Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #81: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Probably my favorite story about Blonde on Blonde is Kenny Buttrey's account (as found in Behind the Shades) of recording "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", the only possible choice for the album's closer and the entire fourth side of the double album. According to Buttrey, Dylan basically ran through a verse and chorus and said "we'll see how it goes from there", not letting them know that he was planning an 11-minute epic, and the band went into recording thinking they were recording a 3 minute song at the very most. And much like in "Visions of Johanna", the players would begin building and building towards the natural climax, only to have to stop and pull back to a more relaxed tempo when Dylan launched into yet another verse. By the end, as Buttrey tells it, the group was cracking up because they'd had so many false peaks that the actual finale would only be an anticlimax. I'm not really sure how accurate this story could be - after all, the band had already recorded "Visions of Johanna" and were surely aware that they weren't just gonna be cutting 3-minute radio songs - but it's still a funny tale nonetheless. Given Dylan's legendary lacksadaisical recording habits, it's probably not too far-fetched at any rate.

There's something incredibly poignant about listening to this song, and not just because it's a gorgeous, heart-wrenching love song. As the final song of the whole Electric Trilogy, this is the last real glimpse the world would ever have of the surreal Dylan that most of the public consciousness associates with his name. There are flashes of it later, to be sure - a verse here, a line there, sometimes even a song that comes close to approximating that 60s style - but for all intents and purposes, this was where the Dylan of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile" would take his leave. After the motorcycle crash, things would never be the same again, both for Dylan's life and for the way he would write songs. I'm not saying that that's a bad thing; as I'd written before, Blonde on Blonde could very well have been a dead end creatively to begin with, and there was always the chance that Dylan would have changed the way he approached his music anyway. But to listen to this song, knowing that the first song on his next album would be a million miles away, is still an emotional experience.

And, of course, another part of the emotional experience is the nature of the song itself, maybe the most mystical and baffling in Dylan's canon (and that, surely, is saying something). To me, "Sad Eyed Lady" is the ying to the yang of "Ballad in Plain D", in just about every way possible. One song was performed acoustically; the other, with perhaps Dylan's greatest band, either studio or on stage. One of them details in painstaking detail the end of a relationship, the other glories in a love already bursting into full bloom. Both of them use striking imagery, but one uses it in the context of a narrative like most other songs, while the other seems to use the imagery purely for imagery's sake, like "Last Year At Marienbad" (a gorgeously filmed movie that kinda, sorta tells a story, if you're willing to take a few intellectual leaps). And, most crucially, one of them shows Dylan at his least powerful musically, where his emotion gets the better of him and overwhelms his words, whereas the other shows Dylan at his apex of control over his musical faculties, channeling his emotion into his music and creating a song that still has incredible power over forty years after the fact. "Sad Eyed Lady", while not the last song recorded for Blonde on Blonde, might as well have been; the "thin, wild mercury music" tag, for all its applicability to other songs on the album, seems to fit best on this one.

As we all know (because Dylan found it fit to tell us), this song was borne out of sleepless days and nights in New York, Dylan scribbling away to craft the perfect song of devotion to his beloved. I've never been sure if that's true, partially because I wouldn't have put it past Bob to squeeze that confession into a song that was seemingly meant purely to help save his marriage, but I wouldn't bet against it being true either. For an album that trucks in images of desolation and loneliness, it actually gives the whole song cycle a different feeling to end it with something so full of beauty and affection, where Dylan points all these weird and wild figures towards the woman that'd stolen his heart (for all the craziness of the lyrics, "who among them do you think could resist you?" seems pretty damn direct to me). The final line of the chorus - and the final one of the song, and the album - asks a question asked a few times before on the album, where the narrator wonders if he should simply wait. But while you could never really be sure of what Dylan's waiting for in those other songs, here you know exactly who that narrator is speaking about. It's a really sweet moment - all those songs about emptiness, and the final track shows what Dylan sees as the perfect thing to fill that void.

The full impact of the song, of course, comes from having listened to Blonde on Blonde the full way through, letting every other song wash over you, going from the quiet sadness of "Visions of Johanna" to the joyous bounce of "Most Likely You Go Your Way", and finally reaching the end of the album Dylan considers the closest he ever got to whatever sounds inhabit that head of his. It's almost a valedictory moment, in a way; the end of a long and remarkable journey is in a song of astounding grace and purity, nearly overwhelming by virtue of actually stretching out Dylan's hallmark style to over 10 minutes in length. And it's also something that can make you smile, in that all of those surreal word-pictures have led us to Bob singing a song about a woman, his eventual wife, and the only person he would have (more or less) abandoned his career for at the very height of his popularity, when seemingly the entire world was begging for his return. That, my friends, is how you bring an end to a masterpiece.

And that's it for Blonde on Blonde! It's been a long time in the making, but we've finally ended the Electric Trilogy and what many consider Dylan's peak as a songwriter. Next week will be devoted to the 1966 World Tour, then I'll touch on "Positively Fourth Street" and "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" (as a commenter rightly suggested I do) before moving on to something entirely different. Thank you all so much for sticking with me, and I hope you keep reading my humble little blog.

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Unknown said...

I look forward to more articles like these!

Unknown said...

Your last two paragraphs are lovely in their admiration for this song, and its place and import in closing this album. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Oops. Clairbear is my daughter, not me. Not that it matters, really, who wrote, but still . . .

Anonymous said...

just a few things, tony

it's yin to the yang. Not ying to the yang.

also while it's true that in "sarah," bob writes that "he stayed up all night in the chelsea hotel writing sad eyed lady of the lowlands for you," accounts of people at the scene contradict this somewhat.

from a piece by sean wilentz about the recording of blonde on blonde:

"The strangest Nashville recording dates were the second and third. The second began at six in the evening and did not end until five-thirty the next morning, but Dylan played only for the final ninety minutes, and on only one song: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” He would later call it a piece of religious carnival music, which makes sense given its melodic echoes of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially the chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Unlike “Visions of Johanna,” though, this epic needed work, and Dylan toiled over the lyrics for hours. The level of efficiency was military: Hurry up and wait.

Kristofferson described the scene: “I saw Dylan sitting out in the studio at the piano, writing all night long by himself. Dark glasses on,” and Bob Johnston recalled to the journalist Louis Black that Dylan did not even get up to go to the bathroom despite consuming so many Cokes, chocolate bars, and other sweets that Johnston began to think the artist was a junkie: “But he wasn’t; he wasn’t hooked on anything but time and space.” The tired, strung-along musicians shot the breeze and played ping-pong while racking up their pay. (They may even have laid down ten takes of their own instrumental number, which appears on the session tape, though Charlie McCoy doesn’t recollect doing this, and the recording may come from a different date.) Finally, at 4 a.m., Dylan was ready.

“After you’ve tried to stay awake ’til four o’clock in the morning, to play something so slow and long was really, really tough,” McCoy says. Dylan continued polishing the lyrics in front of the microphone. After he finished an abbreviated run-through, he counted off, and the musicians fell in. Kenny Buttrey recalled that they were prepared for a two- or three-minute song, and started out accordingly: “If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody’s just peaking it up ’cause we thought, ‘Man, this is it....’ After about ten minutes of this thing we’re cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?”

so while it's true that he may have written something or had an inspiraton for sad eye lady at the chelsea hotel, he also did a good deal of the writing in nashville at the session.

thank you for your time and you attention to this important historical matter.

elquesefue said...

Wish I had time to read your whole blog. This was a beautifully written piece. Great job.

Tony said...

Thanks to everybody for the kind words on this article.

country bill, thank you for your comment (as well as posting under your own name); I could have done without the semantics, but even that is appreciated in that I won't get that wrong again. I'm not *entirely* sure how important this historical matter actually is - the point wasn't so much that I was quoting Dylan in "Sara" for its historical accuracy, but more because of the emotional weight behind the line. After all, true or not, Dylan threw that out there, and he clearly wrote it so that Sara would hear it and swoon in his arms. Whether he actually wrote the bulk of the song elsewhere was, for the purposes of the article, irrelevant.

But thank you for offering!

Anonymous said...

you know, bob throws a whole lot of stuff out there and not all of it is to be believed.

i think the facts are very important, don't you?

Tony said...

And THAT'S where the needle comes in. I left myself wide open for it. Ah, well, such is life.

Thank you for reading!

Tony said...

Oh, and for the record, it's "Sara", not Sarah. Facts ARE important, after all!

Pete said...

Facts have value; truth is important ... all the kiddies get a cookie ... ;)

Anonymous said...

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

Music of Bob Dylan said...

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