Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #98: Nothing Was Delivered

You could very easily argue that this is the most country-inflected song from the whole sessions; so much so, in fact, that the Sweetheart of the Rodeo version almost seems redundant. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that the more I've started liking country music (mainly through Johnny Cash, which I suspect is where most people start when they delve into country music), the more I've enjoyed listening to this song. Robertson gets in some great licks, Manuel's piano and Hudson's organ intertwine beautifully, and the chorus features some of the best harmonizing on the official album (which is saying something). I've written a few times about how I couldn't understand why some of the lesser known songs made it on to the official album, but this particular lesser known song actually deserves more recognition than it actually has received.

Uber-commenter Justin Shapiro took me to school a little bit in the comments for "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (as is his occasional wont); it is kind of depressing that I'd forgotten about the various Cash and Sun Records covers that had cropped up during the sessions, as I actually have a few of them on the ol' iPod at the moment. So I think I might have to retract the notion that I'd forwarded that it was the Band that pushed Dylan towards the more rootsy and country inflected material of the sessions; in fact, it's just as possible that Dylan had had the idea of recording that material the second he started rolling tape with the Band up in Big Pink. And that notion gives a more interesting slant onto the sessions as a whole, one that speaks to where Dylan was in his life. And, before I get into some speculation, it's entirely possible that Dylan was just recording that kind of music because he'd been listening to a lot of it while taking his sabbatical, or that he was just in that kind of mood at the time. As I myself am wont to do, I could be overthinking things here. Then again, that's what I do, isn't it?

Another thing that has been mentioned a few times throughout this project to date has been the staggering fact that Dylan was a young man when he'd reached the pinnacle of his career. A lot of us like to think that our teenage years is where we fully grow and mature into the adult that we'll be for the rest of our lives; if nothing else, at least we can say "well, (x) happened in when I was in high school, so that explains why I'm like (y)". But I think that gives short shrift to how important our twenties are, not just as the decade where we can still do youthful things like wear sports jerseys without looking a little foolish or blast our car stereos loud while cruising down the highway with the sunroof open (as opposed to playing our music at a reasonable level with the windows up and the AC on), but as a decade where we're still developing and getting a handle on how we approach our own lives. There is a theory that posits that humans reach their peak as a total package, so to speak, in our early to mid-thirties, where we still have the majority of our physical powers combining with a considerable wealth of intelligence to create an individual as well-rounded as we're going to get. As you can probably guess, I absolutely subscribe to that theory.

As remarkable as the music is that Dylan made during both his acoustic period and the Electric Trilogy (as well as a lot of what he recorded during his "Woodstock period"), it needs to be remembered that it was a man still in the process of maturing that was recording that music. Sure, he often displayed both intellectual acumen and songwriting chops far beyond his years (a twenty-two year old wrote the songs on Freewheelin'), but this was still a man that hadn't learned, say, about what it meant to be in a marriage (which any married person can tell you is light years away from being in a relationship), or what it meant to struggle with your chosen field in life (Dylan didn't record an outright bad album until he was nearly 30), or most of the things we take for granted in our younger years. And it doesn't seem like a coincidence that once Dylan had gone through some rough patches in both his professional and personal lives, refining his lyrical style from the dazzling semi-insanity of the Electric Trilogy into something more grounded in reality while still retaining his own voice, and simply becoming more of a well-rounded human in his fourth decade on the planet, that Dylan summoned up the wherewithal to record the greatest accomplishment of his career. To me, everything that Dylan had been up to that point is contained in Blood on the Tracks; it's not just about Dylan's failing marriage, but about the man in that failing marriage, and how he'd managed to get there.

The Basement Tapes represented a major step in that process, one which importance cannot possibly be overstated. Dylan, sitting at home and out of the public eye for the first time since he was just out of his teens, knew that he needed a change in his life, both in how he lived it and in the music that he made. He ended up making that personal life change, swearing off the hard drugs that nearly killed him and becoming more of a devoted family man. And he also changed the style of music he made, turning his back on the electric music that most of the world knew him for and embracing a style that nobody could have guessed he'd embrace (well, other than those that knew him personally and those that were paying really close attention to his recordings). He was saying "farewell to all that" to his younger life, taking a step towards the maturation of middle age, looking for the next definition of who he was. "Nothing is Delivered" is evidence of that - a fun recording that speaks volumes about the man that recorded it. Read more!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #97: You Ain't Goin' Nowhere

"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is, I would guess, one of the Basement Tapes songs that casual fans would know, and probably not from the version that actually made it on the official album. More likely, that casual fan has heard the version from the 2nd Greatest Hits (which is a lot of fun, especially the "pull up your tent, McGuinn" bit, and actually manages to sound quite different even while using the same chords) or the version the Byrds recorded on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, their famous 1968 country-rock album. The song's reputation is entirely deserved; songs don't come much simpler than this one, both in the verse structure, the chord progressions, and the economy of language, and yet the song never sounds simplistic or tossed off. Presumably it's a love song, to the effect that the narrator is waiting for his bride to arrive (which makes me wonder who he's admonishing to not go anywhere in the song), and the strange imagery contained within serves to bolster the obstinancy of the narrator and his determination to wait for his beloved. And that chorus, in both versions of the song, is just so uplifting and sweet that you can't help singing along.

I've always been more partial to the Basement Tapes version; there's something about the gentle tempo of the arrangement that just floats along, Dylan speak-singing the verses and blissfully dueting with Manuel (or Danko) on the chorus, the Band offering sympathetic accompaniment (perhaps the most sympathetic of the official album), that really appeals to me. Dylan could have been reading the phone book on the verses - hell, it would've made more sense than the bit about Genghis Khan - and I'd still be totally with him when he got to that chorus. For a while I didn't even care for the Greatest Hits version at all, as something about that different arrangement just rubbed me the wrong way. Time has mellowed me on the track, though, and I can now hear it and really enjoy how Dylan more or less completely changed the mood of the song (both in tempo, in the way he sings it, and by removing the fuzziness of the original version with a cleaner, sharper acoustic arrangement) while keeping the same spirit of the original. Essentially Dylan recorded a cover of himself, and he recorded a darn good one.

Getting back to the original version, it seems pretty interesting to me that "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" was so easily adopted into the country-rock style of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (a style that, incidentally, had its seeds in some of the previous Byrds albums - it wasn't all Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons); in fact, taking away some of the twang and McGuinn's distinctive vocal, you could be easily forgiven if you mistook that version for Dylan's. And that's pretty easy to explain - the very simple structure of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is well-suited for a country arrangement, and the Byrds managed to retain that easygoing feel of the original while drawing it more towards the sound that would eventually define Parson's career. But there's something deeper and more interesting in that explanation - basically, the Basement Tapes has very strong ties to Americana, and few genres have as deep a tie to the oldest forms of American music than country. We tend to forget that Hank Williams predates rock and roll, and that you can find many similar tropes in old-school country music (simple arrangements, lyrics steeped in legend and folklore, even the same wry humor as a song like "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere") as the Basement Tapes had. It's as close to a perfect fit as you can imagine.

And that, I think, helps make Nashville Skyline somewhat easier to explain. I'm not talking about that voice he adopted - we'll probably never really understand why he chose to abruptly change the way he sang (I've always thought that the album would've been easier to accept without that change, although the songs would have lost a lot of their sunshine-and-lollipops appeal). What I mean is that Dylan, who has always been one to respect that which came before him, would have always had country music at least a little in mind throughout his career, with the possible exception of the latter days of his electric warrior period. Tapes exist of Dylan covering Hank Williams in his Greenwich Village period, Dylan had been friends with Johnny Cash more or less ever since Dylan burst onto the folk scene, and certainly a group as steeped in Americana as The Band would've introduced him to more country records while they jammed up in Big Pink. That country vibe, while never overtly expressed throughout the sessions, could very easily have been on Dylan's mind, and with his already pressing desire to cast aside the Dylan of 1966, it seems obvious in retrospect that he'd move in that direction. John Wesley Harding was the first tentative step (only "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" really holds that country vibe), and Nashville Skyline was the logical conclusion.

The always speculative side of me wonders how Dylan must have felt about all of this, still out of the public eye, the world waiting with bated breath for the return of their idol, speculation running rampant about what Dylan was up to and where his career would go, if there was still a career left. And there he is, cranking out this wild and wonderful music with his pals, music that just happens to be extremely different from what he'd recorded before, probably puzzling out those same questions himself in his own mind. That we got music as timeless and amazing as "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is truly something to behold. And that Dylan ended up saying "screw it" and continuing down that path, kicking off nearly a decade of music that alternately surprised, shocked, and even angered his fans (let alone the general public) is something even more remarkable. Read more!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #96: Tiny Montgomery

A few posts ago, I made some mention of the disappearing influence of Americana folklore in our modern culture, where once-mythic figures like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed no longer have the same cache as they once did in the general consciousness. It could be argued (in fact, I'm sure it has been argued) that The Basement Tapes held peoples' attention for so long not just because it's unreleased music by great musicians, but because the songs appealed to a general consciousness that still gave those old folk tales considerable cache, where the past was just a little less forgotten than it is now, and where Americans could still see vestiges of the nation of farmers, outlaws, and ne'er-do-wells that we once were. It's a darn good thing that as our memories of who we once were as a nation have faded away, the music remains strong enough to still hold attention forty years later. Music that strongly tied into our past doesn't always have the ability to hold up as well.

A song like "Tiny Montgomery", to me, is the perfect example of that notion that Dylan's tunes from these sessions, so steeped in Americana, could very well have suffered when removed from that context. Take a look at the lyrics some time - I know we're talking about song after song where the lyrics walk a fine line between "strange" and "utterly confounding" (and occasionally don't even bother walking that line), but this is something entirely different, isn't it? You've sort of got something resembling a "tie it all together" refrain, where the narrator alerts the town of San Francisco that some kind of mythical Bill Brasky-like figure named Tiny Montgomery is saying hello (which could mean any number of things - is Tiny on the way here? Has he got scores to settle? Do those scores involve ME, by chance??), and apparently the preparations for this imminent arrival involve the weirdest crap you could bother thinking of doing. "Suck that pig/and bring it on home", "trick on in/flower that smoke", pink that dream/and nose that dough" - what in the name of Jesus is Dylan on about?

It is really easy to picture a song like this being played in some sort of saloon in the Wild West days of the American frontier; you've got Dylan's droll vocalizations, the band just chugging along behind him (Garth Hudson's carnival-style organ running point), and the lead singer telling what seems to be some sort of gibberish tale loosely based around the appearance of a looming figure that everybody apparently knows all about. Couldn't you just see a bar fight scene going on as this song plays in the background, maybe with Robbie Robertson ducking a flying beer bottle and Dylan wearing his 2000s-era cowboy hat and grinning as some poor bastard gets chucked through a window? That sort of thing helps give the song an added dimension, one that maybe Dylan hadn't even thought of while writing it; not only is the song more fun (who doesn't like a good bar fight?), but actually gives it the air of something associated with a true folk legend trope - i.e., a song about a legend, maybe some sort of outlaw, certainly somebody that warrants the "tell 'em (xxx) says hello" treatment. Who wouldn't be a little afraid of this Montgomery character after hearing this song?

And, perhaps, that's why this song ended up making the cut in the official album; much like "Apple Suckling Tree", I'd consider this one of the album's lesser lights, a fun song that doesn't reach the same emotional or musical heights of the best songs therein. But "Tiny Montgomery", along with the fact that it's really, REALLY weird in parts, creates a mood that Greil Marcus et al. consistently suggest is applicable to the entire album, an old-timey feeling that conjures the images of six-shooters and real beer and all that. And Dylan, who has always enjoyed playing the outlaw and been a great fan of folklore, quite probably wanted a tune that brought to mind that sort of folklore, in the form of a song that probably would sound great being spun with your belly up to the bar after a couple glasses have been emptied. Maybe he even saw himself as the title character, barging into Frisco, guns drawn, waiting for some yellow-bellied egg-sucking dog to say something about his mother. It's fun to imagine Dylan thinking that, and even a little educational - see? Even Bob Dylan can fantasize. Read more!

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #95: Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)

One of my personal favorites from this album. What I love about the song is just how casual it is, how relaxed both Bob and The Band sound while playing a song that, for all intents and purposes, is relating a tale of a disaster of Biblical proportions. Hudson's organ, always utilized to great effect throughout the sessions, is at its most sprightly here, adding an extra pep to the track. Dylan's vocals are playful all throughout, really reaching for those "oh mama"'s in the chorus. And the lyrics to the tune almost serve as a primer for what the Basement Tapes are all about - a sprinkling of Americana, a dash of who-knows-what oddball imagery, maybe some borrowing from an old blues song here and there, and an astoundingly catchy melody to tack those lyrics onto. There is, I think, a reason Bob chose to re-record the song for his second Greatest Hits album (one which, it would seem, he had more control over than the previous one) and performs the song live on a semi-regular basis. It's simple musically and lyrically, yet still packs a punch nonetheless, and is one of the highlights of the sessions.

It is also, in some ways, a precursor to "High Water (For Charley Patton)", another of my personal favorites and quite possibly Dylan's best song of the last 10, maybe even 20 years (plump for "Mississippi" or "Red River Shore" all you want - I'm not buying). Of course, the obvious connection springs right out, so I won't bother mentioning it. But the other connection, at least in my mind, is that sense of calm and relaxation in the face of disaster, which seems to fit Dylan's MO of being above the fray, never devolving into urgency or histrionics, keeping that supernatural cool that allowed that image of him as the ultimate hipster to cultivate and remain to this very day. It's ironic that both of these songs are not what you'd consider a "hipster" tune by any means; still, they both fit in snugly as pieces of the puzzle that is Bob Dylan, by virtue of showcasing his ability to always, always maintain that poker face. Whether or not you are charmed or repulsed by that poker face is entirely up to you.

Perhaps I am overstating the case here; I'm certainly doing so for a song like "Crash on the Levee", which is nothing if not a charming piece of work (a quality that, unfortunately, the rerecorded version doesn't seem to have - that particular take is like one of Dracula's victims, somewhat bloodless and pale). And yet, I keep finding myself thinking of that line I quoted about Dylan not too long ago - how he's "the boy that doesn't love you back". And I wonder, sometimes, if that's something I'd really want in my favorite musician ever. Not in the sense that he doesn't love me back, but more in the sense that it's hard to tell if Dylan really loves anything. We know that he DOES love things - the blues, a good foreign film, Sara Lowndes (well, off and on), Jesus (definitely off and on) - but those are the sort of things that are most often buried in interviews and play no real part in what we consider the Dylan legend. When we think of Dylan, we think of somebody far above the fray (a far cry from the acoustic-era Dylan, a man seemingly concerned with nothing but the fray), more mythic figure than somebody you could really put a finger on.

You could certainly forgive somebody for being frustrated with trying to put that finger on Dylan, especially when they almost inevitably find themselves failing in their efforts. For all the great songs that Dylan has written in his lifetime - including, for the record, many great songs about love and faith and the sort of things that makes a person seem more, well, human - it seems entirely fitting that his most well-known song is an evisceration of someone, and yet one that never entirely seems personal, like Dylan has no intentions of dirtying his hands with something so ugly as ripping someone he cares about a new one. And it's not just his best songs that can give you that sense of impersonality, either; I quote All Music Guide's review of Self Portrait: "That doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth the time to figure it out — you're not going to find an answer, anyway — but it's sort of fascinating all the same." That makes the most sense for Self Portrait, an album seemingly conceived solely to make people go "...the hell?", but you could easily say the same thing about even his great albums, which occasionally have moments where you can't really say what it is that makes them great, other than the fact that they simply are. And that's a hard thing to get your head around.

Still, that's really only one way to enjoy the work of Dylan; there's no requirement that you have to have some sort of handle on Dylan the man before you can really get into his music. I find myself also thinking of Citizen Kane as I type this post - a great movie that has been accused of having no soul behind it, a collection of masterful direction and cinematography that all adds up to the filmic equivalent of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias", where you know the man was great but never get the answer of why that matters. And yet Citizen Kane has enough humanity contained within, such as Bernstein's famous "white parasol" monologue and the heartache of the poor, doomed Susan Alexander, that seem to put the lie to that notion of the movie lacking a heart. Dylan's work, in the end, is the same; yes, the bulk of it has that poker face, but there are flashes of who Dylan the man is contained within his songs, for whoever wants to dig for them, and while it may not add up to a full picture of the man, it allows us to see that there is a man there. And, when you get down to it, just knowing that is really enough. Read more!

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #94: Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread

I'd have to strain pretty hard to think of a goofier song in Dylan's almost bottomless canon than "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread". There's lines like "pack up the meat, sweet, we're heading out" and "slap that drummer with a pie that smells", lines with just much surrealism as anything on Blonde on Blonde, only less informed by drugs than by...well, probably still drugs, but much lighter fare to be sure. There's the vocals to the song, Dylan's voice containing an audible smile, the backup vocals seemingly always half a step behind (possibly because they were trying to keep up with Dylan improvising, who knows), and that hilarious basso profundo on the last "bread" in the song. And there's the arrangement to the song, Manuel's pie-aner just clinking away, the boys bashing out two chords (three, if you want to be generous), all the perfect for those loose and casual vocals belting out a wacky little tune about who the hell knows what. It's two minutes in and out, a quick little jam to crack the boys in the room up, and it works great in the context of the Basement Tapes sessions, like a sorbet to help cleanse the palate.

As most of the really deep-vault Dylan fans (or - ugh - "Bobcats") amongst us probably know, Dylan has very, very performed the song live, with the most and probably most famous outing being during his 2003 Brixton Academy run (the same run where Dylan played "Romance in Durango" for the first time in almost 30 years). The performance I linked to is a whale of a time - Dylan seems engaged and amused, and his crack band gives the whole thing the same casual air as the album version. Even Dylan's amateurish piano playing, which has been the butt of criticism and jokes ever since he chose to lug an organ out on stage, works well in the context of the song, because it nicely matches the intentionally simple piano line of the Basement Tapes version. And the audience seems thrilled to hear the song, giving it a nice ovation during the opening bars, which helps give the song an added special vibe. All around, it's great fun to listen to, even for those of you that aren't the biggest fans of current-tour Bob Dylan.

It's also a little window into the minds of us crazy Dylan fans (and I include myself in that group 100%). You can hear how thrilled a lot of those fans are to hear that song, and while I'm quite sure a lot of them are thrilled because they really like it quite a bit, I would guess that there are at least a few that are thrilled becaues they can tell their friends and other Dylan fans "hey, I was there when he busted out 'Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread' that one time!" And that's something that, while certainly common to a lot of fans of artists with long careers, is probably at its strongest when it comes to ol' Bob. Believe me, who amongst us isn't a little jealous when we hear that Bob's pulled out "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Dear Landlord" from mothballs (usually in Europe - as his current setlists have chosen, it's usually the overseas audiences that get to hear these rarities, the bastards), and that some lucky jerks in Grand Rapids or wherever got to hear the novelty while you got to hear the whole damn Modern Times album, along with most of Greatest Hits, at the show you went to last week? I don't think it's an unreasonable reaction to have, and I think that rarity envy plays a big part in why people so religiously follow setlists and hope to beat the show where a slice of history is made.

And that's certainly not a feeling unique to the fields of music. We all know that, in general, it's a lot more fun to watch a big sporting event on TV than in person. The interminable stretches of dead air live can be mitigated with bathroom breaks and e-mail checking; you don't have to sit next to obnoxious fans that might spill beer down your shirt or yell obscenities next to your kid; you're not spending an arm and a leg for the privilege of terrible seats, overpriced food, and the possibility that you might have spent all that to see your favorite team get their asses kicked right in front of your face. Back in the day, in fact, there were legitimate worries that televising sports would hurt the pro leagues in general, because who would want to come out when they could stay home and watch for free, with TV cameras giving you an eye for the action you can't get from your stationery spot in the stadium? Of course, that is a bunch of nonsense, and any sports fan can tell you why - nothing beats being there for the moment. You could offer any Steelers fan in the stands of Super Bowl XLIII a million dollars in exchange for the memory of seeing the Roethlisberger-to-Holmes game winning pass in person, and they almost certainly wouldn't do the deal. Memories like that simply cannot be replicated.

And that, I think, ties in to why there are so many devoted Dylan concert fans, people that plan out trips around his touring schedule, whose total shows attended have reached double digits, and who can proudly recount the time they had to borrow a car from a stranger to make it to Detroit to watch Dylan play "John Brown" in person (that would be me - and the best part is that I accidentally left the car lights on and needed a jump in a Detroit parking garage, not particularly the safest place on the planet). We all know that we're gonna get people screaming "Everybody must get stoned!", that we'll hear "Like A Rolling Stone" for the thousandth time, and that the odds of us hearing our favorite song are not always all that high (I have been lucky to have heard "High Water" twice, but I am in a minority in that regard). But then there's always the chance, the very slight chance, that Dylan might play something he's rarely or even never played before (like the show he just played where "Billy" - "Billy!" made its live debut), and then you'll have that moment for the rest of your life, where you can say "I was at the 'Billy' show" or "I was at the 'Black Diamond Bay' show" or some other such rare song that instantly brands the show it appears in. Every show is a chance to hit a special kind of lottery. That's a heck of a deal, when it comes to your favorite artist of all time. Read more!

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #93: Too Much of Nothing

This is, I would assume, one of those songs that might confound a person listening to The Basement Tapes for the first time; I confess that, after having listened to the song in preparation for this post, I still don't have a particularly good handle on it. Reading the lyrics makes the song come off kind of like a down-home version of Confucius or something, with Dylan spouting words of wisdom about the dangers of an idle life - at least, I think. What's a little frustrating is that the song is actually more plain-spoken than Dylan often gets, and yet there's something about the whole thing that sort of eludes whatever finger you're trying to put on it, as though the meaning is staring us right there in the face and it's up to us to discover it. And what in the hell is that "say hello to Valerie/say hello to Vivian" stuff all about?

It's a fun song, make no mistake; the chord changes in the last lines of every verse give the backing track a remarkable lift, as though they're building towards something really, REALLY important. Perhaps, then, the nonsensical chorus is meant to be a parody of those types of big chord changes, deflating our expectations of "hey, this is gonna be great"? I'm sure that's reading too much into it - if nothing else, the harmony vocals are just as good on the chorus here as elsewhere, so at least the non sequiturs sound pretty cool. And that ramping up also helps give the song an added character, as the tune's general tone is as a languid droll romp (much like the rest of the sessions). Robertson's guitar, in particular, lopes its way throughout the track at a nice slow trot, almost as though it'd had a puff or two of something. That relaxed tone acts as a counterpoint to Dylan's lyrics, which really do have some weight behind them.

Of course, the easy interpretation of the song is that Dylan's having a bit of laugh at himself and his bandmates, idling about in upper New York and avoiding actually doing some work (although there are some that believe that Dylan & co. really were doing work...) in favor of just rockin' some jams, man. It's an amusing idea, to be sure, but just a little too clever by half (which, it should be mentioned, describes a lot of those theories). I like to think that Dylan, in fact, was taking the opposite tack and telling us that, in fact, he was more than happy to get back to work and make some music. We know that Dylan sort of took a break from the rigors of being a famous musician, especially when it came to the touring scene (which defines a working musician more than anything else, with the possible exception of actually recording songs), but people occasionally seem to think that this meant that Dylan spent his time in isolation, baking bread with his kids, the same way that John Lennon more or less disappeared from the public stage after his Lost Weekend and eventual reconciliation with Yoko Ono. That is clearly an oversimplification of things - Dylan recorded more than his fair share of albums between 1966 and 1974, and even took a role in a movie and contributed its soundtrack. Sure, he spent time with his family as well, but he kept himself busy, make no mistake. About the only thing he DIDN'T do was tour, and given the rigors of 1966, one can hardly blame him.

It is that frame of reference, then, that I believe that "Too Much of Nothing" has to be heard. Dylan clearly knew that after he broke his neck - in a way, a manifestation of the break-neck lifestyle he'd adopted as he ascended to superstar status - that certain things would have to change in the way that he lived his life. And he made those changes, and the result was the "wilderness" period in which he managed to completely reinvent himself in the American consciousness. But Dylan always knew that being an artist was in his blood, and he made sure that he was never completely at rest, letting his idle hands do the devil's work. And, in the end, the swan song of the road finally was too much for Dylan to resist, and he'd head back out on the road (with the Band, of course - it should be noted that it was about this time that Dylan's marriage started to splinter) to reclaim his standing as one of the biggest acts in the world, along with being one of the best. Dylan knew when he needed to slow down, but much like the sharks I talked about in the "My Back Pages" post, he knew that he simply couldn't stop. Read more!

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #92: Tears of Rage

Often, when it comes to songs on The Basement Tapes, you might need to go through some particularly tough mental gymnastics to wring some sort of hidden analysis out of them, if you were so inclined. That hasn't stopped people (including, it must be said, myself) from trying; it seems entirely difficult to believe that songs this cryptic don't have hidden layers underneath. Thankfully for the punters amongst us that engage in this sort of nonsense, we have a song that almost seductively invites analysis - "Tears of Rage", the closer of the official album's first disc and one of the great masterpieces therein. It seems little surprise that the Band made this one of their signature covers; and, it must be said, of the many Dylan covers in their repertoire, it's easily one of their very best. On an album chock-full of wackiness and mind-meltingly obtuse lyrics, the (relatively) straightforward directness of this tune feels almost refreshing, and the startling emotion from Dylan's vocals (one of his very best), coupled with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko's astonishing harmonies on the choruses, make us want to dig deeper into this little slice of life Dylan's created.

With that being said, this digging has already been done to a great degree; this essay does a great and valuable job in collecting most (if not all) of the musings dedicated to this song. I find myself, like the writer, occasionally scratching my head about some of the theories - King Lear, eh? - but the most commonly received notion about the song, that of a parent grieving over the path that his offspring has taken, seems to be the most viable one. It's also the simplest, which is quite often the case, but that's another story. In this context, the song really rachets up its inherent emotional base, as you can see just how wracked with pain the narrator is over his daughter abandoning him for false idols and for the seductive thrill of the world outside (it's hard not to get a little chill at that line about discovering "that there was no one true", a sentiment you can assume many young folks believed in as the 60s progressed). The chorus sums up all that heartache into four majestic lines, including that beautiful final declaration of the brevity of life, delivered with the assurance of someone who realizes how easy it is to forget that when you're young and how hard it is to forget as you grow old.

I've made reference in the past to the painful divisions in our nation left to us by the 1960s; I will also say that few eras in the history of our nation have left such a powerful and lasting impression as that decade, one that basically pulled our nation out of the World War II generation and pointed us towards our modern day. There are no shortage of books you could read about the Sixties - my current two favorites are Rick Perlstein's masterworks Before the Storm (about the rise of the conservative movement in America) and Nixonland (about the fracturing of America into the blue/red state configuration that dominated our current decade). Both of them do a tremendous job showing us a nation torn with strife abroad and at home, with history moving so fast nobody could keep up with it (with the exception of Nixon, who - it must be said - kept up with it all too well), bookended on one side by one of our most mythical political figures and on the other by easily our most infamous. It must have been a hell of a time to do just about anything, let alone raise a child. And with the constant undercurrents of dissent flowing through our national discourse, you could easily see many like the narrator of this song watching their children grow distant, curse them out, and cause them to weep those tears of rage Bob's singing about.

It's really amazing to think about - we've heard plenty of times how Dylan managed to capture the zeitgeist of his generation, and yet here's a song that, in many ways, captures that opposite side of the coin, the "silent majority" Nixon invoked en route to becoming President in 1968. The key, to me, is the mention of Independence Day at the beginning - maybe just a neat little rhyme Dylan thought up, but one that brings to mind the America that was fought so hard for in World War II, one that was being torn asunder as the Sixties progressed. And you can very easily see a veteran of that war, returning to the suburbs and raising his own family, watching with growing horror as his children, already prone to disobeying him like generations of children before, become unrecognizable as they're swept away in the tide of whatever movement might strike their fancy. What the hell, Philip Roth wrote a very famous novel with that sort of plotline (a novel that I think sucks, but YMMV); there have to be thousands of people that wondered what happened to the child they once held in their arms as that same person was off marching in protest of Vietnam. "Tears of Rage" might not begin to describe that kind of hurt and anguish, but Dylan comes as close as can be, in a song he wrote right in the midst of that maelstrom of history.

Finally, a word needs to be said about the backing arrangement before I go on; I'd hate to write a post about this song and neglect how well The Band create the mood that makes this song so brilliant. Unlike their arrangement for Music From Big Pink, Levon Helm sits things out, and it actually works a little better for the song (IMO, of course), as the backing instruments are afforded a sort of graceful weightlessness without being tied to any rhythmic backing. Hudson's organ, capable of offering so much good humor and musical punchlines throughout the album proper, is at its most church-like and solemn here. Robertson's guitar fills, which he lays down throughout the song like a particularly thick coat of paint, are remarkably sympathetic and almost act as a fourth voice in the vocal mix. Danko and Manuel, relegated mainly to rhythm duties along with Dylan's guitar, hold down the group and help add to the beauty of the arrangement. And then you have those vocals, Manuel's reaching the high notes with effortless skill, Dylan's sandpaper lead soaked with pathos, Danko the counterpoint in between. It all adds up to something truly amazing. Read more!

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #91: Please, Mrs. Henry

Many of the songs on this album could be potentially classified as "weed" songs; knowing that a fair share of the stuff was lit up during the sessions, that makes a lot of sense. "Please, Mrs. Henry", on the other hand, could very easily be classified as a "drinking" song, both in the lyrics of the song - a hilarious string of non sequiturs with the loose thread of a drunk pleading to his landlady/bartender/whoever about Lord knows what - and in the loosey-goosey arrangement of the song. Dylan slurs his way through the lyrics (at certain points he sounds like he's parodying his Blonde on Blonde singing style) and chuckles in the final chorus, with Danko and Manuel grinning their way through the backup vocals. Dylan (who, apparently, was the only guitarist on the song) drops in goofy little fills after the "I'm down on my knees" line, a perfect match to his blathering about filling up someone's show and biting like a turkey. Even the organ Hudson plays is like an aural punchline, a perfect match for a song this silly. Of all the songs on the official release, this one might actually take the prize for "funniest tune", in all its nonsensical glory.

What I like about the song is that, in some ways, it kind of parodys the boastfulness of drunken oafs when they've had a little too much; who among us either has had to put up with this kind of blather or (hopefully not too many of you) actually SAID this kind of blather at some point in your lives? I vaguely remember, in my college days, reading stories about contests where people would stand up and shout out a string of boasts about themselves, like telling autobiographical tall tales or something like that. I might be remembering this wrong, but the oral tradition is such that at some point something like this has to have occurred. Dylan, in "Please, Mrs. Henry", takes this kind of boastfulness to its logical extreme, shouting out a bunch of stuff that sounds like boasts, until you take a second to think about it; does saying "I can crawl like a snake" really sound like something you'd want to be able to do? I'd honestly like to think that Dylan had the 1960's version of an obnoxious frat boy in his head while writing this song, even though I'd guess he was probably thinking of some Yosemite Sam-type from an old Western story.

One of the commenters for "Apple Suckling Tree" made mention of the fact that I didn't talk enough about the musical attributes of that song and suggested that I'm looking more for hidden meanings than paying attention to the music itself. That was something of a bucket of cold water to the face, considering how much I've made of Dylanologists combing haystack after haystack for that one needle, so I think giving the Band their due is in order here. John Howells, curator of the fine Dylan resource Bringing It All Back Homepage, wrote something very interesting about the Basement Tapes:

Everytime I listen to the Basement Tapes I always get the feeling that I'm hearing the lost and sadly neglected recordings of an unknown artist who died as an early age and is just now becoming known through a recent discovery of a cache of obscure recordings. This is similar to the feeling I get when I see a James Dean movie or hear a Buddy Holly song - "what a tragic loss". This is odd because I know that nothing of the kind happened with Dylan. Still, these recordings have a timeless quality not unlike those recorded by Robert Johnson in a makeshift hotel room recording studio or early Hank Williams demos.

I suppose there is a whiff of pretentiousness to this - look, dude, the songs are incredible enough, no need to stick DEATH into the equation - and yet Howells hits on something very primal about these recordings. When you're listening to music, most of the time you can pretty easily point out the era that that music was recorded in (you try convincing somebody that "Only You" by Yaz was recorded in any decade other than the 80s), and that can color even the greatest music, because that music is inextricably linked to a certain time and place. With the Basement Tapes, on the other hand, unless you knew the circumstances of the recordings, you can't really pt your finger on when these songs were recorded; the music is so elemental, the lyrics so crazy, and the performances so laid back and bereft of any kind of self-consciousness. And that's not to say that the Basement Tapes are the pinnacle of recording because of that, but it's something that helps give the songs their everlasting mystique, which does count for something.

And I think that the Band deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that. It is one thing to be students of folk music, to know the ins and outs of the "John the Revelator"s of the world, and to know how to play music that sounds like those old vinyl singles from decades long past. It is another thing entirely to actually make that music sound like those old vinyl singles, to give your recordings that feeling of days long past, when music was more rumor and hearsay than anything else. The Band of 1967 could definitely do that - it's amazing that the same group (give or take a drummer) that pounded out the wild rock of the '66 World Tour is banging out "Please, Mrs. Henry" and making it sound like it could have been played on a vaudeville stage. That takes both remarkable talent and the ability to channel that talent into a cohesive force, and every member of that group knew how to turn the sum of their parts into a remarkable whole.

Unfortunately, the official release has a certain amount of taint to it because there was a need to make the Band's contribution even more profound than it already was - not only do we have the Band songs that were not recorded during the same sessions (a few were recorded in 1975, for Pete's sake), but there were also added overdubs to the original songs to sweeten them in a way that they didn't need sweetening. And that's a real shame; it makes the Band look bad by giving themselves a role that they didn't have, casting a bit of a cloud over the role that they did. And their role was of partners with a master, the men who took some of Dylan's weirdest work and shaped them into viable, interesting, and often brilliant pieces of music. For that, they deserve all the credit in the world. Read more!

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #90: Apple Suckling Tree

This is just about the first instance while writing about the Basement Tapes in which I have to do the RCA dog head-tilt and go "wait, THIS song made the final cut?" It's kind of welcome, in a way - us Dylan fans wouldn't be Dylan fans if we weren't bitching about what did and did not make it onto an album, now would we? And out of all the songs included on the official version so far, with the possible exception of "Odds and Ends", this is the one where I can't help but wonder where "Silent Weekend" or "I Shall Be Released" is instead (and at least with "Odds and Ends" you can actually discern what Bob's singing the whole time). As much as I've made about how cool the casualness of the sessions were, this is a moment in which the casualness becomes a bit much; the repetition of the song is more tiresome than anything else, Bob mutters lyrics that he's making up on the spot and the backup singers blow their cues, and the actual song just isn't as particularly interesting as you would want on this album. It's a piece of fun, make no mistake, but certainly a lesser effort compared with the five songs beforehand.

Of course, you could make quite a little essay about the symbolism behind Dylan placing the song's narrator and his sweetheart under an apple tree, of all things (btw, I googled "apple suckling" because I'd never heard the term before, and most of the first searches brought up this song, so I'm apparently not alone). This is probably not the place for that essay; you could probably fill a file cabinet or two with scholarly papers talking about what the apple means in terms of mythology and religion over thousands of years. And, when you read the lyrics of the first take, you can see that mythology was even more on Bob's mind there, as he mentions "the forty nine in your burning hell", a reference to the Danaids of Greek mythology. On top of showing just how well-read Dylan was for a cat that never completed his formal education, you can easily discern that Dylan had his reasons for placing those people under an apple tree. And since he scotched that take for the one that simply mentions two people under a tree, you could be excused for thinking more about Adam and Eve - maybe Columbia or whoever assembled the official version felt more comfortable with the more familiar Christian mythology than the Greek version.

Not having mentioned everybody's friend Wikipedia for a while, I feel compelled to mention that I took a look at their page regarding the symbolism surrounding the apple for this post, and was surprised at how much mythology regarding the fruit I did and didn't know. Aside from the stuff most of us are familiar with (Adam/Eve, William Tell, Snow White, etc.), there are things like the apple's importance in Celtic mythology, the Isle of Avalon in Arthurian folklore, and where the term "the Big Apple" came from. Of course, when it comes to Christianity we have no idea of the apple was indeed the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge - painters just made it an apple, probably thanks to Greek mythology (Christianity, if nothing else, made good use of what they plundered from the Greeks and Romans), and now it's just a common belief. And then you've got a tall tale like Johnny Appleseed's, which helps bring the mythology of the apple into Americana, and you've got a fruit that somebody like Dylan would drag into a song, especially while he's looking back to his folk music roots.

Now, I can only assume that you guys know who I'm talking about when I mention Johnny Appleseed (well, those of you from America, at least - the Dutch readers of this blog will certainly be forgiven for not knowing), seeing as how he was a quite well-known American folk hero for over a century. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least if a younger reader, say about 12 or so, has absolutely no idea what the hell I'm talking about. Not to get into a grumpy old man rant here, but it sort of seems to me that the folklore of the past, both in America and abroad, is sort of disappearing from the public consciousness; I don't mean that people will ever forget the story of Paul Bunyan, but that Paul Bunyan just doesn't have the same resonance in 2009 as he did in 1939. And that has to do with a lot of things - the proliferation of things like the Internet and TV that make reading about folk legends less interesting; our culture's shift towards cynicism and irony; and the fact that we don't really have much use for those sorts of stories anymore. This isn't just about mythology, either - the real baseball scholars here will remember Hippo Vaughn, who threw a nine-inning no-hitter in the same game as his opponent, Fred Toney, in 1917. This was a big deal for a long time afterwards, but there's no TV footage of the event, and so it's sort of been consigned to the dustbin of history. I don't need to tell you that if it happened today with Tim Lincecum and Carlos Zambrano (for example), you wouldn't hear about anything else for a week, and the story would be brought up constantly for the end of time, along with the video highlights for future generations to behold. That's just how things work now.

The ironic thing is that just about every piece of folklore and old stories that you could ever ask for are now available, online, for anybody that wants to do a quick Google search and find them. Whether or not anybody wants to go through the trouble of actually seeking them out is another question altogether. And, again, it's not necessarily the end of the world if nobody knows about Billy the Kid or whoever. But there were generations that thrilled to read stories about him, and it's worth wondering if our future generations wouldn't be thrilled in the exact same way. I can only assume that the Bob Dylan that wrote "Apple Suckling Tree" would ask himself that same question. Read more!

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #89: Clothes Line Saga

You know, I think "Clothes Line Saga" actually is even funnier without knowing that it was meant as a parody of "Ode to Billie Joe" (which I hadn't heard until a few years ago - how that uber-depressing song topped the charts escapes me entirely), even to the point that the original title was "Answer to 'Ode'". I mean, it's funny enough with that knowledge in mind, hearing how the melodramatic "normalcy" of "Ode to Billie Joe" is skewered by Dylan taking that normalcy to an insane yet logical conclusion. But let's say that you came to the song without that knowledge, and then you hear Dylan spinning this yarn about laundry, for the love of God, with some nonsense about the Vice President losing his marbles just for funsies. And then you've got Dylan's near-monotone singing, like he's actually trying to record the aural equivalent of a poker face, and Garth Hudson's organ's burbling away in the background like it was plucked from a Nintendo video game soundtrack (the 80s version), and the rest of the Band just clanging away, and the song gets even funnier. I mean, it's like an episode of Seinfeld dropped in the 19th century, with the 2nd reel of a science fiction movie shoved in there rather inappropriately. It might very well be the funniest of the officially released Basement Tapes.

Another aspect of the song's hilarious nature is that the lyrics, along with Dylan's delivery of them, seem to be a massive joke that Dylan's desperately trying to pass off as, well, not a massive joke. In an era where songwriters, in large part thanks to Dylan's influence, were attempting to push the boundaries of what lyrics had to be and were moving away from the idea of telling any kind of story (even the simple "boy meets girl, boy likes girl" kind of story), here's Dylan writing a song that's nothing but story, and the most blase story possible to boot. Sure, there's that wacky revelation in the middle, but it might as well have been a revelation about the sky being blue for all the attention that's paid to it. We get an entire verse about how the song's narrator likes to help with the chores. I can't hear the song without being reminded of the Simpsons episode where Grandpa Simpson demonstrates his strike-breaking abilities by telling a story that goes absolutely nowhere and bores everyone around him. But the way the story was told was quite funny ("the important thing was that I had an onion tied to my belt - which was the fashion at the time"), just like the way an otherwise dull story here is made funny by the lyrics and the performance.

That one bit about the Vice President, though, got me to thinking. Leaving aside the fact that the news actually happened in the town where the song takes place, I got to thinking about the way that news traveled back in the earlier days of our grand old republic, even back around the times of the Civil War. We've so readily taken the spread of widely available news for granted that even an era where freakin' newspapers were the only way for us to learn about what was going on in the world seemed positively prehistoric. It seems almost beyond the realm of mere human comprehension, then, to imagine a time where the news only came through thin, highly partisan, and almost entirely localized newspapers, where the talk of the world traveled through telegraph, and where for a person living in Des Moines the news of Washington and New York might as well have been the news of Kathmandu or Peking. The world was a lot larger in those days, and the way that people looked at the world around them was that much different.

And yet, there are still pockets of the world in which the many tentacles of the information age have yet to completely encircle them, including here in the United States. A lot has been made of the whole red state vs blue state thing, especially since the year 2000, but it's very difficult to brush aside the differences between the big cities and the small cities, even after all this time. Recent advertisements have made usage of the slogan "what's happening on Wall Street is affecting Main Street", and intertwined with the ridiculousness of this notion - since when did what happened on Wall Street NOT ever affect Main Street? - is the obvious implication that, for most people living in the small towns that would actually have a Main Street (well, just about every city does, but never mind), what happens out in the big city really does have no bearing on them. And this parochial viewpoint does have its advantages - after all, democracy is a multi-tiered concept, and keeping interest in the local levels helps strengthen the higher levels - just as much as it has its drawbacks. In that sense, you could very well see "Clothes Line Saga" as either a pointed parody or gentle homage to that way of thinking, where people seem far more interested in the smaller parts of their lives than in something as big and far away as a major politician having some sort of mental breakdown.

That is not to say, then, that you wouldn't hear this sort of droll conversation on the back stoops of tenements in the Bronx, or that somebody in Charles Starkweather country wouldn't follow the national news with rapt attention. What I'm trying to say is that, when it comes to the perceptions we have about certain parts of our country versus certain other parts, the general populace (and, it should be noted, most people that hail from other nations) have very well-set expectations of the way that those parts of our country live. And, for the most part, those expectations have a funny way of being met. A song like "Clothes Line Saga", then, can be hilarious not just because of its blank-eyed ridiculousness, but because we all can fully imagine that conversation happening today, in Smallville, USA, where getting home in time for dinner might still take precedence over the collapse of Bear Stearns. This will probably never change. And what the hell, maybe we're better off that it doesn't. Read more!

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #88: Lo and Behold!

So apparently there's a whole chapter in Invisible Republic (I keep using the old title because, quite frankly, the new one sucks) devoted to "Lo and Behold!". Think about that for a second. Anybody coming in to The Basement Tapes for the first time that listens to that song might like the way it sounds, groove on the Band's interplay (Manuel's piano and Hudson's organ interlocked like crossed fingers), and chuckle at the weird lyrics and Dylan singing "what's it to you, Moby Dick/this is chicken town". But that's probably as far as this hypothetical neophyte listener will go - there are better songs down the pike, and "Lo and Behold!", for all its fun, probably won't strike that person as one of the highlights of the album. And yet Marcus, who has almost certainly forgotten more about old-timey folk music than I could ever even begin to learn, managed to dissect this tune in a way that brings out much deeper meanings and tie the song into his theories about the Basement Tapes' antecedents. You can't help but be impressed. I, personally, hate the man's guts.

I'm just kidding, of course. The thing about "Lo and Behold!" is that, even if you aren't a master of the folk idiom and haven't heard "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" or "Stack-O-Lee" or something, you could give the lyrics a close listen and realize that something odd was going on there. Basically, the song's about a vagrant or drifter or just some generally shifty cat who travels around, has wacky adventures, and hustles a couple mooks out of their well-earned cash. At least, that's sort of how I pieced things together - you could very easily be forgiven if you miss out on any semblance of a plot, a running thread, or the sort of niceties that most songs will give you (up to and including the folk songs Dylan apparently cribbed from). You could possibly argue that the song's being weird just for the sake of being weird, but all the little references to Pittsburgh and Moby Dick kind of make me believe that (at least in some way) he knew what he was doing.

One thing that fascinates me about the song, not having that kind of knowledge that Marcus has, is the elastic, spontaneous nature of the released version. There are two different versions of the song out there (that we know of; who knows how many takes eluded recording), both of them with different lyrics, and at one point in the song Dylan clearly sounds like he's casting around for the lyrics, either because he'd forgotten them or (more likely) because he was improvising them. That's not out of line for the rest of the sessions; after all, a song as beloved as "Santa Fe" was more or less a great melody, the words "Santa Fe/Dear, dear, dear, dear Santa Fe", and then Bob mumbling random nonsense into a mic and saps like us doing the dirty work and translating it for him 40 years later. But that's one thing that I think occasionally gets lost in the maelstrom of critical analysis of these songs - so much of it was entirely off the cuff. And, I mean, there had to have been some planning and rehearsing that went into making these songs (have you ever tried just slapping together some chords and lyrics and making a song? Doesn't really work that way), but it wasn't like these guys were making an album. They were just fucking around, killing time, and having some laughs. It just so happens they killed time by making extraordinary music.

It should be noted that there is, to me at least, a pretty good reason that the Basement Tapes sounded the way that they did. We all know that Dylan has always been a student of the (sigh) old, weird America and its musical styles (if you didn't know, I'd say Good As I Been To You would've set you straight right quick), and has long been a connoisseur of those brands of music. And the Band became famous because they were Canadians that were remarkably adept at reshaping Americana music into something commercially palatable ("The Weight" and Music From Big Pink, of course, immediately spring to mind, although I've always considered their masterpiece to be "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), so you can certainly assume that they've heard their fair share of American folk music. You get those two elements together, sharing a common thread, and it shouldn't be a real surprise that the Basement Tapes sounds the way that it did. I mean, if both of them had been really influenced by doo-wop, or Motown, you could reasonably expect their jam sessions to sound like that, wouldn't you? But it was good old folk music that they both loved, and that's the music they chose to create.

I'm not saying that there might not have been a conscious effort to duplicate the often-wacky, often-loose styles of those old records, or that they weren't thinking about how their spin on that music would sound to the contemporary audiences that were fans of their music (well, Dylan more so - the Band hadn't really become famous yet). What I'm saying is that they might have thought of all that stuff, but they just didn't really give a damn. They were smoking up, playing shit that amused them (in the case of "See You Later, Allen Ginsburg", REALLY amusing them), and having a good old time. Any thoughts as to their place in history or how talking about a Ferris wheel linked into the carny days and The Gangs of Chicago or whatever was almost certainly secondary at best. And that you could make those connections and enjoy the music on a level beyond Joe Average Listener is, also, entirely secondary. You've got the songs, and they're amazing on their own. Sometimes you need to just listen to them that way. Read more!

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