Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #146: Day of the Locusts

Author's note: the blog title links directly to a post about "Day of the Locusts", Obama, marijuana, and the trouble with online town halls. Give it a read, won't you?

For a guy like me writing a project like this, actually having a story built in to the story makes things a little bit easier; thus, I find myself having to thank Bob for a song actually written about something that happened in his real life. For those that don't know, in June of 1970 Bob was invited to Princeton University to be given an honorary doctorate. Still technically in his twenties at this point (you tend to associate honorary doctorates with older folk - at least, I do), and not exactly comfortable with The Man as it is, Bob had a host of reservations about accepting the award. It was only upon the urging of his wife and David Crosby (and, apparently, one of Crosby's joints - Almost Famous has a great deleted scene about the wonders of "Crosby pot") that Bob got himself to the ceremony, accepted the degree, and then got the hell out of there. And, as a result, we got this song, one of the snarkier and more cynical of Dylan's wilderness years.

Apparently during this ceremony there was a cicada infestation in Princeton (nasty little bastards, those cicadas are - I went through two iterations while living on the East Coast, and they are horrible insects), which is where the "locusts" of Bob's title comes from. Locusts, as well, are really terrible little bastards (there's a reason there was a plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians and not, like, a plague of butterflies), and one can only assume that Dylan did not mean for the locusts making noise for him to be any sort of compliment. You could probably even imagine Bob, stoned out of his gourd and distinctly uncomfortable wearing a robe and mortarboard, smiling a dry little smile to himself as he saw those insects crawling all over the campus. If nothing else, it's probably as fitting an image as he himself could have conceived.

As an actual song, it's one of the most fun on New Morning proper, with Dylan and old friend/teller of tall tales Al Kooper combining with electric piano for the verses and a powerful organ on the chorus to tremendous effect, as well as an up-tempo arrangement that practically charges with energy, matching Dylan's wicked lyrics. It would take somebody with Dylan's temperament to see what many consider a massive privilege and instead find himself imagining a tomb-like atmosphere, dead quiet, something out of Scanners, and Bob himself making a Bonnie and Clyde-like getaway with his sweetheart in tow. And, as you might expect, it's pretty darn funny, as well; one kind of wishes he'd been able to write about that Tom Paine dinner the same way he wrote about this, so that there wouldn't have been such a stupid fuss about the whole thing. This is one of the few songs in the wilderness years that make me think of Electric Trilogy Bob, not so much in the lyrics as in the droll sense of humor Bob's always had.

It should be noted, for the record, that a song like this also stands apart because it seems to run contrary to where Bob was at this point of both his life and his career. As will be mentioned in the "Sign on the Window" post (no, I'm not contractually obligated to mention it every post I make for this album - I have a good reason here), Bob appears to have carved out a new niche for himself as a family man and a quiet retiree (of sorts), something that most of his audience would probably have a pretty big problem with during that time. And, from all appearances during that time, Dylan was trying his damndest to live up to that niche. If any of you have seen the photos of Bob up in Woodstock during this time of his life, you'd have seen a man with a thin beard and reading glasses, messing around with his children, or reading a book somewhere, or strolling down some pathway in the forest around his property. In other words, you'd see a man who nobody in their right mind would've guessed was some kind of Spokesman for a Generation (much like nobody would've guessed that present-day Henry Winkler was the same man as the Henry Winkler who played Arthur Fonzarelli). Bob worked pretty hard to reach that place in 1970, and you could hardly blame him for being proud of it.

With all that said, it's both refreshing and even a little reassuring to hear Bob singing about how what many people would consider a great honor was, instead, both a massive pain in the ass and something that made him distinctly uncomfortable. You can change a lot about who you are as a person if you try hard enough, but it's damn near impossible to change who you are at your core. And who Bob Dylan is at his core is a man that can't help but Question Authority (as the button once said), doesn't feel comfortable in high society, and doesn't want a title pinned neatly to the front of his shirt. In other words, he's the Bob that so many people fell in love with during the mid-60s, and continue to fall in love with today. And that Bob showed himself under the layers of gentle smiles and country-man peacefulness in "Day of the Locusts", still uncomfortable with a label, ill at ease with something the general public would be happy to receive. Just knowing that that Bob is still there must have been quite a relief in those days.

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6 comments:

David said...

I'd have to agree about Dylan's negativity and his problems with authority and tradition that creep in through the glossiness and complacent pleasantness of this album. Even "Sign on the Window" (I won't avoid it either :) ) in its last verse feels more like uncomfortable resignation to me than joyful enlightenment...it feels like he's repeating the last line for himself, rather than an audience, like he isn't quite convinced.

Anonymous said...

You are doing a true service to old and new Dylan fans. I read every morning and it's always entertaining even if I don't agree with you. Kudos and keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I love this song. The music has a very gospel tinge to it so you can get a sense of the religious themes to come.

- Rog

kevin cramsey said...

for my money, this is the best song on "New Morning," an album I could mostly do without.

Pearce said...

"The man standin' next to me, his head was exploding,
Well, I was prayin' the pieces wouldn't fall on me"

Those lines make me crack up every time.

-Mike said...

I've been a Dylan fan since the folkie days, I always enjoy "Day of the Locusts", AND, I for one love the little insects. The Princeton "locusts" were part of a regional emergence of 17-year cicadas. They live as larva underground for 17 years, then dig their way to the surface, shed their skins, fly away, mate, and die. I even have a cicada t-shirt. Fascinating little buggers.