Friday, August 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #139: The Boxer

There are two songs on this album that would properly qualify as "notorious". One of them is "All The Tired Horses", quite possibly the most infamous recording Dylan ever officially released. The second would be this song, Dylan's cover of Simon & Garfunkel's classic "The Boxer", featuring a duet between the Nashville Skyline croon and Dylan's more "regular" singing voice (i.e. what we'd been hearing more or less since 1967). You can find your share of opinions on Dylan's reasoning behind cutting this song in the first place (parody, homage, take your pick); you can also find your share of opinions on the actual quality of the song itself, including whether or not it's clever or stupid (a fine line between both, let us not forget) to have that duet between Dylan's two different singing voices. It might not be a great cover, but it's never not been interesting.

At least, that's the general opinion. I personally find it kind of funny that a song so dull, half-assed, and throwaway can have such attention placed upon it - I understand why, of course, but even the most cursory listen to the song makes it hard to imagine that it really deserves it. Say what you want about Simon & Garfunkel's original, but what you can't deny is that it has a power and dramatic energy that makes it the masterpiece that it is (who amongst us can forget the two intertwining voices on the chorus mixed with that echoing, pounding bass drum?) and makes us want to delve deeper and come up with all sorts of theories about it being about this or that musician (ahem). That makes the complete lack of power in Dylan's version all the more evident - much like how "Blue Moon" suffers from Dylan singing it like he was just rousted from a particularly good nap, neither of Dylan's voices puts on a particularly good show here. Maybe that is the point, of course (parody? eh? eh?), but it doesn't make the listening experience any more bearable if it is.

In lieu of anything else particularly productive to say about this cover (I mean, it really does stink), I'd like to bring up a section of the RS review that I've passed over before - the bit about Arthur Rimbaud. Marcus plucks a paragraph out of what appears to be a biography/chronology of the infamous poet, covering the years right after Rimbaud had left Paris and his friend/lover Paul Verlaine, traveling with seeming aimlessness before he would settle in Abyssinia (what we call Ethiopia today) for basically the rest of his life. Intertwined therein is a quote from RS writer Charles Perry - "We know Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it seems he's found his Abyssinia". It is that quote, I think, that sums up a great deal of what was thought about Dylan in those odd years where he was between peak periods, seemingly lost in a desert, content to lay down the pen that had served him so well and inspired so many.

It's important, I think, to give some thought to what that Abyssinia actually meant in Dylan's case. I suppose Self Portrait as a whole might be it; all the same, an album is not always a window into the soul of the artist recording it (being a big fan of Pinkerton, I would assume the dross Rivers Cuomo records now is not really representative of who he is as a human, and it kinda shakes me to think that it actually might be). So, then, I think you can safely assume that what's being considered Dylan's country of settling down is, in fact, him settling down; i.e., his family life. Because he has dedicated himself more to being a good husband and father (and because, arguably, his music has suffered for it), the blazing genius he shared with Rimbaud is gone forever. He has, in effect, entered early retirement. I've mentioned that I'll get to this a little later, and I still fully plan on it, but I want to point this out because it truly needs pointing out.

These were young men that wrote this review. Greil Marcus, for example, was all of 25 years old when he penned the great majority of it, and it's safe to assume that the rest of the authors were in the same general age group. These were men (and one woman) that absolutely, positively, undoubtedly did not want to hear that Bob Dylan, Voice of His Generation, was off dangling toys in front of his kid's faces or having coffee with his wife in some cafe in upstate New York. They were hip-deep in a cultural war that would define that entire generation, fresh off the pain of 1968 (the defining year of that generation, like it or not), still battling The Man and trying to carve out a niche for those that wanted to let their freak flag fly, and writing for a magazine that would serve as the Pravda for that niche. And their hero was walking away to settle in Squaresville, daddy-o. It seems a little silly now, with the proper perspective, but I don't blame them for comparing Dylan to Rimbaud and worrying that he'd given up something special for something entirely banal.

I keep thinking of one of the lines of that review - "Would Self Portrait make you want to meet Dylan? No? Perhaps it's there to keep you away?" And you have to wonder if that's what Dylan really had in mind; after years of the world beating down his door, maybe he just wanted to put a big "KEEP OUT" sign up on that door. The more you look back, the easier it is to sympathize.

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Rob said...

He made it to spite albert grossman and stop him getting royalties. You're still making way too much of this album, and i fear yourself, way too seriously. I like the way you refer to marcus et al as only young men of 25 when we are all privvy to your own age, another young fogey who one day hopefully will come to realise he was older then but is younger than that now. PS - did I mention what a pleasure it was meeting you in la jolla? pps the word verification for posting this comment is "arser", how very apt. Now where's my bowtie ?

Anonymous said...

OK then. Interestingly, my word verification was "John Hinckley."

PeteMoses said...

For one, I'm glad you're taking a dive into Self Portrait, and making a good job of it. There are obviously no definitives in Bob Dylan, but you're shooting at it from a pretty good angle as far as I can see.
I don't think your age should matter?
I don't think spiting Albert Grossman is really a good enough answer.
I don't think there is anything wrong with hurling youth and enthusiasm behind solving the great Dylan riddle. You could be doing much worse things.

On The Boxer, though..
I think, just as much of Self Portrait, Dylan is just messing around with a song he likes. He made a whole song out of one line, so I think we can safely assume he's not really thinking all that much about what he's doing on this album. I think, on the whole, he's just throwing some ammo at us, and letting us squabble among ourselves, and, like you rightly pointed out, sometimes totally turning us off him.

Tony said...

Rob, a few things:

1. What, exactly, is the proof that Albert Grossman has anything to do with this album? I've heard my share of theories re: this album - that, legitimately, is a new one.

2. The vast majority of people who voted in that poll I put up wanted me to keep writing song-by-song about this album. That's a lot of songs, and ergo a lot of posts. I'm going to make quite a bit about this album, what with all that space to do so. If that bothers you, my apologies. I don't know what to tell you.

3. The germane point about Marcus and his friends being young is that their perspective on Dylan and his choice to recede from the public eye is, by necessity, slightly skewed. I am, indeed, in my mid-twenties, and I may very well be a "young fogey", as you say. That's not particularly relevant to my argument.

4. If you're passively-aggressively shoving it in my face that I didn't get to meet up with you last week, I have to sincerely apologize for not doing so. Moving in and attending orientation took priority, unfortunately. Perhaps the chance will one day re-arise and I'll have less on my plate.

John said...

Tony, just wanted to shed a little light on what Rob said regarding Albert Grossman. He's getting these facts out of the biography "Down the Highway." In it, the author, Howard Sounes I believe, makes the point that the contract that entitles Grossman to a large percentage of the profits of Dylan songs only extends to song written by Dylan. Around this time, Bob became aware of the contract that Grossman had him sign (Dylan, of course, did not read it), and became furious over how much money Grossman was making off of his work. Given that, at this time, Bob was under contract with Columbia to produce 1 album a year, he was contractually obligated to produce a new record in 1970. What he did was record Self Portrait, which, Sounes reasoned, managed to fullfill his contract with Columbia while severely limiting the income that Grossman would see from the sales. Pretty smart little plan, and very plausible, but it is far from being confirmed fact. I would say that the true explanation for Self Portrait probably is a little bit of everything. Bob wanted to be left alone, he wanted to record songs he liked, he wasn't writing very much at this time, he was upset with Grossman and found a way to cut him out, ect. I think that instead of trying identify one explanation for the whole thing, look at the whole situation at hand. Self Portrait is as much a product of it's times as any other album made at this time. The way that time influences an album just varies from artist to artist based on their unique experiences in that time.

erf said...

(who amongst us can forget the two intertwining voices on the chorus mixed with that echoing, pounding bass drum?)

If I recall correctly, the sound was achieved by setting up a microphone at the top of a stairwell, and at the bottom, slamming a heavy chain against the ground. Memorable, indeed.

Md23Rewls said...

Heyo, it's been a while since I checked in on this blog. I've been busy moving to Iowa City from Idaho and life has gone fast. Nice to see that you are still alive midway through Self-Portrait. :)

The whole conversation of "youth" and Dylan is one that brings up a sort of side point for me. I've always thought everything that Dylan recorded from the debut album through Blonde on Blonde to be the essence of youth. It's all brash, energetic, with that burning edge of youthful charisma. Past Blonde on Blonde, though, you start to see Dylan struggling to maintain that youthful edge, and struggling to move to a different plateau. John Wesley Harding is a great album, in part because it's such a complete removal from what Dylan was doing prior to that. It really stands alone, though, not close to what came before it or what comes after it. I've always thought of Self-Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves to be albums where Dylan is trying to make that adjustment from quirky young genius to mature artist, and I don't think that he truly hit his stride in that matter until Blood on the Tracks. And the mature artist phase really only lasted two albums (Blood on the Tracks and Desire) before it collapsed into Street-Legal (a perfect example of Dylan trying way too hard). It's always interesting to view Dylan's life in snapshots. There is no other artist like him.

kevin cramsey said...

In the mid-to-late 90s, I saw Dylan and Paul Simon on he same bill. They did four songs together -- two oldies and one original of each of their songs. They did Simon's "Sound of Silence." No performance of "The Boxer." In my mind I hear Dylan trying to convince Simon they should tackle this one live, and Simon going "Oh God, no, Bob, please, no . . . pick something else."

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "...the blazing genius he shared with Rimbaud is gone forever. He has, in effect, entered early retirement." The parallel with Rimbaud was very apt. Rimbaud quit writing at around the age of twenty. (Unlike Dylan, I believe Rimbaud went to Africa to trade slaves and guns.)

Eric said...

On the issue of singing in more than one voice...

For me, Dylan's duet with himself here sort of disproves the conventional wisdom that his smoother, higher-register croon was achieved by temporarily quitting smoking. Of course the Dylan of today could not sing in his Nashville Skyline style anymore than Al Pacino could speak in his Dog Day Afternoon style. But if the Dylan of 1970 was capable of singing in both voices, then it stands to reason that he also could have done so in 1967 had he so chose.

I am trying to think of any precursors to this one-man duet idea that may have been on Dylan's radar screen. He was friends with Tiny Tim, I believe, who recorded an album in 1968 (God Bless Tiny Tim) wherein he sang duets in high and low registers to approximate female and male voices on the same track. But would Bob Dylan have cared this much about a borderline novelty record? Maybe.

The earliest example of a self-conscious attempt by one musician to sing in two separate voices on a single recording is Blind Willie Johnson's version of "Let Your Light Shine On Me" from 1929. This strikes me as a much more likely influence on Dylan. The song begins with Johnson in soothing tenor, but jarringly switches to croaking baritone in the third verse (a more percussive guitar effect comes in at the same time). At the very end, he switches voices again mid-sentence, almost as if to assure the listener that he did, in fact, sing the entire song. But I am sure that Johnson intended to suggest the idea of a duet and probably would have employed studio overdubs had the technology been available to him.

Perhaps this is a trivial topic (no one else ever talks about it), but I honestly wish that Dylan had further explored this technique. It seems like there is a lot of unrealized potential.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, interesting analysis of a song by Paul Simon. Come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song with links to all the key information related to this song.