Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #145: If Not For You

(1)


On June 8th, 1970, Self Portrait was released to a disbelieving, astounded, and even totally pissed off listening audience. On July 23rd, just over six weeks later, the infamous Rolling Stone review of that album hit the newsstands. And, to the general surprise and almost relieved joy of said listening audience, on October 19th of that year New Morning began appearing on record store shelves. Just for the record, I'm certainly not in the camp that believes New Morning came out so soon to stem the critical beating Bob was taking in the wake of the disaster he'd just released (and I'm DEFINITELY not suggesting it had anything to do with the RS review - I may be crazy, but not that crazy), no matter how many people have suggested that that was the reason for the quick release. I find it more akin to when Radiohead released Kid A and Amnesiac, two stylistically similar albums, within eight months of each other. And it's not as though Bob had never done this before - maybe not within that short a time, but Dylan did release four acoustic albums basically within the span of two years, after all. It's just worth noting how short that time period was; the teapot-sized tempest surrounding Self Portrait didn't have any time to really get going before Dylan snuffed it out with an album that essentially serves as the Gallant to that anti-opus's Goofus.

In fact, the closest stylistic link to this album would in fact be the one that immediately precedes it - there is, after all, a preponderance of backup singers, mellow arrangements, and a laid-back feeling all throughout. However, we have two rather significant differences here, which help explain the latter album's enhanced reputation. The first, at least in my opinion, is that there's a jazzier feel to this album, the arrangements owing more to that particular free-form genre than to the blues, and parodoxically (at least, considering Dylan's blues knowledge, even at that young age) Dylan manages to do better with that style of music and this set of songs. The other difference, of course, is that there are better songs here. Funny how that works, no?

It says a great deal about the puckish nature of our man Bob that he would devote a chapter of the first (and, one can only hope, not last) volume of his own autobiography series to this album, one that has its share of cult follower appeal but is by no means a major work in his catalog, over any number of more famous masterpieces in his career. It also says a great deal that the actual telling of the circumstances of the album, with some of the songs being written for a musical that Bob would end up quitting after a few months, is pretty damn interesting - then again, any information about the wilderness years, with Bob mentioning a certain number of people he'd like to stick in his own personal Room 101, would probably be of a great deal of interest. And then there's the contentious nature of the sessions, which took place as the world reacted with scorn and shock over Self Portrait, and Bob found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to follow (horrors!) a bad album, or at least a critically disliked album (or, in this case, both). Under the circumstances, with the pressure on and all sorts of people beating on his door, it seems entirely remarkable that Dylan was able to record at all, let alone record an album, a wealth of outtakes, and a treasure trove of cover versions that could very well have made a second (and maybe better) Self Portrait. And that resulting album is GOOD? My stars.

Now, just HOW good this album is, that's a topic of debate. There are those that consider it Bob's lost masterpiece, the classic nobody talks about but really should. There are those that think it's really not that great, and only benefits from a halo reputation based on not being That Album. And then there's just about everybody else, that thinks the album has its merits, its weak points, but in the end is certainly worth the 36 minutes it takes to spin from front to back. I happen to fall in that third class, as you'd probably expect, but leaning a bit more towards the first - songs like "One More Weekend" and "Sign on the Window" (ESPECIALLY "Sign on the Window" - if ever there was a song that needs the "The Man In Me" treatment, it's that one) give the album an extra edge when debating the second tier of Bob's great long players. And the best thing about the album, especially in the wake of his last album, is that it holds together marvelously; a unified set of good songs will almost always get the edge over a disjointed set with some classics and some stinkers. In the end, New Morning is an album that probably deserves a critical reappraisal, and I hope one day it gets it.

The last thing that should be mentioned about this album is that, in many ways, it closes the book on the initial era of Dylan's career. In the obvious sense, it's the last official Dylan album* for three years, a pretty darn long time in the context of his career (hell, Bob put out an album just over a year after he BROKE HIS NECK), and when Bob returned he was practically a classic rock artist, something that would dog him through Tour '74 and would only dissipate when he bucked that title with his absolute masterpiece and the most vital live work of his career. In a more theoretical sense, New Morning is where we stop thinking of Young Bob, the counter-cultural Voice of the Sixties, the Man of Myth and Legend. When Bob Dylan would finally re-emerge from his self-imposed "slumber", it would be as Older Bob, the Middle-Aged, Wiser Man of the Seventies, not as out-there as he used to be, but just as capable of creating amazing music. In a sense, it's like pre-retirement and post-retirement Michael Jordan - the amazing basketball player with the highlight-reel dunks and boundless athleticism replaced by a smarter player with less hop in his legs but a bottomless well of tricks and skills that put him on a level above everybody else. And, with that in mind, New Morning takes on an even more nostalgic quality, as the Bob Dylan the 60s knew and loved gracefully exited, stage left. The king is dead. Long live the king.

(2)


It should be noted, then, that we actually kick things off on New Morning with what might be considered something of an inauspicious start, with my personal "wait, this is considered a classic?" song, "If Not For You". This is not to say that I don't like "If Not For You" (we'll get to my complaints in a moment), just that I don't hold it in quite the same regard as, say, George Harrison did. As a way of getting into this song, one thing I didn't mention in the introduction is a second dichotomy that links this album with its predecessor, one that Greil Marcus mentioned in the RS review (mentions of that will be much rarer now, I can assure you). He refers, as you no doubt remember, to Self Portrait as "such a...friendly album", which was also no doubt supposed to be a bad thing. Given how well Dylan tends to do unfriendly, and given that the idea of Dylan with a smile on his face was still relatively unsettling at the time, maybe it was, who knows.

Well, here's the kicker - New Morning is easily as friendly, if not even more so, than Self Portrait could ever claim to be. Just take this very first song - from the bouncy, electric piano-laden, casual guitar lick driven arrangement, to those moon-June rhymes as Bob declares his undying love to some anonymous person (the "and you know it's true" is a particularly nice touch), you have a song that's almost impossible not to love. It's almost like Dylan's version of an adorable dog that you can't help but want to pet; it makes no other intimations than to be a nice, poppy little song, and to think of it as anything else would be entirely disingenuous. Trying to pick some sort of deeper meaning out of this song is both fruitless and besides the point. It's a fun song. Bob's certainly allowed his share.

Where my problems with the song lie, then, is in that very arrangement that Bob ended up using for the official version. This is obviously a matter of preference arising here, but I consider myself a much bigger fan of the take that made it onto the first Bootleg Series, with George Harrison riding shotgun. Taken at a slower tempo, with a nifty little slide guitar arrangement cropping up between the verses and Bob chiming in with some always-welcome harmonica, this particular version (which Harrison would end up utilizing for his own version of "If Not For You") gives the song a more laid-back feel, one that might not have worked quite as well in the context of the rest of the album, but one that suits the song far more than the bouncy, yet slightly jumpy official arrangement. Dylan, for whatever reason, ended up scrapping that take (perhaps it was never meant to see official release - maybe it was meant as guideline for Harrison's eventual version), and going with one that has its own merits but seems distinctly inferior. Ah well, that's just me.

Inauspicious start or no, I still believe that Dylan could not have chosen a better way to kick things off for this album than "If Not For You". Even with the simplistic lyrics, it's still miles ahead of anything on Self Portrait; it'd have to be pretty hard not to be an improvement in that department (although I'd argue "All The Tired Horses" is the better song...). But what's most important is that Bob established right off the bat that while he was still the Bob with a smile on his face (well, until "Day of the Locusts" turns that smile into a sneer), this was a Bob with a stronger focus behind that smile, one that was eager to remind us that he could still write songs with vitality, songs that had life to them. It's not the greatest possible return to form, but it is a return to form all the same, and a welcome one indeed.

*note: that rationale is why I'm going to leave the 1973 album Dylan be. It may be in print thanks to iTunes (those bastards!), but let's not forget that it was only released by Columbia Records as a big middle finger to the recently departed Bob, and I don't think that makes it worthy of this little project. My apologies to those hoping to read my thoughts on "Big Yellow Taxi".

Stumble Upon Toolbar

20 comments:

Chuck said...

Hi Tony! Great blog; I've been following since the start. And congratulations on getting through Self Portrait! New Morning is actually an album I've never heard start to finish, and I picked it up last night so that I could listen along as you post. Looking forward...

David said...

Hi! I've been around since late-"John Wesley Harding". :) Keep it up.
I became aware of this song through George Harrison's version on "All Things Must Pass", and I have to agree that it's the superior version. The plaintive slide really brings it down to earth, and really punctuates some of the surprisingly somber reflections in the lyrics. I do like the touch of the glockenspiel on Bob's version, and the overall arrangement feels very indie-rock to me, due to the general peppiness of the track and especially that instrument's inclusion.

Md23Rewls said...

You survived Self-Portrait! Huzzah! I don't have a ton to say about "If Not For You," as I've always found it to be a nice little song and nothing more. I think the George Harrison, All Things Must Pass, version kicks the tar out of Bob's, and if you gave him truth serum, he might even agree.

Alex said...

Great analogy with Jordan. Though I might say the magical song conjuring ability ended with the accident. He figured out how to re-channel himself with Planet Waves, singing more personally, and became even more brilliant then his earlier period.

I'd compare this period post-accident til 74 as similar to his mid-80's til Time out of Mind funk where he's just working through stuff til he finds how to get it out there.

Not to say there aren't sustained flashes of brilliance, I love New Morning/Nashville Skyline - but its not the masterpiece(s) we saw before or after.

Pete said...

Yes, you're right, this is more interesting. I look forward to wrestling with New Morning, about which I have always been ambivalent.

But you don't mean to imply that "Dylan" came next, do you? Aside from "Greatest Hits, Vol 2" with its new cuts, and "George Jackson," there was "Pat Garrett ..." which is well worth discussing, though perhaps not in track-by-track detail. How about a singles/miscellany/transition post?

kevin cramsey said...

I agree that the version here is inferior to the one released on "Bootleg" series. The version with Harrison on slide does sound a little demo-ish, but with an overdub or two and a little more polish, it would have been suitable for "official release." The version here on "New Morning" is typical of Bob, who sometimes seems to take a perverse enjoyment in sabotaging his songs. Regarding "New Morning" as a whole, I fall into the camp that things it is over-rated even as a mediocre album. The whole thing just smacks of Dylan treading water, noodling around on the piano. To me, it's probably the most boring album -- perhaps the only boring album -- Dylan ever made.

Tony said...

Thanks for all the comments and well-wishing; I've finally just gotten over Self Portrait. Hopefully this album will keep my creative juices flowing.

Pete, Dylan was released in 1973, so technically it's not the next album - the Pat Garrity soundtrack is, along with GHv2. I'm covering the new songs on GHv2, "George Jackson", and a few songs from the Pat Garrity soundtrack, as the buildup to Dylan's mid-70s peak.

Anonymous said...

Dylan wrote in Chronicles a passage that went something like: "The songs blew away in cigar smoke. I was fine with that."

I absolutely agree that Dylan didn't create New Morning because of the reaction to Self Portrait, but I do think it effected his song selection. I think he was intending on putting at least a few more covers on it before the fallout. In fact, I think we would have seen a few more albums of half-covers if not for SP. Maybe he would've supplemented BOTT with some Hank Williams?

I don't mind you ditching "Dylan". Nobody needs a third disc of Self Portrait (even if I do like Lily of the West a bit).

Anonymous said...

I love New Morning. Love the cover, love the back cover, love the songs. I look forward to hearing you break down my favorite Dylan song (if I had a gun to my head and had to choose one): 'Went To See The Gypsy'.

- Roger

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "When Bob Dylan would finally re-emerge from his self-imposed 'slumber', it would be as Older Bob, the Middle-Aged, Wiser Man of the Seventies..." Middle-aged? I believe Dylan, born in 1941, was a mere 29 when he released NEW MORNING.

Tony said...

Anonymous, the "slumber" I referred to was the 1970-73 period, where he wasn't exactly burning up the studio. Sure, 33 (his age when he recorded Planet Waves) might not be what most people considered middle-aged, but it's closer than 29, that's for sure.

I checked just to make sure I didn't gum up the works somewhere, and thankfully I didn't - I specified that Bob's period of inactivity, short as it was, started with this album. My apologies, but I believe you misread what I wrote.

iriefire said...

hi there tony...congrats on finishing self portrait!
i just wanted to know what your plans were in relation to covering the multitude of unreleased songs from dylans career? already there has been huge omissions : "moonshiner", "tomorrow is a long time","lay down your weary tune". It would be a shame to leave these unreleased songs without reviews.
anyway really like this album,although the production and performances are a little ramshackle."sign on the window" is just beautiful!

iriefire said...

sorry too be pedantic but the soundtrack is called: "Pat
GARRETT and Billy the kid" not "Garrity" as you have typed...obviously not an album you cherish? heheheh
anyway keep up the good work ive been with you from the very start :)

Tony said...

I realized I made the exact same mental mix-up as previously - Pat Garrett, of course, shot Billy the Kid, while Pat Garrity was an obscure NBA player. My apologies once again.

PK Eiselt said...

Fairly new to the blog (redirected here from ExpectingRain) but I'm enjoying it a great deal.

I popped out Self Portrait and followed along. I look forward to doing the same with New Morning.

Keep up the good work. :)

davidigor said...

A refreshingly enthusiastic entry. Nice. The Jordan analogy is excellent, and spot-on. I foresee using it in conversations with those who insist that Dylan's peak was 64-66, and nothing since has been more than a guy trying to recapture his glory, or live off of that glory. To come at it another way: Imagine 16th century art patrons whining because Michelangelo didn't do another sculpture as magnificent as "David." While they were whining, he was doing a little painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It may not be "David," or "The Pieta," but don't underestimate the genius of the latter work just because it doesn't look like the early masterpieces.
Oh, I'm sure I'm missing something that should be woefully obvious, but what do you mean by: "if ever there was a song that needs the "The Man In Me" treatment, it's that one"?

Justin said...

iriefire, as an EBDS devotee, I believe Tony's plan was to do the other songs at the time of their Bootleg Series/Biograph/GH2 releases rather than screw up somewhere trying to chronologize everything. We mustn't let him forget Trouble In Mind though.

Justin said...

Is "The Man In Me treatment" giving attention to an obscure song by putting in a prominent place in a movie soundtrack? "Sign on the Window" did appear in, uh, that one season finale of Friends.

Tony said...

Right on both counts, Justin. I do believe the number of songs you'll have to make sure I don't forget will be much, much higher than one.

Kilter said...

Sorry Tony, I believe the "If Not For You" version on the released album is better than the bootleg version. The New Morning version is crisp and bouncy -- the bootleg version is sluggish and unfinished.

But here's a giant compliment. You found the exact correct word to describe this album -- "friendly." Maybe that's why this record originally served as my conduit into Dylan (I've been a fan ever since). Prior to this, he was a little TOO mysterious for my taste. I love this album.

Great blog.