Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #130: In Search of Little Sadie

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

Probably the strangest song on Self Portrait, if only because it doesn't actually register as an actual song. That's kind of interesting to think about; we come in to a new song with certain preconceptions, based on any number of songs we've heard in the past. There's probably going to be a verse, chorus, and middle eight, a fixed chord structure, lyrics that tie into each other all throughout, and so on. However, with "In Search of Little Sadie" one of those basic tenets is violated. Not the lyrical part - Dylan basically takes an old Western ballad ("Little Sadie" or "Badman's Ballad", famously recast as Live at Folsom Prison highlight "Cocaine Blues") and casts it as his own, retaining the clear story and basic progression of that type of song. What I'm referring to, of course, is the chord structure, or the lack thereof. Whether by experiment, goofing around, or some weird impulse, Dylan switches up the chords all throughout the song, creating a very strange and not particularly aesthetically pleasing effect.

Plain and simple, the song is ugly - an ugly experience to listen to, as Dylan more or less tosses aside any notions of what you'd want to hear musically in a song, as though he arrived at the studio with lyrics and wanted to do a little soft-shoe improv for the folks back home. Unfortunately, that doesn't really work when you're committing a song to tape that will be pressed onto vinyl for public consumption. And it'd be one thing if Dylan did this all throughout the album - then we could suggest that Dylan was, I dunno, inverting our common views of what songs are meant to be, changing around the very notion of music as a flowing listening experience, and experimenting with what we as human beings expect from music, popular and otherwise. Alas, I would think it more likely that Dylan was just messing around in studio, looking for a working chord change and playing around with the song's tempo, and just decided to stick the whole thing on the album. It's the equivalent of releasing a rehearsal, and nobody really wants that.

"In Search of Little Sadie", in a weird way, is emblematic of the album as a whole. When you look at the entire thing, it stinks. If you take a closer look, there are some elements that stand out - Dylan's singing is pretty good when he's not trying to keep up with the constant key changes, for instance. And all throughout is the feeling that maybe if Dylan had put in a little more effort, hadn't entered the studio with either no plan or a bad one, and had really put his soul into the take (unfortunately, the alternate version of "Little Sadie" suffers from that same lack of soul), something really good or at least really palatable might have come from the whole enterprise. Instead, we get something slapdash, rough to listen to, and ultimately kind of listless. It's a bummer, really.

So this section of the review has one of the most interesting moments - the "parable" of "the four questions", which I won't reprint here but can be read in the review link above. I made a reference in the very first post about how exceptionally pretentious this review is, and you need no further proof than this moment right here. What's funny is that the little "parable" in question is something that has a lot more weight the first time you read it than in subsequent readings. Yes, a lot of the lure of the paintings that hang in famous galleries (at least, for tourists, which the family in this parable clearly are) is the name that's signed on the canvas, perhaps even more so than what else is on there (incidentally, the third son that coyly said "it's a frame" deserves a smack upside the head - thinks he's so smart, the little wiseass). And that parable certainly would apply to Dylan in this case - for all the sins on this album, and they are many, they are much more easily forgiven because of the man committing them. If some random unknown artist had released this album, it wouldn't be nearly worthy of this attention. But it was Bob Dylan that put it out, and that alone at least begs for a listen.

What makes Marcus' clever bit of business fall apart is that he never gets into what that family thinks AFTER they've seen the artwork they traveled so far to see. We can be told how great Toulouse-Lautrec is until our ears hurt, after all, but it means nothing until we get to take a look at one of his paintings for ourselves. It's the same thing with Bob Dylan, actually, and it's kind of funny that Marcus misses the point later on when he talks about how Dylan's just a name to some random kid (I'll get to that in the next post). In the end, you may come to something because of its name and reputation (which makes sense - nobody just randomly stumbles onto Ozu or Picasso, they have to be told about them), but what makes you stay with that something is its quality. That nameless family may have traveled all that way because it's a famous artist what they saw on the teevee and whatnot, but if they actually enjoyed the painting for its merits, that's all that matters. And, ultimately, when it comes to Self Portrait it feels to me like the people that enjoy this album like it IN SPITE of it being a Dylan album, that they can be relaxed by the music without dealing with the attendant baggage of The Great Genius of Our Time and what have you, something you can't always say for his truly beloved and classic albums. That's something special, in its own way.

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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I SO disagree - great track, delivered like a Sufi seer. Each section totally suits the pace of the story ("Well they took me down town and they dressed me in black.." delivered like Hopalong Cassidy...) Loved this track when I first heard it in 1970. Just played it again - one of his best performances.

Graham in Adelaide South Australia said...

Maybe I'm an Englishman, an Italian or a Jew; but I just can't open up my mind, boy, to your incontinent point of view. You write drivel and you write it poorly. You've convinced me - there's nothing I can learn from you.

Tony said...

Just for the record, I'm not going to delete the above post - there's always room for criticism, and I'm entirely okay with absorbing insults. When you put yourself out in a public setting, that comes with the territory.

However, for those that plan on leaving me such remarks as above, all I ask is one favor - can we have a moratorium on quoting Dylan, even paraphrasing him? It's very much the equivalent of those parody songs you might hear on morning zoo radio; not only is it not particularly clever, but it offers no originality whatsoever. Say what you want about my lack of interesting writing or lack of writing style, but I've never and will never crib from the man himself.

I mean, c'mon, people. I don't ask for much.

Tony said...

Also, to use possibly my all-time favorite Dylan song to deliver a screed against me...that hurt. Hath not a blogger eyes, sir?

Anonymous said...

You tell 'em , Tony. Screw that idiot. He knows nothing.

doctorzonker said...

I suspect that people who enjoy self portrait have to be Dylan fans. I was big in to Dylan for close to twenty years before I finally heard what every critic argees is an abomination. This album does not live up to abomination status, I can quite listen to it, even like it for what it is. But I guess what my point is, is that if you are not a huge fan like yourself and one would assume most of your readership, the closest you will ever come to this album is Manfred Mann. There is no one to like it in spite of it's being a Dylan album. I can't see where that listener would come from. There is only us, and on shuffle we just might hear Little Sadie.

Sorry to nitpick the one line to DEATH. Be strong. Self Portrait too will pass...

Anonymous said...

So today I learned that there's at least ONE idiot in Adelaide, South Australia...

I'm constantly amazed, each post, about how you manage to wring interesting thoughts out of THIS album. Keep up the good work... this site is already one of my favorites among Dylan commentary, online or not. I'm with you all the way up through "It's All Good"... or "Frosty The Snowman".

James said...

Tony, I love the song and think it may be the best thing on the album. Modulating--changing the key of the song while mainting the relative intervals of the song--does not equate with "switching up the chord structure" or "throwing structure out the window". To my ears, what he does adds drama and moves the story and song along. I have NO problem following the structure now, and I didn't when I bought the album when I was 11 years old. Is "Never Say Goodbye" from Planet Waves such an abomination? How about "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt" from the Guthrie tribute? Same thing is happening--modulating the changes to the benefit of the song. Man, you REALLY dislike this album, don't you?

João Pedro da Costa said...

Agree with James, Best track on the record. Real gem.

Anonymous said...

"Self Portrait" was a studio out-take album. Bob Dylan contracted w/ Columbia Records to make X number of albums and hadn't produced. So, the record company put this album out on their own from previous studio out-takes. Bob Dylan wasn't happy about this. And this version of "Little Sadie" was, most likely, never intended to be put on an album.