Friday, October 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #156: Father of Night

"Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax - YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT I'M LIVING IN THE (expletive) PAST!" - John Goodman in The Big Lebowski

Now, while the previous song had baffled me in a way that I'm embarrassed to think about even now, "Father of Night" somehow manages to make a perfect, almost serene sense. On an album that has evoked such gentle images of pastoral life and quiet solitude (except with a lady, of course), there's something kind of nice about Bob offering up his version of a Jewish prayer as the album's end, sort of a droll Hebrew equivalent of T.S. Eliot's "shantih shantih shantih" or something. And the presentation is gorgeous - running a mere 92 seconds (surely Bob's shortest song ever), opened with a nifty little bit of singing from Bob's backup singers that occasionally repeats throughout, Dylan offers up a simple and plaintive paean to the God of the Torah that he'd worshiped as a young man. It's beautiful, no two ways about it, and a fine ending to an album that hearkens for the simple life he knew as that boy in Hibbing, before rock and roll, Woody Guthrie, and fistfuls of barbituates changed everything.

One of my friends from Michigan is an atheist raised in a Jewish family, and while she continues to not believe in a God, she still makes it a point to observe all the Jewish holidays and traditions and pay homage to the faith in which she was raised. I'm not going to lie - I found that odd when I'd first heard about it (she's not going to read this, so I feel safe mentioning it, although I'm sure she'd be fine with it anyway), as most people that don't believe in God tend to have something less than a favorable opinion about faith in general, and especially in the traditions and occasional prejudices that make up the world's religions. But the more I thought about it, the more respect I have for her stance - even though she has objection to the one principle that binds this entire group of people together, she finds enough worthy in the sort of cultural framework that's sprung up around this group and their devotion to that principle that she's decided to remain a willing participant. It really is an extraordinary thing.

I'm jumping way ahead here, but one of the most remarkable facts of Dylan's career in retrospect, something that I think doesn't get nearly the play that it deserves, was Dylan's conversion to Christianity. It isn't that it's not understandable, so much as it was a fervor that gripped him with remarkable tightness and then loosened itself almost as fast (I've seen pictures of Bob in his yarmulke in the mid-80s). What tends to get lost in the whole thing, though, between the controversy over the music he made and his infamous battles with the crowds in Tempe and all that, is just how deeply human it actually makes Bob. After all, what is more human in the experience of life than the search for a greater truth, a higher plane of existence beyond mortal flesh and blood, and the search for the reason why we're here in the first place? I'm not saying that I consider Bob some sort of demigod, so much as I'm saying that Bob's crisis of faith gives us something to hang our hat on, something we can relate to, just as much as the adultery and the boozing and drug use and occasional terrible albums are things we can relate to. Bob becomes much more enjoyable, I'm starting to find, when he's not on the pedestal that (it has to be said) things like this blog put him on.

And a song like "Father of Night", which has no other purpose than recasting the Amidah into a short little tune to close out a short little album, is just as much a part of that equation that makes Bob a flesh and blood man. His faith (aside from the Christian years, of course) has never been much of a talking point; we knew he was Jewish (I mean, Zimmerman? C'mon, now), but it was never overtly shoved in our faces at any point in his career. And when he does decide to pay a little homage to his old faith, he does it in as low-key a way as possible, paring down his language almost to the point where you can see bone, singing simple words to the Lord of Abraham and Ezekiel. As mantras go, it's pretty hard to top.

And that's it for New Morning! Coming up next - the three unwritten songs from the 2nd Greatest Hits, "Billy" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"...then Dylan's second great creative period. I cannot wait. Hope you all join me on the trip! Read more!

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Bob Dylan Song #155: Three Angels

I'm not really sure what to make of "Three Angels". As we come to a close on New Morning, it seems kind of strange for Dylan to suddenly pull out a gospel-inflected (check out that organ!) philosophical piece about angels hovering above us as people go off and live their little humdrum lives, never stopping to see if they can find the ethereal so close to the mundane. It's not that it's a bad song, at all - it's kind of like Bob's "Everybody Hurts", only with a little less universality and a little more slice-of-life lyricism - so much as it's a really odd downer at the end of the album, especially given the one-two-three punch that had preceded it. There's something that just seems a little off, I can't tell you what.

It isn't that Bob hasn't given us character pieces in the past (what is "Ballad of a Thin Man" if not a character piece?) or delved into everyday life in a metaphysical way. What makes the song seem strange to me is that Dylan gives us a really good example of the keen eye that he has as a songwriter, whipping up a little slice of life that gives us well-observed details and people seemingly snatched right off the street - but for what purpose? A two-minute throwaway tacked on the end of the album because it would've sounded even stranger coming after "Winterlude" or something? Maybe it's just the sequencing, then; but that still doesn't explain why there's something lacking about the whole thing. Could it be the length? The weird Christian underpinning that sort of but doesn't really jibe with what's going on with the rest of the album? Maybe it's just another experiment Bob decided to try, giving us a speak-sung O. Henry pastiche set to music? Baffling.

It occurs to me, typing these words, that I'm probably doing a 180 on the stuff that I've typed in the past, where I've chastised others (and myself) for looking for too much or thinking too hard about one of Bob's songs, and that I should just listen and enjoy the song for what it is. And I think I still do that, or at the very least make an effort to do that and not let my feelings about the music get overwhelmed by what I'd like to talk about for the song's blog post. But a song like this...I mean, where do I really go? I've talked about Dylan's nice usage of imagery (the U-Haul truck in particular manages to be the most evocative, and I'm not really sure why), and about Bob reaching into his John Wesley Harding Biblical playbook, only with a little less subtlety, and about how the song touches on a very deep and spiritual subject for a few minutes before coming to an abrupt end. That doesn't seem to leave too much out.

The disappointment I feel at moments like these, where the (usually latent) limitations of this project I've undertaken and enjoyed so often become glaringly apparent, is something I wouldn't wish on any Dylan fan. It can be said about Dylan that even his bad music gives you something to talk about (the last two-three months prior to this album should've been proof of that), and his good music can encompass our whole wide world in terms of subjects of conversation. That, of course, is something that can be said about most great artists in most of the artistic fields. And, let it once again be said, I think that this is a fine song, maybe even a good song. I know that there are bigger fans of this song than I, people that are more likely to tell me something they love about this song that I may have missed, and people that are more than happy to elucidate on why this deserves a deeper look than I'd given it. And believe me when I say that I would be more than happy to hear them out. Read more!

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