Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #159: When I Paint My Masterpiece

This is a post that, in a way, almost writes itself. If ever there was a Dylan track that would qualify as my all-time sneaky favorite, it would be "When I Paint My Masterpiece", one of those songs that always seems to slip through the cracks when people talk about Bob's classics (some might append that classification to "Watching The River Flow", I think). What I really love about the song is just how laid-back Bob sounds on it, like he really is singing about chilling out in Rome and thinking about when he finally finishes his life's work. One almost wishes that it was true - that instead of being in upstate New York all this time, he'd actually been crossing the Continent by train, suitcase in hand, living it up with a big Derek Flint grin on his face. And the musicians help set that mood from the start, Leon Russell's piano leading us into a bevy of wry guitar solos and a gently propulsive rhythm. One imagines that this is the sound of Bob not taking himself all too seriously (much like the Christmas album, as a matter of fact - what is "Must Be Santa" if not one of his all-time great pisstakes?), and it's hard not to want him to do that more often.

Much has been made about how this song and "Watching The River Flow" are musical twins in that they depict Bob at his creative low point (well, until the mid-80s, of course), fumbling around for ways to relight his creative muse, none of them working until the ultimate torch arrived in the form of Bob's crumbling marriage. What occasionally seems to be lost in that assessment is the fact that both of the songs that are seemingly about Bob's fallow creative period are, of course, pretty darn good on their own, some of the best stuff that Bob released in this decade. And, rather amusingly, both of the songs manage to attack the subject in roughly the same way, with the musical equivalent of a good-natured shrug of the shoulders. If Bob really has lost his creative muse, he's doing a pretty darn good job of showing us that he could care less.

If there is one obvious difference between the songs, though, it would be the fact that Bob puts us in two different locales (and maybe even mindsets) in the two separate songs. "Watching The River Flow"'s narrator is basically all by himself, sitting in a cafe and staring out at the Mississippi or whatever rushing on by - there's something almost Zen-like in the way he talks about how the river keeps rolling along, no matter what happens - and just musing about how funny the ol' human race can actually be. In "When I Paint My Masterpiece", on the other hand, we're deposited right smack in the middle of some European vacation, a rush of memories coursing through the narrator's brain as he moves from country to country looking for the next big adventure and getting a kick out of, you guessed it, how funny the ol' human race can actually be. That the song still manages to retain its laid-back tone is really something; Bob's telling us a story about how strange his life is without being able to write that one masterpiece he's been waiting on (then again, most artists always feel this way), and yet it feels so casual, like he's relating this tale into a tape recorder sitting poolside in Malibu. It's a relaxed song about a hectic subject, which is always fun.

One is tempted, especially when doing a project like the one I'm embarking on, to speculate about whether or not Bob really did miss that hectic life at the time. Now, real life kind of answers that question all by itself, as Bob slowly worked his way back into the limelight before Tour '74 re-established him as one the biggest rock stars in the world. But that was a gradual process, one that went from recording new material to appearing in a movie to putting together a brand new album for a brand new record label. And yet, in 1971, there was still no real indication that Bob was ever going to go back out on the road, or release something like Planet Waves, or be anything other than a father and a husband. All people really had to speculate on were rumors, innuendo, and then these songs. And while most people tend to think of them as Bob talking about how his muse had done a runner, it's also possible to speculate on that second song, on Bob writing about the hustle and bustle of a life on the run, walking up the Spanish Steps and feeling history below his feet, and missing it just a little bit. The world was not as easy to reach then as it was now, and one imagines there were some nights in New York where our man Bob was getting just a touch antsy.

And, soon enough, that hustle and bustle would be back in Dylan's life. As much as we think about how hectic and crazy 1965-66 were for Bob, I don't think enough attention gets paid to just how wild the mid-70s were for the man; after all, for all of Bob's religious studies after he broke his neck, he didn't become a full-on Christian, for Pete's sake. After all, between Planet Waves and Slow Train Coming, Bob released a slew of albums that ranged from "quite good" to "absolute classics" (including what might very well be his masterpiece), embarked on four massive tours (including a World Tour that led to his voice's irrevocable damage and that aforementioned conversion), and forcefully re-injected himself into the lifestyle that a rock star of his stature tends to lead. That's a hell of a lot for one man to do. You wonder, though, if Bob would have had it any other way.

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Frank E said...

Of the 2 songs you compare/ contrast, this one is by far my favourite. It has a verve which the other obviously (deliberately?) lacks.

You fail to mention that Bob uses this as the intro song and PERFORMANCE to Renaldo & Clara...wearing....his Bob Dylan mask!

ch51 said...

Probably in my top 20.

I really like the version that opens Renaldo & Clara ... I don't mean, necc., that I prefer it to this one, but I think it has it's own vibe going on. The start has quite an unsettling feel to it - Rob Stoner's bass kind of creating a sense of unrest. Creepy but great. The song was filmed on Halloween 1975 (thus explaining (at the time) the mask to the audience). Easily one of my two fav. performances in the film (the other being "Isis").

As to the writing - he obviously was having FUN writing it - some of his most humorous rhymes are in this song.

Brussels ... young men pulling mussels (what Bob would call, almost a single-entendre).

Great lines like "the land of Coca Cola" ... simple, but great!

Good tune.

Justin said...

I was always disappointed that this was omitted from TBSv4, while equally happy I didn't have to hear B.Neuwirth's bellowing.

including a World Tour that led to his voice's irrevocable damage

Interesting. I've read that he overworked his voice doing all those dates, and there was such a laying it all on the line of songs in '78, like the way he'd (melodiously) belt out Changing of the Guards or Shelter from the Storm, in a way very unlike his other singing styles over the years. But I've always considered the 1981 tour a demarcation point of no return -- he'd never sounded sweeter, and he never got back to that range and smoothness again.

David George Freeman said...

Yes a very interesting essay. Read enough? Then listen to all the great versions inside Bob Dylan's Music Box Come inside and join us now.