Tuesday, February 24, 2009

EBDS goes Hollywood...???

...no, not really.

As of this Thursday (or thereabouts), I will be making my way to sunny Los Angeles, CA. This means that updates may be spotty for a little while - hopefully not, but I'm not sure how Internet is going to work out for me my first week there. Any EBDS fans out there, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and let me know the cool places to go out there.

Or, if you'd like to help me move, that'd be great too. :p

Tony Ling Read more!

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Bob Dylan Song #75: Just Like A Woman

For many years I was in the camp of "Dylan at his most misogynistic" when it came to this song. And, honestly, could you really blame me? We already know that the Dylan of the Electric Trilogy had plenty of things to say about the women in his life, and was not afraid to say them, albeit in his own way. Then you have a song like "Just Like A Woman", which seemingly casts aside the more poetic aspects of Dylan's lyricism and just gets straight to the point - not only is the woman in question a horrible, needy succubus, but all women by default act that way. And not only that, but Dylan takes a shot at little girls, too! It seems like a small wonder that this song has come under protest - and it's kind of nice, in a way, that for once Bob cuts out all the weird nonsense and comes right out with what a jackass he is.

Thankfully, I figured out not too long ago that the lyrics don't have to be taken that way, and it makes the song a lot easier to listen to. Obviously you can take them that way if you want to, and that is the always-present genius of Bob's lyrics (that they're open to such interpretation). And the song does remain interesting if you take it as a screed against womanhood and their many foibles, although then you get that nasty edge that people have such a problem with. But if you take a different tack and interpret Dylan talking about maturity and not just about women in general (i.e. "you make love just like a woman" meaning that she makes love like a grown-up, not just like a female per se), then the song becomes more intimate and personal, more about a singular person that hasn't managed to grow up yet and, from the narrator's perspective, probably never will. And that becomes less a song worthy of women's rights groups calling Bob names, and more a song about the pain of love gone wrong.

To me, it's the last verse that always stings the most, when Bob says "please don't let on/that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world". That speaks, to me at least, about one of the hardest things to do once a relationship has ended - meeting up with your ex again, especially in public, and trying to put a brave face on a tremendously difficult situation. I always wonder, in a way, if this is why so many people argue against going from being friends with the opposite sex to starting a relationship with that person. If the relationship falls apart, the friendship is inevitably jeopardized - I mean, how hard would it be for you to go from watching movies with somebody to sleeping with them to having to decide if you want to watch movies with them again? It's a damn hard thing to get over, and I have lost people in my life that I truly enjoyed spending time with when things got too awkward.

In the case of "Just Like A Woman", though, it's even more poignant because the narrator has moved on not only from the relationship in general, but from the person that he was during that relationship. We all know that having relationships at a younger, less mature age is a rite of passage in our lives, sort of a test run for the deeper and more meaningful relationships we will have as we grow older and wiser. And we also know that, at certain times, we'll enter relationships we should not, if only because we don't know what we're doing and haven't acquired the necessary experience to say "you know, I think I'll steer clear of this one". Dylan's narrator, in a way, is telling us that the woman he's singing about had him in that kind of relationship, that he didn't know better at the time, and that he finally wised up and got away from this train wreck before it was too late. And now, if they ever meet again, he wants her to keep their relationship a secret, because he's just that ashamed. I don't know about you, but that's some pretty cold shit.

You listen to the song, hearing that famous trilling guitar line, the organ floating cloud-like across the mix, and Dylan using a less vicious vocal attack than usual, and it's hard to believe that a song that sounds so sweet could be so callous and cruel. And yet the lyrics paint the picture for you so easily; the ribbons falling from her hair like a beautiful painting that's cracked and sloughing with age; the woman placed on the pedestal she carved herself, lost in a drug-induced haze; and, finally, that hypothetical meeting in the future, when all he wants is for her to pretend she doesn't know his name. And you know that those feelings can only come from a place of hurt and sorrow - you can try to speak with as much distance as you can muster, but there's only so much pretending you can do without speaking directly from the gut. I'd hate to be somebody that makes a man like Bob speak from the gut like that. Read more!

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #74: Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat

Just a fun song to listen to. You'll forgive me for starting with such an obvious and matter-of-fact phrase, but I think that occasionally the analysis needs to be set aside (if only for just a moment) to simply make a statement of fact. After all, at the core of this blog is a fan talking about music that he loves by his all-time favorite artist. If I can't take a moment to express such a simple notion in a way other than in my usual over-thought metaphors or tales of my own experiences, then what does my fandom really mean?

And so I'll reiterate - this is just a fun song to listen to. I love the fact that it was Dylan that played the opening blues solo to kick the song off - it clangs and sounds anything but smooth, but there's an energy behind it that carries through the rest of the song. Robertson, thankfully, takes over for the rest of the song, and his licks are much sharper and stinging (I love the fact that that simple progression, surely not Robertson's own invention, was basically appropriated for every "Rainy Day Women" live performance from 1974 to eternity). And Dylan, for his part, is at his sneering best vocally, putting down the fashion-obsessed woman of the song as only he can. And, just as importantly as everything else (to me, at least), the piano in the background serves as a secondary percussion, never quite at the forefront but always present in the mix. If Blonde on Blonde really is the classic late-night album, this is the perfect song for the point in the evening where you want to kick back, light up your smoke of choice, take a sip of well-aged scotch, and start busting chops. It's pretty damn hard not to love a song like that.

My Dylan-loving friend (who you'll know from other blog entries) told me that when she showed up to her first day 6th grade in Northern Virginia, she was wearing a Chicago Bulls cap, Air Jordans, and a flannel jacket. Sadly, she ended up catching flak for her lack of fashion sense, and within a few weeks it was all Limited Too and chokers for her, a concession to peer pressure and the always-present idea of just how important clothing is to your image. Leaving aside how awesome the mental image of a girl wearing that outfit is, it's obviously sad that somebody has to worry about shit like that, even (or especially) at that age, and that haute couture has to be something people have to worry about. One wants to go back in time, snatch that young woman away from the disapproving eyes of her peers, and deposit her in Boulder or Berkeley or Austin so she can continue to dress as she pleased in peace.

It is that love of fashion (or a confused version thereof) that gives "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat" its sharp lyrical edge. For those of you that may never actually have seen a leopard-skin pillbox hat, feast your eyes on this monstrosity. I mean...who in their right mind would want that on their head, unless it was either for a Halloween party or they were so out of touch that they still thought it was okay to dress like something out of a 1950's stag film? Dylan, who was at his apex of taking down the foibles of womanhood in this point of his career (and, between Edie Sedgwick and Joan Baez, certainly had his share of writing fodder), takes mocking aim at the kind of people that not only care about the crap they wear, but don't even have the proper instincts of what crap they should be wearing. Not only does he viciously dig on the hat itself - I can't help laughing, just a little, at "honey, can I jump on it sometime?" - but he even takes a shot at some imaginary goon that woos the woman of the song, but only because he's actually impressed by her ugly accoutrements. It makes me sad that there are people actually like that.

This song's had considerable staying power for not being an out-and-out classic - Dylan's played it on just about all of his tours, and it's certainly recognizable to even the casual fans. I wonder why that is. Is it just the fact that the title sticks easily to the brain, or that the well-worn blues progression makes the song easy to listen to and the lyrics that much more in sharp relief? I like to think that people can relate to the idea of how stupid caring about nonsense like what kind of hat looks good on your head and they feel a certain bond with a song that makes that stupidity even more ridiculous. All I know is that I'm ready to cue it up and listen to it all over again. Read more!

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #73: Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again

Having been a Beatles fan practically since puberty hit, I've had the chance to hear my share of obscure stuff, such as the home demos John Lennon recorded during his exile from the music industry in the mid-to-late '70s, some of which are on the Lennon Anthology box set (like most box sets, an example of having to wade through a sea of mud to find some pearls). That's where I got to finally hear Lennon's infamous "Serve Yourself" parody - overrated, lest you were wondering - as well as a few other jabs at Bob's expense. I can't remember, though, if I heard one in particular, in which Lennon apparently excerpted a number of newswire articles and strung them together into a semi-coherent babble, then "sang" the "lyrics" in a Dylan-like voice, ending with the amusing phrase "stuck inside of a lexicon with the Roget's Thesaurus blues again". It doesn't take too much of a brain surgeon to see where Lennon's going with that, of course. Lennon's never had a problem taking the piss at Dylan's expense, even in his older and wiser days.

What I find funny about that parody, other than Lennon apparently making some sort of commentary on Dylan's lyrical style, only about a decade too late, is that, in a certain way, Dylan was doing what Lennon had done before in his music - hiding real feelings of isolation and loneliness in music meant for popular consumption. Everyone knows that "Help!" was Lennon's real cry for help in the midst of the furor of Beatlemania, when he was at his most frightened and overwhelmed by his sudden and immense fame. And while Lennon's lyrics were direct and not difficult to decipher, the bluntness was still obscured by the jangling guitars and tight harmonies of the Beatles at their poppy best (one imagines that Lennon could've brought in "My Mummy's Dead" in 1965 and the band could've turned it into another smash). Dylan's lyrics in "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" are much less direct, full of the same glorious insanity as much of Blonde on Blonde, but at the core the song is summed up by one line - "deep inside my heart/I know I can't escape". No matter the craziness of the verses, between neon madmen and punching cigarettes and the like, Dylan's narrator can only bemoan his fate, stuck in the same kind of purgatory found in "Visions of Johanna".

In generally I try to stay away from too much psychoanalysis of Dylan's songs on this blog - both because it's been done to death by better writers, and because I freely admit that I'm not good at that sort of thing. And yet with Dylan in 1966, it doesn't seem like a stretch to see instances of isolation in his lyrics, no matter how arcane they may seem at first glance. From anecdotal evidence and many indications, this was a lonely, lonely man. Many geniuses often find themselves lonely anyway simply by virtue of their minds acting as buffer from the rest of society, but Dylan's is a case shared by precious few other human beings. And whereas the Beatles had each other to share the burdens of fame and Elvis had the Memphis Mafia to keep himself busy, Dylan (aside from a few companions and The Hawks in 65/66) was basically taking on an incredible tidal wave all by himself. Phrases like "spinning out of control" and "he doesn't want you to see him this way" pop up in Behind The Shades' retelling of this period, and we can only imagine how much further he could've gone before the motorcycle accident. It must've been hard enough on the "Don't Look Back" tour, having to deal with audiences in love with a version of you that you wanted nothing to do with anymore. One can only imagine the psychic blows he took every night in 1966, high as a kite and being booed for making incredible music.

The 1966 tour had not happened by the time "Stuck Inside of Mobile" had been recorded, but there was still enough insanity ruling Dylan's life to allow the feelings of loneliness to creep into his writing. And, in a lot of ways, the imagery of that song, as hard to fathom as it is for many of us, surely felt like a natural reaction to the Dylan of that time - another piece of his suit of armor, so to speak. I mean, here's a man dealing with reporters asking him questions that must've made him want to tear his hair out, with fans begging for a piece of him, no matter how small or - ahem - important to him, with an audience demanding his old self and another one clamoring for his new one, with a private life that involved dumping a huge music star and sparking a new relationship practically at the same time, and with all the madness that comes with being recognized all across the world. How does a man with "twenty pounds of headlines/stapled to his chest" even come close to that sort of mind-bending loony bin lifestyle?

As with the rest of the album, the crack band provides a spoonful of sugar to help the (Texas) medicine go down - in particular, Robertson's miniature solos bubbling to the surface, coupled with that cartoonish organ wrapping itself around Dylan's words. The backing track neatly walks a fine line between underplaying the oddity of the song and actually being too bizarre; one shudders to think about how a lesser band might have ham-handed it up on the organ, or provided a colorless backing to lyrics that demanded an exciting approach. But the band rises to the occasion, and delivers a fine backing performance in spades. And so Dylan, much like his old friend and erstwhile kinda-sorta pupil Lennon, manages to use a brilliant group to disguise his true feelings in a cloak of musical genius. Dylan may not have been crying out for help, but it doesn't take a lot to hear that he needed it. Read more!

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #72: I Want You

This is one of the songs on Blonde on Blonde that really works best when you're listening to it through headphones. That way, you get to hear every element of the music working together in such harmony - Robbie Robertson's guitar dancing elegantly around the main melody, meshing beautifully with the organ's simple notes, while Dylan pounds away on the piano when he needs a little extra oomph. And, as the sour counterpoint to the sweetness of the band, there's Dylan's voice at it's most "Dylanesque" - that unique style of phrasing and gruff vocalisms that we all know and love (or tolerate, in some cases). It actually helps, in a lot of ways; a song that could possibly have been a little too twee is tempered by the sound of late night cigarettes and jaded weariness, even when it's singing lyrics about undying love. A pretty neat trick, that.

It's interesting to note that Dylan, when you get past all the stuff about kids in Chinese suits and drunken politicians, is basically giving us the same kind of love-conquers-all deal as "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" (to name another example). And, much like that song, there's a lack of cynicism in the lyrics that's both disarming (since it's Dylan, after all) and entirely sweet. You can't help but just feel a little tug at the heartstrings when Dylan says "but it's not that way/I wasn't born to lose you", a stark revealing of emotion he only gives us when he really feels like it. In a way, that feels like a stronger declaration of love than the chorus does - any fool can say "I want you", but there's something so truly beautiful and meaningful in that one line that is hard for me to express.

It must have been hard for Dylan to express it, as well. What has been so remarkable about Dylan over the course of his 40-plus year career is how, no matter how many facts we accumulate about the man, we've never really gotten a full picture of who he is as a human being, no matter how complete a picture of him as a musician we may have. For the many flaws of I'm Not There, the one thing Todd Haynes got right was the film's essential conceit - that Dylan cannot be properly understood as one singular person, but as a number of different identities that he held all throughout his public life. And that splintering also helped illustrate the distance that we've been held from him, by his own design, so that we have no choice but to find ways to bridge that gap. Amanda Petruisch, in her review of Modern Times, had a remarkable summation of Dylan's carefully cultivated publis persona: "he's the boy who doesn't love us back, the one everyone yearns for, the Holy Grail, the last American hero." Just the way Bob always wanted it.

So it's truly special when we can feel (even if it's not true) that Bob has let his guard down, even for one solitary moment, and given us a picture of the man that so desperately needed to create that persona like a protective cocoon. We've had the Dylan of his records and concerts for so long that it's hard to remember that that person did not spring fully-formed from Zeus's head, but was pieced together like a suit of armor for many, many years. In a song like "I Want You", we can see the young man who bullshitted his way into a lifetime of acclaim and the love of millions peeking out from that suit of armor, giving us real emotion even when couching it in the lyrical voice that belongs to him and him alone. He can gussy up his feelings in drugged-out metaphors and surrealism all he wants, but at the end of the day all he wants is his love. You have to feel sweet inside to hear that.

There's a moment in one of Dylan's many, many shows that I can't help but remember as I type this post, one that says a lot about Dylan the man. He played Madison Square Garden's more intimate Arena on November 19th, 2001, a mere two months after September 11th, and anybody that listens to the show's recording (let alone those that were there) can tell how charged the atmosphere was that night. One thing Dylan did that night was perform "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", a nice moment that you could have reasonably expected from him. But what you couldn't expect from the famously reticent Bob was after he performed "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35", when he tells the crowd "Most of the songs we're playin' tonight were written here, and those that weren't were recorded here. So no one has to ask me how I feel about this town." And, for that brief moment as the crowd explodes in cheers and applause, we get to feel a little closer to the man. Those moments are rare indeed. To have one of them on Blonde on Blonde is something we should all feel lucky to have. Read more!

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #71: One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)

I've never really known what to make of this song. It's never been a favorite of mine on the album, even though I won't deny its quality, and I always feel a little unsettled every time I listen to it. Maybe it's the bit about "clawing out my eyes" - surely I can't be the only person who hears that and goes "where the hell did THAT come from?" You'd think there are better ways to write a rhyme for "apologized". But that's probably just me. Musically, I think the song's fantastic - few things stand out to me on the album like those rapid-fire snare shots after the first "sooner or later, one of us must know" in the chorus - but there's something about the words that just rub me the wrong way.

I think what might put me off the song the most, having listened to it enough times, is how it sounds to me like a confessional song, but doesn't really have the requisite emotions or heart to pull it off. I'll probably get to this more when I start writing about Blood on the Tracks, but one of the reasons that the songs work so well on the album is that even if we didn't know the reasonings behind why those songs were written in the first place. There is probably a generation of fans of that album that actually don't know the songs were written about (or mostly about) Dylan's first wife Sara, and probably wouldn't care a single bit if they did know. It helps that Dylan's cryptic writing style, avoiding any tabloid-style kiss and tell nonsense that plague so many other songs about failed relationships, couch the lyrics in mystery and beautiful language. Dylan's genius allows us to hear all the heartache and pathos through his storytelling, in a way nobody has before or since.

With "One of Us Must Know", on the other hand, there's the same feeling that Dylan's pouring out his heart, but it doesn't strike me on the same level, and that hurts things quite a bit. Maybe (and this is unfair, I know) it's because of the rest of the album surrounding it, where the swirling, whirling haze of the other songs can obscure any real feelings being expressed. Or maybe it's because Dylan, so good at painting himself as the wronger, doesn't always have the same magic touch when he portrays himself as the wronged. After all, even when he's trying to apologize for doing something wrong, he can't help but still be something of a jerk ("you shouldn't take it so personal" - yeah, nothing personal about love and relationships, eh, Bob?). He calls the lady in question immature, keeps professing his innocence throughout the tune, and basically says "hey, I'm the one that tried to make this work, why am I getting the nails-to-eyes treatment?" I dunno, I just can't find myself being sympathetic, and that ruins the experience for me.

For whatever reason I find myself thinking of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece about the meaning of truth and how our perceptions can shade anything we want them to. Without giving anything away, the film's plot revolves around three people telling their own versions of the same incident, all of them sufficiently different to make you wonder which could actually be true. What Kurosawa was getting at, I think, is that all three were true, in their own ways, and actually trying to divine real truth from that is a pointless exercise. I guess that came to mind because my listening of this song always makes me wonder "well, what does SHE have to say about all this?" Now, I'm well aware that precious few songs of this type take the other person's viewpoint in mind, simply because these songs are inherently personal and can only speak for the songwriter's feelings about things. But, just one time, I'd love a songwriter who just had their heart broken to sit down with their ex, piece together how they felt about things, and write a song that takes both points of view in mind. Perhaps that's too much to ask.

I suppose what I'm saying is that in a song like this, where Dylan's ultra-cool hipster persona is asking us to feel sorry for him because a bunch of misunderstandings led to a relationship collapsing, I can't help but look askance at the whole thing. Maybe, sooner or later, one of them will know that she didn't just "do what she was supposed to do", but acted in a truly honorable manner. And maybe he never really did try to get close to her, but it's his song, so who are we to feel different? I'm probably on an island feeling this way, and that's all right. Maybe that little weasel deserved getting his eyeballs scratched out. Read more!

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