Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #163: Going Going Gone

This has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs; I won't even bother using the "sneaky favorite" appellation that I've used elsewhere on this blog. To me, it contains one of the best arrangements on the entire Planet Waves album (that weirdly stuttering Robertson guitar riff that kicks the song off will always be burned in my memory), as well as some of the best lyrics - a bitter Dylan is quite often the optimal Dylan (as we will see not too far from now, of course). Sure, the words to the song may seem slight by comparison to something like "Something There Is About You", but that's what gives it that extra dramatic edge, in my opinion. Even the middle eight, the "Grandma said" part that might seem at first to be at odds with the rest of the track, adds an extra dimension to the darker, angrier verses, a ray of sunshine poking through the clouds. There's a reason the song pops up all throughout the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue - it's a song about leaving love behind, and Dylan in 1976 was all about leaving love behind, in the nastiest and most self-destructive form possible.

It's a testament to the somewhat schizophrenic nature of this album that Dylan chose to place this song, so full of barely contained rage and bile and hurt (it peeks out whenever he draws out words like "whaaaaaaaaat happens next", but is otherwise very tightly contained), right after the freewheelin' good time jamboree of "On A Night Like This", immediately to be followed by the equally fun good time jamboree that is "Tough Mama". Sequencing is always a tricky business to begin with, but it's kind of interesting to have those two bouncy, jaunty rockers sandwiching one of Dylan's weariest and bitterest songs. As I wrote in the last post, this is an album of emotions, and one thing emotions tend to not be is particularly consistent. I kind of like that Bob's willing to veer from one emotional pole to the next in the span of three songs.

The always informative, ever-helpful Dylanchords website has compiled a selection of altered lyrics to this song from live performances on the two tours it appeared on (and why it appeared in the Budokan tour setlists is anybody's guess - with RTR II it makes a lot more sense), and you can see just how much of a vehicle for Bob's anger this song became whenever he performed it in front of a live audience. There's the Fort Worth 1976 version, with the sly dig at Joan Baez and the rather enlightening change of "don't you and your one true love ever part" to "don't you and your life-long dream ever part", a wry re-statement of Bob's priorities at that particular time (one imagines that Bob would rather cut off a pinkie finger than stop being a musician, which I would assume is more or less his own life-long dream). There's the Budokan version, which transforms the lyrics into a conversation in which the narrator beseeches some anonymous woman to not "get too close/to make me change my mind", which speaks to all sorts of issues that I'm not accredited enough to properly delve into. And then there's the July 4th Paris version, which moves said conversation into the context of an adulterous relationship ("I'm gonna go back to your woman/You can go back to your man"). It's almost astonishing just how much Bob reveals in these lyrics without having explicitly revealed anything - the sleight of hand he's been a master at performing, writ large.

And, it should be said, a sleight of hand that works to the song's detriment. For me, at least, what gives the song its emotional power are both its coiled-spring arrangement, all pent-up energy and restraint that only really gains release during the middle eight, and the extremely direct lyrics, as spare and stripped-down as anything on John Wesley Harding. One great side of Dylan's songwriting - in fact, one of the few things that has stuck with him throughout his entire career - is his ability to utilize the idea of "less is more", from the simple tale of woe in "Don't Think Twice" to the weary grit of "Love Sick", and "Going Going Gone" is one of his masterpieces of that formula. It almost does the song a disservice to decide "well, maybe more is more", and to take that framework and try to jam into it what could already be read between the lines. It's quite understandable, of course - the Dylan of 1976-1978 was not in what you would particularly call an optimal mental place - but it's still rather jarring nonetheless to have Bob so cavalierly sing about being treated like a clown and feeling so dissatisfied. Perhaps that's just me.

There will be plenty of time down the line to try and get more in-depth into what was going on with Dylan during that period of his life, arguably one of the most crucial in his entire career (he entered 1976 as one of the biggest musicians in the world - from a commercial standpoint, no less - and exited 1978 having made a decision that would stun just about everybody who heard it); suffice it to say that if Dylan ever really had what recovering addicts call a "bottom", it very well could have been during that time. "Going Going Gone", written a few years before that period, is a definite foreshadowing of that frame of mind, as indeed are a few other songs on Planet Waves. But what sets the album version of this song apart is that it's Dylan's emotions tightly reined in by his amazing songwriting instincts, allowing us the tiniest glimpse into his psyche without laying it bare. The live versions of this song are Dylan's id running amok, the musical equivalent of walking down the street wearing a trenchcoat and opening it to random passersby. That's an ugly image, to be sure - but Bob was in an ugly frame of mind.

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Anonymous said...

So happy to see the new post. I miss the regular updates. I love the psychological approach you take. It truly adds dimensions to these songs that I've never seen before. Thanks.

Pat Shuff said...

Anonymous said...

There is an interview with Robbie Robertson (mentioned in Invisible Republic, I think) in which he says that this song is an extention of "I'm Not There" from 1967, or to put it a little more accurately he seems to say that "Going Going Gone" completes the idea that was begun with "I'm Not There". Pretty fascinating idea.

Matt Waters said...

Just phenomenal writing and analysis right here… I don’t entirely agree with your interpretation [I take this as Dylan definitively remarking on his hibernation post-motorcycle accident] but your points are very well thought out.

Anonymous said...

Great post. We were always going to love it (having a bit of a Dylan thing going on ourselves..). Nevertheless, really good writing. We'll be coming back! :)

Jeroen van Laar said...

One of my favorites too. I don't really see the rage and bile though. Pain and submission yes. Cutting loose before it's too late.
For me it is about a relationship that has become damaging to your own self. You know you have to cut loose, but boy is it difficult. It is your mind knowing it, but your heart is not yet ready. Isn't that Grandma's advise "see it through, follow your heart"? You'll be fine at the end of the line. Is this my one true love? How much can you endure, should you endure?

The person saying Going, going, gone, is not yet gone.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

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