Friday, August 17, 2012

Bob Dylan Song #178: Meet Me in the Morning

One thing that I think most everyone would agree on is that there are no weak spots on Blood on the Tracks - every song fits into the mood Dylan wanted to create, within the musical palette he wanted to use, and with the same general lyrical conceits (in this particular case, a crawling twelve-bar blues where the narrator bemoans a woman that "treats [him] so unkind" and has left him begging for a rendezvous that clearly isn't going to happen - so the subject matter of just about every blues song ever, then), so that it feels like not a single second of the album's 51 minutes and 42 seconds are wasted. That being said, there are songs on the album that people would consider highlights, as with any album both classic and dreck, and I would suggest that this song falls on the lower end of the "album highlight" spectrum. This is not me saying that the song is bad, of course; I happen to enjoy the song a good deal, especially the fuzz-tone solo that crops up in the latter half and the way Dylan sings "ship" kind of like he's singing "sheep". I also think that some songs work well to establish the album's aesthetic, and some songs rise above the album's aesthetic to become beloved standards, and this song leans towards the former description. Then again, Larry Herndon wasn't a particularly great hitter, but he had a role to play on the 1984 Detroit Tigers*, and that's one of the greatest baseball teams ever, so there's absolutely nothing wrong with being part of the aesthetic of something great.

* I was going to use the 1927 Yankees as the example here, but screw the Yankees

Another thing worth mentioning is that this song has the honor, if you want to call it that, of being the only song on Blood on the Tracks to feature a full backing band, led by Eric Weissberg of "Dueling Banjos" fame (it is an embarrassment to reveal that it is just now, while typing up this post, that I get why the backing band was called Deliverance; then again, I haven't seen that movie, so there you go). In typical damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead fashion, Dylan put together the initial pass at the album over four days and twenty-two hours, a feat that boggles the mind even attempting to think about it, and Deliverance managed to remain gainfully employed as Dylan's backing band for a grand total of one day and six of those hours, before Dylan fired most of them and cherry-picked a few lucky souls to give him the bare-bones sound we hear on the album. A few of the versions that Deliverance recorded ended up on the Bootleg Series; we'll get to those whenever I finally reach that bridge (sometime in the next 40 years, given my current writing pace). But, for the most part, the versions that Deliverance recorded have been lost to history.

Having written a number of times about the album's aesthetic (sorry, I really enjoy that word), I'd occasionally wondered how people would receive Blood on the Tracks if it had been recorded differently. I don't just mean if the New York version had been released - I mean if Dylan had brought in the Rolling Thunder Revue (which was not yet a glimmer in his mind's eye, but you know what I mean), or if he'd recorded it with The Band, or country-style or New Morning style just to screw with us, or in any sort of recording style other than the early-70s Harvest-like style presented here. This is obviously purely speculation, as there's no way to ever know how a different version of Blood on the Tracks was received, but we've always known (or believed, at least) that the strength of the album lies in the songs, and it really wouldn't matter if Dylan had performed them all with just his guitar accompanying him (although it probably wouldn't be quite as beloved today; Another Side contains some of his greatest songs, but is generally not considered one of his best albums) or if he'd recorded them with the Neil Diamond-esque flashiness of Street Legal (now there's a thought). Nor should it, honestly - if Rumours, or Sea Change, or any other number of breakup albums have taught us, there's no wrong way to lay out your tales of heartbreak on tape, so long as the songs stand up on their own.

And, ultimately, there is a treasure trove of evidence that shows us that the album could have been recorded just about any way short of death metal style and still been considered a masterpiece - by which, of course, I mean his live performances of eight of these songs (funny enough, this song was only performed by Dylan's band with Jack White on vocals, and that damn live performance of "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" is going to turn up sometime, right?) over the last forty years. I've linked to the glorious World of John Hammond performance of "Simple Twist of Fate" before, but I'm also thinking about the RTR solo acoustic performance of "Tangled Up in Blue" (we didn't need THAT close a close-up on Dylan's face, right?), or the gutbucket rock-n-roll muscular versions of "You're A Big Girl Now" from Interstate '88 (still one of Dylan's finest tours), or any of the drawn-out versions of "Tangled", "Simple Twist", and "Shelter" (the first two of which I saw personally) that have been immeasurably strengthened by Larry Campbell (maybe Dylan's best live band guitarist) and his ever-crack touring band,  or most especially the messy churn of Hard Rain's "Shelter from the Storm", which says "fuck this subtlety noise" and shoves Dylan's anger right in our faces via one of his greatest, shoutiest vocal performances and some hilariously amateurish slide guitar (and we thought his piano playing was simplistic). And, in all those performances, all those different recording styles, with all those different players breathing new life into words now nearly 4 decades old, we can still hear the genius of those original lines, and know that Dylan was almost certainly always going to get it right.
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Bob Dylan Song #177: You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

This is one of those songs that just sort of snuck up on me; I remember not being particularly impressed with it the first time I ever listened to me, whereas these days I think of it both as a really fantastic song and an essential part of the album (although I'm still not totally sold on the "Honolulu/Ashtabula" rhyme - but "Honalula" is kinda funny, when you stop to think about it). This is one of those songs that best benefits from hearing it in the context of the album, as a sweet palate-cleanser after all the venom of the previous song and a charming way to close out Side 1 of the album on vinyl (which is how all the cool kids listen to Blood on the Tracks these days, dontcha know). The pastoral lyrics of the song ("crickets talking back and forth in rhyme", "purple clover, Queen Anne's lace") bring to mind some of the sweeter passages of New Morning; indeed, it's not too far a stretch to imagine this song snugly nestled onto the second half of that album, maybe with some vocal gussying-up to help it fit in with the aesthetic. It's also a New York sessions song, and thus carries the intimacy and sparseness those sessions entailed, while providing a different shade of the regret that those sessions also entailed.

It also offers an actual comparison to Arthur Rimbaud, which would have boggled minds if he'd done it back in 1966 but barely passes with a shrug these days (although I have no idea how that was received in 1975, and Rimbaud doesn't quite carry the same cache as in those halcyon days of Blonde on Blonde). What's interesting is that, once he brings to mind absinthe-fueled screaming matches in Brussels, he immediately takes care to distance the relationship he's singing about from Verlaine and Rimbaud's stormy partnership: "but there's no way I can compare/All them scenes to this affair", another affirmation of how much this lost love really means to him. There's enough accusations, vitriol, and pain spread out on the album that it's kind of nice to have a moment this sweet and gentle to cushion all the blows.

What has always stuck with me, when listening to this song, is how the narrator seems to both know exactly what it is that he has and exactly what it is that he's about to lose, which is not often something that happens when you're about to end a relationship. Every verse seems to be about how his previous dalliances had always been disastrous, or "careless", or any other negative appellation you can think of - but aha, here's the exception, here's the one time that something real is happening and a woman has finally touched him in a way no other woman had. And yet there he is, at the close of every verse, singing "you're gonna make me lonesome when you go" with the weary tone of someone that knows at no matter how many times he sings it, it's not going to do one damn bit of good. He even mentions in the final verse how he'll see her everywhere, much the same way we are reminded of someone we've loved in even the most innocuous moments, as a way of saying "well, you might be leaving, but you'll never actually be leaving", a moment of vulnerability in an album awash with moments of vulnerability. It hurts to hear it, but it's a hurt we all know, and kind of comforting in that sense.

And that, of course, is maybe the greatest reason people return again and again to this album - the comfort, cold as it may be, of having our greatest songwriter tell us that which we feel but cannot express. One wishes that he hadn't had to go through that heartache to bring forth such a diamond,  but that's long in the past now. Only the greatness remains. Read more!

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bob Dylan Song #176: Idiot Wind

I don't think this is an original sentiment (though I would be hard pressed to remember who came up with it first), but on an album full of moments where Dylan made the right musical choice (not least of which was his decision to reconfigure the album's sound itself), one of the best right choices he made was to start "Idiot Wind" with his voice, band swooping in behind him, as though the song had already started and we just happened to wander in three or four verses deep. For a song so sweeping and epic in its scope, there's something brilliant about throwing us in to the deep end immediately, wondering what Dylan's on about when he sings about stories being planted in the press, shooting a man named Gray ("wait, somebody's been saying Bob shot a guy?"), until we get to the chorus and we remember that, ah yes, Bob's still angry at a woman and he's letting us know all about it. And then everything falls into place, and we can let ourselves get swept away in the rising, spiteful tide.

"Idiot Wind" is often cited as a favorite on Blood on the Tracks, which I've always found interesting just how much sheer emotion, both angry and regretful, is contained in this song. Clinton Heylin, who I haven't had the opportunity to politely disagree with in some time, states that the original version suffers in comparison to the more barbed New York version because of the lyrical rewrites Dylan underwent in Minnesota, considering the album version "overwrought" and lamenting how it "belies all the underlying sorrow rippling through the original vocal." While I have no particular disagreement with Heylin's opinion about the original vocal (pretty much all the New York versions have underlying sorrow to them; this kind of speaks to the same-y nature of those sessions, which I'll get back to in a moment), I find myself amused that he can consider the album version "overwrought" when the New York version's lyrics read as overstuffed to the point of self-parody (the last two verses specifically feel like Bob wrote them in some sort of fever haze, then looked back at the lyrics the next day and said "wow, I really wrote that, huh?"), and that he can't find any sorrow within the album version (not that there's a lot, but it's there, particularly in the final verse, which I'll also get back to eventually). The album version, in all its confusion and rage and ultimately misguided stab at reconciliation, captures the album's mood in a way that the original version, good though it may be, could not have hoped to accomplish.

And, in the larger sense, is what makes the album succeed so damn spectacularly. What makes Dylan's infamous quote about people relating to all that pain all the funnier, besides how amazingly disingenuous it is, is that it also sidesteps the fact that while the album may be about Bob's pain, it's not just pain that makes its way into the album. Nor could it be, of course - it is the rare breakup that doesn't spark some kind of anger within at least one of the parties, and Bob's very public breaking up is no different. "Idiot Wind" serves as the distillation of all that anger and rage, channeled forth in some of the most cutting lyrics he ever wrote (go back and read the lyrics to the chorus again and marvel at just how ridiculously mean they are - he's telling this "anonymous" woman "you sound like a fucking moron every time you talk, moron"), and delivered in a vocal that wrings every last drop out of those emotions through some of his most infamous vocal tics (how can you not love the way he sings "lightning that might str-IYYYYYYYYYYY-ke?") so that we, the listener, feel everything he felt in his heart when penning this epic screed...twice, even. What's funny is that, to me, he managed to find a perfect balance between his poetic lyrical ability and all that pissed-off righteous fury in the album version, whereas the New York versions tilt way more towards the poetic side than is probably necessary (sorry, Clinton, but the "hound dog bayed behind your trees" is detail this song just didn't need) and the Rolling Thunder Revue versions of 1976, as perfectly perverse a set closer as you could possibly ask for a tour as fraught with peril as that one was, foregoes any measure of sorrow or longing that cuts the acidity and just goes straight for the throat, aided by Bob's most infamous rewrite ("visions of your flaming tongue" - damn, Bob!) and a band that didn't so much go over the edge on that tour as catapult themselves off it with a drunken rictus grin on their faces. No wonder people relate to it - yes, there's rage, but there's not so much rage that you want to put your hands up and slowly back away.

Yet I've always found myself bothered by that final chorus, the one in which Bob switches from "you" to "we", coupling himself in as an idiot as well, in an attempt to find the middle ground he'd so effectively torched in all the previous verses. For me, at least, it's never seemed particularly earned, like one of those movies where the lead character is such an insufferable shit for 95 minutes that when the movie suddenly tries to make you actually like him or her by having them have some sort of realization about what an insufferable shit they are, you don't so much go "wow, I'm so happy he figured out what a terrible human he was!" as you go "nope, I'm not buying this, screw this terrible movie". What's odd to me is that Dylan didn't make his own version of a terrible movie here ( many jokes), but still chose to almost ruin it with a "hey, we're all the same, aren't we?" moment that absolutely didn't need to be there. I mean, you can listen to the entire song and see that Dylan is trying to undercut all the bile that he's spewing forth in the song anyway - no person can be that angry at someone they're ending a marriage with unless they're irredeemable as a person, and I don't think Bob was shooting for "irredeemable person" for the song's erstwhile narrative voice. We listen to the song hearing the anger, relating to the anger, and all the while knowing that the anger is simply there because the hurt is so fresh and at a certain point it will fade away. So why ruin that realization with Dylan putting his version of the rat crawling across the barrier at the end of The Departed in there? Will anybody really hear him going "we are idiots, babe" and then thinking "ohhhhh, he's NOT that mad at her!" I don't know, it's never sat right with me, is all.

I say all this, of course, and I still acknowledge that that quibble is not nearly enough to make me dislike "Idiot Wind", because I also know how that anger works and how it plays with a person's mind. And the song really is amazing in its epic sweep, carrying us through false rumors (about the narrator, about Bob's public persona, about whatever you want it to be about), fortune tellers' visions, the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol (one of my favorite Dylan couplets - just think, it could have been "blowin' every time you move your jaw/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras", which is so very, very clunky), to as frightening a marriage/funeral/I guess it doesn't matter what ceremony you could ever imagine, and finally to a breeze blowing through the letters they wrote each other (the one part of that final chorus I do like). It's not quite the album's emotional center, but it's the album's most necessary moment, where all the piled-up emotion floods out in one powerful, cresting wave, leaving behind nothing but regret, sorrow, and (despite it all) an inkling of hope for what comes next.
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Saturday, July 28, 2012

I finished the California bar exam two days ago...

...and that means EBDS will be returning. Promise. Read more!

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bob Dylan Song #175: You're A Big Girl Now

Author's note: When I said my posting would be more sporadic, this wasn't quite what I had in mind. Let's see if I still know how to do this...

There are still Dylan fans, I'm sure, that still think the all-acoustic New York version of Blood on the Tracks is superior to the released version that everybody knows, and if you asked them why, it would be a song like "You're a Big Girl Now". To New York faithfuls, the Minneapolis version, with its sparse and tasteful arrangement (the acoustic guitar work is a particular standout), manages to serve as a fine song without quite capturing the raw hurt of the New York version, which sounds more like a demo than anything else (maybe not on the level of one of the Bob-and-guitar-only tracks where you can hear the coat buttons scraping the back of his guitar, but close), and benefits all the more for it, like how Nebraska probably would've suffered if Springsteen had given it the full-E Street Band experience. And that rawness is the best way to hear Blood on the Tracks - nearly everything that could undercut Dylan's anger and pain stripped away, leaving us with the greatest bedside confessional album ever recorded. The official album, then, is the Hollywood version (not the Hollywood version supposedly in the works, thankfully), just enough angst sanded away to make the album palatable for the folks back home.

I've never subscribed to that theory, and not just because I greatly prefer hearing fleshed-out band arrangements to Bob and his guitar (not always, but very much so for this album). The main reason I think the released version is so perfect and the New York version is, well, not, is because the released version does not lack for raw hurt, but does not make that the album's focus. My ever-present blog companion Eyolf Olstrem, in  his essay on the album for Dylanchords, sums that feeling up perfectly: " have 10 songs, all quite slow, mostly staying in the emotional range between sadness and bitterness". An album like that can simply wear you out without anything to take you out of that emotional low (even the aforementioned Nebraska, for all its darkness and death, contains "Atlantic City", surely one of the last century's great love songs); there must be a matching high, or at least a low that doesn't feel so low, to keep us from wanting to jump off a bridge. And that's what the released version gives us - epic canvases, sharp pain, wistful nostalgia, bitter insults, and through all of it a weird sense of optimism - that maybe, just maybe, the next album Bob records about a woman won't be so darn sad.

Which brings us back to "You're A Big Girl Now", my sneaky favorite of this album (that's for long-time readers of this blog), and one of the album's strongest compositions. To me, that sparse and tasteful arrangement helps open the song up, releasing some of the acid of the New York original, and offering something more complicated and mature in its stead. That third verse, in particular, captures everything that makes this album so remarkable in six tremendous lines, running the gamut from a longing reminiscing ("what a shame that all we had can't last") to the most heartbreaking thing Dylan ever wrote in his life ("I can change, I swear"), to a sudden and swift turn of the screw that lets out some of that bile ("see what you can do" - at least, that's how I always heard it, as a defiant re-establishing of his emotional armor after letting his guard down for once), ending with a plea for his ex to hopefully get through the heartache, as he has (or says he has). Everything you could ask for out of this kind of album is there - rage, sadness, acceptance, even a sliver of hope for the future.

In an odd way, this song also serves as a throwback to the younger, acoustic-era Dylan, the one that was still writing songs as emotionally bare as "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", without sacrificing the more poetic imagery of something like "Girl of the North Country" or "Boots of Spanish Leather". This is Bob as direct as he'll ever get, going directly for the jugular with his corkscrew metaphor, even invoking the "other man's bed" scenario of "Mama, You Been On My Mind" (only this time, instead of the sighing acceptance of the latter, Dylan offers that thought with an accusatory sneer, even while saying "well, that's how it has to be, I guess" - an emotional complexity as rich as "Mama"'s was), while also imagining himself as a songbird offering his tune for his former lover. You can feel the ties that this song has to Dylan's former broken-heart classics, while also feeling like that decade in between gave him an added maturity necessary to write something like this - I truly believe that 70s Dylan could've written "Tomorrow is a Long Time", while younger Dylan never could have written this. And that's one of the great thrills of listening to your favorite artist - hearing that maturity in his singing and songwriting voice, the accrual of time shaping and melding his words into something that is recognizably the voice of Bob Dylan, while also serving as one of the many voices of Bob Dylan. Read more!

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