Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #119: Lay Lady Lay

Even if you had no prior knowledge of Dylan's career before hearing "Lay Lady Lay", it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that this was the first and biggest single off of the album. That famous intro (the swelling organ, the wandering pedal steel, and what suspiciously and awesomely sounds like a cowbell), combined with the catchiness of those deceptively rote verses and the little guitar lick we all know from the chorus, adds up to a song that sounds like it would be right at home being played by DJs coast to coast. It also wouldn't surprise you to know that this song has taken a spot on just about every Dylan compilation there is, often as the only Nashville Skyline representative, including (somewhat oddly) the pole position on Dylan's sprawling and always-interesting Biograph. And you might not even be surprised to learn that "Lay Lady Lay" was Dylan's last Top 10 hit in the US and one of the biggest singles of his career. That's the kind of song it is; both gently unassuming and almost astoundingly commercial-friendly.

The one impression that's always lasted with me in regards to this song is just how beautiful it sounds, especially in the context of a career not always noted for care and craft when it comes to studio arrangements. I know that "Lay Lady Lay" was recorded as quickly as any other number of Dylan hits - in a session that lasted all of ten days, there probably wasn't too much attention paid to any one song. And yet I can't help hearing the song and feeling like Dylan wanted this song to sound as immaculate as possible, from the burnished sheen of the organ to the way he pushes himself vocally on the middle eight. In a way, that actually makes the song more endearing; nominally it's a track about a man beseeching his woman to spend a night with him, but in its recorded version it takes on a more dignified air - what could've sounded like cheap come-ons instead sound like gentle, emotional pleas. I'm not sure that would've happened without the studio band's fantastic contributions.

One wonders what a blow this song must have been to all those Dylan fans that were expecting him to continue to be their birds-nest-haired hero after 1966; not only did it come on a country album, for the love of Pete, but people are BUYING this tripe and requesting it on the radio! Given Dylan's other top-tens ("LARS", "Positively 4th Street", "Rainy Day Women"), "Lay Lady Lay" is the obvious anomaly, both in its date of release and its sound. But what's interesting (and probably was infuriating back in those heady days of 1969) is that "Lay Lady Lay" sounds the most like a radio single, whereas the other songs sound like great songs that just happened to be played on the radio. There is a difference. I'm reminded, thinking of the chart success of this song, both of William Goldman's famous maxim about Hollywood - "nobody knows anything" - and the judge who made a ruling on pornographic materials by essentially saying "I know it when I see it". These are two diametrically opposing viewpoints, and yet they both can work when it comes to a song that becomes a big hit. We never know why a song can blow up on the radio and Billboard charts, but when we hear it somehow it becomes more apparent. "Lay Lady Lay", when you hear it, just sounds like a song that should be coming out of transistor speakers.

Dylan, surely, knew this as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Bob Dylan wrote "Lay Lady Lay" so he could get one of those fancy schmancy gold records to hang up on the wall of his den or something. But Dylan knows what's what when it comes to music, and it's no surprise that "Lay Lady Lay" has played a prominent role in his live career when he returned to the stage. He gave the song an airing during the Isle of Wight concert (one of a whopping six post-crash songs out of the 17-song setlist), and also included the song as a mainstay of the Tour '74 setlists (one of far less post-crash tunes, along with "Forever Young", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", "All Along the Watchtower", and a few random Planet Waves tunes). And every tour since, more or less, has had at least one airing of the song (including the 1976 version, which I consider an abomination; that's probably not the majority opinion). Hey, even Dylan likes to satiate the masses sometimes.

It is with the release of this song that we see the end of Bob Dylan as a singles artist, somebody capable of ruling the radio for a few weeks with a song that you can't spin the dial without hearing. That's not a bad thing, of course - it's not like Dylan hasn't kept commercial appeal, with his mid-70s resurgence and his 2000s back-to-back chart toppers - but it's still something that we don't really think of when we're assessing Dylan's career. Not only is Dylan one of the defining artists of his generation (if not every generation), but there was a moment where his tracks rubbed shoulders on Billboard and Cashbox and Melody Maker and the NME with the Supremes and the Hollies and, yes, the Beatles. Yeah, it was a different time, but it's still funny to imagine our hero pushing product (like he did by appearing on The Johnny Cash Show) and having his 45s advertised in magazines. Ah, nostalgia.

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

i remember a reading a couple of details about the song. it was supposedly written for the movie Midnight Cowboy, but finished too late. also supposedly, Kris Krisofferson played a combination of trash can and ash-try for percussion on the track. i remember hearing on the radio in the summer of 1969 a bunch, and it sounded really great on a car's am radio...

JA said...

I don't know if yours is the minority opinion given the heaps of invectives i often see for the hard rain album, but i am one of those who loves the '76 arrangement of Lay Lady Lay. I don't think it's fair to compare it with the original, but something about the way bob belts "forget this dance -- who really cares?" is very compelling.

Md23Rewls said...

Probably Dylan's sexiest song.

Tony said...

Probably Dylan's sexiest song.

Until that Prince-style song ever gets out, of course.

Justin said...

I think what started as the Prince style song may have ended up becoming Dirty World. Love your sexy body.

I'll speak out against you, Tony Ling. I think the '76 Lay Lady Lay is great in its tumultuous context; the unkindness he does to (and with) the song is the whole point. Admittedly though it's not something I return to as often as some of the other tracks on Hard Rain.

Tony said...

I think what started as the Prince style song may have ended up becoming Dirty World.

I do believe you're right. In that case, "Lay Lady Lay" takes the Dylan's sexiest song crown.

Re: the '76 version, I see your point - what he does to the song fits in well with the rest of that tour and its "fuck you" aesthetic. Unfortunately, the desire to just say "fuck you" kind of overwhelms the whole thing. Quite frankly, Bob would've been better served just doing the Astrodome show and calling it a year.

The only song I return to with regularity on Hard Rain is "Shelter From the Storm", which I consider to be at least the equal of, if not superior to, the album version. Forgive the tortured metaphor, but if the album version of "Shelter" is like reading Le Morte d'Arthur, then the Hard Rain version is like if Le Morte d'Arthur was made into a film by Scorcese or some other great director. It's a very different mood, but it still works.

elquesefue said...

this song is perfect. it's romantic, has beauty, melody, a great feel or ambiance, humor, a inimitable vocal performance, simplicity and elegance, lines that really stick. a one in a million kind of song:

"I long to see you in the morning light

I long to reach for you in the night"

"his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
and you're the best thing that he's ever seen"