Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #151: New Morning

If there's a phrase that you might be able to use as a definition for the generation that I grew up in, for better or ill, it might be "Generation Irony". "Irony", to be honest, is something difficult to pin down; much like the infamous pornography test, you'd probably know it if you saw it. But it's become redolent in our society, something that, when properly utilized, can make something funny and interesting on a deeper level than it might have been otherwise...and, when not properly utilized, is just as aggravating and worthy of disdain as my elders (and even some of my peers) say it is. I think of the brilliant quote from the "Homerpalooza" episode of The Simpsons, in which a Gen-X teenager is asked if he's being sarcastic (the bastard cousin of ironic) and the response is a weary, depressed "I don't even know anymore." There's only really so far you can go with irony, with being detached from what you might consider real life, before that line is completely washed away. And that's not a good thing.

Many people, I think, would agree that the concept of America as an ironic culture kind of came about as a result of America becoming a distrustful culture - i.e., the Watergate scandal, coming on the heels of the Pentagon Papers and the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. I'm not going to sit here and say that the idea of distrusting authority as a whole (and the government in particular) came about solely because of the 1960s (which, I imagine, some might lead you to believe); what I will say is that if you're looking for a flashpoint, that's as good as any, and few events say more about why authority SHOULDN'T be trusted than Nixon's slow, painful slide into disgrace. The thing that should be noted about distrust of authority and the bringing of irony into our culture is that it's a genie that most definitely cannot be stuffed back into the bottle. And I would argue that's certainly a good thing; it's better that we don't go tripping into the world as a bunch of doe-eyed innocents who trust everybody in a position of power over us. But there's something kind of sad in that we can no longer be doe-eyed innocents (well, it's possible, but probably not recommended unless you're Amish or something), and that the ability to have that sort of unswerving faith in authority has been shattered forever.

I think about these things when I listen to "New Morning", a track that (from all appearances) seems to be unencumbered by irony on any level. Wikipedia's description calls it "wry", but even that seems somewhat unconvincing; when you're dealing with lyrics like "This must be the day that all of my dreams come true/So happy just to be alive/Underneath the sky of blue", the only way you can really call that "wry" is if you're actively trying to make it so. That is, I think, one of the things that can make this album somewhat difficult to deal with - Dylan, who you could argue was one of the most ironic and detached artists to ever live during the Electric Trilogy era, has put out an album with nearly no preconceptions, no hidden agendas, and no motives other than to be a collection of songs about where Dylan's head was at during this part of his life*. Even Nashville Skyline, an album where Bob had his heart imprinted directly on his sleeve, could be excused as a genre exercise (which, we can agree, is a little bit ironic), as this album could to some extent. But the actual lyrics?

I must confess that, to my modern ears, my love for this album does occasionally waver a bit when I mull over this particular conundrum. The songs are good, make no mistake...but is Bob really as invested as he seems to be (and as I'd like him to be, trusting soul that I am)? Should I be suspicious of just how soaring that chorus, all major chords, sweeping organ runs, and Bob leaping headfirst into one of his simplest and most memorable refrains, sounds blaring through my headphones? What am I to make of Bob singing about yet another pastoral setting, rooster's crowing and rabbits running and a freakin' groundhog, of all things, popping up? Do I trust my instincts and believe that Bob's really singing about something that he cares about, which makes the song a not half-bad pop ditty that manages to be just a little, teeny-weeny bit life-affirming? Or do I go with what some writers (and, IIRC, one or two commenters on this here blog) have suggested, that Bob was putting on a show for us rubes, either pretending or trying to convince himself that the country life was the one for him, probably not meaning it deep down inside?

You know what? I think I'm going to stick with my instincts here. There's too much unassuming joy here, in the (somewhat amateurishly, but whatever) picked acoustic solo to start the song, Dylan putting what sounds like his all into singing "so happy to just hear you smile", and that truly anthemic chorus, to simply discount or try to explain away. What the hell; sixties or no (yes, this is 1970, but you know what I mean), there was still room in the world for a paean to living the life of a quiet country gentleman without having to assume that it's a pile of bullshit. Hey, this whole "benefit of the doubt" thing is kinda cool. I should keep it up.

*well, there's "Day of the Locusts", but you could even argue that that's just Bob singing about his own insecurities, which is also a very direct thing to do, right?

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11 comments:

Matt Groneman said...

"Day of the Locust" seems very straightforward to me. Its about it being a hassle to be awarded a doctorate at Princeton. He hates that stuff, and then a swarm of locusts invaded the ceremony, seemingly out of nowhere. He doesn't even really throw in Exodus, there. He does take the title from a Nathaniel West novel, but other than that it seems pretty much a normal song.

The one that gets me on this album is "Went to See the Gypsy." What's that song about?!?!? Supposedly, about meeting Elvis, which never happened so far as anyone has been able to verify. Maybe it is about how Dylan didn't want to meet Elvis because he had so much hero worship that he thought it would just be a meeting full of uncomfortable silences? Also, why a gypsy? Why wasn't it "Went to See the Truck Driver" or "Went to see the TCB man" or even "Got Knocked Back to Mobile by the Memphis Mafia Again"?

Bill said...

I was there at the time and had, by '70, been a Bob fan for 4 or so years. Make no mistake - the collective sigh of relief was deafening when New Morning was released.
And, until your post, not once during my 4 or 5 hundred listenings to the record did I ever consider Dylan wasn't dead serious about what he was singing.

Savela said...

I'm reading every post of this blog, and I really like them. But man, you write way to long sometimes! Less is more you know... At least when writing about songs like this one.

Anyway. Keep up the good work. You have very interesting opinions

jeroen said...

when you try to understand the lyrics of a dylan song (if that is possible) start with a clear objective analysation of the plain text in combination whit his way of phrasing. then start diggin' just a little deeper. then see the poetry within. the rhymin' sometimes means more than the symbols or double layers. but keep the rumours for what they are, forget them, listen for yourself...
you work the other way around! you start with the rumours (also with 'went to see the gypsy', all that Elvis- rumour its phoney!) and try to see the 'facts' in the text.
dylan's songs are sometimes cryptical. but not always. he's not pmaking paperpuzzles for the intellectuals ;-) he's only a song and dance man.
so what's 'new morning' all about? try again ;-)

Pete said...

Interesting. Now you're stirring up the pigeons! Pace Bill, I always had mixed feelings about this album, which seemed at times (notably in the title track) to be Dylan Doing Dylan, which to my mind makes this post spot-on.

David said...

I have to agree with jaroen. What would be the point for Dylan to write a song that is completely earnest, meanwhile intending for it to be interpreted as disingenuous, when there isn't even any "key" for that sort of reading within the song itself?

I think your "benefit of the doubt" is really just a way of talking around the fact that the song deserves the final word, not the rumor mill. You hit at that better in paragraph 3. Get back to the songs!

Tony said...

At the risk of sounding like I have a thin skin (given the abuse I've occasionally taken, I'd like to think that this isn't true), I'd like to ask this question: would it have been better if I said "this is a pretty song about pretty things, the end"?

The whole idea of the post, why I brought up the irony business in the first place, was that I found my own biases towards irony creeping into something that, taken entirely on face value, has none of it altogether. One of the commenters, who I keep forgetting the name of but has done me quite a service, pointed out that you could say that a lot of these songs are actually about Bob's mistress. Given that this album is considered by many (including me, let's not forget) to be Bob celebrating his life as a married country man, there would be something ironic in that if the stuff about Bob singing to some woman he's having an affair with on the side is true, right?

You have to forgive me for occasionally chasing shadows. That's just kind of how I do things. If I took everything on face value, I guarantee you'd grow bored in a hurry.

Stu Levitan said...

A.J. Weberman says the line, "so happy just to be alive underneath this sky of blue," is about Dylan scoring heroin. One more example of why AJ can be freakin' nuts.

Wasn't The Gypsy the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?

Kenneth Lobb said...

Great post, Tony! Not too wordy at all. Keep those ramblings coming. I totally agree with you about "New Morning." Straightforward, no preconceptions, no hidden agenda . . . etc. Just a great song! Thank you

Josh Perry said...

I wanted to add to the "atta boys". Keep doing what you're doing. I love reading and listening and thinking with you.

Jeroen said...

This was the first post I read, many months ago. It kept bugging me, and I kept coming back to read more.

But New Morning.... I love that song so much. Irony? Have you never felt that way? Just waking up, and feeling the utter beauty and perfection of life? Oh, and it does not last long that feeling, something will make that feeling disappear. But it was there, and you can go back sometimes if you let it happen. It is a song, not a constitution or a declaration, just a song.

On a journey I wrote this, it was in Addis Abbeba:
"I went into town, and it was a totally different town now. But the only thing that had changed was my attitude! I walked with a smile on my face just being curious and trying to be open. I tried to spend some time at the beach of dreams. And even if I succeeded just part of the time, it made a world of difference. I gave something to a few beggars, but that also meant I had to say 'no' at least a 100 times. A girl came to me and asked for my help, she had no place to stay. It confuses me and I fail to understand what she wants. Much later I thought it would have been nice if I'd just invited her for lunch and listened to her story. (And later again I started to think other things too...).

In the evening, while I was eating a lasagna, a Dylan song stuck in my mind. New morning...

This must be the day that all of my dreams come true
So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning

And even if it is now evening, I realise there is a new morning every day."