Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #141: Take A Message To Mary

There's something kind of amusing and ironic, in my opinion, that what could be easily construed as the most depressing song on this album boasts arguably the album's most energetic arrangement. Those of you that know the Everly Brothers arrangement (a more gentle, acoustic-based affair, as proven by this amusing video - ah, the 50's) might be surprised to hear the tempo sped up, the backup singers in full voice, and a more driving rhythm section than, perhaps, the song demands. You probably won't be too surprised, though, to hear Dylan utilizing his country croon for the song - seeing as how the Everlys put their own stamp on the song (courtesy of Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, writers of "Bye Bye Love" and "All I Have To Do Is Dream", amongst others), Dylan probably felt it more prudent to use the voice you'd probably more associate with "singing" for him. It's probably a wise choice, in the context of this particular song, at least.

It is, perhaps, that combination of Dylan's country voice and the relatively peppy arrangement that makes this song stand out; it might not stand out in the sense that it's good, per se (as noted above, the song should probably lope along, given its subject matter - bringing it out to a trot might not be the best idea), but it's certainly different. Think of the more up-tempo songs on this album - you've got "Little Sadie", the Isle of Wight tracks, and that's basically it. Now, we're not talking Ramones or Slayer fast here; it's really all about degrees on this album. But when you're listening to the aural equivalent of a nice bowl of vanilla pudding, a bowl of vanilla pudding with some raisins in it is going to flip your metaphorical wig. Here, then, is one of those raisins. It's fun to listen to once or twice, that much is certain, and given how some of the songs on here don't even reach that damning-with-faint-praise status, I suppose that's a real compliment indeed.

A few days ago, I was flipping through (I think) Mojo magazine, which had dedicated a significant chunk of space to The Beatles on the eve of the major album remastering project (which I will be buying into, rube that I am). One of the articles therein talked about some of the lesser known accomplishments of the group, and the one that I'm remembering (you'll see why in a second) is "they killed Tin Pan Alley". What that means, in so many words, is that the group (by favoring their own compositions over that of professional songwriters - IIRC, A Hard Day's Night was the first album released by a group that contained only their own songs) brought an end to the system of popular artists recording music churned out in songwriting factories, helping to make it possible for singer-songwriters to emerge and bringing some much-needed grit into the world of popular music. In fact, our man Bob was brought up as a key example of this - who knows how his career would've turned out if he'd been forced into the role of mere songwriter, writing "Boots of Spanish Leather" for some cat with a better voice but lesser soul to put their grubby mitts on it? In that sense, we're all better off for the Beatles taking the fate of American popular music out of the hands of guys in ties and handing it to the musicians themselves.

Now, obviously there's nothing bad that can be said about that - you could certainly make a case that indie music might never have existed without a market for music recorded by their writers, and everybody from Tom Waits to Joanna Newsom owe their livelihoods to that. But I think that there's a flipside to this coin, one that we might not care too much about today but still deserves some consideration. This is about the most obvious example I could care to think of, but I look at the career of one Elvis Aron Presley, a musician who achieved everlasting fame by recording the songs of other people. Now, while Elvis may have a few songwriting credits to his name, we can be reasonably certain that he really didn't do much in that regard, and any actual songs he may have written probably wouldn't have been much of anything. So we have a career entirely based on songs not by Elvis - and we can agree, I would hope, that his vast catalog contains enough legitimate classics to justify its existence. And does anybody complain about a lack of emotion and soul in "Suspicious Minds" or "Can't Help Falling In Love"? Of course not. Like any good recorder of covers (one might say, if they're in a wry mood, that Elvis' entire career is that of covers, like a one-man Me First & The Gimme Gimmes or something), Elvis managed to make songs that weren't his own, well, his own, simply because he had that special something that allowed him to do so. And he wouldn't have had the chance without great professional songwriters to help him along. That, I think, deserves some consideration.

It's certainly true that modern professional songwriting is often not much to think about, and that for every "Since U Been Gone"s we get a truckload of whatever stuff Jordin Sparks has committed to plastic. And I'm not suggesting that "American Idol" is a particular good thing in any way, shape, or form. But I do believe that we have a place in our music-listening lives for professional songwriters like the Tin Pan Alley denizens of old, and that perhaps one day we can have artists that cross over the increasingly splintering divides in popular music, somebody who can satisfy those people that like a catchy tune while rendering the credibility issues that most indie fans would quibble over moot simply by the power of their music. Is that likely? Probably not. But a boy can dream.

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4 comments:

Pat Shuff said...

Any Dylan album is pretty good or better after a few beers, Self Portrait just takes a few more than usual (smiley thingy.) G. Marcus tends to be a little over the top for my tastes, anyone who
"drifting into its miasmatic trance, and plowing straight into the car in front of me" while listening to Ode to Billie Joe is maybe a little too subjective for reasonable opining. But his 'masks' narrative in Invisible Republic struck a chord...'You might find a mask beneath the mask, and the language to go with it.'

Not to mention the music, especially the music.

Certainly not on the first listening, maybe not the hundredth, maybe the 752nd 'and the language to go with it', something more sinister or macabre underneath after which the song never and always sounds the same since and sense, sometimes difficult to listen to for a spell.

From this album Days of '49..that curious final exclamation, and working backwards through the song to other under-breath asides caught on mike, and then working forwards through a performance by an assemblage that swings like a pit in a pendulum...wider, higher, propelling progressively deeper to the edge. Whoooh. Cut.

Maybe I'm as goofy as Marcus, maybe it was the beer. But having heard it once, like many others, it is ever a terrible song for the musicians launching into performance of something that gets away, ending being performed by it.

Like Garcia of the Dead said, working alongside, 'that scary intensity.'

He hasn't much range, not the soaring and plummeting melifluous voice of a female vocalist with an expressiveness that can launch a thousand expectations. More like the subdued lighting and quiet score that sets the mood preceding the skeleton jumping from the closet for effect. Long accustomed to tuning the ears for a privileged listening within their constrained confines, there is all sorts of shit going on in the rooms of these vignettes. Thanks,
hooked since older brothers brought home first albums, some are gonna be made lonesome when he goes if not already made lonesome from where he's been, like postcards from places with no addresses or there there, just the disturbing pictures.

jms said...

"A Hard Day's Night was the first album released by a group that contained only their own songs."

Is this even anywhere close to the truth? How carefully have you researched this?

Tony said...

>>>Is this even anywhere close to the truth? How carefully have you researched this?

Apparently not enough...I know that it's the first Beatles album entirely written by the Beatles themselves (specifically John and Paul), and I might have conflated that into something bigger. Given how long it took the whole Tin Pan Alley/outside songwriter thing to get weeded out in popular music, I have a feeling it might be "closer to the truth" than you believe. I could be wrong, though.

Thanks for commenting!

David George Freeman said...

Well how very interesting. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song and find yourself http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/609/Take-a-Message-to-Mary