Friday, September 11, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #148: Went To See The Gypsy

One of the things I really like about New Morning is just how relaxed all the songs tend to sound. "Laid-back" is a positive quality that often proves both ephemeral and rather subjective - after all, one could call the previous album "laid-back", and it wouldn't really be a compliment. But with this album (subjectivity again), it feels like Dylan had captured the casual quality that he'd infused into his life after making his escape from the grind of being a full-time musician, with songs that speak to his more relaxed state of mind. Take this song, "Went To See The Gypsy" - the tempo isn't particularly fast, the guitar licks don't so much sting as add spice to the track, and the organ track isn't as powerful or intrusive as other organ tracks on Bob's songs. This song could have been overwhelmed by more instrumentation, or even an arrangement similar to something on Self Portrait, but in the capable hands of the New Morning band everything sounds pretty darn good. Lest you thought Dylan's arranging instincts were dulled on the last album, here's proof that they were still there and in fine form.

The generally held belief about this song is that it has something to do with Elvis Presley; I can't remember if Dylan ever talked about there being some sort of dream involving Elvis or something (he never did meet Elvis in real life), but that story has been sunk into the Dylan legend at some point. There are a few clues to this in the lyrics - "big hotel", "he did it in Las Vegas/and he can do it here", and so on. Dylan's denied it, but big whoop-whoop - I wouldn't be surprised if at one point or another he's denied that Slow Train Coming is an album about God. We all know about young Elston Gunn; actually writing something that pays some sort of tribute to his boyhood idol (even if it's actually referring to the Vegas-era, maximum excess Elvis) would make a lot of sense. And the reference to "that little Minnesota town", where young Bob heard all those rock-n-roll records, helps cements that idea.

Then again, can this really be said as paying any homage to Elvis? After all, the gypsy of the song (and the pretty dancing girl, surely meant to be an embodiment of temptation) basically says two lines and disappears when the narrator goes looking for him again. That dancing girl told the narrator that the gypsy could do all these amazing things, and yet at the end that narrator finds himself back in his small town up North, just staring at the sun rising up, a banal image that manages to be infused with so much poetry. I bet I'm not the first person that thought about the Bob of Greenwich Village, making the move from rock rebel in leather jacket to folk hero in work shirt and blue jeans, perhaps seeing those rockers he idolized as myth, something that fades away if you look too closely, and the lives of those in those small towns (the subject of so many folk songs) as something real and tangible. It's kind of a bittersweet image, something akin to what it's like to grow up and realize that what you held true as a youth turns out to be something entirely different as you grow older.

This is, of course, something we all can sympathize with. If there is one lesson that adulthood (and many of our finest entertainments, from Mad Men to The Replacements' "Unsatisfied") has taught us, it's that the great big wide world we were promised as youngsters somehow manages to become smaller, pettier, and far less satisfying as we grow and mature. I know that's oversimplifying things, and that for many people (including myself, lest you think I'm already some muttering old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn) you can find all sorts of ways to be happy, or at least content, with a life that you could not have imagined ever wanting ten or even five years ago. And yet there is always that vague feeling in the pit of my stomach, this notion that somehow things got turned around and scrambled somewhere down the line, and that I probably missed the boat on something that would've changed my life and brought me infinite joy, but I never even knew that boat existed. I cannot be the only person that has felt this way. I know this is a downer, and I apologize.

I can't help wondering, as I listen to the song again, if that interpretation of "Went To See The Gypsy" is really true and Bob was really thinking about that moment in his life where, after all that zigging, he decided that he wanted to zag instead. Maybe, as he penned the lyrics, there was a slight rueful smile on his face, as he thought about the baby-faced, early-twenties version of himself, wondering where that gypsy went and if it wasn't better to turn away from pretty girls in Vegas (so to speak) and sing about what he saw in front of his own eyes, whether it was the sun rising over Hibbing, a girl he wished he could've brought to Italy, or the injustices of a world that promises so much and so rarely delivers. Of course, things turned out far more complicated than that, and it would not be long before the work shirts were placed in mothballs and the leather jacket pulled out to be worn once again. And that is why Bob is who he is - he surely had the same fears as I have, and he surely felt at some point that he'd missed a boat somewhere...and then he just got on another boat and sailed to where he wanted to sail. One day, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to do that as well.

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Rob said...

Today and yesterday are/were Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the remnants of a moral compass for those many secular Jews who have all but discarded the compass. Since the early-mid 80s Dylan has chosen to turn up at one or other Lubavitch synagogue at this time of year, or in 9 days time for Yom Kipur. I wonder where he attended this year, if at all? Strangely, I dreamt last night, quite vividly, that Dylan was once again announcing his conversion to Christianity - no doubt listening to the clips of Christmas in the Heart is what did it. As for writing songs "about" someone, eg Elvis, I recall a very interesting article which argued eloquently that "Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands" was not about his wife but the Catholic Church, and the "sad-eyed prophet" was Jesus... dylan, as in visions of johanna, wanted to know if he should become catholic "or should i wait". In his later song, Sara, he says he wrote sad-eyed lady "for you" - yes, but *for* is not the same as *about*. As ever, food for thought. Shana tova to Bob and all "mixed-up confusion" Jews.

Pop Steve, Esq. said...

Have you heard the outtake? Much superior.

pete said...

Thoroughly enjoy the blog Tony. I seem to remember reading years ago that the popularly held view of 'Gypsy' and Elvis could be off set by the existence of an African American disc jockey in 50s/early 60s Minneapalis who the young Zimmerman would visit either while in Dinkytown or in various excursions to the big city before before he left Hibbing. Of course, 'Gypsy' could be an combination of various incidents in which symbol and reality intertwine but given the autobiographical nature of his next full blown album Planet Waves, 'Went to see the Gypsy' has interesting implications.

Anonymous said...

I really like the album especially the title track - New Morning. Last night my girlfriend mentioned she'd just read that Elvis was from a gypsy family which kind of blew me away but there again so was Charles Chaplin and Michael Caine. Maybe Dylan knew of the gypsy connection or perhaps it was just coincidental but it certainly gives the lyrics added dimension.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog but this interpretation seems a bit 'weak' compared to your others. I'm quite sure Dylan of the late 60s could have easily spent time and met Elvis in Vegas and he probably tied this in to seeing some performer in New York City around this time (there's a section in 'Chronicles' that talks about going out with his wife and seeing some performer; I don't have it with me and forget who). I think this is absolutely about Elvis but, like Dylan always does, he ties it in with a few other experiences. I may be biased, though, as this is my favorite Dylan track. :^)

- Rog

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Dylan SAID he didn't "meet" Elvis specififically because he "didn't want to." Well, turns out that Elvis's buddy - since his teens - has confirmed that Bob called often in the mig1960s no less. "Trying to set up a meeting." Jerry left for a while in 68 so he knows of no meeting but Bob mentions that year as "when he really came back." Practically carbon dating the obverse of his denial.
BUT BOB DYLAN WOULDN'T FIB!!! Right? {giggle}
Bob started out saying he had no parents. C'mon people.
He did have a pupose in the denial though and it's brilliant. To Bob "Elvis" is not just the guy's name; it also was earlier used to mean "Death" [1997 when he survived a brush he said he almost had close encounter with "Elvis"].
Otherwise, he's sung about him often, gushed over him etc. for many decades.
Never trust the artist; trust the tale.
Bob and Elvis both still rule!

Anonymous said...

Hello again,

oh, "Jerry" is Jerry Schilling and his contact with EP during the Comeback period was sporadic; he apprenticed as a film editor. It served him well later when working on visuals of his late friend.

Also, the place Bob refers to in "Gypsy" is definetly Memphis. "Sun" in the song is a transparent ref. to Sun Records, also in Memphis. Btw. 68-69 EP was a damned jackrabbit: thus a Gypsy.

BD and EP still rule!

Gronk said...

This is a beautiful rumination on this song. Made shivers in my spine on a dreary London morning. Thank you and I hope you resume this blog someday soon. My dad and I are both massive Dylan fans but we disagree on 'New Morning' - personally it's one of my top5 Dylan albums - I just love it!!! Obviously something like 'Blonde On Blonde' is better but this album is far more inviting, and probably gets played in my house more than any other. Going through a divorce myself, when I put on this record it reminds me of the good times when everything was (seemingly) OK, but spiced with "what's-wrong-with-this-picture" moments a la 'Sign On The Window', which burrow to the heart of secret discontent. It's a brilliant, beautiful record, and whenever I meet someone else who loves it I know I've found a friend.

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