Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #82: Tell Me, Momma

Author's Note: This is the only old piece of writing that will appear on this website. About three years ago - has it really been that long??? - I started writing a book about a guy who lives his dream job of writing music reviews for a living (big stretch, I know) and has all sorts of wacky adventures along the way. Part of the novel would include actual reviews written by said guy, including the article I'm presenting here now. The book never made it past the first chapter, but the article still remains. I originally posted this on my MySpace blog, but since very few people even know I have a MySpace page, this will almost certainly be new to all of you. Please enjoy the first entry of 1966 World Tour Week, and one of my favorite pieces written by myself.



The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England, May 17th, 1966. A smoky concert hall, lights dimmed, an eerie quiet hanging over it all. The jam-packed crowd, having seen the man they came to see deliver a stunningly gorgeous set of acoustic music, watches as roadies slowly load amplifiers, guitars, and a drum kit onto the stage. Some of them murmur in trepidation, others rub their hands in delighted anticipation. Five young men walk onto the stage, with no heraldry whatsoever, dressed nattily in the finest Carnaby Street attire. They settle behind organs, tune guitars, tap snare drums. Then, like an ghost suddenly emerging from behind a locked door, another young man enters stage right. His hair piles skyward in unruly curls, sunglasses mask his weary eyes, and he is dressed in a sharp checkered suit with unbelievably stylish boots. Strapped to his back is a Fender Telecaster, an instrument that is decidedly not for acoustic music. He plugs in his guitar, and the murmurs increase in volume. As he strums a single chord, the pounding beats of a bass drum are heard, and suddenly the band explodes into action.


"I accept chaos..."

-Bob Dylan


Of all the emotions that govern us as people, fear may be the one that drives us hardest. Love, greed, hate, sympathy - all of these have their supporters. But fear speaks to something deeper, more primal within us, forcing us to look deep within ourselves and confront whatever hides down in the places we don’t want to go. Fear is immediate, understandable, and unfeeling. It affects us in ways we do not want to admit.

And of all possible things to fear, maybe the thing that we fear most is change. Think about just how malleable our lives really are. We may think that it’s as simple as birth, school, work, death - but every single day we face something different than the day before. It can be simple - realizing one day that the burger joint you went to in high school has been torn down for a faceless fast food restaurant, and suddenly feeling your age that much more. It can be complex - realizing that upon the death of your father, you have lost a link to the past that can never be replaced. Either way, the same fear is there - the fear of being manipulated by forces far beyond your control.

There is no person in the world of music that thrived on the fear of change more than Bob Dylan. Certainly, given a musical career pushing four decades, he has had more chances to do so, but he has undoubtedly made the most of them. Consider: he became the leading folk singer of his time, then with little warning modeled himself as the new face of rock and roll. A few years later, he recorded an album entirely of country music. A decade later, coming off one of the most successful runs of his career, he made an album of songs about God. His entire 80s input was confounding, the work of a man constantly in flux. And he finally reinvented himself as a troubadour straight out of the Civil War, singing songs about Armageddon and about Gatsby in the same breath, as strange to us now as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" must have been blaring out of transistor radios in 1965.

I have no doubt in my mind that Bob Dylan is the greatest musician that ever lived, and his defining characteristic is his defiance of people’s fear of change. I’m not saying that he was not afraid himself - certainly he was just as scared of the future as anybody else would be. He didn’t know if he could successfully build a new audience from scratch while simultaneously alienating a old one; he had no idea if people would accept him singing in a Nashville twang backed by steel guitars; and he certainly didn’t know if people would accept him screaming about the Lord and how he wanted to save our souls. He is the greatest musician because he feared the idea of change, and went ahead and changed anyway.


"The two loudest things I ever heard in my life were a jet plane taking off, and Bob Dylan and the Band."

-Marlon Brando


So what of this song, then, the opener of one of the most famous rock concerts ever performed? Well, having finally heard it upon its official release in 1998, I shake my head and wonder why it never saw the light of day. Perhaps it was Dylan’s motorcycle crash and his desire to wipe away as much of his previous life as he could. Maybe it was just fate - being a factory of great songs at that point, he could certainly afford to leave one or two behind.

And yet the song itself is so powerful, so joyfully alive, that it practically cries out to be heard. With the Band’s cacophonous din behind him - stinging guitar lines, rock-solid bass, and drums so loud they’d give John Bonham pause - Dylan sneered out a simple request for a lady he knows to tell him "what tearing up your mind". Certainly the subject matter is familiar to Dylan, and yet there is a really wicked venom when he sings "What’s wrong with you this time?", stretching out that last word to its absolute limits, that even a song like "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" would be hard pressed to top. Maybe that’s why it disappeared - maybe it was even too vicious for a man noted for viciousness in 1966.

And as the song rattles to a close with a flurry of snare shots and a final loud chord, you can feel the crowd start to realize that there is something special going on. As the show rolls along - a wild "Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat", a truly epic "Ballad of a Thin Man" - you feel this intensity, this scary anger building amongst those that cannot understand this music, that cry out for the man who sang "The Times They Are A-Changing", and that feel only the blackest hate for this evil demon who has stolen their hero’s face and makes it snarl lyrics about sword swallowers and goddesses of gloom. And that intensity builds, and builds, and builds, and finally some misbegotten soul screams "Judas!" at his former idol, and somehow the legacy of what Bob Dylan truly is falls into place, as you realize that no mere mortal would be compared to the man that sent Jesus Christ to his death.

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Pete said...

Lots of good stuff in this post. I've always thought Tell Me Mama was a sound piece rather than a word or even melody piece -- it just SOUNDS great, even in the crummy old boots, and I have no desire to hear a studio-recorded version.

A nitpick I wouldn't even bother mentioning but for the comments on Sad-Eyed Lady, including mine ... five, there were five in the Hawks ... but maybe this is an alternate reality? Richard was invisible, that's it! A man you could only see in the shadows of the dark of the moon ... tell me that it isn't true ...

Tony said...

Thanks for the correction, Pete. It's fixed now.

Interesting thought on Tell Me, Momma. I think that could be said for at least a few Blonde on Blonde songs, as well.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, we are linking to your song pages from The Bob Dylan Project via the Additional Information tag. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box,-Momma and listen to every version of every song.