Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #164: Tough Mama

If choosing a song that's most emblematic of the style of Planet Waves, I think I would go with "Tough Mama". Everything that you can find throughout the rest of the album is here - the Band's rough-and-tumble playing style (the guitar, in particular, comes flying at you - it sounds like something out of a Jim Croce track, which might very well have been the point); Dylan's raw, more raunchy singing voice; somewhat cryptic lyrics in the vein of his 60s work (without actually sounding like his 60s work - a pretty neat trick, that); and, ostensibly, lyrics about Sara Lowndes. The sum result of that, as you would probably expect, is a pretty damn fantastic song, certainly one that I find myself returning to whenever I pull this album out for a test run. In fact, back in the days when I was obsessively collecting Dylan bootlegs, I would often single out shows that had this song on it (more on that in a moment). I can't really tell you why this song has stuck with me for so long; then again, I'd have difficulty saying that about most of my favorite songs.

What I've always enjoyed about the lyrics of this song is that, to me at least, they serve as a pure example of Dylan's artistic progress during his third peak as a songwriter, a synthesis of his dizzying ability to harness the English language and his equally dizzying ability to mine the unconsciousness of our American psyche and draw from it to make art. For me, the closest analogue to this song is "Isis", which tells more of a story than the wandering verses of "Tough Mama", but employs the same mythical, dreamlike imagery (compare "Jack the Cowboy went up north" to "she was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise") to give the song a character different from much of what Dylan had written before. If you want to take things to more of an extreme, one might suggest that "Tough Mama" is the prologue to the epic that is "Isis", where the narrator offers a golden ring and states that it's his duty to take her to "the field where the flowers bloom" - that sounds like a meadow to me. Every time I hear this song I think about the heady rush that love brings, and every time I think of "Isis" I think about the extreme lengths one will go to in order to keep that love (or, in some cases, to save failing love). It's not often that one can link songs like that in any artist's catalog, but whenever you can it certainly enriches the listening experience.

Of course, the stuff of myth is one thing, but Dylan's real life was already beginning to intrude on his songwriting, and it's pretty tempting to read into a song like this and attempt to pick out elements that have to do with what was going on with Bob at this time in his life. Is he the Lone Wolf that "went out drinking - but that was over pretty fast"? (After all, once Bob hit the road again after his divorce, especially during both RTRs, the drinking would return with a vengeance.) What exactly does Dylan mean when he says he "stood alone upon the ridge, and all [he] did was watch"? Is he singing about himself when he says "I gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite" (surely a reference to his wilderness years)? Maybe that's why people like Planet Waves as much as they do - Dylan fans always seem to be hankering to get some songs we could go over with a fine tooth comb again, another round of music's greatest parlor game (name me three other artists that have written - or theoretically written - as much about themselves in their music as Bob has). For many of us, THAT is what enriches the listening experience, and I certainly would not begrudge anybody that.

I mentioned earlier about how I collected bootlegs that featured this song for a while (which was a good thing for my listening experience, as not only does it appear on much of the earlier - and superior - '74 setlists, but also on many of his '98 shows, which I've always felt was one of his best touring years); it's not a song that's so rare that you'd want to break your back looking for it (like, say, "Romance in Durango" in its one lone non-RTR appearance), but it's just rare enough that having the song appear on the setlist lends a show a cache that "All Along The Watchtower" simply does not anymore. On top of that, there's something that I just sort of enjoy about Dylan breaking that song out, one that presumably the majority of his listening audience has no particular regard for. However, I have wondered why it is that Dylan gives this song its occasional workout, far more so than any other song on here except for "Forever Young" (then again, I'm more curious why Dylan doesn't play more songs off here anyway - how many major artists virtually ignore one of their #1 albums on stage???). It's a good song, sure, but is it really that much better than "Going Going Gone" or "Something There Is About You"?

I wrote about the nature of Dylan playing and not playing his songs on stage in my "Temporary Like Achilles" post, and this song serves as an antithesis to my theory about "Temporary", even though the aesthetic created by Planet Waves is arguably just as strong as the one on Blonde on Blonde. The thing about Blonde on Blonde is that it's such a special case, at least in my opinion, because it so recognizably has its aesthetic, because the album as a whole has settled into myth and legend the way few, if any of his other albums have (certainly none of his other 60s albums, maybe Blood on the Tracks, definitely Under the Red Sky - just wanted to see if you were paying attention), and it makes it harder to draw out the lesser-known songs the same way you can draw out the classics from there. Planet Waves doesn't really have that problem, and so it's probably not that big a deal for Bob to trot out this song or "Hazel" every once in a while. And I, personally, am thankful that he does.

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wheatln2 said...

Great to have you back. I'm always intrigued by the occasional performances of this song too. I feel slightly cheated by never having gotten it at any of the dozen or so shows I've had whereas I've probably had 11 watchtowers in that time!!

Misdemeanor Outlaw said...

Tough Mams also makes some appearances in concert in 2003 and 2005, when Bob was doing his more enthusiastic piano-playing.

tattered and tender said...

Great post.
Love that song- plus you've given me an idea about naming a blog I've been thinking about!

Well- it will be a working title for a while anyway.

Now I have to look for some more boots with that on it. I think i only have one.

Campbie™ said...

I believe Jack the cowboy is a direct ref. to Ramblin Jack and Lone Wolf was Pigpen from the Dead.Someimes tings are as they seem

Matt Waters said...

Great, thought provoking read as always.

Billy D. said...

If my calculation is correct, this is your 9th post this year...assuming that BD doesn't write another song, and you maintain your current pace, you will finish writing about every Dylan song in year 2056. He could be dead by then, man.....

Tony said...

Billy D., that is a sobering thought on any number of levels.