Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #114: I'll Be Your Baby Tonight

And so we reach the end of John Wesley Harding with "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", considered by many to be the logical bridge between this album and Nashville Skyline, and a wonderfully low-key way to end this particular song cycle. Maybe it's the gentle (and well-placed) pedal steel guitar, or Dylan's mellow harmonica notes at the beginning and end, or even the short running time (2 min., 39 sec.) that allows the song to reach its fadeout almost as quickly as it started, but I would say this might be one of Dylan's most relaxed songs, his equivalent of a summer afternoon on a back porch with a glass of lemonade and a corncob pipe. I would guess that he'd enjoy that description as well; it seems pretty obvious that that was the mood that he was shooting for. Small wonder that Norah Jones, who has made her fame on quiet and gentle piano-based music, has recorded a cover version of this song - it's nice sounding, at least, if a little more capable of helping me drift to sleep than I'd like. What the heck, it beats the Robert Palmer/UB40 version, that's for sure.

I've gone a couple of posts without talking much, if at all, about the musical arrangements for these songs (I'm not sure what to say, honestly - the arrangements, while not quite monochromatic, only have so much going for them when they're that stripped down), but for this track a few words should be spared about Dylan's band's performance. Say what you will about both this, the previous song, and the entire album that followed, but one thing that has to be said about the country efforts is that they never sound inauthentic. And you can certainly give Dylan credit for some of that - he had a pretty good ear for the country genre at that point - but much more needs to go to his talented studio musicians, a group of men malleable and intelligent enough to go in any direction Dylan wanted them to go. With the pedal steel woven in and out of the track and the rest of the band offering sympathetic backup, a song that could very easily have become a genre parody is given a level of authenticity instead.

And it's a darn good thing that issue of authenticity was settled so early; when you make that kind of stylistic leap, it doesn't really help matters if you can't walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Nobody will ever get demerit points for branching out and trying something different in their work (at least, not from me), but it's a different story when that branching out is done haphazardly or without any affection or consideration for whatever genre the artist chooses to dive into. And even having that affection and consideration doesn't necessarily guarantee that things will work out for the best. Take, for example, Bowie's Young Americans, his tribute/co-opting of Philadelphia soul. The album sounds just fine (with the title track and "Fame" being outright classics) and Bowie never sounds like he's just having himself a right ol' larf throughout. But there's still something off about the whole proceedings, like we're getting a Xerox of the real thing, and that makes the album more of a curiosity than anything else. I'll get more into this during the Nashville Skyline posts, as so much about that period of Dylan's life deserves consideration, other than "a country album? Whoa!"

It seems rather odd that such an unassuming song as "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" might become a lightning rod for interest and discussion (outside its aesthetic value, I mean), but "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" has a level of fascination attached to it that goes far beyond Dylan just wanting to record a country song. I touched briefly on this in the last post and will return to it later on (hint: it will be during a song I consider one of Dylan's great unknown classics), but attention needs to be paid to just how jarring the switch in Dylan's metier must have been for his fans. And not just for this album in general - the last two songs, far less rooted in the mysterious and a lot friendlier than the surly genius that had cropped up the past few years, must have been just a trip, if not more so, than the ten songs preceding them. That, in itself, is not a shock; after all, we are often unprepared for something different in our lives, and this was something very different indeed. For a man who had already had his share of masks in his short but brilliant recording career, how strange must it have been to have seen that mask removed, and to see a smile underneath?

I've given Clinton Heylin his share of mockery, and the one bit I've always been most annoyed at him about is his taking to task of the Rolling Stone review of Nashville Skyline in which Dylan was credited for making a masterpiece about being happy. Granted, the praise seems to be a bit much, and the reviewer did adjust his opinion later on. All the same, Heylin's aggravation towards that review (and the album in particular, which he dismisses outright) has always rubbed me the wrong way. What I sort of get out of that is that there's something wrong with writing songs about being happy, especially when one desirable form of creativity (Dylan's Electric Trilogy, even the John Wesley Harding aesthetic) is substituted for a less desirable, more simplistic form (i.e. country music). And that, to me, seems entirely unfair. Dylan was in a frame of mind in that time to write songs about being happy, and he chose to write those songs in a certain way (I can't imagine the trainwreck that would've been "Tell Me That It Isn't True" recorded in the Blonde on Blonde style). I don't really see anything wrong with that. And I certainly see no reason to begrudge Dylan his happiness during that times. Things would get stormy quick enough for him. It's nice to have a couple songs when that storm was still on the horizon, and the sun was out and shining on him.

And that's all for John Wesley Harding! Come back next time for the next album in Bob's oeuvre, as I try to make sense of one of the true outliers of Dylan's career. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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6 comments:

Kilter said...

Anthony,

Dylan's book "Chronicles vol. 1" shows there's been a smile underneath his mystery mask all along. His literature style over 300 pages is absolutely benign.

I don't begrudge his playful mood at all. After all, the nighttime needs daylight to better show the contrast.

As usual, great post. I've been reading your past entries volaciously.

Rob said...

Yes, they are volicious !

sixties said...

Bob Dylan is my favorite singer of all times. An exceptional product of the sixties culture, he has it all: the lyrics, the voice and the looks!

Md23Rewls said...

Going to throw my own experience at you here. As somebody who writes all the time (a lot of nonfiction and essays, some poetry, some fiction) and will be going to grad school at Iowa to write in the fall, I can say that in my experience, it is far harder to write a happy anything than it is to write a sad, depressed anything. It just is. I'm not the only one who's come across this "phenomena"--it's something that I've talked about with my professors and other writers. Happy is just a hard emotion to write. You are constantly in danger of falling into cliche and turning it into sentimental flowery goop. I personally think that the fundamental problem is that happiness is harder to write as a three dimensional emotion, as compared to grief or loss or whatever. I don't begrudge Dylan for writing happy songs from time to time, and I don't necessarily think they're "worse" than his angry/sad philosopher stuff, but it is hard to judge them as being on the same level.

Rob said...

Phenomenon. Phenomena is plural.

It's all Geek to me.

edward said...

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

Cyril Connolly (10 September 1903 – 26 November 1974) English intellectual, literary critic and writer.