Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #104: As I Went Out One Morning

"As I Went Out One Morning" is one of those songs that almost has to be fairly dripping with meaning; we've had plenty of those so far on this little project I've undertaken, but this is surely one of the songs most budding Dylan fanatics will take a fine-tooth comb over when they first hear it. For one thing, it's a tremendously dramatic song - built around a D minor chord and played with insistent, almost menacing rhythm, there's something kind of cinematic about the album version. The studio band deserves a great deal of credit for building that drama, certainly, as essentially an MTV Unplugged crew managed to summon up a great deal of emotion with very little (dig that expressive bassline - it bounces with a solemn energy, like if Morse Code could be set to music). And then you have Dylan's sublime contributions - not just the music and lyrics, but his fantastic vocal performance (the second verse, in particular, is one of my favorite vocal moments of his entire canon) and that ringing harmonica. Eyolf Ostrem, whose truly amazing Dylanchords website has been invaluable to me even before I started this blog, notes that the harmonica playing here is tremendously expressive, possibly thanks to the '66 World Tour, and it's hard to disagree. So, from a purely musical standpoint, "As I Went Out One Morning" has a great deal to offer.

But, of course, it's the lyrics to the song that draws all the attention, and the boatloads of analysis that comes along with that sort of attention. AJ Weberman, a man for whom the word "asshole" doesn't quite seem strong enough, made the all-too obvious parallel between the Tom Paine reference and the infamous NECLC dinner in 1963 where a rather loaded Dylan said he saw a little of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. Greil Marcus, in turn, wrote a somewhat tortured analysis about how the song actually is about American history or something like that. Marcus, at least, has the good sense to suggest that "it'd be astonishing if what I've just described was on Dylan's mind when he wrote the song" (gee, you think?), noting that Dylan's words have the power to make us think in that sort of way, where we can draw metaphors from the world we live in just as surely as we can draw them from the lyrics to Dylan's songs. Weberman, on the other hand, has figured out what the song means to him, and that is that. Which method of looking at songs is correct, I'll leave for the reader to figure out on their own.

I've always thought that Weberman's way of looking at the song was off from the very beginning - if somebody can untangle the girl in chains and all that flying South business from the dinner where Bob made an ass of himself, feel free to write about it in the comment section, but I don't particularly feel it's worth the effort to try. And yet there's something about the song that makes you wonder what Bob was getting at (if, indeed, he was getting at something), and as I listen to the song again I keep wondering about why this girl is in chains, and why the narrator would offer his hand and then pushes her away, and so on and so forth. Perhaps what the song could be about is the dark side of seduction - not just from women, but from anything that promises far more than it could ever deliver and ends up leaving you worse off than when you started, like heroin, or compulsive gambling. Or maybe, just maybe...fame. This is, after all, the withdrawn Dylan we're talking about, the one that sought to remove himself from the pressures of being a superstar as much as he could, and the siren song and accompanying insanity of said stardom had to have been fresh on his mind.

That, to me, could very easily explain the "girl in chains bit" - when it comes to vices, they're always held back, sometimes by society, sometimes by our own dint, just waiting to be let loose by some poor unsuspecting person. What we tend to forget about such things as cocaine is that very rarely does anybody tell you "hey, sniff this or I'll put a bullet in your temple" or "try this cigarette or your dog gets it". It is always a conscious decision to tie that vein and shoot that needle, or to make that trip to Atlantic City just one more time, or to tip your elbow again because surely this is the last beer you'll be needing for the night. And I'm not climbing on some bully pulpit here; the reason such things are so seductive is because they can make you happy, at least for a little while, and a lot of people don't even get that much in their lives. But all the same, you take that step down the road to ruin and it's hard to move in another direction...that is, unless you utilize a little common sense. Or should I say...Common Sense? Eh? Eh?

Ah, and here I go, falling prey to the siren song of digging into Dylan's lyrics to find something that may or may not be there. I can see why people will dedicate portions of their lives and kill tree after tree to do it - it can be a lot of fun, if you really do think you're on to something. And there we see Greil Marcus's words validated - not the American history lesson business, but Dylan's words as gateway to your imagination, so to speak. If you can think this way about a song like "As I Went Out One Morning", you can put that same cerebral cortex power to looking at your favorite movies, or even the way you approach the world and the people inhabiting this planet of ours. That's pretty special, in my opinion. We often take a very myopic view of the world, and if it takes a pretty darn good song off a pretty darn good album to yank those blinders off our heads, so be it.

BONUS! At the risk of losing readers of my blog to a more well-written and erudite piece of work, I'm linking you here to a tremendous blog that focuses on Dylan's music and exceptional analyses therein, and more specifically a post he wrote about "As I Went Out One Morning" that goes on a way different tangent from mine. Read it here.

BONUS #2! For those that haven't heard it before, I'm embedding below the one and only live performance of "As I Went Out One Morning", played on January 10th, 1974 at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It's a fine performance, one that captures the drama of the original while enfolding it in the aesthetic of Tour '74, and makes me wonder why this song was never played again in any iteration of Bob's touring band. Enjoy!

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #103: John Wesley Harding


John Wesley Harding is an album that makes sense if you really step back and take a look at the big picture of Dylan's career, and an album that can make exceptionally little sense when trying to put it in the context of that career. After all, even with hindsight the album kinda looks like an alien in its musical climate - a mainly acoustic album of sparse lyrics and equally sparse arrangements, recorded by an artist famed for his complicated lyrics and exceptional band arrangements, released in a season where psychedelica was running rampant and where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album everybody was paying attention to. It must have been even more insane back then; can you imagine picking up Dylan's first album after the mindblowing Blonde on Blonde, putting it on your turntable expecting another Electric Trilogy blast, then hearing that first song and realizing you're getting something entirely different? It was a different world back in 1967, and people were still getting used to the idea of creative maturation and evolution in rock music. Hearing John Wesley Harding must have been a real trip.

At least, for most people. We tend to occasionally overestimate just how much technology plays a part in our lives - after all, there are still parts of this country (let alone the world) that don't have broadband internet yet, never mind Twitter or BitTorrent or all that fooferaw. But there is still that segment of the population that constantly stays up to date on the cutting edge of technology, knows just when the next iPhone iteration is coming out, and where we're headed as an information-saturated society. And, back in 1967, there were a chosen few that had managed to snag themselves a copy of what Dylan and the Band were up to in the early days of that year, heard the songs that we now know as the Basement Tapes, and had their minds blown a little earlier than everybody else. We're talking a very chosen few (Great White Wonder, not exactly a widely released record to begin with, was still two years away), but those select musicians and lucky friends/acquaintances of those musicians that heard those tapes could get what Dylan was up to on John Wesley Harding. And, again with the benefit of hindsight, we can hear the Basement Tapes and realize that Dylan had the direction for his next Columbia album more or less in mind all that time.

There's something interesting about the fact that Dylan went to Nashville, where he'd churned out his last drug-influenced album, to record John Wesley Harding (in more typical Dylan fashion, the twelve songs were cranked out in three sessions and just under twelve hours - most bands these days are lucky to have done ONE song, maybe two or three if everything breaks right, in the studio in that time). Maybe he was just comfortable working there, with many of the same musicians that worked on Blonde on Blonde, who knows. But what I like to think was happening was that Dylan was affirming, maybe even to himself, that even though the music itself was far different from what came before (quite frankly, the closest any of his previous records comes to sounding similar in tone is his debut), he knew exactly who he was and why he was recording it. Even the fact that he wore the same jacket on this cover as he did on the last album says something - yeah, you're not used to this, but I'm still Bob Dylan, after all.

And he backed that up on record, as well. I kind of brought this up when I began writing about Blonde on Blonde - one thing that makes the last two Electric Trilogy records so strong is how remarkably cohesive the albums are, top to bottom. Every song serves a purpose on the album, outside of its own individual strength, and the album becomes far more worthy as a total listening experience because of that. Bringing it All Back Home, naturally, doesn't have this same unity (although you could argue that both Side A and Side B have their own intrinsic unity), which isn't a bad thing, just a statement of fact. Once Dylan had found his feet as an electric musician, he completely understood how to make albums, not collections of songs, but pieces of music that immersed you in its own internal world from beginning to end. And John Wesley Harding has that same cohesion; the internal world Dylan created might be miles away from what he was on about in 1965-1966, but there is a world all the same, and it's just as interesting and beautiful as the worlds he'd created wired to the gills on speed.

One of the really remarkable things about this album is that Dylan proved conclusively that you can make creative strides as a musician without resorting to overstuffed instrumentation or a gaggle of cohorts to help create a ton of half-baked ideas. It was the Basement Tapes where Dylan made a left turn in songwriting styles, and it was here where that left turn bore fruit. Dylan stripped down as much of himself as he could, both in the arrangements and in his words, and managed to point the way towards a new direction, one that owed just as much to the past as his acoustic records did, while also paying debts to a strand of music only hinted at in his previous work - country music. The country-rock boom may have still been on the horizon, but Dylan was already incorporating that into his music, not so much anticipating a trend as putting himself in the right place as that trend arose. And the country elements in Dylan's music lasted long enough for Dylan to create some of his best music of his career. You could even argue that the simpler, more rootsy country style espoused on this and Nashville Skyline would reach its apex in the spare, gentle, powerful arrangements of Blood on the Tracks. Not too bad for an album that shocked the hell out of a lot of people upon its release.

John Wesley Harding, in some ways, is the forgotten Dylan masterpiece, an album nearly as strong as the Electric Trilogy but maybe a fifth as well-known and loved (even with "All Along the Watchtower" on it). And that is perfectly understandable; an album this unassuming, this straightforward and direct, bereft of the spaced-out genius of the previous albums (though not without its own genius, of course), was probably never going to be as popular or draw as much attention. Maybe that's just the way that Dylan wanted it. He'd come off one of the craziest years any human being had ever lived, achieved fame only a few people that ever lived could ever dream of, and every account tells us that he wanted to pull back from that and try to get to a lifestyle that might be considered "normal" by someone's standards. And, for a little while, he succeeded in that. But he could never stop recording music, and he recorded an album that captured his frame of mind, his desire to pare back and keep it simple, stupid. And we got a masterpiece out of that, a great record in a year full of great records. Not too shabby.


Even the choice of opener for the album speaks to the overall tone of the album - Dylan kicks things off with, of all things, a tale of a Western bandit on the run from the law. Dylan later said that he named the album after this song so that people wouldn't think of it as a throwaway, and it's entirely possible that he would have been proven right. After all, there really isn't too much of a story to the song - this guy's great, he's like Robin Hood, nobody can pin him down, so what? - and the simple four-chord arrangement isn't the kind of thing that brings people back for repeat listens. But by giving the entire song cycle that name, we find ourselves thinking about whether or not Dylan saw something of himself in this man (named John Wesley Hardin, by the way - maybe the "g" was added because it sounds better when sung, or Dylan just didn't have an Encyclopedia Britannica handy) or in the "story" that he's telling, and decided to apply what he saw to the rest of the songs. Either way, it's an interesting decision, and one that's worth exploring.

Dylan didn't quite get all the facts right about the guy - not that it matters, since it's pretty obvious he was going more for the evoking of the Wild West and the old, weird America (forgive my use of the term) than any attempt at making a biographical sketch of a reasonably minor outlaw from the frontier period of our nation's history. What should matter more is the fact that Dylan chose to write this kind of song at all; he'd performed numbers like "Pretty Boy Floyd" during his folk days and surely knew of any number of other likeminded songs, but this was the first time that he'd taken his own stab at writing an outlaw song. Maybe he just felt like it was the right time - for a man that's always played fast and loose with his own history, he might have felt right at home writing a song that played a little fast and loose with the history of a vagabond. Dylan's fascination with the Wild West has always been a little overt, after all (cf. Masked and Anonymous, his role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, etc.).

Whatever reason he chose to write the song, he gave it both the honor of album title and pole position, and in the same way that just about every album opener ever lends at least a little of its spirit to the rest of the album, "John Wesley Harding" adds a little bit of flavor to how we view John Wesley Harding. The mere fact alone that he started with a folk-style outlaw tale, consciously drawing on Americana the same way that the Basement Tapes did, tells us that we're in for an album that makes no bones about its debts to the old bluesmen and "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "I'll Fly Away", with songs that draw upon old tales passed down through generations and the Bible and on half-forgotten corners of our national consciousness, all told in a language so clean and stripped-down that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the lyrics were ever meant to be songs at all. And you also can see that Dylan's focused on the cross-section of that old America he'd never written about before, on tramps and hoboes and outsiders and men who lived outside the law (honest or not), men that he very easily could have identified with as a kid who threw away his past for any number of pasts he could easily make up. What this adds up to, then, is an album that you can easily surmise is about where Bob Dylan's head was at this stage of his life and what was occupying space up there in the fall of 1967, codified in that sly way of his, where both everything and nothing is revealed. Or he's just singing about lonesome hoboes, I dunno.

Going back to that imaginary person cueing up the record for the first time back when it was released, I can only imagine what he thought while listening to that first minute of the song. There's the opening acoustic strum (shades of "Subterranean Homesick Blues"?), the realization that acoustic guitars, a low-key bass, and snare rim shots are all we're getting for instrumentation, and then Dylan's voice, gruffer and yet clearer than the sneering whine of Blonde on Blonde, all adding up to a brand new revelation in a career already chock full of them. It is this instrumentation, in my opinion, that allows the song to work the way it does; I suppose that straight acoustic would have worked just fine as well, but the gently propulsive backing does give the tale a bit more oomph, whereas a rock band arrangement would obviously have overwhelmed the take and scuppered the whole thing right out of the gate. Dylan claimed that he had wanted to add more instrumentation ("I didn't plan that sound") and had talked to Robbie Robertson about some overdubs, but how would a piano - even a saloon-style piano - or a few guitar licks have really helped this arrangement out? Retrospect definitely makes the arrangements sound just right, and I can't imagine that as the years go by, somebody will say anything different.

I'd like to conjure up that imaginary listener again, one more time, staring at the cover of the album he'd just purchased, at the black and white photo of Dylan with those unknown men - Native Americans? - and still puzzling out what he'd just heard. Maybe he pulls up the needle and cues the title track again, wondering if he'd heard it wrong and Dylan really had snuck in Robertson's nasty little fills or an "Absolutely Sweet Marie"-style organ in there somewhere. Maybe he skips ahead a few tracks, looking for something that sounds more like Highway 61 Revisited, continually scratching his head when he keeps hearing acoustic guitars and muted drums and Dylan singing about something straight out of Sunday school. And maybe, just maybe (this is my hopeful side talking here), he realizes that it doesn't matter that Dylan's taken a brand new direction; this brand new direction, believe it or not, sounds pretty damn good. And that imaginary listener cues up the title track again, listens to that tale of a man who never made a foolish move, and readies himself for what comes next.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #102: Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)

Perhaps the only Basement Tapes song that actually doesn't stand alone on its own weird island, "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" is a thematic cousin to "Tiny Montgomery", in which the song's narrator rhapsodizes about a mythical figure that, when he/she arrives, will turn everything upside down. Aside from the fact that this sounds like the plot of any number of movies (from Footloose to Mary Poppins), one wonders why it was "Tiny Montgomery" that made the cut, consigning "Quinn the Eskimo" to cult status for nearly 2 decades. Now, obviously you can't have two tracks on an album that's basically about the exact same thing (well, okay, you can - but that's a VERY narrow subject you'd be repeating), so one of them had to go. And, with the benefit of hindsight, it's a lot easier to say that "Quinn the Eskimo", a song that (as covered by Manfred Mann - what a terrible band name, btw) actually gave Dylan a #1 single in the UK, should have been the song to show up on the final album, or even on a Dylan release before the Basement Tapes was ever compiled. So why didn't it?

What I would consider the most likely view (YMMV) is that Robbie Robertson (and, by proxy, Dylan - do you really think he didn't have any input on compiling that album?) didn't want to put a song already that famous on the album, choosing instead to highlight some of the lesser known tracks from those sessions. This might actually also explain why "I Shall Be Released" didn't make the cut - not only were both already well-known songs at that point, but the Dylan/Band versions had already seen the light of day through the infamous Great White Wonder and any Dylan fan that was actually interested in the sessions would almost certainly have already heard the songs in question. And, if you want to have a little more romantic possibility thrown into the mix, Robertson knew that the two songs mentioned had already achieved commercial fame and wanted to keep The Basement Tapes totally pure - i.e., free of any considerations other than the music on vinyl and the Americana roots that helped birth that music. To put it in other words, the Basement Tapes would be free of the taint of selling out; this was something to worry about, even back then, after all.

I could be wrong, certainly; nobody knows for sure if Dylan had any hand in selecting the songs, and there could be any number of reasons two of the most famous songs from the sessions were not released on the album that purported to represent the best of those sessions. But when you listen to "Quinn the Eskimo", it's pretty hard to believe that anybody would want to keep this song locked away, no matter how ragged or lacking in musicality you thought those takes were. For one thing, the melody is absolutely infectious - there's a good reason that Manfred Mann's take topped the charts in the shiny-happy pop days of 1968. Even though their version makes the song sound like just about any random track you could pick from one of those Time-Life compilations (jaunty organ? Three-voice harmony? Why, I've never heard that in a 60s pop song before!), the melody is still there, and you still can't help but get it stuck in your head. For another, the lyrics are a kind of ragged genius; Dylan weaves some kind of tale of feeding pigeons, jumping for joy, and getting some sleep, before hitting us with that remarkable carnival barker chorus. The tune is practically built to be liked by people, and it continues to be liked to this day.

Which brings us, then, to Dylan's version, as found on Biograph. It seems funny to think about, but the version that I find myself enjoying more is the Self Portrait take from the Isle of Wight show; it's even more ramshackle than the Basement Tapes take, but there's such a spirit of goofy bar band fun throughout (the botched vocals and backing held together by Scotch tape, Robertson's squealing guitar solo, Dylan's country voice wrapped around those lyrics as the Band shouts smartass harmony behind him) that invites repeat listens with a huge dumb grin on your face. The 1967 version, by contrast, is much more muted by comparison; if there's an actual good reason to lock the song away for so long, it might be the fact that the slow tempo of this take makes it sound nothing like just about any other version anybody's ever released. And yet that version is still remarkable to listen to, Dylan in fine voice and the Band jangling away behind him, Manuel's piano and Hudson's organ standing out beautifully. There's a kind of stately elegance here that seems almost counterintuitive to the looseness of the lyrics, and that alone made it worth issuing to the public. It's almost a shame that everybody that heard it thought "hey, here's a good ol' rave-up song"; giving it another stately treatment might be the way for some future band to go with this song.

"Quinn the Eskimo" isn't a masterpiece by any means, but it certainly doesn't have to be; we have enough of those from the Basement Tapes sessions as it is. What "Quinn the Eskimo is", plain and simple, is a good old time, a fun romp through a fantastic chord structure and one of the catchiest choruses this side of Beck's "Loser". And as much as I'm not particularly a fan of Manfred Mann's version, I'm still glad it exists - any way to give Dylan's music more exposure is generally a good way (My Chemical Romance's cover of "Desolation Row" nonwithstanding), and it's always a good thing for a song this good to be exposed to the world, no matter how much you try to gussy it up or make it sound like second-rate Byrds or something. What the hey, if Dylan wasn't going to give it a proper release, somebody had to step up and do it.

And that's that for The Basement Tapes! Sorry to those of you waiting for a "best of the unreleased" essay - that still might come somewhere down the line, but I think it's better that we move on to something (yet again) completely different. Join me, won't you?

Author's note: Bob Dylan has stated that his inspiration for this song was Anthony Quinn's role in The Savage Innocents - whether or not this is true, we can only guess. It IS Bob, after all. One thing that is true is that Anthony Quinn just happens to be the reason my name is Anthony, and not Jim or Ray or Ed or something like that. Just thought you might like to know. Read more!

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #101: I Shall Be Released

Author's note - Sorry about the lack of updates; things got a little hectic in real life. Let's hope I still know how to do this...

A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Wilco in concert (an experience I would highly recommend, by the way), and as their final encore for the night they pulled out a cover of "I Shall Be Released". I mention this not because I want to show off what kind of hip, cool cat I am, but because this experience is not one unique only to Wilco concertgoers. "I Shall Be Released", one of the few songs that is more famous as a cover than as a Dylan original and one of the few Basement Tapes masterpieces that didn't make the official album cut, has been covered many, many times by artists ranging from Bette Midler to Nina Simone to, er, OK Go, and represents possibly the Band's (and Richard Manuel's) finest hour. It is a gloriously simple song, one that lends itself to both literal and figurative interpretations, and it's a wonder that Dylan himself never gave it as much mind as the artists that covered it (the only Dylan versions officially released prior to the Bootleg Series was a live take from the Budokan and the rather inferior Greatest Hits Vol. 2 version). I don't think I'm speaking out of turn in saying that it's one of Dylan's best songs.

What gives "I Shall Be Released" that unending popularity, I suspect, is that the song has the one quality that appeals to artists of any stripe and any medium: it is a song that means both exactly what it says and so much more. The obvious meaning, then, is the thought of a man in prison, waiting for the day when he can reenter the larger world and reintegrate himself into society. We probably don't think too much about this, but just imagine how small a percentage of our population has actually ever served or is currently serving time in prison. Very few of us (including myself, of far as you know) can really understand what it means to be cut off from the world, spending much of your life in a prison cell, visits from friends and family limited to the odd phone call or the occasional visit behind a clear, impenetrable wall. Dylan, even without having had that experience (though he very well could've known somebody who had, through his folk singer days), channels the pain of that experience with a perfect simplicity, ditching the florid emotion a lesser songwriter might use for lines as sharp as that brilliant first verse: "They say everything can be replaced/Yet every distance is not near/So I remember every face/Of every man who put me here". An entire story, condensed into 24 words.

Now, if you wanted to just take the song as the lament/promise of a prisoner who hopes of the day where he can shake his friend's hand and see if the sea is as blue as in his dreams, that wouldn't give the song any less emotional power. But, as you no doubt are aware, there's never any outright mention of jail or of incarceration throughout the song. Sure, you hear about the man "crying out that he was framed", but he's not making that cry from a cell, but from a "lonely crowd" that he stands in. It is in that seemingly contradictory phrase - "lonely crowd" - that the other meaning of the song can take shape. It isn't just from a prison, after all, that we might want to be released from. We have all found ourselves in situations that we don't want to be in, situations where we believe that we are wrongly accused, and moments in our life where we would simply want to be anywhere else. And in that famous chorus, Dylan simply says "any day now/I shall be released", and we know exactly what he's talking about. Maybe you hear it the way Joan Baez did (she dedicated the song to political prisoners when performing it live in the 1960s), or maybe you could hear it the way, say, a battered woman might, but you can still see yourself in that song, the same way the narrator sees his reflection staring back at him, far above the wall that keeps him hemmed in.

Many of you will probably consider the Band's version to be the superior one, and with Manuel's powerhouse vocal performance and a much more fully fleshed out accompaniment from his bandmates, it would be hard to find fault with that. However, in my estimation (this will come as no surprise, I'm sure), the Basement Tapes version is the one that I return to over and over, as it manages to be both the simplest and the most emotionally gripping version of them all. The Band, far more tentative in their backing here than on their own cover, opt for a simplicity in their playing that matches the starkness of the lyrics, a sympathetic backing so typical of their best work throughout the sessions. Dylan, for his part, is somewhat shaky in his singing, but that somehow adds to the endearing factor of the take, and he conjures up a very special magic when Richard Manuel joins him to harmonize during the chorus. You never get the feeling that Dylan actually *becomes* the narrator of the song decrying his lot in life (as some other music critics might suggest), but he does properly summon up the requisite heartache to do the lyrics justice, and that's just as good. Perhaps the recorded version might not have had enough of an "official" feel to make the cut, but its emotional power alone should have been enough to allow the track to make the light of day, rather than be consigned to Great White Wonder/demo for other artist use status.

It is an oft-cited truth in music that the simplest songs tend to become anthems, simply because our human minds are often trained to lock onto a catchy chorus or more direct lyrics (cf. Reagan appropriating "Born in the USA" for something it certainly was not meant to be used as). This is not always a bad thing (although one kind of wishes that a song as reasonably decent as "Imagine" hasn't been blown up to almost Messianic proportions); after all, to touch the most hearts your sentiment has to be as non-specific as possible purely by default. And if you can write a song that touches those universal sentiments without descending into sappy nonsense or a litany of cliches, then you've done something truly remarkable indeed. Bob Dylan, with "I Shall Be Released", managed to do just that. And I guarantee that every artist that covered that song, that memorized those lyrics and sang them with his or her own unique voice, heard something of themselves in those words.

BONUS: I would not consider myself the world's biggest Jeff Buckley fan - his voice is truly astonishing and he had a wonderful band behind him, but at a certain point all of his songs tend to blend together - but I've always loved his impromptu cover of "I Shall Be Released", sung on WFMU radio *over the telephone* while some musicians performed in studio. Give it a listen, at least once. You will not be disappointed.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #100: This Wheel's On Fire

During the long and painful Get Back sessions that would lead both to Let It Be and the end of The Beatles as a recording group, a lot of time was spent with the band just sitting around, talking about whatever, trying to kill as much time as they could before getting back to the mind-numbing chore of actually, you know, making music. One of the topics that cropped up was the notion of how a great song doesn't necessarily have to tell a story or even make much sense; if the words match the emotion of the backing, you can make a masterpiece without hewing to musical convention. Coincidentally, the example used to describe this phenomenon was The Band's "Caledonia Mission" - take a look at the lyrics and you can easily see what they're getting at. Of course, we as Dylan fans don't really see what the big deal about this is - after all, we've had album after album of songs where the lyrics serve almost like another instrument more than anything else - but in 1969, when songwriting was still closer to infancy than maturity, this was still a novel concept, one worthy of discussion by the greatest band that ever lived. The Beatles, for their part, rarely made this kind of stylistic leap lyrically, which shows that it's no small thing to write nonsense (relatively speaking) and create something amazing.

I think of this as I listen to "This Wheel's On Fire" (as I type this, I'm winding through the song for the fourth time in a row, to speak nothing of the number of times I've already heard the song), one of the best songs on The Basement Tapes, and yet another tune that has escaped being pinned down for over four decades. People have tried, to be sure - Paul Williams, Robert Shelton, Greil Marcus, all have tried to make sense of those three cryptic verses and that even more cryptic chorus. And, much like Dylan's most extensively analyzed songs, the words seem to serve as mirror for how the critic thinks - Williams sees a fever dream, Shelton plucks images from the Bible and Shakespeare, and Marcus imagines the tune as some kind of fire-and-brimstone sermon. I lean a little towards Marcus on this one; free of the more traditional pounding rock arrangement of The Band's version and the melodramatic psychedelica of the Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger "AbFab" version, Dylan's ramshackle run-through really does deserve the description of "apocalyptic" some have ascribed the tune. There is real drama when Dylan and Danko come together on the chorus and the band builds to the glorious release of "this wheel shall explode".

It's the bit about "if your memory serves you well" that I keep coming back to, though, as I listen to the song. Two phrases echo all throughout the song - that one, and "we shall meet again"; you could easily argue that a lot of the dramatic tone of the song comes from the repeating of those phrases, building a mysterious feeling almost entirely out of thin air. And that mysteriousness seeps into the rest of the song - is he singing about somebody that he wants to see again, or is he threatening that person with something dire if they don't meet again? It's kind of like one of those optical illusions, where you can see either the vase or two faces, depending on how your mind chooses to interpret the image. I, myself, hear the musicians clanging along, Dylan's voice straining (occasionally painfully so) to hit the higher notes with his limited range, the odd disaffected tone all throughout the performance, and I find myself leaning towards the more unhappy point of view. After all, when something is described as "Biblical" or "apocalyptic", it's usually not going to be all sunshine and rainbows.

Most of us, I would assume, immediately associate "Biblical" and "apocalyptic" with horror, destruction, and wrath-of-God type stuff - precious few, I'm sure, immediately think of the Song of Songs or all the good stuff that happens AFTER the Four Horsemen and the Antichrist and the Seven Seals and what have you. On the one hand, this can be extremely tiring, both to Christians that like to think their faith is more than just the Old Testament, Jesus on the cross, and the Book of Revelations, and to nonbelievers who weary of having the concept of Hell and eternal torment and all that shoved down our throats. On the other hand, if you can create something that actually harnesses the emotions and feelings tied in to those connotations, you can REALLY make your creation hit someone on a primal level, because most of us have those feelings already built in to our thinking processes. And it's not always something entirely conscious (it's pretty easy to tell when it is - The Passion of the Christ, for example, or "God's Gonna Cut You Down"); sometimes things just come together in the right way, and you've got magic.

"This Wheel's On Fire" has that magic, and maybe Dylan had it in his mind when he recorded the song (after all, one can only imagine what was going on in that melon of his throughout the sessions), but it seems unlikely. It's hard to consciously write something, let alone get a band to follow along, that invokes the feeling of doom and gloom you would associate with John the Revelator and his extremely fucked-up vision of the last days. And yet all you have to do is hear those minor chords, the Band's winding, menacing performance, and the almost frightening power of "this wheel's on fire/rolling down the road", that last "road" stretched out far beyond how the word was meant to be said or sung, and you know that those musicians hit that feeling right on the button. It's a pretty darn hard act to follow, and it is probably for the best that the song was chosen as the finale for the official album. There are a lot of songs from these sessions that invoke the Lord, that have that feeling of the apocalypse surrounding them, and that have a sense of darkness at their very essence, as though Dylan really did have a hell hound on his trail in those days following his motorcycle accident. And without invoking religion even once, "This Wheel's On Fire" can very easily be lauded as the cream of the crop, as the greatest of them all. Read more!

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #99: Open the Door, Homer

There's something different about this song. I don't mean that it doesn't belong in the context of the Basement Tapes sessions, like Dylan & Co. suddenly decided to break out some gangsta rap or something. I mean that, in some ineffable way, it just feels kind of different, a little set apart from the rest of the set. Maybe it's just because I'm nearing the end of the album and might have a touch of fatigue writing about these songs, who knows. Or maybe it's that minor chord in the chorus, which actually makes the song more harrowing that it probably should be. Or perhaps it's the lyrics, which just come across as Confucius-like bits of homespun advice all strung together. Maybe it's the weather, or something like that.

Doesn't it always seem kind of strange that somebody like Confucius actually existed? I mean, we all know just how difficult living in this world can be sometimes, that our human existence often withers in the face of such overpowering ideas as the possibility of an afterlife or why we have to have wars, and we're always looking for ways to simplify as much as we can and to find ways to bring order and meaning to our complicated lives. Confucius, in his own way, actually managed to do both - his pithy sayings ("Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do", for example) are not only simple and easy to understand, but actually have a great deal of profundity to how we can live our lives. It's a small wonder the man has kept his reputation for so many years; unfortunately, a lot of that comes from people using his name for terrible "Confucius say" jokes. I'll resist the temptation to put one here.*

You wonder if Bob Dylan, a greatly intelligent man (if not an educated man, whatever the hell THAT means), took a few pages from Confucius in making his turn from the undisciplined wildness of the Electric Trilogy to the sparer, sparser songwriting that would mark his middle-sixties output. It's clear that Dylan was simplifying in his lifestyle in general, foresaking the life-draining pleasures of the road and of superstardom in order to keep a close-knit family life and occasionally rock out with his pals. One wonders if he'd have decided to do this if he hadn't broken his neck riding that Triumph of his, but that's neither here nor there. The plain fact is that he decided that those earthly pleasures weren't for him (at least, not at that moment) and that he wanted to pare down his life as much as he could. And that desire, probably by design, showed up in his songwriting of the time. Always a master at synthesizing whatever he was listening to into his own brand of music, this time he was taking all that folk, country, and blues music he loved and mashing them into his own style, and there was no time for drugged-out imagery in the words he now had running through his brain. They might still be hard to understand, but this time it isn't because they were so weird, but because they seemed so simple, hiding their meaning in plain sight.

"Open the Door, Homer", with its three verses of what kinda, sorta sounds like advice, I guess ("one must always flush out his house/if he don't expect to be housing flushes" - uh, gee, thanks), serves as example of that songwriting style. Not to get too into the next album on this little journey of mine, but John Wesley Harding features much of the same cryptic lyrical style, maybe even more so ("The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", for example), made all the starker by the extremely stripped-down arrangements. And he never would have gotten there without a song like "Open the Door, Homer", a song that finds Dylan honing his new approach to writing lyrics, to both exceptional and head-scratching effect. He hadn't gotten to writing parables yet, but he was getting there.

*okay, fine, I can't resist. One I actually heard in my high school days - "Confucius say it is good to meet girl in park, but better to park meat in girl".

I'm so, so sorry. Read more!

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