Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #141: Take A Message To Mary

There's something kind of amusing and ironic, in my opinion, that what could be easily construed as the most depressing song on this album boasts arguably the album's most energetic arrangement. Those of you that know the Everly Brothers arrangement (a more gentle, acoustic-based affair, as proven by this amusing video - ah, the 50's) might be surprised to hear the tempo sped up, the backup singers in full voice, and a more driving rhythm section than, perhaps, the song demands. You probably won't be too surprised, though, to hear Dylan utilizing his country croon for the song - seeing as how the Everlys put their own stamp on the song (courtesy of Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, writers of "Bye Bye Love" and "All I Have To Do Is Dream", amongst others), Dylan probably felt it more prudent to use the voice you'd probably more associate with "singing" for him. It's probably a wise choice, in the context of this particular song, at least.

It is, perhaps, that combination of Dylan's country voice and the relatively peppy arrangement that makes this song stand out; it might not stand out in the sense that it's good, per se (as noted above, the song should probably lope along, given its subject matter - bringing it out to a trot might not be the best idea), but it's certainly different. Think of the more up-tempo songs on this album - you've got "Little Sadie", the Isle of Wight tracks, and that's basically it. Now, we're not talking Ramones or Slayer fast here; it's really all about degrees on this album. But when you're listening to the aural equivalent of a nice bowl of vanilla pudding, a bowl of vanilla pudding with some raisins in it is going to flip your metaphorical wig. Here, then, is one of those raisins. It's fun to listen to once or twice, that much is certain, and given how some of the songs on here don't even reach that damning-with-faint-praise status, I suppose that's a real compliment indeed.

A few days ago, I was flipping through (I think) Mojo magazine, which had dedicated a significant chunk of space to The Beatles on the eve of the major album remastering project (which I will be buying into, rube that I am). One of the articles therein talked about some of the lesser known accomplishments of the group, and the one that I'm remembering (you'll see why in a second) is "they killed Tin Pan Alley". What that means, in so many words, is that the group (by favoring their own compositions over that of professional songwriters - IIRC, A Hard Day's Night was the first album released by a group that contained only their own songs) brought an end to the system of popular artists recording music churned out in songwriting factories, helping to make it possible for singer-songwriters to emerge and bringing some much-needed grit into the world of popular music. In fact, our man Bob was brought up as a key example of this - who knows how his career would've turned out if he'd been forced into the role of mere songwriter, writing "Boots of Spanish Leather" for some cat with a better voice but lesser soul to put their grubby mitts on it? In that sense, we're all better off for the Beatles taking the fate of American popular music out of the hands of guys in ties and handing it to the musicians themselves.

Now, obviously there's nothing bad that can be said about that - you could certainly make a case that indie music might never have existed without a market for music recorded by their writers, and everybody from Tom Waits to Joanna Newsom owe their livelihoods to that. But I think that there's a flipside to this coin, one that we might not care too much about today but still deserves some consideration. This is about the most obvious example I could care to think of, but I look at the career of one Elvis Aron Presley, a musician who achieved everlasting fame by recording the songs of other people. Now, while Elvis may have a few songwriting credits to his name, we can be reasonably certain that he really didn't do much in that regard, and any actual songs he may have written probably wouldn't have been much of anything. So we have a career entirely based on songs not by Elvis - and we can agree, I would hope, that his vast catalog contains enough legitimate classics to justify its existence. And does anybody complain about a lack of emotion and soul in "Suspicious Minds" or "Can't Help Falling In Love"? Of course not. Like any good recorder of covers (one might say, if they're in a wry mood, that Elvis' entire career is that of covers, like a one-man Me First & The Gimme Gimmes or something), Elvis managed to make songs that weren't his own, well, his own, simply because he had that special something that allowed him to do so. And he wouldn't have had the chance without great professional songwriters to help him along. That, I think, deserves some consideration.

It's certainly true that modern professional songwriting is often not much to think about, and that for every "Since U Been Gone"s we get a truckload of whatever stuff Jordin Sparks has committed to plastic. And I'm not suggesting that "American Idol" is a particular good thing in any way, shape, or form. But I do believe that we have a place in our music-listening lives for professional songwriters like the Tin Pan Alley denizens of old, and that perhaps one day we can have artists that cross over the increasingly splintering divides in popular music, somebody who can satisfy those people that like a catchy tune while rendering the credibility issues that most indie fans would quibble over moot simply by the power of their music. Is that likely? Probably not. But a boy can dream. Read more!

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #140: Take Me As I Am

I feel it's worth mentioning that it's about at this point in writing the Self Portrait reviews that I've finally experienced that moment where I wanted to throw in the towel - I'm four songs from the finish line, once I get this post done, and that finish line has never felt so far away. For the record, it's not entirely this song in question that's made me lose my will; it's more like a catalyst than anything else. I have no qualms with this kind of schmaltzy country music, with the pedal steel guitar out in full force and the ladies in the cowgirl getups singing away in the background and the drummer tapping that snare in that well-known way and the saloon piano tinkling away in the background and Dylan stretching out his country croon almost to the point of self-parody (and say what you want about that voice, but he never came as close to that point as he did here), I really don't. Who amongst us doesn't like "Stand By Your Man", for instance?

It's just that the cumulative effect of this album has finally caught up to me - I only played this album all the way through once in preparation for this seemingly never-ending series of posts, and it was roughly at this point that I finally had to take a break lest I fell asleep or blacked out or something. And even going post by post and song by song as I am now, I still find myself wanting to lay my head down on a cool, cool pillow and float off to dreamland. The issue is that there are already enough songs like that on this damn thing - do I really need another one? The RS review argues that the album might not look so bad if there'd been some editing and we'd gotten just the Nashville stuff like this; I feel, however, like putting this stuff back to back would've actually made the album even more boring. And it's a really painful thing to listen to an album by your all-time favorite artist and be bored by it. I can only imagine what his studio band must've felt - some of them had actually played on his Electric Trilogy and his great post-crash albums, some of the best music anybody has ever recorded, and now they're tap-tap-tapping their way through Country's Greatest Hits and "Little Sadie". Hard not to feel for them.

And now the bit I've wanted to discuss for a few posts, the section in the RS review linked to this song. You can read it in the link above; I won't bother summarizing it here. I find it amusing that, nearly 4 decades on, people are STILL talking about why exactly Dylan chose to name this collection of covers and live tracks and assorted nonsense Self Portrait, attempting to crawl into the mind of a man who a) is smarter than all of us and b) has made his reputation on being unpredictable. To me, what helps give this album so much mystery is that it's the first unpredictable move in his career that led to something not good - or, if you want to be charitable, something that the majority of us doesn't agree is either good or an outright masterpiece. The review speculates that Dylan is defining himself on somebody else's terms, but I don't necessarily think that's true - after all, we've never really known what it means for Dylan to define himself on his own terms anyway. This was a man who had worn what, four different faces by this point in his career? Bob Dylan's not even a real name, for the love of Pete. What's one more face, even if it's the face of the musicians he's loved?

The really important part of that blurb is the second part, complete with Duke of Windsor comparison. And that brings up something that not only Dylan, but every artist of any particular influence (aesthetic, political, or whatever) has to deal with - the idea of where that artist's responsibility lies. The RS review makes it all too clear where they feel Dylan's responsibility lies - the very next blurb suggests that we are tied to him "whether he likes it or not" (as to that question, I have a pretty good guess) and states that because H61R changed the world, his subsequent albums must also do so, "but not in the same way, of course" (gee, how charitable of them). Basically, according to them Dylan has already made himself a person of influence, and is bound by some sort of law or honor or whatever you want to remain a person of influence and to use that influence to shape the rest of mankind. Well, at least in an acceptable fashion - no more of this country bullshit, okay? And if he decides not to do so, because of this or that or the other thing, he's just another Puppet of The Man and a two-faced traitor like anyone that made himself a public figure, gave himself to us, and then had the indecency to snatch himself away.

I would hope the tone I adopted tells you how I feel about this; that kind of selfishness is almost laughable, even with the understanding that the times this review was born in could bring about that level of dramatic emotion. That Bob wanted to share his music with us is not just something incredibly special, but something precious few individuals are lucky to have ever been able to do. And that, by virtue of luck and circumstance, the music he recorded helped shape a crucial period in American society - that's simply not something Bob is accountable for. To be honest, the man's not really accountable for anything (well, other than not killing or raping or whatever...sorry, too much criminal law already). If Bob had never recorded another album after 1966, it would have entirely been his right. Quite frankly, if every artist that's currently on this planet today wished to stop recording or making albums or writing books, that is also entirely their right. To try and snatch that right away, and demand the artist no longer create art, but Shape The World, is beyond any of us. Quite frankly, were I in Bob's place, you'd have had no shortage of pictures of me getting on a plane somewhere. And I'll tell you this - I'd have never looked back. Read more!

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Bob Dylan Song #139: The Boxer

There are two songs on this album that would properly qualify as "notorious". One of them is "All The Tired Horses", quite possibly the most infamous recording Dylan ever officially released. The second would be this song, Dylan's cover of Simon & Garfunkel's classic "The Boxer", featuring a duet between the Nashville Skyline croon and Dylan's more "regular" singing voice (i.e. what we'd been hearing more or less since 1967). You can find your share of opinions on Dylan's reasoning behind cutting this song in the first place (parody, homage, take your pick); you can also find your share of opinions on the actual quality of the song itself, including whether or not it's clever or stupid (a fine line between both, let us not forget) to have that duet between Dylan's two different singing voices. It might not be a great cover, but it's never not been interesting.

At least, that's the general opinion. I personally find it kind of funny that a song so dull, half-assed, and throwaway can have such attention placed upon it - I understand why, of course, but even the most cursory listen to the song makes it hard to imagine that it really deserves it. Say what you want about Simon & Garfunkel's original, but what you can't deny is that it has a power and dramatic energy that makes it the masterpiece that it is (who amongst us can forget the two intertwining voices on the chorus mixed with that echoing, pounding bass drum?) and makes us want to delve deeper and come up with all sorts of theories about it being about this or that musician (ahem). That makes the complete lack of power in Dylan's version all the more evident - much like how "Blue Moon" suffers from Dylan singing it like he was just rousted from a particularly good nap, neither of Dylan's voices puts on a particularly good show here. Maybe that is the point, of course (parody? eh? eh?), but it doesn't make the listening experience any more bearable if it is.

In lieu of anything else particularly productive to say about this cover (I mean, it really does stink), I'd like to bring up a section of the RS review that I've passed over before - the bit about Arthur Rimbaud. Marcus plucks a paragraph out of what appears to be a biography/chronology of the infamous poet, covering the years right after Rimbaud had left Paris and his friend/lover Paul Verlaine, traveling with seeming aimlessness before he would settle in Abyssinia (what we call Ethiopia today) for basically the rest of his life. Intertwined therein is a quote from RS writer Charles Perry - "We know Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it seems he's found his Abyssinia". It is that quote, I think, that sums up a great deal of what was thought about Dylan in those odd years where he was between peak periods, seemingly lost in a desert, content to lay down the pen that had served him so well and inspired so many.

It's important, I think, to give some thought to what that Abyssinia actually meant in Dylan's case. I suppose Self Portrait as a whole might be it; all the same, an album is not always a window into the soul of the artist recording it (being a big fan of Pinkerton, I would assume the dross Rivers Cuomo records now is not really representative of who he is as a human, and it kinda shakes me to think that it actually might be). So, then, I think you can safely assume that what's being considered Dylan's country of settling down is, in fact, him settling down; i.e., his family life. Because he has dedicated himself more to being a good husband and father (and because, arguably, his music has suffered for it), the blazing genius he shared with Rimbaud is gone forever. He has, in effect, entered early retirement. I've mentioned that I'll get to this a little later, and I still fully plan on it, but I want to point this out because it truly needs pointing out.

These were young men that wrote this review. Greil Marcus, for example, was all of 25 years old when he penned the great majority of it, and it's safe to assume that the rest of the authors were in the same general age group. These were men (and one woman) that absolutely, positively, undoubtedly did not want to hear that Bob Dylan, Voice of His Generation, was off dangling toys in front of his kid's faces or having coffee with his wife in some cafe in upstate New York. They were hip-deep in a cultural war that would define that entire generation, fresh off the pain of 1968 (the defining year of that generation, like it or not), still battling The Man and trying to carve out a niche for those that wanted to let their freak flag fly, and writing for a magazine that would serve as the Pravda for that niche. And their hero was walking away to settle in Squaresville, daddy-o. It seems a little silly now, with the proper perspective, but I don't blame them for comparing Dylan to Rimbaud and worrying that he'd given up something special for something entirely banal.

I keep thinking of one of the lines of that review - "Would Self Portrait make you want to meet Dylan? No? Perhaps it's there to keep you away?" And you have to wonder if that's what Dylan really had in mind; after years of the world beating down his door, maybe he just wanted to put a big "KEEP OUT" sign up on that door. The more you look back, the easier it is to sympathize. Read more!

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #138: Blue Moon

Having listened to this song, I find it appropriate that Bob used his Nashville Skyline voice to sing this song, one of our most famous standards (many of you know the "bom bom bom ding a dang ding" doo-wop version, and of course there's Lady Day) and one of those tunes we've all probably heard at least once in our lives, whether we know it or not. Leaving aside the aesthetic issues of Dylan's sandpaper/grit regular voice vs Dylan's honeyed croon, we already have a whole album's worth of examples of Dylan's country voice wrapped around platitudes (of which Nashville Skyline has its share, even in the classics), and we know that for those platitudes the country voice works great. A song like "Blue Moon", then, which is saccharine in the way so many standards tend to be, would be a great fit for that particular voice.

It's almost disappointing, then, to hear the listless version of this song that crops up on Self Portrait; the drawbacks to Dylan's country voice (which I tend to enjoy in the right context) become more apparent when it seems like Dylan's downshifted to first gear. What comes off as relaxed and casual for something like "I Threw It All Away", a song that bears the hallmarks of concerted effort, instead sounds lazy and dispirited in this environment. The band behind him gives a very loose, minimal backing - even the backup singers sound like they'd rather be doing or singing something else. About the only interesting aspect of the song is the fiddle that occasionally crops up. I'm not saying that I was expecting Holiday's or the gorgeous version by The Mavericks (let alone the Marcels' doo-wop version, which is so late 50's-early 60's that you should only be allowed to listen to it on a transistor radio), but...well, I guess I don't know what I was expecting. Getting your hopes up for this album is really an exercise in futility.

That isn't to say, though, that taking a stab at "Blue Moon" was a wrong decision. I would assume that nearly every Dylan fan has had at least one discussion about the merits or lack thereof concerning Dylan's singing voice (I know I have), and at a certain point the pointlessness of the exercise makes you want to beat your head against a wall. I mean, we're all well aware that that sort of thing is entirely a matter of personal preference; besides, I happen to enjoy the way that Dylan sings, I believe that he has a technique and a delivery that accentuates his songs in a way that they'd be negatively affected if he'd sung them differently, and I think he does interesting things that a more classically trained or physically gifted singer might not dream of being able to do. And I especially say this with the country voice in mind; it's the closest Dylan got to what most people consider a more palatable singing voice, and sometimes I wonder what would've happened if he'd decided to develop that voice more and take his career in a different direction.

As I mentioned before, one of the perks of having a career like Dylan has had is that, at this point, Dylan has the creative freedom to do just about whatever the hell he'd ever want to do. To borrow Marcus' phrase, "in mythical terms, he doesn't have to do good, because he's done good". Marcus threw that out there because he believed that to be wrong (and in a certain sense, I agree), but that was in the midst of Dylan running away from his audience in 1970, with the scars of one of our nation's most crucial periods still fresh and with a nation turning its lonely eyes to him in the absence of Joe DiMaggio. With the full weight of his career now more or less settled (aside from his more recent albums, of course - I still think we're a few years off from seeing where Together Through Life or even Love and Theft sit in the canon), it can be reasonably stated that Dylan has done enough good that his need to do further good is more or less exhausted. If he wanted to record a death metal album, or a screamo album, or a Christmas album (wait, what?), he's entirely free to do so. As I'd also said before, he could've recorded this album this year and its reputation would probably be a lot different.

Which is basically my way of saying that if there was one avenue of the many roads this album went down I'd have liked to see Bob develop further, an album of standards probably would've been my choice. As we all know, when it comes to a standard, the arrangement and the passion you bring to it make all the difference in the world. Dylan's always had more or less his pick of crack supporting musicians, and I don't doubt that he has enough feeling towards these types of songs that he would've given them the requisite emotion to really make them take off. Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure what it would've sounded like back then (I dunno why, but I'm not quite as gung-ho for Bob doing an album of standards today, if that makes sense); the only real bases we have to go on are on this album, and they pretty much stink. But, if nothing else, it's always educational to remember that for all the twists and turns in Bob's career, there were a million other potentials twists and turns that never had the seed to take place. That's part of what makes Bob's career so damn fun, wouldn't you say? Read more!

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #137: Gotta Travel On

Author's note: Well, the move-in went as well as I could've hoped for, so now I'm nice and settled in and ready to spend the next 3 years in...well, not hell exactly; more like a very expensive purgatory. What that means for the blog is that I'll probably try to get back to the tri-weekly posting system, but you shouldn't be surprised to see only two posts per week. Or, who knows, I might spazz out from all the reading and do an entry every day just to relieve some stress. We'll see how it goes...

One of the wittier moments in the RS review would be the description of Dylan's take on "Gotta Travel On" - "Dylan sings 'Gotta Travel On'". I read that and listened to the song and said to myself "yeah, that pretty much covers it". Taken at a more relaxed tempo than Billy Grammer's hit-single original, it still feels like a pleasant trifle and nothing more, yet another way to fill up a side with a song that, while good (let's not forget that), perhaps doesn't have the most compelling reason for its existence. At best, it's a competent take to a fine ol' country song that contributes to the overall feel of this album (complete with background singers!); at worse, it's another log to the fire that is the argument that this album sucks and should be shot directly in the face. Metaphorically speaking, anyway.

If I was feeling in a more puckish mood, I'd point out the amusing little thematic weight that this song might carry, in that Dylan is singing about "stay(ing) around/this ol' town too long...and it feels like/I gotta travel on". In a very broad sense, this sums up Dylan's entire career, that of a man who never quite feels comfortable in the skin he's wearing and ditches it for something new virtually every chance he can get (that said, he's worn the "mysterious old granddad of rock" skin for quite some time now, and seems totally comfortable in it, so...). In the more immediate sense of this album and where Bob stood in his career, you could see it as Dylan ready to move on from...well, what, exactly? His place as an exalted High Priest of Music? Or as Spokesperson of a Generation, a role he'd done his best to shed more or less from the moment his neck injury healed? Or from a career in music altogether? You could have quite a time trying to puzzle that one out, couldn't you?

That's a discussion for another time, though (in fact, it will occur a whole three posts from now); what I'd prefer to think about is this song and its reason for existence. In the aesthetic that Self Portrait has created, it actually fits in quite nicely indeed - we've got a well-known (#4 on the pop charts) crossover hit that jangles at a nice pace, certainly something Bob might have listened to during his days as a teenager in Hibbing, and a song that he might have even given a listen or two to while recording Nashville Skyline. It's a fun piece of work, the sort of thing you can tap your feet to for three minutes, and then move on to whatever comes next (unfortunately, what comes next is "Blue Moon", but that's yet another post). What the song amounts to, more than anything else (to me, at least), is a crowd-pleaser - the sort of song that you might gently applaud if you heard in concert, something familiar (at least, back then) that you can hang your hat on if some random traveling band busted it out on stage. That's a nice thought, isn't it?

Whether or not Marcus et. al. intended to do so (let's just say he did, to be nice and all), this song (along with the next two) are tied in to the rumored announcement of Dylan putting together a tour, coupled with the idea of Greta Garbo coming out of retirement to do some big stage shows, "possibly with Dylan". I'd like to hear how the hell THAT rumor came about, but let's assume that there was something to it and at some point there was the chance Dylan and Garbo would come together in the weirdest pairing since somebody decided pizza would taste great with pineapples on it. The funny thing is that while the RS writers treat this rumor in 1969/70 like a rumor that aliens were landing somewhere in their backyard, if Dylan tried something like this today (say, with Bette Midler or somebody), we wouldn't even bat an eye. I mean, there might be a few raised eyebrows here and there, but we've seen Dylan shilling lingerie, for God's sake. What else is there, really? I'm quite certain all of you know by now that Dylan is recording a Christmas album, that ultimate bit of consumer schlock, and not one of you is the least bit shocked by this. We all know Dylan has his showman side to him (what is Masked and Anonymous if not a massive feeding of that beast?), and nowadays we have no problem with that side occasionally showing itself.

In a very real sense, that ability for us to not be bothered when Dylan does something that smacks of showbiz or whatever is one of the most hard-earned aspects of his entire career. The weight of expectations on him was never greater than in those years after his first peak, and they must have chafed him in ways we could never be able to empathize with. Looking back on it, Self Portrait feels like a rough first effort to ditch those expectations, to surprise his audience while doing whatever the hell he feels like doing, instead of whatever we want him to do. That it turned out horribly and was received with scorn should, in retrospect, come as no surprise. That might be as good a defense of the album, then, that you could think up - an album whose worst crime is that it's basically wholly inoffensive, created almost like a flanking maneuver to get away from the crushing amount of expectation heaped upon his head. If Bob Dylan put out Self Portrait today, we'd probably all shrug our shoulders, go "that's our Bob", and pick out the best songs for a nice little iPod playlist we're cooking up. And it would have none of the weight of disappointment that the real Self Portrait carries. C'est la vie. Read more!

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #136: Copper Kettle

Author's note: I've decided to put a premature end to the Self Portrait poll, as the choice to continue in regular style is ahead by a substantial majority. This leads me to believe one of two things - either the voters really do enjoy my blog style and want to see me continue sans interruption, or you're all brutal sadists that want me to lose sleep trying to make something out of "Take Me As I Am". Either way, the people have spoken, and I will heed your wishes. Thank you to everybody that voted!

Author's note, part 2: I'll be off for the next week, getting settled in San Diego and preparing for the task of surrendering 3 years of my life to USD's fine law program. Hell, if I make it out of this album alive, getting my J.D. will be a breeze. Thank you all again for your readership and support - I'll need it more than ever in the next 3 years, believe me.

In a weird way, this might be the cruelest joke of all on Self Portrait - that is, the fact that Bob chose to consign a song as beautiful as "Copper Kettle" to this way station for pleasant mediocrity. You don't really hear about this song being one of Dylan's best when it comes to the mainstream (any number of more hardcore Dylan fans have championed this song, make no mistake), and that's a real shame - surely if this track had made it to any number of the Dylan compilations currently available, more people would be aware of this great track on an album that supposedly contains no great tracks. I've even taken the opposite tack on this song and wondered if the song's cult stature is simply a by-product from the fact that it's ON Self Portrait and that putting it on an album with better material (like, say, the next one in his discography, where it would fit quite nicely, thank you) might make the song's glow fade. Thankfully, even a cursory listen to the song lets us know that that is not the case, and the song is as good as its fans say that it is.

One thing that really interests me, and that I think deserves some thought, is how it is that this song manages to fit completely and totally into the aesthetic that this album creates, while at the same time succeeding as well as so many other songs on that album failed. I mean, you've got all the elements there for the same old morass as everything else - a competent backing band, a particularly lush arrangement with strings and the like, some female backup vocalists providing particularly sweet harmony vocals. Bob even has difficulty staying in key for his vocal performance (which isn't necessarily a part of the album aesthetic, but does happen quite a bit throughout...), which I'm pointing out only because it actually has no bearing on how good this song is. The song itself is a decent folk tune about bootlegging (hmm...), with a catchy chorus (indeed, "The Pale Moonlight" is often used as a subtitle in the name of the song), but it's not on the lyrical level of a lot of Bob's own work. So what is it, then, that has captured so many hearts?

The answer, while purely a matter of personal opinion, also seems pretty obvious to me - this is one of the few songs on the album that actually summons up genuine, heart-stirring emotion. It might be a simple tale of making illegal whiskey at night, but somehow all the elements that turn all the other covers into...well, you know...somehow combine into their highest possible ideal here, giving this tune an almost cinematic (how I love that term) drama worthy of albums far better than this one. And Bob's vocal, far from being distracting by occasionally wandering into a different pitch, is full of the requisite emotion the track deserves, almost as though for once he really feels like giving a damn. We know what happens when Bob decides to give a damn - we usually get something magic. And yes, Bob delivers something magic here. To quote the RS review (which I'm not linking to for this post...unless you really want my opinion on Marcus saying he'd buy a record of Bob breathing heavily, and I don't think you do), "The fact that the rest of the album lacks the grace of "Copper Kettle" isn't a matter of the album being "different" or "new." It is a matter of the music having power, or not having it."

And that, right there, is the question that hangs over the entire RS review, and indeed hangs over the entire album - where is that power, and why is it only concentrated in a handful of songs? Looking at the songs that I've really liked so far as this album has gone along, we have an original that leans way more towards Nashville Skyline, a cover, and what really amounts to a novelty record. That is, to say the least, something of a motley crew. And yet you cannot deny that those songs have the essence of Bob's genius contained within, something sorely lacking on the rest of the album. That's something both confusing and difficult to deal with. Even accepting that Bob's muse was playing hide-and-seek for a couple of years, we're also left wondering why Bob also intermittently chose to submit real masterpieces while also submitting some real mediocrity. I would say "that's just my opinion, of course", but it's pretty clear that that opinion is shared by many, which is why I feel comfortable saying it that way. All that dross, and a few jewels tucked within - it's hard to fathom, sometimes.

This project has made it pretty clear how many defenders of this album are out there, and that any number of songs will have somebody in their corner. I don't begrudge anybody that. But the fact remains that "Copper Kettle" is a song with no need for defending, so strong and beloved is its cult status. Which, again, makes me sad that cult status is all that it will forever receive. I think the same thing of "Sign on the Window" (a post I'm really looking forward to), also consigned to an album that most people don't have much regard for (although it doesn't have nearly the reputation for sucking as this one does), also a song that deserves a much wider spotlight shone upon it. Sometimes a song, even a truly great song, can just fall through the cracks of history. Being able to catch it is one of the best feelings a fan of music can have. Read more!

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #135: Living the Blues

Reminder: Vote in the Self Portrait poll on the right side of the front page. Only a few days left to register your opinion!

Those of you that were lucky enough to tune in to the first Johnny Cash Show on June 7, 1969 would have been intrigued and maybe a little surprised by Bob Dylan's appearance. You would've seen Bob walk out on stage, You would have seen him perform three songs, including a charming version of "I Threw It All Away", as well as reprising his duet with Cash on "Girl of the North Country" that arguably improves on the album version by virtue of being a tighter, more focused take. And you would have been even more surprised to hear a song that had never appeared on an album before, another low-key country song (a cover? an original?) with some nice backing from Cash's house band. That song would be "Living the Blues", a Bob Dylan original, and one of the highlights of Self Portrait (indeed, it probably would've been one of the highlights of Nashville Skyline). Why he played it on TV instead of, say, "Lay, Lady, Lay" is anybody's guess, but it's a pretty cool thing that he did, one of those strange side roads in Dylan's career.

As played on Self Portrait, "Living the Blues" trades in the more raucous energy of the Johnny Cash Show run-through in favor of a slower and statelier performance. Dylan does some of his best singing on the album here, maybe because it's a song he's more comfortable with, or maybe because singing it in front of a live audience (where he, perhaps, betrays some nervousness by occasionally losing his key and shouting some of the lyrics) helped him work out some of the kinks in his technique. And it's on this take where Dylan's backup singers really come in handy, as they add vocals that wouldn't be out of place in a Broadway musical or something (the "uh-huh"s in particular are fantastic), giving the track a little extra oomph. It's enough to make me wonder what some ladies doing backup or some Jordainaires-type adding harmonies would've done for Nashville Skyline - would the songs have suffered with that extra showbizzy touch, or would the songs have gained from an extra musical dimension?

I suppose in the "what-if" department that question doesn't rank particularly high with regards to Dylan's career, but I've always found myself more interested in the darker (i.e. less light shed) periods of Dylan's career, historically speaking. We know so very much about Dylan's peaks - No Direction Home, the Rolling Thunder Review, and so on. In fact, what made Chronicles such a fun read was that Dylan wrote about parts of his life that we didn't know so much about, eschewing yet another tale of getting stoned in Nashville prior to recording "Just Like A Woman" for stories about recording Oh Mercy and hiding up in New York. And I like to think about how Dylan's career might have changed if those lesser-known periods had changed in some way - like if Bob had released New Morning before this album, or if he'd never gone gospel, or if he'd done anything in the mid-80s. Even little things like "what would "One More Night" sound like with backup singers?" remind us of just how malleable history can be. We never know what can turn fortune entirely on its head.

This segues, I think, into this song's own little section in the RS review, a discussion about the music industry term "product" and how that connotes something we don't generally think about when we think of music. It's kind of amusing that this pops up for a song that would not be considered mere product, but that's neither here nor there. Marcus makes the suggestion that this is as close to product, rather than music, as Dylan has ever gotten in his career, and I think that the less charitable of us would agree that is true. Marcus, perhaps for the best, never outright states that this was what Dylan was intending to do, as this opens up a very ugly can of worms, but he certainly leaves the reader imagining that this might be the case. After all, when the comparisons he draws are to Dylan's first Greatest Hits album (we don't need to go into why that counts as "product") or with the Rolling Stones' odds-n-sods compilation Flowers (which, at least, holds some very strong music within, along with some interesting outtakes), it doesn't take a genius to see what Marcus is hinting at. And those were label-created Frankenstein monsters - Self Portrait, after all, was put together by the man himself.

I think, in the end, what keeps this from being the pure product Marcus worried it might be are the good songs, like "Living the Blues", that help make this album appear to be a little more than what it seems (reputation-wise, at least - Marcus is dead on when he talks about how the album is less than it might appear). Sure, the spark of creativity in Dylan may have been at a low point here, and the scattershot nature of the album as a whole will prevent it from ever really being considered as a curiosity at best and a travesty at worst. But, like many a bad album by a good artist, there is the occasional port in the storm, something you can hang your hat on and say "see? It's not all bad". I was asked by a commenter "you really hate this album, don't you?", and I don't, not really. The disdain for particular songs mounts up when you're going song-by-song, but the album as a whole is not so egregiously bad that I'd want to shout from the mountaintops about it. And a song like "Living the Blues" allows me to not hold the same cynicism as others do about this album, and to say "hey, we're all allowed a bad album sometimes", admitting that I'm free from the angst that led to Marcus et. al.'s mammoth review in the first place. Whatever good feelings you can get out of this album, perhaps the poorest reviewed in the history of rock music (considering the artist, of course), those are definitely worth holding onto. Read more!

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #134: Belle Isle

Reminder: Vote in the Self Portrait poll on the side of the front page. You get to sway the direction of this blog - it's like Choose Your Own Adventure, only way more lame. Let your voice be heard!

In a weird way, it's kind of comforting to hear Bob go back to one of his roots, covering a very obscure Celtic/Canadian folk song (he's credited with writing the song, but the Dylan encyclopedia Keys To The Rain makes a strong case that it's a folk song). As we know, Dylan had not lost his admiration for the ever-wide and diverse folk catalog; his thrilling and gorgeous performance of "Wild Mountain Thyme" at the Isle of Wight is proof enough of that. Actually, it's gratifying that Dylan didn't use that performance as a trial run for a take on this album - I'd have hated to hear that tune gussied up with strings or backup vocals or what have you. Instead, Dylan chose this tune about a man meeting a beautiful maid on the shore of some lake, one that even hardcore folkies may not have heard before. How can you not like that?

As for the actual arrangement...well, it's beautiful to listen to, I'll say that. Keys To The Rain is not a fan of the strings arrangement, but I kind of like it in this particular context. The song is, after all, a tune about falling in love with a random woman on the banks of some random lake, and it's written in a way that almost demands a lush orchestral backing. That's one thing about this album I like, even a little - there's a certain consistency with all the string arrangements throughout the album, which helps give the album a musical identity (whether or not that identity is a good thing is entirely up to you). Unfortunately, Bob ruins the mood of the song by singing really badly out of key for the entire song; it's actually worse than "In Search of Little Sadie", in that there's a consistent chord structure to plant his voice in, and yet Dylan's vocals are just all over the map. Too bad - had Dylan actually chosen to rerecord those vocals (I wonder if those were his guide vocals and he just decided to keep them), this would be a real favorite of mine.

This particular section of the RS review happens to be one of the most interesting sections of the review; Marcus discusses the then-nascent bootlegging industry, which more or less kicked off with the release of Great White Wonder, and how Dylan's only chance of having his past completely co-opted by his audience (both in buying his bootlegs and ignoring his official output) was to release music with the power of the Electric Trilogy. Aside from the fact that it's pretty cool to think about how long some of the bootlegs we all know and have heard have been circulating for over four decades now, there's a really good point being discussed here. We've always been fascinated with Dylan's unofficial work, partially because there's so damn much of it (to the extent that the Bootleg Series was basically created to ward off all the guys getting rich because people wanted to hear "If You Gotta Go, Go Now"), but mainly because a great deal of that work is really fantastic. You can easily get lost in the maze of Dylan bootlegs (as I have), even more so now that it's expanded exponentially, to the point where the official catalog might not interest you the same way. Back in 1970, with Dylan's catalog a mere ten albums, this might be a huge problem.

The concept of Dylan as myth has never really gone away (and never will, I would guess), but will never have the same weight as it did in those days, when Dylan stayed as much out of the public eye as he could, only communicating with increasingly confounding albums. Marcus states that JWH and Nashville Skyline lack the power of his great electric albums, and while this is profoundly unfair (both albums have their own power, and actually benefit by not leaning on what you might consider Bob Dylan music to be at that point), there is something to be said for just how remarkable, beloved, and influential the Electric Trilogy really were, even more so a few scant years after their original release. There was a real sense (certainly seen in this review) that Dylan was shirking his duties to the marketplace and to his fanbase with this retreat into covers and half-baked ideas, with the release of what essentially amounted to an official bootleg. And I agree with Marcus - I'd rather be listening to Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary Fix than this.

You listen to songs like "Belle Isle" or "Blue Moon", and you can hear why this album was compared to a bootleg (under what other circumstances would Dylan release these songs???) and where all the worry comes from. Sure, individual moments stand out in a good way (in fact, we're getting to two of them in the next posts), but the album as a whole stands as testament to a man that could care less about his past and about his audience co-opting the same. And, in a funny way, there's something kind of liberating about that - I've written before about just how constricting it must have been to be Bob Dylan back then, and to experience something very few people (certainly not the RS staff, that's for sure) have ever experienced in the history of mankind. To hear Dylan not give a hoot about what anybody thinks of him, recording music only he wanted to hear himself record - that's exciting. Sure, the results may have been mostly dreck, but it was the dreck he wanted to make, unbidden by expectations or the weight of the world. You look at Self Portrait that way, and it actually kinda, sorta, just a little bit, seems a teeny bit cool. Read more!

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #133: Woogie Boogie

Author's note: Read after the jump for some thoughts about the Self Portrait portion of this project.

Well, if we ever needed proof that Dylan's a fan of the blues, it's right here. Quite frankly, I've had moments where I've been a little surprised, maybe even shocked, by the people that have both defended this album as a whole and certain songs in particular. I know I shouldn't be; after all, just about anything with at least the slightest bit of artistic merit will have its defenders (you rarely, if ever, see a movie on Rotten Tomatoes at 0%, after all), and as that is purely in the eye of the beholder, it would be crass for me to begrudge anybody who says they enjoy Self Portrait or "In Search of Little Sadie" or something. I even can understand why people like the songs that they do, for the reasons that they do. You'd have to be pretty uncharitable if you couldn't.

Take this track, "Woogie Boogie", for example. I readily admit that I do not have the appreciation for the blues that I wish I did, and both the half-baked nature of this song (that it stays together for the two minutes this song lasts is a testament to, well, something, I guess) and the fact that it's a blues instrumental, for Pete's sake, make me feel like the recipient of some particularly baffling practical joke when I hear this song. On the other hand, 12-bar blues have their own innate rhythm and fun built in that can be enjoyable for nearly any arrangement (even The Beatles' unreleased stab at the blues, "12-Bar Original", has a thing or two going for it), and the brass arrangement/particularly screechy sax solo are a hoot to listen to. The song may not be particularly essential, even on an album in which seemingly nothing inessential has been left behind, but it's a cheap, fun thrill for two minutes, and that alone is worthy of a thumbs-up in this environment.

A reader named David left an insightful comment on the last post about how Dylan, during this time period, had lost his muse (cf. the well-known "I had to learn to do consciously what I could do unconsciously" quote), and Self Portrait is a result of that searching around, part of the process of regaining his voice. That idea had occurred to me (I'll write about it a little later, when we get to "Watching The River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece), as well as the theory that Dylan was attempting to create a bootleg record (including the Isle of Wight stuff lends more credence to that), as well as any other number of things people have speculated about this album. Now, I tend to be in the camp of "believe anything Bob says at your own peril"; after all, how many stories has he thrown out there about this album alone? Dylan's not really one to share his history (Chronicles nonwithstanding, of course - hey, when's Volume 2 coming out, Bob?), and when he does it's often like his own personal Rashomon. You can go down a real slippery slope if you choose to take him on face value.

In this instance, however, I'm willing to believe that there's something to what Dylan says when he refers to his muse deserting him. I don't think that he meant that his talent deserted him - after all, talent is talent, and it's pretty damn hard for somebody to completely scupper that. On the other hand, it's rather obvious that Dylan was not writing the type of songs that made him famous, and if we assume that he even wanted to, that points towards some sort of mental block preventing him from doing so. And as David suggests, that had to have been a scary experience. In that sense, Self Portrait becomes more of a fascinating experience, somewhat akin to watching a pitcher who once relied on a blazing fastball try to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer after blowing his elbow out one too many times. As I'd written in the "Tell Me Momma" entry, change is one of the hardest things for a human being to deal with, and we should give Dylan a great deal of credit for trying to work out his problems in the studio.

On the other hand...does that explain why Dylan felt the need to record THAT many covers? Or to put out the Isle of Wight tracks? We should do well to remember that Dylan would bolt for Asylum Records not long after this album (which most people believe led to Columbia releasing Dylan out of spite), and that there has to be something to Dylan handing Columbia 24 songs as part of his contractual obligations that really did not live up to what people expected out of Bob Dylan at this point in his career. And it does seem interesting that the very next album, New Morning, contains a great deal of great songs. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Of course, New Morning does have its share of clunkers, and this album does bear the occasional hallmark of somebody trying, so I'm not going to put too much credence into the theory I just advanced. It's just me speculating on this album - despite everything, it does have a level of intrigue that even some of his great albums don't really have. Gaze too long into the abyss, after all, and the abyss will gaze back into you. It probably doesn't say much that the abyss would see a great deal of puzzlement in me.

Okay, so.

Nathan, a longtime reader of this lil' blog of mine, posted a comment in the "Let It Be Me" post that gave me some pause. He noted that the posts are beginning to run together (I don't know if they are, but I can understand him saying so), that I've basically repeated the same stuff about each song (again, I can see that) and that I've dedicated a disproportionate amount of space to the RS review of this album (totally merited). In other words, he's basically written out the nightmare that I'd feared before delving into this series - that I've become uninteresting. All you wags feel free to toss out a "when were you NOT uninteresting?!?!" quip in 3...2...1...

All right, hope you got that out of your system. Anyway, it is during this particular album's series of posts that I've been most keenly aware that eyes other than mine are reading what I'm putting out. That's not me saying I'm surprised by that (I've been submitting to Expecting Rain for a good while now - any eyes other than mine are due in large part to that site), so much as it's me saying that the presence of an audience has not weighed as heavily as it is on me right now. And I welcome that, in a way - after all, without being able to challenge yourself, a writer could find his own well of creativity drying up, and I've certainly found myself in a challenge now. On the other hand, there are other people reading this blog, after all, and consideration to their feelings should also be given thought. I'd much like to keep the readers I have, now that I have some; you have no idea how much I appreciate people reading and posting, even the ones that dislike my writing. I feel blessed to be doing this for more than one person, every time I post.

I'd mentioned that I'd be writing both about the album and the review because they're so deeply tied to each other, and I stand by that. I also should mention (and this, I suppose, will be obvious) that I've been leaning on that RS review because at certain points I find myself at a loss for words. I make no bones about when I find myself out of my element or struggling for inspiration (the Basement Tapes series spring readily to mind - I had myself some hard moments, believe me, and some of the comments basically reinforce that), and I was pretty sure going in that it was going to be rough sailing trying to make heads or tails of a lot of this stuff. I wasn't going to sidestep the album, though - that would be disingenuous. The blog's title IS "Every Bob Dylan Song", after all.

However, as I said, the consideration of more than just myself now has to come into play, and the fact that just one reader felt strongly enough to write a post about what's going on with this series is enough to give me pause. Look, the last thing I want to do is be a quitter, or to feel like I've shortchanged anybody in this project, most of all myself. I still believe I can get through every song and find something to dedicate a couple paragraphs to, and the RS review, while a crutch, is a crutch that's given me a lot to chew on. We haven't even reached the real meat of that review yet, either - the ideas of Dylan's responsibility to his recording audience, or the auteur theory and how it relates to this album, and so on. I'm more than ready to continue down the same path, and with a smile on my face. After all, at the end of the day this is fun. If it weren't, I'd have stopped writing a long time ago.

At the same time, it can't just be fun for me, either. Any writer that puts his work out in a public forum has to realize that he is now writing for a party of more than just one, and thus cannot simply wallow in whatever pond he might want, if nobody else wants to wallow with him. I want this blog to be an enjoyable experience, and while I've occasionally taken detours for my own sake (I wasn't really sure ANYBODY would enjoy the Isle of Wight post), like any good serial writer, I want you guys coming back, post after post, as long as I have the wherewithal to keep moving on. This blog doesn't just belong to me anymore. It might be cliched to say that, but I firmly believe it.

And so, as you may have noticed already, there is a poll on the right side of this blog. On it are four options about the future of this particular series of posts. I leave it up to you to decide where I go from here. The poll will be open for a week, long enough for everybody that regularly reads this blog to make their opinions known on the matter. Whatever the decision may be, I will uphold it one hundred percent. Believe me when I say I want your voices to be heard, and this is a good way to let them be heard. I'll keep posting in regular style all this week, until the poll closes and I know which direction I will be taking from thereon out. Thank you all so much for reading this, and please vote in the poll. It really does mean a lot to me.
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #132: Little Sadie

And now we've got the flipside to "In Search of Little Sadie", and I can safely report that it's a bit more pleasant of a listening experience than its sibling. For one thing, with an chord structure settled upon, the song is much easier to take on a purely aesthetic level (I should mention that I do find "In Search of Little Sadie" interesting from the haphazard way the song's cobbled together; it's just listening to it that I can't really get with). It might not be as experimental or whatever, but it's a recognizable song, and that gives it an immediate leg up. Also, the actual song itself has a groovy little arrangement, with some funky percussion going on (bongos? hmm) and a neat up-tempo groove to match. Dylan manages a reasonable vocal performance as well; while it sorta sounds like he's singing the song like he has a bus to catch in five minutes, he's not forced to grope around for the proper key to sing in, and that makes a real difference. And best of all, the song clocks in at a peppy 1:58 - that's not me saying "thank goodness it's so short", more like "that fits the song's arrangement, getting the song in and out". It's a pleasant diversion of a song, which is nice in this sort of environment.

The obvious question, then, is why we needed both of the versions of this particular song, a reasonable but not earth-shaking piece of work, on this particular album. I suppose you could ask "what is ONE version doing on this album?", but that's an entirely different issue. The RS review, rather uncharitably, suggests that this version of "Little Sadie" is part of what was being considered a perfidious industry practice to throw alternate takes on a song in order to a) push more product when somebody like Buddy Holly dies, or b) to just fill up a side on an album. Now, while I don't necessarily think that's the case (after all, there's a bunch of outtakes out there, two of which made it to the even less-loved Dylan, many of which have yet to see release - who wouldn't want to hear Bob's take on "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"?), it does seem kind of strange that we have both two versions of this song and two versions of "Alberta", a full sixth of this album (that might tell you how long this damned thing is) given over to two songs played in different ways. It's another mystery on an album chock full of them, and one that might be worth thinking about.

If we are to assume that these four songs should be given special attention by dint of their twin status, why is it those two songs? There really isn't too much special about them - perhaps if two versions of "All The Tired Horses" or "Copper Kettle" showed up on the album, that might really raise some eyebrows, but we're talking about songs that can really be best described as "fine". I mean, even as far as covers go, these aren't all that great in that regard (although I kinda think "Alberta #2" would've been a nice addition on New Morning), yet we have two versions of each to choose from. It might be laziness on Bob's part, but then there's 24 tracks on this album, 20 without the live tracks, 18 without the instrumentals - covers or no covers, that's a lot of music for a man to record. Of all the things that you could accuse Bob of being for this album's sessions, I don't really think "lazy" would make the list.

The Pollyanna side of me has devised a theory about this; it probably runs more or less counter to everything I've said up to this point about the album, but I think it's worth suggesting nonetheless. Bob Dylan, to this point in his career, basically found himself wrapped in a cloak of mystery and speculation (he still is, to some degree, but never more so than after his first creative peak); it's a cloak he helped to create, yet it's there nonetheless. And it seems to me that he had grown weary of this cloak, of hippies searching him out in upstate New York, of a public clamoring for a man he no longer wanted to be, and of a fanbase demanding music he probably no longer had it in him to create. So we get an album of blase covers, head-scratching originals, live cuts from a show many consider disappointing, and the occasional spot of genius just for kicks. And on top of that, we get a few outtakes, examples of Dylan searching for the right sound (literally so, in the case of "In Search of Little Sadie", a title with a nifty double meaning I'm embarrassed to not have caught onto until now. Hey, better late than never), part of any recording artist's process but usually consigned to the vaults instead of put out on wax. And, in this way, some of the mystery is being forcibly removed by Bob. We can see a little bit of the Bob of that era, a man caught in creative limbo, mainly happy to play some songs he likes, unsure of himself on stage, and tired of those that think him a sorcerer of ill repute. I like to think that theory is true. Somehow, I doubt it.

A quick note - this section of the RS review contains a quote from counterculture fashion magazine Rags, in which the author posits that Dylan should create some kind of elaborate stage show out of That's Entertainment! or something, full of costume changes, beautiful girls, and hilarious Bing Crosby-like suits. I mention this both because it's really funny to think about, and because I also like to think that Bob might have enjoyed doing something just like this. We are talking about a self-proclaimed "song and dance man", after all. Frankly, there's still time. I wonder how Bob would look in Fred Astaire tops and tails... Read more!

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Bob Dylan Song #131: Let It Be Me

I wonder, at this point, what it is about this performance of "Let It Be Me" that bothers me so much. It's a reasonable enough take on the song - obviously not worth comparing to the Everly Brothers version (then again, the Everly Brothers have that whole "amazing vocal harmony" thing Dylan can't really draw on), but surely not the worst thing to be found on this album. Dylan hauls out the Nashville Skyline croon again to bring a softer treatment to the beautiful French tune, and the backup singers offer reasonably good harmonies. The band, as well, acquits themselves nicely enough. So then what is that burning itch that I can't quite scratch when it comes to this song, which is inoffensive and pleasant enough to actually constitute a possible highlight?

After some reflection, I've decided that what bothers me is that the Nashville Skyline croon actually shows up at all on this song. Now, I know that it pops up intermittently throughout the album (almost as though it's some sort of virus Bob's getting out of his system), so it's not like this is an isolated incident that I can point at. And I also don't have a problem with the croon in general; after all, it's probably my favorite part of the country album where it makes its worldwide debut. And yet when I hear it here I find myself disliking that croon, thinking of it more as a cheap joke or an easy out, something to actually lend some credence to a cover version that sort of lightly drifts by without actually making any sort of impact on our imaginations. In a way, this feeling kind of worries me - it's far too strong an emotion than this song probably deserves.

Maybe it's just my protective nature; seeing that I really do enjoy that "country voice" of Bob's, hearing it in a different setting, one that I don't particularly approve of, is a little too jarring. It'd be rather like putting Han Solo in, I dunno, Michael Bay's Transformers or something like that. It's odd to think that this would be the song to elicit this kind of distaste in me, but sometimes you can't predict those sorts of things. It's funny, too - I've heard that country voice singing the rather lame lyrics of "Peggy Day" as well as the gently beautiful lyrics of "Lay Lady Lay", and I should be accustomed to that velvety voice wrapped around words that don't really rank as some of Dylan's best. But to hear it on this album, singing lyrics as part of a cover version in a progression of just rubs me the wrong way.

And now, a few words about the 7th section of the RS review. As mentioned in the previous post, Marcus paints us a tale of a young man who's responding to Self Portrait, comparing it to the pablum his parents listen to, even considering the dreaded re-gift when he receives the album as a birthday present. This leads to one of the most powerful sections (upon first reading) of the review, which I will quote here:

"To this kid Dylan is a figure of myth; nothing less, but nothing more. Dylan is not real and the album carries no reality. He's never seen Bob Dylan; he doesn't expect to; he can't figure out why he wants to."

Ouch! Pretty powerful stuff, no?

Well, what sort of robs this passage of its strength is an application of the common sense that occasionally gets tossed out the window when we're dealing with Art, Maaaan - Marcus mentions at the beginning that this imaginary kid's siblings "have been living with Dylan for years". Now, don't you think that those siblings might, just might, have let this imaginary kid give his classic albums a listen? I mean, setting aside the usual sibling rivalry crap that we go through in our youth, I'd like to imagine that a kid who would at least know what Self Portrait sounds like would have given Highway 61 a spin or two in their lives. And let's face it - much like the sister in Almost Famous that bequeaths her records to her brother before becoming a stewardess, if your siblings are cool enough to listen to Dylan, they're probably cool enough to let you hear those records for yourself. And by listening to those albums, I can only assume that Dylan no longer becomes a figure of myth; his image fills out thanks to those amazing songs, and the imaginary boy would indeed find himself wanting to see the amazing man who wrote those songs.

Marcus, by ignoring what seems like an obvious bit of business to the rest of us, does himself a disservice. It makes him a little harder to take seriously, you know? Music is such a communal part of our society - even the dreaded file-sharing that's raping the music industry is a type of communal experience, in a way, in that rare stuff we might never find in stores is available to those with broadband and the will to find it. The bigger the fan of music, in general, the more likely that person is to share music with somebody else, just in the off chance that that person will love something with the same all-consuming passion that they do. And yet here's one of our foremost music critics, willfully ignoring that communal aspect, just so he can make a point about Dylan's worst album existing on an island and some poor bastard being tossed on said island. With no offense to the author of those lines, that seems disingenuous to me. Read more!

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #130: In Search of Little Sadie

Probably the strangest song on Self Portrait, if only because it doesn't actually register as an actual song. That's kind of interesting to think about; we come in to a new song with certain preconceptions, based on any number of songs we've heard in the past. There's probably going to be a verse, chorus, and middle eight, a fixed chord structure, lyrics that tie into each other all throughout, and so on. However, with "In Search of Little Sadie" one of those basic tenets is violated. Not the lyrical part - Dylan basically takes an old Western ballad ("Little Sadie" or "Badman's Ballad", famously recast as Live at Folsom Prison highlight "Cocaine Blues") and casts it as his own, retaining the clear story and basic progression of that type of song. What I'm referring to, of course, is the chord structure, or the lack thereof. Whether by experiment, goofing around, or some weird impulse, Dylan switches up the chords all throughout the song, creating a very strange and not particularly aesthetically pleasing effect.

Plain and simple, the song is ugly - an ugly experience to listen to, as Dylan more or less tosses aside any notions of what you'd want to hear musically in a song, as though he arrived at the studio with lyrics and wanted to do a little soft-shoe improv for the folks back home. Unfortunately, that doesn't really work when you're committing a song to tape that will be pressed onto vinyl for public consumption. And it'd be one thing if Dylan did this all throughout the album - then we could suggest that Dylan was, I dunno, inverting our common views of what songs are meant to be, changing around the very notion of music as a flowing listening experience, and experimenting with what we as human beings expect from music, popular and otherwise. Alas, I would think it more likely that Dylan was just messing around in studio, looking for a working chord change and playing around with the song's tempo, and just decided to stick the whole thing on the album. It's the equivalent of releasing a rehearsal, and nobody really wants that.

"In Search of Little Sadie", in a weird way, is emblematic of the album as a whole. When you look at the entire thing, it stinks. If you take a closer look, there are some elements that stand out - Dylan's singing is pretty good when he's not trying to keep up with the constant key changes, for instance. And all throughout is the feeling that maybe if Dylan had put in a little more effort, hadn't entered the studio with either no plan or a bad one, and had really put his soul into the take (unfortunately, the alternate version of "Little Sadie" suffers from that same lack of soul), something really good or at least really palatable might have come from the whole enterprise. Instead, we get something slapdash, rough to listen to, and ultimately kind of listless. It's a bummer, really.

So this section of the review has one of the most interesting moments - the "parable" of "the four questions", which I won't reprint here but can be read in the review link above. I made a reference in the very first post about how exceptionally pretentious this review is, and you need no further proof than this moment right here. What's funny is that the little "parable" in question is something that has a lot more weight the first time you read it than in subsequent readings. Yes, a lot of the lure of the paintings that hang in famous galleries (at least, for tourists, which the family in this parable clearly are) is the name that's signed on the canvas, perhaps even more so than what else is on there (incidentally, the third son that coyly said "it's a frame" deserves a smack upside the head - thinks he's so smart, the little wiseass). And that parable certainly would apply to Dylan in this case - for all the sins on this album, and they are many, they are much more easily forgiven because of the man committing them. If some random unknown artist had released this album, it wouldn't be nearly worthy of this attention. But it was Bob Dylan that put it out, and that alone at least begs for a listen.

What makes Marcus' clever bit of business fall apart is that he never gets into what that family thinks AFTER they've seen the artwork they traveled so far to see. We can be told how great Toulouse-Lautrec is until our ears hurt, after all, but it means nothing until we get to take a look at one of his paintings for ourselves. It's the same thing with Bob Dylan, actually, and it's kind of funny that Marcus misses the point later on when he talks about how Dylan's just a name to some random kid (I'll get to that in the next post). In the end, you may come to something because of its name and reputation (which makes sense - nobody just randomly stumbles onto Ozu or Picasso, they have to be told about them), but what makes you stay with that something is its quality. That nameless family may have traveled all that way because it's a famous artist what they saw on the teevee and whatnot, but if they actually enjoyed the painting for its merits, that's all that matters. And, ultimately, when it comes to Self Portrait it feels to me like the people that enjoy this album like it IN SPITE of it being a Dylan album, that they can be relaxed by the music without dealing with the attendant baggage of The Great Genius of Our Time and what have you, something you can't always say for his truly beloved and classic albums. That's something special, in its own way. Read more!

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