Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #85: Odds and Ends

It is times like these where both the inherent strengths and weaknesses of this project I've undertaken become entirely evident - and I'm pretty sure I won't have a time where both are in such strong display as for the series of posts for The Basement Tapes, a collection of music that continues to confound and amazes four decades since their recording and three decades since their release. I will readily admit those weaknesses right up front: I haven't read Invisible Republic or heard The Anthology of American Folk Music (at least not in ages), and plenty of the allusions and references and outright thefts are going to go over my head. And I will equally readily point out what I believe are the strengths: by being free of all those scholarly reference points and avoiding the well-trod ground of trying to figure out what in God's name Dylan and the Band were up to in Big Pink, I think I can possibly shed light on some aspects of the songs that may be glossed over in favor of saying "hey, maybe Dylan's talking about the Johnstown flood in 'Crash on the Levee'! History really DOES come alive!!!!" I mean, you do not have to search hard to find that kind of stuff; I'd certainly hope that if you're still reading at this point, you're not expecting that from me anyway.

I wrote about how difficult it is for artists to genre-hop in a previous post; it is a talent that precious few musicians, even the great ones, can pull off with any type of success. I would dare say, though, that the change in musical style Dylan made between 1966 and 1967 is as great a change as anybody has made in their career, including Dylan himself. Even at that point we knew that Dylan was well-versed in musical styles, that he had great respect and knowledge of Americana, and that he was no stranger to weirdness in his music. But nobody could ever have dreamed of Dylan, with his musical cohorts the Band, cranking out a mess of songs that took all of those threads running through American music and synthesized them into something that occasionally defies description. In those songs you can see two different worlds colliding - the rock-styled insanity of Blonde on Blonde and the razor-sharp lyrical directness of John Wesley Harding - and reshaping the path of Dylan's career. I'd bet that Dylan, having himself a lark of a time with his friends, never could've foreseen that.

And the fact that Dylan was having such a good time goofing around is, to me, the most important aspect of those sessions. It occasionally tends to be forgotten that Dylan wasn't trying to record a new album here; hell, the only reason some of the songs were copyrighted was because Columbia required them to be in his contract. The Basement Tapes, at their core, are just a group of talented musicians jamming, having a whale of a time, while one of them recovers from a serious injury and tries to figure out what to do with the rest of his career. Maybe that's why they're so damn loose and funny - they always figured that nobody was going to hear them make up these silly songs about God knows what, and without having to impress studio executives or worry about a general audience, they were free to let their inner Muses just do whatever they pleased. And that kind of fun is entirely infectious - it's hard not to listen to a song like "Please Mrs. Henry" with a smile on your face. I can only imagine how big the smiles were on the faces of the guys recording the song; then again, it might just have been from the weed.

A song like "Odds and Ends", chosen to be the opener for the official release, gives you a pretty good view of what the sessions were all about. After all, not all of the songs were fully-formed masterpieces like "This Wheel's On Fire" or "Sign on the Cross", where an obvious amount of craftsmanship and care went into turning the song from a wacky one-off into something worthy of album status. Most of them were, indeed, wacky one-offs, inside jokes (think "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg"), and improvisations that seemed just to be Dylan tossing off whatever crossed his mind while the Band follows along as best as they can. "Odds and Ends" fits more into this mold; sure, it's a fun song and all, but it's less than two minutes long and bears the stamp of the group just having a good ol' time. Dylan put together some lyrics about a devilish woman that treats him wrong and spills juice on him (material that lends a lot of credence to the Anthology influence theory - well, maybe not the stuff about the juice), tacking on a surprisingly meaningful chorus ("lost time is not found again" - how true!), and the Band just rocks along behind him. Most remarkable, though, is that the venom of Blonde on Blonde, recorded a mere year before, is entirely absent. Dylan's singing about a woman treating him wrong, but without the malice and the twisted wordplay it comes across a lot more innocent and fun.

That innocence and fun gives The Basement Tapes the special charm that sets it apart from so much in popular music, as well as from the rest of Dylan's catalog. Dylan's always had something of a puckish sense of humor - why the hell else would he stick his visage into a commercial for Victoria's Secret - and that sense of humor was evident all through these songs. We'd never again get to see Dylan so charming and playful, so off-the-cuff, so willing to sound silly on tape, and so unguarded in his lyrical stylings. And, thanks to the remarkable adaptability of The Band, he could take all those goofy little ideas floating around in his head and transform them into entertaining and historic pieces of art. Not bad for a couple of jam sessions with your boys.

Author's note: For the sake of my sanity, I will only be covering the songs officially released in 1975, along with "Quinn the Eskimo" - there may be a tie-up essay covering the unreleased songs, and I might do individual posts on the more famous unreleased stuff. I haven't entirely decided yet. And, obviously, I won't be covering any of the Band songs. "Katie's Been Gone" is a pretty good song, for the record.

ETA: In the interest of maintaining some semblance of a chronology, I've decided to include songs like "She's Your Lover Now" and "I'll Keep It With Mine" in the Bootleg Series/Biograph series of posts, i.e. their dates of official release. I felt that the non-album singles, having been released in the 1960s, should be lumped in with the 1960s songs. Thanks to the anonymous poster for pointing this out.

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Anonymous said...

Whoa there, now whatever happened, to "I Wanna Be Your lover", "If you gotta go, go now", and the rest of all those.

jesper said...

Isn't Odds and Ends sung from the point of view of a woman?

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Basement Tapes rated & commented

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, another interesting essay. When you have written enough for now come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song

Music or Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.