Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #70: Visions of Johanna

Most of us are familiar, I assume, with Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's legendary play about two men's comic misadventures waiting for a person that never shows up. There have been a legion of interpretations since the play's release, casting Godot as God Himself, or turning the story into an allegory about the Cold War, all in the vain hopes of trying to pin down meaning onto this most elusive of plays. To me, the interpretation of the play is the simplest - Man's eternal search for the ethereal, for something that we desperately want but always seems just outside of our reach. That's why you've got two characters that always stay in the same place despite constant entreaties to each other to just get up and leave, doing everything possible to stave off "terrible silence", no matter how trivial or slight. Forgive the philosophical nonsense for a second, but that sounds a lot like what we do with our own lives, falling into endless routines and habits in order to avoid the pain of searching for a deeper meaning which, by definition, will always be just outside of our grasp. No wonder Waiting for Godot has been so enduring for so long - we're endlessly fascinated by our own existence, and the play touches on both the tragic and comic sides.

"Visions of Johanna" doesn't quite touch that same level of deeper meaning, but the idea is still the same to me - the narrator, with visions of a woman that never makes a physical appearance throughout the course of the song, finds himself in a world both dully realistic and totally surreal, and yet all that matters are those visions that he sees. And just like Godot, people have been trying to figure out just who Johanna actually is (I kinda hope it's not Joan Baez, not just because I don't think she needs that ego boost, but because the song would lose something if it was just pining for his ex-lover). My personal favorite of those theories is that "Johanna" is related to "Gehenna", a Hebrew word for Hell - and considering that the song's narrator appears to be some kind of purgatory, that might actually make some sense. As for me, much like Godot, I think of Johanna as a basic term for that which we cannot reach, no matter what we do.

What really gets me, after having heard the song X number of times in its electric and acoustic forms, is just how desolate the world of the song feels to me. I mean, Dylan wrote a song called "Desolation Row" that isn't as desolate as the landscape he paints here, in all its urban burned-out glory. To me, that line in the first verse is the key to what Dylan had on his mind - "we sit here stranded/Though we all do our best to deny it". And in the song we see that isolation everywhere we turn, from the lone companion of the song (Louise) who always seems to be keeping her distance, to the useless little boy lost muttering to himself, to that vast museum where infinity goes up on trial (I picture the halls of the Louvre, so famously run through in Band of Outsiders, utterly devoid of any human visitors, only the paintings and the all-encompassing vastness they inhabit), and to the narrator himself, whose only constant companion are those visions of that whom we never, ever get to see. And, in a way, that narrator is us, constantly struggling to find meaning in our lives, rarely ever going so far as to outright admit that we are.

And I know that there are going to be many of you partial to the Live 1966 version, where Dylan bites off his syllables with particular gusto and the acoustic accompaniment throws those lyrics into even sharper relief. But, to me, the studio version is one of his great accomplishments, the perfect melding of one of his greatest lyrics and a musical accompaniment that meshes to it with Superglue-like strength. I still remember one description of "Visions of Johanna"'s finest musical moment being that perfect little guitar lick after the "infinity goes on trial" line, and Robbie Robertson is certainly at his economical best on this song. And a lot of credit needs to be given to the drums/bass rhythm section that so gracefull holds down the track, and Dylan's stinging harmonica at the end of every verse. But, to me, it's the organ (Kooper again?) that really stands out to me, a ghostly apparition that almost acts like Johanna's representative within the song, on the outskirts of the track without really feeling like a part of it the way Robertson's guitar. In fact, a goofup I've always loved serves as example of that organ's separate nature - in the final verse, as Dylan goes into the fourth line of the pre-chorus the organ ramps up like it does before every chorus, only Dylan doesn't go into the chorus and the organ has to go back into ramp-up mode. That moment means as much to me, in its own way, as any lyric in the actual song.

In a funny way, Dylan could very well be talking about himself in "Visions of Johanna"; after all, he talked on and on about how the "thin, wild mercury sound" and how this song was the closest he ever came to capturing what he always heard in his head. Maybe that's what the visions mean to him - not an image of what we mean as humans, but what he meant as a musician and what he strived for in every song that he wrote. And doesn't that seem like something that might preoccupy him every day of his life? Imagine being a man who has written great song after great song all his life, waking up every day knowing that you never really reached what you feel you can reach as a musician, and that no matter how many people love what you've written and sung it just isn't good enough for the inner critic inside yourself. Who knows, maybe Bob still feels that way today. For his sake, I hope not. If Vladimir and Estragon are any indication, that wait can be absolute hell.

Author's note: EBDS is taking a break for the holiday season - "Visions of Johanna" seemed like a good place to close up shop for 2008. I look forward to picking up where I left off in 2009. Thank you all once again for reading and commenting; my big resolution for '09 will to be more of an active commenter, so that it doesn't feel like I'm putting you on an island, but that you're as much a part of this site as I am. Have a great holiday, whichever yours may be, and see you in the New Year! Read more!

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #69: Pledging My Time

Having heard Dylan's numerous shout-outs to the bluesmen that captivated him in his formulative musician years, one can't help but feel a lack of surprise that Dylan would finally get around to the slow, crawling blues style made famous by Elmore James and Muddy Waters. "Pledging My Time" is Dylan's tribute to that loping, shuddering type of blues, his harmonica popping in at every free moment, the band whipping up a tight groove behind him. What the hell, Dylan even appropriated the riff from James' legendary "Dust My Broom" for the song (although he's hardly the first person to ever have done so). It's a remarkably faithful assimilation of this style, and yet it somehow feels like it belongs on this album, like the album's fabric works to turn it into another extension of the mini-universe, instead of a blues song that happens to be a part of the album, if that makes sense.

The first couple times I'd listened to Blonde on Blonde, I couldn't make it the whole way through - the music was just too overwhelming for me to take in all at once, and I hadn't listened to enough music in general, let alone Dylan, to be able to ride that feeling out to the end. So I'd start playing the album, grooving along, and then right around the midway point I'd have to turn it off. Thinking back on it now, I can't properly explain the feeling; there's a little bit of shame to it, but I also find myself bewildered, because it's not like I never liked the album or anything like that. Perhaps it's similar to that psychological feeling of nausea certain people can get around fine art, in which both the remarkable artistic qualities of the work in question, coupled with a massive sense of the history and time mingled into the proper appreciation of that work, causes a strange physical disorientation that can leave patrons utterly confused. It's a weird phenomenon, and a very human one as well - knowing that fine art has the capability to affect us both in soul and in body is pretty cool and a little humbling.

At any rate, because I really liked the album and yet couldn't quite bring myself to finish it (at first), I ended up listening to "Pledging My Time" an inordinate amount of times more than most of the album, and it's grown to be a favorite of mine. I've always loved that slow, grinding rhythm, a rhythm that could be heard in millions of bars in the South and was being exported onto an album that boho hipsters would blaze up to on a Friday night when they'd exhausted their repertoire of Sartre theories. I've always loved that crazed, siren-like harmonica note Dylan blasts out after the third verse, a squeal that almost sounds like some kind of cry for help. And I've loved Dylan's relaxed, sleepy vocals, especially the calmly casual way he delivers those two lines that serve as the chorus (am I the only one that first heard the song and always figured Dylan was supposed to sing "hoping you'll come through" like a more conventional songwriter might? I mean, it doesn't work, but that "too" always seemed so abrupt). The song's almost too damn cool for the album it's on, and that's saying something.

Another thing I love about the song, and that I can appreciate about it now that my musical tastes have matured, is how perfectly placed the song is in the album's context. One thing that can be overlooked in assembling albums is the pacing of the album itself; I mean, it's not really a problem when you're Motorhead and your biggest concern is which balls-out rocker needs to go after the last balls-out rocker, but in general you really do have to worry about where the songs should go, what should kick things off, what should be the closer, and so on. Great albums have their own immaculate logic in the pacing, perfectly designed so that your mood is altered the way it's supposed to be altered, that you're not burned out by too many consecutive rockers or lulled to sleep by too many consecutive ballads, and that your interest is held all the way to the end. And I think Blonde on Blonde has that immaculate pacing, going from the drugged-out grunge of "Rainy Day Women" to the bump-and-grind "Pledging My Time" to the ethereal "Visions of Johanna" to the deceptively gentle "One Of Us Must Know" and so on down the line. A few jumbles in the tracklist could have thrown things off, but Dylan made no wrong steps here.

One last thought about the song: when you get down to it, Dylan is essentially taking a well-worn blues song structure, complete with blues elements like stinging guitar licks and wailing harmonica, and tacking on his own cryptic, off-kilter lyrics (although, when read, the lyrics to "Pledging My Time" are like David Mamet dialogue compared to the rest of the album). We all know that blues songs, while often showing songcraft and artistic flair the equal of any genre, tend to stay in a limited realm of lyrical subjects, generally either about death, hard living, or mean women. So what if Dylan had taken "Pledging My Time" to its natural conclusion, buoyed by his own love of the blues, and recorded an entire blues album with his own songwriting style? Is there any possible way that could have worked? What the hell - there's still time, to be frank. Somebody want to shoot Dylan an e-mail? Read more!

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #68: Rainy Day Women #12 & 35


The more that I listen to my favorite albums, the more I find that they've become part of my waking life, as much as my favorite places to eat or what clothes I wear on a Saturday or what time I choose to exercise (if any). I know this is common to everyone reading this, but it makes sense - we tend to enfold artworks into our lives as we experience them, especially if we experience them more than once, building into them our own memories and personal way of looking at the world, to the point where they are inseparable from our day-to-day existence. And, like anything else that becomes ritual or habit in our lives, we try to find the proper way to compartmentalize our favorite movies/books/albums/etc., determining when it makes the most sense to us to experience them all over again. I wrote about Slint's Spiderland a few months back, and mentioned that it's not an album for a long summer's drive or a makeout session (and if you've heard it, I'm sure you'd agree with that assessment). But it's the perfect album for listening late at night, headphones over ears, so that the album's darkness can properly wash over you. This isn't true of everything - for instance, I can pop on something like Bee Thousand or Power, Corruption, and Lies any old time - but most artworks gain their popularity and the love of their fans as much through their mood and the emotions they elicit as anything else. And that ability to elicit emotion is a very, very personal thing.

I've had Blonde on Blonde as a part of my life for nearly a decade now. This is not meant to be some sort of braggadocio; after all, there are readers here that've had the album as part of their lives since the day it was released, whatever that day might have been. I bring that up because I've listened to it enough times over those years to determine a) what the album means to me, and b) when the proper time for me to listen to the album is. I've heard the album on my POS Discman on a bus ride through Ann Arbor, on a car ride from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, on the train ride from DC to New York I've gushed about, in my dorm room in college, and in my apartment in Fairfax during that glorious 2-year stretch where I lived on my own. And I've determined that the album is one of my personal favorites (at times the personal favorite), and that Blonde on Blonde is as perfect an album to be listened to at night, in the privacy of your own home, as any ever recorded.

That's not to say that you couldn't listen to the album, or even enjoy the album, with the sun shining or out in public or something like that. But when I cue up Blonde on Blonde on my iTunes late at night, there's just something different about those 14 songs, kind of like visiting the Strip in Vegas at night with all the neon blaring compared to visiting in the daytime with the sun washing out all the pretty signs. And, in some way, playing the album at night seems fitting, when you think about Dylan up all those nights, chain-smoking and popping pills, putting the finishing touches on "Pledging My Time" while his band played cards and drank and waited for their leader to emerge from hiding with the latest spewing from his brain in hand. Even if you didn't know that this album was churned out through a series of late nights in Nashville with some of the best studio musicians of the time backing Dylan on one wild song after another, listening to the album almost impresses that on you, like all those late nights managed to seep into the vinyl or CD plastic or whatever and, in turn, slowly enters your bloodstream as you listen to the album. There are some rockers here, to be sure, but the album just feels, for lack of a better word, tired. And I don't mean tired like "old hat", I mean tired like really, truly exhausted.

That leads me into my other point about Blonde on Blonde. For the most part, the albums we consider the greatest of all time could be considered their own little universes, completely in and of themselves. You think of the swooning heartbreak symphonies of Pet Sounds, the baroque chamber pop of Sgt. Pepper, the dark soundscapes of Endtroducing..., or the paranoid desolation of OK Computer, and you think of albums that are perfectly self-contained, where even losing one of the minor songs (say, "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" or "Let's Go Away For Awhile") would cause the whole thing to come tumbling down like a house of cards. And that is exactly how I think of those 14 songs that comprise Blonde on Blonde - Dylan wanted this sucker to be long, to stretch to double-album length, because that's what he heard in his head, and when you actually get that close to what you hear in your head, you want it to go as long as humanly possible. To be honest, it's a little scary thinking about Dylan wired to the gills, songs like "Stuck Inside of Mobile" just bouncing around in his cranium, begging to be released. And judging by the outtakes left behind (most notably "She's Your Lover Now" and "I'll Keep It With Mine", fantastic songs both), the album could have been even longer. But that would've disrupted the universe, and maybe not for the better. Dylan had his vision, and he put it together into something that occasionally defies even critical reason.

There's been a lot of ink spilled over what Dylan would have done had he not broken his neck at the end of 1966, where his career would have gone, both musically and popularly. Behind the Shades makes mention of potential shows at Shea Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl, and we have the hotel tapes of songs like "I Can't Leave Her Behind" to shed lot on the direction Dylan could have taken for the fourth electric album of his career. Of course, we have no idea if those scant song fragments would've become anything major, or even representative of what Dylan would've ended up writing, but they're all we have, and they point to two things: Dylan was still preoccupied with women, and Dylan was moving away from the poetic imagery of the Trilogy to something a little more emotionally direct (although not nearly as direct as John Wesley Harding). And obviously anything I write here is just speculation, but I feel pretty certain that a) Dylan would've become an even bigger star if he'd performed those shows, which could've changed both his career and popular music in incalulable ways, and b) Blonde on Blonde would have essentially ended his descent into the unknown and he would have found a different, much more "normal" direction to go in. Or, you know, he could've succumbed to drugs and gone the Hendrix route into immortality. One never knows with these things.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, in my humble estimation, Blonde on Blonde was always going to be the capper on that period of Dylan's career, and that he was going to move on to newer things no matter what. And that makes the album all the more special, because we were never going to see its equal for a long time, from Dylan or anyone else. To be frank, we still never have seen its equal; a combination of immaculately performed music (much like a football referee, we know the studio guys did a great job because we never notice them - their music is essentially an extension of Dylan's vision, rather than their personal imprint on his songs), staggering lyricism and wordplay, and Dylan's wicked, drugged-out sneer, the blueprint for a billion horrendous Dylan impressions for the past four decades. We enter places so surreal they could only have been created in the mind of a true genius, see visions that are both impossible and entirely of our time, and consistently find ourselves immersed in the music of a man who knows what he wants to do and has the means to actually do it. And we can listen to it again and again, marveling at the tiny world this man has created, a world so well-defined and sharply voiced that it stays with you long after the final note of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". Dylan may never have gotten close to the sound in his head again, but he got close one time, and that one time is enough.


When talking to one Justin Shapiro about what I would do when I reached this album and this particular song, I made a joke that I would attempt to write this entire post without once mentioning the subject of drugs. He laughed and suggested I go for it, because let's be honest - that subject is pretty played out after all this time. Sadly, I would probably do the song a disservice to ignore that particular elephant in the room, no matter how much I might want to personally, so I'll be touching upon that little piece of business after all. Sorry, Justin.

I think you can infer from my tone that I don't actually want to touch upon this piece of business, and I imagine that many of you could hardly blame me. When Dylan had played "Romance in Durango" on stage for the first time in nearly 3 decades, I noted that it was probably better that Dylan had pulled it out at the intimate Brixton Academy (along with "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread", another super-rarity) instead of the arena shows he'd just played recently because the big arena crowds probably would've been less excited to hear an honest to goodness from the vault song than to scream "EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!" at the proper time. And, as our good friend Wikipedia has rightly noted, audiences do tend to yell that out when he plays the song, because tee hee, pot! Who doesn't like a good weed reference?

Now, look, I'm not going to suggest that there isn't humor to be mined from drug use, and even in some cases from drug abuse. But let's be honest here - very rarely can you find examples of drug humor that is both highbrow and actually anything original. You're much more likely to get references to how marijuana makes you lazy, gives you the munchies, and gives you the giggles, and who among us didn't already know that and already had a chuckle or two about those salient facts? There's a riff that David Cross did in his funnier days (before he thought just being angry about shit was a substitute for being funny about shit that made him angry) about High Times and how goofy and stupid the whole magazine concept is, and that's sort of a microcosm about what drug humor tends to be - this weird "them vs us" attitude where pot smokers deify a plant, for Pete's sake, and make out like they're in some kind of crazy secret society where nobody understands their culture, maaaaan. Never mind the fact that pot (and drugs in general) have become part of the mainstream and that there is nothing the least bit sexy or mystical about it anymore. We're sticking it to The Man, man!

And it's things like that that can trivialize something like "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35", a song that has been unfairly called "one big pot joke" in part by people that like to pretend that it actually IS one big pot joke. The problem with pot and drug jokes are because they're so prevalent in our society, people immediately make the assumption that because there's a potential reference to drugs in something, that must be what that thing is entirely about. You don't even have to know the Bible verse Heylin makes mention of to know that "stoned" is being used in a manner other than toking a doobie, and one can be sure that Dylan felt that way as well. I'm not suggesting that Dylan didn't at least think about how "everybody must get stoned" could've been taken with a nod and a smile, but that the song could just as easily been yet another shot at the folk establishment (if you want to stretch for it), or the sentiment that was rising amongst the youth that the establishment was out to get them and not let them live the way they want to, or just a plain old statement of fact that, at some point, all of us will be accountable for something or other in our lives. That gives the song a bit more resonance, I would say.

Then again, there is that pesky Bible verse Heylin quoted, and given that Bob's always had a familiarity with the Bible that rivals any Christian musician, I'd say that Proverbs 27:15 definitely plays a part in the song. We all know what kinds of songs about women Dylan was writing at that time, and it wouldn't be outside Dylan's capacity to write an extended metaphor, one which mixes in elements of drug humor and elements of the counterestablishment just to say what horrible shrews those harridans are (maybe he got his ideas from this website - ladies, pay attention!). Of course, it also wouldn't be outside his capacity to write something serious as I'd just described and use that Bible verse as his jumping-off point and a wink to the more well-read cats in his audience. I will say that I have a problem with the way Heylin chose to impart this information upon the masses, both in his smug snarkiness and in his apparent conviction that of course Bob had the Bible verse in mind and any references to the filthy demon weed is all in the imagination of you dirty, filthy hippies. I may not like drug humor all that much, but you'd have to do some real mental gymnastics to assume Bob didn't have drugs at least a little bit in mind.

And even a cursory listen to the song really ought to remove any doubt that Dylan at least had some drug humor in mind, even if he hadn't been stoned to the gills (which, apparently, he was). The entire recording sounds like a laid-back party, with an audience howling and yelling in the background (at one point causing Dylan to laugh on-mic, at another faintly shouting "fuck yeah!", whether or not in reference to America I cannot ascertain), the infamous Salvation Army brass band blaring away, and Dylan's harmonica squealing during the instrumental breaks with a flair that was distinctly absent in his acoustic work. Maybe that was meant to confuse the issue, or maybe Dylan just knew that the casualness of the arrangement warranted a bunch of dudes screaming like hopped-up frat boys while the band let loose behind him and a huge snare drum helped keep time. Whichever way Dylan was thinking, it worked in spades, and helped give Dylan one of his biggest commercial hits and most enduring songs.

I suppose I will return to this theme time and time again in this blog, but what gives this song so much staying power is that it can mean so many different things to so many different people. The casual Dylan fans hear a fun song, can shout along at "everybody must get stoned!", and laugh at every time Dylan has himself a chuckle, proof of just how much fun it must have been in the studio that night. The more intellectual amongst us can dissect the meaning of the lyrics, debate just what that Bible quote as to do with anything, and decide whether or not the song is actually even meaner towards women than "Just Like A Woman". And then, for those that have never heard the song before, they can listen to an honest to God masterpiece of a song, and the opener to an album far beyond the wildest edges of their imagination.
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #67: Desolation Row

In my senior year of high school, I shared a class with my Dylan-loving friend (yes, the same friend whose life I apparently ruined in the "LARS" entry), a class on art history. This dovetailed nicely with both of our interests, as we were/are both huge art fans. I tend to run more towards modern art, in all its thought-provoking, silly, and occasionally frightening forms, while her tastes run more towards guys like Goya and Gauguin. At any rate, one of the assignments for that class was to tape an oral presentation matching a piece of art to a piece of music, in terms of how the tones and themes match up with each other. All I can remember about my choices was that I picked Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase No.2", but the song I'd paired with it escapes my memory. However, I still perfectly remember the choice that my friend made: Vincent Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters", and "Desolation Row".

I remember when she played me her presentation, and being blown away - I mean, they really fit well together. For those that have never seen "The Potato Eaters", it's one of Van Gogh's first major paintings and not what you'd expect from anybody who's seen "Starry Night" or one of his more famous paintings. Far from the kaleidoscopically bright works we all know and love, "The Potato Eaters" is a dour affair, all browns and greens, depicting a traditional Dutch scene of peasants having a meal of potatoes. Van Gogh stated that he used uglier models in order to keep things as realistic as possible, and he succeeded in spades - the lumpen and downcast faces hammer home the weariness Van Gogh wanted to convey. You can see flashes of his later genius in the painting, but in this case the emotion comes less of the famous thick-paint trademarks and more from the poignant subject matter.

This will probably sound hack and I'm cringing writing it, but here goes: you could probably see a scene like that in the world Dylan created in "Desolation Row". This is the only acoustic song on the album, and it's a damn good thing as well - not only would the song not have worked with the aesthetic the rest of the album created, but the two acoustics working together help set the mood for the song, a combination of dreamlike and world-weary. And that mood perfectly matches the mood of the painting, where the peasants sit by candlelight, their gnarled hands and dark eyes haunting us long after we're done looking at the tableau. And all throughout "Desolation Row" are images of heartache and woe, of once-famous violin players sniffing drainpipes, famous poets duking it out on the Titanic, and Hamlet's Ophelia romanticizing her own death (not to mention the song's title, itself - it's not like the song's called "Sunshine and Lollipops Row"). Dylan noted in 1965 that "Desolation Row" was somewhere in Mexico, which actually might make sense; it ties in to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", like the first song is an episode from Desolation Row that sets us up for the grand finale.

Or maybe not. I'm a big fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen*, and to me there's something kind of perfect about the fact that a quote from "Desolation Row" (the "all the agents and the superhuman crew" - a perfect quote for the story) is used in the story, along with Nietzsche's famous "And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you". I wouldn't go so far as to call "Desolation Row" an abyss; there's so much to the song and its staggering wordplay that it's kind of like gazing into a Bosch painting or "The Waste Land" (supposedly an influence on "Desolation Row", although "Desolation Row" stays within a traditional lyrical structure, instead of tearing it apart like "The Waste Land" does). But "Desolation Row", like so many great Dylan songs, acts like a Rorschach test for the prejudices and intellectual theories that the listener wants to bring to the table. You see literary influence? There it is. Or do you see a big jumble of words? That's just as correct. Maybe you see Dylan's reaction to what he perceived as a cultural wasteland, or a nightmarish carnival vision he had one day when he couldn't sleep. All of that is in there, waiting to be found by those that want to look.

And by that same token, the flipside of the Nietzsche quote is just as true. What you take out of "Desolation Row", one of Dylan's most challenging songs from a lyrical standpoint, says a lot about what you feel about Dylan, and specifically about his most famous period of songwriting. I take it for granted that anybody that's a fan of his will most likely enjoy the song, so we'll leave that aside. But you can still see different sides of Dylan in this song - the poet, the storyteller, the visionary, the drug addict, a man in love with the English language, a man bound by no sense of pretentiousness (I mean, honestly, you could make a case for calling this song "pretentious" if you so choose), or just a man who knows how to write a good tune. And it's not an accident which side you see in the song, because that's the side you want to see. Dylan was all of these things, and he made no bones about that fact, even when reporters or critics or his audience wanted to pigeonhole him into one little box to make things easier for them. Nothing in the real world is easy, and nothing that really matters can be defined in one solitary way. If that were true, the world would be a lot less interesting than it actually is.

When you get down to it, "Desolation Row"'s greatness lies both in those majestic lyrics, lyrics that have teased generations of listeners, and in the many faces that those lyrics wear. We all can agree that Dylan's disconnected phrases, strung together the way he did, create something full of sadness and gloom, and yet never fail to be stunning or emotionally powerful. And yet, for many of us, that is where the agreement ends. Many songs are cut-and-dried intellectually and emotionally, even the great ones, and there are precious few that can reflect in different ways when you take the time to shine some light on them. "Desolation Row", the finale to one of Dylan's very best albums, is one of those songs. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to it again - I'm just this close to figuring what all that moaning Romeo business is all about.

Thank you all so much for reading! We've come to the end of the line on Highway 61 Revisited, and in the next post I'll take the plunge into the wonderful and frightening world of Blonde on Blonde. Join me, won't you? Read more!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #66: Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

When I was writing for Treble Magazine (go check it out - music reviews done right!), I had the pleasure of contributing to their Top Albums of the 1990s list, both through casting a ballot and writing up mini-reviews of some of the albums that made the final list. One of them was the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head, an absolutely fantastic album that basically reinvented the group's career. And, as I noted in the review, my very first taste of Bob Dylan came from that one little snippet from "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", inserted with casual, winking glee for the hipsters who would appreciate the reference (and only for $700, bargained down from 2 grand - quite a bargain!). Back then, of course, my 13-year old self was just wondering what the hell this guy with the weird voice was doing being slammed onto the last verse of the song that came before "So Whatcha Want". How times change, eh?

One reason, as I noted way back in this blog, that I love sample-driven music so much is that the samples can work as a roadmap to new bands or songs I'd never considered listening to before. In a way, that makes people like Girl Talk all the more valuable - how many kids younger than us would have ever thought to hear "In A Big Country" before it was matched up with "Whoomp! There It Is" (and it works, too)? For that matter, how many people my age that aren't musicphiles would have thought to give that 80s one-hit wonder a shot? In a funny way, that makes that sort of music both aurally pleasing AND educational, as anybody with Google and an iTunes account (or, ahem, other ways of procuring music) can play connect-the-dots and immerse themselves in music they might never have been exposed to. And that's really the only way you can keep your music fandom viable; unless you can expand your horizons, you're doomed to staying in the same box, and that's no fun.

So it wasn't for a few more years until I actually heard "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" properly, and I've loved it ever since. There's so much about the song that just grabs me - the way the two pianos and guitar beautifully mesh together in the intro, Dylan's throaty vocals, the harmonica coming in perfectly before the final verse, and (it has to be said) that brilliant final line. Dylan's vocals always work for me because of just how casual they sound, as though he has a bet to see how poker-faced he can stay while singing about some crazy shit. Granted, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" might be the most straightforward song lyrically on the album, but there's still a cornucopia of wild images to be found, like Sweet Melinda stealing your voice or the white-faced Angel being nabbed by the police. And Dylan never gives you the impression that these images are supposed to be wild or out there compared to normal pop songs. That might be interpreted as distance, but I like to think of it as Dylan allowing the words to speak for themselves, like a director that knows he has a great screenplay and lets the words carry the film.

It hadn't occurred to me until I started pondering what to write about for this post, but "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" reminds me a little bit of Kerouac's On The Road, a book that most of us are probably very familiar with. In fact, the lyrics of this song could serve as one of the episodes of the novel, with Sal Paradise being caught up in Mexico amongst thieves, prostitutes, and all the wine he can drink, and finally saying "screw it" and heading back to NYC to his wife and his small apartment (with, presumably, the massive roll of paper that served as the book's scroll still taking up space). And yes, the song's lyrics don't have the same tripping-over-themselves feel of Kerouac's writing style, nor is there a Neal Cassidy hanging around to make things even wackier. But there's a lot that feels the same, like the world-weariness of the narrator travelling through a world beyond his grasp, and seeming trivialities that manage to feel epic at the same time - I mean, one verse is basically about an extradition snatch-and-grab, and yet Dylan turns it into something remarkable. Doesn't that sound like Kerouac turning a bunch of goofuses slumming around Denver into poetic genius?

I try not to wonder too much about where Dylan's lyrics come from (at least if there's not pat explanation like, say, the one for "To Ramona), because that game will simply lead you down a rabbit hole with no bottom to it. But with "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", it's hard not to ask yourself where he got the idea for this tale of woe and heartache in Juarez, Mexico. What the hell, maybe he was writing yet another song about the folk movement and how terrible it was being stuck there - beautiful women steal your voice! Don't go putting on any airs, it's all serious business here! The authorities picked up an Angel and now he looks like a ghost! And now I'm going back to New York (the hipster part, not the folkie part), because doggone it, I've had enough!

You know what? I kind of like the Kerouac comparison better. It's nicer to have a song that tells a tale, no matter how self-contained it may be, than serve as a metaphor we've heard more than enough times. I hope Dylan felt the same way, too. Read more!

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #65: Highway 61 Revisited

"Highway 61 Revisited" has the distinction of being, along with "From A Buick 6", one of the two songs I most associate with what we consider to be "rock" - i.e., a fast tempo song played with electric instruments. One could, I suppose, throw "Tombstone Blues" in there, but that song just feels apart from the other two, in a way; it could be that the lyrics are so out there, or that it strikes a different nerve. But, to me, the two most "rock" songs are the two I mentioned, leaving a collection of mid-tempo songs that range from "stately" to "intimate" to, in "LARS"'s case, "mind-blowing". And therein, at least to me again, lies a lot of the album's appeal.

I've taken some stick from my friends, in the past, for what they consider to be my "wussy-ish" (for lack of a better phrase) musical taste, as exemplified by the contents of my iPod. And I freely admit that my tastes tend to run towards slower music, especially when it comes to the rock genre. There are some exceptions (for instance, I love Metallica's "One", in all its explosive/overwhelming/kinda pretentious glory), but it's safe to say that you're going to find more Neil Young or Smiths than Guns 'n Roses or Hives. That's just the way my brain's wired, I guess.

And yet I think there's something to this. If you go on the general consensus of what would be considered the greatest albums of all time, by any range of people you could so choose, I would guess that the majority of them would something akin to Highway 61 Revisited - i.e. a couple faster songs mixed in with tunes that may have more to do with rock than anything else, but may not actually rock per se in the traditional sense. Think about it - Closer, or Sgt. Pepper, or OK Computer; those are just a few examples, and I'm sure you could think of more. Even the two albums generally considered to be the best in the punk genre, Never Mind The Bollocks and London Calling*, eschew the blazing speed we normally associate with punk for songs with more varied tempos - hell, nothing on Never Mind The Bollocks is as fast as just about any song from the Ramones' debut!

I wonder why that is - that we tend to think of the greatest albums of all time as albums that have more measured tempos to the music. Maybe it's just a quirk of fate. Or perhaps it's because we're trained to think of mid-tempo arrangements as more mature, maybe even more intelligent, in contrast to the (by comparison) animal savagery of fast tempos and 50's-style rock arrangements. Or maybe it's because we associate songs with more measured paces with songs like "Like A Rolling Stone", or like "Tonight's The Night", and with songs that make you think and appeal to more than just your hips or your, um, bathing suit area. And I like to think that if that's true, that Bob Dylan, by virtue of an album like Highway 61 Revisited that changed the rules and made us think differently about what rock actually could or even had to be, had something to do with that shift in how we perceive rock music, and music in general. Another laurel in his crown, so to speak.

It helps that "Highway 61 Revisited" is a fine example of that shift, as an up-tempo song that has thought-provoking lyrics attached to it. Backed by a powerful backbeat that's actually somewhat reminiscent of the Rolling Thunder Revue's revamp of "Hard Rain", the song gallops from verse to verse with a palpable energy, aided in some small way by that "police siren" (aka whistle) played at just the right moment. Dylan's lyrics, lyrics that I consider amongst my personal favorites of his, leap from incident to incident with dizzying speed - one second you're talking to Louis the XVIth (or some such king named Louie), the next you're trying to create the next world war. And yet, at the end of every verse, the answer to any question you might have is right there - Highway 61. Anything you need, anything you want, your heart's greatest or smallest desire is right there. I'm sure there's something to be profound to say about that, and I'm also sure I'm not the man to say it. I will say how it's funny that human nature tends to mirror itself; we come from different backgrounds and environments, and yet so many times we tell stories and have experiences that are similar to so many others. That's why art can have such emotional power - no matter who we are, somebody's written/performed/filmed something about us. How great, and how staggering, is that?

One final note about this song - any time I feel the need to defend the 1974 tour (and I will, just you wait), the "Highway 61 Revisited" from this tour, and specifically from Before the Flood, would be my Exhibit A. I know it replaced "Something There Is About You", an underrated tune on an overlooked album, but adding this song was a stroke of genius, since the song fits so well into the aesthetic of a tour based on raw power, even in the acoustic sets. In the hands of the Band and '74 Dylan, the song feels even more vital and alive, brimming with kinetic energy, Robbie Robertson's ferocious guitar licks, synth lines from Garth Hudson that actually sound really cool as opposed to just occasionally goofy, Levon Helm's razor-sharp drumming, and Dylan roaring out the lyrics with lung-tearing volume. No wonder it was the b-side to the BTF version of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" - two better representations of that crazy, much-debated tour are harder to find.

* for the record, I think Wire's Pink Flag, an album with a great deal of fast "punkier" songs, is better than both of them, but that's neither here nor there Read more!

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #64: Queen Jane Approximately

The more that I listen to Highway 61 Revisited, the more that I find myself being drawn to Dylan's piano playing throughout the album - obviously, I'm bringing it up here because his piano plays a large part in the musical makeup of "Queen Jane Approximately", lending it a stately air to match the (to coin a phrase) vicious formality of the lyrics of the song. Dylan's playing on this song is a joy to behold - it serves as a glorious, mellifluous counterpoint to the more static organ being played and the forceful electric guitar strokes, sprucing up a song that could otherwise have faded into the album's background, so to speak. As I listen to the song right now, two thoughts spring to mind. The first is "why was Dylan's piano playing so hamfisted on those later NET shows, when he clearly can play better than that?" The second is a bit more relevant - Dylan's piano, in a way, helps explain why Highway 61 Revisited was such a great leap forward from its predecessor, and such an extraordinary album.

Of course, a lot of the reasons why this album is superior to BIABH stems from the songwriting - nothing on that album matches "Like A Rolling Stone", and the highlights here are every bit the equal of, say, "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Maggie's Farm". But another reason for that jump in quality is that, when it comes to that ethereal quality known as "album cohesion", Highway 61 Revisited has the advantage, and it's got it in spades. Part of that stems from being a full electric album, as opposed to the half and half aesthetic of its predecessor. But a much larger part, in my mind, springs from the fact that Dylan's songs, by virtue of both a lyrical and musical style that has been honed to perfection, sound more together here, like somehow their strength would be sapped if removed from the context of the album ("Like A Rolling Stone" being the obvious exception). This would be taken to its logical extreme on Blonde on Blonde, an album that might as well be a black hole (in a good way), but here the balance is perfectly struck, from beginning to end.

And Dylan's piano, given more emphasis here than on the last album, is an example of that sea change, in which the more rambunctious rockers have given way to something more adult, more mature, and yet more adventurous and exciting. That piano is everywhere, always mixed so that you can feel its presence, however Dylan chose to deploy it in the song in question. Sometimes the piano is riding shotgun to the song, like its role as counterpoint to Al Kooper's legendary organ riffs in "Like A Rolling Stone". Other times it gets more of a center stage, as when it kicks off and practically solos its way through "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues". But that piano pops up practically everywhere, and it lends the songs a gravity and weightiness that was missing from the previous album. That piano plays into the album's feel, and Dylan, to his credit, must have sensed that when recording the songs and pressed for more of a role for his main instrument of choice. It's little hunches like that that can take an album up another level.

So I used the phrase "vicious formality" earlier to describe the song's lyrics, and that phrase ties into just how adult and mature this album seems to be. Somewhat akin to "Like A Rolling Stone", "Queen Jane Approximately" features a narrator singing directly to a woman (although not as directly as "Positively 4th Street"), telling her that inevitably things will get hard for her (in particular, the second verse, with roses not smelling so sweet and her children starting to hate her guts), and asking/hoping that she will come to him when this occurs. Much like the aforementioned songs, as well as a few songs to come, the song's narrator does this with something of a sneer on his face - there's never any "if"s in the song, only "when"s, as though the crumbling of her world around her is an inevitability that somehow he can see but she can't. People like that tend to be a bit unpleasant, and that's where the viciousness comes in. And yet the narrator never outright comes off like an asshole, or says "it's all your fault, you b-word" or points fingers - he's merely stating what he feels will happen, like an oracle that doesn't so much see the future as make educated guesses that just happen to be right. That's where the formality comes in.

And that, then, is why I've described this song as "stately", along with the arrangement that allows Dylan's piano to lend its added gravitas. You do not have to look far to see the sympathetic Dylan, or the outright nasty Dylan, or the easily dismissing Dylan - especially not the latter, which plays so much into the legend of mid-60s Dylan. But a song like this, that never actually stands in any of those categories, is much more of a rare bird, and a cool tune to have. In its own way, "Queen Jane Approximately" is a microcosm of the entire album - an artist more comfortable with the style he'd adopted, a band playing to its strengths and creating a lovely backing track, a slower tempo to match the album's more mature viewpoints (I'll talk more about this in the next post), and lyrics that neatly incorporate Dylan's more poetic writing style into songwriting structures, managing to sound both distant and personal, cultivating Dylan's cult of personality while reminding us that, yes, the guy's human - after all, when Queen Jane finds that everything has gone wrong, it's him he wants her to see. Like many of you, I've wondered if Queen Jane was meant to be a real person, and I've always wondered if that person went to see Bob, after things came crashing down, and if she found the relief and comfort she was looking for. Read more!

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #63: Ballad of a Thin Man

Mr. Jones as archetype for those who don't "get it", Mr. Jones as reporter who can't understand Dylan's frenetic writing style, Mr. Jones as Rolling Stone going over the edge, even Mr. Jones as latent homosexual coming to grips with his sexuality - there are songs in the Dylan catalog that court analysis, and then there's "Ballad of a Thin Man", a song that practically cries out for it. We've had forty years of trying to figure out what the sword swallower and the geek with the bone and contact with the lumberjacks are all about, and we'll probably have at least 40 more on top of it. We've even had an entire movie sequence dedicated to it, as Todd Haynes decided to flex his artistic muscles and devote 6 minutes to his own weird daydream-fever amalgamation of what the song means to him. The result is a crazy, overwrought mishmash of conspiracy nonsense, goofy circusy crap, and slightly incongruous footage of Dylan on stage with the Hawks, which somehow manages to double as the worst part of the film (Haynes, in his glee to show off, practically wields symbolism into a bat and smacks us over the head with it) and the best (quite frankly, it's pretty sweet to see Cate Blanchett doing the '66 routine, complete with waving hands at the piano, the huge American flag, and the Hawks blaring away behind him/her in their stylish suits). That's what "Ballad of a Thin Man" tends to inspire - a whole lot of thought, both interesting and way too esoteric.

As you might imagine, this sort of intellectual vomitorium tends to obscure the musical merits of the song, and I'd like to make sure that I touch on that before delving a bit more into meatier issues. I would assume that most of us believe that the 1966 version is the definitive take, with its hammer-of-Thor drumming, Dylan's sneering vocals, and (most famously) Garth Hudson's swirling, whirling organ - you kind of wish Hudson had decided to drag a calliope out on stage, for the full "soundtrack to Freaks" experience. But as great as that version is, it's more or less the natural extension of the album version, which manages to create its own menace and dread from the opening horror-movie piano clanks. To me, the mood of the song is established by that piano, pushed up higher in the mix than on stage with the Hawks, giving the track its shambolic, frightening majesty. And Dylan's crystal-clear vocal, free of the drugged-up slurs of the 66 tour, imbues the words with the foreboding sense of doom they deserve. It's an absolutely fantastic take, with Dylan's great backing band and his impassioned vocals combining to create sheer genius.

Now, when it comes to the song itself, I tend to think that the simplest explanation is the best and Dylan's simply singing about somebody who doesn't understand the new culture assimilating all around him. I touched on this in "My Back Pages", but even that seemed lighthearted in comparison to the screed of "Ballad of a Thin Man". John Lennon nailed it, in my opinion, when he said that Mr. Jones was "suicidal" - why wouldn't you be, when you're confronted with a world that simply makes no sense to you but seems to make sense to everyone else, and when the familiar cultural landmarks of your younger years, the Fitzgeralds of the world, no longer have the same relevance? I mean, sure, there are worse things in life than being behind the times; still, plenty of people tend to retreat into their own generation when they feel like the world's passing them by, which is why you get people that blather about kids on their lawns and saying things were so much better when they were younger and so on. It's that sort of attitude that leads to things like "video games cause violence", a semi-viable argument that gets turned into an absurd straw man simply because it gives people an easy out to blast the seemingly good-for-nothing youth of America. Do we really believe that nonsense?

Earlier this year, HBO's "Costas Now" dedicated an entire show to the changing world of sports media, giving a segment to Internet media and how the blogosphere was helping to reshape the way people thought, communicated, and argued about sports. The highlight (so to speak) was a roundtable discussion about blogs, which turned semi-ugly when noted author Buzz Bissinger used the platform to unleash a profanity-laced invective towards both blogs in general and well-known sports blog Deadspin in particular. Will Leitch, then editor of Deadspin (he took a job writing for New York Magazine a few months after the HBO appearance) was on hand, and he absorbed a great deal of abuse without particularly managing to address or refute any of Bissinger's points (however many there actually were). And while Bissinger did have some valid criticisms about the responsibility blogs have to properly disseminate information and not be bastions of hate, they were obscured by his righteous anger and the simple, painful fact that Bissinger, like so many others in sports journalism, were either unable or unwilling to accept that the Internet (and, by extension, blogs) is where all journalism is moving towards and that print journalism, for all its worth to our society, is slowly fading away. When the world changes, that's one thing; when your livelihood changes, that's something else entirely. You can forgive Bissinger and his ilk for being angry; you can't forgive them for using that anger to hide from reality.

Where I'm going with this is that, eventually, this will happen to nearly every walk of life you can imagine - the world just moves too fast, especially these days, for that not to be the case. And you can either make an attempt to keep up and stay relevant to what's going on around you, or you can retreat into your spine-worn tomes, press your hands to your ears, and shut your eyes to everything spinning away from what you know to be true and real. "Ballad of a Thin Man" captures what it feels like to not understand the zeitgeist, to have a wealth of knowledge that's completely useless in comprehending the changes around you, and to find yourself being left behind on an island as the ocean stretches further and further away. Will Leitch, in his response to the "Costas Now" debacle, wrote a remarkable closing thought: "The future is obvious to anyone even slightly interested in looking. We just stand aside, as he, as they, watch the light shrink, then fade, then vanish." If that doesn't sound like a close relative to "something is happening, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?", then I don't know what does. Read more!

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #62: From A Buick 6

I've had times on this blog where I've questioned some of Dylan's song choices on his albums, where it seems like he placed songs of inferior quality on his albums while casting aside more worthy efforts for reasons only known to himself. Occasionally I will catch some grief for it, because I've missed some sort of significance to the folk/blues traditions Dylan so steeped himself in, or because the song in question has more fans than I could have realized. Ultimately, though, those sorts of debates end up being meaningless, because we're basically arguing over history without any chance of changing it. And, as any of us are entirely aware, Dylan's catalog is essentially a history of his whims, of his instinct as a musician either burning red-hot or waxing ice-cold (i.e. most of the 80s), and of what he felt he could get away with at the time. That knowledge also renders arguments about his song selections moot - if Dylan had wanted "Farewell, Angelina" on one of his albums, he'd have put it on one of his albums, but he didn't, so there.

And then there are the times where seemingly inexplicable song choices make more sense when you know a little bit more about them. Case in point - "From A Buick 6", generally considered the weakest song on Highway 61 Revisited (though, I imagine, more by virtue of degree than anything else), fine song though it may be. One might suggest that "Positively 4th Street" or "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" may have enhanced the album's greatness more if they'd been in cluded, although that's hard to say. But it isn't like "From A Buick 6" takes away from that greatness; the song has its own high-octane appeal. And we all know how Dylan likes to play the bluesman - this is his way of indulging himself, letting loose with a churning three-chord attack, and needing a steam shovel to keep away the dead.

The history of modern blues is, for the most part, a history of newer bluesmen robbing older bluesmen blind, and Dylan has not been immune to the occasional pilfering from his heroes. This song bears the structure of an older song, Sleepy John Estes' "Milk Cow Blues" (not to be confused with another "Milk Cow Blues" - I almost laughed just typing that), although the stinging rock treatment is more or less Dylan's. One thing going for the song is the crack album band, many of whom have blues experience (including Michael Bloomfield, of course), and who contribute to a genuinely exciting backing track. The other is Dylan's infectious enthusiasm; you can tell he's having a grand old time tearing into lines about junkyard angels and sneering "she walks like Bo Diddley and she don't need no crutch". The lyrics aren't particularly anything special - when you get to the "four-ten all loaded with lead", it's almost like Dylan was playing Bluesman Mad-Libs - but Dylan's joy in singing them make them that much better.

It should also be noted that this song has a very interesting place in Dylan's canon - as part of the setlist of Dylan's very first electric shows in 1965, the tentative test-run for the 1966 spectacular. Again, one might wonder why this song got the preferential treatment in those early shows, especially when "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a song that everybody knew at that point, was left on the sidelines for over 20 years. An easy explanation is that Dylan's backing band, which was hastily assembled and not particularly well-rehearsed, would quickly take to the simple blues arrangement, needing only perfunctory rehearsal to nail down the song's ins and outs. After all, once the band picked up momentum, "From A Buick 6" dropped right off the setlist (replaced with "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" - why not go back in the archives and read my thoughts on that song again?), never to be seen again. But I like to think that Dylan, already nervous about his electric performances and the barrage of hostility he received at virtually every tour stop, wanted something familiar to fall back on while he was ironing out the kinks and getting his sea legs on stage. And "From A Buick 6", as classic a blues arrangement as there is, fit the bill quite nicely.

I've made mention any number of times about Dylan's lack of perfection on this site, how in many ways he was just a man with the same emotions as any of us. And even though he was pushing the envelope in any number of ways, reinventing what could and could be done in terms of "rock music", and challenging the notion that popular music couldn't have brains or ingenuity behind it, he still needed comfort in the middle of the hurricane, lest he completely lose his footing and go spinning into the void. A song like "From A Buick 6" was that comfort, and he utilized it both on his first all-electric album and on his first major electric shows. There's something kind of sweet about that, I think. Read more!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #61: It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry

Of all the pleasures that I have in my life, taking the Amtrak from Washington, DC to New York City has to rank pretty high on the list. Express, local, it doesn't matter; few things are as relaxing and soothing as sitting in a train, watching the scenery fly by, being gently swayed by the motion of the train running along the rails. I suspect I'm not alone in this, either. Even in our modern society, there's something romantic about trains, an anachronism that still feels integral to our culture. On top of that, with airline travel becoming less and less pleasant an experience these days, that gives taking the train added cache - no unpleasant security checkpoints with the shoe removal and laptop scanning and all that, or shaky takeoffs and landings, or (at least, for me) the unpleasant feeling of claustrophobia from being in a confined space 20,000 feet in the air. And, speaking just for me, there's something historical about riding in a train, knowing I'm having an experience Americans have had for over a hundred years. I kind of like that.

"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (possibly the best song title Dylan ever came up with) gives me that same relaxing feeling - digging into my trusty satchel of music critic terms, I find that "stately" works best for this tune. Listening to the outtakes of this song, it seems incredible that Dylan would even consider any other arrangement, so perfect is the slow and lovely tempo that he took for the master take. The outtakes, sped up to a more rock-ish BIABH style, has a certain charm, but nothing approaching the final version. Dylan's piano clangs along beautifully, guitar licks punctuate every line with panache, and the bass (the song's hidden attribute) thuds and skronks in the background, holding down the fort while barely being noticed. And Dylan rises to the occasion with a fantastic vocal, adding both a sense of gravitas and a wry twinkle in his singing, absolutely nailing elongated notes like "boss". Highway 61 Revisited might be Dylan's high point as a singer, and this is evidence of that.

Another element of the song that makes it so good are the lyrics, and it's again worth looking at the outtakes to see how the process of reaching a final take can be arduous and yet so worthwhile. Looking at the lyrics to the No Direction Home version, you can see that they're quite different, sometimes only marginally so, but certainly enough that you can spot the differences. And even the smallest differences - switching "sun" and "moon"'s places in the second verse, for instance - have a quantifiable effect; I may be wrong, but somehow it just works better having the moon shining through the trees and the sun coming down over the sea, instead of vice versa. And the glorious "flagging down the Double E's" line is not present in the outtake, replaced by a line about ghost childs and madmen that seems out of place in the master version's gentler tempo (although, perhaps, not as out of place in the faster tempo of the outtakes). It's little things like that that can affect the way you listen to a song, even after the fact.

What is surprising to me, listening to the song today, is how I cannot think of the song with any other tempo than the album version's steady propulsion, which affects how I hear any other versions of the song, outtakes or in concert. Perhaps the closest to the album version is his rendition at the Concert for Bangladesh, with the same measured and low-key feeling, thanks mostly in part to a bare-bones backing group. Otherwise, you have live versions that lean more towards either speeding up the song or slowing down the song, both to deleterious effect. For example, the Rolling Thunder Revue version is a rare example of that group's kitchen-sink mentality actually harming a song, with the massive arrangements that suited "Hard Rain" overwhelming "It Takes A Lot To Laugh", drowning the song in explosive brassiness. And the modern NET versions, slowing the song down to a bluesy crawl, suck out the tune's inherent momentum, that steady propulsion I was talking about. Dylan's always been a great re-interpreter of his own material, but here's a song that doesn't need to be touched.

I wonder, then, what it was that made Dylan abandon his original tack of recording the song fast ("Phantom Engineer", the version of the song played at Newport, was also speeded up) and try the route that led to the master version. Was it just a general dissatisfaction with the quick tempo that marked the original, a realization that the song wasn't working out that way, even though the outtakes are certainly nothing to sneeze at? And if so, how did Dylan reach that exact tempo, effectively changing a rock/blues song into a waltz, and finding the perfect arrangement to fit the lyrics? Questions like that don't really have an answer, I suppose, but they do help to paint a deeper picture of the man as a performing and recording artist. Not everybody can take a good song like "Phantom Engineer" and turn it into a great song. That, as much as simply writing great songs by themselves, is the measure of a musician for the ages.

Author's note: EBDS will be taking a Thanksgiving break until next Monday. Have a happy holiday, and thank you once again for reading my humble little blog. Take care, everyone! Read more!

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #60: Tombstone Blues

"Tombstone Blues" has been a personal favorite of mine for a while, mainly because of how insanely quotable it is. Who among us hasn't tried to find a way to shoehorn "the sun's not yellow, it's chicken" into some sort of conversation in our lives? Okay, maybe not a lot of you, but it's still an awesome lyric, right? Dylan's lyrics, by virtue of their spaced-out druggieness and tendencies to delve into some goddamn weird territory, tend to sound pretty dark; however, the chugging blues arrangement of "Tombstone Blues" prevents that from happening. With his band hurtling forward with freight-train energy, somehow "Death to all those who would whimper and cry" sounds downright chipper. And this is (other than, perhaps, the title track) the most outright energetic track on the album, those guitar licks flashing like bolts of lightning after the chorus. That makes the song stand out; not even "Like A Rolling Stone", full of its majestic brilliance, has quite the same fire.

It's interesting to note that this song was performed in "I'm Not There", but not in the Cate Blanchett section as you might have guessed. Instead, it shows up in the Marcus Carl Franklin Folkie Dylan section, performed with a more laid-back energy by Franklin and Richie Havens. The performance is quite good, distinguished by the fact that Havens' less frenetic interpretation works just as well for the song as Dylan's runaway train album version, but that's not the issue. What interests me is that Todd Haynes chose to have that song in that particular section, performed in a style more linked with the blues, by two African-American musicians. Obviously Haynes made any number of interpretations in his movie, for better or for worse, but this is one that makes a lot of sense.

There's something worth pondering about the fact that Dylan would even choose to write a song to be performed in a blues style (albeit a blues style modified for a rock setting), especially one in which the lyrics have essentially nothing to do with traditional blues and everything to do with the free form writing style Dylan was immersed in at the time. After all, in between the stuff about Jack the Ripper and road maps for the soul and Cecil B. DeMille is a chorus that could've been plucked from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song: "Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes/Daddy's in the alley, he's looking for food/I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues". And "tombstone blues" is just a fancy-schmancy way of talking about death, a subject every bluesman's taken his metaphorical ax to at some point. So you've got a song where every verse is crazier than the next, yet they're all underpinned by a chorus and chord structure familiar to any blues fan. What gives?

Perhaps the answer lies in an earlier outtake of "Tombstone Blues", one that many of you have probably heard or at least heard of - the "Chambers Brothers version". Little-known (at the time) soul group The Chambers Brothers was brought in to record overdub vocals for the song, basically harmonizing over the chorus. Even though this version ended up being scrapped (and, it should be noted, probably for good reason), the outtake still exists, and it's a worthwhile listen, both because the Chambers Brothers do a fine job harmonizing and because it's such an interesting alternate universe moment. The harmonies, in essence, give the song an added dimension that surprisingly works to accentuate the blues aspect of the song - maybe it's not an ideal addition, but it actually gives a clearer suggestion of what Dylan was going for with the song. There's a definite feeling of homage in those vocals, especially in the way the last "blues" is drawn out by the group, and one wonders how the song might have been received with those vocals attached. Would Dylan have earned some plaudits for tipping his hat at the blues, a style he'd paid tribute to on his earlier albums? Or would he have caught more flack for appropriating an ages-old music style in his evil rock metier? That's something worth thinking about.

Much can be made about the album's title and its connection with the blues - Highway 61 is a road that looms large in Americana, and especially in blues history. Dylan, ever a student of Greil Marcus's "old, weird America", surely knew that history, and probably felt a desire to (in some small way) incorporate himself into that America and that remarkable line of history. So you've got a title that makes reference to the famous Highway 61, songs that make reference all throughout the lyrics to well-known American figures, and a track that practically shoehorns Dylan's outsized poetic lyrics (themselves linked to American beat poets and guys like Burroughs and Ginsburg) into an arrangement that has less ties to 60s-style rock than the stuff being cooked up in Mississippi and Alabama way back when. It's hard not to find something cool about that - Dylan, even as he pushed the limits of what modern music could accomplish, still found the time to nod his head to where modern music had come from.

BONUS! With thanks to an anonymous poster on Favtape (sorta like Muxtape, only, you know, not), you can hear the Chambers Brothers version of Tombstone Blues for yourself. You should also give the Chambers' hit "Time Has Come Today" a listen, as it's a pretty good song - now I finally know who sang that song where some guys yell "TIME!" a bunch of, uh, times all throughout. Enjoy!

Favtape - The Chambers Brothers
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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #59: Like A Rolling Stone



As some of the more hipster/younger/young hipster readers amongst you may be aware, venerable indie music website, maker of current taste, and easy target for ridicule Pitchfork Media released their first book this week. Titled The Pitchfork 500, the editors and writers of the website compiled their choices for the best 500 songs of the past 30 years, spanning a wide variety of genres while staying true to their out-of-the-mainstream aesthetic, as well as offering some lists of the best songs of the various subgenres that sprang up during that time. I gave the book a good thumbing over today, and it's about what you'd expect if you've read the website more than once in your life; suffice it to say that fans of Radiohead (like me) and Bowie (not so much) will not be disappointed, as well as anybody that thought that the website is totally speaking to them, maaaaaan, when they told you that the Panda Bear album was actually worth the plastic their CDs were pressed upon. Obviously, I'm being snarky for some yuks - I highly respect the musical opinions of the writers, and it's hard to suggest that any of the songs do not at least warrant discussion over their inclusion (you could quibble over, say, "Bizarre Love Triangle" making it over "True Faith" or "Rebel Without A Pause" over "Night of the Living Baseheads", but if you're actually doing that quibbling, I urge you to stop). The writing is intelligent, passionate, and persuasive, and anybody that picks up the book will, in one small way or another, be educated. You can't really ask for more than that.

All the same, at its very essence The Pitchfork 500 is just another book of lists, only as authoritative as you're willing to believe it is, and yet another example of how obsessed our culture is with shoving things into lists and how easy it is to make a buck off that obsession. As previously noted, anybody even vaguely familiar with Pitchfork will not particularly need to buy this book, unless you need yet another validation that Joy Division was really, really great. You certainly can learn a thing or two - after all, nobody can truthfully say that they know all there is to know about music, least of all me - but, for the most part, you're not learning too much that you already didn't know about indie music if you actually like indie music. The book has a very strong whiff of preaching to the choir, which is disappointing but hardly unpredictable. In the end, it's just like any number of lists about music, from Rolling Stone's to VH1's, only tilted towards those that cringe when they mention Wire and get the response "you mean the show about Baltimore?" Here's a dime - how about eleven more of those?

Now, with that said, I should probably mention here that I love those lists. Can't get enough of them. I've been obsessed with lists since 1997, when venerable British mag Q printed their Top 100 Albums of All Time (with recently released Oasis album and EBDS punching bag Be Here Now lodged in the top 20, a choice that gets funnier the more time passes). Every time a new one comes out, I scurry to my computer to take a look, reveling in the choices I feel are correct (oh look, props for Weezer's Blue Album!) and sneering at choices that I feel are obviously bad (again with Marquee fucking Moon???). Occasionally I'll call up a friend of mine and debate the choices, trying to figure out if they could've squeezed on one more Beatles album, or if the Clash's debut deserves to be ranked higher than London Calling, or some such goofy argument. And those arguments, frankly, are a lot more fun than I let on. We all have our opinions, and if we can't share them, then what is the point of having them at all? Nobody likes debating with themselves.

And, as I've also previously noted, we do give those lists exactly as much authenticity and authority as we're willing to give them. But the thing is that most of us will give those quite a bit of authenticity and authority indeed. Take, for example, that Pitchfork list - every single one of those writers has heard more music than me, knows way more about great bands than I do, and can (obviously) write rings around me when it comes to musical criticism. That tends to make me give their opinions a tad more credit than, say, some cat I talk to on a subway about The Knife. And there have been lists actually compiled by great musicians themselves; forgetting the fact that, when it comes to these sorts of things, musicians are essentially the same as us fans, these are our heroes we're talking about! Why in the world wouldn't I give credence to what Elvis Costello or Arethra Franklin considers to be the best records of all time? What I'm trying to get at is that we give these lists credence, authority, and standing over any list we could create for ourselves precisely because they're not any lists we could create for ourselves. It is something that goes beyond our human propensity to mistrust our own ability to make decisions, and to go along with what others say. And, really, there's nothing wrong with that; so long as you can make opinions on your own, putting stock in the opinions of others is not such a bad thing.

So, with this in mind, it is instructive to notice that many of these lists tend to have the same albums or songs popping up, over and over, with an almost metronomic consistency. This could be pointed out as a failing of these lists; both in the sense that they make the lists boring and predictable, and in the sense that there's an uncomfortable whiff of unoriginality, like every list sort of self-perpetuates the next list in terms of what can and cannot appear, so on and so forth, until a list has no credence because Pet Sounds isn't on it (that's just a random example - I love Pet Sounds). But what I get from that is that there's a tacit knowledge amongst anybody making those lists, even beyond "this has to be on there because people expect it to be there", that anything that has reached that stage of approbation has been deemed worthy, and not because of any random whim. It isn't as though generation after generation made it a rule to forever love Revolver or What's Going On or face eternal damnation; rather, generation after generation was pointed to those albums, told "listen, young man", and learned how incredible they are for themselves. And if there's any list perpetuation, it's only because it's not like one day Remain in Light is going to suddenly not become awesome and everybody will go "oh, I thought this album was great, but it really sucks". Remain in Light will always be awesome. And it deserves to be regarded in that way.

And, in the end, when I think of true classics like Revolver, or "God Only Knows", or, indeed, "Like A Rolling Stone", these are the building blocks of any of these lists, the songs and albums that none of them could ever do without. They add legitimacy to these lists, even while rising above them, simply because of what they are and what they have been since the day of their release. Greatness can never be quantified or placed in a box, but any time we measure greatness, we always find ourselves coming back to the same things, over and over again, no matter who it is drawing up the map or steering the ship. Of the many, many ways that you can try to show how amazing "Like A Rolling Stone" is, that's a measure that is easiest to grasp by any of us, music connoisseur or not - just how many people have said "this is a song that stands amongst the greatest ever written". It may not be the best measure there is, but it's the one we all can understand.


If you quizzed Dylan fans on which three Dylan albums they heard first, I would guess that Highway 61 Revisited would show up in at least 95% of the answers, if not all of them. To put it another way, if Dylan was a major taught in college (as opposed to a class already being taught), Highway 61 Revisited would have to be a 101 course. Not only does it have "Like A Rolling Stone" as its leadoff position, but it also has some of Dylan's most beloved and well-regarded songs from any era, let alone the Electric Trilogy. "Desolation Row", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", "Ballad of a Thin Man", the title track...hell, the album practically serves as its own Greatest Hits. Not to bring up those damn lists again, but there are precious few of those in existence that doesn't feature this album somewhere on it, usually in the top 20 or so. It's an album whose reputation precedes it, and whose reputation is fully and justly deserved.

What is interesting, to me anyway, is that Highway 61 Revisited is both the delivery of the promise shown in Bringing It All Back Home, as well as the immediate dead end of that style of music making. I'll delve into it a little more when I get to Blonde on Blonde, but suffice it to say that that particular album isn't so much a refining of Dylan's electric style as it is a reinventing, to the point where it almost has its own distinct sound, that "thin wild mercury sound" Dylan talked about, that nobody has come close to emulating since. That kind of separates it from the other two albums, as well; while the first two albums are incredible in their own right and even have their own strong internal logic, they don't come close to the internal logic that strings Blonde on Blonde together. I don't know if that makes it the better album, but it definitely makes it a different album.

But that's Blonde on Blonde. Highway 61 Revisited is an album so good even Dylan has been pleased by it, stating that "there's a lot of stuff on there I would listen to". And he should be pleased by it; Dylan took the leap to the next level with this album, both with his control of an electric band and with his songwriting in particular. You would expect an album with only 9 songs to be all killer and no filler, but when only one of the songs could be possibly suggested as weak and the rest range from "very good" to "stone cold classic", you're looking at one of the greatest of all time. What is remarkable is that Dylan did this in only four days. Four days! And there are outtakes as well - Dylan didn't just immediately stumble upon the versions that make up the master takes, but did his share of feeling out and searching for the perfect style. And he was so on fire, so confident in his game, that he found those perfect styles in four short days. His lyricism was more on point - gone were the weird flights of fancy that read better than they sounded on wax, replaced with words that could cut deep emotionally and leave you speechless in awe at the same time. The Tarantula style honed to perfection, in other words. And he still managed to keep them within the conventions of popular music, which is even more staggering if you think about it. To take those wild thoughts and arrange them into verse/chorus/verse/middle eight form? My goodness.

And it isn't just the fact that the songwriting is amazing - Dylan has learned how to properly utilize all the musicians in the studio, as well as giving them moments to shine within the track itself instead of just playing the music they're given. Think about the organ swells throughout "Ballad of a Thin Man", the whistle that mimics a police siren and adds an extra flair to the title track, and the clanging piano of "Queen Jane Approximately". And that's not even mentioning the most famous organ riff of all time, played by a man who had (so he says) never played an electric organ in his life. By expanding what his band actually could do, Dylan actually gave more breathing room for his lyrics - a kind of symbiotic thing, where one feeds into the other and creates a stronger whole. That's where Highway 61 Revisited's hidden strength lies; Dylan's band, by coming more into the foreground, helped make his words that much more intriguing and exciting to listen to.

I think, then, that that's why Blonde on Blonde turned out the way that it did - Dylan realized that there was nowhere else to go with this style of music, so he chose instead to gaze deeper into his navel and create something even weirder and more out there. I mean, where can you go when you've recorded "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Desolation Row"? That's the real key to the Electric Trilogy, in my opinion: as remarkable as the music is on all three albums, the cumulative effect of the three would be weakened if the third album had simply been a rehash of Highway 61 Revisited's musical advances. But Dylan took a different path, and the craziness of Blonde on Blonde served to throw the other two album's strengths into sharper relief. And Highway 61 Revisited is allowed to stand as its own masterpiece, the pinnacle of Dylan's foray into electric music, and a highlight of his storied career.


I'm not going to lie - this will probably be the hardest section I'll ever write on this blog. I mean, what is there really to say about this song? "Like A Rolling Stone" has buried itself into the national consciousness in a way precious few songs have. Think about how many times you've heard the song on the radio, seen video of Dylan performing the song live, heard mention made of Kooper's famous organ riff or "How does it feel?" or "Once upon a time you dressed so fine", and so on and so on. It's reached the point where "Like A Rolling Stone" isn't even a mere song anymore, so much as it's an institution, something for all writers of music to aspire to in their efforts to create music that touches people and makes them feel emotion, no matter what that emotion is. The song has topped any number of "greatest song ever" polls, and has been namechecked by countless musicians as inspiration and as a just plain awesome tune. It stretched the boundaries of what could be done with popular music, what could be played on the radio, and indeed what "popular music" actually is. It is usually the first Dylan song anybody ever hears, and it is a song that every Dylan fan at least respects as great, if not outright cherishs as their favorite. It is my favorite Dylan song, and quite possibly my favorite song of all time.

So I'm going to ignore the song, and instead use this time to talk about the collapsing American economy. In this time of plunging stocks and consumer fear...

No, just kidding. What I can't get over every time I hear the song is how every inch of it sounds inevitable, like there was no other way for this song to sound. It doesn't surprise me that there's a legend that the song was completed in only one take - how can you not listen to that song and feel that, yes, there was NO way there could be alternate versions or flubbed takes or anything other than the sweet perfection that heads Highway 61 Revisited and was released to radio DJs cut in half due to its length. And, yes, it's only because we've had the song for so long that that feeling of inevitability exists - if Dylan had sung "How do ya feel?", or incorporated a ukelele, or stretched the song to 8 minutes, we'd still feel like those elements are essential to what makes the song the classic that it is, if only because we wouldn't know any different. But then that's true of every classic song, and all of those songs have the same feeling of inevitability; that's part of what makes a classic a classic, the notion that any small change would cause the house of cards to come tumbling down.

"Like A Rolling Stone" is a song that's both the sum of its parts and the individual parts, shining so brilliantly separately and together. This is the perfect example of the symbiotic relationship; we've all heard the piano waltz version of this song, and I think we can all agree that you don't get the same wicked bite from that version as from the master take. So that's one element you have there - Dylan's acid-dripping words, as nasty a putdown as anyone's ever written, a song so bitter and vicious that if he actually did write it about somebody, it's hard to believe that person didn't hear the song and instantly drop dead or turn to stone. Then you have Dylan's vocal itself, delivered marvelously with just the right edge and hint of anger, never going over the edge, as controlled and brilliant a vocal as Dylan ever delivered. And then there's the instrumentation, played without a single hitch, chock full of highlights - that explosive snare shot and the steady drum beat, Dylan's short but sweet harmonica blasts punctuating every chorus and taking the song to the fadeout, the swirling guitar riffs from Michael Bloomfield, Dylan's hammering the piano keys purposefully, and that legendary organ riff, five notes that anybody that loves music can instantly identify. Taking them apart, every single one of those elements could be the best moment of a good song, maybe even a great song. Putting them together made history.

Maybe that's a way to define a legitimate classic - if you took out an element of the song and replaced it with something else, would that affect your reaction to the song adversely? Try to imagine, say, "Good Vibrations" without the theremin, or "Song 2" without the "woohoo!"s, or "Hold On, I'm Coming" without those horns ascending to the heavens. That would make the song something different, and probably not for the better, right? "Like A Rolling Stone" is exactly the same way - take one element away, and you don't have "Like A Rolling Stone". It is always remarkable to see or hear something where every element works together so perfectly that you just get totally caught up in the moment, marveling both at the individual pieces and the entire experience that they create. I feel that way every time I hear "Like A Rolling Stone".


I'm going to bookend the Highway 61 Revisited series with two quick stories (one here and one on "Desolation Row") about my Dylan-loving female friend, both because they're interesting/funny to tell and so that you don't think my experience with her was all storm clouds raging all around my door. When I was getting into Dylan in my senior year of high school, she became interested as well through my burgeoning passion for his music. One day she gave me a call asking me about "Like A Rolling Stone", her favorite Dylan song at that point (IIRC, it would later be "Simple Twist of Fate"). "What's the problem?" I said.

"Well...I bought a Dylan album with 'Like A Rolling Stone' on it, but the version sounds nothing like the one I've always heard. In kinda sucks."

I paused, then said "Hang on...what's on the cover of the album you bought?"

"A weird looking painting of a face."

I laughed and told her about her mistake, that instead of buying Highway 61 Revisited she bought possibly the worst album Dylan had ever recorded, just because she saw "Like A Rolling Stone" on the back tracklist and immediately snatched it up. Even at that fledgling stage of my Dylan fanhood, I knew that Self Portrait was an album to avoid at all costs. I always wondered what she'd thought when she'd heard the rest of the album.

Ah, Dylan humor.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #58: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

For a career as steeped in symbolism and "historic moments" and reams of interpretation as our man Bob's is, one could suggest that "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" has as much history attached to it as any other of his songs. First of all, he chose this song as the final song on his last album to feature acoustic-only songs for a good long while, a song that (to some) shows Dylan waving yet another farewell to folk music - only this one's at the end of an album, so it's the one that means the most, right? And secondly, this was a song he chose to play at his legendary Newport Festival 1965 set (not end it, as many think), where Dylan unveiled his electric music on a live stage and shocked the crowd, to the point where he had to come back out and play acoustic songs to placate his audience. And, again, that choice of song was seen as one more goodbye to his old folk audience, the Dear Jane letter written to his former lover as he moved on to his new mistress. I mean, you can't ask for more symbolism than that, can you?

On the Internet, there is an analysis that one man did of Dylan's Newport '65 set, where he listened to his tape of the set and made careful study of the crowd reactions to Dylan's legendary three-electric/two-acoustic headlining set. The author comes to the conclusion that the crowd was not, in fact, angry at Dylan for going electric, but for the brevity of his set and various problems with the PA throughout. He makes a compelling argument - and, if nothing else, I'd love to get my hands on the crystal-clear tapes he listened to in order to dispel the myth of what happened that day. What seems strange, though, is that there were so many people that wrote that the crowd booed Dylan, that there were actually arguments between audience members about what Dylan was playing, that Dylan was shaken up backstage and nearly to the point of tears, that he wasn't going to go back out until he was convinced to go if only to placate the raucous fans, and that (my favorite part) it was Johnny Cash that placed an oversized acoustic in his hands before he stepped back out on stage. In other words, if it's a fanciful legend that Dylan was ill-received at Newport, it's one with a lot of conspirators.

What isn't a legend, though, is that Newport 1965 was a turning point, maybe the turning point in Dylan's career, when he realized that there was no going back and he'd have to see his new music style out to the bitter end. And as we all know, that end was bitter indeed. It's fascinating to imagine that people could get so worked up about something that seems so unimportant today, to the point where they'd boo him, heap abuse upon his head, castigate him in the press, and even compare him to history's most infamous traitor. In a sense, there's something kind of cool about that - does anybody really care about music, or maybe even anything, to that degree anymore, where our passions could be inflamed by what we feel is a betrayal from a man who we believed not so much espoused our ideals as outright embodied them? Have we reached a level of ironic detachment where we only yawn and sigh when something that ought to hit us that hard comes and goes? And yet, on the other hand, there's something a little scary about the whole thing - I mean, it's really just music, for God's sake. If you get that worked up about a guy who played folk music about Issues switching to electric music about, uh, Not Issues, I'd hate to see how you'd react to something really important. It's a funny double-edged sword, and it says a lot about Dylan's performance at Newport that it's even a subject of debate.

"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", to many people, anticipates that debate, and lets down his old audience as gently as it can. One thing I've always noticed in Dylan's more out-there lyrics is that the imagery is always a little frightening and off-putting; it's not like he's singing about unicorns or teddy bears or things like that. I mean, that verse about "seasick sailors" and "the carpet, too, is moving under you" is enough to make a person a little worried, wouldn't you think? And maybe that's the point of Dylan's songs - by being so forceful and a touch spooky in the words that he sings, he's trying to impress them more in your head, and (more importantly) force you to think long and hard about them, creating your own interpretations and theories and what have you. In this case, the leap is somewhat easy; all the imagery seems to be pointing towards a world constantly in flux, including the narrator himself, and all you can do is strike another match and go start anew. And if you don't, you'll be inevitably left behind.

I find myself wondering occasionally about what Dylan must have been thinking about, standing on that stage at Newport, letting loose with his wild electric music and announcing that the Dylan of the Times cover was gone for good. Maybe he had a bit of sadness in his heart at the audience and friends he was leaving behind, or maybe he felt the guitar in his hands had the same power as a machine gun (as per Todd Haynes' cinematic interpretation). And I wonder how he must have felt stepping back out on stage with an acoustic, hearing the roar of a crowd that not only loved him, but (maybe) loved seeing him with that acoustic, singing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and knowing that that crowd didn't care what he was singing but only that he was singing it in a way they could appreciate. Maybe he really wrote the song with the interpretation so many have afforded that song in mind, and maybe he saw the faces of the people he was addressing that song to, people that had helped build up his career, placed him as the leading light of a musical movement, and watched in numb horror as he turned his back on everything they care about. And, at that moment, he must have felt something very few of us will ever feel in our lives, and something I pray to God that I never will.

And that's it for Bringing It All Back Home! Coming up next, Highway 61 Revisited, and a song that a couple of you readers may have heard before. And believe me, that post is gonna be epic. Read more!

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