Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #137: Gotta Travel On

Author's note: Well, the move-in went as well as I could've hoped for, so now I'm nice and settled in and ready to spend the next 3 years in...well, not hell exactly; more like a very expensive purgatory. What that means for the blog is that I'll probably try to get back to the tri-weekly posting system, but you shouldn't be surprised to see only two posts per week. Or, who knows, I might spazz out from all the reading and do an entry every day just to relieve some stress. We'll see how it goes...

One of the wittier moments in the RS review would be the description of Dylan's take on "Gotta Travel On" - "Dylan sings 'Gotta Travel On'". I read that and listened to the song and said to myself "yeah, that pretty much covers it". Taken at a more relaxed tempo than Billy Grammer's hit-single original, it still feels like a pleasant trifle and nothing more, yet another way to fill up a side with a song that, while good (let's not forget that), perhaps doesn't have the most compelling reason for its existence. At best, it's a competent take to a fine ol' country song that contributes to the overall feel of this album (complete with background singers!); at worse, it's another log to the fire that is the argument that this album sucks and should be shot directly in the face. Metaphorically speaking, anyway.

If I was feeling in a more puckish mood, I'd point out the amusing little thematic weight that this song might carry, in that Dylan is singing about "stay(ing) around/this ol' town too long...and it feels like/I gotta travel on". In a very broad sense, this sums up Dylan's entire career, that of a man who never quite feels comfortable in the skin he's wearing and ditches it for something new virtually every chance he can get (that said, he's worn the "mysterious old granddad of rock" skin for quite some time now, and seems totally comfortable in it, so...). In the more immediate sense of this album and where Bob stood in his career, you could see it as Dylan ready to move on from...well, what, exactly? His place as an exalted High Priest of Music? Or as Spokesperson of a Generation, a role he'd done his best to shed more or less from the moment his neck injury healed? Or from a career in music altogether? You could have quite a time trying to puzzle that one out, couldn't you?

That's a discussion for another time, though (in fact, it will occur a whole three posts from now); what I'd prefer to think about is this song and its reason for existence. In the aesthetic that Self Portrait has created, it actually fits in quite nicely indeed - we've got a well-known (#4 on the pop charts) crossover hit that jangles at a nice pace, certainly something Bob might have listened to during his days as a teenager in Hibbing, and a song that he might have even given a listen or two to while recording Nashville Skyline. It's a fun piece of work, the sort of thing you can tap your feet to for three minutes, and then move on to whatever comes next (unfortunately, what comes next is "Blue Moon", but that's yet another post). What the song amounts to, more than anything else (to me, at least), is a crowd-pleaser - the sort of song that you might gently applaud if you heard in concert, something familiar (at least, back then) that you can hang your hat on if some random traveling band busted it out on stage. That's a nice thought, isn't it?

Whether or not Marcus et. al. intended to do so (let's just say he did, to be nice and all), this song (along with the next two) are tied in to the rumored announcement of Dylan putting together a tour, coupled with the idea of Greta Garbo coming out of retirement to do some big stage shows, "possibly with Dylan". I'd like to hear how the hell THAT rumor came about, but let's assume that there was something to it and at some point there was the chance Dylan and Garbo would come together in the weirdest pairing since somebody decided pizza would taste great with pineapples on it. The funny thing is that while the RS writers treat this rumor in 1969/70 like a rumor that aliens were landing somewhere in their backyard, if Dylan tried something like this today (say, with Bette Midler or somebody), we wouldn't even bat an eye. I mean, there might be a few raised eyebrows here and there, but we've seen Dylan shilling lingerie, for God's sake. What else is there, really? I'm quite certain all of you know by now that Dylan is recording a Christmas album, that ultimate bit of consumer schlock, and not one of you is the least bit shocked by this. We all know Dylan has his showman side to him (what is Masked and Anonymous if not a massive feeding of that beast?), and nowadays we have no problem with that side occasionally showing itself.

In a very real sense, that ability for us to not be bothered when Dylan does something that smacks of showbiz or whatever is one of the most hard-earned aspects of his entire career. The weight of expectations on him was never greater than in those years after his first peak, and they must have chafed him in ways we could never be able to empathize with. Looking back on it, Self Portrait feels like a rough first effort to ditch those expectations, to surprise his audience while doing whatever the hell he feels like doing, instead of whatever we want him to do. That it turned out horribly and was received with scorn should, in retrospect, come as no surprise. That might be as good a defense of the album, then, that you could think up - an album whose worst crime is that it's basically wholly inoffensive, created almost like a flanking maneuver to get away from the crushing amount of expectation heaped upon his head. If Bob Dylan put out Self Portrait today, we'd probably all shrug our shoulders, go "that's our Bob", and pick out the best songs for a nice little iPod playlist we're cooking up. And it would have none of the weight of disappointment that the real Self Portrait carries. C'est la vie.

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Professor Batty said...

Bob has never been shy about his appreciation of pop music, and as his radio show will attest, he's good pretty good taste. Billy Grammer's follow-up, Bonaparte's Retreat was even a better song, but probably a bit out of Bob's range. This whole album is full of songs Bob liked, whether he should have released them is another question.

Rob said...

dylan has always seen himself as being some kind of mini-messiah, so it's disingenuous of him to play the "i just vont to be alone" line. He wanted it all: mini-messiah, showbiz king, family man, hobo, jewish, christian, etc. etc. And guess what, he has had it all. He has been lucky enough to live a life that so many people can only dream of. Yes he's been able to do it because he is very talented. But enough with all this worrying and fretting about the poor man who just wanted to be left alone. That's junk. btw it was great to meet you Scott, finally, and to put a face to the name. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy week, I really appreciate it.

vic flick said...

perhaps it was just a tip of the hat to old buddy paul clayton, the song's author.

Anonymous said...

While a minor song, I enjoyed the treatment he gave it as the closer on the '76 leg of the RTR.

New Orleans 5/3/76:

And for further, err, mystical overtones, there's apparently a version from the 1960 Karen Wallace tape hidden in the static on this one:

allan said...

Forget Bette Midler, he wrote a song with Michael Bolton!

Tony said...

Forget Bette Midler, he wrote a song with Michael Bolton!

Learning this is one of the funniest/craziest things I've learned in ages.

Just for those that don't know, a quick link is here:

Seriously, how fucking crazy is Bob's career?

Tony said...

BTW, thank you, redsock, for making your first (at least, I think it's first) appearance in my comment section. I expect to be seeing more of you down the line...especially when I hit the 70s proper. :)

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, yes another interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box Join us inside and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.