Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #157: Watching the River Flow

My sincerest apologies to those of you that assumed my discussion of Greil Marcus' review of Self Portrait would cease with the "Alberta #2" post, but I found myself thinking of that album, and rather specifically the bit about Dylan's responsibilities to his audience, during my most recent listen to "Watching the River Flow", one of a handful of original songs Bob recorded between 1970 and 1974's Planet Waves. Listening to Dylan kick the tune off with those fateful words "What's the matter with me?/I don't have much to say", then talk about sitting on a beach somewhere and watching the inexorable progress of some random waterway, one can only assume that Marcus must have been livid. After all, compare Self Portrait, in which Bob makes what could be interpreted as a symbolic retreat from the arena, to this song, in which Bob straight up admits it to all of us. I dunno - were I in Marcus' shoes, I think I might be kinda pissed.

I bet Dylan thought of this, too. Maybe he didn't have Marcus on his mind per se (it's worth wondering if Bob, in 1971, actually knew who Greil Marcus WAS), but I like to think he had a little smile on his face as he penned the words to this song, dreaming up a surrogate Bob wandering some deserted coastline, finding that all night cafe on the beach, having a cup of joe, and staring at the water rushing by. More specifically, I think of those middle eights Bob conjured up, where he sees people disagreeing about God knows what (and he's right - it really DOES make you want to stop and read a book) and just shakes his head knowingly to himself. It was not all too long ago that Young Bob was out there disagreeing with people himself, first in the protest songs that he wrote, then in his views on how his music should sound, to the point where he found himself really shook (and, if some people are to be believed, crying) on that Newport stage. It would only stand to reason that Older and Wiser Bob would be able to write so wittily and intelligently about that.

"Watching the River Flow" would be a fun song if Dylan had picked up an acoustic and sang about his casual acceptance of what sounds like one bitch of a case of writer's block, but the song is made all the more fun by his studio band, who bring a touch of 70's AM rock to Dylan's palette of recording tricks. From the moment that guitar solo comes ripping out of your speakers, it's clear that Dylan's in a rakish mood, and the song boogies along at a nice bluesy clip, Leon Russell's pounding piano mixing well with more radio-friendly soloing and a bouncy bass line. Dylan, for his part, appears to be having a grand old time, barking out his vocals in that 70s voice I've always considered his best. One imagines that, in the hands of somebody like Badfinger, the song might have become an even bigger hit. Instead, it just barely missed the top 40, and ended up on a Columbia stopgap; given the laid-back nature of the song, that's probably how it should be anyway.

I always liked that Bob chose to start off his 2nd (and, remarkably, more essential) Greatest Hits collection with this song, an amusing admission of his current fallow period leading off a collection of songs that demonstrated just how amazing he was when all his creative juices were flowing. What's made Bob so fascinating, along with the music and the myths and the history and all that, is that you really can't pin any kind of mental process upon the man, no matter how hard we try to shoehorn him into our preconceived notions. The same man who has enough self-awareness to wink at his audience with this song had the somewhat puzzling naivete to think that his conversion to Christianity would be well-received when he took it on the road (well, perhaps; he probably knew people would be surprised, but I'm not sure he knew he'd whip up 1965-levels of invective). The same man who exhibited the rigid self-control of his days in the upstate New York woods as he cared for his family and grew closer to his wife essentially fell to pieces on the 2nd leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, drinking himself into constant stupors as his marriage crumbled around him. And the same man who released some of the greatest albums ever recorded, leaving only a paucity of worthy tracks in the vaults in favor of legendary classics, essentially consigned three or four of his best songs of the 1980s to outtake status when putting together Infidels, maybe the most disappointing moment in his canon. That's all human nature, of course, to be that inconsistent; but it's human nature on a grand scale, and that's always interesting.

"Watching the River Flow", in its own way, is an encapsulation of part of Dylan's human nature, and a part that brings him closer to us. Having made mention in the previous post of the elusiveness of creativity, it's funny to hear a song where Bob directly addresses that elusiveness, fully admitting that the process is beyond his understanding ("What's the matter with me?") and not giving a damn anyway. It's kind of rare to see Dylan engaging his audience as directly (relatively speaking) as he does here, and it's all the better that he does it in such an amusing way. Who knows, maybe even Greil Marcus had to have been okay with that.

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steve said...

great post as ever tony.but didnt bob say,"CRITICS? I DONT WRITE SONGS FOR CRITICS!keep up the good work.steve.

Bill said...

"Watching the River Flow" opens, "Down in the Flood" closes. Fact is that Greatest Hits Vol. II is a much more 'composed' collection than your description of it as a Columbia stopgap suggests. It was unusual back then for a so-called greatest hits collection to contain unreleased material, and Vol. II had five cuts (out of 22) which were previously unheard. It's a generous package, and a legitimate statement in its own right, I think. In a way it is a better retrospective than Biograph, albeit less inclusive.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song. You are part of The Bob Dylan Project.