Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #77: Temporary Like Achilles

According to the fantastic How Long Has It Been Since Dylan Played... website, "Temporary Like Achilles" is one of two songs from Blonde on Blonde that has never been performed live (three guesses what the other one is, and the first two don't count). One wonders why, actually - sure, there are plenty of songs that have never seen a stage, but there's so much in this song that Dylan and his live band could sink their teeth into. There's a neat saloon-style piano line throughout, a gentle pace that would've allowed the song to sit neatly in Modern Times without sticking out, and a surprisingly striking middle eight that is almost worth playing the track for alone. And Dylan has some rather nifty lyrics for a lesser-known song - I particularly like "I'm helpless like a rich man's child", which makes sense on so many levels. You could easily imagine the 2009 version of Dylan's performing troupe turning this song into something well worth listening to on stage, couldn't you?

So why, then, has this song been consigned to the "deep cuts" section of Dylan's catalog that I mentioned in the last post, perhaps suited best for mix tapes of Bob songs people listen to when they tire of the Greatest Hits but not for mass public consumption the way a "The Levee's Gonna Break" or "Lenny Bruce" is? I can only assume that I'm not alone in thinking that this is a good song; it's not my first choice for best song on the album, of course, but I've never had the urge to skip over it when giving the album the full listen through. It's a song that fits perfectly in the aesthetic of this album (and, as I said, has the same kind of tempo and relaxed attitude that would've made it suitable for Modern Times). And it's not like this was just some one-off Bob banged out in 20 minutes - the album version is the second version of the tune, after the original (named "Medicine Sunday") was abandoned in the sessions with the Hawks. So why has this song been left behind?

This is just my idle speculation here (which, I know, separates it from the rest of this blog), but I think one of the reasons Bob's seemingly forgotten about it is because the song fits so perfectly in the aesthetic of Blonde on Blonde. A couple months ago, when I started writing about the album, I made mention of how the album is its own little self-contained universe, where it's impossible to imagine it existing without any of the songs that Dylan chose for it. And "Temporary Like Achilles" is no different in that regard - not only does it add to that aesthetic by being more laid-back (as opposed to slower, which isn't always the same thing) than most songs on the album, but it works as a soothing come-down between the blasts of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie", two of the faster and more exciting tracks. In its own small way, "Temporary Like Achilles" is every bit as essential as "Stuck Inside of Mobile" and "Visions of Johanna" are.

And, in another way, the song might be even more essential, at least in terms of making Blonde on Blonde a great album. I'm sure many of you have heard Peter Gabriel's So, his big commercial breakthrough and one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It's hard to deny that the album isn't full of top-shelf songs - "Sledgehammer", "Big Time", "In Your Eyes", just to name a few. The album churned out hit singles like a factory churning out textiles. However, if you give the album an entire listening all the way through, you find yourself only listening for those big songs, and the other songs tend to float by, with no real substance or hook to draw you in and keep you occupied. Maybe that's not Gabriel's fault - after all, two decades of only knowing the singles can skew your perception of listening - but it's impossible now to appreciate the album as anything other than "a bunch of songs I heard on the radio and some crap in between them". And his is not a unique case - there's a reason the Eagles' Greatest Hits has sold so much, and yet nobody can name any of their albums. There are any number of blockbuster albums out there, entirely carried by their singles, that have no real substance once you get past the songs we've all heard a thousand times.

What makes Dylan's great albums so great, then, is that he never really had a classic album in which that case was true. Perhaps it's because of Dylan's writing style, or because he was never a big singles guy, or it was just the times that Dylan recorded in, but his great albums always feel organic and connected from song to song, like a single entity unto itself. And that makes the listening experience so much more pleasurable; when you have tracks that don't sound like they were tossed together to sell copies, but strung together in a logical order, you tend to like those albums a lot more. And songs like "Temporary Like Achilles" serve as that string, gluing together the more famous songs and making something that's far more than just the sum of its parts. I don't know about you, but I'd say that makes the song worth being played, just once, up on stage.

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Anonymous said...

Nice post,
TLA is my absolutely favorite off of Blonde on Blonde. The poetry is stunning and i just wanna kick back and light one up when i hear that harmonica wail over the piano in the intro

Anonymous said...

I've always loved this cut from Blonde. Some see Blonde as a frivolous, raucous, happy album. I never have. I have always seen this as a very sad, desperate work, though VERY beautiful. I wonder if this song was too personal to be performed live, just like Sad Eyed Lady. I always hear the pathos in the line, "Is you heart made of stone? Or is it lime? Or is it just solid rock?" and wonder for whom it was written. I always loved the use of the word "lime". Terrific. I saw the handwritten lyrics to this tune in Portland, OR at the "1956 to 1966" traveling show. It was before he added the word "lime". I was amazed at how he could later add what I consider to be the pinnacle of the song after most of the lyric had already been written. Genius!

Anonymous said...

Nice stuff, and maybe I missed this somewhere else, but which version of Blonde on Blonde are you using as reference? I think the best is the mono Sundazed vinyl (ripped to cdr). There many variants of the album.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree. It took me 40 years to really appreciate this song, both musically and lyrically. After listening to Modern times non-stop for months when it came out, I went back to exploring the "blues roots" of Dylan's earlier works, and realized that the songs I liked best from the mid-60s period were not necessarily the more famous songs, but the hidden bluesy gems like "Achilles" and "Pledging My Time" from BOB and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" from Highway 61. Needless to say, "4th Time Around," though for different reasons, is yet another lesser known jewel in the BOB crown. Back to "Achilles" - it captures the essence of the Delta Blues electrified by means of Muddy Waters, combined with the frenzied best of Beat poetry. That was Dylan's genius, and remains so, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous (with the Sundazed vinyl):

I hear that, but why introduce a term like "CDR" into a vinyl discussion? Why not sit in a bean bag chair, throw on some cans, and listen to it straight from wax?

P.S. isn't part of the beauty of this blog (and really, Dylan himself) that format doesn't really matter?

Anonymous said...

Dylan may have never performed this live . . . but yours truly had a little combo back in the '70s that would bust this one out from time to time. It fits seamlessly on the album, and was a joy to sing.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde rated & discussed

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Why not join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Boc http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/629/Temporary-Like-Achilles and listen to every version of every song.