Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #318: Mama, You Been On My Mind

Okay, so.

I had a special post all typed out, I really did. I was going to do one of those "author interviewing himself" conceits, where I asked myself these pertinent questions about where I was in my life, why I'd put this blog on its longest hiatus yet, and whether or not I was really prepared to see this through to the bitter end (I mean, look at that post title - I'm not even halfway to reaching THIS song, let alone the last one!). But, to be quite honest, nobody needs to read all that, especially in light of all the emotional gushing that will soon commence in the post proper. So I've instead condensed said special post into three questions and answers:

Q. Where the hell were you?
A. It's like John Lennon said - "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

Q. Why this song?
A. Because the time to write about it was right, for me at least. Normal chronological order will resume after this post - I just wanted to get this out of my system. If this somehow seems like a cheat, I apologize. I fully acknowledge that this post is the rare one that's more for me than anybody else.

Q. Will you continue this project?
A. Yes. I don't know how regular I'll keep things, but I will do my level best to maintain at least some sort of schedule. That anybody reads this at all is amazing, and it's at the point now that I want people to keep reading and to look forward to what I do. It means more than you could ever know, believe me.

And so back I go into the maelstrom. Just a heads up - this gets into some REALLY emo shit. If you're not prepared or that sort of thing doesn't suit you, I suggest you come back later in the week. Trust me.

Second heads up: this baby is LONG. Again, don't say I didn't warn you.


I once had a girl
Or should I say
She once had me...

- John Lennon


When people (up to and including myself) talk about how Bob Dylan's lyrics are "poetic", I feel like the vast majority of those people are referring to Dylan's more out-there lyrics, stuff like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden" that push the envelope of what was previously considered to be acceptable things to sing while simultaneously strumming a guitar and/or being backed by a band of musicians. Which makes sense - it's not so much that Dylan was doing things like messing with time signatures or fiddling with the verse/chorus/verse dynamic (his deeply ingrained musical instincts probably would not let him do this), as much as he was pushing the boundaries of what you can do with words, how you can arrange them in ways that impact others emotionally without directly attempting to ENGAGE them emotionally, and of the subject matter that people can sing about. And I think that many of us engage poetry in that same way; we've grown accustomed enough to the works of Eliot and Plath and Ginsburg and Sexton and so on that we think of poetry not as something straightforward, but as a way to push the boundaries of both the spoken and written English language, something that takes us to the further edges of what we can do with that language, for better or for worse.

I bring all this up not because I believe I'm telling you all something you don't already know, but because it's elucidating for me in general to think about things in other ways. After all, not all poetry bothers to push the envelope, or to do something entirely different from tradition, and yet that poetry can still hit on an emotional level. Think of something like "Dulce et Decorum Est", or "To His Coy Mistress", neither of which go crazy with the metaphors or fuck with accepted rhyme schemes or anything, but both hit on an emotional level while bending words into something beautiful (even in the ugliness of World War I, in the former's case). And I'm sure it doesn't REALLY bear stating, but you can apply that to Dylan's less wildly imaginative lyrics, songs from his acoustic era or from something like Planet Waves, where Dylan can keep himself firmly grounded in the language that you and I speak every day (or, sometimes, wish we could) and still make us go "wow, that was something else".

And, to me, the quintessential example of Dylan's genius in this regard is the first verse of "Mama, You Been On My Mind", one of the greatest songs he wrote and never released on an album. I'm reprinting it here simply because I cannot help myself:

Perhaps it's the color of the sun cut flat
And covering these crossroads I'm standing at,
Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that,
But mama, you been on my mind.

To me, at least, I cannot think of any better way to try and explain what it is about love that cannot be explained, and to put something tangible on a feeling that, so very often, eludes our grasp. We all know that often something as innocuous as a song on the radio or seeing an ad for a restaurant can bring back memories both good and bad (I had one such moment last night, as a matter of fact - damn you, Van Morrison!), but we can find ourselves forgetting that sometimes it doesn't even take THAT much to trigger our memory banks, and sometimes we find ourselves drifting back to past beloved entirely of our own accord, almost like an acid flashback or something. Dylan manages to capture both sides in four truly amazing lines, reaching both to the specificity of an image that reminded him of somebody, and to the generality of a mood that hits you when you don't expect it. It's really something that I cannot fathom.

I had a conversation once with one of my friends, in which I was attempting to describe why exactly it was I felt a certain way about somebody else. I said that I could make a list of all the reasons why I was enamored, from the more obvious physical aspects to the way that she engaged me on an intellectual level to the fact that she had a fondness for things that I, too, had a fondness for. But, ultimately, the reason I felt that certain way about that somebody was because I simply did. I mean, that sort of thing is more animal than human to begin with (which I'll get to in greater detail), and on a gut level it really just comes down to synapses firing in your brain in ways you could not possibly imagine. But, us being who we are, we find ways to justify those firings of our synapses, and we turn what would be simple nature into something deeper and more meaningful. As I'd written in a previous post, the feeling tends to come before the rational; first comes love, then you sort of have to fill in the blanks. But filling in the blanks makes us who we are.

What I love about that first verse of "Mama, You Been On My Mind" is that Bob never bothers to delve into that conundrum at all. Of course, given the constraints of songwriting and such there just wasn't enough room anyway, but it's still impressive to see Bob condense such a markedly difficult emotional issue into a short gut punch of a verse and then immediately move on, secure in the knowledge that we all know what he's talking about. And we all do, of course - much like that feeling you can only express in French where you could've sworn something happening to you has already happened, we all know what it means to remember something from our past with both a meaningful prompt and with no prompt at all. We all just can't sum that feeling up the same way Bob can.


If I were to be brutally honest with myself, one of my great failings as a human being is that I have the potential to be an utterly selfish prick on an emotional level; you know, the old "look out for number 1" thing. I can be totally willing to sever a personal relationship (friend or otherwise) with a female at the drop of a hat if I think that relationship is causing me hurt, and I'm pretty sure I could do it without too much effort. And, in the same honest vein, one of the things that is pretty good about me as a human being is that I am aware of that selfishness potential, and that I deal with it in much the same way that people deal with quarantined viruses. After all, once you've connected with somebody on any meaningful level, even if it is just plain ol' friendship, you have a responsibility for that connection, to maintain it and even try to make it grow, and to cut it in half just because of your own base feelings is a pretty boorish thing to do. It's sad that I need to remember that, but I thank my lucky stars that I can, and that I can put aside my own bullshit to have actual meaningful friendships with the opposite sex. It would be a real black mark on me as a person if I couldn't.

One of the hardest things to deal with is when somebody you have feelings for harbors those same feelings for somebody else. This, again, is not something I think you all don't know. What is even harder is to feel, if not happiness for that person, at least a sort of Zen acceptance, a security that you can dispense with the hurt that that knowledge brings. It, like so much of human personality, is an acquired skill; still, having that skill is almost astonishingly important, if only for our own peace of mind. To be able to wish somebody well is nice; to wish somebody well and actually mean it is some next level shit. I will fully admit that I struggle with that skill on a daily basis (and it's much harder these days), but I'm well aware that the person I'm struggling with would appreciate that I'm even making the effort. If I couldn't, I might as well give up and go live in a cabin in the woods.

When Dylan sings "I don't even mind who you'll be waking with tomorrow", it is hard not to marvel at that moment. It is both the most devastating moment in the song, and somehow the most uplifting at the exact same time. I don't need to really tell you what's devastating about it on one level; I still remember being told by the woman I love that she was moving in with her boyfriend, and what a horrible crushing blow that was for me. And on another level, the one where you've reached that kind of acceptance (or resignation, as the case may be), the line takes on an even more devastating effect. But uplifting? Yes, I truly do believe that. That line, and the sentiment behind that, is a statement from a man that truly believes what he's saying, that does not care that his beloved will be waking up in the bed of somebody else, because she's still part of who he is, no matter what. And that's uplifting in the sense that so often we tend to try to cut the hurt out of us, rather than attempting to understand that hurt and make it work for us. When you lose somebody in that way, a piece of you gets torn out, and it's all too easy to let that piece disappear without ever trying to replace it. It really is better to keep that piece where it is, if only for the memory.

Not to immediately bring things back down, but I've often thought about the things that separate us human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom, usually because there's far more crossover than we would like to admit. Even love, our greatest attribute as a human race in so many ways, can be explained on a molecular level, where the general idea of "attraction" has a lot more to do with our hormones than with rational thought. I mean, it makes sense, of course; even if you discount all the scientific crap, just think about how often relationships tend to fail. We all can understand the idea behind wanting to knock it out with somebody else - it's when you get to shit like meeting parents and thinking about looking for an apartment together that things become murky and complicated. Fill in the blanks, remember. We don't always do the best job of that. And that's why love isn't always the greatest thing (as Damon Albarn once sang); the actual emotion itself can be found amongst jungle cats or what have you, and they don't have to worry about how two sets of friends would interact at a bar on Friday night.

So, to me at least (and perhaps this is just my own slightly jaundiced view at work), what really does separate us from animals and makes us something special is that we can be hurt by love. After all, you never hear of an orangutan crying and listening to Morrissey records, or of a house cat trying to win another house cat back by playing "In Your Eyes" on a boom box, and so on. I know how silly that sounds, and I even kinda did that on purpose, but the general idea is that we are the only race for whom the romantic-based rejection of another member of our species hurts us on an emotional level, one that we have to intellectualize in order to properly deal with it. We can intellectualize love, of course, but on a gut level we know why it exists and how it really works. I don't think we have that same gut level with rejection; trying to make sense of it the best way that we can, whether through hurt, rage, acceptance, and so on, is an entirely different being altogether. In a way, it's even a beautiful thing - the fact that we cannot simply dismiss a mate walking away, that we have to put things together in our mind and compartmentalize it in order to function at all, says a lot about just how important that really is to us. It's an idea that always strikes me as sad, and as profound. Funny how those two words so often mean the same thing.


Why don't we ever hear more about who Bob's singing about in this song? So much about Dylanology (of which I grudgingly include this humble little blog) centers around the various women that have populated Bob's life and how he has worked his relationships (both the good and the bad times - more bad than good, rather unfortunately) into his songs. Joan Baez, Suze Rotolo, Sara Lowndes - we always find ourselves reading the tea leaves, looking for those faces, almost to the point where you need to stop and just ask yourself, well, why? Why do we bother? Is there really a point? And, as a corollary, how has a song THIS nakedly emotional and full of heartache slipped through the cracks?

Creativity, like so much of our human experience, is an ethereal concept. I mean, that's pretty obvious (nobody's selling "creativity juice" at the local supermarket), but it's also something that we feel like we need to deal with, even though we don't know how. William Goldman, as great a screenwriter that has ever lived, stated that he has no idea where his creativity comes from, but he lived in a never-ending fear of simply waking up one day to find that his spark has deserted him forever, never to return. And that's somebody who legitimately has/had that spark, who has written some of the most enduring motion pictures ever made. For the rest of us average punters, the idea of creativity on that level is even harder to fathom, like attempting to wrap our minds around Foucault's Pendulum without the requisite Ph.D. in astrophysics. Creativity, in that sense, is almost certainly something legitimately scary, a mutant power that taunts us even while astonishing us when others harness that power to create amazing works of art. Like a lot of the Big Concepts, it is something that totally eludes us.

And that, I think, plays into why people so often look for Dylan's paramours in his music. The concept of the muse, as old as it is, is one that a lot of us can wrap our minds around. Hell, the whole concept was almost certainly conceived so that the ancient Greeks and Romans COULD wrap their minds around something as astounding as creativity, an otherworldly explanation for why people could write poems or music or whatever that fit in quite well with the whole "multitude of gods" thing they had going on. But even today the idea still has its place, mainly because its base concept is something we can get behind. Surely it was the love/hate of another woman that drove Dylan to write those masterpieces, and nothing else, right? I mean, it's kind of a reductive concept, no matter how true it is (if "Ballad in Plain D" is NOT about Suze Rotolo, then Bob has some serious explaining to do), but it's still one that's easy for us to grasp. It's annoying as hell, but I can understand it.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to this song, and why nobody has made an effort (or maybe they have, and I've willfully ignored it) to tie "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to any number of women that have been in Bob's life. I mean, it's not like you couldn't make a very easy case, given the time frame the song was written in and so forth. But I kind of like the fact that the song has sort of been left untouched in that sense, that it's not scrutinized in the same way that some of Dylan's more famous songs have been, and that it's mainly been left to stand on its own considerable artistic and lyrical merits. It lends the song a little additional weight that occasionally gets denied from the Webermans of the world trying to read between the lines. For a song this good, that's incredibly appreciated.


I've said that "Like A Rolling Stone" is my favorite Bob Dylan song, maybe my favorite song by anybody ever, and that's not going to change. But if I had to choose the song that meant the most to me on an emotional level, the song that's nearest and dearest to my heart without bringing in any intellectual considerations, it would surely be "Mama, You Been On My Mind". I mean, I love the song on an intellectual level, of course - it's as perfect an example as you could ask for of purely economical songwriting, of communicating an astounding amount of deep feelings and ideas on a personal scale, performed in Bob's straightforward manner that manages to suggest the well of emotions the song carries without needing to dip into it just to score a few extra points. A lot of Young Bob's genius is summed up in this song, and that's something I can truly appreciate.

But, as you might expect, it's what Bob is actually singing about that gives the song such heft in my eyes. Speaking as somebody that was in love with somebody for a VERY long time, I can't help but identify with every word Bob sings in this song; memories being brought forth just by the weather or something, asking her not to be upset by my frame of mind, not minding who she wakes up with, and that final stinging verse where Bob asks the mystery woman of the song if she could ever see herself as clearly and as vividly as he, himself, carrying her memory deep inside of his cerebral cortex. It's such a powerful moment, and one so evocative of what it means to not just love somebody, but to care about them as well - this notion that we can see them better than they can see themselves. There is great truth to that; why else would we talk about our problems with our friends than because we need a voice that's not our own to help us puzzle out what's going on with us? And it's moments like that where I find myself utterly swept away, hearing somebody explain the pain and emotion I'm feeling better than I ever could. Everything about what art is, and why art matters, crystallizes for me when I hear this song.

I don't presume to suggest that I know why art matters, for the record; I'm simply not that smart. I will say, though, that I have an idea. The concept of the muse, that I briefly touched on before, can seem quite silly on its face, but it does serve an important purpose - it helps us make tangible something that is rather clearly not. And for people in general, just the idea that we can make SOMETHING that we have trouble understanding a little more easy to wrap our minds around is truly important indeed. I mean, just take a second and think about the nature of the cosmos, and infinity, and what that actually means. Thinking about that without a shit ton of postgraduate work, a massively high IQ, or a pharmacy's worth of illegal drugs is nigh impossible. But we've all been to a planetarium, we've all seen the stars in the sky and heard about white dwarfs and black holes and sound bouncing out millions of miles away and so on, and that sort of helps us understand a little better and come a little closer to touching what seems so very far away. We need that in our lives.

And I think we can agree that the whole idea of art, at least on a level beyond "I want to watch guns go boom and cars explode" or "I'm going to read this romantic novel about forbidden love with the guy with a six-pack of abs on the cover", is to help us understand what we cannot, or what we find hard to deal with. Why do you think there are so many damn songs about us getting our hearts broken? Because we all know what it's like to get our hearts broken, and we so very rarely know how to deal with an emotion so powerful and gut-wrenching. And it's that knowledge that allows us to identify with music, or books, or movies; the knowledge that, even if they don't specifically know why we're hurting or why we're happy or angry or whatever emotion it is we're feeling, the artists we love can channel THEIR own hurt or anger or happiness into what they create, and that gets filtered to us on our own levels. It's probably a stretch to say that artists understand us, but there is enough universality in who we are as humans that artists, in attempting to understand themselves and what they're feeling, tend to land on our issues as well. It's rather convenient how that works.

We all have moments in our lives where we feel that we're all alone, and that nobody understands us and what we're going through. That's often nonsense (there's only so much we as humans can go through, really), and yet it's such a strong feeling, simply because nobody ever has the same experience in the same way. To have something in my life that helps sort out that feeling, whether it's a good friend or a great book, is impossible to overstate in terms of importance. And, at the most basic level, I'm happy that I can cue up this song, hear a much younger Bob Dylan (a man younger than I am now when he recorded the track) singing about a mindset I know all too well, and say to myself "you know...Bob Dylan understands".

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Wes said...

As someone who discovered this project (and read all the way through it) during its hiatus, I'm glad you've decided to pick it up again. A lot of my favorite Dylan material lies ahead (some of it way ahead), and I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

Unknown said...

Nice to see you back. Missed your words.
Agree about this song. Important for me too, as is that knowledge that Bob's music and lyrics can help with difficult understandings.......about sorrow and joy.

Looking forward to your next

Amanda said...

Welcome back :)

davidigor said...

Welcome back. Nicely done. Long ago I ran across the idea that certain art that I had never really had much use for (particularly still-life paintings or classic poems that seem to be about a simple flower, or a moment in nature) in essence involves an artist looking at something and saying through the work "look at this; isn't it lovely? about something we wouldn't have otherwise noticed.
That's what you did for me today in your blog; although I'm a fan of Bob's music from all his eras, I think I've never stopped to read the lyrics of this song (I usually need to read along to really connect with a song initially).
Today you said about a song I had neglected: "Look at this; isn't it lovely?"
And I looked with new eyes (and listened with new ears), and I say, "Yes, it is lovely indeed." I'm very glad you pointed it out.

Pete said...

Welcome back. One of my favorites too, and I love the last verse as well -- is that covered in the longer version? "I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear / As someone who has had you on his mind." Of course, being seen clearly can be most uncomfortable ...

Anonymous said...

It don't even matter to me where you're wakin' up tomorrow...

Your analysis is damn right! Thanks!

Unknown said...

Hello again my Dylan friend, I was worried about you! Glad you are back among us, but sorry that you are hurting. Love and loss... sheesh, life sucks at times, But hey, you may not think it now, but you will recover from this. just keep on keeping on! I have to agree with Davidigor's comment. I've always liked this song, but hadn't really, properly, listened to it for quite a while. That's one of the things i like about your posts, they bring my attention back to some forgotten gems!

Anonymous said...

Thanks God!
I was afraid you had abandoned us!
Rest assured we are out here and we are reading and waiting for the next installment.
Thank you for coming back, I was growing weary of checking this blog with nothing being posted.
This is the best blog on the web,

Unknown said...

This is my favorite too. I feel the stirrings you described each time I hear it. As I read your post, I listened to the various versions I have. While I love how the Rolling Thunder version really kicks ass, it's the various versions with Larry and Charlie that really show the beauty of this song for me. I've seen it live a couple of times, and there is such a depth and humility to these performances, it really seems to illuminate that ethereal feeling you describe so well. Thanks for articulating the feelings I've had for decades as I listen to this song...again, and again.

Anonymous said...

Way to come back with a boxed set-sized post, Tony.

- Roger

Unknown said...

and isn't Rod Stewart's version a worthy reading of this fabtastic lyric ... again, takin' a little known Bob gem and working a depth and emotion to it ...

PK Eiselt said...

Welcome back!
Beautiful essay here, I am also sorry to hear that you're hurting.

My take on this song has always been a little more sedate, but listening again after reading through your thoughts last night, I had to call an old flame and say "Just wanted to say hi, you'be been on my mind". It was bittersweet.

mehcoj said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Listen to the live version of "Mama ..." from 921101, where he starts playing the intro to Don´t think twice and then switches to "Mama" and delievers the best live song ever with at harp that never ends.

Olle Nordlander said...

In Sweden we have a word combination "fullstÃĪndigt lysande" meaning like "Totally awesome" or "Completely bright shining". I use this song and "One too many mornings" and a couple other songs as a lackmus test on whether a person I meet saying he/she likes Dylan has connected with Dylan from my angle.

Keep pressing on......

Tom said...

Wonderful analysis, there is only one way to go about this song and that is by talking about your own relationship with it, as the song itself is so deeply personal. However, there is one claim that you make in this piece that i cannot agree with - undoubtedly down to the different personal emotions we have with the song. The idea that Dylan really doesn't care who his love wakes up with tomorrow i cannot believe, while o wouldn't claim that the entire song is laced with self-denial, there is certainly some there, i don't think she is just on his mind, there is certainly something more there. This you do point out, that the experience of that relationship has burnt a hole in his existence that won't go away, and will always stay with you/Dylan. (sorry this distinction is becoming more and more impossible) However, where i think we disagree is that the burnt hole that's left behind is, in fact, still a form of love. And therefore, i would be impossible for Dylan to truly claim that the girl is on his mind for no real reason apart from remembrance, and that he really doesn't care about her in the present, as she is locked in the past. I believe there is a deliberate attempt in the song that alludes to the wretched, forlorn feelings that linger on despite Dylan's claims that he his affection doesn't go past a passing thought or emotion.

David George Freeman said...

Well yes, quite an analysis... Bob Dylan fans have you read enough? The come inside his Music Box,-You-Been-on-My-Mind and listen to all the great versions now.