Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bob Dylan Song #174: Simple Twist of Fate

FYI: this was, and is, her favorite Dylan song.

And, from the grand and sweeping epic of "Tangled Up in Blue", we immediately delve into something far more intimate and self-contained, the short story to that first song's Great American Novel. "Simple Twist of Fate" can probably be read in two different ways, depending on (I suppose) your level of cynicism - a man waxing poetic about a one-night stand, or even a night with a prostitute (assuming that prostitutes tend to ply their trades on the docks; I guess my knowledge of the world's oldest profession is not as deep as it ought to be?), or a couple having one last final fling in a "strange hotel" (or "old hotel" in later live versions) before the female walks away, never to return. Either way, this leaves the man both condemned to spend his life searching for this woman, and wondering about that "simple twist of fate", the moment that brought them together and allowed two diverging paths to oh so briefly intersect. The interpretations are different; the upshot is basically the same.

I personally like to go with the "one night stand" interpretation, even though you don't normally get lasting romance out of that sort of thing, and here's why. Those that have read my blog from the start probably remember my discourse about the famous "white parasol" speech by Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane (here's the post in question - thrill at how much I wrote back then!), where I talked about regret and about the past and how those things inform your life no matter whether you want them to or not (most likely not). But what it also reminded me about, in a way not just tied to talking about "the past" as an all-encompassing concept, is the idea of how something so innocuous can stay with you forever. Now, clearly a one-night stand has a bit more emotional resonance than simply seeing some woman holding a fancy umbrella getting off a boat, but in the grand scheme of things it might very well be the same - a brief moment, not totally shared (we'll get to that below), that carries a disproportionate amount of meaning for the beholder. There's something romantic to that, almost as romantic as the idea of a couple in that hotel room - it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, so they say, but it could almost be even better to have not loved and lost to never have loved at all. I think.

Getting back to the song proper, what makes this particular song so great, at least to my ears, is the little details Dylan sprinkles into this song, avoiding some sort of uber-narrative and instead making every line come alive in your mind. This is not new to a Dylan song, certainly, but in this particular case, perhaps spurred on by memory of his own, Dylan really lays the richness of his word-painting power on thick. You can actually see the two of them, perhaps holding hands, staring up at the bright neon of the motel that they're planning on booking a room in (perhaps a married couple giving one last shot at spicing up a crumbling relationship?), slight befuddlement on their faces as the lights hit their eyes. You can hear the coin the woman drops rattling around in the tin cup of the beggar outside the arcade she walks down, never to see the man again, while he slowly wakes up to an empty bed. And you can watch the man wandering along past ships and dinghies and maybe even luxury yachts, perhaps with that parrot perched on his shoulder (forever the dopiest part of the song - does anyone REALLY miss it when he omits it during live performances?), searching in vain for a woman brought to him by circumstance and torn away by conscious decision (which, in its own way, is the most heartbreaking part of the whole thing...).

Actually, let me get to that last part for a second. Now, seeing as this is an album that deals with breakups and such, it's obviously going to have moments of heartbreak all throughout, so a few more instances aren't going to really stand out in theory. But what makes these moments stand out in their own way is just how quietly devastating they are, how they don't go for histrionics but simply portray how love can rip your heart out at a whisper and not just at a scream. Think about that line - "and forgot about a simple twist of fate" - and what that actually carries. The man, clearly, is doomed to always remember it (and it's always been interesting to me how the song switches from third person to first person for the final verse, like he was trying to tell a story to someone and make it out to be fiction, then just said "ah, fuck it, it's about me") and to chase the woman forever linked to her by it for all time, but for that woman it's already gone from her mind. That's just crushing to me; one person forever bound, the other like it never happened. And let's not forget the moment where the man wakes up, sees she's gone, and tells himself that he just doesn't care, even though the emptiness within him says otherwise. Self-denial is always a painful thing, especially when it comes to this sort of thing, and you can just feel the hurt this man feels as he tries to lie to the one person it's hardest to lie to.

I didn't talk about this in the previous post, so I suppose I should finish with a few words about the lyrical variations Bob throws in while performing this song in concert (courtesy of the amazing Dylanchords, of course). You've got the failed experiments of the 1984 shows, yet another reason why that tour more or less deserves to be forgotten - Dylan, rather than keeping the low-key philosophical vibe of the original, tries to a) build a real narrative and b) really go to the philosophical well, all to the song's detriment. And then you've got the odder moments, where Bob both adds a measure of vitriol (that 1980 "look that can manipulate" - it's like the '60s Bob never left!) and removes a bit of soul from the song (replacing the verse about not really caring and emptiness inside with a softer, kinda lamer verse about putting his shoes on and finding a note "to which he just could not relate" - falling prey to that old movie narrative mistake of telling and not showing), throwing the song off-kilter pretty much because he's Bob Dylan and that's how he does things. But, even with all of those changes (and the "she should have caught me in my prime" change to the final verse, which actually does add something in that we're now talking about young, dumb love instead of older, slightly less dumb love), the meat and heart of the song is still there, the man always bound to hold on to that one night forever, and the woman always a million miles away.

Bonus! Here's video of one of Dylan's great one-off performances: his performance of Simple Twist of Fate from the World of John Hammond PBS performance in 1975. Scarlet Rivera plays her gypsy violin, Rob Stoner plays on bass, and Howie Wyeth plays drums - a miniature dress rehearsal for the Rolling Thunder Revue, in other words. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bob Dylan Song #173: Tangled Up in Blue

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.


So about four months ago in the post for "Dirge", a commenter named Tim (presumably not this Tim or this Tim, though one never knows, does one) posted a very lucid analysis of the song, and then made this observation at the end:

"Perhaps none of you who have commented so far have ever fallen in love against your better judgment, when you have every reason to not do so. (Or remained in love with someone who broke your heart - that should strike a chord with Tony, as unrequited (?) love seems to have substantially changed the pace of output of this blog.)"

I didn't then, and still don't really now, know how to respond to that comment, although I have no qualms in saying that he's pretty close to the truth, if a little too uncomfortably on the nose. Then again, these posts are written for public consumption, and any such consumption will bear forth analysis by the readers (a point which has obvious implications for what I'm about to write about), so I can't really be too put off by a reader attempting to decipher my mindset in the same way that I've been attempting (or "attempting", depending on how you feel about my (fill in the blank) post) to decipher our man Bob's. I have no problem admitting that I've explored my own romantic foibles through Bob's music, which surely makes me no different from many of you reading this blog right now; as I've stated a couple times during this project, Bob touches on so many parts of what makes us human that it only seems natural to do this. His pain and emotions and feelings often help serve as a kind of therapy and catharsis for us, both consciously and unconsciously. This is true for many great musicians and their fans.

However, the main reason it has taken me so long to write this post is that, plain and simple, I have been absolutely dreading it. I mean, what is there to say about Blood on the Tracks that has not been said? Any Dylan fan that isn't a total neophyte knows everything about this album, about how Dylan wrote a bunch of songs about his deteriorating marriage (whether he wants to admit it or not); how he recorded an entire album's worth of material in New York, only to pull a 180 and re-record a number of the tunes in Minneapolis with local session musicians; how hordes of music critics and listeners alike have been trying to decipher the more cryptic lyrics on the album ever since; how the album hit #1 and served as linchpin to Dylan's second creative Renaissance; how Dylan uttered the infamous quote "A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?" (which, given how much of popular music is about that type of pain, makes me wonder why Dylan would ever say something so strange); and how the album still regularly tops or hovers near the top of both "best Dylan album" and "best album ever" lists 35-plus years after its release. John Updike famously wrote about Ted Williams that "Gods do not answer letters", and yet here is Dylan, reporting back to us mere mortals about his pain in the way only he can, like a long-lost friend catching you up on the really crappy year he's been having with the humor, pathos, and intelligence of the kind of long-lost friend you'd want to reconnect with in the first place. Writing about this album is kinda like writing about Gettysburg or The Godfather at this point - any new insight will pretty much be discovered by accident.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to try, though. For one thing, my small-yet-loyal base of readers (bless every one of you) would absolutely and rightly pillory me if I didn't at least make a good faith attempt at trying to talk about what I consider Dylan's crowning achievement as a recording artist. But the main reason why I want to give this album its due is because (presumably despite Dylan's perplexity in this regard) I consider Blood on the Tracks to be part of my societal DNA, as much an influence on my life as anything I've ever heard, seen, or read in my lifetime, and something that has helped me deal with my own personal pain and heartache and what have you. I know I am not alone in this and that many of you feel the same way; and while I realize the limitations of this blog and that I'm not exactly performing some kind of great boon to the world by writing it, knowing how many people that DO read this blog feel the same way as I do raises the stakes, even just a little bit. And if those that read this and the next nine entries in this blog are helped in any small way emotionally by what I have to say, then it has to be worth it, right?

One more word about Blood on the Tracks, the album/social phenomenon/what have you. If I had to describe this album to someone without saying "it's his breakup album" or something similar, I'd probably describe it as "a Dylan album for people that don't like Bob Dylan". Hear me out on this - what do we usually think of as the public's conception of Bob Dylan, as opposed to our own conceptions of Bob Dylan? For me, when I think of the mainstream and how they view Bob, it's usually "the old guy with the funny voice that wrote those weird songs"; obviously that's unfair and staggeringly incorrect (except, perhaps, for the "weird songs" part), but the mainstream has a funny way of eliminating nuance in forming a reputation (and why I've heard so many terrible Bob voice parodies in my lifetime). And then there's Blood on the Tracks, where Bob's voice is in remarkably fine form, where he's singing about things everyone can understand, and where poetic, occasionally outre (though downright Mamet-ian compared to what came before) lyrics replace all that shit about Napoleon and motorcycle black Madonnas and whatever the fuck else. You can like this album without liking Bob Dylan or the rest of his catalog, which is not something you can say in general. I don't know, I think that's an interesting notion.

So on we go, then, into Dylan's little universe of romantic entanglement, broken hearts, unchecked anger and bile, deep soul searching, and maybe even a little spiritual peace mixed in somewhere. We all know this album inside and out; I see no need in trying to describe how it sounds to your ears and in your mind. So let's try to see how this album sounds to our hearts and our shared experiences instead. After all, that's what was on Dylan's mind when he wrote it - his own broken, bitter, and weary heart.


And thus we start with "Tangled Up in Blue" - one of Dylan's most famous album openers, maybe his most famous song, and one of the few contenders for "best Dylan song" that is a plausible alternative to "Like a Rolling Stone". That's a lot of very important descriptors, very hard ones to live up to, and yet I think that "Tangled Up in Blue" manages to live up to all of them. It's basically the perfect distillation of everything that Dylan was trying for on this album, where his newfound, more direct songwriting style (as unveiled in Planet Waves) mixed with the poetic style he developed in his earlier career, fueled by the obvious preoccupation on his mind (the crumbling of his marriage, of course - as opposed to, say, his preoccupation with New Orleans titty bars or obscure Brooklyn streets), producing an epic masterpiece that feels like the best romantic drama you'll never see in your life. That's really no small feat.

What I also like about "Tangled Up in Blue", and I'm not sure if this makes a ton of sense (but when has that ever stopped me?), is that it manages to play as a six-minute trailer for the rest of the album, setting the tone for the album both in its ability to tell compelling song-stories and to hint at both the weary despair and occasional optimism that informs the nine other songs (though without some of the bile that also informs the other nine songs, thankfully - I don't think acidic insults would've fit too well here). You've got the, yes, cinematic scope of something like "Simple Twist of Fate", the aching loss of "If You See Her, Say Hello", and the emotional reach of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go", all rolled up into seven of the best verses you will ever hear a human being sing in your life. Even the title of the song pretty much sums up the album, in all its heartbroken glory - a song cycle dedicated to the thorny, knotty issue of trying to deal with lost love and the path of carnage it leaves behind. That, too, is no small feat.

I imagine that I'm not the only person to have thought of this before, but the feature of "Tangled Up in Blue" that has become most appealing to me after the umpteenth listen is that it's, to me at least, a brilliant example of a circular narrative (see this article for a scholarly and occasionally confusing example of how circular narratives work in film), a story that bounces all over the place and only really "ends" because Dylan decided "hey, probably a good point to stop singing and give 'em one more harmonica solo" at a certain point. That's not to say that you can't take the song at face value, of course, and think of it as a tale of a man that divorces his wife, meets her in a random topless place (always my least favorite part of the song, for some reason), moves in with her and some third guy in what can only be described as a "reverse Three's Company", and then ends up moving on again, presumably in search of her or someone like her. But I like to think of the song as a jumbled-up narrative, one not meant to be taken at face value, in which any number of what we consider signposts in telling a Tale of Lost Love (the meeting, the breakup, the third man) are thrown all over the place, making us wonder if it was that man on Montague Street she was married to when they first met, or at what point the narrator was lying in bed thinking of that redhead that stole his heart. It might not make a lot of sense, but it's more fun that way.

And, in a strange way, more honest. Love narratives tend to be neat and tidy because we expect them to be neat and tidy; just like nobody likes a storyteller that leaves out important details and then has to double back once he's remembered them, nobody particularly likes to watch or hear about a love story that starts with "we moved in together", then jumps to "she threw my clothes out into the street", then back to "our boss set us up together, funny enough". But that, of course, is so often how our memories tend to work when it comes to relationships, isn't it? Nobody, when thinking to themselves about a current or former love, says to themselves "well, guess I'd better start from the beginning - so I was taking in my dry cleaning when this lovely buxom lass caught my eye..." (at least, I hope not, because that's some Rain Man type stuff right there). Reminiscences have a funny way of not adhering to a storyline, more so as a particular moment within that storyline, like a random YouTube clip pulled out of a movie because it's got a funny quote or something blowing up in it. And when we go long form and start piecing together how a relationship either came together or failed, this is how we tend to do it - piecemeal style, no particular worry about the niceties of assembling a cohesive narrative, plucking memories out of the ether and trying to assemble them like one of those Magnetic Poetry kits. Nothing in life is ever neat, and that goes double for anything to do with love.

To bring things full circle (pardon the pun), that's ultimately what I consider to be my favorite part of "Tangled Up in Blue". I love all the stuff everyone else loves - the coolly understated backing from Deliverance, Dylan's outstanding vocal delivery (his voice rises at just the right moment in every verse), "we always did feel the same/we just saw it from a different point of view" - and yet what stands out the most for me is how a song so neatly delivered, so precise in its verbiage from start to finish, can perfectly evoke something so gloriously, painfully messy. We'll be seeing a lot of more of that on this album, you can be sure...but not done quite as well, or as memorably, as it is here.
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

EBDS Special Post #5: Radiohead and The Greil Marcus Effect

Author's note: Well, I *was* planning on my next post being about Tour '74, but something I read caught my fancy, and you're getting this instead. Hopefully this is of some (any) interest.

Just like I'm well aware that all of you that read this blog do not solely listen to the music of Bob Dylan, I'm quite certain that you all know that I, as the proprietor of this humble little blog, also do not solely listen to the music of Bob Dylan. Dylan bows to no one in terms of being my all-time favorite solo artist, but there remains a slot to be filled in the "favorite band" category, and I must confess that it's a two-horse race in that regard, and two boring horses to boot. One of those horses is The Beatles, a favorite band choice so predictable and boring that I'm almost bored just TYPING it, but a choice that I firmly believe stands up to scrutiny simply due to the fact that those guys wrote a hell of a lot of amazing songs. The other would be Radiohead, who I consider the current best band in the world, whose In Rainbows and OK Computer are serious candidates for my favorite album of all time, and whose newest album, The King of Limbs, was released to record stores on this very day (although it was available for about a month prior via digital download, which means that I've listened to the album plenty of times and digested it to the point where I think I can write with some semblance of lucidity about it). And it is them, in part, who I will be writing about in this post.

Now, The King of Limbs is hardly what I would call a bad album. I would say that the first half is definitely not as good as the second half, that there are many quietly beautiful moments but nothing approaching the harmonies of "Paranoid Android" or the end of "Reckoner" when the strings really kick in something fierce, that the Burial/Flying Lotus homages lend the album a strange atmosphere, like we're listening to a totally different band with Thom Yorke at the helm (the cut-up and edited drum patterns, IMO very unlike the normal measured rhythmic genius of Phil Selway, hammer this home), and that "Lotus Flower" and "Codex" both hold rightful places in the Radiohead Pantheon. I would also say that the album represents, at best, something of a lateral move, in that we'd EXPECT them to really be into Four Tet and that the skittering house beats that show up at times don't have the same resonance as the electronic flourishes of Kid A a decade earlier. Again, hardly a bad album, possibly even a very good one, but that's about as far I'd go; more Desire than Blonde on Blonde.

An article I read, oh, about an hour or so ago on the very good music website Stereogum posits that this might be the album which finally puts a dent in the heretofore unshakable critical reputation of Radiohead (which I'd argue has been shaken a few times previous, but whatever). After all, In Rainbows had both the fantastic "pay what you want" story AND gorgeous, guitar-driven (very important, that) music, whereas this album has a weird newspaper being released concurrently with music that, well, is not quite as good as In Rainbows, or at least as immediate in an emotional sense. Judging by reviews on Metacritic, comments on message boards and music sites, and even plain old word of mouth, this might very well be the most divisive album the group's released. And the article above posits that an album like this, one that could be seen as a lateral move at best from a group that's always been considered as forward-thinking as any that's ever existed (which is funny, since their music is so often steeped in what's going on at that time in the music worlds they inhabit and listen to), might be the one where critics finally stop their "well, ain't this great" attitude towards Radiohead, where fans stop blindly accepting their every move as works of genius, and where, just maybe, the emperor might have no clothes.

Does any of this sound a little bit familiar?

If I have any particular issue with the article I've linked to, it would be this - "there's a problem?" And it was with that particular thought, the consideration of what it is that make people stress out so much about what a band chooses to put out (short of a pure gouging of the audience like, I dunno, the artist breathing heavily, any album of new music should generally be considered due diligence on the part of said artist - their fulfilling of both social and record company contracts, as it were) and how it relates to All of Us, that I remembered this. Yes, I am shameless enough to think about articles I've written in the past. But I feel that, in this particular instance, the callback to my own work is warranted. As you may yourself remember, or at least read if you click on the link, I gave Marcus et. al. some stick about what I considered their own selfishness in suggesting that, in any way/shape/form, Dylan belonged to them. That's not to suggest that Dylan's music, in some ways, don't belong to us - after all, he released them into the world, and our collective web of memories and experiences relating to his music gives us at least some license to claim his songs as part of ourselves (what, after all, is this blog if not my version of that?). But the idea that Dylan OWES us anything, or that he needs to keep recording music at all, or (most importantly) that Dylan must continue to define the zeitgeist the way he once had (totally by accident, of course) is painfully naive and absurd - even somebody as admittedly naive as myself knows that.

This, to me, is ultimately the most troubling notion behind the relationship a band has with its fans - the idea that the band, really, owes us anything. Sure, we pay them our hard-earned money, but we always receive something in return - a CD of their music, a ticket to see them perform, a t-shirt, whatever (and, of course, sometimes, we get the music without paying them - although I DID pay $3.00 for In Rainbows on its initial release, so ha!), so we can't really say that we as fans have been done dirt. And as for the music the band chooses to record and release - well, that, of course, is also totally their right and their own prerogative. If they want to record a prog rock opera, or a hyphy album, or their own version of The Basement Tapes, then what exactly is the reason that they should not? Because they recorded The Bends? Please. If you want to call out critics for any perceived complacency in reviewing a band that has delivered for over a decade, you are also within your right. But goodwill is a very powerful thing, and anybody that doubts that need only look at the diminishing returns of Robert De Niro's acting career. We are a forgiving people, so long as the people we're forgiving have already done good by us.

And, inevitably, I find myself thinking of Dylan again, and the position he has occupied for nearly his entire career. Much like Radiohead, who are not so much a band as many separate bands (the one that recorded "High and Dry", the one that recorded "Bloom", the one that recorded "No Surprises", etc., etc.), Bob Dylan is a man that has worn many faces, some of them the faces of incredible music, some of them the faces of horrid music. But we must remember, at the end of the day, that whatever face Radiohead or Bob Dylan chooses to wear is totally at the discretion of Radiohead or Bob Dylan. And if that's not the face you want them to wear...well, it's not a choice you get to make, nor should it be. I'll be there for Radiohead's next album, as expectant as I was for the last, and I will be there for Dylan's next album as well. And if Dylan chooses to release a hyphy album, I imagine we'll all love him just the same. I hope.
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

EBDS Special Post #6: Tour '74

The amusing thing about Bob Dylan's Tour '74 is that, because of the simply sprawling range of Dylan's entire career, a small offshoot of said career (if you can call something of Tour '74's magnitude "small" - after all, the tour grossed over $90 million, nearly twelve million people applied for the half million seats available, and it was widely considered the biggest tour in rock's nascent history up to that point) is pretty much forgotten by the public at large while still debated and argued over in the Dylan community to this day. And with good reason - the sound that Dylan and his gang of hoodlums cooked up over the two-month jaunt across America is the kind that makes you feel like you have to choose sides, both in its gutbucket rock electric form and the strum-and-snarl acoustic form Dylan adopted for the tour. And from that sound, and its evolution on stage, comes any number of arguments: "Is Before the Flood any good?" "Did Dylan do his fans a disservice with his shouty acoustic style?" "Did The Band do Dylan's fans a disservice with their shouty rock style?" "Why are the first shows on the tour so much better?" "Does the lack of variety kill the shows?" And so on, and so forth.

As any of you that have read my blog all the way through may or may not know, I have a very special place in my heart for Tour '74, as my interest in the tour dovetailed rather neatly with my exponentially increasing interest with Dylan himself, during my college years when I had enough disposable income and free time on my hands to dive as deep into Bob's extensive unofficial catalog as I cared to. And during that time, having familiarized myself with his more well-known albums and Live 1966 and all the truly essential stuff, I found myself falling more and more in love with Before the Flood and with the bootlegs I was amassing of that 1974 tour. What really grabbed me was what Dylan later complained about when asked about the tour - that raw power they were injecting into the music, any trace of nuance being washed away in a sea of synthesizers, ferocious guitars, and Bob & Co. blaring through every song at full throat (IMO, 74-76 Bob was in his best voice; too bad he overextended himself in 1978 and basically ruined it forever). I even put the more maligned acoustic tunes on repeat, not bothered by how they didn't sound like they did 8 years previous (let alone 10 years previous) and not concerned by the idea that Bob was rushing through them, because the speeding up of tracks usually taken at a measured (and in 1966, soporific) pace gave them a brand new style of their own.

And that, to me, is what Tour '74 was all about - the idea of the brand new applied to Bob's music, in this case a revved-up style that was all about pure energy and possibly not much else. It wasn't like Dylan and The Band didn't know what they were doing or didn't have a plan with where they were taking their music; the thirteen-plus hour rehearsals cranked out in November 1973 kind of speak against that, unless you assume they were like the Get Back rehearsals with all the faffing about that entailed. And while the performances definitely got tighter, more anodyne, and more reliant on the energy that came from being on stage (as well as from other things, of course), the show Dylan played in Chicago is recognizably performed by the same group as the one that recorded Before the Flood in LA, with perhaps a few more bum notes and some more obscure songs thrown in. Dylan and The Band wanted the songs to sound this way, and whether or not you want the songs to sound that way, you have to respect them for making something new out of something old.

And that, in a sense, is the biggest problem most people (including myself, to a certain degree) have with Tour '74 - in the end, Dylan and The Band only seemed interested in making something new out of something old. Only a cursory glance through the tour setlists shows a group increasingly falling back on Bob's mid-60s repertoire, and even more increasingly falling back on Bob's hits, to the point where the only songs Bob performed that he'd written after the crash were "All Along The Watchtower", "Lay Lady Lay", "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", and "Forever Young". All the Planet Waves songs ("Something There Is About You" was abruptly yanked for "Highway 61 Revisited", which isn't too bad because their version of "Highway 61 Revisited" absolutely smokes, but still), any of the rarer tracks ("Hero Blues", "Girl of the North Country", "I Don't Believe You"), and anything the audience might not be extremely familiar with (which wasn't much, if the appreciative reaction to the one-time-only performance of "As I Went Out One Morning" is any indication) was simply chucked over the wayside, in favor of a Greatest Hits performance that smacks of the cynicism that would preclude any number of tours after this that owed a debt to Tour '74 in so many different ways. And that, in a sense, is Dylan's biggest crime on this tour - unsure of himself and of his audience's capacity to embrace him if he didn't just come out and act as a jukebox wearing sunglasses every night, he forsook the adventurous side that had made him so famous to begin with (and which he'd more or less embrace in his older years, as his NET setlists tend to bear out, one too many performances of "Nettie Moore" nonwithstanding).

And that's what makes the legacy of Tour '74 so muddled - that increasing retreat into the protective cocoon of his first musical peak, even as the second peak was just around the corner. Basically everything good and bad about the whole tour - the massive applause line of "It's Alright Ma", proof positive of Dylan's continued relevance and cheap crowd pop all in one; the revelatory rarities like "Fourth Time Around" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind"; the trench-soldiers-going-over-the-top bravado of BTF's version of "Like A Rolling Stone"; and the weary realization that, nope, we never will get to hear this ensemble doing "Going, Going, Gone" or "Tonight I'm Staying Here With You" or even an unusual one like "Queen Jane Approximately" - springs from that fact, that even with all the money banked and the crowds uniformly adoring, Dylan and The Band voluntarily chained themselves to the past in order to not have to deal with their uncertain futures (The Band were past their commercial and creative peak, Dylan you all know about). But that doesn't mean that they didn't make some magic on stage, or that the '74 rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" doesn't have some fire and spark to help offset the original's weary emotion, or that their versions of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" aren't essential (in the latter's case, I'd say more so than the original). Tour '74, for all its backward-looking issues, still has importance musically, and ultimately career-wise as well, as the Dylan that emerged from 1974 was vastly different from the one that entered it. As we shall soon find out.
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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bob Dylan Song #172: Wedding Song

And so we come to the close of Planet Waves with one of the most interesting songs of Dylan's career, a song that puts a lot of its potential meaning directly in the title (why wouldn't you immediately think of Dylan's own marriage upon hearing that title?) and also is imbued with a whole different meaning after Dylan's next album came out ("wow, what the hell happened between then and now?"). On top of that, this is one of the precious few Dylan songs since Bringing It All Back Home that is purely acoustic, and from the sounds of things Dylan recorded it more or less in the same slapdash style as he did his acoustic albums (you can hear Dylan's hand slapping against the guitar, or perhaps the guitar hitting the buttons on his shirt, near the end; Dylan plays the third line of every verse differently, to both the song's benefit and detriment; and there are definitely moments where Dylan seems to be searching for words). It's kind of an odd way to end an album that's been billed as a collaborative effort, and yet a fitting way to end an album that has given so much of its lyrical content to love and devotion and such things. In short, it's kind of what you'd expect from our man Bob - a mass of contradictions that still manages to add up to the image we have of him as a whole.

So what the heck are we, the listening public, to make of this song? There are moments that stray towards legitimately uncomfortable emotional nakedness (that first verse, in particular), or perhaps it just seems that way because we're not used to that sort of thing from Bob; there are also moments as cloaked in poetic mystery as his Electric Trilogy mindbenders (I'm thinking of that "courtyard of the jester" bit). Dylan talks about his children out of nowhere - although he only mentions three, presumably because the extra syllable would've thrown the entire line out of whack - and he also plays at elements of possible discord in his relationship ("we can't regain what went down in the flood" - I've often wondered if this is where the title of Before the Flood came from) that don't quite fit in with the rest of the song's always-and-forever beatitudes. He makes a mention at the end about how he "love(s) you more than ever, now that the past is gone", which can't help but spark any number of theories about what exactly he's getting on about. So, just like most of Bob's songs, then!

To get back to the most obvious point - and, I suppose, the one most people would expect to be talked about in this post - "Wedding Song" has gained an extra and probably unwanted level to its fame because of what came afterwards. I would agree that it seems like something of a disconnect between some of the more over-the-top platitudes Bob's slinging here (who would expect him to sing about ANYBODY "sav(ing) my life" in an unironic manner?) and something along the lines of "oh, I know where I can find you/in somebody's room" (not to mention his improvised bit of business on the Hard Rain version of "Idiot Wind", which is just plain mean-spirited and not even particularly creative), and that "Wedding Song" takes on another plateau of significance because of that disconnect. Hell, maybe it makes sense from the most purely emotional position - I loved you this much, but you were a bitch, so now I hate you this much. QED.

Or maybe we can explore that position a little bit more. The thing about Blood on the Tracks (oh, how long I've studiously avoided trying to discuss that album, only to have to buckle and show some of my cards with just one damn song to go) that makes it a) such a masterpiece and b) a cut above every other breakup album that has ever been recorded is the fact that it shows so many different shades of what it means to be in love and have that love collapse, sometimes even in the same song. "You're A Big Girl Now", which contains the line about adultery (real or accused), also contains one of the most fascinating lines in Dylan's entire catalog, where he sings "I can change, I swear/See what you can do", both revealing naked heartache and desire for reconciliation and taking a bitter semi-mocking jab in practically the same breath. "Idiot Wind", for all its rage and bile, turns the "you're an idiot, babe" of the choruses to "we are idiots, babe" at the very end, Bob ultimately as self-aware as we all know he is. And I argue that an album with that much shading and complexity, one that has so many angles of that most unknowable of the human condition examined to a T, can only come from a love as strong and deep as the one that Bob must have had with his wife. Suze Rotolo (RIP, by the way) got some great songs. Sara Lowndes got a hell of a great album.

It has been said, I'm sure (as in, I'm quite certain somebody said it once, but can't for the life of me remember who) that "Wedding Song" was Dylan's last Hail Mary shot at reconciliation with his wife, a way to try and show her that he still deeply cared for her and their strained marriage was still worth saving. That makes just as much sense as anything else - after all, Dylan REALLY lays it in thick on some of those verses, doesn't he? But I would think that, even if that were true and Dylan simply wrote the song on the way to the studio because he wanted to end his album with a blown kiss of a song to his wife, that viewpoint might diminish the very thing that the theory is trying to prop up - i.e., Dylan's love of his wife, even at the very end of their relationship. I would think that the following album, full of bittersweet emotion, sadness, anger, and even the occasional ray of hope peeking through the black clouds, should tell that story well enough. "Wedding Song" might very well have been a last-gasp declaration of love, but I'd hope that enough time has passed that it can just be seen as a declaration of love.

And that, after far too long of a hiatus in between songs, is the end of Planet Waves! Thank you all for your support and your readership, even with the long arid stretches between content on this site. The next post will be my take on Tour '74, and then we get into what is (in my opinion) the pinnacle of Bob Dylan's career, and a pretty good candidate for the pinnacle of popular music as a whole. Hope you keep reading!
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Bob Dylan Song #171: Never Say Goodbye

Hello again.

So I'm not really sure if I've talked about this at any point during the writing of this blog, but one of the issues that I was going to have with this project was with songs just like this one. As I hope I've ably demonstrated so far, there was never going to be much of a problem with coming up with things to talk about for the major songs - even if it meant that I'd have to trod over some ground that has been trod over (and trod over, and trod over, and trod over...) in order to create a post of any substance, there were still some interesting channels to explore in doing so, and it was always fun to look at some of Bob's classics in ways that perhaps the more entrenched Dylan writers might not. But it's songs like this one - a pleasant sorbet of a track, a palate-cleanser leading in to the epic closer that is "Wedding Song", and a way for The Band to do their thing while Dylan sings a charming but ultimately forgettable song about love that charmingly but ultimately forgettably serves as part of the album's overall aesthetic, Robertson's processed guitar tone and all - in which I find myself truly struggling to come up with something to talk about (so much so that it's taken me six months - well, okay, maybe not). There's an interesting bit about "chang(ing) your last name too" (so it's not about his wife, then?), and a lovely opening verse where Dylan seems to be singing about Minnesota, but there isn't much else to distinguish the song other than its inherently pretty melody.

I imagine I will get at least a few comments taking me to task for my apparent offhand dismissal of the song (a song that, I need to point out, I do like, if not love or anything), and that would not surprise me one bit. After all, I've written my fair share of posts about songs that some Dylan fans, even fans of much greater magnitude than I (I've only been to THREE shows, and the last one a couple years ago - I would guess a fair number of readers here have me beat on that one) could care less about, and I see absolutely nothing with that, either. I do not expect people to have the same reaction to "Mama, You Been On My Mind" as I do. That's what fandom at a level beyond "casual listener" brings you - any true fan's mix CD of Dylan would surely go down roads the typical Columbia-issued Dylan compilations would not, and they will always be the better for it.

Look, I'm not going to pretend that somehow it's the "Black Diamond Bay"s of Dylan's catalog that make him the revered artist that he is today, and not the "Subterranean Homesick Blues"s, any more than I would suggest that the people that compile the Dylan compilations that seem to crop up every couple of years should put on more album tracks and less hit singles. But what I will suggest is that it's one thing for Dylan to be a REVERED artist, a man who wrote "Tangled Up in Blue", for the love of Pete, and another thing for Dylan to be a LOVED artist, a man whose catalog can continually surprise, bewitch, and thrill even his most ardent diehard fans. And I honestly think that it's the lesser-known songs that give Dylan the real heft and substance to his catalog beyond "hey, Famous Songs!", you know? Come for the hits, stay for the numbers like these, so to speak. The mere fact that there are YouTube covers of "Never Say Goodbye" says all you need to know; inasmuch as recording your own version of this track and posting it for mass consumption says you love this song, the existence of those videos shows a commitment and love that is as meaningful as any other way to show how much Dylan's music affects you.

Which, I suppose, comes back to this blog and how I feel about it. You might not think it from the protracted layoff (for which I can only offer sincere apologies), but this humble little project of mine is how I show my own love and commitment to Bob Dylan's music. And just as much as I find myself struggling to write about certain songs (like this one), there are any number of posts in which there are so many things I could write about that song that I find myself having to whittle down the potential topics to something easily readable and not Moby Dick-length. I suppose that explanation is as much apology as it is explanation, but that's just the way that this sort of deal works. I can very easily imagine the alternate universe in which somebody is currently writing an opus the size of my "Mama" post about "Never Say Goodbye", about how a certain era of their life was defined and shaped by that song, and about how it has greatly affected their life the way that "Mama" has affected mine.And if that universe, and that person, and that person's blog actually does exist, I wish them the best of luck. Oh, and I'd tell them to give "Sign on the Window" another spin - that one's a real peach.
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