Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #70: Visions of Johanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #69: Pledging My Time

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan Song #67: Desolation Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #65: Highway 61 Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #64: Queen Jane Approximately

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #63: Ballad of a Thin Man

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

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

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

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

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

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