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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albert hall said...

Thank you very much for this series. How interesting that your review of Chimes of Freedom which I agree with you is a major work has elicited no comments yet. I wonder if this is because judged against Dylan's very highest standards of writing in images by which I mean Hard Rain to Weary Tune to Tambourine Man to Every grain of Sand it just falls short but people don't quite like to say so. How so? I would say in three ways. Here we see dylan in transition from borrowing folk tunes to creating his own this is about the nearest he comes to plainchant.Not much of a tune. Then, is some of the language really a bit over the top when we are used to Dylan the master of understatement and surprise ....'for every hung up person in the whole wide universe'.Then I feel he must have found it difficult to perform. The Newport performance seems to me a little bit forced unlike Tambourine Man, as if this is a message which has to be pushed across.So,it doesn't survive into the Halloween concert unlike five of the Another Side songs.Some lovely lines and phrases---starry eyed and laughing, the cloud's white curtain.One of the few things of Dylan's which is almost as good to read as to listen to.

David George Freeman said...

What a great essay. Have you read enough? Well come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to all the great versions of this incredible song.