Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #118: I Threw It All Away

Okay, this will be the last time I bring up Clinton Heylin (at least for this album, anyway). "I Threw It All Away", one of the most popular songs on the album, a favorite of any number of Dylan fans, was the subject of one of Heylin's more pointed criticisms in his Behind the Shades. Aside from the "once I had mountains/in the palm of my hands" lyric, he saw the lyrics to the song as nothing but trite cliches, a level of songwriting far below the lofty standards that Bob has established, even in the confines of a mere country music song. Now, far be it for me to criticize the opinion - repeat: opinion - of somebody with a great deal more qualifications, life experience, and musical wherewithal than I; on the other hand, screw 'im. Heylin, who apparently has this weird idea that Dylan's career needs to be wrapped in the snug cocoon of about five years of its existence, also apparently can't deal with the notion of his counterculture hero saying what he means, dealing in plain-spoken language instead of Rimbaud-by-way-of-Kerouac, or writing a song that directly goes for emotion instead of cleverly dancing around it. Kind of sad, if you ask me.

Dylan's pre-country career has not wanted for songs that have been able to summon emotion and tug at the heartstrings; indeed, it's what gives him more substance than the pseudo-hipsters that rip him off with about half his cleverness and a mere fraction of his humanity. But he never had a song that hit people in quite this way, with a directness he only sporadically visited outside of this album. Dylan's croon is a great help in this regard - as has already been mentioned, it's hard to imagine Dylan's regular singing voice (even the John Wesley Harding model) conjuring up that same kind of feeling, and that silky-smooth voice Dylan adopted works very well in this context. It should also be mentioned that his band offers maybe their best backing performance of the whole album, no mean feat. The intro, with that delicately picked acoustic backed by a dramatic, droning organ, is as arresting a musical moment as Dylan has had, and the sympathetic backing gives added weight to Dylan's vocal performance. I'm not suggesting that only an unfeeling robot wouldn't be moved by this song...well, just for fun, let's say I am suggesting that.

Now, one thing that this blog has started to become known for (at least, amongst the cooler cats out there in Internet-land) is occasional song analysis, in which I let loose the wilder side of my imagination and attempt to figure out just what it is our hero's trying to get at. I'd originally suggested at the start of this project that I was going to try to steer clear of that, as there is already a massive market of Dylan analysis and it doesn't seem entirely prudent to try and jam one more frat boy into that particular phone booth. All the same, I keep finding myself lured in by his exceptionally cryptic lyrics and mind-boggling imagery, much like so many others have been in the last 40+ years, and I keep finding myself wanting to get some sort of handle on where Bob was coming from, in order to make my listening experience that much better. I'm not sure this is always a good thing; after all, as much as enjoying music occurs on an intellectual level, a great deal of that enjoyment also comes purely from how that music stimulates us, makes us want to dance, and so on. All the same, there is something fun about parsing some of Bob's crazier lyrics, and he's had plenty of tracks that can double as treasure hunts.

I bring this up because it's kind of funny to me that this sort of spyglass-poring over analysis is rarely, if ever, applied to Nashville Skyline. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that an album this unassuming hasn't been subjected to the microscope so many other Dylan albums have suffered. But you do have to wonder what it is about us that wants to search for hidden meanings in the complex, without ever imagining that those same meanings could be hidden in the simple. Take "I Threw It All Away", for example. Where are the mountains of articles suggesting that this song is actually about Suze Rotolo, or Joan Baez, or any of the women that Dylan had loved and lost up to this point? Why can't those mountains stand for "the mountains of Madrid" Dylan wrote about in "Boots of Spanish Leather", a song that just about everyone assumes is about Suze heading off to Europe and her relationship with Bob splintering. Why aren't there people crying out that it's Baez that Dylan used to hold in his arms and so on and so forth? Maybe because it's not as much fun to place that sort of idea somewhere that makes it obvious, instead of somewhere that makes it hard for everyone but the most in tune with Dylan's wavelength to properly discern?

If you ever needed a reason to really enjoy Nashville Skyline, outside its own considerable artistic merits, just think about the fact that it's escaped so much of the chattering that has surrounded the rest of Bob's canon, both good and ill. So often we want to find deeper meanings in Bob's words - mainly because it makes it easier to defend his music against those that mock his lyrics as gibberish - that it's a real breath of fresh air when we can just enjoy his music on the level that goes no further than "isn't that sweet how he's singing about lost love?" It doesn't lessen the quality of the music, trust me. "I Threw It All Away" still remains a classic, one of Bob's finest songs. If you'd rather his finest songs were all about the Sixties or his battle with the folk crowd, well, that's your business.

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9 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Once I held mountains in the palm of my hands"

Conjures images of a womens breasts. Sexually imagery; nothing more. No Spain, No Suze Rotolo. Just a nice rhyme. Similar to "I wind up peeking through her keyhole down upon my knees".

Tony said...

Conjures images of a womens breasts. Sexually imagery; nothing more.

No offense, but I'm reasonably sure you missed the point I was trying to make in this particular entry. And yes, I'm quite aware that is the image most people (including myself) think of when they hear the line.

So, how'd you like the post?

Reinaldo Garcia said...

Regarding the "mountains" line, I always thought it referred to the way love can make one feel like a god. Here is the whole couplet: "Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand, / And rivers that ran through ev'ry day." These lines serve to accentuate the narrator's fall from quasi-divinity. And if "mountains" are breasts, what does that make the "rivers"? What's really interesting musically about this nice melody is that Dylan goes to the VI chord here: "But I was cruel..."

connus said...

Tony,
love you and the blog, but I can't get behind your premise---that this song ever meant anything to Bob..I like the song, but when I listen to it, it's just a cute little romantic ditty, like many songs of this period, it just kind of makes me smile, and I think that's all he was after...remember, Bob missed out on the Rock 'n' Roll "write meaningless hit rockers and ballads about love" treadmill that the Beatles and the Beach Boys started out on...and he was the man of course gave those bands a way out of that rut. So I think he just wanted to have fun and try to get a few hits out of it....

kevin cramsey said...

This song is a gem, even if it is merely an exercise in song craftsmanship. Nothing wrong with that. I really don't mind -- in fact, I like it -- when artists who are so unique in their vision and delivery decide to "just make a record" as if they were a carpenter building a sturdy, solid shelf that just about anyone who appreciates good work can, well, appreciate it. A lot of people who don't like your "typical" Bob Dylan song would probably like this. And that's okay. I agree also that Bob's voice is key to this song. When he sang it seven years later during the "Hard Rain" performance from '76, he belted it out (and changed the lyrics around for no apparent good reason) and the song suffers accordingly.

Kilter said...

Tony,

Seeing how I'm one of the coolest cats out there in Internetland :{), my opinion is . . . please give us your analysis of these songs.

It may have been a valiant effort to resist at first, but you've got a ton of songs left to get through, and I wouldn't want your words (or your mind, or your keen perspective) to dry up on us or anything!

So if you feel yourself leaning that way, give us analysis!

JA said...

I must disagree with the other commentator about "I Threw It All Away" on the Hard Rain album, which I think is a wonderful and epic recasting of this oft-forgotten gem.

I'm enjoying reading each of these critiques and am especially looking forward to Self-Portrait and the 80s...

Days of Broken Arrows said...

I usually don't comment on blogs *two years* after they're posted, but for this one I will.

I've read virtually all of Heylin's books and interviewed him. I think he's a brilliant analyst of Dylan's work but I think he, like all of us, is trapped in viewing the world from within the confines of his own cultural biases and limitations.

Being British, his worldview does no seem to include an understanding of the country idiom, from which this song is derived. In folk music, allegory, symbolism and long-winded stories rule; in country simplicity rules. My guess that before Dylan studied up on folk songs (circa 1960-62) he naturally absorbed country music during his teen years, which included artists like Brenda Lee, Marty Robbins and of course Johnny Cash.

These musicians had a limited amount of time to get their point across to a working class audience who was otherwise engaged -- as opposed to an educated urban audience with the time and means to "explore" music. So their songs were emotional and to the point.

From that vantage point, "I Threw It All Away" is a success both musically and lyrically. You don't need a college English degree for it to hit you -- and hit you hard -- upon first listen. It's not supposed to be clever or cute or be filled with double meanings, subversive agendas or literary references.

Addendum: never underestimate the influence on trivial 1950s-60s pop singers on Dylan. People make a big deal out of "Captain Arab" from "115th Dream." It's not some political statement -- it's a reference to Ray Stevens' novelty tune "Ahab the Arab," which in itself is a sort of precursor to the comedic tunes DYlan would sometimes do.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/280/I-Threw-It-All-Away and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.