Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #118: I Threw It All Away

Okay, this will be the last time I bring up Clinton Heylin (at least for this album, anyway). "I Threw It All Away", one of the most popular songs on the album, a favorite of any number of Dylan fans, was the subject of one of Heylin's more pointed criticisms in his Behind the Shades. Aside from the "once I had mountains/in the palm of my hands" lyric, he saw the lyrics to the song as nothing but trite cliches, a level of songwriting far below the lofty standards that Bob has established, even in the confines of a mere country music song. Now, far be it for me to criticize the opinion - repeat: opinion - of somebody with a great deal more qualifications, life experience, and musical wherewithal than I; on the other hand, screw 'im. Heylin, who apparently has this weird idea that Dylan's career needs to be wrapped in the snug cocoon of about five years of its existence, also apparently can't deal with the notion of his counterculture hero saying what he means, dealing in plain-spoken language instead of Rimbaud-by-way-of-Kerouac, or writing a song that directly goes for emotion instead of cleverly dancing around it. Kind of sad, if you ask me.

Dylan's pre-country career has not wanted for songs that have been able to summon emotion and tug at the heartstrings; indeed, it's what gives him more substance than the pseudo-hipsters that rip him off with about half his cleverness and a mere fraction of his humanity. But he never had a song that hit people in quite this way, with a directness he only sporadically visited outside of this album. Dylan's croon is a great help in this regard - as has already been mentioned, it's hard to imagine Dylan's regular singing voice (even the John Wesley Harding model) conjuring up that same kind of feeling, and that silky-smooth voice Dylan adopted works very well in this context. It should also be mentioned that his band offers maybe their best backing performance of the whole album, no mean feat. The intro, with that delicately picked acoustic backed by a dramatic, droning organ, is as arresting a musical moment as Dylan has had, and the sympathetic backing gives added weight to Dylan's vocal performance. I'm not suggesting that only an unfeeling robot wouldn't be moved by this song...well, just for fun, let's say I am suggesting that.

Now, one thing that this blog has started to become known for (at least, amongst the cooler cats out there in Internet-land) is occasional song analysis, in which I let loose the wilder side of my imagination and attempt to figure out just what it is our hero's trying to get at. I'd originally suggested at the start of this project that I was going to try to steer clear of that, as there is already a massive market of Dylan analysis and it doesn't seem entirely prudent to try and jam one more frat boy into that particular phone booth. All the same, I keep finding myself lured in by his exceptionally cryptic lyrics and mind-boggling imagery, much like so many others have been in the last 40+ years, and I keep finding myself wanting to get some sort of handle on where Bob was coming from, in order to make my listening experience that much better. I'm not sure this is always a good thing; after all, as much as enjoying music occurs on an intellectual level, a great deal of that enjoyment also comes purely from how that music stimulates us, makes us want to dance, and so on. All the same, there is something fun about parsing some of Bob's crazier lyrics, and he's had plenty of tracks that can double as treasure hunts.

I bring this up because it's kind of funny to me that this sort of spyglass-poring over analysis is rarely, if ever, applied to Nashville Skyline. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that an album this unassuming hasn't been subjected to the microscope so many other Dylan albums have suffered. But you do have to wonder what it is about us that wants to search for hidden meanings in the complex, without ever imagining that those same meanings could be hidden in the simple. Take "I Threw It All Away", for example. Where are the mountains of articles suggesting that this song is actually about Suze Rotolo, or Joan Baez, or any of the women that Dylan had loved and lost up to this point? Why can't those mountains stand for "the mountains of Madrid" Dylan wrote about in "Boots of Spanish Leather", a song that just about everyone assumes is about Suze heading off to Europe and her relationship with Bob splintering. Why aren't there people crying out that it's Baez that Dylan used to hold in his arms and so on and so forth? Maybe because it's not as much fun to place that sort of idea somewhere that makes it obvious, instead of somewhere that makes it hard for everyone but the most in tune with Dylan's wavelength to properly discern?

If you ever needed a reason to really enjoy Nashville Skyline, outside its own considerable artistic merits, just think about the fact that it's escaped so much of the chattering that has surrounded the rest of Bob's canon, both good and ill. So often we want to find deeper meanings in Bob's words - mainly because it makes it easier to defend his music against those that mock his lyrics as gibberish - that it's a real breath of fresh air when we can just enjoy his music on the level that goes no further than "isn't that sweet how he's singing about lost love?" It doesn't lessen the quality of the music, trust me. "I Threw It All Away" still remains a classic, one of Bob's finest songs. If you'd rather his finest songs were all about the Sixties or his battle with the folk crowd, well, that's your business. Read more!

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #117: To Be Alone With You

My sneaky favorite* of Nashville Skyline, and potentially my outright favorite - it's either this or...well, I won't spoil the surprise. I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard this album (I immediately called it one of my favorites ever - my ardor has somewhat cooled in that regard) and being struck the most by this little ditty. In my opinion, everything that makes this a great album is encoded in the 2:12 that this track runs. There's the unassuming quality of that little studio snippet at the start, Charlie McCoy's snappy lead guitar intertwining with Bob Wilson's equally punchy piano workout, the band kicking things up a notch for the middle eight, and Dylan's croon smoothly sliding over everything like butter melting over pancakes. It's a pretty sweet way to really get things rolling on the album, if you ask me.

In the "Girl of the North Country" post, I'd mentioned how that particular song worked best as album opener, and that none of the other songs that made it on the album would have worked in the pole position. I still stand by that statement (it would be unseemly to back away from that just one post later, if nothing else), but the closest any of the 9 tracks afterwards comes to being an acceptable album opener would be this one. One could argue that, in some ways, it actually IS the album opener - at least, the song that gets you more prepared for what Nashville Skyline has to offer. After all, the Cash one-off is just that - a one-off - and the song afterwards is a fun, but ultimately superfluous instrumental (which, I should mention since I didn't in the last post, features some fine banjo work from well-known banjoist Earl Scruggs); it is right here where the album truly reveals its hole cards, giving us listeners the first taste of what kind of material Dylan was cranking out at the start of 1969. And, I can only guess, it was the kind of material that had to throw people for a loop.

Perhaps this is the sentimental side of me talking, but I have a picture in my mind of Dylan up in Woodstock, still ironing out the last kinks in "To Be Alone With You", strumming this song as his children (or child; he had at least one by 1969) sat at his feet and listened. And I think that's something worth thinking about. We all know that Dylan, at this point in his life, had more or less done a Beatles and stepped away from the public eye as much as he could. And we also know that Dylan, still following his muse, was recording albums and writing songs and keeping himself busy as a recording artist (otherwise I'd already be at Planet Waves or something by now). Perhaps I'm entirely off-base about this, but it could be possible that the family man Dylan we all remember from those pictures up at Woodstock, the one with the spindly beard and the nifty eyeglasses, was thinking about his recording career not just in terms of songs he's written for himself, or for Sara, but for his offspring as well.

You might scoff - and I wouldn't blame you if you did - but it's not outside the realm of possibility that Dylan might have been recording songs that his children could enjoy as they grew and started to mature. After all, we have all sorts of evidence of celebrities and musicians creating something aimed towards younger folk (the children's book market, for a while, was practically glutted with famous people's contributions); maybe Dylan wasn't recording a 1969 version of Yo Gabba Gabba!, but the overall sweetness of this album sort of makes me feel like he might have had his children (who, as any first-time parents would tell you, trump everything else in a way no non-parent could ever imagine) in the back of his mind while playing these songs. And there are some quibbles with this - the notion that country music is simplistic enough for children to understand can be taken as a major insult, and basically every song on this album is about love or the lack thereof. Now, while I obviously don't think country music is simplistic, it can definitely be performed in a stripped-down, less complicated manner, and while the songs do deal with love, they deal with it in about as sanitized and non-offensive a manner as possible. So what's left to deal with?

I imagine I might get a little bit of flack for this, as it could very easily look like I'm saying that "One More Night" is on the same level as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" or something like that. Hopefully nobody's gotten that idea (and if they have, I'm entirely to blame). What I hope I've put across, instead, is that a young man just settling into the idea of having to care about more than himself and his wife, a young man that also happens to be maybe the most talented musician that ever lived, might have thought about channeling his enormous gift into something that, yes, his children might enjoy as they grow up. And far from suggesting that Dylan went country just so he could write moon/June couplets that even three year olds would get, it would seem that Dylan's interest in Americana and country music might have intersected with that burgeoning family life, and he chose to write and perform songs that have the catchiness that appeals to all walks of life, with lyrics that deliver their points with brevity and ease, rather than meander around them or confound us by hiding those points under cryptic imagery. And let's face it - if I wanted to make a child happy through music, and I had to choose between "To Be Alone With You" or "Only A Pawn In Their Game" (or, maybe, even "Like A Rolling Stone"), there doesn't seem to be much of a choice at all.

*just in case you were wondering, my sneaky favorites for the albums I've already posted about:

Bob Dylan - "Gospel Plow"
Freewheelin' - "Bob Dylan's Blues"
The Times - "Boots of Spanish Leather"
Another Side - "Spanish Harlem Incident"
BIABH - "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"
H61 Revisited - "Queen Jane Approximately"
Blonde On Blonde - "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)"

Kinda hard to call some of those "sneaky favorites", given how well-known most of his early albums are, but what can you do? Read more!

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #115: Girl of the North Country (w/Johnny Cash)


"Vapid, down-home cliches"; "one can't help feeling something is missing"; just about every damn thing Clinton Heylin wrote about the album - Nashville Skyline is that true rarity, the 1960's Bob Dylan album that isn't beloved by the vast majority of critics and fans alike. This seems hardly surprising, given the fact that both the concept (Dylan goes country) and the execution (What's up with the voice? Is he singing about pie? What's going on here?) are ripe for divisiveness amongst anybody in the Dylan audience that hears the album. Not even the stabs at country on John Wesley Harding prepare you for this album, as Dylan fully embraces the genre (or, at least, what he feels the genre is) and gives us an album full of twangy guitars, pedal steel, lyrics about love and the loss thereof, and that wonderfully strange, obviously affected croon. One can only imagine how this must have freaked out the cognoscenti of the 60s, waiting for the Dylan they were comfortable with to return and spout his hipster poetry, and instead getting Dylan Does The Louvin Brothers.

I'm bringing up the Louvin Brothers for a specific reason. In his fantastic entry in the 33 1/3 series for The Gilded Palace of Sin, country music columnist Bob Proehl draws a distinct comparison between the Appalachian vocal sound of that duo and Dylan's voice on Nashville Skyline, a voice he'd only used once in his lifetime (in 1960, as a 19-year old in Minnesota). And that, to me, is the most important aspect of Dylan's voice on this album - the debate over cigarettes or Dylan's teenage self is ultimately window dressing. Dylan rather clearly knew what he was doing when he changed up his register for this album; much like the kid recording blues covers on his debut album to fit in with the folk crowd, Dylan decided to take a shot at aping Hank Thompson and Billy Grammer in order to make the medicine go down smoother. He knew the country world (who he was trying to play to, as much as the rest of the world - certainly not to the crowd that ate up the Electric Trilogy) would not accept "Country Pie" et. al. in his normal singing voice, so he decided to change things up to help gain the acceptance necessary for this album. One can only wonder what would've happened if he'd gained that acceptance - after all, once you're in with country fans, you're in for life - and how his career might have been altered if Nashville Skyline had hit big.

And one has to wonder whether there was any chance of this album gaining acceptance, given both the timing of its release and its very nature. Proehl, in another great line, suggested that Dylan was the first artist of the sixties who had totally given up on the sixties itself, preferring to retreat into his family life and turn away the hippies begging him to be their sunglass-wearing hero once again. Hindsight makes it clear why Dylan would want to retreat from that kind of overwhelming neediness, and Chronicles gives us some insight into the insane world Dylan lived in even AFTER he retreated from the public eye. And this ugly dynamic - Dylan wanting to stay out of the limelight, and an increasingly desperate fanbase trying to drag him back in - would define his career for the better part of a decade, culminating in his Tour '74, where he more or less bent that nostalgia into a means of profiting (I love Tour '74, but let's call a spade a spade). Nashville Skyline is a very important milestone in that dynamic.

With all that being said about Nashville Skyline as defining moment in Dylan's career (and one of his true outliers), it would probably do to take a moment and talk about Nashville Skyline as an actual musical piece of work. And, now that all the fussin' and the feudin' about the album has kind of melted away (along with all the rubbish about the 1960s cultural wars), we can see what this album is and was probably meant to be - a good old time, through and through. The brevity of the album (27 minutes - sitcom-length!), IMO, works to the album's advantage, as the songs hit and run before you get too discombobulated with the whole deal and last just long enough for you to go "wow, these are pretty darn good tunes!" Now, I think you'd agree with me when I say that there are some cliches and easy rhymes on the album, and that "Peggy Day" might not exactly stand up when compared to "Gates of Eden" or something like that. But if Dylan had wanted to write another "Gates of Eden", he surely would have done so, and it would have sounded absolutely atrocious in the aesthetic of this album. Dylan chose to write an album that sounded like the country music of the time - which should make post writing difficult; we're talking a very limited emotional and subject range here - and on that level, it works very well. And with his usual nifty studio band behind him, the music was always going to sound great.

I'm not going to suggest that Dylan KNEW this was going to happen, like he was recording an album of country music in an era of roiling cultural torment because he knew it would sound better to listeners forty years in the future. But an album that clearly skirts any political or cultural agenda will almost always sound better removed from the context of its time, and Nashville Skyline is that sort of album. Is it a classic of the highest order? Probably not. Does it set out to do what Dylan wanted to do - pay homage to a style of music Dylan had listened to and appreciated for a long time, and wanted to emulate at least once in his career (and maybe more, as almost happened before the Self Portrait sessions took over)? I would say so, yes. And is this an album that rewards repeat listening, maybe not because it's a deeply intellectual experience, but certainly because it's just so darn fun? Again, I would say yes to that. Dylan has done enough stimulation of our minds and hearts to last a lifetime. Sometimes we want something to stimulate our feet, as we tap them (or maybe even use them to dance) to "Country Pie". Ain't nothin' wrong with that.


In my post for "Fourth Time Around" I wrote a brief account of the meeting between Bob Dylan and The Beatles, where Dylan introduced the boys to weed, the earth moved or something, and a beautiful legend was born. Now, we all love a good legend (Kris Kristofferson, for one, appears to have a treasure chest full of them), since they carry a ring of glory and excitement about them that our real lives can very rarely provide, but they're also aggravating because they're almost always untrue and really deflating when you do find out how untrue they are. Lucky for us, many legends aren't always so easy to prove or disprove - certainly Snopes.com has a lot of those old wives' tales and urban legends locked down, but there are still some stories of legendary meetings or jam sessions or "(x) director was gonna team up with (x) actor to make the greatest movie EVER!!!!" type deals to freak us out and make us go "if only...". Our world is becoming increasingly devoid of mystery, for better or for worse, and to have mysteries in our lives is a good thing.

Of course, it's also nice to actually know that some crazy jam session or meeting of iconic minds actually did happen, if only because it makes all the other stories that much more plausible. And when it comes to icons, they don't come much bigger than Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Which is what makes their sessions in 1969 all the more fascinating - mainly because they take a big, shiny tack and pop the balloon full of hot air and speculation that usually surround these sorts of things. I've been lucky enough to hear those sessions, and they're basically what you might expect those meetups to be in real life - a loose session of cover songs and extended takes on whatever songs they care to play (the "Careless Love" pisstake is particularly amusing), the occasional flash of genius buried under the playfulness of two men not giving a shit if there are any flashes of genius. I don't think a full album of this stuff would've had any commercial viability (or even that they meshed all that well), but the good stuff is pretty darn good, as you might expect. And, best of all, you have that simpatico instinct between two friends that helps take the good stuff to that extra level, where there's a level of good feeling that a musician and a studio band simply cannot replicate.

Which brings me to "Girl of the North Country" as performed by Dylan and Cash, the leadoff song to Nashville Skyline and one of the few (and best) examples of Dylan collaborating with another famous musician. Always a highlight of the Dylan/Cash sessions, one figures that this made the album both because those sessions were clearly picked over to find something salvageable for vinyl release, and because it would help country fans unsure if they could trust the quintessential New York singer-songwriter's dip into their favorite genre get over their worries, if just for a little bit. As a calculated move, it's pretty darn smart. As a musical choice, it's equally smart. Not only is it a good introduction to what the album is all about (by way of Dylan's croon and the gentle arrangement), but it helps offer a touch of the familiar (by way of a previous Dylan song being rearranged). Consider any of the other songs on the album - would any of them have worked as opener to the album? I don't believe so.

Aside from the obviously jarring notion of a well-known song now being sung by two well-known musicians, it's interesting to see how the tone of the song has been altered by having it as a duet. The melancholy emotion, which made the original version so stirring, is still there; one of the great things about Cash is that he could sound both like the manliest of men and the saddest baritone-voiced poet you could imagine, and he summons up a great deal of regret and longing on the verse he gets for himself as well as the choruses. But the dynamic of the song itself is different - rather than one man telling his tale of woe about the girl that got away, instead you have two men telling that same tale, almost commiserating with each other about their own separate girls of the North Country, maybe about to take pulls off their beers in some bar somewhere. I'm not about to say that it makes the song better per se (that is up to the listener to decide), but it makes the song different, and I think that's a good thing. It always benefits a tune, even a classic one, if it can be heard in more than one way.

Even in a take as good as this, you can sort of hear why the Dylan/Cash teamup never quite worked out - the two never mesh together as well as we would hope, and the looseness (even here) means that you never get the total commitment that makes these one-offs something special. All the same, a song as good as this take on "Girl of the North Country" makes up for a lot of the indulgences, offering us a tantalizing glimpse at the heights this combo could have reached. Sometimes a pairing as gigantic as this one doesn't have to shake the earth. Sometimes it just has to be good enough to make you close your eyes and smile as the music plays on. Read more!

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #114: I'll Be Your Baby Tonight

And so we reach the end of John Wesley Harding with "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", considered by many to be the logical bridge between this album and Nashville Skyline, and a wonderfully low-key way to end this particular song cycle. Maybe it's the gentle (and well-placed) pedal steel guitar, or Dylan's mellow harmonica notes at the beginning and end, or even the short running time (2 min., 39 sec.) that allows the song to reach its fadeout almost as quickly as it started, but I would say this might be one of Dylan's most relaxed songs, his equivalent of a summer afternoon on a back porch with a glass of lemonade and a corncob pipe. I would guess that he'd enjoy that description as well; it seems pretty obvious that that was the mood that he was shooting for. Small wonder that Norah Jones, who has made her fame on quiet and gentle piano-based music, has recorded a cover version of this song - it's nice sounding, at least, if a little more capable of helping me drift to sleep than I'd like. What the heck, it beats the Robert Palmer/UB40 version, that's for sure.

I've gone a couple of posts without talking much, if at all, about the musical arrangements for these songs (I'm not sure what to say, honestly - the arrangements, while not quite monochromatic, only have so much going for them when they're that stripped down), but for this track a few words should be spared about Dylan's band's performance. Say what you will about both this, the previous song, and the entire album that followed, but one thing that has to be said about the country efforts is that they never sound inauthentic. And you can certainly give Dylan credit for some of that - he had a pretty good ear for the country genre at that point - but much more needs to go to his talented studio musicians, a group of men malleable and intelligent enough to go in any direction Dylan wanted them to go. With the pedal steel woven in and out of the track and the rest of the band offering sympathetic backup, a song that could very easily have become a genre parody is given a level of authenticity instead.

And it's a darn good thing that issue of authenticity was settled so early; when you make that kind of stylistic leap, it doesn't really help matters if you can't walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Nobody will ever get demerit points for branching out and trying something different in their work (at least, not from me), but it's a different story when that branching out is done haphazardly or without any affection or consideration for whatever genre the artist chooses to dive into. And even having that affection and consideration doesn't necessarily guarantee that things will work out for the best. Take, for example, Bowie's Young Americans, his tribute/co-opting of Philadelphia soul. The album sounds just fine (with the title track and "Fame" being outright classics) and Bowie never sounds like he's just having himself a right ol' larf throughout. But there's still something off about the whole proceedings, like we're getting a Xerox of the real thing, and that makes the album more of a curiosity than anything else. I'll get more into this during the Nashville Skyline posts, as so much about that period of Dylan's life deserves consideration, other than "a country album? Whoa!"

It seems rather odd that such an unassuming song as "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" might become a lightning rod for interest and discussion (outside its aesthetic value, I mean), but "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" has a level of fascination attached to it that goes far beyond Dylan just wanting to record a country song. I touched briefly on this in the last post and will return to it later on (hint: it will be during a song I consider one of Dylan's great unknown classics), but attention needs to be paid to just how jarring the switch in Dylan's metier must have been for his fans. And not just for this album in general - the last two songs, far less rooted in the mysterious and a lot friendlier than the surly genius that had cropped up the past few years, must have been just a trip, if not more so, than the ten songs preceding them. That, in itself, is not a shock; after all, we are often unprepared for something different in our lives, and this was something very different indeed. For a man who had already had his share of masks in his short but brilliant recording career, how strange must it have been to have seen that mask removed, and to see a smile underneath?

I've given Clinton Heylin his share of mockery, and the one bit I've always been most annoyed at him about is his taking to task of the Rolling Stone review of Nashville Skyline in which Dylan was credited for making a masterpiece about being happy. Granted, the praise seems to be a bit much, and the reviewer did adjust his opinion later on. All the same, Heylin's aggravation towards that review (and the album in particular, which he dismisses outright) has always rubbed me the wrong way. What I sort of get out of that is that there's something wrong with writing songs about being happy, especially when one desirable form of creativity (Dylan's Electric Trilogy, even the John Wesley Harding aesthetic) is substituted for a less desirable, more simplistic form (i.e. country music). And that, to me, seems entirely unfair. Dylan was in a frame of mind in that time to write songs about being happy, and he chose to write those songs in a certain way (I can't imagine the trainwreck that would've been "Tell Me That It Isn't True" recorded in the Blonde on Blonde style). I don't really see anything wrong with that. And I certainly see no reason to begrudge Dylan his happiness during that times. Things would get stormy quick enough for him. It's nice to have a couple songs when that storm was still on the horizon, and the sun was out and shining on him.

And that's all for John Wesley Harding! Come back next time for the next album in Bob's oeuvre, as I try to make sense of one of the true outliers of Dylan's career. Thanks for reading and commenting! Read more!

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #113: Down Along The Cove

Even now, having listened to "Down Along The Cove" over and over, I find myself in the same quandary - how in the world can I possibly analyze or even talk about this song? Decades of Dylanologists have peered into those forbidding lyrics, two minutes and twenty six seconds of mysterious allusions and strangely off-putting imagery. Even on an album that has spawned reams of discussion and debate over what exactly Dylan was onto while recording it, "Down Along The Cove" takes the absolute cake. In fact, as I type these words...

Okay, I tried to keep that up as long as I could. "Down Along The Cove" works best as a surprise after you've already listened to the rest of the album, get to this track expecting perhaps another parable-like cryptic masterpiece or morality tale disguised in plain sight, and instead you get, well, this. To be perfectly frank, even Dylan's career up to this point couldn't entirely prepare you for this song; there aren't a lot of songs this upbeat, this blunt in its meaning, and this completely over-the-moon in terms of being a love song. After all, we know what a Dylan love song sounds like up to this point - where's the stuff about ravens with broken wings? Where's the Egyptian ring, or the cliffs of wildcat charms, or the mercury mouth in the missionary times? Honestly, I would not fault anybody that heard this song for the first time and thought Dylan had recorded a cover song. It's almost disarming how un-Dylan the song is.

This song, along with its companion "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", is generally considered the appetizer for the main course that is Nashville Skyline, Dylan's way of preparing us for what would come next. I don't entirely buy that - Dylan's never really been one for sketching out a far-reaching plan to begin with, and while the rather narrow subject matter fits the general aesthetic of that album, that doesn't necessarily mean it's to be thought of in the same way. One interesting thing, though, is that both this and the next song were written in the same way (music and lyrics at the same time), a way completely different from the rest of the album (where the lyrics came before the music, a complete rarity in Dylan's career). There's going to be a lot more discussion of this both in the next post and in the Nashville Skyline series, so I don't want to delve too deeply into it now, but what I see in those last two songs is a natural extension of the songwriting process that Dylan was undergoing at the time, as he was reinventing the way he approached both lyrics and the arrangements surrounding them. After all, not every song has to be a sparse tale of bandits or Biblical stories or what have you - keeping it simple, stupid can very easily apply to love songs, as well.

Instead of the narrower idea that "Down Along The Cove" was simply pointing to the country album that apparently seems obvious in retrospect, I find it easier to think that "Down Along The Cove" spoke to the artistic reimagining Dylan was putting himself through, as he tried to find a new voice for himself after having ditched his old one. What seems to baffle some people, then, isn't so much that he looked for that new voice, as it was that of the lyrical threads he'd picked out on this album, this was the one that he chose to follow. Why would such a great artist willingly shoehorn his music into an even smaller box, singing about the moon and June and country pies and so on? Like so many other questions with Bob, that's one that's ultimately going to the grave with him; the plain fact is that he followed that thread, we got a fine album out of it, and he moved on, another step in his constant evolution complete. With "Down Along The Cove", we actually get to see that evolution in process, as Dylan grasps for the only suitable recording style to fit the lyrics he was writing. The fact that it's a song you can dance to seems to be a bonus, as well. Read more!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #112: The Wicked Messenger

I find it a little bit interesting that "The Wicked Messenger", a song that clearly has Biblical roots, ends the way that it does. As any number of commentators have pointed out (including Mike Marqusee, who named his book about Dylan in the 1960s after this song), Proverbs 13:17 reads "A wicked messenger falleth into mischief: but a faithful ambassador is health". And this song reads very much like a parable, like its brethren on this album - a "wicked messenger" sent from some dude named Eli (a very Biblical name) appears from nowhere, delivers a cryptic message (soles of feet burning - something to do with Hell? Hmm) and has his heart opened by a well-chosen piece of advice from somebody in the throng that confronts him. But the surprising thing is that the piece of advice is more folksy than, well, Jesus-y; "if ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any" seems closer in tone to the age-old chestnut "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" than one of Christ's famed parables. And unlike those parables, in which his message is more or less explicitly clear at the end, it's hard to tell if that piece of advice is actually meant to do anyone any good. Why, after all, should the only news brought to people be good news? It's something to puzzle over, at least.

With the final two songs on John Wesley Harding making a somewhat dramatic shift in tone and subject matter from the rest of the album, it seems like this is a good moment to stop and take stock of Dylan's preoccupations while writing this album. After all, as I mentioned in the first post for this album, this was a decidedly major change in his recording career, in which Dylan brought his career arc up to that point (such as it was - can you possibly imagine that the Electric Trilogy was recorded in a period of 14 months???) to an absolute screeching halt, setting up a period of experimentation in the studio and alternating between recording albums and trying to live life as a family man. What seemed mysterious at the time has become clearer with hindsight (not the lyrics, though - those still remain mysterious); Dylan had grown weary of the pressures of fame, his Basement Tapes jams gave him a new style with which to record music, and his preoccupation with the Bible helped reshape how he approached writing lyrics. Even the Bible reading, if you think about it, makes sense - you come that close to death, you'd probably start ruminating on that sort of thing as well. I mean, we can never know for sure, of course, but that seems as good a reason as any.

What I think deserves a bit of discussion, then, is that Dylan didn't make the Bible and Christianity his major focus of songwriting while recording this album, as he would twelve years later. As with many organized religions, what allows said religions to spread out into the world is the devotion of those that adhere to their faiths, the proselytizers who are excited to go out and spread the word of Jesus or Allah or Buddah to as many people that will listen as they can. And this devotion, I would assume, burns brightest in the newly converted, in those that have just had that faith bubble up in them and are as enthralled with their new religion as they will ever be in their lives. It would stand to reason, I would think, that a middle-aged man who has come to Christ will have far more fervor and enthusiasm than a person who has been born into a Baptist or Protestant family and has observed the word of God their entire life. This isn't a bad thing, and I'm not saying that religion has no part in a young person's life. I just mean that, in some ways, becoming a member of a religion as an adult is somewhat akin to having your first child - it's an experience unlike any you will ever have again, and a million different emotions hit you once it has happened, as your life is completely and utterly changed.

Now we know that that religious conversion changed Dylan's life completely in that way, as he more or less immediately recorded Slow Train Coming once he had embraced the Christian life. And I think we can then infer that, twelve years earlier, Dylan didn't have that kind of conversion in his life; he may have become more interested in the afterlife and in spirituality, but not to the extent of becoming the devout believer he would become later. But you cannot deny that his reading of the Good Book had a profound impact on his songwriting - while the ideas of writing in parables was more or less minnowed out after this album, the sparcity of language and the ability to say a lot with just a little (as opposed to his earlier songwriting policy of saying a lot with, well, a lot) would remain with Dylan for a good long time, arguably the rest of his career. And that illustrates what appears to be something of a paradox - a songwriter completely in tune with the way the Gospels were written, yet not entirely in tune with taking those Gospels to heart.

As I alluded to in the comment I wrote for "I Am A Lonesome Hobo", we have the idea of the Bible as a religious document so deeply ingrained in our public consciousness that it is difficult to think of it as also being a document of tremendous historical import, one along the level of Herodotus' Histories or the Domesday Book. And Dylan, in that sense, made as much out of the Bible as he did with the old folk songs and tall tales that helped shape his Basement Tapes songs, appropriating pieces of history and molding them into something that is now recognizably Bob Dylan music. He didn't exploit the Bible for his own means, pretend to be a Christian to draw in any new fans, or take liberties with something that means a lot to a lot of people. He simply found something in those writings that he could take and funnel his remarkable talent into, moving his own career into a new and exciting phase. That, to me, is something worth applauding. Read more!

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #111: I Pity The Poor Immigrant

I'm wondering, having listened to "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" a few times again in preparation for writing this post, why exactly Dylan chose to use "immigrant" as the name/description of whomever he's singing about. The song's lyrics, some of the most downcast and depressing on the album, depicts a person who lives a terrible life, where he seems to both enjoy destroying everything he touches and hate himself for doing so. And yet Dylan chooses "immigrant" to describe this person, which seems strange because to most of us "immigrant" probably conjures sepia-toned images of sad-eyed Europeans in 1920's clothes standing on the bow of a steamer as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty come into view. I myself think of my parents, both of whom were born in Korea and made their way over here in their youth. So unless Dylan chose the word simply for having the proper syllables to fit the flow of the song, there's a seeming disconnect there.

I myself come from a family of immigrants - both my mother and father were born in South Korea and moved to the United States sometime in their teens, my dad settling in Hawaii and my mom in California. I've never really learned as to why either of them ended up in the United States; the assumption is that times were tough for both of them, and America was seen as the place to go for Koreans (as, indeed, the population of Koreans in this country has grown exponentially in the last few decades). In particular, Fairfax County (where I spent the bulk of my formulative years) has become a major destination for Koreans to go to. And without delving too deeply into my family history, I can say that both of my parents have had relative success in this country, as have many of my other family members. Now, lest you think I'm turning this post into my own version of Roots, I'm pointing all this out because I at least have a little experience in what has been referred to as the "American Dream"; for my mom's family of twelve (the parents, one boy, and NINE girls - hard not to feel a little sorry for my uncle there) to take that trip across the Pacific to come here, there had to be some hope for something better.

So, then, how does one get from the image of that family coming to America to find a better life to the immigrant of Dylan's song that's basically a combination of the worst traits of Shylock and Charles Foster Kane? Our popular culture (and, ever so often, our actual culture) has delved into the notion of perverting said American Dream, in which the idea of becoming a successful self-made person has become distorted to the point where "successful" means "get absurdly rich by destroying everything in your way, and occasionally a few things not in your way". The archetypical example of this, I would say, is Scarface, Brian De Palma's famously overwrought epic about a Cuban criminal sent to 1980s America as part of Fidel Castro's "our problem is now YOUR problem" policy who rises to power as a drug dealer and eventually pays for his hubris in a gunfight scene that defies any measure of rational belief. We all remember Tony Montana saying "say goodnight to the bad guy" and "say hello to my little friend", but it's sometimes easy to forget that the movie is basically an illustration of that infamous quote "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Perhaps what Dylan envisioned, in writing this song, was that idea of corruption, of a person from humble means who finds themselves in a position of power, and using that power to do evil, only to find at the end of his life that it was all for nothing. If so, that would be proof enough that Dylan was reading the Bible, and that he had the words of the Lord in his mind while putting together this album. After all, we remember the Beatitudes that Jesus laid down, including the one about how the poor in spirit (i.e. the oppressed, or the humble) are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. And in "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" we get the flipside, a person who is anything but humble, who is anything but oppressed, and for whom there is great emotional wealth but a black hole where the spirit ought to be. And, if I'm going to take this idea to its logical conclusion, the immigrant could be any of us, people who have come to this Earth for a limited time, and who could find themselves turned into a vulgar beast if we don't remain humble, spiritual beings. I don't think you need to be a Christian to be cool with that idea.

One final note - I made mention way back about how disappointed I am by the 1976 version of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and one of the songs of the tour I've always felt unhappy with is their arrangement of "I Pity The Poor Immigrant". For somebody who has always had a keen ear when it comes to this sort of thing, it seems odd for Dylan & Co. to take a downbeat song like this one and try to pep it up, in the interest of having another upbeat tour in a setlist usually chock full of them. I'm sure some of you will disagree with me, but the idea of taking that kind of song and turning it into a knee-slapping good time just doesn't sit well with me. Read more!

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #110: I Am A Lonesome Hobo

Perhaps it's just me, but for some reason "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" feels to me like one of the songs where Dylan makes his Bible-reading most explicit on the album. Maybe it's the subject matter; the Bible, especially the New Testament, has something of a soft spot for the downtrodden and the unfortunates amongst us (after all, the Christian religion caught on amongst the less fortunate of ancient times, mainly because it promised a reward beyond earthliness that far exceeded anything those poor souls were getting in their living days), and no modern-day image quite evokes that sense of despondency like a hobo with a Red Skelton beard and a bindle thrown over his shoulder. Or it could be the little parable tossed in the final verse, when the narrator gives us three keys for avoiding his fate (the pithiness of which, for whatever reason, made me think of Satchel Paige's "Rules For Staying Young") in a style reminiscent of Jesus' little life lessons or something out of Paul's epistles. Either way, that's what the song brings to my mind.

One thing that amuses me a little, listening to this song, is that it sort of reminds me of the kind of stories that Dylan would tell about himself as he was coming up in the New York folk scene, casting himself as a vagrant that traveled this fair and dusty land, just looking for a pillow to rest his head and a six-string to tell his tales of woe. I like to believe that, in some small way, Bob had that same image in his mind as he penned the song, and a small smile would creep up on his face when he sung the lyrics in studio. It wouldn't be outside the realm of reason - if there was something that Bob had going for him during his prime, it was that he could be decidedly self-aware, and that allowed him to occasionally have a wink and laugh both with and at his listeners. You could definitely hear that humor in his more humorous acoustic songs (e.g. "Yippee! I'm a poet and I know it/Hope I don't blow it), occasionally in some of the electric period, and in fits and starts during his years in the wilderness (Blood on the Tracks, of course, is entirely self-aware, but not particularly humorous). If you know how to puncture your own balloon, it makes it a lot harder for your enemies to do so.

Not to belabor a point I've made a few times over the course of this blog, but it really bears thinking about where Bob Dylan was at this point of his life, and what the idea of "nostalgia" and "looking back on one's life" must have meant to him at this point. I am 27 years old as I write this, one year older than Bob was when he recorded John Wesley Harding, and I look back on my life as both a series of missed opportunities and of learning experiences, all of them culminating on the path I plan on taking as I enter my thirties and forties and basically take the path I will follow for the first half of my life. And I assume you all have roughly the same sort of life path, minus a few detours here and there - birth, school, college, work, etc. - that catalog the vast majority of our lives. Then we have Bob, at the tender age of 26 years old, being able to draw from a life story so astounding and outside our normal conception that it would have had to have been dreamed up if it never had actually happened (pardon the cliche). I dare say most of us can't hear a song like "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" and actually identify with it the way Bob can, unless some of you actually have told tall tales about riding the rails and eating food out of tin cans (and if you actually HAVE lived that life, by all means leave a comment - I'd love to hear about it).

It's a neat little crossroads, then, that we get in a song as unassuming as "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" - a song that serves as convergence between the younger Bob Dylan (i.e. the one that made up stories about his life) and the (comparatively) older Bob Dylan (the one reading the Bible, er, religiously). And even if Dylan wasn't actually having a moment of self-awareness here, the facts that he has that history of being able to poke gentle fun at himself allows us to go "hey, maybe he's doing the same thing here". It must be nice to have that kind of songwriting cache. Read more!

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #109: Dear Landlord

Can a purely acoustic song be funky? I was really surprised the first time I ever heard "Dear Landlord", as I hadn't heard much of Bob outside his hits and wasn't prepared for something that sounded like this. I can assume I'm not the only person who has had this experience, too - what with all the creative avenues Dylan has gone down, and making the logical assumption that most people start either with an acoustic-era or Electric Trilogy album (or, I guess, BOTT), most of the more unusual or unique albums in Dylan's canon have to throw those first-time listeners off. And this is a song that even stands out on its own album, by virtue of its comparatively complicated chord structure, a nifty little piano accompaniment, and that bouncy bass line, courtesy of Nashville veteran Charlie McCoy (the second guitarist on "Desolation Row", btw). Anybody that loves music can tell you that a well-played bassline can take a song to a new dimension (just think of "Live With Me" or any number of Who songs), and "Dear Landlord"'s bassline gives it that added dimension, kind of a head-nodding bent, that you don't get from any other song on the album.

So as most of you probably know, the most popular interpretation of "Dear Landlord" (as advanced by self-styled Dylanologist/full-time douchebag AJ Weberman) is that Dylan is singing about Albert Grossman and the tangled web of business dealings that cropped up after Dylan went into seclusion. Now, apparently most critics tend to disabuse people of that notion, and there really isn't too much in the way of evidence that there would be enough malfeasance or even really bad feelings to birth this song in the first place. I will confess, though, that I still tend to think of that theory whenever I hear the song, mainly because it just makes so much sense on the surface, doesn't it? That's kind of how Weberman's theories on these songs tends to work - because he basically says every damn song Dylan writes is about himself, you kinda take a look at the lyrics and go "hey...yeah, I see what he means! Wow, that's really cool!" Of course, it says way more about Weberman than about Bob that Weberman feels Bob's only singing about Bob, not just in the songs where it's clear Bob's singing about Bob, but in songs where Bob would probably not have any reason to be singing about Bob. If that makes sense.

Now, unless Dylan had a really nasty apartment issue in Greenwich Village or was getting a real hard time about his house up in Woodstock, it seems pretty clear that the song should not be taken in that specific a way. I, personally, don't think you need to dig too deep into the song - my own feeling is that you can think of the "landlord" in a universal context, in terms of somebody that you look up to and feel some sort of debt to, whether it be a parent ("I know you've suffered much/but in this you are not so unique"...eh? eh?) or a boss or whoever. In that sense, the song works perfectly; it captures the feelings somebody in that debt feels when thinking about this special person, the conflicting emotions that accumulate over a long period of time, and what it means to have that kind of relationship in your life. It also, probably unintentionally, captures the current state of our society, constantly working around the clock to pursue a life just outside of our grasp, full of "things we can see but just cannot touch" (like that new boat, or even our line of credit - money that's not really money!) - and do we pursue that course of life because we actually want to, or because we're being driven to do so?

I listen to the words of "Dear Landlord" and I see three different branches that our lives can take as we grow into adults and settle into the life we're going to have for at least three decades, if not longer. The first is a life of constant satiation, where nothing drives or interests you, and that little part of your brain that represents your pleasure center has shrunk to nothingness. Obviously, nobody wants that. The second is a life of constantly pushing yourself, always feeling like you have to do bigger and better (and not even necessarily that) things, because something in your younger days has molded you into this constantly moving beast. And nobody wants that, either; our culture is so built for creating stress as it is, to put stress on yourself for no reason hardly seems like the way to go. And that leaves the third path, the harmonic mean between the other two, in which you lead a life of comfort and happiness, always able to do something you want to when you want to, but not at the point where doing that something won't actually bring you joy. That's the life that everybody wants. And the narrator of "Dear Landlord" wants that as well, and he knows how hard it is to fulfill that dream, and to have somebody put pressure on him absolutely breaks his heart. That's something I think we all can relate to.

I think, then, that "Dear Landlord" found its place on the massive career retrospective that was Biograph (can you imagine that Biograph now more or less represents the halfway mark of Bob's career?) not just because it's an exceptional song from a very strong album. In the lyrics of the song, you can hear one of modern humanity's deepest struggles, the desire to please those we look up to or owe something to, and just how hard doing that can actually be. As somebody about to re-enter the higher education system (more on that later), I feel that struggle very strongly in my own mind; there are precious few people that enter higher education entirely of their own volition. And just as I hope I don't disappoint those that I love and care about, I can believe that Dylan had those same worries, albeit on a much larger scale, and even at his height of fame worried about pleasing somebody, even if we couldn't possibly ever figure out who that would be. It's nice to find something that binds me to Bob Dylan, let alone the rest of the human race; I'm glad he gave me an avenue to write about it. Read more!

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #108: Drifter's Escape

I've always thought of this as my "sneaky favorite" song on John Wesley Harding, i.e. the one I'd probably pick as my favorite if I wasn't the kind of doofus that would buckle and say "All Along the Watchtower" actually is. One of the things that separates an uber-fan of an artist from a more casual fan is that, at a certain point, uber-fans develop favorite songs or even entire albums that the casual fan wouldn't even think twice about. It isn't as though somehow "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Hurricane" or "Tangled Up in Blue" aren't still great songs and that a long-time fan like myself doesn't love those songs through and through. It's just that, the longer you listen to Dylan, the more you find yourself digging into his catalog and unearthing tracks that eventually take a more deeply rooted place in your heart than the Greatest Hits. I may have made mention of the lesser-known songs on Bob's previous albums that I feel about in that way, but for this album "Drifter's Escape" is my choice. I will say that if Bob hadn't seen fit to put "Dear Landlord" on Biograph, that would have been my choice. But he did, so there you are.

Dylan manages a nice trick in this song, in which he combines both the stock figure of the Drifter/Vagabond/Outlaw of lore (cf. "I Ain't Got No Home") and Kafka's The Trial into one neat little package. There's something almost cinematic about the lyrics, three short verses telling a quick little tale of a man prosecuted for reasons nobody knows, about to be jailed despite the cries of both himself and others for salvation, and a sudden deux ex machina allowing the persecuted man to go free. The obvious way to go with this song would be to try and match that drifter in the song to, say, Dylan himself; other than trying to write something that brings back the railroad hobos of yore, why else would Dylan write such a mysterious tale if it's not a veiled reference to himself? I don't see it, myself, but somebody else might.

What I hear in the song is something that might be more mundane, or might be more interesting. I hear Dylan, once the leading friend of the downtrodden and voice for those without one, getting back to his folk roots, albeit in a more sideways manner, and writing a song about a man with no rights who manages to slip out of a noose despite some evil higher power trying to hold him down. Maybe it's the very deeply buried optimist inside of me thinking this, but I like to believe that Dylan still had some feelings towards the folk movement in those days, and that despite what we know now about his path towards folk music (i.e. a bit more cynical than we'd like), that he really did care about issues and about singing songs that feature people in need of help in our society. The Dylan of 1967 probably had no interest in going back to the pieties of The Times They Are A-Changin' or even the more plainer folk of Freewheelin', just as much as he had no interest regurgitating the weirdness of the Electric Trilogy, but maybe he still wanted to write something along the lines of those folk songs, highlighting a man in desperate plight the same way he'd sing about Hattie Carroll. And "Drifter's Escape" would be the result of that. Who knows, just something to chew on. That's what this blog is all about, right?

Now, maybe this is just me (I should start every post this way from now on), but there's an interesting musical link that I believe ties this song to "Tomorrow Never Knows", the Beatles' choice for closer to Revolver. Now, aesthetically, obviously the songs sound as different as can be; "Drifter's Escape" is all acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, while "Tomorrow Never Knows" is an assault on the senses, a melange of tape loops and sound effects mashed together into what might very well be the first (or at least most famous) psychedelic song ever recorded. But one thing that underpins both songs, and actually serves to give them common ground, is the usage of a drone as the musical bed - the simplest possible chord arrangement, repeated over and over, with everything else given all the more attention because of it. For "Drifter's Escape", the two high ringing chords Dylan bangs out on his acoustic serve as that drone, shifting attention to the song's lyrics (and Dylan having to go out of his usual register as a result, which is always fun). In the case of "Tomorrow Never Knows", the two chords for that song act as the glue that holds together the sound of organized chaos. One musical philosophy, two different applications. Read more!

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #107: The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

If nothing else, "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" serves as proof positive that Bob Dylan didn't need to write about motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queens to properly confuse the hell out of his listeners. Instead of whatever crazy images the combination of his natural talent and a witches' brew of drugs were causing him to spit out for the Electric Trilogy, we get a long-winded, entirely confusing "narrative" about money, temptation, seduction (?), insanity, and death, all wrapped up with not one, but two separate parting shots. And, in my opinion, if you want to actually try and analyze this song, the main decision you have is to decide which of those is more meaningful to the song - the semi-profound "don't go mistaking Paradise/for that home across the road", or the equally semi-profound "nothing is revealed". Take one path and the song is a morality tale about how the love of filthy lucre and lascivious succubi can cause a good person to come unhinged. Take the other and the song becomes a wicked gag Dylan's playing on us, five minutes of droll sermonizing wrapped up with a simple, direct punchline. Either road is just as correct as the other; that's the fun part, I guess.

If you take the song as an actual morality tale, you're confronted with the idea of Dylan potentially talking about himself (like so many of his songs). Having already brought up the idea of Dylan possibly encoding the seductions he faced on his year-long boos-ridden sojourn across the world, I am somewhat loath to bring it up again here; after all, assuming Dylan did bury that message in "As I Went Out One Morning", why would he possibly want to rehash it in some weird tale about some poor cat who loses his marbles? But at least here the idea of somebody being driven insane by earthly pleasures is more explicit (relatively speaking). The former song has a chained woman begging the narrator to take her South, which could really mean anything, honestly. Here, though, you have Frankie Lee first being sent in a tizzy by his "friend" Judas Priest's roll of ten-dollar bills, then completely going cuckoo for cocoa puffs upon encountering the house with a woman's face in every one of its twenty-four windows (apparently they're staying in MC Hammer's old house) and eventually succumbing to thirst - one has an idea of why, if you take the "woman in each window" thing to its logical conclusion, and it's kinda icky to think about, no? That sounds more like how worldly pleasures can suck out a man's soul, and possibly a little closer to how Dylan nearly lost everything during those crazy years where he was nearly more God than man, musically speaking.

And then there's the second option, which isn't particularly satisfying for those that enjoy parsing Dylan's words, but lends the song a bit of humor that really isn't there otherwise. I'd made previous mention of the infamous scene in "Last Exit to Springfield", possibly the greatest episode in the entire run of The Simpsons, where Grandpa Simpson tells a rambling story that goes absolutely nowhere and bores his audience nearly to tears. Not to get all Professor Comedy on you here, but the obvious comedic value of this bit (other than "I had an onion tied to my belt - which was the style of the time) is in hearing a story so astoundingly stultifying that you can't help but laugh at its dullness. Now think of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" in this way - all the weird emotional shifts (Frankie Lee goes from confused to smiling to scared, like he's bipolar or something), the goofy bits like the stranger asking if Frankie Lee's dad is dead, and all the stuff that almost seems thrown in just to make the couplets rhyme (what does it matter if the stranger is quiet as a mouse?), and the creeping sense that Dylan may just have been making this up as he was going along. And then the little boy says "nothing is revealed" at the end, and it all makes sense, doesn't it?

What's interesting to me is that while songs that the listener can make his own analysis of isn't really a rarity, there aren't too many songs in which you could make the debate that Dylan is actively having a laugh at the people listening to this song. In a purely performance-wise sense, the song has a level of repetition The Fall would be proud of, four chords banging out over and over (with a guitar out of tune - maybe another wink to his audience?), and Dylan speak-singing his strange tale with only the barest hint of emotion. The only real flourish to the song is Dylan's short harmonica solo, cropping up almost out of nowhere and breaking the mood/monotony with its crisp notes. It is Dylan's poker face, then, that gives the song its mystery, both in his vocal delivery and in those strange lyrics, and allows us to wonder if he really is spinning some kind of morality tale. And without any other cues to figure out where his head's at, you can see both that morality tale and the possibility of Dylan just writing a five-minute joke set to music.

It's funny, listening to a song like "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", thinking about those lyrics, how simple and easy to understand the lyrics are in terms of plain writing, and yet how much could be hidden behind those words. Check that - how much we think could be hidden behind those words. You can draw a remarkably straight line from where Dylan had been to where he was going; how the Basement Tapes allowed Dylan to be as weird and literate and off-putting as he'd been since BIABH, only without using the language of Tarantula but using the language of ancient times, the Wild West, and the pages of American history most of us never flipped to in our textbooks. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call "musical evolution", and Dylan has proven himself time and again to be a master of that. You can hear the proof in one of his most cryptic songs, as well as a song as moralizing as any of his gospel-era tunes. Or, maybe, one of his funniest tunes outside of his talking blues period. That distinction is entirely up to you. Read more!

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #106: All Along the Watchtower


A few months ago I went to see Watchmen, Zach Snyder's much-anticipated film adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel masterpiece. Much like Gravity's Rainbow or Finnegan's Wake, I'd always thought Watchmen was more or less unfilmable, and for Snyder to have made an adaptation that wasn't completely horrible is a commendable feat. That being said, the movie was overwrought, badly acted at times, and (almost amazingly) boring at times, no mean feat considering how exciting the graphic novel is. I bring this up not because I'm attempting to turn this into a movie review blog, but because at one point in the movie Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" pops up on the soundtrack - a soundtrack that just so happens to be littered with famous songs of the past 40 years, as a (somewhat cheap) way of using cultural touchstones to help the audience connect to the film. It's somewhat justified in this case - "All Along the Watchtower" lends the title to one of the book's chapters - but the simple fact that Hendrix's version has been used in so many damn movies for the same purpose kind of makes it look hackneyed.

It's sort of funny how that works - Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" has now become a sort of audio/visual shorthand for the 1960s, just as much an easy way to invoke that decade as showing the peace sign or talking about JFK. And it's even funnier that the song is used to invoke one rather specific version of the 60s - the flower power/hippies/peace and love 1960s, with the love beads and the acres of pot and all that. It's both something of a cheat, and a very clever way of summoning a mental image quickly. And it speaks a lot about the power of music that we can actually use these songs as shorthand for an entire decade, where we can hear something like "The Power of Love" and go "okay, that's the 1980s", or hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and immediately think of the 1990s. Sure, Hollywood has taken that identification to its logical lazy extremes - who doesn't sort of cringe thinking about The Big Chill, or any number of crappy Vietnam movies blasting the entire Time-Life collection over images of gunboats cruising down a river or grunts shouldering their automatic rifles in the heat of the jungle? But that's a co-opting of music that we should be used to by now; we should welcome something that can, if properly used, help condense the confusing and complicated sectors of our human existence.

I have been known, in the past, to have composed a few songs of my own; like about 99% of all songwriters that have ever lived, most of them were utter rubbish, with maybe one or two exceptions. But what I took away from the songwriting experience (this is gonna sound real obvious, but bear with me) is just how extremely personal that experience actually is. And I think that, by default, the songwriting experience in general is one that is extremely tied in to what kind of person the songwriter or songwriters actually are. Love songs are obvious; even writers of protest songs or historical songs add their own slant to the proceedings, choosing to take a viewpoint that (in general) matches their own, or writing about a figure or event in a way that shows either their approval or disapproval thereof. There are surely exceptions out there - one can only imagine the number of crass scribbled pop singles designed purely to sell records (and not in the good way, i.e. Motown's carefully considered pop symphonies), and I'm not sure "Imagine" is totally in line with John Lennon's otherwise skewed and acidic view of the world. But, for the most part, a song is going to have somebody's voice deeply embedded within it.

Which makes it all the stranger, then, when one of those songs takes on a meaning far beyond what the songwriter intended, when a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Hotel California" becomes more than just a song, so to speak. I'm reasonably sure that Bob Dylan, when writing "All Along the Watchtower", never dreamed that one of the rising superstars of music in that era would hear the song, love it so much that he'd adopt it into the metier of his uber-genius guitar abilities and his tremendously talented band, and have that song become a touchstone for the decade for over 40 years and counting. But I'm also reasonably sure that it is the rare listener of that song that ever pays much attention to the lyrics when they hear Hendrix's version of the song. I might be talking out of turn here, but the words to "All Along the Watchtower" are by no means the calling card of Hendrix's take; when we think of that song, we think of the thundering instrumental attack of the intro, the pounding, insistent thrum of Dave Mason's twelve-string rhythm guitar, and of Hendrix spinning off classic solo after classic solo. We tend not to think about the Biblical allusions all that much. That's just how it is.

And that is something I think is worth thinking about the next time you see one of those movies that try to show something epic or grandly historical or whatever, and one of those iconic songs pops up on the soundtrack. These songs were not written in order for all of us to go "oh, okay, there's the era right there" or to plant some sort of marker in a period of time that now can seem distant and hazy to us young whippersnappers. Those songs were written for reasons only really comprehensible to the people that wrote those songs (and sometimes not even then), with meanings that can often be very meaningful and occasionally painful to the writers, and with emotions that burned powerful at the time of the writing of the song. And, in that sense, that piece of the person, that little window of their personality imprinted into the words and music, have now become co-opted for all eternity, a part of our own national consciousness just as much as a part of their personal consciousness. I'm not sure if that's always a good thing, but it's certainly a very meaningful thing. History, after all, is not created by robots, but by people doing things and moving along our world. And when that history can be encoded in three verses and four chords, that's something truly special.


It does occasionally behoove me to wonder what exactly it was that Hendrix saw in "All Along the Watchtower" and made him decide to record his take, one so instantly iconic that now Dylan has more or less made it his own, performing the song in concert with the heavy guitar attack Hendrix afforded it. It's possible that Hendrix heard that simple four (maybe even three) chord attack, with its haunting minor chords ringing out, and the equally simple studio arrangement, and figured that this was a good melody to hang his explosive solos upon. Perhaps he was just drawn to the starkness of Dylan's take, the same way that countless artists afterwards have been drawn to it, and have wanted to make it their own and add their own spin to a song that virtually has no spin to its own. Maybe the words and music just hit him the right way at the right time, who knows.

I suppose I'm kind of stalling for time right now - I've almost dreaded talking about this song as an actual song and not as a cultural phenomenon, simply because the lyrics have been picked over and picked over and picked over. Wikipedia links to an interesting analysis of the song, one that I might have picked up upon had it already not been thrown out there for the world to see. I'm reminded, looking at these analyses, of something Alan Moore (him again) threw out in his wrapup of From Hell, where he talked about just how difficult it is to find something new in the Jack the Ripper case, with over a hundred years and just as many researchers digging into a trail long gone cold. The Koch Snowflake, and I hope I'm getting this right, is essentially a series of triangles being drawn over and over in a certain way, creating an infinite perimeter within a finite, closed space. Moore states that the Jack the Ripper case is the same way - you can throw out as many theories as you want, but ultimately all you have is what we know about those horrible murders, and in the end you're only going to get so far in your analysis of the case.

I think of the lyrics to "All Along the Watchtower" much the same way. What we have is three verses, two of which are dedicated entirely to a conversation between two people who disappear in the third verse, nothing in the way of a story (you could probably make one out of the "two riders were approaching" bit, but that comes at the very end), and this feeling of cryptic, puzzling doom. Hendrix's arrangement, as explosive as it was, could only heighten the apocalyptic aura of the song - that aura was there from the very beginning. And yet we really have nothing when it comes to the song; the whole thing is almost like one of those Creative Writing courses where you have the first part of a story and are meant to create the rest of the story from there, only the whole "rest of the story" bit was junked completely. And without that rest of the story, the more inquisitive listeners have tried to create that whole tale out of what we have, leaning on the Bible verse from the Book of Isaiah, trying to sneak glimpses of Dylan's own life into the lyrics, and slapping identities onto the joker, the thief, the princes, and so on and so forth. Koch's Snowflake in effect - we can think up all the fanciful speculation we want, but those twelve lines are where that speculation ultimately begins and ends.

I mean, doesn't it seem like quite a bit to attribute a host of meanings to Dylan sitting down, putting pen to paper or fingertips to typewriter keys, and banging out the three verses of this song? Far be it for me to cast stones on anybody that attempts to dig into what Dylan's talking about, but let's back up for a second and imagine Dylan with that Bible of his, putting his finger on Isaiah 21:5-9, and reading those words over and over again. Suddenly something just pops in his head, the same way it must have happened for Sherlock Holmes whenever he solved a case; gears start grinding, puzzle pieces are fitted together, and something magic arises almost out of nothing. He sits down and writes out this song, maybe changing a word here and there, junking lines that sound a little too clunky, tweaking the chord structure, seeing if the song sounds better faster or slower. Sometimes we forget that songs don't pop out fully formed, but come together through a long and arduous process of editing, testing, and occasional blind faith. But in the end Dylan did finish that process, and we got "All Along the Watchtower" out of it - and maybe he can't even explain why, when you really get down to it, he wrote the song the way thaat he did. I don't think anybody really can.

"All Along the Watchtower" has been feted as one of the greatest songs of all time, and as much as I think that reputation comes from Hendrix's definitive reading, I would say that just as much credit comes from those lyrics and the sense of mystery that inhabits those words. The vast majority of art is very clear-cut at its core; you think of a classic film like The Maltese Falcon, a great song like "God Only Knows", or a brilliant painting like Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates, and you can understand where they're coming from and what they're trying to get you to think or feel. But then you have something that doesn't push your buttons in that way, something that defies our traditional understanding of artwork, and it causes us to scratch our heads and go digging in our local libraries (or, ahem, Google) to help us reach that level of understanding. Dylan's catalog is full of songs that stand just beyond the reach of easy comprehension - I've been lucky enough to write posts about them that people have enjoyed reading - but rarely has he written a song in that vein that's so simple, so pared down and seemingly common in language and form, that still manages to frustrate us like the mythical word on the tip of our tongues. And it doesn't matter if those words are sung over a gentle acoustic backing, over heavy electric firepower, or with a classical backing - they still confound us, and beckon us to come and listen one more time, so that we might be able to understand. Read more!

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #105: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

Before we delve into some deeper stuff in this post, a few words should be said about the musical arrangement of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine". To me, the arrangement is one of the best showcases for Dylan's harmonica on the album; he doesn't do too much outside mirror the chords for the song, but he manages to pack a great deal of emotion and power into those solos, holding notes perfectly and acting as counterpoint to his disciplined, straightforward vocal performance on the track. Add to that the gentle tempo the band takes, along with the now-familiar sparse backup (you know it's stripped-down when the rhythm guitar - an acoustic rhythm guitar, no less - gets a lot of play in the song's mix), and you have the perfect backing for the lyrics to this tune.

Much has been made about how much influence the Bible had in terms of the lyrics on John Wesley Harding (which is not to say Dylan didn't incorporate some religious imagery in his previous songs - it's just more overt here), and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" is the first song in the album order that makes that influence felt. St. Augustine (for those that don't know, including myself before preparing this post) was a Catholic bishop renowned for his contributions to Christian theology and philosophy. He wasn't actually put to death, for the record, although he passed away as his city was being overrun by Vandals. One wonders why it was Augustine who was chosen as the saint mentioned in the song - if you wanted to choose an actual martyr, you certainly have your pick of the litter in that regard. Maybe it was just because "Augustine" rolls off the tongue particularly well in the context of the music Dylan wrote, who knows.

Or who knows, maybe Augustine held something for Dylan at that particular juncture of his life. It's worth mentioning time and again that the Dylan that recorded John Wesley Harding was a man very much at a crossroads in his life; I've made previous mention of his anecdote about staring out into the sky one night and saying to himself "something's gotta change". Augustine, as he wrote about in his famous Confessions, did not come into Christianity at an early age; rather, he was converted at about 30 years of age, after a self-professed lifetime of sin and vice. He talks about how the death of one of his friends caused him to hate many of the things he used to love, because they reminded him of what he had lost. This leads to the realization that it is only the love of earthly things that can cause such a feeling of loss, whereas the love of God never leaves you wanting in that way. Dylan, one can assume, didn't quite feel that way about things (at least, not until '78 or so), but he could definitely identify with a lot of what Augustine was saying about traumatic events rendering what you once loved into something that gives you great pain. Sure, Dylan kept jamming with the Band, but one can only assume he couldn't look at pills or think about hotel rooms in 1967 without a little shudder passing through him. For a man still in a state of flux, Augustine's message had to have a great deal of resonance.

Augustine's Confessions also relates stories about a young Augustine stealing pears, a needless venture when Augustine could very easily get better pears as part of a well-to-do family, and the feeling he had while doing so. The future saint gives a textbook case of group mentality, as he says that he probably wouldn't have had the urge to steal without being in the company of people who would share in the stealing and alleviate him of some of his guilt. That feeling of groupthink ties in beautifully to one of the messages to "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine", the idea of the pain of doing something that causes you grief because other people are doing it ("I dreamed I was amongst the ones/who put him out to death...And bowed my head and cried"). For hundreds of years people have thought and written about group psychology, where something a single person couldn't possibly forgive can easily be committed by a group of people, and the worst things about us are easily dispersed amongst many. Without being much of a psychologist, I'd say that one of the appealing factors of this phenomenon is the idea of deindividualization - we all talk about being our own person and standing out and all that, but we also know that it's goddamn hard to do that, to be a lone voice in a crowd, and to stand up and say "this is bullshit" when need be. We are human, after all; this doesn't forgive us for looking the other way, but the legitimate struggle of human existence can explain why we look the other way. To quote Samuel Johnson (and, by proxy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." It's a lot easier to do this in the company of others.

That quote by Dr. Johnson, it should be mentioned, has to do with what overindulgence in drink can do to you (small wonder it makes sense as epigraph to Fear and Loathing, a book more or less entirely devoted to the "joys" of substance abuse). And I can't help but think about Bob Dylan in 1965-1966, continually blasted out of his mind, playing crazy music that people booed the hell out of him for, withdrawing further and further into himself to the point that he almost certainly would have died if the motorcycle crash hadn't changed things forever. I wrote before about how Dylan was all alone on these tours; I didn't mean in the literal sense, of course, but more in the sense that none of his other companions was encountering the same massive wave of publicity, scrutiny, and pressure that Dylan faced in those years. And in that situation, he basically had two choices in dealing with this wave - he could sit in his room by himself and internalize all that pain, or he could hang with his boys, turnontuneindropout, and allow sweet pharmaceuticals to wash the pain away. It's not hard to see why Dylan made the choice that he did. And it turned him into an asshole at times, to be sure, but even that was okay - hey, it's just the drugs, right? Dylan chose to become as much of a beast as he could, and it made all the pain of the rest of his waking life all the easier to bear. Read more!

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