Monday, September 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #154: The Man In Me

I want you all to try something. Take a really good, catchy, emotionally resonant song - say, "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which I've been listening to quite a bit lately. Now, find a scene from any movie that you can think of, one that might match the emotional resonance that "Maps" has, and might sound and look good when paired up with that song. But remember - we're not just looking for something that might work well when "Maps" is playing in the background. We're looking for a scene in which the music and the scene on film work as damn close to perfection as you could ever hope for, where what the director is going for on screen is in sync with Karen O's declarations of unmatched love on "Maps", to the point in which you cannot think of one without the other, and vice versa. Oh, and one more thing - we want this little pairing you've put together to run as the title sequence of the movie you've chosen. Think you can do it?

It says a lot about what incredible filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are (well, with a hat-tip to T-Bone Burnett) that they managed to do just that, pairing a lesser-known Bob Dylan album deep cut with images of people bowling in slow-motion, shoes being sprayed, balls rolling across alleyways...and making it work to absolute perfection. It doesn't even matter that what Bob's singing about - a paean to loving somebody, maybe even his wife, with unflagging emotion and with apparently no hint of irony whatsoever - it still sounds like the most natural pairing in the world (I would find the title sequence on YouTube, but for once it appears that I have been let down). And, at least in my humble estimation, the pairing has now reached the point where you cannot hear "The Man In Me" without thinking of Walter chucking his undies out the window in the "ringer" or poor Donnie confusing John Lennon with V.I. Lenin or "I got a bad headache and I hate the fucking Eagles, man!", and you cannot think of The Big Lebowski (the movie I'm talking about, in case you didn't know) without at least once having Bob pop into your head with those glorious "la la la"s. That's something pretty special, a tremendous example of how music and films can be so gloriously intertwined.

Which gets into the heart of the matter with regards to "The Man In Me". Look, I love the song as much as any of you - it's almost impossible not to just like on its aesthetic level. The harmonies at the beginning and chorus, the way the song just explodes to life, Bob singing with unencumbered joy (not something we always get out of him), that fantastic part in the middle eight when Bob sings "but oh, what a wonderful feeling" and the organ in the background matches him step for step. But, I mean...we all know that Dylan can do better lyrically, right? Eyolf Olstrem (yet again) gets it perfectly, when he says the song is "just TOO sweet - things that are too good to be true usually aren't" and notes that while something like "Sara", another song that trucks in naked emotion (of a different kind, true), has its own intrinsic seriousness, "The Man in Me" has "la la la la la". Which, I mean, is fine; but, in the end, when all you've got is Dylan having fun, that only takes you so far.

All the same, that fun is still there, it makes the track worth hearing at least once in your life, and it took a couple of geniuses to draw it out and use it for all it's worth. In my mind, one of the most flattering compliments anybody can pay to a song is to find its niche and to actually pair it with something tangible in that way that filmmakers can. I mean, we all have memories attached to certain songs that set them apart from everybody else - I, for example, have a memory related to Macy Gray's "I Try" that I'm not going to share but means the absolute world to me. We all know that that is what helps make music so special - our visceral reactions to it, and the way that songs and albums and musicians can be threads in the fabric of our life (pardon the cliche). It is something else entirely when somebody has the brains to make a song the fabric of many people's lives, simply by matching that song to something you'll never, ever be able to forget. Think of how many of us now imagine "As Time Goes By", or "Perfect Day", or "Stuck In The Middle With You". To get so many people to hear a song and think about the exact same thing is a skill, and one that precious few people could ever hope to attain.

I'm not saying that "The Man In Me" would have been consigned to the dustbin of history if T-Bone Burnett hadn't told the Coens "maybe it'd work...here?" over a decade ago. The song has enough creative merit on its own that it probably would've been a cult favorite, the same way that you could say that this album has become something of a cult favorite (and, for symmetry's sake, the way that The Big Lebowski is very much a cult favorite). What I am saying is that the song now has a very special appellation to it, which sets it apart even from some of the best songs in Dylan's catalog. I close my eyes when I hear "Like A Rolling Stone", or "Blind Willie McTell", and I see what I want to see in my mind's eye. I close my eyes when I hear "The Man In Me", and I see The Big Lebowski. And many, many other people can hear that song, close their eyes, and also see what I see. I don't know about you, but that's something quite meaningful to me.

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9 comments:

iriefire said...

im a huge bob dylan collector and a trainspotting reggae fan. usually i hate when the two cross..whether its bob doing reggae badly or a reggae artist doing bob badly....but i thought id share this beautiful version...can't beat it
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsXLrivjeEo

Sean Keeley said...

Great song, but I actually think you misinterpret it a bit. I really don't think it's unencumbered joy, or too good to be true. "Storm clouds are raging all around my door," "The man in me will hide sometime to keep from being seen," etc. It's a love song, yes, but it's also about male insecurity and just wanting to hide from the world. There are hints of darkness there that you didn't really touch on.

Tony said...

Sean, this is a fair point; there is certainly doubt in some of the lyrics to the song. I defend my point by suggesting that while the narrator may indeed want to hide himself, it is the pure love for this woman that he feels that prevents him from doing so - this is often too good to be true, wouldn't you say?. And maybe "unencumbered" was too strong, but there is certainly joy in this song, far more than you're giving it credit for.

After all, what do you make of "oh, what a wonderful feeling/just to know that you are near/it sends my heart a-reelin'/from my toes, down to my ears"? Does that sound like anything other than pure emotional happiness?

JK said...

To be honest, this song doesn't make me think of "The Big Lebowski" but of "My Fair Lady". That "fantastic part in the middle" is actually partly cribbed from "On The Street Where You Live", a song from that musical. The original lines are:

"And oh! The towering feeling
Just to know somehow you are near.
The overpowering feeling
That any second you may suddenly appear!"

So the credit of course belongs to Mr. Lerner & Mr. Loewe.

I think it's one of Bob Dylan's best love songs. I always enjoyed it (except the "la-la's"). There were some fine live versions in 1978 (with some new lyrics) and during the NET (especially those from 2005).

Of course it's also a song about "male insecurity". Some of the motifs used here were later revived in "Shelter From The Storm". "The Man In Me" is in some way a precursor to that song. It's not that far from "Storm clouds are raging all around my door" to "Come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm".

And please note: It's not Olof Bjorner, it's Eyolf Ă˜strem.

Tony said...

JK, you're right - I have a terrible feeling I've messed up the name a number of other times as well, and am correcting them in the posts. My apologies to Mr. Ostrem.

Joe said...

Tony, I've been lurking and reading for months. I did this blog so much.

This seemed like as good of a day to comment as any.

Mark it eight.

Joe

Joe said...

Sorry, DIG this blog so much.

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David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, yes another interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/651/The-Man-in-Me Please contact us so that we can connect. Your essays are referenced via the "Additional Information" link.