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.

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Anonymous said...

"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'm convinced that every Bob Dylan song is somebody's favorite Dylan song... somewhere out there is a person who thinks DITG's "Let's Stick Together" cover kicks the ass of every 60's Dylan album combined.

Rob said...

And what about the Dylan masterpieces that never even made it onto an official Dylan album, like Dignity, Series of Dreams, and the amazing Blind Willie McTell, to mention just 3 of a scarily long list? Howard Sounes tries to address Dylan's suicidal whimsicality in Down the Highway, but he still can't account for it. That later behaviour by Dylan puts the oddness of Self-Portrait into perspective. btw Tony, I'm currently in La Jolla (for a few days), if you get a free moment to meet for a coffee. I promise not to behaviour like a stalker.

Anonymous said...

I always thought Copper Kettle was a great track on a not-so-great album. I'm glad I'm not alone on that.

Anonymous said...

I dig Copper Kettle and I like Self Portrait! There's a lot of good stuff on the album - Days of 49, Blue Moon, Gotta Travel On, and the live stuff. Guess what? I also like "Let's Stick Together"!

It's the same way with food. Maybe it's not your favorite dish or the best flavors, but it still tastes pretty good!

Kenneth Lobb said...

I'm with you in looking forward to your review of "Sign In the Window," which is one of my favorite songs on New Morning, which is one of my favorite Dylan albums, and the album that introduced me to Dylan in the first place when I was 16 years old.

John Molinari said...

I have been searching everywhere to find the Bob Dylan song "Any Day Now" cannot find it on any CD, not in itunes nothhing. Anyone know where this song can be found? send info to

PeterH said...

What elevates Copper Kettle is the the conviction of the singing. Truly magnificent.

I like SP and i like Lets Stick Together. In fact I like every Dylan album, some more than others obviously, but they all have something special. Except of course Dylan & the Dead which has no redeeming feature.

John M: Any Day Now is not a Dylan song.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.