Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #132: Little Sadie

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

And now we've got the flipside to "In Search of Little Sadie", and I can safely report that it's a bit more pleasant of a listening experience than its sibling. For one thing, with an chord structure settled upon, the song is much easier to take on a purely aesthetic level (I should mention that I do find "In Search of Little Sadie" interesting from the haphazard way the song's cobbled together; it's just listening to it that I can't really get with). It might not be as experimental or whatever, but it's a recognizable song, and that gives it an immediate leg up. Also, the actual song itself has a groovy little arrangement, with some funky percussion going on (bongos? hmm) and a neat up-tempo groove to match. Dylan manages a reasonable vocal performance as well; while it sorta sounds like he's singing the song like he has a bus to catch in five minutes, he's not forced to grope around for the proper key to sing in, and that makes a real difference. And best of all, the song clocks in at a peppy 1:58 - that's not me saying "thank goodness it's so short", more like "that fits the song's arrangement, getting the song in and out". It's a pleasant diversion of a song, which is nice in this sort of environment.

The obvious question, then, is why we needed both of the versions of this particular song, a reasonable but not earth-shaking piece of work, on this particular album. I suppose you could ask "what is ONE version doing on this album?", but that's an entirely different issue. The RS review, rather uncharitably, suggests that this version of "Little Sadie" is part of what was being considered a perfidious industry practice to throw alternate takes on a song in order to a) push more product when somebody like Buddy Holly dies, or b) to just fill up a side on an album. Now, while I don't necessarily think that's the case (after all, there's a bunch of outtakes out there, two of which made it to the even less-loved Dylan, many of which have yet to see release - who wouldn't want to hear Bob's take on "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"?), it does seem kind of strange that we have both two versions of this song and two versions of "Alberta", a full sixth of this album (that might tell you how long this damned thing is) given over to two songs played in different ways. It's another mystery on an album chock full of them, and one that might be worth thinking about.

If we are to assume that these four songs should be given special attention by dint of their twin status, why is it those two songs? There really isn't too much special about them - perhaps if two versions of "All The Tired Horses" or "Copper Kettle" showed up on the album, that might really raise some eyebrows, but we're talking about songs that can really be best described as "fine". I mean, even as far as covers go, these aren't all that great in that regard (although I kinda think "Alberta #2" would've been a nice addition on New Morning), yet we have two versions of each to choose from. It might be laziness on Bob's part, but then there's 24 tracks on this album, 20 without the live tracks, 18 without the instrumentals - covers or no covers, that's a lot of music for a man to record. Of all the things that you could accuse Bob of being for this album's sessions, I don't really think "lazy" would make the list.

The Pollyanna side of me has devised a theory about this; it probably runs more or less counter to everything I've said up to this point about the album, but I think it's worth suggesting nonetheless. Bob Dylan, to this point in his career, basically found himself wrapped in a cloak of mystery and speculation (he still is, to some degree, but never more so than after his first creative peak); it's a cloak he helped to create, yet it's there nonetheless. And it seems to me that he had grown weary of this cloak, of hippies searching him out in upstate New York, of a public clamoring for a man he no longer wanted to be, and of a fanbase demanding music he probably no longer had it in him to create. So we get an album of blase covers, head-scratching originals, live cuts from a show many consider disappointing, and the occasional spot of genius just for kicks. And on top of that, we get a few outtakes, examples of Dylan searching for the right sound (literally so, in the case of "In Search of Little Sadie", a title with a nifty double meaning I'm embarrassed to not have caught onto until now. Hey, better late than never), part of any recording artist's process but usually consigned to the vaults instead of put out on wax. And, in this way, some of the mystery is being forcibly removed by Bob. We can see a little bit of the Bob of that era, a man caught in creative limbo, mainly happy to play some songs he likes, unsure of himself on stage, and tired of those that think him a sorcerer of ill repute. I like to think that theory is true. Somehow, I doubt it.

A quick note - this section of the RS review contains a quote from counterculture fashion magazine Rags, in which the author posits that Dylan should create some kind of elaborate stage show out of That's Entertainment! or something, full of costume changes, beautiful girls, and hilarious Bing Crosby-like suits. I mention this both because it's really funny to think about, and because I also like to think that Bob might have enjoyed doing something just like this. We are talking about a self-proclaimed "song and dance man", after all. Frankly, there's still time. I wonder how Bob would look in Fred Astaire tops and tails...

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3 comments:

David said...

I think one thread that's been missing from your discussion on 'Self-Portrait' is that it shouldn't be underestimated that at this time Bob Dylan had lost his muse. For whatever reason the artist had lost his uncontrollable ability to create great new work. He said, I can't remember the exact quote but it's in Heylin's Behind The Shades, 'it was like the lights went out, I had to learn to do consciously what I had done before unconsciously.' The idea may seem very foreign and strange but imagine what it must have been like for Dylan to go from being inspired to write classic songs in almost a throw-away manner, his armor piercing wit and brilliance just pouring out of him to suddenly being 'in the dark' struggling to understand where those impulses had gone. It must have been disorientating and a little bit frightening. I'll leave it up to you to tie this in to self-portrait but I just think its important to consider and hasn't really been spoken of.

James said...

Tony, I'm just astonished that anybody could prefer this take to the "In Search of..." take. To me, that would be akin to preferring the Peter, Paul & Mary version of "Blowin' in the Wind" to the "Freewhelin'" version, or to go to most extreme example imaginable, preferring Joan Baez's enhanced interrogation technique on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to The Band's. I just don't hear anything on this track, whereas on "In Search of..", he's at least reaching for something. I guess we agree to disagree on whether he got what he was reaching for...

Moose said...

Posting with the hindsight of another self portrait again... which has both this and kn search of without the overdubs. This is a song sung by a man who's committed a horrible crime and has zero remorse. In search of is listenable for me in this regard. Little sadie revives Dylan's nashville voice and may fit better in another part of his career (debut, good as I've been to you) but is a nice track imho