Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #109: Dear Landlord

Can a purely acoustic song be funky? I was really surprised the first time I ever heard "Dear Landlord", as I hadn't heard much of Bob outside his hits and wasn't prepared for something that sounded like this. I can assume I'm not the only person who has had this experience, too - what with all the creative avenues Dylan has gone down, and making the logical assumption that most people start either with an acoustic-era or Electric Trilogy album (or, I guess, BOTT), most of the more unusual or unique albums in Dylan's canon have to throw those first-time listeners off. And this is a song that even stands out on its own album, by virtue of its comparatively complicated chord structure, a nifty little piano accompaniment, and that bouncy bass line, courtesy of Nashville veteran Charlie McCoy (the second guitarist on "Desolation Row", btw). Anybody that loves music can tell you that a well-played bassline can take a song to a new dimension (just think of "Live With Me" or any number of Who songs), and "Dear Landlord"'s bassline gives it that added dimension, kind of a head-nodding bent, that you don't get from any other song on the album.

So as most of you probably know, the most popular interpretation of "Dear Landlord" (as advanced by self-styled Dylanologist/full-time douchebag AJ Weberman) is that Dylan is singing about Albert Grossman and the tangled web of business dealings that cropped up after Dylan went into seclusion. Now, apparently most critics tend to disabuse people of that notion, and there really isn't too much in the way of evidence that there would be enough malfeasance or even really bad feelings to birth this song in the first place. I will confess, though, that I still tend to think of that theory whenever I hear the song, mainly because it just makes so much sense on the surface, doesn't it? That's kind of how Weberman's theories on these songs tends to work - because he basically says every damn song Dylan writes is about himself, you kinda take a look at the lyrics and go "hey...yeah, I see what he means! Wow, that's really cool!" Of course, it says way more about Weberman than about Bob that Weberman feels Bob's only singing about Bob, not just in the songs where it's clear Bob's singing about Bob, but in songs where Bob would probably not have any reason to be singing about Bob. If that makes sense.

Now, unless Dylan had a really nasty apartment issue in Greenwich Village or was getting a real hard time about his house up in Woodstock, it seems pretty clear that the song should not be taken in that specific a way. I, personally, don't think you need to dig too deep into the song - my own feeling is that you can think of the "landlord" in a universal context, in terms of somebody that you look up to and feel some sort of debt to, whether it be a parent ("I know you've suffered much/but in this you are not so unique"...eh? eh?) or a boss or whoever. In that sense, the song works perfectly; it captures the feelings somebody in that debt feels when thinking about this special person, the conflicting emotions that accumulate over a long period of time, and what it means to have that kind of relationship in your life. It also, probably unintentionally, captures the current state of our society, constantly working around the clock to pursue a life just outside of our grasp, full of "things we can see but just cannot touch" (like that new boat, or even our line of credit - money that's not really money!) - and do we pursue that course of life because we actually want to, or because we're being driven to do so?

I listen to the words of "Dear Landlord" and I see three different branches that our lives can take as we grow into adults and settle into the life we're going to have for at least three decades, if not longer. The first is a life of constant satiation, where nothing drives or interests you, and that little part of your brain that represents your pleasure center has shrunk to nothingness. Obviously, nobody wants that. The second is a life of constantly pushing yourself, always feeling like you have to do bigger and better (and not even necessarily that) things, because something in your younger days has molded you into this constantly moving beast. And nobody wants that, either; our culture is so built for creating stress as it is, to put stress on yourself for no reason hardly seems like the way to go. And that leaves the third path, the harmonic mean between the other two, in which you lead a life of comfort and happiness, always able to do something you want to when you want to, but not at the point where doing that something won't actually bring you joy. That's the life that everybody wants. And the narrator of "Dear Landlord" wants that as well, and he knows how hard it is to fulfill that dream, and to have somebody put pressure on him absolutely breaks his heart. That's something I think we all can relate to.

I think, then, that "Dear Landlord" found its place on the massive career retrospective that was Biograph (can you imagine that Biograph now more or less represents the halfway mark of Bob's career?) not just because it's an exceptional song from a very strong album. In the lyrics of the song, you can hear one of modern humanity's deepest struggles, the desire to please those we look up to or owe something to, and just how hard doing that can actually be. As somebody about to re-enter the higher education system (more on that later), I feel that struggle very strongly in my own mind; there are precious few people that enter higher education entirely of their own volition. And just as I hope I don't disappoint those that I love and care about, I can believe that Dylan had those same worries, albeit on a much larger scale, and even at his height of fame worried about pleasing somebody, even if we couldn't possibly ever figure out who that would be. It's nice to find something that binds me to Bob Dylan, let alone the rest of the human race; I'm glad he gave me an avenue to write about it.

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5 comments:

AJ Weberman said...

“Dear Landlord, Please don't put a price on my soul” sarcastic: dear leftwing critic AJ Weberman please don’t put a contract out on my poetry, murder my poetry, as in “put a price on someone’s head” by making the message Communistic. Also don’t make it into a book that sells for a fixed price “My burden is heavy” “burden” the central meaning or theme of my literary work, its effect, essence, core, gist is “heavy” laden with meaning, ponderous, not Marxist rhetoric “My dreams” my poems that are exceptionally gratifying, excellent, and beautiful “are beyond control” are beyond understanding. Chronicles, “I wanted to ask MacLeish to explain James Joyce to me, to make sense of something that seemed so out of control, and I knew that he would have, but I didn't.” Also my dreams are beyond singing the praises of totalitarianism, “control” “When that steamboat whistle blows” when I come to the end of my career “I'm gonna give you all I got to give” I am going to write a biography which will provide enough clues so that you can decipher my poetry “And I do hope you receive it well” and I do hope the book is well received by you and of course by reviewers “Dependin' on the way you feel that you live” and that will depend on whether you have come the same conclusions about politics and race that I have arrived at. “Landlord” as leftwing critic, She’s Your Lover Now; (cut here for sake of brevit)
“Dear landlord / Please heed” pay close attention to a warning “these words that I speak” “speak” make a statement in writing: ‘The biography speaks of great loneliness’ “I know you've suffered much” I heard that you were busted at Michigan State University in 1964 for selling pot and endured a lot of hardship “But in this you are not so unique” but in this world of drugs it is par for the course “All of us, at times, we might” both of us on certain special occasions we might “work too hard” proceed or progress slowly and laboriously “To have it too fast” to do something that would be far ahead of its time “fast” indicating a time somewhat ahead of the actual time: ‘The clock is fast.’ “and too much” that would be something great or remarkable “And anyone can fill his life up” but anyone with an empty creative life can compensate for this by filling it up “With things” with poems “he can see” he can read “but he just cannot touch” cannot translate properly nor express their true value, or even come close to touching their greatness.

billy said...

The theory about "Dear Landlord" being about Albert Grossman is one that I've never completely bought. I wouldn't discount it, but I wouldn't say that it's definitive. It's sort of like saying that Bruce Sprigsteen's song "The Promise"...or much of his DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN album...is about his lawsuit with Mike Appel. In either case, I think we sell the songwriters short, since both works also work on a very universal level, one that everyone can apply to his own life.

Rev Turd Fredericks said...

I think the song is about God, it's like a prayer. Dylan at this time was reading the bible a lot. I think it's that simple.

Reinaldo Garcia said...

I agree with the Good Reverend Turd: This song, as well as many others which are directed at an exalted beloved, can be read as directed to a deity. Jewish philosophers and writers are famous for their lifelong arguments with God.

Anonymous said...

A.J. Weberman's approach to Dylan's lyrics has always been simple: Assume that they mean anything except what they say, then run with that assumption as fast as you can head-first into the nearest brick wall (wearing no helmet). (For Weberman's hilarious-if-it-weren't-so-insane interpretation of "Blowin' in the Wind," go to http://www.dylanology.org/.) (I don't usually post "anonymously," but the Internet has made everyone susceptible to "garbology," the invasive character assassination that Weberman calls "research.")