Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #50: Maggie's Farm

As we all know, one of Dylan's greatest skills as a songwriter was his ability to be universal; he captured the frustrations, dreams, and aspirations so many of us have in his lyrics, even when he's supposedly being specific. Case in point - "Maggie's Farm", which has attained everlasting fame by virtue of "Maggie's farm" becoming synonymous with The Man or Big Brother or whatever else you'd call a brutal, all-powerful authority that works to make your life worse. Now, consider these two explanations of the song:

1. "You know what 'Maggie's Farm' is about? It's about Dylan's break from the protest movement. I mean, think about it, dude! He's obviously singing about himself when he says 'I try my best to be what I am/but everybody wants me to be just like them/they say sing while you slave, I just get bored'", right? He totally means himself when he says he's got a head full of ideas driving him insane, right? He's obviously talking about people trying to hold back his art when he says they fine you every time you slam the door, right? And that part where Maggie's ma's talking about man and God and law and shit? That's totally, like, about issues and stuff! Oh, dude, the song is TOTALLY about Dylan giving the finger to all those folkie dorks, man!"

2. "You know what 'Maggie's Farm' is about? It's about how shitty life can be when you're being held down and oppressed. I mean, I know exactly what he's talking about! I work for a shitty ass low-level technology firm, I sit in a cubicle 40 hours a week, stare at my novelty calendars and clipped-out comic strips, try to avoid working as much as I can until 5 PM, and basically hate every single bit of my existence. And my bosses are total pains in the ass! Every day it's meetings this and projects that and blah blah blah until I want to jam a screwdriver into my neck! And Lord knows I don't want to do this for a living; I'm just 2 drafts away from getting my screenplay just right, and when it's finally done, I'm bidding this hell hole farewell! I know EXACTLY what Dylan means when he's singing about cigars in his face and scrubbing the floor and shit! Oh, dude, the song is TOTALLY about breaking away from shitty modern life, man!"

You see where I'm going with that, I'm sure. There's a reason why "Maggie's farm" has entered our vernacular the way it has - the song is so powerfully about sticking it to The Man and being a rebel in a straitjacketing society that anybody can ascribe their own particular plight to the narrator of the song. What's remarkable, too, is that Dylan could very well have had his own travails in mind when he wrote the song; maybe some of that bitterness hadn't quite worn away yet, or he had a few couplets left over from when he wrote "My Back Pages" or something that he wanted to sand and varnish into a brand new song. At any rate, he did write the song and record it, and in the coming years the American public had a few Maggie's farms of their own to feel oppressed and held down by - the government dragging kids into Vietnam, or busting African-American heads, or telling kids that pot is a tool of Satan, and so on and so on. It's necessary to remember that the 60s was a decade of pushing moral boundaries only because those moral boundaries existed and were so strong, well-defined, and constricting. Dylan, unwittingly (or, if you think he's that much of a genius, wittingly), managed to predict the zeitgeist that would spring up in the coming years, and he gave the world an anthem that summed up the discontent bubbling all across the nation.

And yes, that discontent's still with us today, partially because the changing times dictated newer, shiner, evil-er Maggie's farms to stick it to us, partially because the zeitgeist of the 1960s caused rifts deeper than the Marianas Trench, partially because sometimes the more things change, etc. And we still have "Maggie's Farm" to sum up our discontent, telling us that yeah, shit sucks, those guys really are assholes, and I wouldn't want to be part of their club anyway. That goes for everyone, you know - it isn't just the liberals in our society that feel disaffected, and Dylan's songs don't just appeal to those we consider the angels amongst us (I took some stick for suggesting the Weathermen might have been inspired by "When The Ship Comes In", as though only the good guys draw inspiration from these kinds of songs). There is an entire nation out there, full of people that feel disenfranchised, that feel like the country they know and love is being yanked out from underneath their feet, and can hear a song like "Maggie's Farm" and see the very people that are crushing their livelihoods and walking off with America. It's been that way for a long time now, and the odds of that changing are quite slim indeed. In effect, everybody works, in one way or another, on Maggie's farm, and everybody hates scrubbing the floor or singing while they slave. Dylan may have thought about himself when he wrote the song, but, ironically, in the end he returned to the tenets of the folk movement: he wrote a song that thought about all of us. Read more!

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #49: She Belongs To Me

I'll delve into this a bit more when I put together my 1966 special post (which I've mentioned enough times that some of you might be fooled into thinking it'll be really great or something), but the '66 version of "She Belongs To Me" was the version that I heard first. It was something of a surprise, then, to listen to the BIABH version and not only hear it electrified (although a gentle electrification - this isn't a rambunctious song like "115th Dream", after all), but to hear Dylan sing it more modestly and traditionally. And, to be honest, that's more the way that I like hearing the song. Not that I don't enjoy Dylan sneering his way through the song and snapping off vowels Blonde on Blonde style, but after enough years of having both versions in my life, the album version is my preferred one.

"She Belongs To Me" is a song that I've always enjoyed, and these days I enjoy it more because it fits into the aesthetic of the album very well, both from a lyrical and a musical standpoint. Dylan had already eschewed traditionally direct lyricism on his last album, and here is more of the same; it's not too easy to figure what Dylan's on about when he talks about hypnotist collectors and walking antiques. Is Dylan singing about what it feels like to obsessively moon over an ethereal dream woman (like, say, his soon-to-be wife Sara or ex-girlfriend Nico, both commonly described as ethereal themselves)? Or is he parodying that nature of obsession and how silly it can make you look (never mind the part about peeking through a keyhole on your knees - can you really take "the law can't touch her at all" all that seriously)? The title of the song lends credence to the latter theory - "She Belongs To Me" seems more of a wink after hearing the lyrics - but Dylan never does cross that line into the trademark sarcasm that marks a "Just Like A Woman", instead treating the woman of the song with relative respect. As usual with Dylan, you can have it both ways, depending on your own feelings when listening to the song.

I already mentioned how much props Dylan's band should receive for their work on "Subterranean Homesick Blues", but they deserve just as much praise for what they do on this song as well. There's a very gentle interplay between John Hammond Jr.'s electric guitar and Dylan's acoustic, the electric weaving its way around the acoustic rhythm and even Dylan's harmonica playing without overwhelming either, acting as a sweet harmony to the melody. And the quiet snare taps that serve as drumming on the song help to flesh things out and give the playing a backbone - the No Direction Home take, without that beat, sounds formless and incomplete. A song like this, that could blend into the rest of the album without any accompaniment, sounds all the better when the accompaniment is as strong as the one Dylan's band afforded it (while managing to be unobtrusive at the same time - no mean feat). Even the 1966 versions, although just as compelling because Dylan sics his vocal on the lyrics like an attack dog, don't have that to fall back on, and sound a little less, well, there by comparison.

Dylan, in a smart move, slotted this song in between two of the most famous electric songs on the album, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm". I think even he knew that just keeping the heat turned up by moving from one hard rocker (comparatively speaking) to another would've been too much for a listener; who wants to go from trying to process "don't follow leaders/watch your parking meters" to "the National Guard stands around his door" in successive order? Dylan, by putting this charming little gem of a song in between the two, allowed for some breathing room, and gave a few minutes of peace before the band comes back and kicks you in the gut. And his affection for the song was such that he not only slotted it into his 1966 sets, but into the 1969 Isle of Wight comeback show as well, and has thrown it into the occasional show ever since. Dylan surely has his own personal favorite songs, and it doesn't seem like a stretch to assume that "She Belongs To Me" is one of them.

Question for you readers: which seemingly "minor" song - i.e. not one of the well-known Greatest Hits that inevitably pop up on whatever Dylan compilation's being released this week - would you consider to be your favorite? I'm not looking for an obscure I'm-trumping-you-with-my-esoteric-Dylan-knowledge answer, but an honest response as to which lesser-known track just hits you in that right way. My favorite, easily, is "Mama, You Been On My Mind"; one of the reasons I want to see this blog through the end is to write a post about that amazing, amazing song. As for you all, please feel free to discourse in the comments. Read more!

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #48: Subterranean Homesick Blues

I believe talent is like electricity. We don't understand electricity. We use it.

-Maya Angelou

Electricity is really just organized lightning.
-George Carlin


I love Bringing It All Back Home. There's no other way I can think of to start this blog post, than by that simple declaration of fact. I absolutely adore this album. It's one of the very first Dylan albums I ever owned, and it's still one of my very favorites. Even today, when my Dylan ardor has cooled from its college-years peak, I'll still pop on "She Belongs To Me" or "It's Alright, Ma" or this song and just marvel at how incredible the songs on this album were. Even the lesser songs are fun to listen to, if nothing else; you can tell how fun they were for Dylan to record as well. And I'll return to it every now and then and discover something new or something I'd forgotten, and my love is rekindled all over again. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

I'm telling you this because, like most people, I agree that this is the lesser of the famous Electric Trilogy that reinvented Bob's career and are, even to this day, probably Dylan's most famous and beloved albums. The funny thing is that I couldn't even give you a concrete reason why that would make sense; I mean, let's face it, this is an incredible album. Most bands would kill to record just one of the best songs on here, let alone an album of such quality. And yet there's just this feeling that something's missing on the album, that the ineffable it that Highway 61 Revisited has and Blonde on Blonde most definitely has isn't quite there. Maybe it was the decision to record the album half acoustically, as though Dylan was somehow karmically hedging his bets (it's not as though "Mr. Tambourine Man" would've been worse if there had been a band behind it, or at least the gentle accompaniment afforded "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"). I don't know. At certain points in music reviewing or discussion, you simply reach an area that can only be defined by the feeling in your gut and the emotions in your mind, and this is one of them. Then again, when the worst you can say about an album is "it's not as good as some of the greatest albums ever recorded", that's a pretty damn good album, right?

What really interests me, having read about the album in Heylin's book and other places, is that Dylan's first recording session for the album did not feature a band on any of the tracks. This is the session where "Farewell Angelina", one of Dylan's finest non-album tracks, was recorded; nothing from this session ended up making the album proper. And that, to me, is significant. After all, it seems entirely clear that Dylan had planned to record with an electric band almost from the moment that Another Side was finished, and that he felt that recording in a strictly acoustic metier was cramping his style, so to speak. In fact, you can even hear that on the demos that Dylan had recorded for "Like A Rolling Stone" - the songs could very well have worked in an acoustic setting, but there's something a little off, as though it's not as complete as "Blowin' In The Wind" or "All I Really Want To Do" is. And Dylan, who had an incredibly sharp ear for his compositions at that time, felt it too, and he knew that a full band would flesh out the melodies that seemed only half-complete in acoustic form. And yet that very first session for Bringing It All Back Home was all acoustic guitar and piano.

I've written about this both in the past and on this blog, and it seems pertinent to bring up now: fear is a very driving factor in our lives. Not just fear itself, but fear of change, of having to experience something new. When confronted with upheaval in our lives, the basic instinct is to run away, to retreat into the old and familiar, rather than confront something we have no knowledge about. And Dylan had no knowledge that he would become more successful as a popular recording artist than he could ever have as a folk singer, or that he would soon become a mainstay on the Billboard charts and have his singles blared through transistor radios, or that his concerts would become battlegrounds for musical movements, and in some ways for entire ways of life. All he knew was that he'd never recorded electric music before, and that he would be alienating an entire movement that he'd helped build up by becoming that which they hated as much as anything. Let's not forget that it wasn't just the music, too; the lyrics, wilder and only abstractly about anything, would've pissed off a lot of people. And he went right ahead and recorded Bringing It All Back Home anyway. Can you imagine how hard it must've been for him to take that step, to bring in those musicians, cut those songs, and have them pressed to wax? It takes a special musician to swap the familiar for the unfamiliar, and Dylan is a special musician indeed.

So what that first session means to me is the comfort in knowing that Dylan did, indeed, struggle with that decision, and that it was as hard for him as it would have been for anybody else. After all, he could very well have turned tail and stayed in his comfort zone, recording songs as personal and heart-wrenching as "I'll Keep It With Mine", staying in an acoustic or solo environment. Sure, the folk critics would've continued their wailing and gnashing of teeth at what they perceived to be Dylan's continued gazing into his own navel. But he still would've been one of their own, and not the property of the heathens who played music you had to plug into speakers to hear and sang about holding hands and both satisfaction and the lack thereof. And we might still be listening to those albums today, marveling at how great "Queen Jane Approximately" sounds even just with him on piano, nodding along to Dylan on his acoustic pounding out "Absolutely Sweet Marie"...and wondering what things would've been like if Dylan had done things differently. I, myself, am glad we don't have to wonder that.


Social polemic, explosive blast of rock goodness, blatant Chuck Berry ripoff - "Subterranean Homesick Blues" wears a lot of hats, and still remains an absolute cornerstone in Dylan's canon. Even today, removed from the original release, from the howls of protest from the folk crowd and the hundreds of rock DJs spinning Dylan's first real "platter that matters" and all the college kids smoking dope and figuring out what the lyrics meeeeeeeeeean, maaaaaaaaan, and the stunning fact that a folk musician, the folk musician, had recorded this, there is a very palpable excitement that surrounds this song, from the opening acoustic strum immediately drowned out by a stinging electric note, to the fadeout after that sneered final line about pumps and vandals or whatever the hell he's getting at. In many ways, it's as good as a popular rock song will ever get - lyrics to make you think, music to swing your hips to (assuming, I suppose, that people still dance to this song today; I'd wager they did in 1965). As far as first impressions go, this is a pretty hard song to beat. Dylan was effectively a new artist entering the rock arena, and he had himself one hell of a debut.

Listening to the lyrics today, it's something of a blessing that specific meanings no longer have to be affixed to this song, and that you can take his words for what you feel they mean, instead of somebody saying "hey, Weathermen, get it? Hey, fire hoses - civil rights, get it?" The Weathermen took their name from the song instead of Dylan appropriating their name as a joke anyway (a common misunderstanding), but never mind. To me, it's cool to catch the little things that Dylan sprinkled in there, like the fact that he's saying "look out, KID", as though specifically to every youth everywhere, or the uncomfortably dead-on "join the army if you fail" (a time-honored American tradition for those who have no other place to go), or the genius of "twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift" that manages to sum up so many lives in twelve brutal words. There may have been some sort of zeitgeist to be heard in Dylan's words back then, but now all I hear is Dylan, mind racing a million miles an hour, identifying how the world works and spitting the meaning of life back to us, and if we give the song just one more listen, we might catch on to what the hell he's talking about.

I think that not enough credit has been given to Dylan's makeshift band, a collection of talented studio musicians that gave life to Dylan's songs and made the music walk and talk. I spoke earlier about how the solo demos of Dylan's electric work sounded like something was missing, and "Subterranean Homesick Blues"' acoustic demo is a benchmark example of that. It isn't so much that the song sounds wrong in an acoustic setting - after all, the chords are the same and Dylan sings the song more or less the same way - so much as, in drastic contrast to one of his older songs, this particular version never sounds like it's definitive, the way "Don't Think Twice" always sounded like it was definitive. Just listen to the breaks in between the verses, where Dylan has nothing else to do but strum along; even with the prior knowledge that those breaks would be filled with tasty soloing goodness, it's clear that something ought to be there, and that simply playing the A chord with the occasional funky added note or whatever simply isn't cutting the mustard. You could release the acoustic version, sure, but I don't think it would've been accepted the same way, not by the popular music-buying crowd, and never by the folk music crowd. It would've been an orphaned song, beloved by only the real hipsters, but consigned to a curio more than anything else.

It's the band, then, that really steps up and places the song in the outright classic category that it deserves to be in. What is very cool that on an album where the electric songs have a tendency to run together just a little bit (Dylan hadn't quite worked out the subtleties of full band arrangements, settling for garage rock bashing most of the time; by Highway 61, those subtleties would be worked into Dylan's MO), "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has its own character and rises above the rest into its own special category. There's that fantastic riff that plays throughout the song (yes, it's a stolen riff, but Dylan picked a good one to steal) and serves as a musical underline for Dylan's crazy verbage. There's that simple thudding baseline, the most basic of notes playing over and over and holding everything together. And, yes, there's the churning electric guitar attack, making a very simple song musically sound way cooler than it ought to, lending the words an urgency the more laid-back acoustic demo just doesn't have. Dylan wasn't the only guy that made this a masterpiece, and the band deserves their share of credit.

The famous line about the Velvet Underground is that while few people bought their first album, almost everyone that did was inspired to start a band. In a literal sense, that's entirely impossible; in the metaphorical sense that the Velvets' music, especially that first album, spoke so powerfully to those that heard it that they felt like anything could be possible (at least, in theory - the only thing the first album's ever spoken to me is "why, yes, we WILL stay on this chord for 3 minutes, thanks for asking"), that seems entirely likely. Music, after all, can affect the mind in the most powerful of ways; that's why the art form has lasted so long and become so tremendously complex and thought provoking (well, okay, outside of "My Humps"). And I would venture to say that everybody that heard "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a song that still doesn't sound like most other popular music, with lyrics that forced you to reach a deeper level of comprehension if only to try and grasp what he could possibly mean, was inspired to think deeper about music in general, to try to see things beyond their surface, and to aspire to be enriched by what they listened to, instead of merely entertained. At the very least, I'd hope it kept a few college kids out of the army.


I suppose this entry wouldn't be complete without mentioning the clip that opens Don't Look Back, a clip every Dylan fan is familiar with. Go take a look at Wikipedia's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" page some time, and scroll down to the section about the music video. Just take a look at all the homages and parodies listed there. Imitation is called the sincerest form of flattery, and to have that many people imitate something you did 40 years ago, even as a joke, ought to tell you something. That list (which I'd guess still isn't complete) says everything you need to know about how brilliant, how trailblazing, and how just plain super-sweet that video clip is, and what a landmark moment it is in the history of music as a medium.
The coolest thing to me about the video, having seen it God knows how many times, is just how casual Bob is about the whole thing. His expression never changes throughout - maybe he's just in deep concentration trying to figure out when to drop the cards, who knows - and he lets those cards go at his own leisurely pace, not smiling at the in-jokes or goofy lettering, a Buddha with crazy hair and sharp clothing. There's a weird sort of Zen calm throughout the video, like this is something people do all the time, holding up placards with song lyrics in some alleyway and letting them go while two goofballs have a powwow behind them. And that coolness, I think, is why the concept stuck with so many people and why the video clip and subsequent music video took form - you didn't just have to mime to the camera or pretend like you gave a crap about selling something to a mass audience. You could use that comparatively new medium of film to do something off base, something strange and original, and make something that stimulated you just beyond "look at those guys pretend to play the song they recorded in a studio on a soundstage somewhere!" Once you've opened up that medium to a whole new world, there's no turning back. (Or looking back, har har.)

I see no sense in linking to the video here - you've all seen it a million times, and YouTube has at least 4 different versions you can watch whenever you want. The best thing I can say about the video is that it's impossible to hear the song now without thinking of Bob in that alleyway, holding up the cards a little awkwardly, and that final "What???" at the end being casually tossed away as Dylan strolls off camera to go have another joint with Bobby Neuwirth or something. They will forever be linked in the public mind, a fantastic song and a fantastic filmed concept, working together to make something even more incredible. Now that's a good music video.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

EBDS Special Post: Bob Dylan Live 1964

Author's note: I originally wanted to call this a "Special Event", but seriously - calling it a "Special Post" seems pompous enough. As promised, the first of a series of non-song posts to the blog.

If there is one well-worn Musical Critic Cliche out there, it's this one: "Why do artists bother releasing live albums?" You get the feeling that the typical rock critic, upon receiving a package with yet another live album in it, fetches a massive sigh, adjusts his massive horn-rim glasses (*cough*), tugs on his sweater vest, and stares down at his fashionably holey skinny-leg jeans in aggravation and disgust. And let's be frank - they've got a point. What do most live albums amount to? A bunch of songs you've already heard, played anywhere from competently to sloppily to without the slightest trace of emotion, in front of crowds that scream obnoxiously through most of the performance. You could go ahead and toss most of them in the garbage, unless you're a rabid fan of the band in question and never did get to see them at the Spectrum that night in 1976.

The really interesting live albums, the one that justify their existence, usually have a few certain things going for them. They might be a performance of such massive historical importance that their musical merits are almost completely unimportant; Hendrix's Woodstock performance is beset by bad miking, nerves, and a shitload of jamming, but I'd never suggest that the show isn't worth hearing simply because it was Hendrix at Woodstock, for Christ's sake. They might be a performance so incredibly good that to leave them unheard would be a crime against music lovers; Jerry Lee Lewis' Star Club set is amazing for the way Lewis and his band tears through the set like a scythe cutting down stalks of wheat, the kind of show you pray to God you'll see every time you buy a ticket. Or it might be a performance where the songs so differ from the well-known album versions that they change the way you think about them; the second set of The Name Of This Band is Talking Heads recasts Remain in Light (and some of their older back catalog) as an even looser, funkier, and vicious collection of art-funk songs, with Adrian Belew coaxing alien squeaks and futuristic noises from his guitar. There are precious few live albums (At Folsom Prison/At San Quentin, Live at Santa Monica 1972, How The West Was Won) that reaches those heights, but the ones that do aren't just exceptional adjuncts to an artist's career, but every bit as important as any of their studio albums.

And then we have Bob Dylan, whose very career could very well be defined more by his live performances than his studio albums, who managed to remake himself as an artist on stage with virtually ever new tour that he undertook. And many of his live albums bear the mark of his genius, standing as worthy companions to the Electric Trilogy or Blood on the Tracks. Live 1975 recasts some of his greatest songs under the milieu of the Rolling Thunder Revue, possibly his finest moment as a performing artist. Before the Flood (arguably) catches Dylan at his most incendiary, firing off words like bullets as The Band snarls and roars behind him. Of course, Live 1966 manages to capture all three of the previously noted live album merits in one package; historical ("Judas!" ring a bell?), song reimagining (even the acoustic songs are markedly different in ways from the originals), and performance-wise (no further explanation necessary). Columbia, for their more despicable marketing practices, have done well by Dylan fans to put out more of his live stuff, exposing more people to the part of his career least represented by his official canon. To be able to hear this stuff now is nothing short of a blessing.


One of the more recent releases, and still one of the best and most importance, is the famous and beloved Philharmonic Hall 1964 show, where Dylan captivated a packed house at the height of his fame as an acoustic artist and leader of the folk movement. I'd heard the show before its official release on bootleg (I'd bet most of you had as well), but to have it in an official capacity means that much more, because now such an incredible performance is available to more than just the privileged few and those that can work Soulseek or have $50 to burn on bootlegs. But what I'm most grateful for in this show's release is that such a performance of incredible historical merit can be heard and digested by the general public. Live 1964, on top of being an astounding performance, catches Bob at a crossroads in his career, pulling away from the folk movement, immersing himself in drugs, and starting to leap into the unknown that his electric career really was (after all, it was no given that he would be successful in that arena). He may have looked like the Bob Dylan that sang "The Times They Are A-Changin'", but his mind was a million miles away from where it was when he wrote that song.

You listen to Dylan on that Halloween night in 1964, alone with only an acoustic guitar and his voice, and it's difficult not to marvel at how big and well-respected Dylan had to have been at that point in his career. As I've mentioned here, I've performed at my share of open mics, usually just with a guitar and my voice, and there is nothing harder than captivating an audience when that's all you've got at your disposal. It doesn't help that even after 10 years my guitar playing skills would best be described as "acceptable", but even if I was David Rawlings or Tim Reynolds with an acoustic, there's only so many ways you can hold attention when you're just by yourself. That, to me, is that what makes Dylan keeping an entire audience at rapt attention so extraordinary. I mean, yes, he's got some of the greatest songs anyone's ever written at his disposal, but you've still got to go out there and perform them sans accoutrement and hope the audience doesn't get bored and start talking to each other and falling asleep and whatever. And yes, the audience expected him to go out there by himself and wanted him to perform solo, but you'd expect even his most hardcore fans to get a little squirrelly 90 minutes into a two-hour solo performance (with a 15 minute break), right? That never happens, mainly because Dylan's lyrics are so incredible, and also because he could make the audience laugh as well (especially in "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"). That ability to keep an audience in so firm a grip is something that will always amaze me.

Then there's Dylan's setlist, which has two different aspects that contribute to making this such a damn cool show to listen to. The first thing is that Dylan is absolutely unafraid to play songs that hadn't been released yet, even if some people in the audience (or most - "John Birch"'s notoriety was such that a lot of people cheered for it) hadn't heard the songs. This is nothing new amongst artists - hell, Ryan Adams would play sets chock full of new songs, written anywhere from months before the show to some time during sound check. Of course, none of those songs are a "Mr. Tambourine Man", so a little perspective needs to be used here. Dylan hadn't released "Gates of Eden" or "It's Alright, Ma" by the time of the show, but he performed them all the same, and the audience was just as amazed then as the people that bought Bringing It All Back Home would be the following year. It takes gumption to perform songs that intricate, hard to comprehend, and head-spinningly dazzling as those without prior knowledge, and it says a lot about Dylan that he had that kind of gumption.

The other part of the setlist that appeals to me is that there's a legitimate dearth of protest songs, the supposed reason for Dylan to be on that stage in the first place. I mean, you've got the big ones like "The Times", "Hard Rain" (a protest song in name only, really), "Hattie Carroll", and "With God On Our Side" (as well as "Who Killed Davey Moore?", which is a protest song but not what you'd call a big one), but it's really surprising how little Freewheelin' and especially The Times are represented in the show. Another Side, as the newest current album, gets a lot of attention, which is noteworthy enough - you think the folk crowd was a little puzzled that "I Don't Believe You" got play but "Only A Pawn In Their Game" didn't? But you also have the new songs, none of which have anything overt to do with politics, and "Mama, You Been On My Mind", and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", and many other songs that are all about Dylan's view of the world and not about, well, the world. Even the inevitable Joan Baez cameo is restricted to four songs, only one of which is a protest song, and one of which is a traditional. To me, the key to the whole set is "Spanish Harlem Incident", both because it's in the setlist at all (no "Blowin' In The Wind"???), and because Dylan approaches the song with full focus and delivers a strong performance. To him, nailing that song was as important as nailing any of the others, and it's a very interesting thing to hear indeed.

And all of this would mean absolutely nothing if it wasn't for the performance. Dylan is loose, playful, goofy, charming, and as funny as you would expect the guy who wrote "All I Really Want To Do" (a perfect closer for this type of show) should be. The fact that he was almost certainly as stoned as your typical Phish concertgoer probably helped; one listen to the "I Don't Believe You" intro (the guitar strums to buy time while he thinks of the first verse) or Bob fucking with Joan's rhythm during "Mama, You Been On My Mind" shows his frame of mind, and is hard not to outright laugh at. Perhaps, then, it's for the best that he didn't play some of his more somber songs - imagine "When The Ship Comes In" being introduced by that infamous "I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask" rejoinder? And it's probable that Dylan, in his frame of mind, had no desire to play those songs anyway. Dylan, on that night in 1964, wasn't thinking about his responsibilities as a Leading Lamp of the Folk Movement or about the painful shit that concerned him the year before. He was out to have himself one damn good time. And that's exactly what he did.

It is worth considering that, when you get right down to it, this show was an aberration in a career littered with aberrations. There's none of the attention paid to the protest songs from 1963 (take, for example, his earlier Carnegie Hall show, exactly the sort of set you'd expect Folkie Bob to perform), or the backwards-thinking Don't Look Back shows catering to an audience still a year behind, or (obviously) the electric blasts of 1965 and 1966. In this regard, most especially of all, we see a Bob Dylan in transition, not sure what his next move should be, but still making a move nonetheless. Live 1964 takes a snapshot of a night where Dylan, one foot in his past and another in his future, managed to hold an audience enraptured by his guitar, his voice, and his songs. We'd never get another show quite like it, and that makes me all the happier to have this one. Read more!

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #47: It Ain't Me Babe

And so we reach the end of Another Side of Bob Dylan with "It Ain't Me Babe", one of Bob's most famous songs, a tune covered any number of times by any number of well-known musicians, turned into a hit by The Turtles, and beloved by most all of his fans. We also have one of Bob's most famous allegorical tunes (at least, according to those who care about such things), his parting farewell to folk and acoustic music before he turns to popular music and changes his career. In the great long mythology of Dylan, it is all too easy to find pat little ending points of certain eras and moments that could be taken way out of proportion; for example, Dylan playing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the close of his Newport '65 set could be taken as the real goodbye to the folk establishment. And yet with "It Ain't Me Babe", there seems to be a reason Bob slotted this song last, a song that sounds much more concilatory and less harsh than, say, "My Back Pages" (which would've also made a fine closer), to give a true farewell to the movement that he'd done so much for in such a short span of time.

Listening to the song today, I find myself feeling a little sorry for the Bob that wrote this song, that invested two different meanings into a song that's strong enough with just one. It's one thing to find ourselves over our heads in our vocations or in our personal lives; it's another thing entirely to find ourselves over our head when thousands of people are hoping that we'll say, do, or sing something that will bring meaning into their lives and change the course of our history. As I've written before, that pressure is something I wouldn't wish on anybody - even today, the intensity of the issues Bob wrote about still has a potent charge. That charge must have been even stronger in those days. And with hindsight, it seems unreasonable to demand so much of one man; I have nothing against Phil Ochs or Donovan, but when Dylan left the folk stage the movement lost a great deal of momentum and popular appeal, and those musicians were hardly capable of picking up so great a slack as left by Bob. And that's not their fault, either. But Dylan felt that the responsibilities laid on his head were too much, and he pushed them aside, and it's hard to argue that he wasn't better off for doing that.

Dylan's tone throughout the song makes me feel even sorrier for him, since it's clear that he knows all of this as well, and that he wants to apologize for not being strong enough to shoulder those responsibilities like Atlas carrying the world on his back. It takes a wise man to know his faults, and a strong man to admit them; nobody likes to say "you're looking for a man who never fails? A man who won't let you down? Well, keep moving, pal, because it isn't me!" And you can even imagine the folk movement sharpening their knives in hearing this song, waiting to cut apart his lyrics for the flimsy excuses that they are, ready to tell him "how lame is that 'sorry' bullshit? Get your ass back into the studio and sing about issues, damn it! ISSUES!!!!" Take, for example, Irwin Silber's assertion that "the paraphernalia of fame" was messing with Bob's head and causing him to write only about himself -never mind that many people in Bob's position would've abused the hell out of his famous status, instead of casting it away like Bob did, and that anybody that sang about what Bob did was liable to fall under a spotlight bright enough to distract even the most disciplined of us. Or take David Horowitz dismissing Another Side as "a failure of taste and critical self-awareness" - never mind that Dylan is about as self-aware as it gets on the album (even on "Ballad in Plain D"...well, sort of), and the taste thing I'll just leave alone. Those criticisms smack of something deeper than just distaste for Dylan's new direction - there's a feeling that Bob, if you will, has become Darth Vader, seduced by the dark side and slave to the Emperors of Popular Music and Useless Introspection. And you wouldn't have done what Bob did if you were in his place, to run as far away from these uber-serious goons as possible?

All the same, even with those thoughts in my mind, I find "It Ain't Me Babe" to be much more powerful if I leave aside considerations of Dylan's career and concentrate solely on the surface meaning of the song - i.e., a gentle remonstration to a lover that he's not the man she wants or thinks she is. There have been times in my own life, for sure, where I've felt that I've let somebody down because it turned out I wasn't as mentally strong or capable as I was supposed to be, and few feelings are more rotten than letting somebody down. And that carries into every block of life, from personal to public, from my career to my schooling, sometimes to the point when I find myself paralyzed by being unable to do the right thing because I'm so worried about doing the wrong thing. This very blog is a microcosm of that struggle; every criticism stings (even the most gentle of them), because I feel like I've made somebody think less of me, or my writing ability, or the way I conduct this blog. The harsher ones (and there have been harsh ones) make me feel like this project was a mistake. I know, cry me a river, Justin Timberlake. But I sincerely doubt that I'm the only writer that feels this way, no matter how large his audience. In the end, no matter how hard you try to please yourself, your audience is who you're really trying to please, and if you can't do it, then you're in trouble.

That's not to say that I'm going to stop writing this blog - there are readers that actually like what I have to say, like how I say it, and to let my own nonsense get in the way of that is the very kind of selfish those folk critics accused Dylan of being. I like doing this blog, and feeling that in my own tiny way, I'm paying homage to a musician that's given so much to me and enriched my life in such a massive way. And I'm grateful to know that a man as brilliant as Dylan has his own moments of doubts, knows his own limitations, and is willing to state those limitations to a world unwilling to accept that he has them and is not the Superman they want (or need) him to be. Sometimes strength comes from knowing that you're not the only one with weaknesses, and that someone you revere saw the weaknesses in himself and accepted them for what they are.

Author's note: The Every Bob Dylan Song office (such as it is) has temporarily moved base, so the schedule may be a bit different than you readers are accustomed to. For this week, I will be putting up a special post on Wednesday, and then resuming the song posts on Sunday. After that, I'll play it by ear. As always, thank you so much for visiting my little corner of the Internet, and for continuing to read my blog. Read more!

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #46: Ballad in Plain D

Those of you that have read this blog from the beginning (you lucky ducks!) know that I have taken a jab or two at "Ballad in Plain D", a song that I have never cared for from the moment I heard it. I'm sure I'm not alone in this sense; to be honest, it's not a good song at all. It goes on for eight (eight!) solid minutes, full of acidic vitriol and mawkish sentimentality, and not even in an interesting way ("Idiot Wind", for example, has its share of vitriol and is also quite lengthy, but never ceases to be interesting and remains a highlight of Blood on the Tracks). You get the feeling that Dylan used his song writing power basically to insult Suze Rotolo's sister, possibly unfairly, and pay fawning tribute to Suze herself. Even the last line, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway?", isn't so much mysterious or thought-provoking as it is something of a head-scratcher; it's hard not to hear it and tilt your head like the RCA dog. It's the kind of thing somebody says at the end of a poetry slam in the hopes of getting extra snaps of applause from the audience.

So, yes, I have nothing good to say about the song; it's a millstone tied around Another Side's neck that keeps the album from reaching another level. Need I remind you the songs left on the wayside for this album? Bob could've sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" blackout drunk, forgetting the chords and lyrics, and stumbling around the studio so that the microphone only picks up every 3rd line, and it would've been a better choice than this song. That seems harsh, I know, but admit it: the humor that would be gleaned from hearing a loaded Bob try to get through the "deep beneath the waves" verse would make its inclusion worth it. There is virtually nothing that makes "Ballad in Plain D" worth inclusion, unless you want to hear Bob setting a page of his diary to music without any particular worry about who would possibly find it the least bit entertaining to listen to.

All the same, the song's out there and will be out there forever, and it's still iuteresting to consider why it was included and what it means in the canon of Bob's work. From the standpoint of 1964, we have a document of how Dylan perceived his breakup with Suze, with all the biases and emotional outpourings you would expect from a man who considers himself unfairly jilted (even when he says he's not to blame, there's a sense that he still feels wronged by that evil harpie controlling her sweet little sister). Even more so than "I Don't Believe You", which still could have been a fictional tale, "Ballad in Plain D" hides its emotions in plain sight, so that it's almost a dead certainty that Dylan is singing about himself, even if you didn't know that in advance. And, I suppose, there is a fascination from listening to that kind of hurt, so potent that even Dylan's semi-literary wranglings doesn't begin to hide it, and feeling almost voyeuristic in peeking into Dylan's innermost thoughts, albeit his innermost thoughts pressed onto vinyl for public consumption. It's a trainwreck fascination, but fascination nonetheless.

And then there's the modern perspective on "Ballad in Plain D", when we have Bob's entire career to consider. "Ballad in Plain D", when you get down to it, is the sound of a man mature beyond his years reacting to something in a very immature way. Think about this - Dylan's not even 25 years old yet, and yet he has had incredible pressure placed upon his head, coupled with the fact that he has grown immeasurably from a creative standpoint in only a few years, to the point where he has to be considered one of the best in the world at that time, even in his young age. This is a man wiser than the 23 years he'd lived when he recorded Another Side, a man that has lived more lifetime between 1962 to 1964 than many of us could ever dream of living in all our years, who has demonstrated a power over his vocabulary, over the ideas in his head, and over the metier of songwriting that is absolutely astonishing. And here he is, using that incredible talent and ability to string words together, and he's writing something akin to an emo tune, like he's Dashboard Confessional or something. It's actually a little endearing, when you stop to think about it - even the strongest and most mature of us can be rattled by something like lost love, and that lost love had led Dylan to (metaphorically) flip his wig. I guess he was still just a 23-year old after all, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

With all of that said, I still don't think "Ballad in Plain D" has any place on that album; for an album so full of ideas, brilliant notions and concepts, and remarkable language, to stick on an overlong English 425 workshop piece does it absolutely no favors. Then again, with the frame of mind Dylan must have been in to write and record that song in the first place, it seems apparent that the song was making it on no matter what. And it's too late to tell him "no, think about it, you're making a mistake", although I'd bet that he wouldn't have listened anyway. So we have "Ballad in Plain D" forever, and we have a song that exists more as a curiosity and a marker in Dylan's career than anything that exists on artistic merit. Given Dylan's career, that's perfectly okay. If you want to see Dylan as brilliant musician, as shaper of ideas, as lyricist without peer, you have plenty of songs to choose from. If you want to see Dylan the man, growing up and maturing, you could do worse than give this song a listen. Just don't be surprised if that first listen is also your last. Read more!

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #45: I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)

It seems kind of funny, forty years down the line, that quite possibly the most enduring song on the entire album is this one - maybe more so than "All I Really Want To Do", or "Chimes of Freedom", or any of the more famous and analyzed songs here. Certainly it's a song Dylan holds clear to his heart, since it's cropped up in just about every tour that he's performed in his long and illustrious live career. Consider:

1. a spot in the 1964 Carnegie Hall show (complete with a stoned Dylan spouting non sequiturs during a meandering guitar intro, culminating with his asking the audience how the first verse goes);
2. part of Dylan's 1965-1966 electric sets (we all remember Dylan's smartass 1966 intro - "it used to be like that, now it goes like this");
3. one of the highlights of the earlier, superior 1974 shows;
4. a place in Dylan's lovely 1975 acoustic sets
5. part of the 1978 tour rehearsals (all of which are superior to even the best 1978 shows, IMO);
6. intermittent performances during the Never Ending Tour, from 1988 to today.

So Dylan must have a soft spot for this song, right? I mean, he never plays anything from Desire, very rarely plays something from the gospel days, hardly plays more famous songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Lay Lady Lay", and yet this little song about a wild night and a "what the hell happened?" morning after continually finds its way into Dylan's setlists. Pretty surprising, isn't it?

Perhaps. But I like to think that Dylan, who can be incredibly self-aware when he wants to be, knows just what a universal sentiment he touched upon with "I Don't Believe You", even beyond the nostalgic feelings it brings up in his fans from the 60s (some of whom may have seen the 1966 version - imagine that!). Who among us hasn't had that feeling of sudden, incomprehensible rejection after what you believed was a night of joy and pleasure? And how many of us hasn't wondered "wait a second - is this guy/girl serious?" as they find themselves being pushed away. Dylan manages to capture all of those emotions - the whirlwind of what feels like courtship in the nighttime hours, followed by the confusion and bitterness when the courtship abruptly breaks off in the morning. And unlike the 1966 live performances, where Dylan's acidic sneer makes it hard to believe that man on stage had ever felt that kind of hurt, the album performance keeps the pain right underneath the surface, just barely held in check.

Also, Dylan actually touches on something just becoming relevant then and very relevant today - the traditional view of courtship and relationships butting heads with the modern, liberated views of sexuality and living a life not tied to old ways of thinking about love. It's ironic, in a way, that it's the male narrator that finds himself being shown the door when he thinks he's laid the foundation for a deeper relationship. Most of us think it's the other way around (for instance, the American notion of the "walk of shame", where after a night of sex some poor college student is forced to gather her things and walk back to her own lodgings, usually early in the morning - think smeared mascara, a shirt not quite put on right, and hair mussed like a tornado had blown through), whether it's right or not. The gender inversion's kind of cute, but it also underlines the changes in our society that Dylan was witnessing firsthand. Now women were able to force men to do the walk of shame, to realize that they're not the only ones that can sleep around (or even just have a wild night) with no repercussions. Funny or not, it's actually a very advanced way of looking at the world.

I have that same kind of push and pull in my own life - I don't have a problem with having multiple partners, and yet I'm more the kind of person that would want to settle down with somebody and have that stability in my life. I actually found myself in a similar situation as Dylan describes in "I Don't Believe You", only stretched out for a long period of time, to the point where it felt like I was involved with Dr. Jeckyll (a female version, for the record). There's nothing quite like it; it's the feeling of riding a rollercoaster, only you never get off and rollercoasters usually don't leave you questioning what you're doing with yourself and whether or not you need to say "I can't take this anymore" and jump off. I did, eventually, but even now I wonder if I didn't make the wrong decision, and if I'd managed to ride out one more wave things would be different today. Dylan, in his song, seems to feel the same way - he remembers that night of pleasure quite fondly, even while pondering where it all went wrong. And that's the same way relationships work in real life, even when they go wrong; surely if something had been different, if the wind had blown another way, things might have gone right instead. Maybe that night wouldn't have to end, and maybe her skirt would be still swaying as the guitar's still playing.

And maybe a million dollars might fall out of the sky and drop in my lap. In the end, it's a quote from the movie Cocktail (of all things) that sums up life so very well - "all things end badly, or else they wouldn't end". Relationships, jobs, sports careers...hell, even life itself all follow that same path. And when I reminisce about what went wrong and how it could have gone right, I always do well to remember that, in the end, it didn't go right, and that's why I'm thinking about it instead of still being with her. "I Don't Believe You" sighs with longing and regret, but the narrator still manages to move on in the end, even delivering his own pithy quote to sum things up. People move on, and so does life. If you don't move on too, you'll find yourself simply going round and round, like that Steely Dan song, just to do it again. You'll be forever consigned to staring at that wall, wondering how you got there, as that guitar quietly fades into the distance. Read more!

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #44: My Back Pages


A few weeks ago I was in an aquarium, where I had the opportunity to watch some sharks. Sharks have fascinated me for years, and every so often, I've thought about how certain sharks (not all) have to constantly swim in order to survive. I mean, it's such a fascinating notion, isn't it? Even now, I can close my eyes and imagine one coursing through the waters, fated to spend its entire life swimming or face a painful death. Nature has a funny way of springing curveballs on its animals, not least of all on us humans, and that's one that seems hardest to fathom. One second to rest, one moment without motion, and your life is over.

And yet, that notion of constant motion to survive makes sense to me, but only when I apply it in a certain way: to ourselves. If you think about it, our lives are spent in constant motion, both in an experience sense, and in a mental sense. As we grow up, have more things happen to us (or, to paraphrase Lennon, stuff happens to us while we're making other plans), and expand our own personal biography, we find ourselves in constant flux. Even when we have a steady job, family, and other accoutrements of modern life, we are still moving, our lives changing incrementally and occasionally even drastically. And our minds are always moving as well, growing, learning (to a certain point), and continuing to understand this daunting world that we live in. At least, that's the plan, right?

Not always. Many of us, as we grow older (and, yes, I include myself), find ourselves becoming more intractable in our mental actions, both in the way that we view the world around us, the way that we act every day, and in the way that we interact with other people. This makes sense, of course - the years of experience we've accrued have helped us build a framework that we have fit the world into, and that helps us to deal with things. It's so much harder to deal with things when they're surprises and when we have to adapt; adapting's hard work, for Pete's sake. And as we grow older and more aware of our mortality, the desire to change ourselves and adapt to the world (which never grows old, never stops changing, and evolves practically by the second) grows smaller and smaller, which is why we get jokes about old people not being able to understand iPhones and complaining about how things were so much better when they were younger. The reason they say that is because, to them, there's no question that they were. After all, when they were younger, the world was shaped by people just like them. Now it's different people that shape the world, and that's really hard to swallow, isn't it?

Yes, there are plenty of old people that don't follow that stereotype, that are perfectly willing to adapt to the world as it changes around them, and can continue to keep their perspective fresh and with the times that they live in, instead of the times they lived in (see what I did there?). And you and I both know that those people are the exception to the rule, and that the generation gap exists and seems to grow wider and wider. It's amazing that every generation swears that it won't happen to them, that they won't become as intractable as their parents were, and then they go right ahead and have that exact thing happen to them. I'm quite sure I will have the same thing start to happen to me, and I will fight that as long as I have a breath in my body.

You would think, then, that the inverse ought to be true; while we're still in our youth and still formulating our view of the world, we should be able to change the way that we look at things and basically push the reset button on certain viewpoints we hold. After all, we can SEE old people get crustier and more set in their ways by the day, so we should know better, right? You know where I'm going with this - young people are just as intractable in their ways, and sometimes even more so. No asshole's gonna tell ME what to do! Nobody's gonna run my life! I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want! And so on, and so on. And then old people look at US and go "these young punks don't understand jack", and the circle of life continues on, ad infinitum.

I think about these things, and then I think about the Bob Dylan of 1964, a man who'd become as disillusioned as you could possibly imagine, who'd grown tired of being the stern-faced idealist with a finger ever wagging and sharp words for those that'd do evil, whose desire to change the world had been eaten away in the cosmic equivalent of the blink of an eye. The Bob Dylan of 1964 had seen how hard changing the world really is, how hard it is to sway feelings and move hearts and change minds. The Bob Dylan of 1964 realized that the world is not just about Issues and Politics and Naysaying To Wrongdoers; he saw that there's as much of the world in love, and in music, and in everything that we take for granted but means so much more when you get right the hell down to it. And the Bob Dylan of 1964 thought on this, reflected on this, and he became a different person and a different musician. He changed his mind, and he gave us a song in "My Back Pages" that essentially outlines that change in mind, as poetically and stunningly as you could hope for. And we are all so much better off for it.

Don't worry, I'm not going to give you some "if Bob can change, then you can" bullshit, or suggest that Bob has always been flexible in his ways of thinking. All I'm saying is that, at a major crossroads of his life, he followed his inner Frost and took the road less travelled, pissing off a lot of people in the process. And he did it because he felt that his way of seeing the world was wrong, was harming him in both the present and future senses, and wanted to create a new and improved Bob Dylan. That takes a special human being indeed. I just hope that when I'm old and muttering about kids on my lawn, I can remember Bob and cut those damn kids a little slack.


It is one thing, when listening to and trying to interpret Dylan's songs, to attribute meaning to his lyrics, so that you end up listening to the song with your own interpretation in mind. It is something else entirely to have the meaning dropped into your lap, to the point where you can't hear the song without thinking about anything else. "My Back Pages" is one of those rare songs where you don't have to make much of a logical leap to figure out what he's talking about. It's rather clear, throughout the song, that Dylan's talking about his struggles with being part of the protest movement and his desire to break away, punctuated by that famous chorus (and another example of the stereotype of old people calcifying mentally as they age - there's a reason he switched the ages that way).

What gives the song an added edge is just how bitter Bob sounds in his lyrics - it's as though he took that entire year of idealism gone sour and converted his feelings into verbal form. I wonder how some of the people that stood with Dylan in the protest movement felt about being called "corpse evangelists" concerned with "abstract threats/too noble to neglect"? Dylan's free-flowing language, even dressing up his real feelings in seemingly incomprehensible wording, cannot hide his emotions - anger, sadness, disdain. Funny enough, though, none of the emotions shown are either regret or conflict. The Bob of "My Back Pages" is completely comfortable and at peace with the choice that he has made.

To me, the most important and telling part of the song is in the fifth verse:

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach

That, to me, speaks volumes about how Dylan felt as a protest singer - a foot soldier in a cultural war, battling mongrel dogs, not realizing that he's no different from those that he would rail against. Even granting Dylan still relatively in the heat of the moment (I assume he's grown more accepting of his protest days in his later years), that's a hell of a verse to set down in describing the Times days, isn't it? Again, imagine a Pete Seeger hearing that and going "did Bob really say that?" To look at yourself in the mirror and not like what you see, and to that regard? You'd really have to hate what you were to talk about your former self in those terms. Bob looked in the mirror and saw the very people he was singing about. That had to sting.

And so Bob did something about it, maybe the only thing he could do - he wrote a song about it, about how he felt, and how he was ready to move on. "My Back Pages", if nothing else, is a song about a man moving on, eager to leave his old self behind and to find something new. And, by virtue of its recording, it captures a point in Bob's career so specific that you'd be hard pressed to imagine Bob at any other point in his life writing the same song. The wounds were too fresh, the emotions still simmering, and Bob got every single last bit of that into this song. He wouldn't have the time to write a song like this in the coming years - once he found that something new, there was no turning back.

BONUS: "My Back Pages" from the 30th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden. I'm never the biggest fan of all-star performances, since they inevitably lose something in trying to satiate every ego, but this one didn't come out so bad. Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Bob himself, and George Harrison all sing verses, Clapton contributes his usual clean, blues-informed solo, and Young contributes his usual noise-pollution, beautifully ugly solo. Enjoy!

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #43: Motorpsycho Nitemare

What's that they used to say about farmer's daughters? Well, I mean, besides this. I've heard my share of those awful jokes, and while I listened to "Motorpsycho Nitemare", I had every single one of them running through my head; I wonder if Bob chuckled as he wrote the lyrics to this song, thinking about all the crappy farmer's daughter jokes that were old back then. It's hard to believe the song was written at all, honestly, but that's part of the charm, I guess.

This is a stream of consciousness song that doesn't really sound like stream of consciousness; aside from the really wacky stuff like having a Reader's Digest hurled at one's head, Bob could very well have been relating a tale from his sojourn across America earlier that year. Then again, he might've just read On The Road or some other such novel/memoir/whatever about life on the road and wanted to pen his own goofy version of "one night at a strange farm". You never can tell with Bob, can you? At the very least, we got one of his best song titles, and Bob got to do a test run for "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" the next year; the song manages to use both the same (very basic) chord structure, verse construction, and oddball top of the head lyricism. Oh yeah, and there's the matter of that electric business.

What I kind of like about the song is something I usually don't care for: there's a time-capsule feeling around this song, and I'm not just talking about the references to Psycho and La Dolce Vita. I seriously doubt that "farmer's daughters" stories happen anymore; for one, the number of roads that don't have some form of motel or inn or something alongside it is dwindling every year, and our ever-widening societal net means that even rural teenage girls will probably have heard of iPods and the Jonas Brothers and DirecTV and that sort of thing. You're not really going to get guys sleeping in barns and confronted by somebody that looks like the McPoyle sister anymore, let alone Anita Ekberg. I will say that I have lived in the Midwest, and you do see your share of corn-fed gals who might or might not have spent time on a farm. But that's another story.

Not too long ago I undertook a drive from Ann Arbor, MI to Las Vegas. The drive stretched over 2 days and roughly 24 hours on the road, give or take time spent at gas stations and eating really, really unhealthily. I saw some really beautiful stretches of land (Utah, in particular, is a natural marvel) and some boring as hell stretches of land (Nebraska was so flat and dull I actually felt like Charles Starkweather for a few hours). What I didn't see too much of, however, were just isolated farms; I saw a couple of farms, to be sure, but what I saw a lot of were gas stations, McDonald's, rest stops, and lots and lots of open land. Driving through the badlands of Colorado, you can see the sky stretched out before you like a panorama, an endless sea of blue and white that never seems to end. It's enough to make me wish I'd had a camera. Alas.

The point, though, is that the modern-day road trip experience is miles and miles away from what it was like 40 years ago, both for better and for worse. It's certainly better in that having your car break down isn't a life or death experience, and that I can plug in my iPod into my car stereo and have the hours just fly by, and I can stop at a Comfort Inn if I'm tired instead of having to find some stranger to put me up for the night. But it's worse in that so much of the romanticism is gone; all the 7-11s and Arby's tend to take away from the experience of seeing the country, you can actually see areas where the natural beauty of the land has been raped by terrible farming techniques and yet another store with novelty items like clams with googly eyes pasted on them, and the thrill of being out there in the great wide open has been lessened by the urban sprawl reaching out and snatching up more pieces of the country.

Listening to "Motorpsycho Nitemare" is enlightening, not just because Dylan's view-askew writing style is at its most playful here, but because experiences like the one Dylan's parodying were much more common a long time ago than today. Maybe it's just my sense of nostalgia speaking, but I would like to experience an America far more open than it is today, one where every stretch of road was only a line traced through green fields and open forests, where roadside diners were actual events instead of places to grab a burger and eat while driving (not that I ever did that - that is poor driving etiquette!). I will say, though, that the idea of sleeping in a barn does not particularly appeal to me. Well, unless I knew that the farmer who owned that barn had a daughter that looked like Anita Ekberg. Read more!

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #42: To Ramona

"To Ramona" is one of those songs that I'm quite sure has a deeper meaning behind it, and is also one of those songs that I wish didn't. As you readers probably figured out by now, few things annoy me more than having to deal with the idea of a song having a fixed meaning that Dylanologists have painstakingly unearthed and solidified over the past 4 decades, and any type of enjoyment or understanding of the song beyond a rigid clinging to that meaning is null and void. That sounds like exaggeration, I know...but I think we know it isn't, right? The funny thing is that that kind of thinking actually the song feel smaller and less important, because there's no real way to allow the song to have any import other than the one already attached. No song, let alone one of Bob's, deserves that kind of fate.

But I still love "To Ramona", mainly because I prefer to either not know those meanings or keep them buried in the back of my head (where there's enough clutter that those sorts of things can be easily lost). I've always loved the way those lyrics seemed to gently snake around the song's melody, as though trying to escape from the musical trappings Bob forced upon them so that he could put them on his album. I've always loved "from fixtures and forces and friends/Your sorrow does stem". I've always loved the quiet melancholy of the song, as though Bob is genuinely sorry that he has to have this little talk with his lover, with the knowledge that it will all be for naught in the end. And I've always loved that weary final line - "someday, maybe, who knows, baby/I'll come and be crying to you", both pushing his lover away and leaving the door open to one day pull her back. There's so much to love about this song, especially the fact that it's so unassuming; it's a classic that doesn't try to be a classic.

And, yes, it is laced with a deeper meaning that (for many people) lifts the song on a much different plane than it exists on the album. It's been suggested that "Ramona" is actually Joan Baez, and the song is about Dylan's feelings about the folk movement that both of them were major pillars of (even more so, now that they were the Brangelina of that movement, and I now feel extremely dirty having typed that). Dylan's disillusionment with his role as a protest singer is in full flower ("a world that just don't exist...a vacuum, a scheme"), and that he wants nothing more to do with "worthless foam from the mouth". And when he says those three f's (love that alliteration!) are trying to make her feel that she has to be just like them, is there any doubt who he's talking about? In a way, that makes the song even more bittersweet; Dylan must've actually cared enough about Joan to tell her to run away, while keeping enough self-awareness to know that she both couldn't, and wouldn't.

That's the part of the song that really affects me; that final sad verse, where Dylan knows full well that his words will have no effect and "Ramona" will continue down the path she's chosen, and he simply tells her to "do what you think you should do". In a sense, that's the only real advice you can give somebody in life - no matter how much a person respects you and your opinion, your opinion will never trump the one formed in their own inner government. We all know this - we all practice it ourselves - and yet it doesn't hurt any less to see advice go unheeded and to witness someone you care about doing their own thing and (almost inevitably) disappointing you because of it. It's a very human thing to ignore advice; Lord knows I've done it a million times in the past, even when it's been very good advice. I wonder where that impulse comes from. Maybe it's because we know we only get one shot at life, and we want to know that no matter what happens, to paraphrase Sinatra, we did it our way. Maybe it's because nobody else knows better about our lives than we do (even if it's apparent that we know very little about our own lives as well). Maybe it's because we're all stubborn little bastards at heart.

I suppose it's not really worth thinking about what would have happened if Joan Baez had taken Bob's advice (one can imagine it was given both in this song form and in real life) and had left the folk movement the way Bob had. I mean, do any of you think Baez had the artistic chops or the inclination to have ever done so? She's still making bank from her folk career (and why shouldn't she? That's her niche, and she's good at it), and it's hard to imagine a more rock-oriented Baez doing anything in the mid-60s, although you never really do know with those kinds of things. But I wonder if Joan Baez ever does think about those things, if she could have strayed from the folk music path and tried to do something different, with Bob by her side helping her with incorporating her beautiful - and it really is beautiful - voice with electric music. Maybe she has regrets, and maybe she wishes she'd listened to Bob. It's a sad fact that our lives are completely linear, and we can never see the branches that could've sprouted from different paths, different decisions, and different actions. "To Ramona" makes me think about those different paths, snaking out into the ethos with the same lithe ease as Dylan's words. Read more!

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #41: I Shall Be Free No. 10

This is the kind of song where analysis seems almost besides the point; after all, there is a line in here that goes "Yippee! I'm a poet and I know it...hope I don't blow it". What in the world am I going to say about that? Basically, Dylan takes the chord structure for "Talking World War III Blues", sticks in a little harmonica blowing over a choppy guitar progression so that it isn't a straight ripoff, and gives us his version of a rap freestyle (even though I assume the lyrics were written at some point previous to recording - the notion that the whole thing was spontaneous is far too much to swallow). The song is basically a lark, through and through, with a few interesting lines to pick through and puzzle over. But that's what us Dylan fans do best, right?

Certain bits of the song amuse me on a surface level - Bob's attempt to tie this "I Shall Be Free" to the Freewheelin' version with an "I gotta woman, she's so mean" verse (complete with triple rhyme in the verse's final line), his over-counting in the Cassius Clay verse, and the fact that he actually uses the phrase "wowee!" at some point. The guy has a sense of humor, of course. Then there's other stuff that actually makes me think a little, that makes me think the song might not just be a piece of fluff he brought in because it gave him a chuckle. He does chuckle at the end anyway, an "aren't I clever?" chuckle, but you get what I'm saying.

For instance, there's the verse about his friend that "pretends to barf" when his name is brought up that makes me look askew, especially when he says "I got a million friends!" You wonder if he's talking about somebody specific, and who those "million friends" actually are. Then there's the very first verse, where he starts the whole song by saying "I'm just average, common too" and says that talking to him is no different than talking to us. Wonder what makes him say that...perhaps the fact that he was basically feted as the voice of a generation from his second album? And then there's that little dig he threw in at the end, where he says the song is "something I learned over in England", and if that's not a shot at someone, I don't know what is. He wouldn't slip that in unless he wanted to poke a little fun.

I suppose you could go through the whole song line by line like that if you so choose, kind of like how I had to explicate poems in high school (I sucked at that, if you couldn't guess), and try to spot the hidden meanings, the subliminal messages, and the coded stuff Dylan only wanted a few people to understand. Shit, people have been doing that to Blood On The Tracks for decades, probably because the raw emotion and staggering songcraft isn't enough for them and they want to REALLY make sure how exactly Dylan's sticking it to his ex-wife. There is a point where the analysis becomes too much, where we're picking over nothing but bones that have been picked over a million times. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

On the other hand, Dylan would certainly not be the first, nor the last person to insert these sorts of messages into his songs; in fact, his puckish sense of humor would almost demand it. And what the hey, it's fun to treasure hunt in Bob's lyrics. Some of the crazier shit practically begs us to spot the hidden meaning. And come on, this song's on Another Side for a reason, just like all of them are. It's not as amazing as "Chimes of Freedom", or as quietly semi-personal as "To Ramona", or as well-meaning as "Ballad of Plain D" (which, for its multitude of faults, is undeniably well-meaning), so there's got to be something else, right? I mean, right?

Maybe not. Maybe trying to spot meaning in this song, as with all songs by any artist, is because we as humans need to find logic in our lives, to understand the inexplicable, and to put a reason on something that might not actually have it. We do this with the big things in life (the search for a Supreme Being, our constant attempts to understand terrorism), as well as the small ones (just why exactly is it that hot dogs come in packs of eight, and hot dog buns in packs of six?). And we especially do it when confronted with something strange, out of the norm, difficult for our minds to compute. I'd say "I Shall Be Free No. 10" qualifies. Read more!

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #40: Chimes of Freedom


I am about to make a confession here, the degree of which you can decide for yourself: I have yet to see "The Other Side of the Mirror" yet. Even though its historical importance is beyond reproach and the performances are all uniformly fantastic (I HAVE heard the infamous Newport '65 electric/acoustic set, lest you think I'm some sort of heathen), I've only seen the odd clips on PBS, but not the whole thing. Obviously, I'll have to rectify that at some point, along with seeing the expanded Don't Look Back, Masked and Anonymous, and Hearts of Fire. Okay, maybe not Hearts of Fire.

Still, I do know how to use YouTube, and today I watched the Newport 1964 performance of "Chimes of Freedom" in preparation for writing this little blog post. It's a fine performance, possibly superior to the album version, if only because Dylan is in strong voice and always seems to be jazzed to be playing at Newport. But as I watched the performance, I found myself thinking about that particular moment in Dylan's career, when Dylan was no longer That Protest Music Guy, but wasn't quite That Druggie Electric Warrior, either. After all, the set of that Newport show featured 3 Another Side songs, the unreleased "Mr. Tambourine Man" (imagine sitting in the crowd for THAT unveiling?), and the obligatory Baez duet on "With God On Our Side" (one can assume Baez had something to do with that song selection). Leaving aside the duet with Baez, which was about as expected as "Crazy Train" at an Ozzy show, that's four songs that are either not protest songs or (in "Chimes of Freedom"'s case) only tangentially a protest song.

The phrase "transition album" has been bandied about a lot already in this series of Another Side posts (perhaps too much), but there's really no doubt that this stage of Dylan's career was a transitional period. I'd wondered to myself a few times about what would've happened if Dylan had stayed an acoustic artist throughout his career; hell, I'd even posed a similar theoretical earlier in this blog's existence. And while the odds were against Dylan staying an acoustic artist throughout his entire career, it still does not seem like any kind of fait accompli that Dylan was going to take that step into electric music and reinvent himself entirely. His days as a purely protest singer were over - that much was clear - but his next step was one that nobody, least of all Bob, was really sure of guessing.

You could make any number of guesses at why Dylan decided to go electric: the influence of the Beatles and the burgeoning pop-rock scene; Dylan's earlier love of Chuck Berry and Little Richard; a desire to give the ultimate insult to the old folk music crowd; Tom Wilson's work on "The Sound of Silence"; maybe one day Dylan just woke up and had a funny feeling. We'll probably never know for sure. But at least we do know, or can be reasonably certain, that no outside influence directly led to Dylan's electric output - no post hoc effect is evident here. Dylan did it of his own accord, because he wanted to, and that looms large in his legend.

But what if he had never gone electric? Would something else loom large in his legend, or would there even be a legend on the level of Dylan's current status? This is even more rampant speculation, but I think it's a thread worth picking at. It seems apparent that Dylan's songs were starting to strain the limits of a solo musician (something I'll get into a little more down the line, as you might expect), but certainly not to the point where his songwriting would suffer without a full band picking him up. What would Blonde on Blonde have sounded like done acoustically? Would it have been a full extension of Dylan's 1966 acoustic sets? Maybe Bob would've gone the lighter band route like "Corrina, Corrina" and done something more akin to his Unplugged or Supper Club sets. Would the backlash from the folk community have been as strong for that? Would Dylan have become as big a pop music sensation? It's very hard to say.

And then there's the opposite tack - what if Dylan had been electric from the start? How would he have handled "Hattie Carroll" or "Hard Rain" in 1963 with a full electric band? Or would he even have had the chance to record that kind of music without incurring the wrath of the folk audience that felt so betrayed in 1965? I'd like to think that the music and message would've been strong enough to overcome any misgivings about how the music actually sounded, but that probably would not have been the case. All the same, could he have had enough of an impact to override that anti-electric sentiment, changing the purveyance of folk music as an aesthetic and reinventing the way we listen to music? There's a billion questions down this line, all more tantalizing than the next, many of them that could have had a seismic impact on not only popular music, but our culture as a whole.

Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is the fact that Dylan's mid-1960s success was built upon essentially trading in one audience for a brand new one, quite possibly the hardest feat in any medium of entertainment. Could Dylan have moved from a folk audience to a rock audience with either a purely acoustic or semi-acoustic sound? Probably not. Would Dylan have been immediately embraced by pop audiences with electric protest songs? Harder to say, but that also doesn't seem likely. Could Dylan have built the same respect and reverence from his peers that he had today, no matter which way he'd gone? I would think so. But he might not have had the shot to build the career he did without that audience changeover, and that is the most important thing.

"Chimes of Freedom" led me down this train of thought for many reasons - because it's (IMO) the best song on Another Side, because of this and this, and because an album and song this close to Dylan's electric triumverate naturally led me to think about if it'd been an electric quartet instead. Maybe it's because we've had the acoustic albums for so long, but somehow I have trouble thinking of "Only A Pawn in Their Game" or "Girl of the North Country" in electric versions (well, in 1960s style electric versions). I don't have the same problem with "It Ain't Me, Babe", certainly not with "I Don't Believe You", and not with this song as well. And at the same time, I can listen to "Queen Jane Approximately" and imagine Dylan with only guitar and harmonica to see it through, and the strength of the song shining through the limitations of a one-man band. We'll never know how differently things could have turned out, but that doesn't make it any less fun to have a guess for ourselves.


So yes, for the record, I believe "Chimes of Freedom" is the best song on the album, and I'm locking that in before I change my mind and go with "My Back Pages" or the sentimental choice "I Don't Believe You" instead. I'm certainly not alone in my choice; any number of critics, musicians, and everyday Dylan fans would agree with me. I mean, how could they not? Everything we ever loved about Dylan pre- and post-electric is in this song, only without the whole electric thing. It is a prototypical example of what the general public believes a Dylan song is, both poetically erudite, lyrically fantastic, and just a little hard to fathom. It's a beautiful song carried entirely by its words, always a tough feat when there isn't a funky solo or really cool atmospheric production to distract you. It's about as close to perfect as a protest song (which, again, tangentially, is what it is) will ever get.

The reason it comes so close to perfect, in my opinion, is that it doesn't attempt to be the least bit specific about anything at all. Think about it - "Hard Rain" and "Blowin' in the Wind", two other songs that occupy exalted chairs in Dylan's Mount Olympus, either couch their protests in surreal, phantasmagorical imagery or use well-written generalities to reach their points. "Chimes of Freedom", while not quite as good as either of those songs (you may disagree; it's a matter of degrees here), does manage the mean feat of combining both of those songs' attributes, making a song about "every hung-up person in the entire universe" while spewing out a stream of consciousness deep enough to drown in. Not to belabor the point, but something like "With God On Our Side", for any number of attributes it has, still seems too specific, too about something you could easily dismiss if you had the inclination. A song like "Chimes of Freedom" seems a lot harder to dismiss.

On the other hand, a song like "Chimes of Freedom" is rather easy to get lost in, simply because its imagery is so surreal that the words envelop you in a beautiful fog (a feeling similar to what people say heroin is like). I am reminded of Fellini's 8 1/2, a movie of almost achingly gorgeous beauty, shot in a way so striking that other filmmakers almost had no choice but to rip it off lest their efforts be simply swallowed by its incredible cinematography...and manages to gaze so deep into its navel that it can actually see its own spinal cord. I mean, there's indulgent, and then there's indulgent, and 8 1/2 belongs firmly in that latter class. That doesn't make it less of a brilliant film; it's just that occasionally the wild imagery tends to become too much, like eating ice cream until you're sick to death of it.

"Chimes of Freedom", in a way, is like that; I'm not saying that makes it a bad song, or that it's not a classic, but that it's not quite a "Hard Rain" kind of classic, all because of its indulgences. If listening to "It's Alright, Ma" or "Visions of Johanna" is like watching Dylan ride Secretariat, "Chimes of Freedom" is like Dylan hanging on for dear life as Secretariat blasts out of the stable and charges wildly across the plains. It's almost as if Dylan is so staggered by his own ability to form these amazing images, to write lines like "wild cathedral evening" and "the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder" (my favorite line in the song), that he didn't quite figure out which of those lines needed to be left to his own imagination. I'm not the person to ask which lines should have been struck, but it seems apparent to me that some of them should have been, and were left in because Dylan's genius had overrun his instincts as a songwriter. That happens, and is understandable, but it still hurts the song a little.

That being said, it needs to be remembered that this is a protest song in its own way, a song that cries out for us to heed the needs of the less fortunate, of those that Jesus blessed on the Sermon on the Mount, and for everyone that is deserving of our sympathy. That works greatly in the song's favor; the indulgence that would've been so hard to swallow if the song had been about, say, surfing or girls (or a surfing girl) is much more easily forgiven when the song's about the downtrodden and the left behind. And that reason is why I feel bad for wishing lines to be struck from the song, and why I cannot listen to this song without constantly feeling wonder and amazement. Dylan, in one seven minute song, fused the side of him that cared about the world with the side that spun off imagery like fireworks shooting off sparks, and the result was a song this beautiful, this heart-stoppingly great, that it's almost an insult to even try to find fault with it. And the fact that Dylan never really accomplished this feat again, never gave us a song this meaningful and this trippy at the same time, makes it all the more amazing. It may be indulgent, but we are all luckier for having it in our lives.

BONUS: Here's Dylan's performance of "Chimes of Freedom" at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. I'll never understand how he kept all those lyrics in his head. Maybe it was...the drugs???!?!?! Enjoy!

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