Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #62: From A Buick 6

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #60: Tombstone Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favtape - The Chambers Brothers
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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #59: Like A Rolling Stone



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

"A weird looking painting of a face."

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

Ah, Dylan humor.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #57: It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but one thing I enjoy having in my life are little rituals, things I do as a matter of course throughout the day, whether it's how I do my exercising, how I conduct myself at a gaming table, or just the way that I eat breakfast. There's something comforting about a ritual, even though it's a strictly illogical comfort; there's no particular reason for anyone to do anything of that sort. We all know about sports fans that will wear the same clothes during a playoff run, sit in the same chairs, eat the same food, even cross their legs or arms the exact same way. And, if you asked those people, they would probably admit that, deep down, they know that all that rigamarole does nothing to help their team win. But it makes them feel better, helps them cope with something that is beyond their control by doing things that are in their control, and that's the really important part. That's how those rituals work, when you get down to it; doing the things you know you can do help you deal with things you may not be able to do. At least, that's what I tell myself.

In my first year of college, I attended a class on European history from 1800-1945 or thereabouts. As it turns out, we didn't quite get to 1945, as the class pacing was a bit too leisurely and the course ended somewhere around Triumph of the Will; but that's neither here nor there. As it happens, this semester coincided with my Dylan fandom slowly burgeoning into Dylan obsession, and from that came a little ritual that (at least, I think) helped me get into the proper mindset for learning about this weighty subject. Before every lecture I attended, I'd pop Bringing It All Back Home into my Discman (ah, the B.I. - Before iPod - era), cue up "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", and listen the whole way through before entering the lecture hall. If I got there early enough, I'd listen twice. And this ritual of mine helped steer me to a B+ for the class (well, that and my already ingrained interest in history), one of the few courses where I actually reached those glorious heights. One wonders how many other classes I could have done as well in if I'd simply chosen a Dylan song to listen to before those; alas, that question will never have an answer.

Now, I'm sure you all have the same question (other than "you're a little strange, aren't you?") - "why that Dylan song?" And, believe it or not, I have an answer for you. Every time I hear "It's Alright, Ma", I feel something weighty, something important, coming out of my speakers, a song that could actually match the massive importance we place upon our past and the events that have led us to where we are today. I'm drifting into very deep waters of pretentiousness here, but I think I have at least the ghost of a point; who amongst us hasn't heard this song and marveled at just how incredibly, mind-blowingly deep the song is, or at least feels like? How can you not hear lyrics like "he not busy being born is busy dying", or the one about the President (more on that in a second), or "while one who sings with his tongue on fire/gargles in the rat race choir", without feeling that Dylan is singing about something that speaks to each and every one of us, touching on the machinations of our lives, what we deem to be important and what truly is important, and making sense of what so many others have tried to make sense of but failed? Isn't history, which shapes our lives even though it's already happened, something like that? How do we learn from the past unless we're taught about it? And how do we make sense of ourselves without somebody lending a hand to all of us?

We all remember that famous moment on Before the Flood when Dylan, singing "It's Alright, Ma" as the closer of his acoustic sets, gets to the line about the President standing naked, and the audience explodes in applause. After all, this was in the thick of Watergate, as Richard Nixon's doomed Presidency slowly spiraled towards his undignified resignation, and every single person knew exactly what Dylan was talking about in that particular moment, with that particular line. But there are probably a few of you that haven't heard modern Bob concerts, and I will admit that it's been a while since I heard any 2000-era Dylan shows and my memory may be a bit foggy, but I still recall that around 2002 or 2003, especially as the Iraq war drew closer to and eventually became reality, Dylan would play "It's Alright, Ma", hit that line, and the crowd would inevitably explode into cheers and applause. Not only does that show you the power of Dylan's words stretching across generations, but it also shows you just how history works sometimes. The faces may change, but the feelings don't.

"It's Alright, Ma", as I hear it, is a song about feelings, and emotions - one man's reaction to the strangeness of the world enveloping him, with its hypocrisies and evils small and large, and his attempt to find a small candle of light in all that darkness. As brilliant as the line about the President is, it's always been the line before that's stuck with me more - "and goodness hides behind its gates". Whatever interpretation you give this song, including the notion that Dylan's telling his audience his new approach to songwriting or whatever, you cannot deny that the vision he's spinning is a dark one indeed. Everywhere you turn is something new and horrifying - advertisements that tell you lies, people that only want to drag you down to their depths, those that wish to force their morals down your throat even though there's no truth in them. And yet, somehow, there's light to be found - that "trembling, distant voice, unclear" of someone reaching out to you, a tacit reminder that no matter how alone and confused we may feel, there's somebody that feels the exact same way, and wants just as badly as you to find someone to share their feelings with. And Dylan, who I feel has always been a romantic at heart, allows us to have hope, reminds us that there's nothing and nobody that we belong to, and in the end can break his bonds and say "what else can you show me?", thumbing his nose at everything he holds in contempt. And if he can do that, you can do it too.

What makes this song so enduring, other than just how amazing his words are, is the message those words carry, summed up in that final verse and in the last line: "it's alright,'s life and life only". Dylan never denies that those evils exist in the world, nor does he say that we will ever be rid of them; that's not realistic, and we all know that. But, ultimately, because we know that doesn't mean that we have to be slave to anything, any evils, or any masters, and that we don't have to live our lives with our heads down and our eyes closed. We can, if we want to, push back and say "what else ya got?", and let the world know that we can take anything it dishes out. Dylan, in fifteen astounding verses, captured a feeling that people have had for eons, a feeling that has, yes, helped make history. He sang "it's alright, Ma, I can make it", and sometimes I am inclined to really, truly believe him. Read more!

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #56: Gates of Eden

It occurs to me, writing a blog about Bob Dylan that is essentially read exclusively by Bob Dylan fans, that there are going to be more than a few moments in which I am preaching to the converted. Sure, we can quibble about what we think about certain songs and albums, their interpretations, which versions we like better, and whether or not Street Legal is a good album (my thoughts on the matter will have to wait - aren't I a tease?). But, when it comes down to it, we'll all agree that a) Bob Dylan was an artist without parallel and (possibly) without peer, b) certain albums of his are better than certain others, and c) certain songs of his are better than certain others, as well. I mean, I'm not going to go off half-cocked and say "Like A Rolling Stone" sucks or something, and all of you that read this know that. And you also will have certain expectations about my Dylan opinions as well, based on your own and those of other Dylan fans you know, and I will more than likely meet those expectations. This is not a bad thing; it's simply what it is.

With that in mind, it seems educational and, perhaps, even instructive to look at Bob Dylan through a different set of eyes - in this case, through the eyes of somebody that is not only not a fan of Bob Dylan, but in fact doesn't "get" Dylan and can't reconcile their opinion with anybody that actually does. We have to remember that as broad-based and worldwide as Dylan's appeal is, he still does not have the fanbase of the Beatles (then again, who does), or an Aerosmith, or perhaps even a Dave Matthews Band or Coldplay. And, when you think about it, that does make sense - Dylan's lyrics, first and foremost, don't have the same easily grasped aesthetic as, well, just about any other artist; how many musicians can you name that are as challenging lyrically as our man Bob is? And, on top of that, few artists in ANY medium have a catalog as challenging and daunting as Dylan's - maybe an Altman in film, or a Faulkner in literature, or a Goya in the art world, but you're talking about the absolute upper echelons of any artistic field. That tends to turn people off. And I'm not saying that just to pat us Dylan fans on the back; I'd love to jump into James Ellroy like so many others have, but I'm too damn scared to leap into a pool that deep and frightening. Dylan, I'm sure, strike many others the same way.

And in terms of putting people off Bob Dylan, when you think of a song that would do the job better than any, you could do worse than selecting "Gates of Eden". I mean, what would the uninitiated possibly think of this song? "The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen", incredibly, is not the most oddball line in the song; the surrealist imagery that flowed so smoothly through "Mr. Tambourine Man" has been tweaked into something darker and crazier, and the phrases flow from Dylan's lips less like smooth waves than jagged spikes that dig into your mind and practically dare you to suss them out. There's seemingly no rhyme or reason to this song, the same way that the poetry of Ginsburg (sorry, I know it's an easy comparison) has seemingly no rhyme or reason to it. And, like, Ginsburg's best work, the imagery is more than enough to compensate - what does it matter if "Gates of Eden" has no plot or whatever to it, when you can chew on lines like "upon four-legged forest clouds/the cowboy angel rides"? But that's my feeling as a longtime Dylan fan - there are people that aren't fans of Ginsburg or, say, Ferlinghetti, people that find these types of lyrics either pretentious, unfathomable, or both, and people that will just plain not want to listen. And you cannot begrudge them that.

Occasionally, when I think about musicians or filmmakers that I like, I try to identify a potential "litmus test" for that artist, something that I could show to a neophyte to see if they would enjoy that artist as much as I do. This can usually be a dangerous prospect, because it is the rare great artist that can have their work summed up in a single item (compare this with, say, Nickelback, who were notorious for writing two hit singles that sounded exactly the same - which, I think, says as much about radio listeners that made them popular as the band themselves) and offering one song alone would do them a disservice. Still, it is the even rarer artist that doesn't have some sort of common thread running through their works, something that may not be tangible or identifiable but that makes you go "yes, this is (insert artist's name here)". For example, if I wanted to introduce New Order to somebody, I'd play them the Substance version of "Temptation", which is both a great dance song and a musically strong piece of work that shows just how talented all of the band members were. Or, if I wanted to introduce Monty Python to somebody, I'd show them Monty Python and the Holy Grail, probably the most accessible thing the Pythons have ever done, but still as offbeat and hilarious as the rest of their oeuvre. The point is that, if you don't like either "Temptation" or Holy Grail, New Order and Monty Python are probably not for you.

Dylan, of course, is harder, simply because there are so many different phases to his career; sure, all of his songs are recognizable as Dylan (if only for the voice, but even that changed drastically between 1962 and 1974, let alone 2008), but there are still a lot of stylistic changes that can throw you off when trying to find that one introductory song. With that in mind, if I wanted to show somebody a song that was representative of Dylan's most well-known phase, as well as an example of his majestic, dizzying talent, I would seriously be tempted to select "Gates of Eden". I mean, "Like A Rolling Stone" is the obvious choice, but even THAT song isn't wholly representative - "Like A Rolling Stone" towers over even his best work, the same way "Paranoid Android" obliterates anything else Radiohead's done or The Stand casts a shadow over Stephen King's collected works. But "Gates of Eden", with its staggering wordplay, nonsensical and thoroughly poetic lyrics, and lack of any unifying elements outside saying "gates of Eden" over and over, might be a truer litmus test - while the wordplay is surreal (thought not as surreal) in "Like A Rolling Stone", the band compensates by churning out a heady brew of rock that envelopes the song and makes you forget just how weird it is in certain points. There's no such fallback in "Gates of Eden" - those lyrics are out there, practically naked, forcing themselves to be heard. And if you can hear them and not run out of the room with your hands over your ears, I think that means you're part of the club.

What draws me to Dylan, in part at least, is that there are still portions of his catalog that are mystical to me; the aforementioned Street Legal, New Morning and its hodgepodge of styles as Dylan sought to recast himself after the "country period", and even Oh Mercy have eluded my understanding and ability to figure the man out. And I hope to never figure the man out, so that his work can always seem fresh to me, and that even when I've finished this project I can return to his songs and find something new constantly to keep giving me reasons to go back and give the whole damn catalog a hearing all over again. I envy those that can listen to a "Gates of Eden", feel that startling joy in their hearts and minds as they realize that yes, these lyrics do mean something to me, I want to hear more of this man, and then proceed to hear Blonde on Blonde and Desire for the very first time. You only get to do that so many times in your life. Savor them every chance you get. Read more!

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #55: Mr. Tambourine Man

Out of the entire match I find the 13th game to be the most attractive. Possibly because, even today, when I play through it for the umpteenth time, I am still unable to understand the inner motives behind this or that plan, or individual move...Like a mysterious enigma, it still teases my imagination.

- David Bronstein, on the 1972 Fischer/Spassky match


I've given considerable writing space on this blog to mashups and how much I enjoy sample-driven music, so it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite songs of all time is "Frontier Psychiatrist", from Australian sample kings The Avalanches' masterpiece Since I Left You. For those of you that haven't heard it, the song is a freewheeling cavalcade of spoken-word samples, tied together by the barest theme of cowboy movies, and underpinned by a pounding, insistent hip-hop breakbeat, spaghetti Western horns, and ghostly harmony vocals. What really makes the song work for me is its' goofy sense of humor - a parrot's squawk gets chopped up, the vocal samples put a grin on my face, and the song takes a sudden sharp left turn into a Mexican cantina, with no warning or particular reason other than "hey, this sounds kinda cool". I've loved the song ever since I heard it, and it's a song I always find myself listening to when I'm taking my iPod out for a test drive every so often.

It is also, for the record, a song that absolutely, positively confounds me. I've often thought about what went into the creation of that song, how many drafts and first runs the group went through, and the process that led to the staggering 4 and a half minutes that made up the final product. Think about it - months, maybe years of digging through record crates to come up with the distinct samples to string together in the song; finding the instrumental samples that give the song its particular flair, from the first drum shots to the final Latin guitar flourish; carefully piecing the song together, testing out which sample should go where, if the "man with the golden eyeball" line is in a spot that makes sense; making sure that the sudden shift in tone doesn't completely wreck the song, but takes it in a brand new direction; and, finally, giving the record one final listen, simply reveling in just how everything perfectly meshes together. There's a lot of hard work that goes into making that kind of music (as though other kinds of music are a cakewalk, I know), and it's always amazing when that hard work is rewarded.

All the same, you can put in as much hard work as humanly possible, and it will all be for nothing unless you have a certain something, a creative spark, that allows you to create such astonishing music. And that, right there, is why I posted the quote above and why I talked about a song that probably very few of you have actually heard. The creative element is something that's always interested me, even when it's proven so very elusive in my own life. I've always wondered where that spark comes from, that ineffable quality that you can't see or touch but has still changed lives and altered our very being. And that quality has eluded humans for centuries, as it refuses to be harnessed or properly quantified, no matter how much brainpower and energy we can dedicate to trying to understand it. You look at the paintings of Picasso, or Jules et Jim, or listen to Sketches of Spain, and you can feel that creative spark all throughout, but you will never be able to properly express what it is that makes those works so fantastic, why they were created in that certain way - to put it simply, why they are. And I'd bet that, when you got right down to it, the creators couldn't tell you why they are, either.

I will readily admit that I've wasted hard drive space on unfinished works - short stories, longer novel-lengths, even the occasional (terrible) screenplay. The one time I managed to finish something, I had a little celebratory cigar that night, so happy was I to have finally completed something I cared enough about to see through to the end. But, for the most part, I've never been one to finish what I've started, no matter how gung-ho I am from the start - eventually my attention will be turned elsewhere, either by real life, by my ADD nature of hopping from one interest to the next with little warning, or by simple entropy, and I'll move on. As I've noted, this blog is part of the process of rectifying that; then again, we'll see how gung ho I am about continuing when I get to Self Portrait. But seriously, the creative process is something I've struggled with my whole life, and I've always envied those that have not only reined in that process, but have the tenacity to carry out their visions and make something that others will cherish and enjoy.

The remarkable thing about the quote above is that David Bronstein was a great chess player in his own right, a grandmaster who'd contested for the world title and was renowned for his imagination on the board and his ability to play moves that no mere mortal would ever dream of playing. He had seen just about everything you could see on the board, and it's hard to imagine chess ever truly surprising him. And yet, in that 13th Fischer/Spassky game (where a rook was fighting against five pawns), he saw something that he not only had never seen before, but continued to amaze him long after the game had been played. I love that - that even the best and brightest of us can still be surprised and baffled by something that they know inside out. And that might be the most remarkable element about the creative spark - that a rare individual can create something that not only baffles us regular plebes, but even the most brilliant of us as well. And even when we're baffled by the incomprehensible, we can appreciate how amazing the incomprehensible can be.

There's a nice irony in the fact that Bob Dylan's first album with mostly electric music is most distinguished by its acoustic songs. And with good reason - all four of the songs on the acoustic side are stone cold classics, and at least one of them (the song I'm posting about) is commonly cited as one of Dylan's very best works, if not just one of his most well-known. Quite frankly, even without the Byrds' chart-topping version (overrated, IMO, by the way), I would venture to say that "Mr. Tambourine Man" would have the same level of worldwide fame and renown that it does today, if only because of its extraordinary lyrics and its beautiful musical structure. Who hasn't been hooked by that legendary chorus, by the way the words seem to wind around Dylan's guitar like tendrils of smoke wafting through the air, and by phrases like "deep beneath the waves" and "vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme". There isn't much I can say about this brilliant song - I'd actually like to know how many of you don't love, or at least like, "Mr. Tambourine Man".

What is worth mentioning is that this is right about the moment where people started to actively wonder just how much Bob's drug use was bleeding into his music. I mean, there were certainly flashes of his new poetic, trippy writing style on Another Side, but I would suggest that on this album, and especially on this particular song, that writing style fully coalesced and was utilized in its most perfect form. Everything about "Mr. Tambourine Man" seems to just fit, with every line leading beautifully into the next one, almost like the words are arranging themselves without anyone's help into those majestic verses. Of course, words can't do that, so obviously somebody had to have managed to write all of those lines, arrange them in the way they were arranged, and commit the song to tape (not once, but twice, as a matter of fact). But, again, have you heard those words? Those lines don't read like English, or at least any English I've ever read before. So how can you explain how a human being, with a human mind, wrote those words?

So what must be the logical explanation? I don't think any of us buys that story about Bruce Langhorne and his gigantic Turkish tambourine (I like to think Bob and Bruce had a joint one night and dreamed up that stupid story, giggling the whole time). And it's really hard to imagine that somebody could write lyrics that wild and out there just by himself - after all, we all knew what kind of crazy shit Rimbaud was on when he penned his Dylan-influencing poems. So the obvious answer, then, is that Dylan, taking his first trip on LSD, wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the influence of drugs. And I don't think anybody has ever really disputed that claim, or thinks anything different. I mean, go and read those lyrics again! I think we can all agree that drugs, at least in some way, played a part in the creative process that led to these songs.

But were they the lone reason? I wrote something a while back about how people tend to have this assumption in their minds that drugs not only play a part in the creative process, but are the main reason for so many people, especially musicians, that the creative process even exists. We've all read stories about great musicians and how often they abuse drugs, and we also know that plenty of people have talked about how drugs have stimulated their minds, allowed new doors to be opened in their ways of thinking, and so on and so forth. That leads to an obvious conclusion - people that do drugs become more creative. If only that were true. There's the other side of the stereotypical coin: the lazy druggie that sits on his couch, watches TV, and eats cereal. And while that may not always be true, the thought that hitting the bong magically makes you a genius is just as untrue. Leaving aside any addiction issues, drugs are just as likely to make you think you're writing great stuff when it's really crap, only you don't have the wherewithal to know the difference. On top of that, people on drugs tend to have issues with reining in their muse, leading to overblown cocaine/pot/LSD/ecstasy epics that might sound great on drugs, but sound terrible otherwise.

My typical example would be Sandinista!, the Clash's misbegotten double-album followup to the classic London Calling and one of the great missteps of their career. Blessed with a ton of money and all the resources of a major band, the Clash threw everything but the kitchen sink into their album and produced a staggering mess, with legitimately great songs rubbing shoulders with half-baked ideas, way too much dub experimenting, a goddamn children's choir-sung track, and basically the indulgences of a group that no longer knew how to rein themselves in. Now THAT definitely had something to do with drugs. I know I've also mentioned it before, but another great example would be Be Here Now, where Oasis basically buried their trademark sound under an avalanche of cocaine (and about 20 guitar tracks, courtesy of Noel Gallagher) and created an epic of excess. There are good songs on there, make no mistake, but for the most part the overlong song lengths, overwrought production, and general lack of editing prowess make the album a painful listening experience. Oasis' career in America has never been the same.

What I'm trying to get at is that, ultimately, drugs aren't what makes a musician great, nor could they ever be. They may play a part in the creative process, sure...but in the end, if you aren't already blessed with the gifts that allow drugs to enhance them in that process, it won't matter how much pot you smoke or acid you drop, you're not writing a "Mr. Tambourine Man". Bob Dylan may have ingested enough drugs to kill an elephant in the years of the Electric Trilogy, but he still had to write those great songs, and what allowed him to write those great songs was the same talent that allowed him to write "Blowin' In The Wind", and would allow him to write "Tangled Up In Blue", and "Jokerman", and "Mississippi" as well - and there aren't a lot of people trying to say that Dylan's weed habit or LSD dropping allowed him to pen a "Mississippi", are there? Dylan is a genius on a level few of us could ever match, and that talent, coupled with some drug use, is what allowed him to hone and fashion "Mr. Tambourine Man" into a classic song, one that people have loved for over 40 years. But that drug use didn't put the song in Dylan's mind - it only helped to bring that song out. The song was already there, put together by Dylan's incredible abilities to use the English language in a way few of us could ever dream of doing. And that makes all the difference in the world.
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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #54: Bob Dylan's 115th Dream

I'll get into it a little more in the next post, but one thing that's fascinated me about the Electric Trilogy is how many of the lyrics feel almost arbitrarily strung together, as though Dylan had taken a dartboard and used that to determine where the verses are supposed to go, and occasionally even where the individual lines are supposed to go as well. I don't mean that Dylan wrote willy-nilly or had no sense of making the verses work together, lest you think I'm trying to insult him or anything. What I mean is that when it comes to Dylan's work around this time, his words can hit your cerebral cortex and either sink in beautifully or bounce right off, leaving you confused. I think that's why Dylan isn't as easily acceptable to the general public as, say, the Rolling Stones or other such bands of similar longetivity - with the exception of a few key albums, Dylan's work is far more inscrutable, and far less easy to assimilate. And I'm not saying that that makes Dylan's fans more intelligent or discerning because we can assimilate (or, at least, appreciate) his writing style - I'm saying his mid-60's work is not for everyone.

"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" is a key example of how Dylan's work isn't for everyone. There's a lot of stuff going on in this song - historical allusions, goofy wordplay, and a narrative that actually kind of, sort of makes sense. What's funny, to me at least, is that even though there is a Point A and a Point B in this song, and that Dylan clearly had an idea of where he wanted the song to go, there's still an element of the arbitrary and unpredictable, almost as though Dylan was simply letting the lyrics take him where they wanted to go, instead of vice versa. That's what gives the song such an off-kilter rush: the thrown-together feeling runs all throughout, like a Monty Python episode where you wonder how they decided to work in the World's Deadliest Joke sketch and why they put it right after Nudge Nudge (I know they're not in the same episode - that's just for example). There's no real reason why the restaurant verse has to go before he meets the funeral parlor guy, but that's how it is, and it works.

There's something weirdly apropos about Dylan putting together this song with so many elements of Americana (Moby Dick, Columbus, the Bowery), especially when you consider the title of this song. It feels, in a way, like Dylan's winking at the audience all throughout, counting on their knowledge of history - which, if it needs pointing out, was probably stronger back in the 1960s than it is today - and their appreciation of why some of the lyrics are meant to be funny, as well as the fact that he was known preeminently as a folk singer, the leader of a genre rooted very deeply in American tradition (as well, it should be noted, as European tradition - but then how much American tradition originated overseas, anyway?). There's something very meta about that, the same way that Citizen Kane would have been more meta if the original title, The American, had been used instead. Kane, brought to his downfall by his need to own and possess, is uniquely American; Dylan, by turning our traditions and cultural bedrocks into a gag, turns out to be uniquely American as well.

The playful mood of the song is helped right from the very start, with the infamous giggly intro (probably brought on by, uh, the natural buoyancy of Dylan and his producers...yeah, that's it) tacked on to the start for posterity. I love everything about that - the fact that Dylan was strumming his acoustic instead of having the band kick in, whereas from the 2nd take the band immediately roars to life; Dylan still managing to complete that first line, even though he's already laughing; and those hiccupy laughs, of course, that just make me feel like laughing as well. And that infectious playfulness seems to seep through the entire song - there's a silly element to begin with in the lyrics, but the band actually seems to get caught up in that silliness and gives added heft to that goofy feeling. Maybe it's because the chords of the song are the same as another silly Dylan tune, "Motorpsycho Nitemare". Who can really say? But I mean, even the guitar licks put a smile on my face!

"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" puts an exclamation point on Dylan's first ever electric side to an album, and somehow manages to encapsulate everything that made that side so unique, controversial, and astonishing in the history of Bob Dylan, and even in the history of music. You have the plain and simple fact of America's foremost folk singer playing music with an electric band, singing lyrics both literate, inscrutable, and drug-informed, not so much pandering to the popular music crowd as announcing that there was a new voice entering that crowd, one that sang in a different way about different things. Dylan didn't hit you directly with easy to understand lyrics, appeal to the simplest of instincts, or simply get you out of your seat to dance. He forced you to think about what he was saying, he appealed to your mind as well as your heart - and he occasionally could make you dance, but that was incidental. And "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" neatly packaged all of those elements into one crazy song. Talk about something completely different. Read more!

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #53: On The Road Again

When you think about the Bob Dylan of 1965 and the place he was inhabiting in the musical landscape, a song like this one can tell you just as much about where he stood as any of the classics on the album. That's not to say that this song is a classic the way "Subterranean Homesick Blues is"; what I'm saying is that "On The Road Again" shows you exactly where his head was at and why this album became as popular as it did. Lest we forget, it peaked at #6 on the Billboard charts, a great showing for what (as I'd previously mentioned) was essentially Dylan's debut album in the popular music market. And a song as seemingly innocuous as this one, which might (unkindly) be viewed as filler for the electric side of this album, is actually an example of the looser, more relaxed Dylan we saw on Freewheelin', capable of funny imagery and jokey lyrics, only translated to his new metier.

It is interesting, and a little informative, to take a look at the albums and the hit singles that were released in 1965, the year after Beatlemania and the British Invasion changed everything, and the year where rock music expanded outside songs about fucking (or, in most cases, implied fucking). In a funny way, as much as an entire year can be seen as a transition year, 1965 can. What the Beatles did on their arrival in America in 1964, along with sell ungodly amounts of albums and cause untold amounts of young girls to lose their voices at their concerts, was to legitimize the idea of rock music as something that could be more than three chords and a nifty guitar solo; in other words, rock wasn't just something you could dance to at a high school prom, but something you could admire on a deeper level. But, as intricate and introspective as many great songs from this year were ("In My Life" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" were released in this year, for starters), rock hadn't quite reached the next level of 1966 (Revolver and Pet Sounds pushed both the limits of production and lyricism) or 1967 (which I don't need to spell out for you). It was like music knew which way it had to go to become viable as an art form as well as a popular medium, but was struggling to figure out that path.

And into that void leapt Bob Dylan, who was still trying to figure out how to properly match his increasingly crazy, out-there lyrics to that "rock" stuff all the kids were talking about (in some cases, he didn't quite succeed, and that's why we have Tarantula - you don't think he'd have turned that book into 20 more songs if he could have?). While there were previous artists that had tapped into the surreal, that had tried to expand their lyrics outside the well-worn realm of boy-meets-girl or hey-guys-let's-party, and that had tried to marry the worlds of the poetic and the mainstream, none of them knew quite how to do it the way that Dylan did with his Electric Trilogy. This isn't something any of us Dylan fans didn't know - hell, it's something we're all incredibly proud of - and yet it bears repeating: in a world where the Beatles still sang songs like "The Night Before" and Motown hadn't quite expanded their boundaries of subject matter yet, there was Dylan, pushing the limits of rock, and bringing a whole new aesthetic to what you could write about in song form. Hell, we probably wouldn't have gotten Rubber Soul and everything that came after without him, and that alone is worth it.

All the same, Highway 61 Revisited did not spring fully formed from Dylan's head like Athena tearing out of Zeus's skull; there had to be moments of Dylan learning to fly, figuring out where he could take his mind in terms of writing lyrics, and what worked as brilliance and what just made people laugh. "On The Road Again" is an example of that transition, where Dylan took his Tarantula style of writing (non sequitur after non sequitur), jammed some lyrics into a conventional song verse style, and set it in a band environment (I'm amused to mention that the song only uses three chords - hey, he was learning!). The result is a song that works both on an entertainment level (when are monkeys ever not funny?) and a historical level as well - this is Dylan learning the ropes of what he wanted to do, not quite hitting a home run, but settling for a solid double instead.

I suppose, then, that this album is often cited as the weakest of the Electric Trilogy (with, again, "weakest" being a relative term). To me, what makes the second and third albums so incredible is that they feel so seamless, like every song contributes to the greater whole, and even the weaker songs (say, "Temporary Like Achilles" or "From A Buick 6") contribute to the fabric and feel almost indispensable when it comes to assessing what makes the album so great. You don't quite get the same feel on Bringing It All Back Home - a song like "Outlaw Blues" or "On The Road Again" aren't as strongly tied into the rest of the album, and the whole "two sides" concept makes the album's overall arch suffer just a little bit. Maybe it would be different if the songs had been mixed together - say, if "On The Road Again" had been a bridge between "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Maggie's Farm" or something like that, then maybe there would be more of a "fabric woven together" feel. But they aren't, so there isn't. Instead, "On The Road Again", with its off the wall imagery and comic-book feel, makes you realize what Dylan had to achieve in order to make a "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and a Blonde on Blonde, and how far he had to come in his musical style. Read more!

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #52: Outlaw Blues

After having four albums where Dylan demonstrated that he could write a mean little blues song for his acoustic guitar (or, at the least, appropriate blues tropes in an acceptably pleasing fashion), it's kind of neat to finally have a blues song with a full band, filtered through Dylan's kaleidoscopic recording and songwriting style. And it's definitely a fun song, full of wailing harmonica, pounding piano licks, and chugging guitars - you get the feeling that Dylan must have recorded this song with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, knowing that he'd finally get a chance to cut loose in a way he never could when it was him alone in a studio playing "Bob Dylan's Blues" or something like that. As much as Dylan had his truly serious reasons for going electric, doesn't it also seem like one of the reasons he did was simply to be in a recording studio with a bunch of crack musicians, cranking out a song like this one? If the "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" franchises have taught us anything, it's that making music on your own can be a lot of fun, but not nearly as fun as making music with other people. And Dylan, who'd made a few band recordings but was mostly a solo artist, must have had a blast rediscovering that fun for himself.

Now, with no offense meant to this song or those that feel that every song has some meaning, damn it!, I'm going to suggest that outside of thinking about how much fun the communal music-recording experience is, this song may not be the most substantive Dylan's ever written (unless you want to jump through some real hoops, as I'll point out below). So, with that in mind, I'll pluck out three lines from the song and try to put together some thoughts about them. Here goes:

1. "Well, I might look like Robert Ford/But I feel just like a Jesse James"

From Wikipedia: "The song describes how Dylan wishes to leave behind the pieties of political folk and explore a bohemian, "outlaw" lifestyle. Straining at his identity as a protest singer, Dylan knows he "might look like Robert Ford" (the outlaw who shot and killed Jesse James), but he feels 'just like a Jesse James.'"

Hmm. Here's what I see: Bob telling us how crappy it is to fall into a lagoon when it's cold outside, how he doesn't want to hang a picture frame (along with the quoted line above), his desire to move to Australia (a haven for criminals in its formulative days, yes), how he's got sunglasses and a black tooth, and that he's got a woman in Jackson (a nod to the Johnny Cash song?). I mean, if you really want to tie everything together, I guess you can get from A to B - hanging a picture frame equals being a protest singer, sunglasses/black tooth = outlaw lifestyle, and falling into a cold muddy lagoon is, I dunno, being into a relationship with Joan Baez, who knows. The one thing that really gives that theory credence is the Robert Ford line, because you could easily suggest that Dylan in 1965 was a man who may have looked like he was on the side of the law (at this point he wasn't quite the strung-out thin wild mercury musician he would be around Blonde on Blonde), but felt like an outlaw rock singer. Then again, to live outside the law, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe he had this song in mind when he wrote "Absolutely Sweet Marie", tying together two songs with a metaphor and concept that everybody wants to see in his songs. And if you think he did, I've got a bridge in New York I'd like to sell you.

2. "Don't ask me nothin' about nothin'/I just might tell you the truth"

Now this is something that you can hear some truth in. What I've often wondered, but never really knew how to properly express, was just how much pressure Bob felt in his folk music days to toe the company line, to be a good soldier, and to not have doubts about what exactly the protest movement was supposed to mean both to music and to America in general. I'm not saying that the folk movement was controlled by shady guys or that they were doing something wrong or anything like that - I'm just saying that in any sort of movement that wants to affect change and topple existing orders, you just may have to swallow a little bit of shit along the way. And Dylan, undoubtedly, had to swallow a little bit of shit, especially as the Great White Hope of the folk movement of the 1960s. He never directly said what it is that he had to do as that Great White Hope, or what really cemented his change in direction, but you hear lines like this and you have to wonder.

3. "She's a brown-skin woman/But I love her just the same"

Dylan gives a little wink to the civil rights movement (and, one could surmise, the roots of blues music) in one seemingly throwaway line. And on that note, that seems like a good way to wrap things up. Today was a big day today. I was wrong on this blog, and I couldn't be happier. Read more!

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #51: Love Minus Zero/No Limit

It was only a few years into my Dylan fandom that I realized that "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" was actually a mathematical equation (yes, an Asian not catching something math-related; try to keep your world from spinning off its axis), and only after Mr. Justin Shapiro was kind enough to have pointed that out to me. Basically, the title is a clever way of saying "love without limits or boundaries" - at least I think it is - and lets the discerning listener know that the song is about that rarest of white unicorns, a relationship founded on unconditional love. And Dylan's song is so beautiful and sweet that you could actually imagine for a second that unconditional love actually exists. Certainly, at least, you could imagine somebody worthy of being described as "true like ice, like fire", as poetic a declaration of a person's faithfulness as you'll ever find.

When I was pondering what I'd write about for "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", I found my mind wandering, oddly enough, to "Tangled Up In Blue". Now, I know that both songs are quite different from each other, in terms of length, subject matter, and especially in the lyrical devices employed. "Tangled Up In Blue", although occasionally abstract in the way it goes about things, weaves a narrative tale from beginning to end; "Love Minus Zero" does not tell any particular story and seems to make a point of being abstract (what's all this statues made of matchsticks business about?). And yet, to me, it sort of feels like there's a connection between the two of them, as though one could not exist without the other. And maybe, in some small way, there is. Maybe that very abstract nature of "Love Minus Zero", the way Dylan piles surreal imagery on top of what is essentially a declaration of a woman's true character, was a step Dylan needed to take to arrive at "Tangled Up In Blue", quite possibly the most perfectly realized song Dylan ever wrote in his career. Perhaps it was the discoursing about "ceremonies of the horsemen" and such, the way that Dylan sets the mood of a dark and foreboding world around him where the only protective cocoon is the love he feels, that would push Dylan to fuse that ability to set a mood through word pictures and his ability to tell a story the way he did a decade later. The word pictures of "Tangled" are clearer, true, but just as striking to my ears as those of "Love Minus Zero".

And it is those pictures from "Love Minus Zero" that make the song so striking, that hooks you in every time you hear it. The band Dylan assembled gives the song as gentle an arrangement as an electric band can afford, making me think of Simon and Garfunkel's prettier ballads, except Paul Simon never quite wrote a song as gorgeous as this one. What stands out after repeated listens is the bass line, which constantly seems to wander off on its own path, and yet always sounds like it was perfectly written for the melody, underpinning Dylan's own lyrical meanderings. And Dylan does meander; the first verse starts with a description of Dylan's love, and then the lyrics make their way through bus stations, through candle-lit dark rooms, and across bridges long past twilight, only returning occasionally to mention his love as a counterpoint to the strangeness he sees all around him, even as "a raven/at my window with a broken wing". She may be vulnerable like all of us, but she's still the rock Dylan leans on without hesitation or thinking twice.

Now, I suppose my referring to unconditional love as "the rarest of white unicorns" would lead you to believe that I'm a heartless cynic who can't understand what real romantic love is like. Well, I am. No, seriously, I just believe that unconditional love is something that does not exist. I mean, even in the strongest and most committed relationships that people can have, certain boundaries need to be kept in order for them to work. That's just human nature. And at the same time, unless you've just met somebody for the first time and are still basking in that wonderful feeling you have when you've connected with a new person on your life at that deep and meaningful level, you know that nobody, not even the love of your life, is completely perfect and that they are unerring in what they do. And I don't hear the words of somebody that just fell in love with someone else in "Love Minus Zero", but the words of somebody that's committed to a person they've been with long enough to know they're committed. The point I'm trying to make, then, is that to me, that's the real fantasy element - the fact that this woman is so brilliant, so untouchable, that there's nothing you could say about her other than she's completely faithful and true to you. Rare white unicorn, indeed.

So that's the enduring image for me and this song - Dylan singing about a woman who does everything right. (Okay, maybe that's a little tongue in cheek.) That probably leaves me in the distinct minority, since there have been plenty of odes written about the lyrics and the way that Dylan strings these crazy images together into a way that somehow manages to make sense and paint a beautiful picture of comforting love in a world that offers no such comfort. And the real world may not always work that way, but it's strangely comforting to imagine that it really does, and that in a universe with those that only seek perfection and those that "make promises by the hour", there are people that can guide you through and always be by your side. Sometimes you want a song that makes you feel like that's true. Read more!

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