Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #161: Knockin' On Heaven's Door

It still kind of amazes me, nearly forty years after this song's release, just how damned literal the lyrics to this song are; that this song became a considerable hit for numerous artists amazes me even further. If you listen to the song in the context of the film the lyrics work perfectly well - the Slim Pickens character, who just got plugged during a shootout on the hunt for Billy the Kid, is having a tearful final moment with his wife, and Bob singing about "mama, take this badge off of me/I can't use it anymore" fits seamlessly with the scene. (This link goes into a little greater depth about the song used within the film.) Taking the song out of context, however, the whole thing just seems...I dunno, maybe a bit much for a nominal pop single? After all, this song ended up on AM radio and was covered God knows how many times, and it's basically a man talking about burying his guns as he slips away into death to meet his Maker. Throw in the whole gospel-like harmonies and we're talking about one damn depressing song at its face.

Perhaps, then, what gives this song its everlasting fame (you could also argue this for "All Along The Watchtower", although that song's lyrics are as cryptic as this one's is direct) is its brilliantly simple chord arrangement, G and D (two of the most basic chords you can play on the guitar) with A minor 7 and C switching off from line to line. It's the sort of thing a beginner might strum while rooting for his first ever tune - Lord knows I've come up with the same simple arrangements in the past, like The Ramones with much less inclination to play punk or, you know, talent - and yet it completely and totally works, because it completely and totally sets a mood. Even if you stripped away the gentle band arrangement and the harmonies, those chords work on such a brutally elemental level that you can't help but just be utterly swept away by them. It's always a rare Dylan song where Dylan's musical sense stands toe to toe with his lyrical sense, but we have an example of that here; Dylan's powerful, simple phrases (and that chorus!) matched beautifully with those almost inevitable chords.

In a previous post during the Self Portrait run, I'd written about how Marcus had envisioned Bob writing the soundtrack to a Western or some such thing with that godforsaken album, and how he didn't really succeed (you know, due the album not being good and all). Not only is there something kind of amusing about the fact that Bob eventually did get his mug into a Western after all (which surely must have appealed to him on any number of levels), but he also managed to write the perfect Western song, one that could have been easily slotted into any number of the revisionist Westerns that, ironically, Sam Peckinpaugh ushered in with The Wild Bunch and Clint Eastwood apotheosized with Unforgiven. Every one of those damned movies has a scene where one of the heroes dies in heroic fashion after heroically getting himself shot in heroic battle, and every single one of those scenes would've been vastly improved by Bob's sonorous voice intoning about that long black cloud coming down. Of all of Bob's achievements in his career, I bet if you pointed this out to him, this would be one he'd really be proud of.

So there are two versions of this song I'd like to say a few words about. The first, which I'm sure some of you have heard, is the Guns 'n Roses version, one of their last singles and a tack-on to Use Your Illusion II. Now, I assume most of you can guess in advance what I'll say about it, and I'll temper that by noting that I actually like their version of "Live and Let Die"; in some ways, it actively improves upon the original (most notably in the fact that the reggae bit is much, MUCH less awkward). Where their version of that song and this kind of split apart, though, is that while "Live and Let Die" has an inherent silliness to it (forget that it's a Bond theme, which carries its own goofy pomposity; have you ever LISTENED to "Live and Let Die"? There's a reason Wings gets its share of mockery, you know) that Guns 'n Roses both sort of went along with (because anthem-era Guns 'n Roses has its own inherent silliness) and punctured with the POWER OF ROCK, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"'s pretentious bent is tempered by the fact that it's a really, tremendously good song. And GnR's version, with it's ill-considered musical breakdown at the end, guitars turned all the way up to 11, and Axl Rose doing every single Axl Rose thing that annoys the hell out of everybody that isn't a slavish devotee, manages to suck every single bit of what makes "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" special out of the tune. That actually deserves kudos, in a way.

The second version (which is jumping the gun a bit) is the Tour '74 version, where Dylan and the Band incorporate this most solemn of anthems into the "Bob Dylan Good Time Jamboree" aesthetic that Before the Flood so badly represents. Given the numerous excesses of this particular tour - I'm listening to this version now, and if there was any way to cut the goddamn Garth Hudson synthesizers out, I would have already done it - the version we got on the official album is relatively understated, featuring one of Bob's best vocals on said album (I always love how he sings "ground" and "shoot") and rather glorious backing vocals from Manuel et al. And, with the obvious exception of Robertson spraying mini-solos around with his typical bonhomie, the guitars are scaled back pretty well, far more so than for something like "Lay Lady Lay" on the same tour. In short, the Band does the song fair justice, and on a tour marked for performances that one wishes involved some restraint in the right places, we get a pretty good glimpse of how good the tour could be when that restraint was properly used.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #160: George Jackson

And, without the slightest bit of warning, Bob Dylan had returned to the forum of protest songs. Cut just over two months after the death of the Soledad Brother in a prison shootout (and released a mere week after the song's recording, a rather amazing turnaround if you stop to think about it), one of the few songs from Dylan's first period in the wilderness was a throwback to his acoustic days, as though the stern young man of the Times cover had inhabited his body for a couple of weeks until he could get the song cranked out before heading back to from whence he came. There happens to be two versions of the song - a mellow full-band version with the guys he'd recorded his Greatest Hits Vol. II songs with, and a solo acoustic version, just Bob and his harmonica, like the good ol' days. It is the solo acoustic version that I'm linking to, simply because it makes the most sense; until "Hurricane", after all, that was just Bob's metier.

I feel such a weird sense of unreality when I hear "George Jackson" - not because it's a bad song or because it's too weird or anything like that, but more because it doesn't really feel like it should exist, if that makes sense. I'm not saying that the life of a family man would automatically erase the part of Bob's mind that cared about humanity (any more than I would say that his crazy years as a rock star would do so); it's just that...I mean, of all the times, after all that had happened, that the killing of a Black Panther in prison would be the tipping point for Bob to finally pick back up his "outrage" pen seems a bit odd. And I'm not downplaying the historical significance of George Jackson at all (my brother was rather deeply moved by Soledad Brother, and it's a fair guess that he was not the only one), just feeling a bit bemused about the whole thing. After all, when MLK and Robert Kennedy were gunned down, Bob was baking bread and teaching his children the ABCs or what have you. It's just funny how these things work, I guess.

As for the actual song itself...I mean, there's not really much I can say about it, to be honest. It's not the best protest song Bob ever wrote (in the loosest sense of the word, I'd say "Hard Rain" qualifies; if you're talking more straightforward, probably "Blowin' in the Wind", forgive the cliched answer), nor is it the worst (I'll leave that answer as an exercise for you, the reader). What makes it a step down from some of his truly great songs isn't the fact that he knocked the song out in such a short span of time - Lord knows he's written his fair share of songs in a short period of time. The reason, then, is more just the fact that the song doesn't really reach the same poetic heights of something like "Hard Rain", opting instead to be more straightforward in its disgust at Jackson's treatment and sudden death (to the point where we get Bob's first ever recorded profanity!). And that's not necessarily a bad thing - after all, it seems a lot to ask for Bob to try and reach those heights - so much as it's just a limiting thing you have to get used to. The Bob that wrote those amazing protest songs had been long gone, even by then. The new Bob, the one trying to piece together a brand new writing style, was never going to write "Hard Rain" again.

And, I think, that's entirely what Bob had in mind. "George Jackson" was never really meant to be anything other than exactly what it was - Bob speaking his mind about a major issue of the moment, committing something to tape that could be immediately processed, not giving a hoot about posterity or what future generations would think about the song from a creative standpoint. After all, songs like these aren't really meant to be creative masterpieces, but rallying points, ways for outrage to be properly channeled and given an actual voice. In that sense, "George Jackson" does very well succeed.
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #159: When I Paint My Masterpiece

This is a post that, in a way, almost writes itself. If ever there was a Dylan track that would qualify as my all-time sneaky favorite, it would be "When I Paint My Masterpiece", one of those songs that always seems to slip through the cracks when people talk about Bob's classics (some might append that classification to "Watching The River Flow", I think). What I really love about the song is just how laid-back Bob sounds on it, like he really is singing about chilling out in Rome and thinking about when he finally finishes his life's work. One almost wishes that it was true - that instead of being in upstate New York all this time, he'd actually been crossing the Continent by train, suitcase in hand, living it up with a big Derek Flint grin on his face. And the musicians help set that mood from the start, Leon Russell's piano leading us into a bevy of wry guitar solos and a gently propulsive rhythm. One imagines that this is the sound of Bob not taking himself all too seriously (much like the Christmas album, as a matter of fact - what is "Must Be Santa" if not one of his all-time great pisstakes?), and it's hard not to want him to do that more often.

Much has been made about how this song and "Watching The River Flow" are musical twins in that they depict Bob at his creative low point (well, until the mid-80s, of course), fumbling around for ways to relight his creative muse, none of them working until the ultimate torch arrived in the form of Bob's crumbling marriage. What occasionally seems to be lost in that assessment is the fact that both of the songs that are seemingly about Bob's fallow creative period are, of course, pretty darn good on their own, some of the best stuff that Bob released in this decade. And, rather amusingly, both of the songs manage to attack the subject in roughly the same way, with the musical equivalent of a good-natured shrug of the shoulders. If Bob really has lost his creative muse, he's doing a pretty darn good job of showing us that he could care less.

If there is one obvious difference between the songs, though, it would be the fact that Bob puts us in two different locales (and maybe even mindsets) in the two separate songs. "Watching The River Flow"'s narrator is basically all by himself, sitting in a cafe and staring out at the Mississippi or whatever rushing on by - there's something almost Zen-like in the way he talks about how the river keeps rolling along, no matter what happens - and just musing about how funny the ol' human race can actually be. In "When I Paint My Masterpiece", on the other hand, we're deposited right smack in the middle of some European vacation, a rush of memories coursing through the narrator's brain as he moves from country to country looking for the next big adventure and getting a kick out of, you guessed it, how funny the ol' human race can actually be. That the song still manages to retain its laid-back tone is really something; Bob's telling us a story about how strange his life is without being able to write that one masterpiece he's been waiting on (then again, most artists always feel this way), and yet it feels so casual, like he's relating this tale into a tape recorder sitting poolside in Malibu. It's a relaxed song about a hectic subject, which is always fun.

One is tempted, especially when doing a project like the one I'm embarking on, to speculate about whether or not Bob really did miss that hectic life at the time. Now, real life kind of answers that question all by itself, as Bob slowly worked his way back into the limelight before Tour '74 re-established him as one the biggest rock stars in the world. But that was a gradual process, one that went from recording new material to appearing in a movie to putting together a brand new album for a brand new record label. And yet, in 1971, there was still no real indication that Bob was ever going to go back out on the road, or release something like Planet Waves, or be anything other than a father and a husband. All people really had to speculate on were rumors, innuendo, and then these songs. And while most people tend to think of them as Bob talking about how his muse had done a runner, it's also possible to speculate on that second song, on Bob writing about the hustle and bustle of a life on the run, walking up the Spanish Steps and feeling history below his feet, and missing it just a little bit. The world was not as easy to reach then as it was now, and one imagines there were some nights in New York where our man Bob was getting just a touch antsy.

And, soon enough, that hustle and bustle would be back in Dylan's life. As much as we think about how hectic and crazy 1965-66 were for Bob, I don't think enough attention gets paid to just how wild the mid-70s were for the man; after all, for all of Bob's religious studies after he broke his neck, he didn't become a full-on Christian, for Pete's sake. After all, between Planet Waves and Slow Train Coming, Bob released a slew of albums that ranged from "quite good" to "absolute classics" (including what might very well be his masterpiece), embarked on four massive tours (including a World Tour that led to his voice's irrevocable damage and that aforementioned conversion), and forcefully re-injected himself into the lifestyle that a rock star of his stature tends to lead. That's a hell of a lot for one man to do. You wonder, though, if Bob would have had it any other way.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #158: Tomorrow Is A Long Time

I've always wondered what it was about "Tomorrow is a Long Time" that appealed to Elvis Presley so much, to the point where he would record his own version for one of his crappy movie soundtracks (the phrase "crappy" can apply to both the movie and the soundtrack, in general). Quite frankly, I wonder why Elvis would bother with a Dylan song at all; after all, this is a guy who used to joke when he had bad breath that "it feels like Bob Dylan's been sleeping in my mouth". But we have Elvis' version of this song nonetheless, and it's a surprisingly good version, a down-home Mississippi Delta touch attached to the tune, Elvis putting in a pretty decent vocal performance (although there are moments where he does something with his voice that reminds me why I don't like him more than I think I ought to, if that makes sense), a casual take on a love song that succeeds because it's so darn casual and laid back. You'd never have thought to turn the song into a crawling blues track, but Elvis and his producers did, and they get kudos for that.

Funny enough, the Elvis version is probably the reason why Bob chose to record the song in a bluesier style for the New Morning sessions, a version that would be left in the vaults yet again. Listening to the song, you can definitely tell that Bob had that version in mind, both in the literal (the slower, more blues-like arrangement, with a pedal steel doing some nice work) and in the more abstract (the "ah-ooh" backing vocals reminiscent of the Jordanaires, the somewhat amateurishly picked solos), although Bob fleshes things out a little more with his full New Morning band behind him. One presumes that this version was never going to have a shot at making the album - especially considering how much more jazz-influenced the official version would end up being - so listening to it can feel more academic than anything else, like it's Bob just having a goof in the studio before he got to "One More Weekend" or whatever. All the same, it's a fun goof, a nice little window into Bob's mind, and a weirdly fitting tribute to Elvis that works just as well as "Went To See The Gypsy" does.

And yet, for somebody like me that has such great affection for the Greatest Hits II version, recorded for what was supposed to be Bob Dylan In Concert way back in 1963, there's something kind of blasphemous about these bluesy recordings, like Elvis and Dylan are taking something chaste and pure and slapping some mud on it. That isn't to say that I don't like those versions, or that there's something wrong with turning a tune into a blues number; it's more that the original version, so beautifully downcast and gentle, so full of quiet wistfulness, is probably best served in its original state, a gently picked acoustic guitar the only accompaniment to Bob's gorgeous lyrics (some of his best of the acoustic era). It makes a kind of sense that this song, like "Mama, You Been On My Mind", was consigned to the vaults upon its release; both songs are as direct in their emotion as any Bob has ever recorded, and maybe Bob didn't want anybody to get the wrong idea.

Of all the emotions that Bob has managed to capture in his lyrics - anger, disdain, happiness, joy, pain, agony - the one that he never really quite gets to is loneliness; he's sung about isolation, but that's not quite the same thing. For whatever reason, we never get to hear much about the great loneliness that Bob must have felt all throughout his life, both in the literal sense (the 1966 tour springs to mind), and in the mental (that mind of his keeping people away by mere virtue of his almost crushing genius); we know so much about Bob in his public life that any glimpse at the private Bob, no matter how fleeting, is as treasured as gold. And that is what makes "Tomorrow is a Long Time" so valuable, because we get a very small glimpse at Bob singing about loneliness, even in the context of a love song, as he waits for his true love to be back with him and spins off words that tell us just how hard that wait can be. But, to me, what really sums up the loneliness of the song (more so than the lyrics, which I think I will get some disagreement over, and I don't blame you) is Dylan's performance, one of his most brutally direct of his early days, a quiet emotion in his voice not even heard on his most well-known classics. I hear that song and I think of that young man, all by himself, singing about his beloved, and it's as heart-wrenching as anything I could imagine. And yet I cannot help but listen to it over and over again, because of that heartache, and because it's so beautiful in its sadness. There's plenty of that in Bob's catalog, but few songs touch that emotion as well as this one does.
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Bob Dylan Song #157: Watching the River Flow

My sincerest apologies to those of you that assumed my discussion of Greil Marcus' review of Self Portrait would cease with the "Alberta #2" post, but I found myself thinking of that album, and rather specifically the bit about Dylan's responsibilities to his audience, during my most recent listen to "Watching the River Flow", one of a handful of original songs Bob recorded between 1970 and 1974's Planet Waves. Listening to Dylan kick the tune off with those fateful words "What's the matter with me?/I don't have much to say", then talk about sitting on a beach somewhere and watching the inexorable progress of some random waterway, one can only assume that Marcus must have been livid. After all, compare Self Portrait, in which Bob makes what could be interpreted as a symbolic retreat from the arena, to this song, in which Bob straight up admits it to all of us. I dunno - were I in Marcus' shoes, I think I might be kinda pissed.

I bet Dylan thought of this, too. Maybe he didn't have Marcus on his mind per se (it's worth wondering if Bob, in 1971, actually knew who Greil Marcus WAS), but I like to think he had a little smile on his face as he penned the words to this song, dreaming up a surrogate Bob wandering some deserted coastline, finding that all night cafe on the beach, having a cup of joe, and staring at the water rushing by. More specifically, I think of those middle eights Bob conjured up, where he sees people disagreeing about God knows what (and he's right - it really DOES make you want to stop and read a book) and just shakes his head knowingly to himself. It was not all too long ago that Young Bob was out there disagreeing with people himself, first in the protest songs that he wrote, then in his views on how his music should sound, to the point where he found himself really shook (and, if some people are to be believed, crying) on that Newport stage. It would only stand to reason that Older and Wiser Bob would be able to write so wittily and intelligently about that.

"Watching the River Flow" would be a fun song if Dylan had picked up an acoustic and sang about his casual acceptance of what sounds like one bitch of a case of writer's block, but the song is made all the more fun by his studio band, who bring a touch of 70's AM rock to Dylan's palette of recording tricks. From the moment that guitar solo comes ripping out of your speakers, it's clear that Dylan's in a rakish mood, and the song boogies along at a nice bluesy clip, Leon Russell's pounding piano mixing well with more radio-friendly soloing and a bouncy bass line. Dylan, for his part, appears to be having a grand old time, barking out his vocals in that 70s voice I've always considered his best. One imagines that, in the hands of somebody like Badfinger, the song might have become an even bigger hit. Instead, it just barely missed the top 40, and ended up on a Columbia stopgap; given the laid-back nature of the song, that's probably how it should be anyway.

I always liked that Bob chose to start off his 2nd (and, remarkably, more essential) Greatest Hits collection with this song, an amusing admission of his current fallow period leading off a collection of songs that demonstrated just how amazing he was when all his creative juices were flowing. What's made Bob so fascinating, along with the music and the myths and the history and all that, is that you really can't pin any kind of mental process upon the man, no matter how hard we try to shoehorn him into our preconceived notions. The same man who has enough self-awareness to wink at his audience with this song had the somewhat puzzling naivete to think that his conversion to Christianity would be well-received when he took it on the road (well, perhaps; he probably knew people would be surprised, but I'm not sure he knew he'd whip up 1965-levels of invective). The same man who exhibited the rigid self-control of his days in the upstate New York woods as he cared for his family and grew closer to his wife essentially fell to pieces on the 2nd leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, drinking himself into constant stupors as his marriage crumbled around him. And the same man who released some of the greatest albums ever recorded, leaving only a paucity of worthy tracks in the vaults in favor of legendary classics, essentially consigned three or four of his best songs of the 1980s to outtake status when putting together Infidels, maybe the most disappointing moment in his canon. That's all human nature, of course, to be that inconsistent; but it's human nature on a grand scale, and that's always interesting.

"Watching the River Flow", in its own way, is an encapsulation of part of Dylan's human nature, and a part that brings him closer to us. Having made mention in the previous post of the elusiveness of creativity, it's funny to hear a song where Bob directly addresses that elusiveness, fully admitting that the process is beyond his understanding ("What's the matter with me?") and not giving a damn anyway. It's kind of rare to see Dylan engaging his audience as directly (relatively speaking) as he does here, and it's all the better that he does it in such an amusing way. Who knows, maybe even Greil Marcus had to have been okay with that.
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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #318: Mama, You Been On My Mind

Okay, so.

I had a special post all typed out, I really did. I was going to do one of those "author interviewing himself" conceits, where I asked myself these pertinent questions about where I was in my life, why I'd put this blog on its longest hiatus yet, and whether or not I was really prepared to see this through to the bitter end (I mean, look at that post title - I'm not even halfway to reaching THIS song, let alone the last one!). But, to be quite honest, nobody needs to read all that, especially in light of all the emotional gushing that will soon commence in the post proper. So I've instead condensed said special post into three questions and answers:

Q. Where the hell were you?
A. It's like John Lennon said - "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

Q. Why this song?
A. Because the time to write about it was right, for me at least. Normal chronological order will resume after this post - I just wanted to get this out of my system. If this somehow seems like a cheat, I apologize. I fully acknowledge that this post is the rare one that's more for me than anybody else.

Q. Will you continue this project?
A. Yes. I don't know how regular I'll keep things, but I will do my level best to maintain at least some sort of schedule. That anybody reads this at all is amazing, and it's at the point now that I want people to keep reading and to look forward to what I do. It means more than you could ever know, believe me.

And so back I go into the maelstrom. Just a heads up - this gets into some REALLY emo shit. If you're not prepared or that sort of thing doesn't suit you, I suggest you come back later in the week. Trust me.

Second heads up: this baby is LONG. Again, don't say I didn't warn you.


I once had a girl
Or should I say
She once had me...

- John Lennon


When people (up to and including myself) talk about how Bob Dylan's lyrics are "poetic", I feel like the vast majority of those people are referring to Dylan's more out-there lyrics, stuff like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden" that push the envelope of what was previously considered to be acceptable things to sing while simultaneously strumming a guitar and/or being backed by a band of musicians. Which makes sense - it's not so much that Dylan was doing things like messing with time signatures or fiddling with the verse/chorus/verse dynamic (his deeply ingrained musical instincts probably would not let him do this), as much as he was pushing the boundaries of what you can do with words, how you can arrange them in ways that impact others emotionally without directly attempting to ENGAGE them emotionally, and of the subject matter that people can sing about. And I think that many of us engage poetry in that same way; we've grown accustomed enough to the works of Eliot and Plath and Ginsburg and Sexton and so on that we think of poetry not as something straightforward, but as a way to push the boundaries of both the spoken and written English language, something that takes us to the further edges of what we can do with that language, for better or for worse.

I bring all this up not because I believe I'm telling you all something you don't already know, but because it's elucidating for me in general to think about things in other ways. After all, not all poetry bothers to push the envelope, or to do something entirely different from tradition, and yet that poetry can still hit on an emotional level. Think of something like "Dulce et Decorum Est", or "To His Coy Mistress", neither of which go crazy with the metaphors or fuck with accepted rhyme schemes or anything, but both hit on an emotional level while bending words into something beautiful (even in the ugliness of World War I, in the former's case). And I'm sure it doesn't REALLY bear stating, but you can apply that to Dylan's less wildly imaginative lyrics, songs from his acoustic era or from something like Planet Waves, where Dylan can keep himself firmly grounded in the language that you and I speak every day (or, sometimes, wish we could) and still make us go "wow, that was something else".

And, to me, the quintessential example of Dylan's genius in this regard is the first verse of "Mama, You Been On My Mind", one of the greatest songs he wrote and never released on an album. I'm reprinting it here simply because I cannot help myself:

Perhaps it's the color of the sun cut flat
And covering these crossroads I'm standing at,
Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that,
But mama, you been on my mind.

To me, at least, I cannot think of any better way to try and explain what it is about love that cannot be explained, and to put something tangible on a feeling that, so very often, eludes our grasp. We all know that often something as innocuous as a song on the radio or seeing an ad for a restaurant can bring back memories both good and bad (I had one such moment last night, as a matter of fact - damn you, Van Morrison!), but we can find ourselves forgetting that sometimes it doesn't even take THAT much to trigger our memory banks, and sometimes we find ourselves drifting back to past beloved entirely of our own accord, almost like an acid flashback or something. Dylan manages to capture both sides in four truly amazing lines, reaching both to the specificity of an image that reminded him of somebody, and to the generality of a mood that hits you when you don't expect it. It's really something that I cannot fathom.

I had a conversation once with one of my friends, in which I was attempting to describe why exactly it was I felt a certain way about somebody else. I said that I could make a list of all the reasons why I was enamored, from the more obvious physical aspects to the way that she engaged me on an intellectual level to the fact that she had a fondness for things that I, too, had a fondness for. But, ultimately, the reason I felt that certain way about that somebody was because I simply did. I mean, that sort of thing is more animal than human to begin with (which I'll get to in greater detail), and on a gut level it really just comes down to synapses firing in your brain in ways you could not possibly imagine. But, us being who we are, we find ways to justify those firings of our synapses, and we turn what would be simple nature into something deeper and more meaningful. As I'd written in a previous post, the feeling tends to come before the rational; first comes love, then you sort of have to fill in the blanks. But filling in the blanks makes us who we are.

What I love about that first verse of "Mama, You Been On My Mind" is that Bob never bothers to delve into that conundrum at all. Of course, given the constraints of songwriting and such there just wasn't enough room anyway, but it's still impressive to see Bob condense such a markedly difficult emotional issue into a short gut punch of a verse and then immediately move on, secure in the knowledge that we all know what he's talking about. And we all do, of course - much like that feeling you can only express in French where you could've sworn something happening to you has already happened, we all know what it means to remember something from our past with both a meaningful prompt and with no prompt at all. We all just can't sum that feeling up the same way Bob can.


If I were to be brutally honest with myself, one of my great failings as a human being is that I have the potential to be an utterly selfish prick on an emotional level; you know, the old "look out for number 1" thing. I can be totally willing to sever a personal relationship (friend or otherwise) with a female at the drop of a hat if I think that relationship is causing me hurt, and I'm pretty sure I could do it without too much effort. And, in the same honest vein, one of the things that is pretty good about me as a human being is that I am aware of that selfishness potential, and that I deal with it in much the same way that people deal with quarantined viruses. After all, once you've connected with somebody on any meaningful level, even if it is just plain ol' friendship, you have a responsibility for that connection, to maintain it and even try to make it grow, and to cut it in half just because of your own base feelings is a pretty boorish thing to do. It's sad that I need to remember that, but I thank my lucky stars that I can, and that I can put aside my own bullshit to have actual meaningful friendships with the opposite sex. It would be a real black mark on me as a person if I couldn't.

One of the hardest things to deal with is when somebody you have feelings for harbors those same feelings for somebody else. This, again, is not something I think you all don't know. What is even harder is to feel, if not happiness for that person, at least a sort of Zen acceptance, a security that you can dispense with the hurt that that knowledge brings. It, like so much of human personality, is an acquired skill; still, having that skill is almost astonishingly important, if only for our own peace of mind. To be able to wish somebody well is nice; to wish somebody well and actually mean it is some next level shit. I will fully admit that I struggle with that skill on a daily basis (and it's much harder these days), but I'm well aware that the person I'm struggling with would appreciate that I'm even making the effort. If I couldn't, I might as well give up and go live in a cabin in the woods.

When Dylan sings "I don't even mind who you'll be waking with tomorrow", it is hard not to marvel at that moment. It is both the most devastating moment in the song, and somehow the most uplifting at the exact same time. I don't need to really tell you what's devastating about it on one level; I still remember being told by the woman I love that she was moving in with her boyfriend, and what a horrible crushing blow that was for me. And on another level, the one where you've reached that kind of acceptance (or resignation, as the case may be), the line takes on an even more devastating effect. But uplifting? Yes, I truly do believe that. That line, and the sentiment behind that, is a statement from a man that truly believes what he's saying, that does not care that his beloved will be waking up in the bed of somebody else, because she's still part of who he is, no matter what. And that's uplifting in the sense that so often we tend to try to cut the hurt out of us, rather than attempting to understand that hurt and make it work for us. When you lose somebody in that way, a piece of you gets torn out, and it's all too easy to let that piece disappear without ever trying to replace it. It really is better to keep that piece where it is, if only for the memory.

Not to immediately bring things back down, but I've often thought about the things that separate us human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom, usually because there's far more crossover than we would like to admit. Even love, our greatest attribute as a human race in so many ways, can be explained on a molecular level, where the general idea of "attraction" has a lot more to do with our hormones than with rational thought. I mean, it makes sense, of course; even if you discount all the scientific crap, just think about how often relationships tend to fail. We all can understand the idea behind wanting to knock it out with somebody else - it's when you get to shit like meeting parents and thinking about looking for an apartment together that things become murky and complicated. Fill in the blanks, remember. We don't always do the best job of that. And that's why love isn't always the greatest thing (as Damon Albarn once sang); the actual emotion itself can be found amongst jungle cats or what have you, and they don't have to worry about how two sets of friends would interact at a bar on Friday night.

So, to me at least (and perhaps this is just my own slightly jaundiced view at work), what really does separate us from animals and makes us something special is that we can be hurt by love. After all, you never hear of an orangutan crying and listening to Morrissey records, or of a house cat trying to win another house cat back by playing "In Your Eyes" on a boom box, and so on. I know how silly that sounds, and I even kinda did that on purpose, but the general idea is that we are the only race for whom the romantic-based rejection of another member of our species hurts us on an emotional level, one that we have to intellectualize in order to properly deal with it. We can intellectualize love, of course, but on a gut level we know why it exists and how it really works. I don't think we have that same gut level with rejection; trying to make sense of it the best way that we can, whether through hurt, rage, acceptance, and so on, is an entirely different being altogether. In a way, it's even a beautiful thing - the fact that we cannot simply dismiss a mate walking away, that we have to put things together in our mind and compartmentalize it in order to function at all, says a lot about just how important that really is to us. It's an idea that always strikes me as sad, and as profound. Funny how those two words so often mean the same thing.


Why don't we ever hear more about who Bob's singing about in this song? So much about Dylanology (of which I grudgingly include this humble little blog) centers around the various women that have populated Bob's life and how he has worked his relationships (both the good and the bad times - more bad than good, rather unfortunately) into his songs. Joan Baez, Suze Rotolo, Sara Lowndes - we always find ourselves reading the tea leaves, looking for those faces, almost to the point where you need to stop and just ask yourself, well, why? Why do we bother? Is there really a point? And, as a corollary, how has a song THIS nakedly emotional and full of heartache slipped through the cracks?

Creativity, like so much of our human experience, is an ethereal concept. I mean, that's pretty obvious (nobody's selling "creativity juice" at the local supermarket), but it's also something that we feel like we need to deal with, even though we don't know how. William Goldman, as great a screenwriter that has ever lived, stated that he has no idea where his creativity comes from, but he lived in a never-ending fear of simply waking up one day to find that his spark has deserted him forever, never to return. And that's somebody who legitimately has/had that spark, who has written some of the most enduring motion pictures ever made. For the rest of us average punters, the idea of creativity on that level is even harder to fathom, like attempting to wrap our minds around Foucault's Pendulum without the requisite Ph.D. in astrophysics. Creativity, in that sense, is almost certainly something legitimately scary, a mutant power that taunts us even while astonishing us when others harness that power to create amazing works of art. Like a lot of the Big Concepts, it is something that totally eludes us.

And that, I think, plays into why people so often look for Dylan's paramours in his music. The concept of the muse, as old as it is, is one that a lot of us can wrap our minds around. Hell, the whole concept was almost certainly conceived so that the ancient Greeks and Romans COULD wrap their minds around something as astounding as creativity, an otherworldly explanation for why people could write poems or music or whatever that fit in quite well with the whole "multitude of gods" thing they had going on. But even today the idea still has its place, mainly because its base concept is something we can get behind. Surely it was the love/hate of another woman that drove Dylan to write those masterpieces, and nothing else, right? I mean, it's kind of a reductive concept, no matter how true it is (if "Ballad in Plain D" is NOT about Suze Rotolo, then Bob has some serious explaining to do), but it's still one that's easy for us to grasp. It's annoying as hell, but I can understand it.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to this song, and why nobody has made an effort (or maybe they have, and I've willfully ignored it) to tie "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to any number of women that have been in Bob's life. I mean, it's not like you couldn't make a very easy case, given the time frame the song was written in and so forth. But I kind of like the fact that the song has sort of been left untouched in that sense, that it's not scrutinized in the same way that some of Dylan's more famous songs have been, and that it's mainly been left to stand on its own considerable artistic and lyrical merits. It lends the song a little additional weight that occasionally gets denied from the Webermans of the world trying to read between the lines. For a song this good, that's incredibly appreciated.


I've said that "Like A Rolling Stone" is my favorite Bob Dylan song, maybe my favorite song by anybody ever, and that's not going to change. But if I had to choose the song that meant the most to me on an emotional level, the song that's nearest and dearest to my heart without bringing in any intellectual considerations, it would surely be "Mama, You Been On My Mind". I mean, I love the song on an intellectual level, of course - it's as perfect an example as you could ask for of purely economical songwriting, of communicating an astounding amount of deep feelings and ideas on a personal scale, performed in Bob's straightforward manner that manages to suggest the well of emotions the song carries without needing to dip into it just to score a few extra points. A lot of Young Bob's genius is summed up in this song, and that's something I can truly appreciate.

But, as you might expect, it's what Bob is actually singing about that gives the song such heft in my eyes. Speaking as somebody that was in love with somebody for a VERY long time, I can't help but identify with every word Bob sings in this song; memories being brought forth just by the weather or something, asking her not to be upset by my frame of mind, not minding who she wakes up with, and that final stinging verse where Bob asks the mystery woman of the song if she could ever see herself as clearly and as vividly as he, himself, carrying her memory deep inside of his cerebral cortex. It's such a powerful moment, and one so evocative of what it means to not just love somebody, but to care about them as well - this notion that we can see them better than they can see themselves. There is great truth to that; why else would we talk about our problems with our friends than because we need a voice that's not our own to help us puzzle out what's going on with us? And it's moments like that where I find myself utterly swept away, hearing somebody explain the pain and emotion I'm feeling better than I ever could. Everything about what art is, and why art matters, crystallizes for me when I hear this song.

I don't presume to suggest that I know why art matters, for the record; I'm simply not that smart. I will say, though, that I have an idea. The concept of the muse, that I briefly touched on before, can seem quite silly on its face, but it does serve an important purpose - it helps us make tangible something that is rather clearly not. And for people in general, just the idea that we can make SOMETHING that we have trouble understanding a little more easy to wrap our minds around is truly important indeed. I mean, just take a second and think about the nature of the cosmos, and infinity, and what that actually means. Thinking about that without a shit ton of postgraduate work, a massively high IQ, or a pharmacy's worth of illegal drugs is nigh impossible. But we've all been to a planetarium, we've all seen the stars in the sky and heard about white dwarfs and black holes and sound bouncing out millions of miles away and so on, and that sort of helps us understand a little better and come a little closer to touching what seems so very far away. We need that in our lives.

And I think we can agree that the whole idea of art, at least on a level beyond "I want to watch guns go boom and cars explode" or "I'm going to read this romantic novel about forbidden love with the guy with a six-pack of abs on the cover", is to help us understand what we cannot, or what we find hard to deal with. Why do you think there are so many damn songs about us getting our hearts broken? Because we all know what it's like to get our hearts broken, and we so very rarely know how to deal with an emotion so powerful and gut-wrenching. And it's that knowledge that allows us to identify with music, or books, or movies; the knowledge that, even if they don't specifically know why we're hurting or why we're happy or angry or whatever emotion it is we're feeling, the artists we love can channel THEIR own hurt or anger or happiness into what they create, and that gets filtered to us on our own levels. It's probably a stretch to say that artists understand us, but there is enough universality in who we are as humans that artists, in attempting to understand themselves and what they're feeling, tend to land on our issues as well. It's rather convenient how that works.

We all have moments in our lives where we feel that we're all alone, and that nobody understands us and what we're going through. That's often nonsense (there's only so much we as humans can go through, really), and yet it's such a strong feeling, simply because nobody ever has the same experience in the same way. To have something in my life that helps sort out that feeling, whether it's a good friend or a great book, is impossible to overstate in terms of importance. And, at the most basic level, I'm happy that I can cue up this song, hear a much younger Bob Dylan (a man younger than I am now when he recorded the track) singing about a mindset I know all too well, and say to myself "you know...Bob Dylan understands".
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