Friday, September 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #152: Sign on the Window

A quick word or two about the actual song itself, one of my favorite Dylan songs of all time (the "sneaky favorite" of mine on this album, lest you were wondering). There is a bootleg version of this song floating around with a string arrangement kind of rivet-gun attached to the master take, along with (I think) some extra backup singers doing work or some such added frippery. As you'd expect from my description, the extra instrumentation kind of ruins the song, almost Disney-fying one of Dylan's most gorgeous songs and drowning its more simple, piano-driven beauty in the same sort of glop that ruined "The Long And Winding Road". The actual album take, the one that I love so much, works because there's a measure of understatement - the backup singers that are on the track are muted, and the flute solo after the middle eight (well, middle four) works in glorious counterpoint to Bob's piano. And the lyrics - oh, how I love those lyrics. The first verse, with its punch to the gut imagery; that fantastic "Brighton girls are like the moon" line; and, yes, the third verse, which apparently is more divisive opinion-wise than I'd expected. It all adds up to maybe Bob's greatest forgotten masterpiece, and one that maybe will get the attention that it deserves.

Now, then - that third verse. In the "Time Passes Slowly" post, one of the commenters wrote out a long, somewhat detailed comment about how Bob's actually writing songs to and about his mistress, both on this album and on Blood on the Tracks. His reasoning makes quite a bit of sense - it really doesn't make sense to just assume "Simple Twist of Fate" is actually about Sara, does it? And that sort of reasoning tends to color the rest of the album; songs about the good ol' country life, about a woman like you (who?) to find the man in him...they're not really about being happy and married, are they? It's the sort of realization/theory/what have you that makes you reevaluate what you thought about the man; hell, what you think about life in general.

And that's why I'm choosing to ignore it.

No, I'm kidding. I would just prefer to believe that Bob, at that particular moment in his life, meant exactly what it was he was singing about, that he was enjoying himself and the life he'd carved out for himself, or at the very least comfortable and accepting of it. Another commenter, in the "Day of the Locusts" post suggests that Bob's bit about how being a family man must be what it's all about "feels more like uncomfortable resignation to me than joyful he isn't quite convinced". To me, though, I don't necessarily think it has to be either - Bob's never struck me as the kind of guy who has too high highs (although he's probably had too low lows - think about his mental state during the '76 version of the RTR), and I also think that he's not one to put on a face for the hell of it (if you ever saw pictures of him in 1966, he sure as hell isn't hiding his discomfort and agitation about what's going on around him - the only time he doesn't look awful is when he's on stage). I think Bob's singing those words simply because those words sum up his frame of mind; maybe there's some resignation in "that *must* be what it's all about", but I see him firming that up in his mind, thumping his chest and saying "yes, that really is what life is", just like God knows how many men whose lives have changed when they see their offspring for the first time. Dylan may not have had that frame of mind for long, but he still probably had it (unless you're giving him no benefit of the doubt whatsoever), and that surely counts.

One thing I think doesn't get enough attention, which probably makes sense given how relatively obscure this song is, is just how wild the stuff Bob's singing about in that final verse must have sounded, even after Bob had spent a few years out of the limelight. It's a really remarkable thing; Bob, counterculture icon, writer of "Like A Rolling Stone", telling us that getting married, having kids, and fishing in a cabin in Utah is really what life is all about. Perhaps on a smaller scale, but certainly on a scale, this has to be like what Bob's folk music fans must have felt like when Bob went electric, no? Think about it - you've got your mindset about how the world works, about what this and that means, and your hero, the man you trust above all else to both side with your viewpoints on how the world works and espouse those viewpoints to everybody else, has turned his back and become The Enemy, so to speak. Now, the transformation from electric warrior to "marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout" was slower and more pronounced in this case, but...I mean, really? We're busting our ass out there having protests and calling Nixon a douchenozzle and talking about free love (which, I'm assuming, didn't just die out after 1967) and changing the world, maaaaan - and Bob's singing about kids and shit? What a fucking asshole!

The irony, surely, is that the radical generation of the 60s eventually found themselves thinking Bob's way in the end. It shouldn't be a surprise; how many people say "aw, I ain't ever having kids, I ain't ever getting married - nobody's tethering this bird down, I'm gonna spread my wings and fly!", only to end up at a company BBQ with the mortgage and the station wagon and the son named after your wife's dearly departed father, wondering just how in the hell you got there? Life has a funny way of taking us in places we never expect (unless you're a child prodigy or something); surely Bob at 20 with his Sherpa outfit and blues repertoire or Bob at 25 with his cool-ass shades and Telecaster had no idea that he'd be 29/30, scraggly thin beard on his face, talking walks down a dirt path in the forests of upstate New York and carefully avoiding a world that still wanted to look for him. Maybe that's the real resident emotion of "Sign on the Window" - a sort of bemused wonder, Bob shaking his head with a wry smile at the way his Game of Life went, more pegs in his car than he'd expected and a totally different house than he could've imagined at the start. And maybe he doesn't just have to be talking about marriage and kids - maybe just the fact that things, and outlooks, can change is really what life's all about.

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Rob said...

Funnily enough, I've recently been having the same thoughts as your other commenter re. Dylan writing to his many mistresses. Once I became aware of the vast panoply of Dylan dames and how far back they go, combined with his totally unpublicised marriages, combined with the song "precious angel" about his second wife, from "Ethiopia", I mean we'd never have known about all this stuff if they hadn't finally been brought out of the closet by dilligent biographers and disgruntled exes. So yes I think we do need to rethink the whole received wisdom re. dylan addressing his wife in this album, or Planet Waves or BOTT. The only one I think we can be sure about is "Sara" !

Anonymous said...

He's not gonna settle in the Golden State. He sings about Utah. Even Norwegians know California is the Golden State. Or used to be, rather.

Unknown said...

"It's a really remarkable thing; Bob, counterculture icon, writer of "Like A Rolling Stone", telling us that getting married, having kids, and fishing in a cabin in the Golden State is really what life is all about."

Yeah, didn't Bob once say he was only 5 minutes ahead of everybody else? It's hard to tell here if he's five years ahead or twenty behind. :)

I take a really chronological reading of the song's lyrics, so he takes us through all his different periods in this song to arrive at that halcyon moment. The first verse starts with his early-60s interest in social/topical issues. The second verse is a little more free-form, his mid-60s highway-poet era, in which he delves further into the interpersonal. Then we have the transitional bridge (The rain-slicked road and leeriness representing - the bike wreck? disenchantment with fame?) into his epiphany on married life.

Tony said...

Nicholas, that's a very interesting interpretation. Kind of wish I'd thought of that.

Thanks for pointing that out, Anonymous. I guess I just had California on the brain when I typed that. It's fixed now.

Brooklyn Beat said...

Thanks for this...To me, what always struck about this wonderful tune, and maybe it is my hearing of it, is how his voice seems to crack a little bit with emotion when he sings "Have a bunch of kids who call me, paw"...maybe he was dealing with the complexities of being married, with little kids, and constantly meeting/having the opportunity to dally with other women given his minstrel soul and poet's prominence. Like Whitman, he encompassed universes and couldn't help but still be a bit lonely and sad.

Dan said...

Wonderful entry. This has always been my favorite "sleeper" song of Dylan's and I, like you, have always taken it at it at face value for its breathtaking simplicity.

Christopher Ricks, a man much smarter and far more knowledgeable about Dylan than me, pointed out that the rhyme Utah/me "Pa" in the last verse is particularly brilliant in the way it juxtaposes the syllables preceding the rhyme (U, a phonetic "you," and me).

I bring this up because the song always reminded me of the Robert Frost poem, "On the Heart's Beginning to Cloud the Mind." It opens: "Something I saw or thought I saw/In the desert at midnight in Utah." (U and I. Great minds, eh?)

Broadly the two pieces have many similar thematic elements: isolation, allusions to depression-era poverty, and seeking comfort in a peaceful marriage in the wilderness. I can't find a copy of the Frost poem online, but it's well worth looking up in halfway decent Frost anthology.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. You are so right on with this song. Hell, I think the whole album is underrated. It's in my top 5. That's what it's all about!

Sal Paradise said...

I'd agree with anonymous. New Morning is a real treasure. True Bob doesn't play much guitar (if any) but he's always been a decent piano player. The lyrics and melodies are some of his most moving and human. And that's what it's all about. As Kerouac put it, “Maybe that's what life is...a wink of the eye and winking stars.”

Anonymous said...

I agree, Sign on a Window is just great and New Morning is mostly very good album. Only the name is misleading. Anyway, has anybody said anything about Dylan´s voice? It is a wonder, one of his many voices. I have read somewhere that he had a flu, but kepton singing. With his piano it is a wonder.

Gronk said...

Ahhhh ... loving this blog. This is also one of my very favourite Dylan songs - I never fail to be surprised and knocked-out every time I hear Dyaln rhyme 'California' with 'didn't I warn ya'. And that 3rd verse brings tears to my eyes every time. It's not irony, but uncertainty - that's the killer.

Stephen C. Rose said...

I love this song. I do not think the conclusion is a brief for what it speaks about. It is a sort of noir fantasy. Almost. Brighton is a Ski Resort in Utah. The Jennifer Warnes version is stellar. Had Glen Campbell covered this song it would have been No, 1.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, thank you for posting this excellent analysis of a piece of musical history. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.

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