On an album that features the debut of my favorite period for Bob Dylan's singing voice, this song stands as a personal favorite in terms of just hearing Bob sing. I'm not the sort of person that feels any particular need to make excuses for Bob's singing style, even his present day voice (which, like it or not, is a voice that a person not already part of the Dylan club is probably going to have trouble with) - his reputation lies mainly on his songwriting, he was "blessed" with a gritty voice that could hit the notes but not too much else, and he made the very best of it for a very long time (until about 1977, when he blew it out trying to overexert himself for the ill-advised 1978 world tour - but hey, at least we got Live at the Budokan out of it, right? Right?), which is about all you can ask for. But when Dylan decides he's up for a vocal performance, he can deliver - the quintessential example being the Montreal '75 performance of "Isis", where he turns up the vocals to 11 in order to match the RTR's dramatic performance. And this song is another example, at least for me, as Bob hits all the right notes, adds some nice flourishes at the end of every verse, and sounds like he's giving the metaphorical 110% all throughout. The Band gives a sympathetic backing, and the result is another strong tune.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Listening to this song, one could very easily marvel at just how well Dylan crafts even the most straightforward of love songs (how many people would think to describe a ghost as "something that used to be/something that's crossed over from another century?"), pulling out brilliant turns of phrase like "the phantoms of my youth" and wrapping it around a simple yet earworm-ready melody. One could, I imagine, also marvel (and chuckle) at how Bob devotes half a verse to telling the object of his desire "hey, I COULD say I won't sleep around, but that's a bit much" (yes, he says it a bit more eloquently, but I think I got the gist of what he was shooting for), both a sign of his humanity and of his wry, puckish humor. Whenever I listen to this song, though, I now think about that great second verse, the one with "phantoms of my youth" in it, and the one where, right out of nowhere, he starts singing about his childhood in Minnesota, a glimpse into his past that we very, very rarely ever got out of him (I forget if Danny Lopez is a real person, and I can only hope one of you intrepid readers will remind me, as my copy of Behind the Shades has long since gone AWOL). Considering that there were probably still people back then that thought Bob grew up in New York City (so easily identifiable is he with both the city and the state), it must have been a shock to hear Bob going on about how this woman has reminded him of a past that, apparently, he just can't seem to shake.
So much of our collective cultural work has dealt with the notion of running away from your past and from where you came from, whether it's because you had a terrible childhood or because you're a rich kid who wanted to make something of yourself or whatever, and yet for the most part Bob has resisted bringing that into his own work. It's probably because he got his fill of it telling all those tall tales in his early years, or just as likely because his actual upbringing was really not all that particularly bad, or (this is probably it) because it would run counter to his ever-present mystique - either way, Bob has generally left those autobiographical elements out of his songwriting. Of course, the other autobiographical elements - i.e. his love life - have been present more or less since day dot, but that sort of thing tends to fuel your songwriting if you've already got the talent for songwriting. That's not always the case with your upbringing (unless you're Springsteen or somebody); often the past is meant to be just that.
And that's what makes that sudden, odd little peek into Dylan's past life all the more interesting and exciting. So deep is Dylan into his "I'm making (x) up to you, Sara" period (the apotheosis being "Wedding Song") that he forgets himself for a moment here, allowing a peek at young Robert Zimmerman hiding behind the Bob Dylan mask. And who knows, maybe Bob had it in mind all along to throw that in there, sort of a reminder to everybody of where he came from and what it meant to have those memories come rushing back, and what kind of woman it would have to be to dig through the layers of past history and Greenwich Village nights and concerts in Dublin with The Hawks and hanging out with Johnny Cash to reach the former Elston Gunn underneath it all. I like to think that Bob just had his guard down, just for that moment, and we got to see something we very rarely see. It's moments like that that can make a fan, well, a fan.