Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #129: Early Morning Rain

http://expectingrain.com/dok/div/greilmarcusselfportrait.html

It occurs to me, listening to this track, that I'd never really gotten into the whole late 60's-early 70's singer-songwriter deal. Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, John Denver - you got a couple good songs in there, but it was just never my cup of tea. And hearing Dylan's runthrough of "Early Morning Rain" doesn't exactly change my mind. The RS review has particularly harsh words for this particular track; references are made to the "mawkish" quality of the actual song, the "stiff-formed-vowel" vocal, and an extremely uninteresting and generic backing track. And I'm absolutely with them - calling this song "cookie-cutter" might be an insult to cookie cutters. Perhaps if the song wasn't so bleh (to quote Patton Oswalt, "feelin' kinda sorta") to begin with, some of the lesser qualities of the track could be overlooked. Sadly, that's not the case.

A couple of readers have suggested that Dylan was highlighting the music that he was into on this album (which I'm inclined to believe), offering up the cornucopia of covers as a way of saying "hey, this kind of music is what I liked then and like now, so this is just an homage". That's kind of nice in that a) it does seem like a cool thing for Dylan to do and b) it alleviates some of the blame for the fact that the album's so bland, but it does raise a few questions, especially when it comes to a track like this. Dylan has basically been considered the first singer-songwriter from the moment the term "singer-songwriter" came into existence, and it's pretty safe to say that guys like Taylor and Lightfoot would not have had the careers they did without Dylan pointing the way. So why, then, does Dylan feel the need to highlight a brand of music that is basically, well, his brand of music, only with all the edges buffed away to make mass consumption all the easier? Look, I have nothing against "Leaving on a Jet Plane" or "You've Got a Friend"; those are all fine songs for what they are. But it's entirely disappointing to hear Dylan, who relates to those songs the way The Godfather relates to, I dunno, Analyze This or something, try his hand at what basically amounts to a pale imitation of his best work. If you like this song, I don't know what to tell you. To me, it's one of the things that makes this album such a failure - a cover version with no reason to exist, performed in a way that gives it even less of a reason to exist.

(Author's note: You might want to stop reading here - the next three paragraphs get REAL thorny. Apologies in advance; believe me, I gave myself a headache writing this out. Hey, points for honesty, right?)

I found myself really puzzling over the section attached to this song - to me, it's one of the stranger bits of the review. We do have to remember that this album was made in a period of seclusion for Dylan, in which he seemed to have no interest in the outside world (although he almost certainly kept up with it; this is a bright guy, after all) and attempted to create art with no real bearing therein. This isn't impossible to do - Nick Drake's final album and Emily Dickinson spring to mind - but it is a lot harder if you don't have those bearings in the real world, with any particular idea of what's going on around you. The funny thing is that you don't really get too much of that in Dylan's Electric Trilogy; even an album like Blonde on Blonde was becoming far more insular as Dylan started to disappear into his own navel. To be honest, the only real reason people think of much of that music as being part of the revolutionary 60s was that it was released during the revolutionary 60s. I do believe that songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" owe something to the changing times, and that Dylan was just as much a creature of his era as vice versa. But Dylan gave up real social protest in 1964. The music that RS crowd revered was no "Only A Pawn In Their Game"; so much of it was invested with meaning it was probably never meant to have. Marcus suggests that music can only be made in times before and after revolution - so what do we make of Dylan's music, supposedly the benchmark of a musical (and, arguably, cultural) revolution?

It's the last sentence, though, that really sticks in my mind: "but in the midst of it all artists sometimes move in to recreate history. That takes ambition." Aside from the fact that the sentence is somewhat confusing (in the midst of what? Revolution? The pre-revolution decadence? The post-revolution deluge?), you have to ponder if that sort of artistic movement really does, indeed, take ambition. Unless I'm missing something, what Marcus is suggesting is that these artists will dip into the past during times of great cultural foment, both to remind us of what has been and to show us what might be (those who do not remember the past, etc., etc.), and that requires some doing. In that, then, I am inclined to agree with Marcus to a certain extent - if Ridley Scott's Alien, released during Reagan's second administration, really is an allegory of the Vietnam War, then that gives it extra layers and displays ambition. The flipside to this coin, though, is that recreating history can also breed a certain amount of laziness, the whole standing on the shoulder of giants deal. For every great piece of art that draws on history, there are any number of others that fail miserably.

I assume that the whole rigamarole is in regards to what Self Portrait is - essentially a pastoral album, one made up of covers, older folk songs, and more contemporary "light" music. Not only does it not make any effort to recreate history, it more or less sinks into history, tethered to a certain era as firmly as the Pet Rock or a high-top fade. You could argue that the revolution, in all its ill-defined glory, had ended by now, with the Silent Majority fully in charge, and with a counterculture grasping for leadership and for something to tell them "it's gonna be all right, maaaaan". And Self Portrait is most assuredly not that album. That had to have pissed Marcus et. al. off to no end. I assume I'll be returning to this point as these posts go on, but it's still going to remain as valid then as it is now. Great albums transcend their era, after all. When you've tied music inextricably to its release date, you suck a lot of life out of it. Self Portrait had its life sucked out from the very beginning.

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19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gordon Lightfoot is older than Dylan, and might as well has showed Dylan "the way" as oposite.

Tony said...

His career was more or less parallel with Bob's, and he was only really well known in Canada until about '63 or so. So I wouldn't think so. I could be wrong, though.

Bill said...

I understand the impulse to think of the various cover versions on "Self Portrait" as a collection of songs that Dylan enjoyed, or felt influenced by, but I'm not sure we can really say that this is what they are. We have his radio show now, and that seems to pretty clearly be a better representation of what Bob Dylan's record collection looks like. We also have the two collections of "traditional" songs that he released just before his current hot streak, and again, these seem like they are closer to what "Self Portrait" would have been if "Self Portrait" was supposed to have been a set of favorites and influences.

We are probably never going to know what "Self Portrait" was supposed to be. Certainly we should know better than to trust anything Dylan says about it. As an artifact we can regard it several ways. It is the inspiration for a classic bit of rock criticism, for example. If Greil Marcus didn't exist, he'd have had to be invented to react to "Self Portrait". We can listen to it now, a generation removed from its release, and dozens of albums on, and think that, as Dylan albums go it is not the worst-- something that couldn't be said in 1970. It is a puzzle.

walker said...

Self Portrait is one of my favorite albums. I believe that it may have been at a point where Dylan was not writing, yet felt compelled to record. I think that Bob Johnston produced the record and that this is an attempt to continue what was going on in Blonde on Blonde.
That said, Jerry Lee Lewis does an awesome cover of "Early AM Rain".
("The Killer can't stand those mother humping planes")

Tony said...

...that this is an attempt to continue what was going on in Blonde on Blonde.

Now this I have never heard before. Would you mind elaborating?

Gary said...

Your inclusion of Gordon Lightfoot as being in the same singer/songwriter vein as James Taylor or John Denver is laughable.
GL came up around the same time as Dylan and wrote storytelling songs and songs about the society at the time,he wasn't a confessional songwriter like most others were at the time.

"Early Morning Rain" is a classic song in any sense of the word you would like to use and has been covered countless times. Dylan was a huge fan of GL then as now. Your ignorance of the song and performer is not surprising but sad.

Anonymous said...

In Chronicles (page 122), Dylan writes that he "just threw everything [he] could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn't stick and released that, too."

Tony said...

Gary said...assorted vitriol

Wow, an actual name this time!

I do hope you got a genuine laugh out of me tossing Lightfoot in there with the other guys (that you didn't mock me for saying THEY were traditional singer-songwriters makes me feel better); it's always nice to find humor anywhere you can get it.

Given that two separate people have chastised me in two different ways about my reference to ol' GL, I cheerfully withdraw my mention of him in the post and humbly apologize. I'll admit to the day I die that sometimes my sphere of knowledge w/r/t music has holes in it, which might seem like a death blow for something like this - then again, if I actually had the kind of knowledge a Marcus does, this series would look entirely different. C'est la vie.

One thing I do take offense to is you referring to my "ignorance" of the song, which apparently is based entirely around the fact that you consider it a classic and I, well, do not. I'd hope for an apology in kind for what seems like an exquisitely nasty ad hominem attack, but I am quite sure you've moved on with your life and won't bother responding to a legitimate mea culpa and equally legitimate demand for a return in kind. Which isn't surprising, but sad.

Rev Turd Fredericks said...

Don't forget that Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan are good friends and have been for a long long time. Dylan often covers songs written by friends of his. Why would it be so strange for him to record one?

Gary said...

The word "ignorance" does deserve an apology. It is actually a matter of personal taste and not ignorance. Sometimes my emotions get carried away and that is not surprising but sometimes sad.

Joel Hagglund said...

On the infamous Weberman tapes, A.J. taunts Bob by naming songwriters he claims are as good as, or in the same class as, Dylan. Dylan largely dismisses them.

When Weberman gets to Gordon Lightfoot, Bob says "Mmmm, maybe".

SunDog

Steinar said...

I was the first one to comment, starting to say that "Gordon Lightfoot is older than Dylan ....".
Dylan has allways been my favourite artist. I started following his music around the release time of Self Portrait, and I have to agree that SP is definitely not one of his best albums. What is most important to me about Dylan is his lyrics. He is in his own league as a lyricist. There are even few in "second league". Here is the ones in "second league" in my opinion: Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Murphy, Mike Scott, Paul Simon, maybe Dolly Parton, and of course Gordon Lightfoot. His storywriting style is only equaled by Dylan on his mid 70's releases. By the way, James Taylor and John Denver are not even in "third league". Here is another qoute by Dylan about Lightfoot: "Gordon Lightfoot, everytime I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever." I feel the same.

Not anonymous anymore; Steinar

Pete said...

re: walker's comment on Blonde on Blonde
I'd like to hear more, too. There could be something to this, but twisted. BoB featured session musicians who could play anything trying to empathize and express what was in Dylan's head. SP has many similar (indeed the same) musicians but I get the feeling Dylan wanted to jump into THEIR heads: Here's a song we all know, let's just do it. Scientific experiment: Change a variable. Conclusion: We now know whose head is more interesting. Experiments never fail unless they produce inconclusive results. Ergo, SP is a success!

walker said...

Pete is on to what I was driving at. Nothing after Blonde on Blonde is "like" Blonde on Blonde, but the sessions people are the same. Maybe I should have said that Self Portrait was an attempt to resuscitate the Blonde on Blonde atmosphere. After BoB comes John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and then New Morning. Is it possible that when he did Self Portrait that he was in a writer's block, yet still felt compelled to record?

Tony said...

Gary, I appreciate the apology. If nothing else, we have proof that nothing quite gets peoples' dander up like music does.

Joel, that quote slayed me. I might actually have to give Gordon Lightfoot a more thorough listening now.

walker, that's an interesting thought about Dylan's writer's block...it does explain an awful lot. It also wouldn't shock me if Columbia had some sort of target mark for albums built into his contract. You could probably buy and sell a few countries with the money 1960s record labels (to speak nothing of modern record labels) screw their performers out of.

Pearce said...

I actually find this to be one of the few songs I enjoy on SP, partly because the song itself is better written than most of the songs Bob actually wrote for this album and partly because I think Bob turns in a pretty decent vocal, striking a good balance between his Nashville Skyline croon and his more gravelly delivery.

I do find it interesting that "Early Morning Rain" has generated so many comments. If you don't mind me asking Tony, and if you know off the top of your head, which of your blog posts has received the most comments?

Anonymous said...

No particular insight, but having bought this album when it came out, I've always LOVED "Early Morning Rain" as simple ear candy, like much of the Nashville Skyline thru Planet Waves era stuff was. A nice tune, nice guitar, nice harmonica, all in a very modest and understated way...what can I say? I could well be crazy, but that's what I feel.

walker said...

Dylan himself may be showing us what was influencing him at this point, and at the same time reaching for something new. This album is sandwiched between Nashville Skyline and New Morning, and all three have a country sound with New Morning flirting with jazz. The two instrumentals on Self Portrait are outstanding. I just found the following from a Bob Johnston interview...


"What are your recollections of Self Portrait?

Well, Dylan came in and said, "What do you think about recording other people’s songs?" Whenever he’d ask me, "What do you think?" I’d say, "What possible difference could it make, what I think?"

I thought it would be great for him to record other people’s songs, instead of just recording his own, if that’s what he wanted to do. He came in the studio with old books and Bibles and started recording. I loved the album, but naturally it got knocked. New Morning got knocked. But sit down and listen to it. Don’t listen to it like, "Well this is the new Dylan album." Just listen to what happened. It’s a wonderful album."

Finally, look at the album cover.
Dylan was into other stuff at this time, no?

Anonymous said...

You are a douchebag. Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot were contemporaries, and Bob Dylan has commented that GL is one of his favourite singer/songwriters. You have no appreciation of musical history, and no appreciation of a classic, well written song. Maybe you should listen to the original version, but no you're too cool for that.