Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #86: Million Dollar Bash

Probably the catchiest song on the entire Basement Tapes sessions (if not the best), "Million Dollar Bash" is one of those Dylan songs that has become popular simply because it's so hard not to love. It didn't hurt that Dylan slotted it on Biograph, but you could easily argue that its enduring popularity gave it that spot in the first place, so beloved is this tune. Carried by an astoundingly simple melodic line, the Band giving him a relaxed arrangement that actually makes the song more casual than the session's history would suggest, Dylan puts together a classic song out of entirely confounding lyrics, a laughably low-rent chorus ("ooh baby/ooh wee/ooh baby/ooh wee/it's that million dollar bash" - Shakespeare, this ain't) and his remarkably dry wit. The song is both exceptionally catchy - somehow that hook manages to stick itself in your brain immediately - and eminently quotable (right from the very beginning, with that bit about the big dumb blonde; how often does he ever write lines like that?). I still remember the first time I heard this song, a staggering change of pace from the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited, and laughing at the "I punched myself in the face with my fist" line. I still get a kick out of that line today.

And I'm still not entirely sure what the song is about, or if it's really meant to be about anything at all. If I had to guess, aside from being a big get-together, the "Million Dollar Bash" is sort of the equivalent of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, a MacGuffin that can be more or less anything you want it to be. Obviously it's something pretty special, since everybody in the song - Turtle (presumably not this Turtle), Silly Nelly, Jones, etc. - are heading down there to meet up and have themselves a good old time. And the narrator, in whatever plot the song can be said to have, after complaining about the hard life he has to put up with, eventually gets out of his work by injuring himself (I'm guessing that's what that business about hitting himself means; who knows, it might have been the inspiration for Jack's Smirking Revenge) and heads over to the big party. Maybe that's what the whole Million Dollar Bash business is meant to be about - in a crazy world of menial labor and wacky characters, there's always something to look forward to at the end of the day. Yeah, probably not.

But there is something interesting contained in the song that Dylan may or may not have been thinking about. You'll note the fact that everybody in this story - we'll assume that we're talking about a small rural town in America, as opposed to Greenwich Village or Los Angeles or something - are all heading to the same place, at the end of the day, to meet up with each other and just hang out or whatever. And you can see just how much the narrator wants to be there, as he talks about it all through the song and finally gives himself a haymaker so that he can make it in the end. This is, from what I've read in my occasional dabblings in American history, a very common picture of what life was like in the days that the Basement Tapes seem to be deliberately invoking (according to, well, everybody that's written about the damn things), where the community would get together after hard work to unwind and to be with each other. Dylan, in his own off-kilter way, is evoking that image for a society not too far removed from those days, still getting used to the idea of not having that in their lives, as the majority of the country had become suburbanites at last.

I'm reminded of the semi-famous essay/book "Bowling Alone", where Robert Putnam wrote about how Americans were losing their sense of civil engagement and social participation - for instance, the decrease in bowling leagues, which lent the title to the essay/book. This erosion of a collective sense of togetherness, coupled with a rise in a society dependent on independent activities (like watching TV, for example), would eventually cause a crisis not just in terms of our interaction with each other, but with the very foundations of democracy itself. And even though Putnam has come in for his share of criticism (for instance, the mere fact that this sort of worry had been around at least since the 1920s with the advent of radio), there is still a general fear amongst some that we are losing our ability to come together in a social fashion. Look at all the criticism heaped upon, say, Twitter - apparently because people will be so caught up in their 150-word descriptions of what they ate for lunch or what they thought of the latest episode of Lost, our desire to actually meet each other in the flesh, either just one-on-one or in groups, will eventually fade away to nothingness. The Internet, video games, DVDs - all this will lead to a nation of (to borrow a term) "three hundred million people, three hundred million cabs". And no matter how much nonsense this may be or how much evidence there is that people are finding new and different ways to have communal experiences, this fear will always exist, simply because there's no way to go back to the America of the 30s and 40s, of unlocked doors and weekly barn dances and so on. That genie isn't going back into the bottle.

"Million Dollar Bash", purposefully or not, recalls that time when the genie was still in that bottle, and when tight-knit communities were not just the province of what is occasionally and unfairly dismissed as "flyover America". I wonder if that's given the song new appeal to the older generation (outside the fact that it's just a really great song), as they can remember when there was still a time when people got together, had coffee and biscuits or what have you, and just shot the shit about life in general. In a way, it's kind of sad that that America doesn't really exist anymore, or only exists in increasingly isolated examples. All the same, I'm glad to have a generation where there are so many ways to enjoy oneself on a Friday night, with or without other interaction, not entirely tied to one all-encompassing event. We traded our supposed sense of community for a wider open world of entertainment, and I suppose if I had the choice, I'd make that trade again.

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Pearce said...

Hey there Tony, I've been reading your blog regularly since I came across it halfway through The Times They Are A Changin' posts but this is the first time I've decided to comment.

Just wanted to say that I think this has been one of your most rewarding posts. That old line about the best artistic criticism providing another layer of appreciation definitely applies here.

"Million Dollar Bash" was certainly one of my favourites the first time I listened to the Basement Tapes and has stood up to repeated listens. As you touched on in your Odds and Ends post, I think one of the things that makes so many of The Basement Tapes songs enjoyable is how relaxed Dylan sounds. You can hear the mistakes and the miscues and it just makes it feel even more organic (like when Dylan comes in too early in the second to last chorus).

Anyways, just wanted to say kudos for staying with this crazy project and God help you getting through the 80's material.

dub01s said...

Given the basement tapes were recorded in Woodstock prior to the "Woodstock Festival" I always thought that the "Million Dollar Bash" was the then proposed Woodstock Festival and Dylan didn't think it was a great idea (thus the sarcastic chorus)

Pete said...

Then along came Jones / Emptied the trash -- I never thought of this before but that's two Coasters songs: Along Came Jones & Yakety Yak. Man's got taste.

Markku Koski said...

Great analysis of a great song-a- long. Even Greil Marcus could not make it better. I liked especially the point about Putnam.

Anonymous said...

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

Moose said...

A couple times during this blog I've been able to see a song in a new light. Well, more than a couple. Anyway, I've never liked this song, but will look at it differently now. Thank you!

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Yes another interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded, or performed by Bob Dylan.