecting Rain, you'll see people who cite Planet Waves or even the sludgery of Street-Legal as favorite albums. Now, my favorite Dylan album is Highway 61 Revisited (nothing earth shattering about that), but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the drunken ease of Another Side of Bob Dylan. I know that objectively it's not better than a bunch of his other albums, and it never officially cracks my Top Eight or so Dylan albums, but it's always sort of jabbing and weaving its way around the edges, because it's just an album that I dig.

On the song front, I think "Sign on the Window" off of New Morning is about as perfect as he got in the space between John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks, but it's not a song that I hear about very often. It's overlooked even on its own album, for the far more pleasant, digestible, "If Not For You." I'm getting ahead of myself, though.

roger said...

I think Street Legal is the greatest album ever made by anybody and one day the rest of the world will catch up with it..Where are you tonight is a song that just keeps giving ...apart from that my snaeky favourite song is Day of the Locusts...it's funny and serious at the same time ..the great man's ability to take an everyday incident and look at it in an affectionate warped way

Anonymous said...

Speaking of different or "sneaky" favorites, how about the seasonal appeal of certain Dylan albums?For example, listen to the underrated masterpiece Street Legal on a hot summers day,maybe even outdoors. While Planet Waves,in my opinion, is best savored during or after a snowfall.No need to be sneaky about it.

Rock Turtleneck said...

Brilliant connection b/w Drifter's Escape and Tomorrow Never Knows. Drifter's has been a secret favorite of mine as well - I'm definitely in that arena of Dylan fan. JWH is my favorite album of his. I'm enjoying your series. I do a music blog too, w/lots of Dylan stuff called Rock Turtleneck. Check it out when you get a chance: rockturtleneck.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Good post as usual but of course there can be no escape for Kafka's Joseph K. or in Kafka generally. But Franz was less inspired than Bob was by the account of the redemption Christ afforded "the thief on the cross."

billy said...

I think there is much that can be learned about "Drifter's Escape" in the movie MASKED AND ANONYMOUS.

I found this summary of the M&A use of "Drifter's Escape" from a blog site:

"In the movie Masked and Anonymous which Larry Charles, a Seinfeld writer co wrote with Dylan there is a scene where Dylan's character Jack Fate and his band play the song

"Meanwhile the character discuss the song's meaning
Penelope Cruz states that she loves the songs Dylan plays because they are not precise and they are completely open to interpretation

"Meanwhile elsewhere John Goodman and Luke Wilson are talking about it Luke Wilson says the song is about trying to get to heaven, stating 'you gotta know the route before you start out' but John Goodman concludes the scene stating that the song is written with a Jekyl and Hyde underlying, with Hyde narrating this particular story. that the song is about killing your conscience and accepting debochary as saintly if it please your appetite and your desire is the courtroom that of the law, that of God or that of one single man's psyche?"

This is as close as we'll probably get to Dylan's intentions of the song...or this may be Dylan slyly turning our focus from what the song's intent is.

I always figured it was the "voice of a generation" trying to escape that label (one that was imposed on Dylan by others)...no easy thing for him to do with everyone hanging at his door while in Woodstock (and later to rummage through his garbage cans).

I can hear it a thousand times and think of a thousand meanings to it. If a song can achieve that...well, it's enigmatic to say the least.

Tatu said...

There's some magic in "Drifter's"...

Heard first time JWH at the age of 15 back in the 80's. Even tho I did dig the whole record right away at the 1st listen, Drifter was the song that really caught my ear then. And still do.

Pape Blong said...

Your post came up when I searched on 'TMK' and 'Drifter's escape'. I just noticed the similarity as well. In addition to the drone you notice, there's also the groovy beat and the the ascending bass line (which was what clued me in in the first place -- the drone sealed the deal!).

I wonder if the "escape" Dylan is referring to is intended to gesture at a Lennonesque transcendence ...

Pape Blong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pape Blong said...

... hard to read the lyrics here: http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/drifters-escape and not find a Lennonesque message: "my time it isn't long" says the drifter; "you fail to understand, why must you even try" sez the judge; at the end everybody kneels to pray, a bolt of lightning "strikes the courthouse out of shape" and the drifter "escapes" -- plausible that the bolt of lightning represents the message Lennon was trying to get across (don't bother trying to understand); the drifter dies, but "escapes" because he got the message at the last.

Anonymous said...

I have been listening to John Wesley Harding since it was released in 1968. What I now think is special is the bass player and drummer, McCoy and Buttrey. The bass and drums are played almost as a single instrument. Fantastic recording - a classic.

Anonymous said...

"I have been listening to John Wesley Harding since it was released in 1968. What I now think is special is the bass player and drummer, McCoy and Buttrey. The bass and drums are played almost as a single instrument. Fantastic recording - a classic."

I can't believe you said that. I emailed a friend with almost those exact words. The bass and drums are like one instrument. I too have been listening to JWH since 1968 and the first time I heard it there was something special about it that I couldn't put my finger on. Only now do I realize that it is McCoy and Buttrey that make it special. I have never heard a rock song that delivers the excitement of these three musicians. The combination of Butttey and McCoy make this entire album unique. Buttrey and McCoy also played on Blonde on Blonde. One of my favorites is Absolutely Sweet Marie. I listened to that song a thousand times. That's rock and roll.

Anonymous said...

It's about Jesus

Moose said...

I love this song as well. Always thought it to be beautiful in its simplicity. Got a few sneaky favorites of my own. Near the top is let me die in my footsteps. You've mentioned songs as being too specific, and this is certainly one of them, but I've always found the situation to be transferable to freedom in general.